It’s all relative for choreographer Anouk van Dijk

Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk takes a pioneering approach to connecting with her audience.

For many contemporary choreographers, the impact audiences have on their work is an abstract notion, removed from the practicalities of the creation process. But for Dutch dancemaker Anouk van Dijk, spectators have a very real, concrete influence. This began with her 2004 piece STAU.

‘The work is first performed extremely close to the audience, in a tiny space of 2.5 x 2.5 metres,’ says van Dijk, ‘so close the audience would feel the dancers’ body heat. Then the same work is performed in an extremely big space.

‘During the research for STAU, I became really interested in how to relate the audience to it. Do I put them around this tiny space, so that they become the confines of the dancers? The moment you start to do that, you have to deal with complications. Do the dancers acknowledge the audience? How do they relate to the audience? Are they respectful, are they provoking, intimidating, or shying away from the audience?’

Van Dijk linked this exploration directly to our every-day encounters with strangers in the street,on buses or in shops.‘We can be very close to each other but we completely block ourselves off as a result of our lifestyles,’ she says. ‘We’ve become masters in that; everyone’s a master in it. So I said to my dancers: “I want you to be really respectful and open to the audience – how would that affect them?”’

The result, says van Dijk, was that the ‘test-subjects’ coming to early rehearsals for STAU were overwhelmed by a number of emotions they couldn’t place. ‘It really dealt with their own sense of “Where is my barrier? How do I defend myself from what’s happening around me? Why do I do that? Why do I feel threatened when you’re close to me?” It was a very purist exercise on how we perform and what implication the presence of the dancer has on the audience.’

STAU was performed for seven years in a number of countries, to wide critical acclaim, and what van Dijk discovered about the dancer-spectator relationship while researching the work has informed all her creations since. ‘It taught me a lot about the basic human principles of the audience; the piece became a study to understand what an audience does, and allowed the dancers to develop a sensitivity over how they perform.’

‘The implication of how dancers acknowledge the audience became a big topic’

It’s clear that van Dijk is a tremendously thoughtful artist, keen to explore the intricacies of human relations and modern society in her work. When we meet in the bustling lobby of a Montréal hotel, she’s initially difficult to spot. Dressed entirely in black she cuts a small and unimposing figure against the noise and colour of our environment. Van Dijk speaks quietly and deliberately, weighing up each sentence, conveying a contemplative passion for what she does.

Anouk van Dijk observes rehearsals
Anouk van Dijk observes rehearsals for An Act of Now

The 48-year-old’s most recent work, An Act of Now, saw the dancers situated inside a soundproof glass box; the audience outside wore headsets to listen in on the action. ‘The implication of how dancers acknowledge the audience became a big topic there as well,’ says van Dijk, ‘because the dancers couldn’t see their audience, they just saw their own reflections.’

Staged at last year’s Melbourne Festival in October, An Act of Now was van Dijk’s first work for Australian dance company Chunky Move since she took over as artistic director in July 2012. This was a major undertaking: the respected Melbourne troupe was run by founding artistic director Gideon Obarzanek for 16 years.

‘When he decided to leave, I thought what he left behind was an interesting platform,’ says van Dijk, who left her own company in Holland to take up the role. ‘In Australia, Chunky Move is really where the new change is happening, in terms of the context of dance in relation to all kinds of subject matter. Gideon was looking at art as the object to reflect on in dance, and I’m working with society as the context from where I look into what dance is. We’re similar makers, it’s just that our work is really different.’

‘So of course that will create a change for a company, that’s inevitable,’ she says of the handover. ‘But I think Chunky Move is really the place [that makes] surprising work, challenging work, new ways of seeing how dance is related to all kinds of circumstances; it’s the brand of the company.’

‘It’s really a new frontier for me – to be an immigrant somewhere’

What effect does van Dijk think the country will have on her work? ‘For me that was the most interesting aspect of it.Because I come from a country with 16m people, that’s tiny, I can travel anywhere in a few hours. I’ve now moved to a continent with 22m people – it’s beyond my comprehension what that means, what the implication is of so much space between each other. And the very complex history of Australia, I have no idea what that means.’

‘The fact that I have no idea what it means,’ she continues, ‘made me think it’s probably the best place to be artistically. My question to myself is,what kind of art will I make in discussion with the new creative team I’m going to work with? And how I’m going to observe. I will be an outsider at the beginning, but I like the idea of using that view to feed my work. I’ve no idea how the environment will affect my work, that’s why I wanted to go there. I already know how Europe affects my work. So it’s really a new frontier for me – to be an immigrant somewhere.’

These ideas are certainly present in van Dijk’s new work 247 Days, which Chunky Move will premiere in March at Melbourne’s Dance Massive, a festival showcasing Australian dance. Billed as an exploration of a shifting Australian landscape, the work questions how we view the world and how it views us – and the social expectations that can govern our behaviour.

Van Dijk’s early interest in dance was sparked by watching old films featuring Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly tapping against tables, walls and chimneys. ‘Then I got really interested in dance when I watched a professional dancer really close up. From so close, dancing has so much power, such an incredible amount of energy – you don’t always see that when you’re farther back in the audience. But it’s a very different sort of energy to sports; it’s not about showing off in that sense, or winning, it’s all for an artistic purpose. I saw that when I was 15 and I knew that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.’

After graduating from the Rotterdam Dance Academy in 1985, van Dijk performed with several groups in the Netherlands and abroad, including Werkcentrum Dans (now Dance Works Rotterdam), the Nieuwe Dansgroep (Dansgroep Amsterdam), and Amanda Miller’s Pretty Ugly Dance Company. In 1998 she founded her own company, anoukvandijk dc, and has since created over 25 works.

Van Dijk has developed a reputation for unpredictable dance, in both form and content. Reflecting upon and reacting to current concerns and trends in society has been a constant thread. ‘I’m a choreographer who doesn’t only look into the choreographic craft and all the ways that the body and space can work with each other,’ she says. ‘That’s just a tool I’m using. But as the underlying tone, I like to work on how society influences us. What’s happening now, today, what do I find apparent in how we behave or what concerns us, what’s the underlying energy here and where does that energy come from. Somehow, that is the source I draw from, to make reference structures, to make movement, to choose light, costume, set – everything is related to it.’

Van Dijk emphasises that this does not mean telling an overt story or narrative, rather using an idea or theme to influence physical movement. She uses the example of how many people today are exhausted and stressed, one of the elements at work in her 2009 piece Trust. ‘Where does this exhaustion come from,what are the parameters that make us feel so exhausted?’ questions van Dijk. ‘Are we really exhausted or do we take on the feeling that we’re exhausted? That can be a notion I question, and then I look at how that idea affects my physicality, what kind of physicality that allows me to do. Because there’s probably juxtaposition in there – you’re exhausted, but at same time there’s a resistance, there’s a need to go on. That can be your juxtaposition, and that’s actually very interesting for physicality, for movement language, for rhythm, for pattern and then for choreographic structure.’

Another major facet of van Dijk’s career is her ‘countertechnique’, a system that supports dancers in their physical training, a device to be used during rehearsal and performance. Entirely separate from her choreographic style, van Dijk likens the technique to a ‘toolbox of knowledge’. One tool, for instance, she calls ‘pop to widen’. ‘When you’re moving, and you have to move fast or it’s exhausting, it helps to constantly lower the body tension on your joints, so you’re not building up too much tension. Dancers have to keep reminding themselves to release their jaws, hips, shoulders, all the major joints.’

‘That’s a complex thing to do,’ continues van Dijk, ‘so we named it “popping”. Pop is an immediate thought; it immediately takes off the pressure, the psychological pressure. If you pop while you’re performing, it very often helps with nerves and anticipation, or counters exhaustion. “Widen” is one of the directing principles of counter technique, where you allow your body to get wide instead of narrow and tight. That’s a little tool. So before you go on stage, think: “I’ll just pop to widen tonight.”There are about 16 tools like that.’

Van Dijk has trained many dancers and choreographers in the technique. In 2008 she implemented the Countertechnique Teachers Training programme, resulting in an increasing number of dance practitioners teaching the method worldwide. A specialised app for iPhone and iPad is currently in development.