By Anita Malhotra
Dutch-Swedish choreographer Jefta van Dinther’s work is driven by his explorations of the physicality of the moving human body as it interacts with light, sound and materials, and the sensory affect of these explorations on the audience.
A graduate of the Amsterdam School of the Arts, van Dinther was a dancer before becoming a choreographer in 2008. Since then he has choreographed 10 works, four of which are currently touring in Europe: Plateau Effect (2013), Protagonist (2016), Dark Field Analysis (2017) and The Quiet (2019).
Based in Berlin but with close working ties to Stockholm, van Dinther has received numerous grants and awards, including the Swedish Theater Critics’ Dance Award for Plateau Effect.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Jefta van Dinther in Berlin on Sept. 5, the day before Plateau Effect received its Berlin premiere by the city’s prestigious Staatsballett.
AM: When did you first become interested in dance?
JvD: My interest in dance as an art form started when I was 17, when I was brought to a studio by chance by a friend in Stockholm. It was an open class – a jazz class – to see if you wanted to start one of those evening hobby courses.
The teacher was so enthusiastic about me that he immediately pushed me to start dancing four times a week. I had danced before, but that was the turning point for me becoming really serious about it.
The reason I became serious about it was that I was in Gymnasium – senior secondary school – in Sweden and I was on a track of becoming an academic. I was very good at everything at school, and it came easily to me. I found that dancing was the only thing that I really had to work hard to achieve. It felt like getting your hands dirty – in a very complete sense. So from one day to the next, I decided to join that program. And a year and a half later, I did an audition for a dance academy.
Prior to that, I had had performance experience. I grew up in a Christian environment – my parents were missionaries. They were travelling the world telling people about God.
I had performance experience from the age of six – playing in plays, singing on the street, sometimes moving in a kind of gesture, choreography or formation of kids singing about God.
AM: What countries were you performing in?
JvD: My first experience goes back to Japan when I was six, and I also lived in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Morocco, and for one year in the United States. That is when the idea of performing started – the idea of being in front of others and also this idea of conveying something to people.
It was very much about converting people, but it’s not so different from what I’m occupied with right now. There’s something about conveying and talking about something and bringing people somewhere.
AM: You studied dance in Amsterdam and you danced with other choreographers. What led you to decide to become a choreographer in your own right?
JvD: For me, there was never a calling to be a choreographer. It was really about the dancing body and having an interest in a kind of physical research.
After school, at first I was in a more classical company structure, where you’re given choreography and you perfect your model.
But quite soon after, I started to work with choreographers who were very collaborative – where the agency of the dancer was also very much a part of the creative process. There was always a person responsible, but there was also a kind of co-authoring with the team as a whole, and especially with the dancers.
I worked in these settings for a few years, and then I felt I wasn’t getting to try everything I want to try. So I asked for a research grant. Back then it was possible to get a research grant in Amsterdam.
I pulled together two other dancers and we had this project that didn’t have to result in a show. I would say the foundation was made there. Many of the things that would later develop also appeared in that research project.
AM: What were these elements?
JvD: Kinesthesia, for example – the power that it has on the spectator. The kind of mirroring that happens when you watch a body in motion and how that body enters your body.
A sense of duration – my work deals with a strong sense of time.
I was also researching into how face had been very excluded in my dancing background. I wanted to bring that out and let that be part of the dancing body. And then it became natural to crystallize these findings in performances.
Only a few pieces later I started to think in the reverse way: “What am I making, what do I want to talk about, what do I want to bring to an audience?” First it was more like, “What do I want to do with my body? How do I want to explore my body?”
AM: After studying and working in Amsterdam, what brought you to Berlin?
JvD: I moved here 10 years ago, in 1998. I had wanted to come here for a while already. I had lived in Amsterdam for 10 years and was tired, in a way, of its smallness. And then I met my ex-boyfriend of that time. And it was just an easy call to go. It was like, “I fell in love, I went.”
AM: What is the dance scene like here?
JvD: I am not so affiliated with the dance scene here, except for my recurring relationship with the theatre Hebbel Am Ufer, which co-produces and presents all my works. I’m Swedish, and for the last six years I’ve been getting structural funding from Stockholm to run my company.
This is the first time that I have felt that I work locally. I’ve had shorter rehearsal periods of one or two weeks here, but I’ve been in a kind of circuit of dance that works a lot through the residency system. So I’m always travelling to rehearse somewhere through partners that provide studio or theatre spaces. It’s been a very, very nomadic life with a kind of home base here.
I have this big gig here with Staatsballett Berlin and I think now is the time to really start to expand on my possibilities here because I have got married and bought a flat here. So this is going to be my place to stay.
AM: The Berlin premiere of your 2013 work Plateau Effect takes place tomorrow. Can you tell me a bit about the piece and its title?
JvD: “Plateau effect” is a term that is used for when development evens out. For me this plateauing is interesting because we live in a society where development is something we always talk about. If something is not increasing, we consider this bad. So I wanted to look at what happens in a plateauing situation. Celebrate that form; linger on that.
In the end, I think the work has become something different because it’s more about slow processes. There are waves, there are curves in the piece – but there’s always a progression. There’s a slight boiling that starts to boil more and more and more.
AM: Is it very challenging to work with nine dancers?
JvD: Actually, it was originally for nine but I wanted one of the alternates to be in the piece, so I have made it for 10 now. I find it very beautiful to work in big groups. Of course, the challenge is there are many voices, and finding time to bring in so many voices.
I’m pretty directive as a choreographer, but I’m also collaborative. It’s important to me that their voices are part of the creation process and eventually also the piece.
Also, it’s important that we communicate about what works and what doesn’t work. I would say the most challenging aspect of that is to find time to speak together because you’re so many people. It’s the 10 dancers. It’s also the lighting designer, two set designers, the costume designer, the sound designer and two assistants. There are many voices there.
AM: Does improvisation play a role in Plateau Effect?
JvD: There are a lot of things that are set, but there are also a lot of things that are not set. It’s a complex layering of physical, spatial, performative undertakings that the dancers have to do in real time. And it’s by being busy with a complex set of these in each section of the piece that the choreography unravels.
It’s like a score that the dancers have to re-interpret every time, which has some very fixed points. They have very clear sound cues, for example. They have light cues – when certain things should shift. But who is where doing what, and if an arm is up to the right, or if they’re touching the floor, all of that is very improvised.
AM: Is there any audience participation in your work?
JvD: Not in a literal sense. I’m much more interested in a very subjective, almost cinematic experience for the spectator, where you forget about the other audience members and this work enters you.
Many of my works are very overwhelming of the senses. There’s very loud music; the light is a very present and active player. I often work in the very dark – like in Dark Field Analysis. You can’t actually see anything but those dancing bodies on stage.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about Dark Field Analysis?
JvD: Looking back, I’ve made 10 shows, and what I see now is that in every work I look for some altered state.
And the altered states can be through sexual experience, through depression – Protagonist, for example – through intoxication, or through a “rush” of something.
With Dark Field Analysis, there was something about what the encounter with someone else does to you and your state, and how that can be a very altered state, even through a simple conversation. That was one aspect for me – the encounter with someone else and how that shifts something about your self-perception.
And there was also this other idea, which is where the title comes from. “Dark Field Analysis” is a term that comes from a branch of alternative medicine where you take a drop of blood, you analyze it under a microscope, and you can actually see your living blood in front of you.
So I had that test done. And to me that was a very interesting, deeply profound, and uncanny experience of looking into myself.
Being myself and at the same time looking into myself – literally, anatomically, I was seeing my blood and the way that it would disintegrate and dissolve, and the way that the red blood cells would interact or other bodies in my blood.
So Dark Field Analysis is also about that. It’s about getting into your own anatomy, but also your emotional life, your psychological life, into areas unknown.
AM: The Quiet is your newest work and I have read that it was set in a post-apocalyptic time period. Why did you set it then?
JvD: That’s what has been written about it – it’s not my phrasing. The last pieces seem to have something to do with technology and future.
The Quiet wasn’t necessarily about that, but through the reactions of the audience and through what has been written about it, I understand more and more that the piece brings something out that deals with something archaic on one hand – rituals, gathering of people sitting around a fireplace, constructing something, walking – coupled with something that is very futuristic and technological.
For instance, they find a hatch in the floor, they open that hatch, and they gather around it as if it’s a kind of campfire. But it’s a hatch with a basement, and the light that comes out of it is very artificial. So it makes people think of a television or a computer.
These two images together, they don’t make sense. So people started talking about that piece as if it started after some sort of apocalypse. Why are we in a world where there are only women? It’s a world without men, it’s a world that is slower, with leftover traces of what might have been a house.
I guess it’s an interpretation based very much on the esthetics – the light esthetics, for example, or the costumes they’re wearing. It’s a beautiful dialogue for me: the archaic and the futuristic.
AM: You are touring four of your works in Europe over the next half-year or so. Are you creating any new work at the same time?
JvD: I’m just starting a period now where I’m an associated artist with Cullberg, the company I made Plateau Effect for originally and that I made Protagonist for. They are the biggest contemporary dance institution in Sweden. And for the next three years, me, Deborah Hay and Alma Söderberg will be the associated artists with this company.
So for the next two years I’m making one work per year for them. One of them is a solo, and one of them is a group piece for the whole company. That solo I’m starting on already in a few weeks, but I always work very slowly, so the premiere is not until next November.
I always try to have at least a year for a project – not in real time of spending time with a dancer, but spread out over that year. It’s very important to me to revisit what we make and then have a break. Work, have breaks, come back to it, see it again, and have lived life in the meantime.
For more information about Jefta van Dinther and his work, please visit jeftavandinther.com.