FRANZ POELSTRA: IS HAVING NO STRATEGY A STRATEGY?
The human body is intelligent and well equipped to create tools, rules and skills to survive various situations! How do we survive (in) the world of art? Two young dancers and choreographers, Valerie Oberleithner and Agnieszka Ryszkiewicz, met two advanced contemporary artists, the Vienna based choreographer Frans Poelstra and the French choreographer and head of the CCN of Montpellier Mathilde Monnier to talk about their personal ways of surviving.
To talk about survival strategies Agnieszka Ryszkiewicz welcomed Frans Poelstra in a basement in Bandgasse, 7th district of Vienna, that serves as stock to a children shop. As father of two kids, Poelstra is immediately drawn to the toys that surround us. Eventually he will leave the space with empty hands. Stealing is not part of his survival strategies.
Frans Poelstra: Blablabla bla.
corpus: Thank you for coming …
Frans: … straight from the swimming pool.
corpus: Yes, one can tell. Ok. Let’s start, shall we? – As you are a big story lover, I’d like to begin by telling you one.
Let’s imagine that 45 years ago, China has taken over the world. A bloody massacre, baptized WW III has ravaged earth. People are only fighting for survival. Art and culture have disappeared, war and hunger rule the day. Nevertheless, for some time now, a new generation that was born and grew up in those terrible conditions has started to develop artistic inclinations. Vienna has especially gained reputation in terms of an emerging interest for dance. We here present, are representatives of those who want to rediscover what once was called contemporary dance. In our possession is a valuable box, a treasure that we were passing on from hand to hand. Unfortunately the meaning of the objects it contains is lost. You are the only one who can help us.
Frans Poelstra pulls out a pinkish scarf.
Frans: Long ago, before contemporary dance, it belonged to Isadora Duncan. It is a part of her shawl. She started it all … sort of … but long ago … she was the initiator … of contemporary dance … more or less … in the US … it all started, there we could say … but long long ago. But she had a tragic car accident; her very long shawl got caught in the car wheel and strangled her. A shawl she used to dance with, now it is a relic, you should do a memorial with it.
Poelstra pulls from the box a cassette explaining that people used music for dancing (classical, pop, folk or contemporary music like John Cage – no matter what); a book that he has never seen and that probably represents the tendency of contemporary dance to have a reflection upon itself, those writings were supposedly often a way to make fun of it; a dice from Merce Cunningham – a modern dance choreographer - who integrated chance as method to create dance and a strategy to get distanced from personal involvement; a straw that probably illustrates another strategy for creation - sniffing cocaine; and eventually a false tooth that Frans unfortunately has trouble recognizing.
corpus: I would like you now to comment upon some quotations of yours.
“Listening is a political act.”
Frans: That is really simple. The moment you start listening, you do not act. You pay attention to what people say and what is happening around you. It is therefore a way to get quiet, and politics is usually about being loud. To be quiet is a political act.
corpus: “Go low.”
Frans: When you reach the bottom you might find something, or change something. Every now and then, it is good to go low, to reach the bottom of yourself, in order to change.
corpus: What does it mean in terms of creation?
Frans: I wanted to go to a point where I didn’t feel I needed to create anything, where I could get bored or depressed. To allow that situation to happen rather than to fight it thinking “oh no, I have to be constantly creative”. I am not looking for this state but I allow it to happen.
It is actually connected to listening: when one goes low, one has to recognize it, to listen to what is happening, to be aware. I would say that to be aware of this state is a strategy. But it’s not that I constantly want to be depressed or bored, I see it as a part that I want to use, as much as I use my happiness to create.
corpus: “Do what you love, and the money will follow.”
Frans: Not for me, no! I don’t see any relation with money. Big money will not come, not in my experience. Some money yes, but …
corpus: What would one have to do in order for money to come?
Frans: Definitely not become a dancer! Chance occupation.
corpus: Could you explain what success means to you?
Frans: I think that recognition is a part of it, but not necessarily on a big scale. And that has as well changed with time.
When I work with people, and the process goes well, and the product is good, that’s already success for me. I don’t need to see my face on billboards anymore. The feeling when things go well is the same independently of the framework, whether it is a small-scale thing or a big production.
Before I used to be very nervous when making work. The fear that came along with working made me very defensive in my ideas and decisions. I know that this fear always will appear, doubts like “will people like it?” or “is it good?” etc. It always comes along, no matter what I do, but I also know that it is very uninteresting for the creative process, it blocks my creativity, stops it. So I hear fear coming and I say: “Oh here it comes! Hey, hello fear! How are you? And blablabla bla.”
It is a part of work, part of the process, but fear shouldn’t be overwhelming.
corpus: And how do you measure the satisfaction, the success?
Frans: I know that if I do something, and I am convinced that it is good, then, because I am not so special, others will also consider it good. (Laughs) I am not so different from the others.
corpus: Are you a mainstream artist?
Frans: I love mainstream, yes.
(Follows a long discussion around the issue whether an artist poses him/herself this question, and whether Alain Platel has ever been busy with defining whether he in fact is or isn’t mainstream.)
Eventually Poelstra states:
I know that I am not mainstream. I always operate on the periphery, in many ways, artistically, socially, on a personal level. It’s a way of functioning. I am rather an observer. I do not think that it is a strategy, it’s just me as a person, and it isn’t a thought-through choice. For example, I feel uncomfortable in masses; I simply cannot attend any soccer game.
corpus: And how does this peripheral position influence your work?
Frans: Laziness. (Laughs) I am not a pusher. Robert [Steijn] is much more of a pusher.
corpus: How conscious was the choice of working together with Robert?
Frans: There is a good balance between us but it wasn’t a conscious strategic choice.
If we would really go for success, let’s say do a world tour, we’d have to sell our work all over the world, we would hire a manager, a person for advertising etc. Well I know people who have this ambition, but I am not sure whether they have a preconceived strategy.
There are those couples where the woman is a famous choreographer and the man a producer and they do very well; but hopefully they love each other and it is not a pure strategic choice. Of course it is part of the mutual attraction. What attracts me in Robert is his intellect, or rather the way he writes. It makes me happy, joyful. Is it a strategy?
corpus: Looking for being happy?
A mouse strolls through the space behind Frans’ chair.
Frans: I don’t know, the word strategy sounds suspicious to me …
corpus: On the simplest level a strategy is a collection of rules, signs or criteria to make decisions.
Frans: The strategy in my case is personality. Through it, I start to act.
corpus: Personality is something that one constructs with time.
Frans: True, that’s true …
We can hear the mouse moving between carton boxes. Frans doesn’t pay any attention.
corpus: So you say for example “I will accept my lows, accept and try to work with them” and you work on yourself in order to be able to better cope with your lows instead of eliminating them. It is a way of making decisions, of taking directions.
Frans: I think that “TO ACCEPT” is an important part of what could be my set of strategies. Accept rather than fight.
corpus: To continue accepting you need to survive, very practically, food, shelter …
Frans: Yes, up to now it hasn’t been such a big problem. I used to live in a very cheap apartment in Amsterdam for a long time, and there were times when I had to eat less because I earned very little money. Maybe I started to wonder that I didn’t have any job for the upcoming month, but then things would happen.
And they will happen again in the future. And did happen until now. Being a man is very helpful. Obviously, it is much harder for women in this field. Is it a strategy? I didn’t choose it. I accepted it.
corpus: A last task. You describe yourself as a prolific teacher; therefore I would ask you to give a farewell speech to those up-coming dancers and choreographers who are about to leave their art schools and enter into the art world. A few words of goodbye, advice or warning?
Frans: Well, usually somewhere around 10 years after finishing art school, one starts to think, “What the f… am I doing?” And those people sometimes come to me asking what should they do. And I say, “STOP”. Really stop and two things can happen, either you are done with art and start doing something else that you actually like or the desire comes back and you know what to do.
Stopping is helpful. It helps bringing things to happen again.
Where when you come straight from an art school, I would say “CONNECT”.
I think it is good to meet people, to connect, and it is a much easier task now than when I was young.
corpus: Would you give any warnings, like watch out or be careful?
Frans: Yes, please don’t be careful. It is a good one, to be careful not to be careful. And I would say fuck them. (Laughs) I did a lot of improvisation performance and what I have learned there is not to be afraid to be embarrassing. Not to be afraid to fail.
corpus: Don’t you have the feeling that failing was easier in times when you were out of school than it is at the moment?
Frans: Yes, I feel a lot more pressure on young people now. There is much more people doing all different art forms. And people write, they write a lot. Some people, like myself, don’t have the capacity to read those writings. I don’t care. But a lot of young people assume that they should know, understand, respond etc. Although it is often bullshit what is being written.
I am probably not always able to distinguish good writing from bad writing and I really do not care, I accept it, but young people do care.
I imagine when you are young, you feel the pressure to be part of it all. I was never part of it, I sometimes felt the desire but as I often feel uncomfortable it was easier for me to stay on the side, on the periphery.
I started dance really late for my age. I was out of school at 30. A strategy to become a contemporary dancer could be not to start early, not before 26! I imagine if I had started earlier it would have been a big problem for me. I did not have any technique. Usually we spend a lot of time to get rid of it, so for me it was easier, I didn’t have anything to get rid of. I started as an amateur and I keep looking for this feeling in my work.
The mouse squeaks desperately.
I did a lot of improvisation. Therefore, at some point I had to stop because I saw myself doing tricks and work became very uninteresting at this point. Now I don’t do it so often anymore. And when I do it I enjoy it. And now I play more and more music. I can’t play music though. Being an amateur helps not to take it all too seriously. To be able to laugh, to fail and laugh again about your failure.
So I never felt the pressure.
corpus: What would you tell to those who feel that pressure?
Frans: That you just have to stop.
To read Mathilde Monnier’s comments on survival strategies in her talk with Valerie Oberleithner, click here.