For once, the shoe is on the other foot. Usually, as a dance writer, when there is any interviewing to be done, it is the journalist who is asking the questions. But today, it is dancer Ornella Prieto who is the interviewer, and I am the interviewee. The type of interview is fairly unusual as well. Conducted at Marres House for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht, it is a movement interview for a project called Museum Motus Mori, created by Katja Heitmann and ten female dancers. Together they create a museum of vanishing human movement: a collection of small everyday movements and gestures that don’t necessarily serve a clear purpose, but are nevertheless inherently you.
For six whole weeks, six days a week, five hours a day the dancers and dance makers are taking up residency at Marres (a stone’s throw away from Theater aan het Vrijthof, headquarters of the Dutch Dance Festival, which is also in full swing). There they will be broadening their movement repertoire; collecting, collating, archiving and performing movements. (Museum Motus Mori has done extensive preliminary research with projects in Dusseldorf, Eindhoven and Tilburg. After their residency at Marres, the living archive will move on to other European cities to continue the project).
To expand the extensive collection, visitors can ‘donate’ their own movements, through the aforementioned interviews. About one hundred interviews have already been conducted, and by the end of their six-week period in Maastricht the artists hope to have amassed around four hundred new movement scores.
Our interview takes place on the ground floor – where all the research is done. The public is allowed to walk in and out as they please, to see the interview and archiving process in progress. The interview is a mix of asking actual questions and attentive observation. ‘How do you normally sit, stand, walk around? What’s your usual sleeping position?’ Prieto shares her observations during the interview. ‘I see you are playing with your hands a lot, they are quite thin…’ She also starts consciously mimicking my movements, the way I lay down on the ground, the way I stand when I’m in ‘neutral’.
Of course, with observing behavior there is always a risk. As every documentary film maker well knows (starting from Nanook of the north by Robert Flaherty): the act of observing inevitably changes the observation. For one thing, I became much more conscious of everything I did. I tried sitting up straight, and kept questioning all my normal movements. Is this how I usually sit? Is this really my favourite sleeping position? That is the biggest challenge for the interviewer, to distinguish what is pose and what is real.
After an hour the interview is over. Prieto retreats to the written archive room, where the interviews are being processed. The movement scores of the interviewees are being written down and preserved. Then she will start internalising my movements. The dancer becomes the archive, a process that will take about another hour.
This gives me time to explore upstairs, where the performances take place. The upper level is the exhibition space, which contains five rooms and one staircase. It is like walking into another dimension. Everything is white, from the floors to the square objects and the lights. The slightly monotonous but also melodic music (made by Sander van der Schaaf, Heitmann’s artistic partner) enhances the otherworldly atmosphere. I cross paths with the female dancers who also inhabit the spaces. The number of dancers fluctuates, they can be as many as seven or as little as three. They move around the upper floor like ghosts in a haunted dollhouse. Slowly, so slowly, they move from pose to pose, from space to space, seemingly oblivious to the spectators who are standing around them, circling them, gazing at them.
The fact that the women are wearing nothing but their underpants may be a bit disconcerting at first, but it does allow you to not only see the minutest detail of every movement, and of every part of the body. Every gesture is highlighted in painstaking, slow-motion detail, where a foot is set down one toe at a time. A dancer may take half an hour to sit down on a windowsill, an hour to move from one room to the next. Even the eyes of the dancers start to go watery and red, from blinking so slowly.
Each week features a different theme. This week is about coupling. The scene in one room plays like a morning routine of an established couple. They start out on the floor, entangled in an embrace. Over the next hour they will disentangle, and slowly get up. One of the dancers leaves, the other stays behind. When I leave an hour and a half later she is still there, sitting forlornly on the window sill.
Then, Prieto arrives. Seeing her perform creates an interesting new layer. Now I can observe the movements she observed in me. I would not call it a one on one rendition. It is my movements made abstract, and slightly more exaggerated. At least, I really hope I don’t hunch over that much – my back starts aching just looking at her. Prieto is also faced with an extra challenge: whether I walk, or just stand still, I love to put my hands in my pockets. Pockets are hard to come by when you are only wearing underpants, so Pietro’s hands keep hovering around her pelvic bones. Prieto is scanning the room, observing the other dancers, just like I observe dancing bodies for my work. There are other small details only I can probably really appreciate. Then she looks in my direction, lifts up her shoulders and pulls a face, an exact copy of the movement I made during the interview when she was observing me just walking around. For me, at that moment, it was a physical acknowledgement of the awkwardness of the situation. Reenacted by Prieto it is more detached, just one movement in a string of movements. The movement sequence where she tries to force her body into a bridge pose – something I once had to do during a warming up for trampoline class (don’t ask) – and, like me, fails miserably, feels like an inside joke only I can fully enjoy.
Museum Motus Mori. Until October 27 at Marres House for Contemporary Culture.