“My work has always been about humanity”

It is remarkably quiet at Conny Janssen Danst. That is to say, inside the building things are quiet. The dancers are all elsewhere, rehearsing in Amsterdam for the Dutch Ballet Gala. Outside, construction workers are busy building, excavating, drilling.

Last October the dance company moved into its brand new offices by the waterside in Katendrecht, an up-and-coming neighbourhood of Rotterdam, in a repurposed dockland warehouse (Fenix) that they share with Codarts Circus Arts and youth circus Circus Rotjeknor. Inside, everything is spic and span – I have to wear pink shoe covers, like the ones you wear inside a swimming pool – but the building’s raw touches remain. Voices bounce off the bare walls. In its unfinished state it could easily have been used as a setting for one of Conny Janssen’s site-specific performances. Artistic director Conny Janssen (1958), barefoot and in a tracksuit, considers the question and her surroundings carefully. ‘Well, when you’re performing you always have to consider pillars and sight lines, but it certainly is a very interesting location. It encompasses what Conny Janssen Danst is all about: its openness, energy, and rough edges.’

This is where Janssen will go on building her House of Dance. One of the most important additions is a second studio – the larger one can even be converted into a small theatre. The ‘smaller’ one – about as large as their original studio in Rotterdam-West – is ideal for promising new dance makers who are part of talent development project DANSLOKAAL. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I loved our former space on ‘s-Gravendijkwal. The space has so many stories, so many memories. But having only one studio meant that whenever I was rehearsing a new piece, the house was full. With two studios I can give more people an opportunity to create new pieces.’ Together with Codarts Circus Arts and Circus Rotjeknor, Conny Janssen Danst has formed a new cultural cluster – Theater Walhalla is another next-door neighbour – which may very well lead to interesting crossovers for the years to come. ‘But it has to come naturally, and shouldn’t be forced.’

It has been an unbelievable journey for Janssen, who never started out wanting to become a dancer or a dance maker, let alone an artistic director. ‘I did take dance classes as a child, but that was mostly on my mother’s initiative. She thought it would be good for my general development. I liked dance, but I liked a lot of things: sports, music, theatre.’ Even though her parents were not big art lovers per se, they did play a huge role getting her where she is now. ‘They always encouraged me to keep educating myself. My parents are members of the war generation, they had to work really hard from an early age. They educated themselves. They always told me and my sister: keep educating yourself, it will give you the freedom to choose. I think that is the greatest gift your parents can give you.’

In light of this upbringing, she did not so much fall into dance, as ease into it. ‘I started out wanting to become an educator. But I started preparatory training at the dance academy at the same time as I enrolled at teachers’ training college. Dance helped me reach and touch something inside myself in ways I had never experienced before. My first experience with choreography evolved in a similar way: I noticed I could go even deeper by creating something myself. But, in a way, I am also still an educator. I like to inspire people, to touch them, to shake something loose, just as dance does with me.’

In 1992 she started her own company, Conny Janssen Danst. Did she know then that she wanted to end up here, with her own House of Dance? Janssen laughs. ‘If you had told me 25 years ago that I would own my own dance business – and make no mistake, this is definitely a business! – I would have told you: no way! My father had his own business and I know how much hard work and effort it takes. As with everything in my life, it’s been more of an organic process. And I think it’s just as well that this wasn’t a goal I set for myself when I was 25. I keep telling young choreographers who come to me saying that this, here, is exactly what they want for themselves in the future. I’ll tell them: of course, it’s important to have dots on the horizon, it’s not just about today. But don’t lose sight of the journey.’

Janssen displays a similar philosophy – a combination of deep introspection and retrospection – with regards to her work. ‘My work has always been about humanity, about human beings in relationship to each other and to their surroundings. You can see it in all my work. At least, that’s what I can say and what I see now. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have told you that this is what my work is always about. I’ve developed as a choreographer as well. I think I’m more open to my surroundings now, and to the society we live in. In my earlier work I wanted to have everything figured out beforehand: a duet here, a quintet there. I tried to be more conceptual than I really was. Now, I start with an emotion within me, and go from there.’

Her last few works have been more personal than ever. ‘My last piece, BROOS (fragile), was about the fragile nature of life. The first seedling for the piece was my mother. My mum is getting on, she’s 91, and suffering from dementia. I’ve been taking care of her every Thursday evening and Sunday for the past nine years. She’s so delicate, so brittle, she’s falling apart in front of my eyes. Every time I see her I wonder: is she still in there? It’s had a very big impact on my life – as it would for anyone with a loved one suffering from dementia – but I have the luxury that I’m able to do something with it. The piece is about my mother, but also about the fragility of the people I see around me. This isn’t my own private therapy session. It is visible in the young dancers who just started at the company. They are so unbelievably uncertain about themselves, no matter how often I tell them: I chose you, it’s okay, you’re okay. One of my dancers, Adi Amit (who was nominated for a Zwaan for Best Dance performance for her role in BROOS, ed.), became a mother during the rehearsal period. She was so fragile in her motherhood. And her child, of course, is fragile too.’

Her most recent show, KIEM (Seed, or bud), is a continuance of the emotional journey Janssen started with BROOS. ‘Originally, I planned on revisiting an old piece. Not to make an exact copy, mind you, they’re not museum pieces. But just to see: what happens if I transport this older piece, with the feelings I felt then, to the present, with – for the most part – completely new dancers? But while I was revisiting my own back catalogue I realized I just couldn’t do it. Not with this suffocating feeling about my ailing mother continually lurking in the background. I couldn’t just turn off those feelings to revisit some feeling I had so many years ago.’ KIEM is about being stuck, and about breaking free. ‘I see it all around me. People are paralysed. Dancers by the impossibly huge expectations they lay on themselves, but it is obvious all around. I feel we are living in an overly stressed society. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. There aren’t enough jobs, there isn’t enough housing. Our eyes are constantly glued to our screens. KIEM is about that fight, the urge, the necessity to break out, to break free.’

Her dancers are at the heart of her performances. Personality is key, says Janssen. ‘They need to bring themselves into the performance. Of course, they have to be technical as well. They have to have the basics of classical dance, the earthiness and roundness of modern dance and the raw edge of urban dance. One dancer may be more classically schooled, another more modern. And that’s as it should be! There’s nothing less inspiring than ten Connies dancing alongside each other.’ While composing her ensemble, Janssen compares herself to a kind of painter, looking for different colours, different textures. ‘I don’t mean different skin colours,’ Janssen clarifies, ‘but different colours in terms of energy, cultural upbringing, and physicality. So that when you watch them all together on stage you feel: this is life!’

The dancers have to be team players – ‘there are no soloists here’ – and they need to have a sense of adventure. Because when you are a Conny Janssen Danst dancer, chances are you will also be dancing in spaces outside the theatre. Besides making physical, raw and humane choreographies for theatre stages, Janssen is also famous for her site-specific shows. Her dancers have performed at a tram depot (How Long is Now), a waste-processing plant (Vuil & Glas) and a submarine hangar (MIRROR MIRROR). ‘When you pull a dance piece away from its familiar theatrical surroundings, it makes you reappraise your work. It influences your choice of movement, your choice of music, of lighting and sets. It colours everything.’

When on the move, Janssen is always scouting, always on the lookout for interesting locations for her next site-specific show. Lately, it has become more difficult to find good spots, Janssen acknowledges. ‘Many vacant buildings are being repurposed these days, whereas during the economic crisis I had my pick. It’s one of the consequences of a thriving economy.’ Janssen sees it as a loss as well. ‘I think it’s important for a city to hold onto those rough edges. That’s where the inspiring stuff happens.’

Janssen is forever bound to Rotterdam, the city where she was born and bred. ‘I fully intend to die here as well! I love Rotterdam. I love its energy, its directness, its beauty and the dirt in its cracks. The city inspires me. And I like to give something back.’ The feeling is mutual. In 2015, Janssen was awarded the Rotterdam Promotie Prijs (promotion prize). ‘Her dance brings worlds together,’ said Rotterdam mayor Aboutaleb, who handed out the award. Janssen: ‘That was a wonderful moment, and an acknowledgement that, yes, what I do matters.’

Over the years Janssen has received various tokens of recognition. Each one is dear to her in itself. ‘I received a royal honour, ‘Ridder in de Orde of Oranje-Nassau’, a knighthood, which was extra special because my dad was there, who was really ill at the time. But any audience award is equally dear to me, because it is awarded by the people who actually come and pay to see my work, and who are touched, inspired, or comforted by it.’ Her latest addition is the Gouden Zwaan (golden swan), a special recognition for choreographers or dancers whose contribution to Dutch dance is considered unique, which Janssen received during the Gala of the Dutch Dance Festival last October. Just as she promised during her acceptance speech, the statue – more blueish-green than gold – is on her desk, looking out across the water. ‘Receiving the Gouden Zwaan meant a lot to me, to receive this recognition from the dance field at precisely this moment – we just moved into our new offices. I see it as both an acknowledgement for what Conny Janssen Danst has meant for Dutch dance and will mean in the years to come. This is not a finale, it’s a new beginning.’

If there is one thing that stands out during our interview it is the sense of gratitude. ‘It is something I continually try to acknowledge and emphasize, to my dancers as well. I often tell them: Guys, please realize, this is a luxury. We have our own tourbus, with our own driver, we have a heated studio – one even has underfloor heating! I try to be really aware of the road that I’ve travelled and the people I have met and travelled with on the way. Wim Visser, with whom I started Conny Janssen Danst in 1992, my crew, the more than 160 dancers who have danced in my pieces. Every time I go home I look back at the red neon sign in our office, spelling “Conny Janssen Danst”, and I think: Wow, look how far we’ve come!’


KIEM by Conny Janssen Danst. Premiere: Friday November 29 at TR Schouwburg Rotterdam.