Ann Van den Broek: “People are no longer entirely by themselves, not lonely all the time.”

Joy Enjoy Joy is a creation conceived by choreographer Ann Van den Broek. The show premiered last January in Mulhouse, France, and it was presented in Germany before it started touring the Netherlands and Belgium. The first part of the tour was a rollercoaster trying to live up to the varying rules in different countries and reduce all risks of infection. The second part of the tour will start during Julidans.

With Joy Enjoy Joy, Ann Van den Broek is heading into a different direction. Over the past decades, she thoroughly analysed feelings such as anxiety, pain, loneliness, and grief in her performances. The Memory Loss Collection dealt with themes around dementia. Showing the experience of memory loss from the various perspectives involved is a good example of how thoroughly Van den Broek chews on her subjects; she goes over the material again and again to draw people into her universe. Blueprint on Memory (2018), an initial sketch, was followed by the performance installation Zooming in on Loss (2019) and later on, the large-scale production Memory Loss (2020) with 15 performers. When the Nederlandse Dansdagen festival invited Van den Broek for a virtual residency, this resulted in the film Memory Loss Inside (2020), during which the audience literally saw through the eyes of the performer, experiencing the scenes from this perspective. The film recently received the Cinedans FEST and dancescreen Jury Award 2022 for the ‘best international multi-camera capture of a live dance performance and adaptation of an existing choreography’. The Memory Loss Collection received critical acclaim and stirred strong emotions in its audiences as the personal experiences reflected upon in the work became tangible. 

While her work so far has largely consisted of dark tones, with her new piece she is touching upon a lighter substance. Van den Broek: “But you know my work will never be entirely without other feelings. An emotion is never straightforward, it’s more complex and always contains more layers.”

It seems she has taken a diametrically opposed approach in the new performance Joy Enjoy Joy. The first seed for a change in direction, from darkness to lightness, was planted as early on as in 2017, during the show Accusations. It was what Van den Broek calls a little ‘parlando moment’ from one of the dancers that lead to the title Joy Enjoy Joy. Such an instance can be the root of further research for Ann Van den Broek. She developed a sketch of the theme ‘joy’ that saw the light in 2021 with the presentation of Creating Joy. Complicated by the risk of COVID and the restrictions it brought, Van den Broek decided to work with two casts, one present onstage and the other virtually present on the screen.  

Joy Enjoy Joy uses elements from the stage design that Niek Kortekaas made for Creating Joy, and departs from the same question, i.e. ‘what is joy?’. It raises the question how such a theme can be realised in the middle of the pandemic and its severe consequences for society and the performing arts field. Van den Broek: “The timing actually felt perfect. It didn’t feel weird. Because Joy Enjoy Joy is about the little things you can do in life that bring you joy. That you’re thankful that you can do the work you really enjoy. That you’re still able to meet people. That you can move. That you can find some time for yourself, which was hardly possible before. So it was a nice time to be creating with the dancers. The only hassle was having to wear facemasks all the time, but by then we no longer had to keep our distance.”

“For the dancers it was weird. It was diametrically opposed to what we had been doing for such a long time before. They were involved in the Memory Loss Trilogy, so we had been working on this theme for three years. By then they were used to turning their eyes inward. I had to tell them that their eyes could shine. To use their mouths again. So it felt weird and very much over the top at first, but I wanted to pursue it and see how it would work. ” 

Communicating, and the ability or impossibility to do so, is a recurring theme in Van den Broek’s work. When she first started out as a choreographer, Van den Broek created a number of self-danced solos. She then stepped off the stage to work with groups of dancers. These first pure dance pieces saw the ongoing themes in her work already surfacing, such as emotions, states of mind and behaviour, the communication difficulties and the position of women. While the onstage presence of technology was thematic or functional to begin with, along the way it also became a mode of reflection on the artistic proposals and themes lingering throughout her oeuvre. With microphones, cameras, and screens, Van den Broek multiplies spaces and sights, and amplifies voices and sounds in this age where film editing technique has become part of the toolbox of 20th-century choreographers and of the performers’ bodies. 

The new piece sees Van den Broek returning to the source from which it all stems: movement. Van den Broek: “Back to the core: the movement, the cues you give one another on stage to communicate. But it is also about going back to your youth, the hope. What are we going to do together?”

The movement material in Joy Enjoy Joy is inspired by the moves of Tom Barman, a Belgian musician and frontman of the band dEUS. Van den Broek: “When I was a young dancer, I danced on stage during his concerts at festivals such as Lowlands, which gave me a real kick. Two years ago the 20th anniversary edition of dEUS’ album The Ideal Crash appeared, and Tom asked me to create a choreography for the accompanying European tour. While my dancers were on stage I filmed Tom Barman’s body behaviour during the show and behind the scenes and analysed it. Tom’s my friend, but for the creation of Joy Enjoy Joy I looked at him differently. At his energy and the enthusiasm he radiates. During a concert artists are making and sharing music. I watched how he communicated within this professional setting, on stage, during soundchecks with his fellow musicians. I found that this communication is in the movement. The first part of Joy Enjoy Joy is about how this communication is done, later in the piece it’s more jumps and how he performs on stage. I made phrases of it, abstracted it, but the essence of it is the communication.”

Tom Barman says when something is nice, you simply have to do it again. I think the same goes for pain, it’s a feeling that wants to endure. You have to keep on jumping until something changes.” It is what Van den Broek recognises in him: “Repetition is addictive.”

Another inspiration for the piece is the work of Belgian-based painter Nick Andrews. Van den Broek: “His series Ode to Joy shows people’s longing for freedom and partying. The thing that fascinates me in particular in his work is how he puts people together.”

For Ann Van den Broek working with several dancers onstage simultaneously doesn’t necessarily mean that they form a group. Dancers are present as individuals. There is a sense of solitude and loneliness. Van den Broek: “Usually the dancers do not look at one another in my pieces. And now, after twenty years, there is this new aspect in my work: people are no longer entirely by themselves, not lonely all the time. These past years I’ve been slowly finding my own way of letting people relate to one another on stage. It took me a long time because what I saw on stage was never how I wanted dancers to communicate in my pieces. In Blueprint on Memory someone places a hand on  somebody else’s shoulder. That was a magical moment for me. The dancers I had been working with for a long time were surprised. To underline the importance of that moment, it was also filmed. Because until then I would always leave ten centimetres in such gestures. Direct touch would take the mystery and dramatic tension away. Now this is starting to change. I think that touch often happens too easily. Whereas touching is about a relation between people and the sensitivity in the responses between them. The respect that is needed for each other.”

Although in Joy Enjoy Joy touch is not a subject, the emphasis being on communication, this new experience will come into play when she starts working on new shows. Van den Broek: “The freshness we found and the connections happening between the dancers on stage: I will be taking those with me in future pieces. Even though a next piece may have a heavier theme again.” 

Joy Enjoy Joy: Julidans 7 & 8 July, De Meervaart, Amsterdam, tour

Ann Portret MECS