From 28 February to 2 March Alexander Andriyashkin gave a workshop on “Basic principles of presence” at “TSEKH” contemporary dance school (Moscow). Having experienced the value of this practice, we decided to find out how this class began, why a choreographer needs these principles, and how a person not related to dance might benefit from the workshop.
Alexander Andriyashkin is a performer, choreographer, and teacher. Founder and participant of Wampeter dance theatre (Novosibirsk), participant of PoV.S.Tanze company, founder of MERA project (www.meraproject.ru). Scholarship winner of DanceWeb Impulstanz (Vienna, 2009), participant of labs at Jacob’s Pillow (Massachusets, 2009), SiWiС (Zurich, 2010), and TanzQuartier residence (Vienna, 2010). In 2012 his solo “I Will Try” entered the short-list of Aerowaves festival. In 2013 performance “The Last One” was included into Russian Case program at the Golden Mask festival.
АК: So what is presence? Why do you use this word?
АА: The word “presence” means a way something or somebody is present in space, a way of being. This word is used by many and in many settings, and we say things like “that’s a different sort of presence”, or “something needs to be done about presence”. Intuitively everybody kind of knows what it’s about, but turns out that various genres or varying nature of communication require various basic conditions. And I think “presence” is a collective term containing these basic conditions.
АК: And what does presence mean in your class? What’s at the core of your approach?
АА: My approach – well, that’s ambitious… We were saying things in class, but it doesn’t mean presence has to be of that particular kind. I might discard it easily myself… Any presence, any practice gives different answers as to who you are, where you are, what you are doing, and how you’re doing it. There’s a person, space, the action of the person in space, and later there’s a partner and society. That’s the essentials, and further different kinds of presence answer these questions differently. At the workshop we were speaking of space as a certain field of registering – what you are aware of, aware of as architecture. It’s not “a space of love”, not a context. A more comprehensive course would include that as well. But for now we focus on basic geometry, on distance. It’s the least prone to any kinds of “if”. And when we’re speaking of basic notions, this removal of “ifs” is an advantage just for the sake of passing through. Then we talked about intent that connects space and a person. We considered a person in terms of centers: energetic, emotional, animal, and mental. It sounds quite coherent to me. Surely it also intersects with “chakras”, but I make a point of keeping off that path, of sticking to Western theatrical system.
АК: Have the aspects that you mention come from a certain practice, a school?
АА: By and large, it’s a collective thing. This relating to space in terms of registering was pointed out by teacher and theatre actor Andrey Lazarev. I was in his workshop on presence, that’s how it was titled by the way. And we worked with that understanding of space, although, say, intent was left out. If we take principles of interaction through centers, there’s a company called “Giraffe Royal”, it’s Stanislav Varkki and Larisa Lebedeva, they’re from Estonia, it’s a physical theatre. There was a festival in Irkutsk years ago, and they did a piece that simply astonished me. When the person does something, and you get rooted into your chair, and you don’t get what’s going on with you. They did training with us, which was my first encounter with this practice, and I went on to develop it. There’s always your own experience, too, and you start receiving validation from everywhere. And gradually every thread gets “thicker” for you, additions and nuances emerge either in the hall or from outside. I came across the most intelligible rendition of “openness/closeness” at Anton Adassinsky’s “Derevo” (“Tree”) theatre. When you see it’s not some kind of magic they’re sharing with you, but actual tools.
АК: At which point did these elements join together into a comprehensive class?
АА: It happens the moment you start teaching. It was in the year 2005 I guess when I tackled that particular thing. Of course it differed greatly from what is now, both negatively and positively. Now I feel like I have answers to 95% of questions. And on the one hand, no doubt I’m helpful, but it’s a hazard as well, my getting to think that I have answers to 95% of questions. In 2008 I did some intense teaching of this stuff again and worked on it a great deal. I looked at it anew and realized it hadn’t been left behind in the modern past; it’s a good tuner, really. That’s when the format shaped up: 4 hours the first evening, and then two weekends 8 hours each.
АК: Did you use that kind of presence, the instruments that you mentioned in your performances?
АА: Not directly… If we imagine a course made up of a few blocks, that’s the blocks following somewhat later, leaning on that one. It’s like, that’s what I had in mind, but it’s not presented in its pure form… Other things come up as well: how you might relate to space. To put it roughly, first it’s just space you’re aware of, and when you’re registering it, you might perceive it contextually. That’s the kind of things I was applying directly, and I don’t say it to the audience, but I know for sure that’s exactly what I’m doing at the moment. Whether it works or not is secondary. It’s not like I’m talking about a policeman, and we plunge into a certain atmosphere. It’s like I know that while I’m talking I’m pushing the pedal of that particular tool heavily. The practices we were doing at the workshop are very basic; my current works aren’t so minimalistic. But that’s a good vocabulary. And that’s virtually always impossible, but, say, if you’re working with actors, and you got a chance to do this training, you might employ it. And a person might go on saying his lines, and suddenly – well, that’s not obvious, but that works.
АК: When you start with a new cast as choreographer, do you introduce these basic principles as vocabulary?
АА: Very rarely. That’s also kind of a dream and it did come true a few times, but you ought to be right there, and with like-minded people around you. In fact, in a repertory theatre a choreographer’s position is different. A choreographer comes to provide movements, and as efficiently as possible, that is within the shortest period of time. And it’s the director who is considered responsible for all these implications, although directors virtually don’t have these tools, as they’re working through different means… I do remember an example though. It was the opening of Platforma’s second season, and I was staging a work by Dmitry Kurlyandsky. I was working with four actors from “7th studio” of Kirill Serebrenikov. There was a structure to it… we did dance a bit, but 70% of it was made up of these stark principles, when, say, you’re standing and working through your emotional center with the audience. And as they were young and active and really good actors, that worked. I was very happy.
АК: And when working on “Za Skobkami” (Beyond Brackets) performance for Moskva Ballet?
АА: We’d had a laboratory to meet the whole cast and after that left just 8 people in the piece. But the laboratory was production oriented, there was a subject. And there was no such reference. Although I guess it would have been pretty cool for them, both performance- and dance-wise.
АК: I keep asking you about it because there’s a sense it’s specifically “presence” that’s often missing. For a good piece to happen.
АА: Surely, that’s what makes me ache. All I got is to joke about it. If I get asked, I would be willing to do it. But with my heart wide open, “here you are”, I can’t do that anymore, that’s too much on the edge… And when we were working on “Za Skobkami” (Beyond Brackets), I had that in mind and believed that would help the performance. There’re things you mention at rehearsals, and there’s an advance. The piece is performed, and usually it doesn’t happen, you’re just done with it, and that’s it. And here there’s some dialogue, and you can explain things. But of course talking is one thing, and doing it for five hours running is a different matter. Some work was done, but the opportunity had been missing in the first place. It’s not because somebody is to blame, it’s just that the time was limited, and I chose to spend it on other tasks.
АК: Apart from actors and dancers, are there any other audiences that might be interested in basic principles of presence? Who have you worked with up till now?
АА: When I’m teaching technique, I’m interested in going into complexities in terms of vocabulary, stunts. And in this kind of things I’m interested in removing, removing and leaving the buttons, a sufficient basis that I believe can be employed in other practices. Not necessarily in other kinds of dance, but in one’s activity, whatever it may be. Body is a marker, and after all we are always present. When I start talking like this it gets a commercial sound, and, well, I resent attitudes like “all life is a dance”. But my message is not like that, I’m saying that we remove everything except specific tools. And so apart from dancers I’ve worked extensively with contact improvisation (CI) practitioners. This format makes more sense to them. Dancers still expect a class, choreography, while CI has a different field of interest, and the word “performance” fits in with them. And as there’re lots of people from different backgrounds in CI, I was invited to give some kind of business oriented classes. I wouldn’t say it was exactly the same, but in terms of complexity it was, and it looked like they appreciated and enjoyed it.
АК: People from other professional backgrounds see these activities as a recreation. How seriously do they take the workshop?
АА: Not seriously. They come because they were asked to, not to change themselves but rather to have fun. And of course almost 80% have no skills of behaving in this setting (not taking phone calls etc.) Attention is that of a child. There’s resistance, but we all ended up having a serious conversation. After all, people working for these companies are no fools, they still see the benefit, they get involved where possible, and they appreciate. The whole process is just for a day, four hours, and that’s already a lot for this kind of things in the life they lead. And there’s another point. A girl arranging personal growth trainings in St. Petersburg took me there a few times. And the first time I accepted her invitation with caution. But these are people set up for positive experience, like, “I want my money’s worth, it’s gonna last for three days, and I’m here to improve myself.” They are interesting people, professionals in their fields, and often it’s more rewarding than with dancers. Dancers are used to their bodies being manipulated – “ok I won’t be “on”, I’ll do this, I’ll do that, whatever you like”. And here the marker is more precise, and in this sense people are being more honest and grasp faster why they need it all in the first place. Dancers are often not on their own, they’re part of a cast. And if people are independent, they understand why they’re doing it. And it’s also cool when in a workshop there’s, say, fourteen professionals in their fields, and three dancers. On the one hand, a dancer sets the bar for stamina – do it if you’re told to. And on the other hand, a dancer might benefit from being around people who don’t do dancing for a living. Often a dancer is more uptight than these people. And dancers realize that over these three days they’re somewhat outclassed in terms of these basics by those who “don’t mind a little recreation”. I’m not saying “everything for everybody”. I do understand it’s a specific audience…
АК: The principles that work in more than one field, that have a potential for common availability, they’re an honesty check in a way…
АА: To me it’s artistic practice, art is the practice. That’s why I make a point of sorting these things out before doing basic exercises.
АК: Taking off the pathos, I liked the way you said it on the first day of the workshop, that it’s not a rite.
АА: No, definitely not a sacrament. And yet surely it is… we know it, don’t we.