Artistic research: new pathways to new knowledge. A conversation with Maria Ines Villasmil

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It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually involve? In this first in a series of interviews we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with Maria Ines Villasmil, teacher of dance improvisation at Expanded Contemporary Dance (ECD) and the School for New Dance Development (SNDO).

Part 1: Liquid Practice

Maria Ines Villasmil: In September 2019, I responded to an open invitation that Marijn de Langen sent out to all the teachers from Bachelor’s programmes at the ATD. Marijn is a theory teacher at the Mime Department – she gained her PhD in 2017 from the University of Utrecht with a research paper on Dutch Mime. As part of her postdoctoral research, she asked us to join a working group called Embodied Knowledge in Theatre and Dance, a DAS Research platform that we use to research and enrich our knowledge, and to share knowledge with other teachers at the ATD.

Her invitation came at exactly the right moment: teachers had already been feeling a need for exchange for some time, but no structured setting existed where they could engage with questions like: What do you teach? How do you give classes? What questions do you use in your work? And how can research be used to enrich your practice?

There are 11 of us teachers in the working group, from across six of the Bachelor’s programmes: Dance in Education, Expanded Contemporary Dance, SNDO, Mime, Scenography, and Drama and Contemporary Music Theatre. It’s striking just how many overlaps there are between us. We come together once a month and two or three of us get 45 minutes to share research, interests and reference points. We may talk, show film material from classes, or do physical work on the floor. We can also invite guest speakers – as part of her research into transcultural dance practices, for example, Lot Siebe introduced Patrick Acogny and Nita Liem to us, and discussed her research questions with them.

Could you tell me a little about your own research?
My research is about the question of whether using what we call ‘scores’ expands the physical experience and improvisational skills of dance students. A score is a method used in dance to document or ‘record’ something, usually in the form of drawings, but text can also be used. It’s comparable with a musical score or a script.

In Venezuela, where I come from, I studied sociology and dance, and while I was still quite young I had two parallel careers: as a sociologist I was involved in political research, and at the same time I was dancing internationally. Both careers were developing, so I had to make a choice. I chose choreography and dance.

It’s been 25 years now since I did any academic research, but that experience is still important to my work, and it serves as an excellent entry point for my artistic research. For me, dance improvisation is about encounters with people who each have their own vision and values, and their own ways of relating to other people. It’s incredibly interesting to me how dance improvisation channels knowledge held in the body.

I see teaching as part of my ongoing artistic practice, a practice in which I share my questions and my enquiry with the students – whether that’s at the ATD, or as a guest teacher in Kosovo, Montevideo, Helsinki, Moscow or Caracas. Over the years, my approach to teaching has crystallised into a specific method. Meeting the American choreographer Deborah Hay was crucial in how this happened. She was here at the AHK as an artist in residence in 2010, and she made a dance piece, titled Breaking the Chord, with all the students from the School for New Dance Development. I was closely involved in that process.

Deborah Hay arrived in Amsterdam with a written dance score. Her score was singular, in that it comprised a long list of questions. Each sentence began with the words ‘What if…’. And instead of developing and documenting a pattern of movements they could be repeatedly replicated, Hay proposed a number of hypothetical situations to the students. She spoke into a microphone during rehearsals: ‘What if…’, ‘What if…’. The repetition had a mantra-like quality. Her questions opened up a space in which the 40 dancers could give their own individual interpretations in the moment. The result was a beautiful dance piece that was different every time it took place.

Hay used this work to lead you from an intellectual, linguistic place and ask you to surrender to the intelligence of the body. I incorporated working with a written score in my methodology, and continued developing it. What’s wonderful about the Embodied Knowledge in Theatre and Dance working group is that I can now share my inquiry with other people. There are lots of different types of movement notation in the mime world as well – several members of the working group use Labanotation, for example, which gives rise to exciting questions. We sometimes also attend each other’s classes, which means everybody’s research process feeds into everybody else’s.

Could you give me an idea of what one of your classes looks like?
In the first part of the class we work with scores that warm up the body, and in the second part we use scores that look forward to a choreographic outcome. Sometimes I speak the instructions out loud, while the students are dancing, and other times I hand them out on sheets of paper and the students learn the sequence by heart before going out onto the floor, without a pre-set plan. The great thing about working this way is that the dancers have to be a hundred percent on the ball right from the start. The score forces you to be present; to be aware of the space and the people around you; to make choices in the moment. A collective thought process emerges – it’s like you’re solving a problem together.

What sort of instructions does the score contain?
One of the instructions is ‘delay’. Like, you might see one of the dancers making a movement – one that you want to respond to – but you delay the desire to do so. And when the other dancers do the same, this gives rise to all sorts of nuances. You stretch time together, which brings a sense of tension to the choreography.

Another possible instruction is ‘tracing’, which involves a dancer following in the tracks of one of the other dancers. ‘Tracing’ isn’t the same as ‘copying’. There’s space for your own interpretation. There’s something about the word ‘tracing’ that suggests ‘opening’.

I also get students to write scores for each other, and this is something that works well when you’re working online, it turns out. I’ve built up a huge database of these scores – in the form of text, but also on film. It’s great that these scores by the students are so wide-ranging. Some of them are utterly concrete, like ‘go to a park and wear something yellow’, while others are very poetic. It doesn’t matter to me what kind they are. For me it’s just interesting to see how these different types of scores affect the body. The current cohort of first years is very imaginative, and it’s exciting to see how even a very simple instruction can unleash a vast range of possibilities – especially in these times when, as a teacher, you’re fading more and more into the background.

You mean because of coronavirus?
No, it’s because I think that as a teacher you’ve got to create a safe environment, one in which students can follow their own personal research path and extend their boundaries. What I feel I do is give the students a tool and then take a step back.

What discoveries have you made through doing this work?
One of the things I’ve discovered is that the score is a kind of string that keeps us all together. It sometime happens that someone will forget a sequence in the score, or switch two parts, and that ‘error’ can give rise to an interesting composition, so I don’t see it as wrong, because it’s a valid interpretation, one that forms part of the choreography. And everyone deals with the consequences together. They have to ask themselves: How do we resolve this? The score is a line that keeps connecting us, whatever emerges; we don’t know what it is, and we don’t need to know. Scores are fantastic tools for getting into a state of not-knowing, which is the best state to be in for improvisation.

Over the past year I’ve been incorporating the coronavirus safety guidelines in the scores, so that means no more than three dancers in the entire space, and you never get closer than one-and-a-half metres from each other. At the same time, the students still have to keep on dancing together and following in each other’s tracks. The state of alertness shot right up. What I discovered was that including these awful Covid rules in the score led to a kind of acceptance. In previous years I worked a lot with touch, but we’re dealing with a grim new reality now. Even so, the dancers still find freedom for themselves and produce work of great beauty.

This is fascinating to me. What possibilities does it open up? How can we, as artists, make a contribution in these times of coronavirus? I gave the students a few quotes, by choreographers such as Nancy Stark Smith and Jennifer Monson, as well as by the British-Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman [1925 -2017]. Bauman talks in his work about a ‘Liquid Society’, one in which ‘change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty’. That’s more true now than ever. In a nod to Bauman, I like to call my work ‘Liquid Practice’. Perhaps all of us – dancers and non-dancers alike – should practice improvisation every day, to enable us to deal with uncertainty, because, like Jennifer Monson says, ‘Improvisation is a resilient form based on the ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances and events.’


The Gap
Where you are when you don’t know where you are is one of the most precious spots offered by improvisation. It is a place from which more directions are possible than anywhere else. I call this place the Gap. The more I improvise, the more I’m convinced that it is through the medium of these gaps— this momentary suspension of reference point—that comes the unexpected and much sought after ‘original’ material. It’s ‘original’ because its origin is the current moment and because it comes from outside our usual frame of reference.

–Nancy Stark Smith


text and interview: Hester van Hasselt