Artistic research: New pathways to new knowledge? A conversation with Carly Everaert

Carly Everaert, photo: Lutz Edelhoff - Operahuis Erfurt

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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 the third episode in a series of interviews, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with costume designer and teacher at the academy’s Scenography department Carly Everaert.

Part 3: The body is my inspiration

‘You have to literally make space’, says Carly Everaert as she steps sideways and points with both hands at the floor next to her. She has just received the news that Selm Wenselaers, Naomie Pieter and Mira Thompson have all accepted her invitation to collaborate as guest teachers on Everaert’s second-year teaching block. ‘I would be able to tell my students about Trans, Black and Disabled theory, but it’s going to be a lot more interesting if they do it, based on their own experience.

Carly Everaert has designed costumes for more than 200 stage productions, ranging from huge operas to intimate dialogues, in the Netherlands and Germany. Her costumes are extremely colourful (‘I used to describe myself as painter, and I will often use white shoes as a white note in a painting’), literally and figuratively multi-layered (many of them are collages of found clothing materials, tailored to fit each actor’s body – ‘their bodies are my inspiration’) and gender fluid (more about that later).

Like the ATD’s dance teacher Maria Ines Villasmil, who featured earlier in this series, Carly Everaert is a member of the Embodied Knowledge in Theatre and Dance (EKTD) working group of teachers from various ATD programmes where they discuss the subject from the perspective of their own artistic research. Everaert’s own research focuses on the body, costume and movement, and she will be introducing these subjects into the curriculum through her teaching blocks for the Scenography programme.

Head seeks out hand
‘For the“Learning to think with your hands” block, first-year Scenography students  are sent out to the nearby second-hand market on Waterlooplein to buy themselves their own grey man’s suit. Then they completely dismantle the suit. In the process you see just how many pieces are used to make up the suit, and how much work, time and material goes into it. Then I give them the assignment of using all the parts to design a costume that is as far removed from the body as possible. I ask them to discard any preconceived plans and just to look at what comes into being by doing. Working in this way, they discover that their bodies harbour knowledge that comes to the surface when you work with your hands. The results are textile sculptures, abstract forms and costumes with strange protuberances or sharp angles. Ultimately, they themselves crawl into their costumes to experience what it asks of them.

What’s great about the EKTD is that it enables me to build further on this physical research. I’ve asked Maria Ines to work with our students on a guided dance improvisation. She gets them to explore how their costume influences their movements; how it restricts them or offers them greater freedom; and what qualities – slowness, sensuality or springiness – it brings out in them.’

‘The place where costume, body and movement come together is interesting territory for me. And while my designs are very theatrical, I also feel a real curiosity about the performativity of the most everyday sort of costumes. I interviewed the actor Esther Snelder, who teaches acting at the Mime School and who’s also a fellow member of the working group. I asked her what happens if you perform on stage in your own clothes: Is there a moment when your experience shifts, when you cross an invisible boundary between clothing and costume?’ 

Design is a political act
Another major subject with which Everaert has been engaging throughout her career is the representation of gender and Queer identity on stage. She often works with directors who use non-traditional, cross-gender casting as a playful and powerful way of disrupting the familiar dualities of man/woman, black/white, trans/cis and heterosexual/queer, and the associated power structures. In the opening scene of Trojan Wars, for example, the Greek heroes wear short skirts and frolic around the stage with youthful male energy. In The Neverending Storythe Atreju character, who in the original version was a white boy destined to save the world, was played by a young Black female actor wearing a kilt-like garment and boxer shorts. ‘Like the British scenographer Rosie Elnile says,’ explains Everaert ‘Design is a political act – let’s use it to reshape the future.’

This cornerstone of Everaert’s work forms the basis for her second-year teaching block around the theme of critical theory. ‘In the first part, the students are introduced to the theory of intersectional feminism, queer and gender perspectives, Black studies and a range of related artistic practices. The idea is that we learn together, nourishing our knowledge with essays, podcasts and TV shows. I’m so delighted that Selm, Naomie and Mira – who have all done ground-breaking work as, respectively, a gender fluid dramaturge, a Black queer performance artist and a Disabled jazz singer – will be here to put us to the test. Each student will carry out their own research. I’ll be asking them to incorporate their own physical experiences into that process, so they acquaint themselves with their own social and political positioning. Last year, one of the students made a character based on all the remarks aimed at him throughout his life because of his queerness. This ‘pain-body’ was given a name, sculpted in clay, and then laid to rest in a mortuary-like installation.

Last year, Everaert wrote a lecture titled ‘Creating spaces for other(ed) bodies’ with the support of DAS Research, through which the EKTD working group operates. It formed her contribution to the annual Costume, Scenography and Critical Theory symposium at the Arts University of Bournemouth in southern England. Not having an academic background, Everaert was initially uncomfortable with the idea of giving a lecture, but she was pleasantly surprised by its positive reception. It was precisely her practical and physical implementation of Critical Theory in her teaching of Scenography and costumes, and the sharing of her research and her long-standing work experience – in short, the transfer of embodied knowledge – that so inspired her listeners. Since then she has given the lecture at other places, and now, together with Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca, head of DAS Research, she is looking into the possibility of publishing her lecture in book form. ‘This is very much in line with the raison d’être of the working group,’ explains Everaert, ‘of finding ways to put our experiences into words. What can we learn from each other’s expertise? Is there a way of capturing our embodied knowledge? How do we pass our practice on to others?’

Interview by Hester van Hasselt




'Learning to think with your hands' - Inge Gutzeit, photo: Robert van der Ree

'Learning to think with your hands' - Lou Seidel, photo: Robert van der Ree

'Learning to think with your hands' - Menno Meijners, photo: Robert van der Ree