Don’t Mind the Gap(s)!
by Barbara Majsa
The 10th edition of the Placcc Festival is currently invading the streets of Budapest. The charming urban festival provides constant entertainment and involvement. To prove this read our interview with Danish artist Kitt Johnson who is mentoring a group of Hungarian dancers. Their performance called Gaps will take place on 25-26 September in the Vizafogó area in District 13.
Danish choreographer and dancer Kitt Johnson has been the artistic director of the X-act company since 1992, since then she has created more than 50 productions all around world. She is also the founder of the Mellemrum (loosely translated as gap) site-specific festival organised in 5 different neighbourhoods in Copenhagen. Looking for new challenges Kitt took her idea and brought several site-specific projects into existence in places such as Athens, Zagreb, Macau and Godandugoda in Sri Lanka, and they are preparing it in Moss, Norway for 2016. Finally, she has arrived in Budapest, Hungary. I met Kitt at SÍN Culture Centre after her first session with the participants of Mellemrum.
I don’t think that so many Hungarians know you so could you talk a bit about the beginnings of your career first?
I used to be an 800-metre runner until I was about 22 years old when I dropped out of running. I studied sports science at university but then I encountered dance and started dancing. I was 24 that time and I felt I could not go to another school, and therefore I took workshops in Denmark, Paris, etc. I spent a lot of time in Paris because in the 80s it was full of dance, and I also visited Berlin and New York to pick up information.
I did contemporary dance, new dance, contact improvisation, martial art, some theatre, German expressionistic theatre and dance, and in a way I tried to take information from everywhere and pour into this container, which is my body, and see whether I can use it just as a tool for my own expression. I try to not commit myself to one specific style, which is, of course, difficult, and I also try to avoid reproducing a certain technique. But it’s impossible to be authentic because there are always traces of information, still, when you reach for the impossible, you get closer. You break your borders and stretch the limit of the possible. Actually, this is what I’m trying to do.
Do you prefer to perform alone or in a team?
I prefer to do solo work or to direct. I’m not so good at collaboration. My nature is more soloist, and I do think I learn a lot from directing. I direct in a way that I don’t invent steps and ask people to do my steps, but develop themes and concepts. I do like devising methods into the concept, too. That means I try to pour material from the individual. I always work with performers that are very strong on stage and are also strange characters, so that is also soloist. I try to get something out of their way of working and direct that. I learn so much doing this. But real sort of collaborative things is not really in my nature, unfortunately.
You have founded a site-specific festival in Copenhagen. How did you come up with the idea of this kind of project?
It actually started in Paris in the 80s when I was there taking workshops. I lacked money and I found out that I could go to the street and dance and get money. I did it with a Swedish friend, and we found out we could both earn some money and train like this. It was like a laboratory. We could do our research for free and we didn’t need a studio, for instance. Thinking of a concept we found a specific space and tried to do something there. The only disadvantage was that the more interesting we found the concept was, the more remote it became, it was more difficult to actually get money because there were no people at those strange places. That was basically the starting point. Then I worked with an American choreographer, Mark Champkins, in France. I learned a lot from him. He did a lot of site-specific works.
So it was always with me. I’m not that kind of person who says it’s bad to do work in the theatre or we have to be in the public space. I think both have great value. For me it’s more about the theme, so I always look which kind of space belongs to the theme introduced. It might be a non-artistic place, a weird place, maybe a theatre. A theatre can be also site specific, if you use it as site. It can be a black box, a site you create, or it might be in the middle of the street. You may or may not want to invite audiences. The main question is: What does the theme need?
Could you talk a bit about how you ended up abroad with this project?
We did four editions of the festival in Copenhagen, but then we stopped it because of two reasons. The first one is that we did not get enough support, the second, which is actually the most important, is the I felt I needed a change. I felt taking this concept abroad to see it in different contexts and to be less fixed to a specific format in a specific city. Now I call it Mellenrum (Gaps) Encounter. That means the concept encounters different places in the world, and different communities, different artists, different organisers who wants specific things from my Mellenrum can participate.
Is it easy to adapt it to every country?
It is really easy in the sense that I wanted to really adapt it, so I implemented as many changes as it was necessary in order to adapt it to the conditions because this is what is exciting. Otherwise, I could have just stayed in Copenhagen and continue doing what I did.
Was the festival in Copenhagen international or rather national?
It was very local because it rooted 100 per cent in that specific location, so it was really local what we did. But it was global in the sense that we also invited artists from different countries, artists who knew nothing about Denmark and that area. We confronted them with artists who actually lived there and artists who came from different places from Denmark. We were really trying to create a local platform but with global figures and qualities.
How and when did you hear about Placcc and meet the organisers?
I met Fanni (Fanni Nánay, the artistic director of Placcc) through the network of IN SITU at an international meeting in Scotland last year. It was a meeting where lots of artists from different places from Europe met and presented their art and urban spaces. I presented Mellenrum Encounters, and Fanni asked me if I wanted to do it in Budapest as well.
Did you know anything about the festival?
No, nothing. This is also my first time in Budapest, which is why it’s even more excited to do it in a place that is totally alien.
Do you like the city?
I like it very much.
Have you seen something specific?
I spend a lot of time here in Vizafogó, walking and also trying to talk but only some people speak English. However, it’s a very diverse area, and I find it interesting how this socialistic area and architecture meet architecture that is much older and something, which is brand new, as well as there are these traces of factories here. Nature is coming always so strong, wherever you abandoned something nature is coming back. This is also the glimpse of nature that once was here, when viza (beluga), the fish was here. There were a swamp and the belugas, which swam all the way from the Black Sea to this place and many other places. This is why it’s called Vizafogó, fogó means catching.
The place is very intriguing but there is nothing touristic about Vizafogó. It’s a very authentic place, a very true place, it’s a place where people live, some people work. It’s a place where people are born, and die. And this is for me always a big present. Apart from this, I also enjoy seeing the more touristic sites of Budapest. The architecture is fantastic. I started working with the artists today.
Are you the one who chose them?
I made it up to the organisers to choose them because they know the scene. Choosing an artist is not just about seeing a nice video, it’s also knowing where this person is at her or his artistic development. Is it the right moment to do this kind of work or isn’t it? There can be many reasons why you’re asked to be part of a project like this. For the organisers that’s much easier to understand why and how. In addition to that, it’s also easier to understand how we can create a group, because it’s a small group, it’s a group of 9 people, a group that actually can profit from each other. That can create a good and creative chemistry. So I’ve met them today for the first time, and it was a great pleasure. I think they all are really, really promising young people.
Are you going to present the project here in this area or somewhere else?
Yes, here in Vizafogó, but on the other side of Váci Street. We narrowed it down because it’s a performative walk, so the audiences are going to walk, and one and a half hours are maximum for an audience. We have six stations in a small area that, hopefully, covers the diversity of the whole area.
How did you find this particular area?
I walked. I arrived on 1 September and spent many hours here. Fanny took me for a walk, gave me the basic introductions on the first day, and on the second day I just walked and walked and walked, just everywhere to get to understand it.
You’ve been to several countries around the world. Is the audience is similar or different in any ways?
There are huge differences from country to country, and there are huge differences within the country. There are always great differences between urban and rural audiences. There are huge differences between those who are accustomed to see cultural things, and people who are not. I could also perform in Denmark where the audience is totally different than the one in Copenhagen, but the most extreme audience I have ever experienced was in Kaliningrad, and in Seoul, where audiences would chat throughout a theatre performance. They would also eat, take their phone calls, walk in and out, go for a smoke, then come back. It was a gathering, like a social thing, and the performance on stage was just an entertainment as if you were in a bar. That was quite a difficult experience.
Did you work with Korean artists at that time?
No, I was performing alone at a festival, and I didn’t know what was going on. But slowly I realised and the organisers also told me that I should not be worried because this was a typical human behaviour there.
Do you do any kind of research before visiting a country?
I have been studying Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai. I’m joking, but I’m a big fan of their work. Of course, I study a bit, but sometimes I’m also a bit reluctant studying because having to much sort of factual knowledge can actually prohibit me in seeing and sensing what comes naturally because I’ve already had fixed pictures of what I expect to see. So I study a little bit but not too much, and that is why reading Krasznahorkai is not so bad, but anyway, if you study from a more artistic perspective sometimes there is a bigger space open for your first experience.
Do you have a structure for your workshop or do you intend to apply it to the artists on every occasion?
I have a structure but today I had to change completely because there was one word that I chose and took for granted that everybody would understand but nobody understood, so they did something completely different that I was expecting them to do so we had to take it in a different way, which is actually great. This is one of the things about encountering people from different countries. Because of this reason you get forced to get out your path. I had a structure, though, and the structure changes. One reason why I have a structure because I am here for a very short time and we try to do something that normally would take maybe three months, and we try to do it in 5 working days but with gaps so the artists can work for themselves. So I have to apply a method that works. But whenever I have to shift to find angles in the method to accomplish what is going to happen, I have to do it.
Are you also going to perform with them?
No, they perform. I try to be their mentor, their facilitator, and I try to give the sort of whole concept and the whole structure of the walk. I’m going to be a guide who is taking care of the audience.
So it’s going to be a moving performance.
Yes, it is. We’re going to move the audience around the place. We walk in different physical acts or interventions happening on the way.
Do you think the audience should know a lot about the performance before it takes place?
No, they should know as little as possible. Just be open and experience. Try to step out into Vizafogó as innocent as possible, and just experience as it was the first time.
- Date: 25-26 September 6 p.m.
- Meet-up Point: in front of the József Attila Theatre, 1134 Budapest, Váci Str. 63.
- (We advise you to dress comfortably, in clothes suitable for the weather.)
- You can purchase tickets online at placcc.jegy.hu, or via e-mail at email@example.com
- Prices: 1,000 HUF, student: 800 HUF
Photos: Per Morten Abrahamsen
Original appearance: HYPEANDHYPER, 20 September 2015