Hannah Sampé is a dance artist and choreographer based in Germany who was part of Warjakka Art Residency / CROWD international dance exchange programme in 2021. In this TaikaTalk our conversation turns to the concept of resting as a politicised activity.
Your improvisation workshops in #WarjakkaArtResidency had a condition: people had to keep their eyes closed and stay on their feet, not moving them on the ground. Where does that come from?
I would say that it has to do with the search for being grounded – something I myself haven’t found yet and not something one easily got in a pocket. It is nice that we begin our conversation with this, because it could be a bit of an umbrella term for a lot of things I am busy with researching – on a very physical level, on a dance technique level and also on a very personal level. I also feel it is very political. Its perhaps a bit complicated to explain how I see that relation and the continuous work it involves to discover it…
Let’s try. What is one uncomfortable thing that makes you want to feel grounded – a trigger or anxiety you oppose through art and your artistic workshops?
I am not sure what a one-word answer is to this, but perhaps it could be: the violence of expectations? Stress? Perceiving the world through our minds too much? Perhaps I see being grounded as a key to accessing a certain, very precious state of presence. I perceive this presence as very rare and fragile in the ways we live- at least in the type of capitalist Western society I grew up in- which relates to a certain dogma of productivity and a mind-based way of living. Somehow our ways of being in the body and relating to each other seem to be so influenced by this dogma of productivity and also socially constructed categories or violent expectations of who we should be, that we carry around with us. And I often perceive this as something that radiates in the way we are physically present, which I feel is shaped by a lot of mental energy, stress or anxiousness. I like to call this “the politics of fear”. On a physical level, I feel this often manifests as not feeling the body at all, or a very stiff kind of holding yourself, perhaps shakyness or pain.
Grounding practices in many forms can be a way to get “back into the body” with care. Perhaps with less stress, more awareness, less expectations and more sensations. Grounding can be like plugging yourself into a charger, but also it can calm you down. Grounding can also mean just arriving. Of course, when I say “grounding” I do not only mean the physical ground, but it helps as a metaphor. Paying attention to your wait on the floor or to where your body is simply in touch with the floor is always a great starting point for a practice. For beginning the work.
And grounding has a lot to do with presence and pleasure.
This is something I observe when dancing and when I teach. Which does at times lead me to think that there are aspects of dance that are almost universal helpers. The body offers so many tools that we can play with to facilitate groundedness. For example, through playing with weight or shaking your body and imagining yourself as a tube through which energy and weight can travel. There is something on a very physical level when you work with weight, with observing weight, its relationship with breath- these things are door openers to a certain kind of presence or state of awareness that can be very pleasurable in the body and mind. Weight and breath are such simple (perhaps even primary?) qualities in the body that almost function like an elevator into a state of “here- and nowness”.
I want to believe that this can be an antidote to many of the things that I struggle with and I believe other people struggle with as well. A lot of this has to do with Ableism. With toxic expectations towards your own productivity, with having the thinking mind dominating your whole self, with being drawn to burn out, with being pushed into ways of not treating yourself gently and with depression or anxiety as symptoms of that. It has been a big topic in my personal life, but also I see it very structurally.
And of course it applies to the field of art production itself: How to make a living as an artist in society without going to this place of the politics of fear? Very difficult.
And it applies to Performance. Performing is so much about arriving in some kind of an honest, present state which is a place that I find artistically very juicy to experience and witness, as a performer, but also as a choreographer. I actually want to be very careful with words like “authenticity” and “honesty” here because I feel they can be very problematic, when assigned from the outside or used too fast to judge performances, which sort of misses the point, I think.
But there is something there in this moment, when you observe someone fully arriving in their dance or in their performance. And witnessing this can be very fulfilling or inspiring somehow.
Anyways, when you arrive in such a place, or see people arrive there you feel so much connected to pleasure, to being in the moment – this has a very liberating and fascinating effect. And I think that relates back to the fact that the power of dance and dance performance lies in the fact that it is a life art, where people share and witness physical sensation and action in real time together.
You have been teaching people contemporary dance and grounding techniques, and then seeing them let go of certain fears or tension and set free from many things. Do you think dance is evolving into something to which people turn to instead of therapy? There has been an amazing evolution with regards to mental health awareness. Yet, it is still a luxury for most, even in the most mental health friendly countries. Do you think there is this certain evolution of dance becoming a therapy for more people – or does it sound too optimistic to you?
Touchy subject. I personally am not a therapist or look at dance as a tool for therapy (even though I agree it has therapeutic effects). I think, like with many healing practices, there is the danger that they get corrupted by the system. An institutional abuse of a practice for its healing power, so that we can function again and continue to live the way we live without challenging the system we live in. This somehow perverts the nature of the practice itself and this is not what I am interested in. This is also why I try to avoid the term ”therapy” – not because I don’t believe that therapy helps people and is needed. It’s more that the way therapy functions in this society, it is part of a larger belief system of health care and its values, with which I struggle. This is a lot about me wanting to question the distinction between ”healthy” and ”unhealthy”, the believe in quick fixes and in too much “expertism” in health. All things that lead estrange people even further from their bodies.
I feel dance offers a certain connection and research of ways of being different and being in your body differently in this world. This is already therapeutic in itself, and in a very subtle way extremely subversive.
In this society, therapy is something you do individually, to cope with life and then get back to it the way things have been. I would love it to work differently. I feel dance is not a tool, it offers tools to be here, to be present a bit differently than we’re used to. It is very therapeutic, and I love to see it spreading. I am glad to see the interest in it, but I don’t want to call it therapy. I see the potential of practices like dance to bridge the gap between “life” and “the things we do to fix life”, by offering ways to gain a little more awareness, accountability and empowerment for the ways in which we inhabit our bodies and the spaces around us.
I feel that the way in which we use therapy in this society always refers to something dualistic, something “bad” that needs to be fixed, often with the help of something or someone external, who supposedly has more power or knowledge than ourselves. Also, rigid categories of “sick” and “healthy” and a lot of pressure on individuals that need to be fixed, are something that makes me uncomfortable. I wonder: Where is the link here to community and to connection? This also relates a lot to my artistic practice – I work with very different people, including people with mental disabilities for example. There are many questions I have about calling my work ”inclusive work”. Sometimes it seems it just emphasizes the difference in the end. It is an important word, for what it means, but I often stumble over it. And of course questions of power pop up: who includes whom? Who is in and who is out? And whose choice/ freedom is it to change that?
I love the artistic perspective on “inclusive work”, in the sense that it is about creating together and to just work with what everyone brings instead of aiming to change anyone. In one of my projects we work with a mixed cast of people who identify as mentally disabled and as neurotypical. But of course among the neurotypical performers, there are people who struggle with mental health, and perhaps we all do to some extent, so I try to see “sanity” or mental health like a scale, not like something broken into two categories. And also I believe that this scale of health is very intertwined with how well you fit, or are seen as fitting into your environment, how your environment allows you to be part of it and meet and realize your needs. I feel that’s a topic that everyone relates to regardless of their identity as disabled or not. For me this way of looking at it helps to deconstruct how we relate to the term disability, where it ends and where it begins.
We are living in a system that is so progress driven – we always need to be productive, there is hardly ever enough space and time to rest and take care of needs or voice or integrate them, so to a certain extent we are all disabled by that system. It hurts us and it is violent to everyone, to some more than to others. Quite complex – but this is what pops up in my heart and head when you ask about therapy.
How did you choose dance as your profession? Was there a turning point?
(laughs) It is, again, a story dealing with expectations. I have been dancing since primary school. I was perhaps 14 when I got involved in a project that became so intense that it almost became too much. Looking back at that time I understand that maybe I had something like a small burnout already as a teenager. I remember talking to people about dancing being too much and being very stressed about rehearsing but also eventually everything else around me. I had a very demanding teacher in a dance theater group who demanded a lot of commitment. At that young age I took that very seriously. At the same time I felt I needed to break away – a big conflict for a while- and at some point I just stopped dancing altogether.
When I finished high school I danced a bit more, but it was quite clear for me that I had to do something “proper”, as people would say. I don’t know why, but it just felt obvious that dance is not an option – and I didn’t even question that. I did my first bachelor degree in Lieberal Arts and Sciences – a program designed so you can put together your own curriculum and choose from many different subjects. I was never good at choosing just one thing, I have a tendency to want everything at once, at the same time and mix things up.
Blurring the borderlines?
Exactly… At some point in my bachelor studies I started to dance again with a wonderful teacher who had a very holistic approach to contemporary dance, a lot of influence from martial arts and generally a wide perspective on movement. I remember going to that first dance class and bursting into tears because I noticed how much I missed and needed to dance- a bit like in a cheesy movie perhaps.
I was just studying academically back then, spending a lot of time thinking, reading and writing and denying quite a lot in my system to be alive. I began to train more intensely towards the end of the studies and I had this thought: it is now or never that I need to give this a chance! I got accepted into a dance school in Cologne. I was just trying the audition– at least that was the thought I was protecting myself with, rather than admitting the reality. Then I got accepted to the new school and somehow got sucked into the dance world. And stayed there. Still I think that my bachelor studies with a strong focus on critical theory and political philosophy were very crucial for finding my own path in dance.
Was theory something that helped you build up a policy and philosophy in art making? Something maybe related to the belief that there is no division between healthy and unhealthy – just the attempt to be here and now, happy…
There were many things. The theory definitely gave me something to hold on to, in order to structure my thoughts and also experiences. But there are also personal experiences that shaped my politics: My brother, who is autistic is also an artist- he just doesn’t make a living off it. I have been growing up with these questions of belonging, making sense and the discrimination of people who make sense of the world diffently. I also witnessed how choosing to be an artist can show you quite difficult sides of life, how people in the arts seem to generally seem to question things around them a bit more than other people do. Perhaps that is part of the job.
I would say that theory helped me contextualize this more and dance offered ways to process that – (or to question that even more), or to find spaces where one can live with messiness, where complicatedness of life can just be. Dance is like a platform, a zone where I can try to negotiate things which are very complex and multi-layered in our contemporary world, and where they can just rest, be there, or be negotiated differently.
I find that with dance as a form of negotiation, there often is more pleasure, patience and compassion – than in ways which the mind itself or the process of talking have to offer.
Have you been feeling that movement is stronger than words in a way?
Not sure. Words can be really strong, powerful and also very dangerous. What movement is good at doing, is escaping the dichotomy of things and the fixedness that comes with words. I feel that dance offers more in between spaces for the blurry, and the messy, and the “not-yet-clear-somehow-becoming-morphing-out-of-the-unknown. ”Unknown” is another of these contemporary dance terms, I guess, a bit cheesy, but quite relevant.
One of the things you did in your artistic practices and within Warjakka Art Residency is that you gave your all to one person and invested into their process or even the inner revolution, creating a fruitful soil for being artistically grounded through improvisations and dance. This is revolutionary in the context of an academic approach where you have to have everything big. With the Corona, the traditional part of the cultural sector started appreciating individuality more. Do you feel less of an outsider in appreciating an individual in the audience, working with just one (or very few) person(s)?
My personal experience with the lockdown made me feel less connected to the world. The dance world is a small world – and it works with bodies that somehow meet, sometimes few of those, sometimes more. I like to work in a very patient way, taking a lot of time. I think I would work the same way, even if it would be for a bigger event – still paying attention to each person.
Riina, the woman from the workshop in Warjakka Art Residency, was such a beautiful partner in my artistic practice. Her dancing struck me! She was so ready to go: she seemed so present already when she came to the island. I suggested she would go and make a solo and film it. I didn’t have to do much apart from witnessing – she brought a lot of what I think makes a great performer: the presence, the readiness, the trust in what she was doing and how she wanted to move.
Well, you created a safe space for that.
Sure. I hope.
What is your brightest impression from building a relationship with Varjakka?
The aspect of nature growing back here. Working on this piece of land which was once such an important industrial site for the area and which has literally been left alone for so many decades is very special. It’s a place where you see what happens if people don’t interfere with nature or only interfere very partially, which also has to do a lot with letting land be and the patience in that. And of course this is something so relevant for today’s discussions on environmentalism and our relationshsip to the non- human world. And- of course- it brought me back once again to the whole idea of rest and patience in the body…
We did this research on the shore of Varjakka where we searched for textures of surfaces of the ground and tried to rest on them, use our body as a material that is resting, explore resting and letting weight drop on a very cellular level. It somehow creates the moment where a concept becomes alive. I am an activist promoting slowing down, de-growth and anticapitalism, but I’m always very interested in shifting these ideas to a physical, embodied experience. Varjakka was a very nice playground for this.
So resting is hard work…
Yes, exactly! It’s super hard. We are not taught to be patient, to be idle. Inviting rest and practicing not-doing often means very actively resisting what we are taught, what we are used to. Observing our impulses of leaving the situation of rest, questioning them. Going back to sensation of the body instead, as an anchor – such hard work sometimes.
This is something where, once again, communities of disable people are inspiring and perhaps several steps ahead of the rest of society. There is a term for dealing with time differently in that discourse, which is “cryptime” and refers to the time people that are affected by disabilities need in order to meet their access needs, which obviously takes longer, if “special needs” are involved. People in this discourse are very used to deconstructing ideas of how to deal with time and expectation of timing, because they have to – they often take longer than other people. Timetables in mainstream institutions don’t really work for many people with disabilities – and I often feel that I can relate to this a lot, this feeling that strict timetables do not really make sense. And I actually think many people relate to this, or maybe they’re just in denial, at least that’s my assumption (laughs). So yes, taking rest and taking it slow, or taking the time you actually need in order to do something, in my opinion is something super political.
In this context, we also spoke about Johanna Hedvas ”Sick Woman Theory” during the residency. It is a text about the different ways in which capitalism constructs sickness and creates precarity, disability and exclusion. It concludes that the most anti-capitalist thing you can do is probably to just stay in bed. I think there’s a lot of truth and beauty in there.
The silence of the island of Varjakka was really encouraging to do this research on rest. I wonder how it would have been if the residency had been in a big city, for example. Maybe that’s the next step – to take it there…
This silence seems to be amplifying everything, and it’s challenging – one is used to the sound of fuss, silencing the thoughts, the inner voice.
Yes, silence is very confronting. Also in terms of allowing the rest… Can we rest in silence anymore?
Do you have a dream project, and what would you tell to your younger self who just started dancing? We talked a lot about time channeling – Varjakka is quite a time machine, breaking the linear perceptions of time…
I feel I am having a lot of dream projects! I’ve been really enjoying the Warjakka Art Residency. At home, in Germany, I will continue working on a piece with my collective, who not only great colleagues, but also friends and my brother is performing in that piece as well. I am also working with Doris Ulich, a choreographer who works a lot with the topic of body positivity. I am currently dancing in a piece of hers where we are a rather diverse group of bodies, dancing naked, shaking our flesh to electronic music. Its incredibly fun and powerful. I feel especially now after the long lockdowns, there are so many great projects happening. I just hope they will be able to actually happen in terms of Corona…
About my younger self.. I would tell my past self with a little bit of pride that whenever they were making radical decisions with regards to doing things in a different tempo – that it is the right thing to do and that it is gonna be fine. Maybe I would want them to not worry so much about it – nothing wrong or bad happened in the end. Take away that fear and that risky feeling that came with taking the decision of doing something slower, taking more time for things, taking longer in the university to complete a degree or whatever… I’m glad I did it.
Hannah Sampe was talking with Lölä Vlasenko