This TaikaTalk features Siri Wigdel – a choreographer, dance artist, producer and director from Wales and Norway, cofounder of Cwmni Pen Productions Ltd -the performing arts company which she founded with her partner, the actor Gwyn Vaughan Jones in 2017, in order to produce works across the different genres of dance, theatre, film and mixed media, often with a focus on mixing multiple languages.
Siri has taught a lot of dance and movement over the years and inspired many young artists and non-dancers of all ages searching for a deeper, freer artistic research and creative exploration of movement. In this TaikaTalk we chat, among other things, about overcoming fears, Pina Bausch, solidarity and dancing your first movement memories.
“Water Wars” – the eco-drama miniseries you produced during the Covid lockdown – exists in a number of dramatic contexts. The bilingual context – you created Cwmni Pen Productions as a bilingual company and you are very committed to supporting the Welsh language; the ecological context – it is a dystopian piece on climate change; the political (there are no nations, only ecologies) context and the artistic one (many allusions to Lars von Trier’s style in Dogville: pieces of theatre combined with stand up storytelling, etc). How did you choose these combinations and the genre of eco-drama? What was most challenging and most joyful during the creative process?
It’s interesting to have been on the journey with “Water Wars” particularly in the context of two crises – Brexit and COVID… I’ve lived with ”Water Wars” ever since I invited my friend and long-term colleague, Welsh playwright and director Ian Rowlands, to come and be a writer in residence at the theatre I ran, which is just across the bay from where I live in Wales. Ian came and he was easy to please as all he needed was a desk and a window with a view so he could write. He shared his early ideas with me based on the thoughts of some scientists who believe that the next wars will be a fight over the world’s natural resources, such as water…
I had lots of interesting conversations with Ian thinking this was a very timely concept. Particularly in the north, where we have a lot of water, and that has always been a trigger of awareness when we talk about independence, etc. What have we got? What are the nation’s resources? A lot of parallels were drawn from my other country, Norway – it got its independence fairly late, in 1905, and once the oil was discovered in the 1960s it contributed to the transformation of my country and my culture.
We discovered a lot of parallels and we decided to do a project about that. At the time of doing the research and development phase, the theatre unfortunately had to close due to financial difficulties of the owners of the site, and the inability to attract more funding to support the running of it. Also, as Brexit came into force, a lot of our projects which had been financed through EU partnership funding came to a halt. Our European partners started to pull out of long-term plans and projects: they didn’t want to invest in something that was so uncertain and with the UK pulling out of the EU, and the uncertainties that it brought – in that we had no information or knowledge about what the future would hold, many of our exciting projects just fell through. So that is how Gwyn (my partner) and I came to set up our own company and apply for funding from the Arts Council of Wales to try to realise some of the projects we were passionate about. Luckily the Arts Council was supportive of our new venture and we got some funding to begin an R&D (Research and Development) phase to develop ”Water Wars” with our friend and colleague Ian, and a few wonderful actors.
So in a way the Corona pandemic and Brexit triggered the activity of your production company.
They certainly did, as always crisis can have many facets and sometimes it can trigger positive action, ways to find new solutions and avenues, which it did for us in this instance – together with our own research on how we could continue all those wonderful projects we had been engaged in. We talked a lot with colleagues and friends; Tanja and John (artists Tanja Råman and John Collingswood, cofounders of TaikaBox – TaikaTalk) and other people who had set up their own companies in the arts sector. People were really supportive and helpful and we received a lot of sound advice and made a decision to go ahead with our venture. In the constitution of our company there is a desire and an intention to be a vehicle for other artists and their ideas – we wanted to support those artists whom we admire and enjoy working with. Through our company we found a way to apply for larger sums of money, to be able to produce and tour work.
The other issue that was important to us was to be a supportive partner and not wanting to criticise what other – perhaps larger – companies do, particularly national companies who receive a lot of funding, yet sometimes seem to forget their responsibility towards artists. We believe in the care and respect for people, and being a good listener to other people’s ideas. We also believe in working in democratic ways and giving everyone a voice. We are both older artists now (but hopefully not boring), Gwyn and I (smiles) remember fondly the glorious times of political art in the 1980s, particularly in Wales and the UK. Maybe this is partly why we were both drawn to the arts in the first place – because back then it was about the things that we cared about, felt passionately about, and about issues that were important to the world and that were central to the lives of people. So we wanted our company to deal with subject matters that were important and central to people’s lives today. Hence ”Water Wars” became our first full production. We have lived with this project for five years now, and it all started with a strong text by Ian (although I come from dance I have always enjoyed working with text and translation). We’ve always said that a good product will come down to a good script, and a good story. You’ve got to believe in the words. Gwyn always says: ”I’ve got to really be convinced, believe it when my character says this”. Personally I am into the naturalistic way to try not to dance, try not to act, which is the hardest thing – when a choreographer turns to you and says ”Try not to dance!” (laughs). But then you can become convincing, with any art form – just don’t try too hard…
What is your relationship between the balance of words and dance convincing audiences and other artists?
I have a great love of language and languages, of words written and spoken. When I wanted to be a dancer, everyone around me including my parents and my teachers were aware of what they thought was a great ear for language in me: ”That’s what you should be studying because you are so good at it!” they all said, and that is exactly why I didn’t want to study languages at the time, as it came too easy. However, dance is the first place for me, and I had this urge to learn more, to study it, and it was difficult, but I have always relished a challenge, so I went ahead, really without anyone’s blessing, as I was entering into unchartered territory, an unknown field of study, that they nor me knew anything about. But I felt strongly that the body comes first, before the words – in an individual and in all human civilisation, the dance was the first art that appeared, in my perspective. I was recently working with a choreographer who was studying ancient rock carvings in the arctic for a new project. He and many others are convinced that the symbol often interpreted as a shield or the moon or the sun is actually a drum, and that figures with their arms raised are dancing.
Moving to Wales and entering into the Welsh dance scene about thirty years ago, I discovered that there was a trend or rather even a need for Welsh choreographers to use the Welsh language in their work in one way or another. I was fascinated by this, so early on in my career to discover that you didn’t really have to choose between words and movement anymore, the two could coincide in perfect harmony or even disharmony. This gave me a lot of freedom in how I made my creative choices and developed my own practice.
Why do you think there was the need to bring in the words to the body of language?
I wonder whether it could be something to do with coming from a culture where the language has been deeply oppressed. Then it happens naturally, that you would want to express also with words, perhaps words that have been lost… I have had lots of conversations around these themes as I often asked the artists these questions. In any case, this sounds like a great topic for a whole seminar with guest speakers! We could explore this more deeply, and it would be interesting to see parallels with other indigenous cultures which were going through similar oppressions as these in Wales.
The other thing – bringing words into my art-making was also to do with the fact that ballet is silent.
I felt very silenced and restricted by the first bit of formal dance that I learned. Like many ballet dancers, I was actually quite afraid of my own voice. It had never been encouraged! Imagine: you go to ballet classes and you spend hours every week not speaking at all! I was very unconfident and not a very good ballet dancer. So I’d be at the back of the lesson being silent. It was pretty girls that did ballet, and I didn’t feel like one of them, it was also difficult to face the pressure of focusing on how the body looked, spending my whole life looking at myself in the mirror, comparing myself to others, perfecting my technique. It was also very opposite to how I was being brought up – in a feminist era being a teenager in the 1970-s when Norway went through two decades of positive discrimination for women, especially in education. So it was ironic that I chose to engage in an art form that was very much about pretty girls (not so much any longer, thankfully it has changed since then, at least I hope so) (smiles). Why was I swept away by this? I don’t really know. I don’t think it was the pink tutu, it wasn’t about the fairytale image of ballet, I think. It was much more earthy than that, more about the sensation of joy in the moving body, being able to defy gravity, to fly through the air…
Why and how did you quit ballet then? How did you return to your more organic feeling of yourself?
I went through the whole ballet phase absorbing the classical ballet tradition, but I was very frustrated by all the restrictions I felt, and by the discipline imposed on me and on bodies in general. After three years of classical ballet training I actually wanted to throw away everything I’d learnt – I felt that I had got lost somewhere along the way. I felt that the discipline of it all had killed any natural joy that I had had in dance and somehow lost my own creativity. I needed to get back to the core of what dance had meant to me early on in my life.
I found a lot of that coming back through teaching. I very often found that the organic response through the non-trained bodies – their movement was more honest and genuine so I was able to find this honest body language back for myself also. And then I could somehow transport this by working with ”professional” dancers as well. The biggest joy for me has been to have students. I never imagined that I would come full circle at a young age as a teacher, and experience the delight of getting positive and reaffirming feedback from former students…
It was quite revolutionary some thirty years ago to start working with what was called or labelled community dance. But it was also a struggle as many people in the profession didn’t think of it as ”proper dancing”. Thankfully the UK and Wales were very early and pioneered that movement, and that particular way of thinking. I started working with the community long before there was a name for this way of working. It was born out of a genuine need and wish to share my joy of dancing and what I had discovered with as many people as possible. I moved to a part of Wales which was very rural and very sparsely populated. So I just had to go and find people: is there anybody here who would like to dance? I just had to work with whichever bodies turned up and whoever was willing! (laughs)
Now community dance has evolved and many more people work this way. Now I see that it is really reaching out, getting broader and broader, and more and more inclusive by the day, we have really reached somewhere with our art form, and it makes me very proud to have been a part of this development. I am happy I fought for dance’s place in society and have been very privileged and very lucky to see and be a part of that evolving. The evolution happened also in classical dance, the whole restriction thing being rethought and embracing working with other, ”not-traditional-ballet” bodies (whatever they are). Can you imagine there were times when you never saw black bodies in ballet?! Then they weren’t allowing different ethnic groups on stage, which was tragic and totally non-representative of our society. All that is changing for the better. There are some very brave new artists working hard to change these perspectives. This is wonderful.
You were exploring the balance between words and dance, and you chose dance. And when quitting ballet you were ”coming back” to yourself in dance. What exactly were you coming back to? What is dance’s magic you’ve been teaching your students?
You normally take dancing for granted, as it’s just a thing you do. The magic of it to me is that I get totally lost in it. It probably takes me back to my earliest memory of movement. That is one of the things I ask students in a class – not even to remember, but to conjure up the first physical memories of their body.
We’re often told by parents and adults in general what was the first word we spoke, or something funny that we used to say as toddlers, and very often that word becomes part of that family’s vocabulary and they start saying that word in a wrong ”toddler-ish” way. I still believe the movement comes first, but we don’t talk about that as much!
My own physical memory is just running through a field of tall grass while they were haymaking, and there were those long fences where they would dry the hay. I had the sense of complete freedom and being at one with that field of rows and rows of hay… I don’t share it straight away when I teach, I always wait to hear what others have to say first in order not to influence a particular train of thought… But I always recognise the feelings of memories others describe. And I know the place where that freedom and joy and pure wildness exists – in dance. I work very much with that early physical memory to try and find the genuine place of movement that is not conscious, but pure.
My first movement memory appeared… Hard not to love the concept of how the first movement is discriminated against the first word. After all, the first thing we expect from the baby is to move, not speak. So I fell down, as my mother told me, when I was somewhat not too far away from having hit the landmark of half a year, I fell down from the sofa to the floor after having tried to reach a thing. My favourite movement, however, had the same aesthetics you had in the field. I had a thing with swings. It was something I loved to do for hours. In a way I recreated that feeling of falling and enhanced it with flying up. So the swings give the feeling of safety with that illusion of being able to fly.
In your case I would work with the swing and the weightlessness and the falling, so that you would have felt one with that movement again… The feeling of being weightless is something I usually hear from students as the first body memory. My starting point as a teacher is finding that first sense of joy of moving the body. That’s not necessarily about dance, and very often it’s to do with speed and motion, the first sense you recognise is having the power in your body.
Take your fall which is about gravity – for me it’s defeating gravity perhaps, in a sense of moving up…
When I was a little dancer, my chosen sport was swimming. For me it was attractive because it was something to do with repetitive movement, and rhythm, and I love it because I feel it does something to your brain, somehow everything just settles. When I was a swimmer, other people would ask me if it was boring to go up and down in the pool that much. My answer was that it was not boring at all, that it isn’t just about up and down, but that it is also about going through different zones where you also find that same weightlessness I talked about earlier.
As a teacher, did you have to encourage young people who chose dance as a profession to fight for the right to do so? Has it changed throughout the years? You have been teaching dance for years and must have been witnessing the struggle people often have when choosing to be an artist: no support from their families, suggestions to go and find a ”proper job”.
After the COVID experience of multiple lockdowns one can see that our artistic path and the choice of it hasn’t got much value in our society. It is the first thing to be cut or cancelled when times are hard, this was a tough realisation for many of us working in the arts, it confirmed something we kind of knew deep down, but that we always fought against. Artists have been surviving, realising they are not needed, mental health issues surfacing in our industry – it’s been so tough and we’ve been marginalised! We really have to sit up and vocalise the value and importance of art in our society much more loudly once again.
I remember my parents, both teachers, having been supportive of my creativity development, but they were terrified once they knew I was into art, and wanted to make it my living. A professional dancer was someone only seen on television. It was the most remote thing you could have become – apart from an astronaut – but even being in space seemed more realistic! Saying you want to be a professional dancer sounded more extreme than saying ”I want to go to the Moon”. Wanting to dance was my big secret until I was eighteen. ”Oh goodness, what have we done!, – my parents later confessed having thought back then, – We’ve put ideas into this girl’s head, we’ve let her live her dreams, we’ve really catered for playful childhood, and what is happening to her now!” When I went off to London to audition for dance schools, they were full of terror which they never expressed at the time thankfully, but they have since confessed to how it felt for them waving their eldest off with a one-way ticket to the unknown.
So when I teach, it is always important for me to encourage finding and developing your unique voice. I never had creating professional dancers in mind, but rather tried to stimulate creativity and finding the sense of joy in dance. I just happen to have inspired a few wonderful people who decided to pursue dance as a career. It was not just pure talent that was required though! There were other qualities such as perseverance, empathy, kindness to both yourself and others. And having a greater understanding of life and the universe. These qualities help you become an intelligent dancer and a better human being in every aspect. For me it was never about pursuing dance as entertainment, but about realising what it means – to choose to be a dancer. And what responsibility being an artist carries…
I could use Cai’s story illustrate (Cai Tomos, Welsh choreographer, dance artist and dance therapist – TaikaTalk). I was his first dance teacher and we have since become close friends and colleagues. I remember him coming to college as a sixteen year-old and having a very obvious talent in all the performing art forms. It was a two year performing arts course. The leader of our course could see me watching Cai and seeing what I could see, and she said to me: ”Don’t you dare encourage him – we must give him room to pursue any which direction here!” He was good at acting, he was good at playing music, he was good at composing and he was good at dancing. ”Give him time, don’t make him your little dancer”, – she said and she was absolutely right! She taught me a lot about allowing someone space to find their own voice – that is a part of encouragement, and the way to stimulate and encourage talent.
We all saw how good Cai was in everything he did. I saw a particular spark in dance. We did a whole year of dancing together, and when I returned from a short half a term maternity leave with my second child Cai had missed the dancing so much, he approached me eagerly and stuttered: ”Do you think maybe I could train in dance, perhaps?..” And I just said: “Yes! You MUST, it is clearly your passion and your calling”. And he hasn’t looked back, I think…
I wanted to encourage the development of dancers to be functional people. I wanted dancers to dare to ask questions. To be brave. To find their place in life which doesn’t necessarily follow society’s norms. Three of our four children have gone into the arts which terrifies us as parents – just as perhaps it had terrified my parents. We know how hard this chosen path is, but if I, through my teaching and my parenting, have managed to encourage finding your own individual voice and to be brave and follow your dream, then I will be happy. If I have, I will be very content and very proud. Only time will tell I guess. My children can turn around at any time and tell me I got it all wrong (laughs)!
Many of my pupils who have not pursued art as their career – I meet them around a lot as well, go wild swimming with one of them and regularly meet in a pub with another (smiles) – also return to me in a very generous, open and honest way, telling me how important the dancing was for them, but also how it has helped form them to become who they are today, even if they are not performers, it has still been a very important part of their development as people. I thank them for their wisdom and generosity and I have learnt so much in return. That is the beauty of teaching.
I have a belief that we can all be artists. We all have creative potential within us. But it is not for everyone to pursue it as a career. I do wonder if the key quality one has to have to be an artist is perseverance, or the stubbornness that I observe in many young children. I understand then that these parents are finding this stubbornness difficult, but if stubbornness is challenged, it will see that person through. They will achieve whatever they want to achieve. It is about channeling skills and personality traits that could even be seen as negative into something positive.
You mentioned responsibility of art and have been sticking to one throughout your career – by showing responsibility towards ecological crisis, oppression of the national languages, feminism, body positivity, etc. Have you felt as an outsider with this approach? Has it been changing much through time among the artists, are they driven more and more towards social and political awareness nowadays?
Yes, very much so. I noticed through both the dancing and our production company that most things that are being produced now or spoken out or just discussed in all the layers of art-making have been having more and more engagement with communities we wouldn’t have been engaging with before, and we don’t have to go to a conference to meet the communities, art has built a bridge towards them. I also see either a strong political angle in contemporary art making, or environmental, or even both.
Artists are often the people who have a finger on the pulse. They often notice the change in society long before others do or catch on. That is how they feel the sense of responsibility to talk about the things we will be concerned about in time. I am not sure that audiences crave this kind of work, and I’m not sure if this kind of work is actually craved for by the makers of art. It’s really interesting to take the pressure off us to think about what the audience wants… The audience might not always know what it wants. How can they know if they haven’t seen it before? How can you know if there’s no choice of knowing? It’s a bit like a sweet shop. We must offer our audiences lots of new tastes, like in a buffet – in order to invite them to ask us bravely. But first we must offer them different choices.
Maybe some time will pass before we can reflect on the current hardships of life. I also believe that it must be possible to engage with serious issues and still make exciting theatre and art. I don’t think you have to choose, but rather it’s possible to make entertainment about very serious issues. And people are reaching out. Maybe it is a new age for us?
”Water Wars” wasn’t supposed to be a book, and normally Arts Council of Wales wouldn’t support publication of a book. But when we couldn’t put on the play due to COVID I reached out to them and they gave me absolute freedom, and said ”Go ahead! Do whatever you like”. (laughs) With COVID all the rules changed, and it was important to share this play with the public as it was so immediate and so pertinent to the times we were living through. On the one hand, we couldn’t go on tour with a play that we’d worked on for so long. On the other, we have a book published and art prints designed and done, ready to take with us on tour when we finally stage the play in the (hopefully) not too distant future. It makes me wonder about the power of taking away pressure – the deadlines and the restrictions – so that you make what you want… Can’t we trust artists to make what they want? I think the ”Water Wars” outcome proves that it can be better when taking the pressure off.
Maybe the no-pressure element was something I tried to create in my dance teacher career… That in this room I want you to feel so safe, that you can have space to explore all the things to find your voice…
Then you seem to get the real, after taking the pressure off – then you get pure commitment, the ones volunteers have, when you do something not because you have to, but because you can’t help but doing that.
I love that recipe for the real and the honest! When the reason for doing does not come from external things, but from a desire within.
You have organised Pina Bausch’s “Nelken Line” with dancers in a unique way: they were going through a beautiful old cemetery to the music of Louis Armstrong. The Llan Dance group consists of people at the age of 50 and more, and their dance at the cemetery provided an amazing emotional effect. As they danced, smiling, they seemed to be fearless and full of pride. It makes this performance truly outstanding in the long list of Nelken Line versions created around the world. How did you choose such concept and what is your most favourite legacy of this performance? It is one of the beautiful examples of your accepting the non-professional bodies. And the whole art dancing around on what seemed a graveyard to the old cultural systems, finding new ways to bring smiles.
I’ll be sure to pass these wonderful comments to all those beautiful people! They made it happen. It is such an interesting group of people, one is of them is a local doctor, another is a potter, a couple of them are teachers, one couple is retired, one is an x-ray nurse, another is a dental nurse… They all got in touch with me and said that there was a whole group of them who loved dancing. I was there for them and instantly started doing what I normally do – I sneakily started to introduce to them something they said they weren’t really interested in – like creative dance and improvisation stuff. But I lured them into it gradually – we had a lot of fun!
Then the Nelken Line project started online, suggesting that people around the world do their own versions of the famous Pina Bausch’s piece – her foundation was inviting people to submit their own film versions. It triggered an old memory in me. I trained in Germany in the mid 1980s and was invited to do the Summer School with Pina Bausch. Back then I didn’t even know who she was. And then I met her – she was an extraordinary woman and had the aura of power! She had just created the first Nelken Line piece I think.
I suggested that Llan Dance (the name of the group is taken from the name of the village) should do their own version of the Nelken Line and they got all excited about that and really wanted to do it, so I started to teach them the movements and the gestures. Their first suggestion was that they all walk on an old railway line on the outskirts of the village, we just knew it would be beautiful. Then we talked about whether dance always has to be beautiful and be performed in a beautiful setting.
How about finding a different view that nobody’s noted before? Because somebody put a picnic bench in another place, doesn’t mean one shouldn’t look around. I was working with an artist and sculptor many years ago who taught me that: ”You need to find the other view that they won’t notice and put a piece of sculpture there to draw their eye to a different place than the one with the familiar view”. So I questioned the group about this and they came up with the idea of the local church yard, walking through the slate gravestones (which are iconically Welsh and of the local stone).
The slate gravestones are quite a strong image I think. The jazz music gave us a slight New Orleansy funeral feeling… It was an allusion to the Welsh funerals which are a very big thing in our community. If you are in a hurry in Wales and you end up behind a Welsh funeral, you’ve got no chance, you have to just wait patiently in your car. My partner Gwyn tells me that when a small nation with a small population loses one of its own, it’s important to show your respect.
So we danced through the cemetery in the spirit of Pina. This is my little ode to her, to thank her for that tiny slither of time that I was able to have with her as a young dancer that probably imprinted itself on me and made me the teacher that I later became. I think she’d approve of what we did with our Nelken Line, at least I hope so.
For the non-dancers of Llan it all felt fearful and huge. I’ve learnt something which makes me always go and seek things that I find uncomfortable – such as going to a singing workshop, for example. I have to remind myself that’s what I ask of people when I work in a room with them choreographing and I say: ”Now we just do this, it’s easy”. I have to remember that for so many people that is very frightening.
I must confess that I am not used to being asked about my artistic practice because I’ve ended up being drawn to the world of dance and art very much as an administrator these days. At some point I started helping people with funding applications. Somebody said: ”You’re so good at it”. And I answered: ”I don’t want to be good at applications! I just want to do my art!”
We have four children in our family, and my eldest is now in academia doing an MA in Comparative European Cultural Studies in Amsterdam. He sometimes tells me how much he also misses making and doing – as he was also a good artist, a good maker. I remind him: ”You’re doing it in your head now and you’re using other ways to be creative, through your thinking and your writing”. We talk a lot about why we separate: the arts’ administration and academia and the art making. I also have wonderful conversations about art with my youngest who trained in contemporary performance and visual art, she has really forged a new path for herself, where she is preoccupied with making the divides between the various disciplines more blurred, she uses everything to make her own work, and I also relish my conversations with her. It’s a delight to have adult children you can learn things from. It’s that coming full circle again.
After finishing the interview I am going to make some bread (smiles). This is also my art. I am living and breathing it.
Siri Wigdel was chatting online with Lölä Vlasenko