Stephanie Felber is a choreographer based in Munich. Her work focuses on multimedia productions that experiment with spaces and enter into an open dialogue with the audience. Stephanie graduated in 2008 from The Iwanson International School of Contemporary Dance in Munich and went on to study photography and cinematography. Since 2015 she has been expanding her choreographic practice to include multimedia, public spaces, audience interactivity, cinematography and 360° installation.
Stephanie was part of Oulu Dance Hack 22 and has recently been working with TaikaBox on research into the Connected Studio System.
Within your research „Intertwined“ about what it means to dance with other artists in a telemetric space (funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media within the framework of the initiative NEUSTART KULTUR, aid programm DIS-TANZEN by the Dachverband Tanz Deutschland), you held a workshop with TaikaBox, held a workshop with TaikaBox, trying out their Connected Studio System in Münich while your counterparts were in Oulu. How did it go?
The workshop was fantastic! Everybody that attended the workshop came with openness to explore and experiment together. It was wonderful to share, what is possible beyond the (more well-known) world of hybrid video-dance. We opened up curiosity to a probably endless research about and awareness of choreographing for live dance, video dance and stage composition. Additionally, we addressed the special attention that is required from a performer to be aware of these three layers: the duet with your digital sparring partner, the actual space that you are in and the presence of the audience in space and in the digital room. And beyond of this three layers, there is the interaction with the “digital-operator”, that can give impulses or react to the dancers’ propositions… this produces a constant exchange or influence between the screen and live composition. We could also observe that this is a very playful way to generate movement for the dancers.
I definitely want to make use of the connected studio! I feel like there are still endless discoveries to be made, and it is a fantastic tool to research and explore the intersection of screen, live and stage composition within a choreography. I envision implementing a remote performance that also questions examples of how the audience and also the dancers can perceive the frame of the screen differently. In keeping with breaking the fourth wall: when does the audience feel engaged or seen? When could the camera be an active gaze? A vision would be to create holistic interactions…
In my opinion, the connected studio opens up creative ways for international artistic collaborations, explores the space between live/digital and creates many layers for interaction between the dancers, audience and technology.
Thank you for the kind words! Let’s talk about technology. We chatted about online performances and audience participation and the problems that may result.
I think it’s different ways to engage, and there’s this chat possibility – which personally I don’t like so much. But at the same time I think it’s something that lets people feel free, you know? To chat, because you can have a hidden or another name, not your name. So I think you’re more likely engaged than in the live performance where you are exhibited.
But it’s a different kind of engagement, of course, the feeling is different. What would be the perfect world?
I think, personally, that I would always choose live audience, but to have the possibility to stream another dancer in the theatre space, that would be something that I would be… It has problems, probably in another way, but it’s more easy in terms of travelling. So that’s something I think is ideal. But thinking of only digital audience? No. For sure, it’s nice to try out, but that wouldn’t be something that I would is the ideal thing or something I would look for.
Would you use a digitally streamed artist doing a live routine, as a co-artist, or a recorded layer on which you can work on?
I think to have the live performer and the video performer thinking together as a new format, so that these two things are creating a third. I don’t know how to call it, but that would be like both are either film or live, but they’re equal. It’s something to research, because we are used to making this separation, like, OK: that’s live and that’s video and they are two different things and not matching and equal. I would really like to work with holographic projection. That would interest me a lot.
If we go to the core parts, what is the essence of dance for you?
I think, expression and communication.
What if, like myself, I don’t speak the language of dance – I appreciate the fluidity and the physique and what the performer can do with it, but I don’t communicate? How do you make sure that the communication is there?
I think it’s also how you respond even if you’re not a dancer. You still have a body, you move your body and I think, I don’t know if this happened to you, but sometimes it happens to me when I watch dance – That, you know, my body is like responding. And even if I wouldn’t be able to dance in the way that I watch [someone else] dance. But this physical response, I think that’s also communication. Sometimes you train by imagining, like in sports. The jump or the move and and you don’t actually do it, but it helps you to train. So you do these kinds of things when you watch dance, or when your body is confronted with another body.
Like priming yourself to excitement when you were a child, having this tension inside you.
I think so, yes, or at least I try to, because it’s a nice thing to have, and we lose it, yes, but it’s nice to be reminded of that, and maybe we have to train ourselves to allow us to feel it.
I’m interested in hearing about the way you think about the physical dialogue between the performer and the audience.
It’s not call and response, what I work with is like a matching. So, the performer tries to match with the audience. I don’t know if it’s still a dialogue then, but it probably is a part of it.
What about the performers themselves?
I think they are in dialogue a lot. How to explain it best? We know the game rules and we have the figures, the small things you would need – we have the chess board, so to say. But we don’t know how we play in the moment, who is making which move. So this is what they have to communicate, to be alert and aware of. And this is always different in each performance, so it’s something they have to communicate a lot.
So this is what you do, the piece will not be the same?
How does that affect your work? Do you come to the conclusion you want to come to when designing, or is it something that you just want to be open for discussion?
Mostly I think, for me what I want is to have this different perspective of this particular thing, and some kind of response from the audience. But I think it’s more about the response. It can always be different, and that’s also fine, of course. Some pieces are more open to, like, “OK, we give you this and let’s see how the piece will [change]”. And sometimes the piece will come out kind of the same. But always, if you really look at it, you see the difference, and I think that’s totally that. I like to work like that because for me, it’s needed that there’s an audience. And not just sitting and watching. Yeah, audience.
Are you usually happy with the results? Or is it like; “Not what I thought at all”?
No, mostly I’m happy. It’s more about this exchange. And I think where we are precise is in creating the atmospheres. I don’t know if the audience can read that, but I think I and my team are quite aware of, or feeling responsible to, get in this atmosphere, so if we didn’t manage, then I would be unhappy.
How do you read that from an audience?
Mostly it’s how they engage, if they… You know, if the audience are wandering through the space or if they actually have the feeling of wanting to join. We once had a really nice part in a piece, where they lifted and celebrated themselves, they also celebrated in that moment.
And in one scene, the way how we moved through space, the way how certain music or sound plays… The atmosphere was of a graveyard, just how you feel, how you behave, and you could immediately see the response, and we never communicated that this would be our theme there.
When you think of dance as an art form, do you think first of the movement or do you think about the physique or the movement – aesthetics versus performance?
I’m definitely more for the performance. Of course I would lie if I said I’m not interested in aesthetics, but it’s not the main thing. I’m happy even in a dance room where there is no mirror.
But the aesthetics are also very important. It conveys something about the choreography, but not necessarily in the way you mean when you talk about communication. For instance, if you want to portray a homeless person in a dance performance, you have to think about the aesthetics to further convey the idea you’re trying to say. But dance as art is physical in communication Basically, in a very long way, I’m trying to ask you if you have ever, or how have you tried to tell a story by limiting the dancer?
I don’t know if I work like that. Probably yes, but… I mean, often I work with the dancers too, we talk a lot about the atmosphere we want to create in a space and how that requires us to move differently. There’s also technique, because of course it is good if you have one, but we are not that focused on it. You know, the warm up and the way we dance, but on stage, we work a lot with Tableau Vivant, like “living picture”. So, if there is a theme, I go through a lot of pictures, even video, but mostly still images. And then we try to, not copy them one by one, but develop our own movement from there.
We talked about the division between the performer and the audience, and the separation of them. How could you fragment the audience into the performance so it would still be comfortable to participate? I’m wondering if you just tossed a dozen dancers in a participatory flash mob in a packed station and just let them wreak havoc. How would you do that, and would it work?
Mostly I use hidden invitations [for audience participation], but maybe we are back to body communication there. Because you can invite people into the thing that you will do, and then the member of the audience can decide, “No, I’m shy, I don’t want to take part”, which for me, in a participatory piece, should always be like that. Personally, because I’m quite shy in that sense, to be an audience member in a participatory piece and getting asked it’s always like “No.” At the same time, I like [watching] participatory performances, so OK. It’s a contradiction. But yeah, I think it’s a nice moment when you feel like “Oh, I want to engage, take part in it”, and not being forced to do it. If the invitation is there and I feel totally free to engage myself it’s possible, but if I just want to be in the same space with the dancers and just watch, it’s also fine, you know?
What if you had something like a pre-registration to an event that might take place in a certain time at a certain place, and if you’re there you might get a tap on your shoulder? “Oh yeah, I signed up for this.”
I sometimes work with Komplizen – hidden performers. We have a workshop in the beginning of the research process, we invite them to the performance, and they know what we are aiming for and they help.
You have mentioned influences like Tarkovski’s Solaris and Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey for your 360° installation performance: Is a planet an enormous mountain?
Those films were the inspiration for not focusing on a specific place for the audience to watch When we got feedback from the 360 piece, the people said a lot of “Ah, but I think I missed something” because we are not yet used in film to immerse ourselves in a 360° environment. But for me it’s nice, needing to miss something and having to watch it twice or third time. And also to see how much you can have the feeling in the film, a sense of how much should you even guide the audience where to watch, you know, with shadow, sound or movement, or should you keep it free? Because I think the dialogue between these two things are quite nice.
Also, when we made the film, we tried to work with the moving of the camera, aware that it’s a gazing eye, not a camera. So we were aware that somebody would be behind the camera, watching. This is something with the 4th wall. And also to be able to work with the camera as choreography. So, I’m not so much thinking in frames.
Should we talk about spaces, how you use and design them – as world or as a performance setting?
It’s definitely creating a world. I mean, it’s always different, it always depends on the theme of the piece. It tells the way the world should look like, or even if it’s in a theatre I like to forget it’s a theatre. Mostly we look at spaces with the team inspired by movies, or sometimes we could think of a city inside a theatre, or structure the idea of a city in a theatre, so we take that particular city as inspiration.
Then, the next step is audience. Are they wandering around, are they sitting down? How should they behave? For instance, if you normally watch by leaning on a wall when you enter a space, we might try to put something in front of the wall, so it costs something to lean on the wall or it’s better not to lean on the wall at all.
So you try to disturb the conventions of participating in a performance. How does it work? What does the audience think?
I don’t know. Of course, maybe there are some people aware of it, but my belief is if it’s well done, you don’t notice. It’s the same when we go to a supermarket. It’s totally structured how we should behave. Where should we go? Where should we buy things? Yeah. So I aim for the same in the performance.
And we don’t notice it. Do you design your choreographies in this manner, so we don’t see what you are aiming at?
Most of the time, most of the time.
That sounded really confessional.
Well… Let’s say I like to play with it, definitely!
I think it’s an art in itself, telling a story that people don’t necessarily realize is the one they are being told. I love films like Usual Suspects, Sixth Sense or the Sting, where you don’t necessarily realize what’s happening before the end, if even then. Layers within layers. Is that something that you would like to do, to choreograph a performance that would somehow, with the language that we talked about, communicate something else and then reveal it in the end or just leave it to be found?
I don’t know if I do it in that way, but it’s quite nice to do it. I think for me it’s more of the theme, because I’m not necessarily telling a story. A colleague told me that she liked that I wasn’t putting my finger on a theme like, OK, you have to see it like this, or even that’s my opinion in a theme – it’s more like opening up different perspectives through interviews and a lot of talking within the team to get these different perspectives of the team layered out in the performance. I think that’s why I probably can’t fool anyone in that sense, except maybe in behaviour, how the dancer behaves during the performance.
When designing a character, or a motion, how far do you want to go with the audience? Do you want to find out if they can handle it?
I remember a piece that we worked with, civilians, patrolling, worked a lot with the changing of the guards, these things. So there were characters in security, and we dealt with insecurity. And I remember that in each show, people went out at a specific moment. And I thought, “OK, maybe they don’t like it”, which, you know, it happens. But they came back, and I was like “Oh OK that’s weird.” It happened on the premiere, and when it happened on the second show, I said to myself, “OK, I will also go out and ask this person”. So I’m like, sorry, erm, what’s going on? And she said: “It’s just too intense. I have to go out. Sorry.” So, yeah, sometimes you provoke these things without knowing. Then we knew that OK, now we have a not so nice atmosphere in the show, which we hadn’t wanted to have.
Was it emotionally hard, or was it graphic or violent?
It was just that the performance controlled even the space and gave the audience very little space to breathe. Also, we played with a lot of this drone, low frequency sound. This was something that we were going to push until a certain point, and once we had reached that point, afterwards, everyone was like, OK, relax.
Stephanie Felber was chatting online with Pasi Pirttiaho