dance Interview with Liliana Barros

The dance performance GROTTO is a fascinating study on the similarities and differences between human and animal behaviour. The Portuguese choreographer tells Thierry Somers, editor of 200%, how the dancers are going beyond the bodily form as we know it.

I must confess that I watched the matinee performance of GROTTO and was so completely mesmerised by it that I also attended the evening one. I was transfixed by how the dancers transformed themselves into animals and how they mimicked their movements and behaviour. For instance, when they scuttle sideways on their hands and feet like crabs on a beach or when they form into a group with the female dancers climbing over the bodies of the male dancers like a pride of lions. Or, when a male and female dancer circling each other on their hands and feet stare poignantly in a sort of mating ritual. 

GROTTO is able to communicate to its audience a true sense of what it feels to be alive. I was completely under a spell but also taken aback about how I went somehow deep in myself and felt feelings that are usually assigned as characteristics of primal animal behaviour such as territoriality, impulsivity and survivorship. But also characteristics assigned to human beings such as the need to be loved, to connect and to belong. I also felt excitement and a state of alertness of not knowing what is going to happen next.

200%: This was the world premiere of GROTTO. Could you tell me what is the genesis of a new dance performance? Does it start with a narrative, a feeling, a dance sequence, the music?
Liliana Barros: Each process is a new and different one. In most commissioned work I have full artistic freedom which allows me to construct a world of its own. I let myself be inspired from different sources and other art forms as well. It’s something very instinctive and impulsive like a little seed of a world to become.

I hardly start with music and prefer abstraction to narrative. I like to go into the studio by myself and start researching the physical aspect of the choreography and imagery before starting working with the dancers on the creation, but I hardly set any material beforehand.

I need to picture a sort of scenario, a state, and from there on the search begins. The pictures start getting clearer in my head as the process develops, like pieces of puzzle coming together. Then I know I’m on the way to unveil what is already there.

200%: What were your ideas for the music of GROTTO and could you talk about the creative process of your collaboration with the composer Martin Mitterstieler?
LB: For GROTTO, as well as for other creations, I start by collecting keywords that can relate to texture, atmosphere, colours, to provide for the world I want to create into. After sharing this with Martin, we start looking for the qualities of the sounds and samples we need in order to prepare some first sketches for the beginning of the creation in the studio with the dancers. There has to be some openness as we move forward as I prefer not to choreograph to something already set and composed but rather keep it open to what’s being created. Many times I need to change strategy for various reasons and so does the music composition. We keep this dialogue throughout the creation. GROTTO is our sixth collaboration and we navigate our ways together better and better.

200%: Did you select the dancers of NDT2 for the performance yourself?
LB: The selection was made by the company. It was a perfect match.

200%: A football coach can have a clear vision of how he wants his team to play but in order to be successful they need to adapt their vision to the qualities of the players as well. Do you as a choreographer work in a similar way with your dancers?
LB: Each commission is a new encounter, a new group of individuals. Most times we meet personally on the first day and then we start right away. I take this challenge as something positive because I like to say I work with “what I have” around me. This is because it is always exciting to see how the choreographic material is going to translate in every single body. Everyone is so unique, so the choreography will be very much shaped according to how each single dancer responds to it. I love to keep this dialogue in the work, this is one of the richest interactions about this work we do in dance. Guiding the dancers towards such a specific physicality is a symbiotic experience that sometimes can take longer than others but I like to push and find new ways to give the opportunity or space for the dancers to go beyond a certain border. I learned a lot from that exchange as well.

200%: What was it like collaborating with the six dancers? How long did you rehearse? 
LB: Working with this group of NDT2 dancers was an incredible and rewarding experience. I felt super grateful to be working with such talented and inspiring artists that were completely immersed in the work from day one. We had about eighty hours in total [to rehearse] which is not so much but it really was a symbiotic and fruitful process.

200%: Did you leave room for them to improvise?
LB: Yes, there must be space for improvisation but mostly to observe their imagination and how they work with the material. But it’s a give and take, and I compose the choreography very much on the spot.

200%: In developing the work the dancers were shown images of mutated animals. One of the dancers, Nick Daniels, even drew inspiration from footage he watched of a crab rediscovering how to walk again after amputating its own limb. Was it your idea for the dancers to draw inspiration from animalistic behaviour?
LB: It really is about feeding the imagination and going beyond the bodily form as we know it. I wanted to persist in the idea of hybrids, symbiosis and transformation, keywords that can open worlds where forms have no separations between animals, humans and other living or material forms.

200%: What were your ideas behind the costumes you designed for the dancers?
LB: The costumes allow the purity, the archeology of the body to be the  focus. I needed nothing more.

200%: Did you want the choreography of GROTTO to be sensual and sultry?
LB: Not really. It also came out with those qualities and characteristics.

200%: Do you seek to express your view on mankind in your choreographies?
LB: Not purposely. I’m only interested in creating and expressing through ways I know. But my experience and my imagination are not disconnected from the world we live in.

200%: The programme was announced as ‘Up & Coming Choreographers’. Have you got any idea where you want to be in 10 years?
LB: The world is quite unpredictable…

200%: Could you share a little about the next choreography you’re currently working on?
LB: I will be creating a new work for the dance company at Staatstheater Kassel in Germany, Tanz.Kassel. We’ll be working on the “sleeping beauty” theme. The theme for this new commission is this time a proposition from the artistic director, one I embrace with great enthusiasm and excitement. The premiere will be on 22th of October.

Interview conducted by Thierry Somers. Photos: Joris-Jan Bos 
Netherlands Dance Theater, GROTTO. Choreography: Liliana Barros