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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Retina Dance Company

19 February 13 interview: Rachel Elderkin

The Retina dance company: bringing European sensibilities to a floor near you for nearly two decades. Artistic Director Filip Van Huffel explains why he’s made Nottingham his UK base, and plots the next steps for the local dance scene...

So how does a Belgian dancer end up running a company in Nottingham?
Back in 1995, myself and another dancer were working with Random Dance. During a break, we created a piece called Battery for a dance platform held at The Place in London. Somebody suggested forming a company, which we hadn’t considered. I wrote to a theatre in Ghent, and we were invited to make a new piece, a quartet there. We ended up with funding from Belgium and also from London Arts, and before we knew it we were a company. After conversations with people in Nottingham - Dance4, Lakeside, College Street – we moved the company up here. We chose Nottingham because it’s a vibrant, artistic kind of city, perfectly placed in the middle of the country. I like Dance4; their Nottdance festival is something with a different vision, a different approach, one that is slightly more European.

Do you think there’s still a lot of scope for the dance scene to develop here?
Definitely. There needs to be more facilities. I’m often in Belgium because there is a studio with a sprung floor and a good sound system available to work in all day and all night if I want to. If Nottingham had better facilities, more people would be interested in creating work here.

Your touring production Layers Of Skin involves the community, both local and professional dancers, participating in the places you perform...
It’s been a really positive project, particularly for the people who take part; they are experiencing from inside rather than watching. They work closely with the company dancers in creating the work and learn by doing. Layers Of Skin is a one off concept to develop an audience and combine our skills in education and creating new work. We also have RAUW, where we create site-specific work in buildings with local professionals, community dancers, kids – everyone really.

What are you currently working on?
For Corporalis, which opens in Antwerp and comes to the Playhouse on 19 February, we have been working with architects – designing an environment that’s constantly changing during the piece. In the first part, the space and lighting are static and the walls are like magnets pulling the dancer in different directions. In the duet the walls are moving, creating new spaces, with different sounds and different colours. The final part is a much bigger space, like infinity. It completes a trilogy inspired by different art forms. Eleven Stories for the Body, Distance to our Soul, which was based on eleven texts which we commissioned and This Is Not A Body was inspired by Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, where Magritte says this is just a picture, not actually a pipe.

Is it the movement itself that inspires your choreography, or is it more your concept for the work that helps you choreograph the movement?
The concept is always in the back of my mind but I make the movement very quickly. I’m not a choreographer who likes to have the concept beforehand, the concept needs to produce the movement for me. It is important to keep in the back of the mind why you are doing it. In Layers Of Skin and Corporalis every movement has a reason or a meaning that we know, but the audience will not always notice – they just see something, and it will always look different because of a different starting point.

Would you say dance is an effective way of investigating the human body and human behaviour?
I think so, yes. I find that storylines, or theatre, or films, are often restricted by their story. In dance, and in visual arts, one of the great opportunities is that you don’t have to think about the story, you can just let the movement communicate. The great thing about contemporary is that, unlike ballet or Indian for instance, there are no rules. Body posture, the way people communicate, even gesture – that is all movement which we can recreate into a dance piece. Even politicians are trained to do certain gestures to look more believable – that’s like dance as well, we can make that into dance. I think sometimes audiences try to understand what’s going on because that’s what they do, but in dance you don’t always have to do that. It doesn’t have to be literal, it can become about something new and it develops all the time. It’s accessible if they want to accept it.

Being in demand do you ever run out of ideas, or struggle to make your choreography different from previous pieces?
I don’t have any problems with new material. It’s always hard to find a structure, to make sense. Having a reason for everything – that is much harder, but no, not in terms of making up steps. I’ve had no writer’s block yet! Of course, Layers Of Skin, with the participatory element, is different every time. Only by doing it do you understand what needs to happen. Even on the day of the performance we rehearse it first and then if that doesn’t work, we change it. I get inspired – they do something and I think, that’s great, can you change it? I’m constantly impressed, so I expect more. With Antipode we did a preview, and afterwards I felt like it needed to be changed. We had a spare day and I changed about 40% of the piece.

You are also regularly commissioned to create work for other companies. Do you prefer the company environment and working with your own dancers, or do you enjoy working with new people and in new environments?
The good thing about my own company is that they know me and how I think, so you can go further. People you haven’t auditioned yourself are refreshing to work with but they can’t perform the way Retina performs, as they don’t have that physicality or history. I’ve mostly had the same dancers for the last five-six years; it’s a bit like a family.

What inspires you to just keep on creating?
I always said when the company goes to New York we would stop. When I make a new piece, even when it is finished, I still feel there is lot of unfinished territory, I don’t feel satisfied. I think that keeps me going. If one day I do feel satisfied, then maybe I’ll stop, but at the moment I don’t, so that keeps me on my toes.

Retina presents Corporalis at the Nottingham Playhouse on Tuesday 19 February.

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