We continue our ongoing interview series with choreographers by turning the spotlight on Björn Säfsten, one of the frontrunners in Swedish contemporary dance. We first encountered his work back in 2013 and have seen it several times since, most recently in And so we're gone which recently premiered at Dansens Hus c/o Elverket. "I strongly believe that it’s impossible to choreograph a person 100%. A big chunk of what you see unfold in a body is the composite of previous choreographies, training, past experiences and so on." he tells us on the topic of working with dancers.
Performers: Philip Berlin, Madeleine Lindh, Jade Stenhuijs, And so we're gone, Dansens Hus c/o Elverket, 2023, ph: Märta Thisner
C-P: Run me through the working process of your latest work And so we’re gone that I recently had the pleasure of seeing at Dansens Hus c/o Elverket in Stockholm?
B.S: Well, it actually started with my midlife crisis. I turned 40 a few years ago and these last years I have felt that my relation to time has changed quite a bit. Someone told me that neurologically it’s first in our 40's that we can feel that time is not endless and that's exactly what happened to me. I started to feel time passing in a different way. Not necessarily faster or slower, but I started to sense time as this non-stopping movement that I have absolutely no agency over. I started to think about what actually remains in someone, or in me, when it’s all over?
If it would be possible to distillate or getting a file with a life compressed down into 5 min, what would it show? Feel? Embody? My question entering the process was if I could somehow catch this state or these feelings. The ”on-goingness”, the anxiety it produces, the release and contemplation it holds, but also this compressed life or those moments in life when time seems to stop - moments of intense emotional outbursts, wonderful or traumatic, the entire emotional register somehow.
In this process I chose to work with two quite different choreographic practices; one where "the ongoing" is addressed and another which examines fragment images, subjects and situations. The first one, the marching that you saw in the piece is very much inspired by minimalist composition and early Bauhaus ideas on choreography, taking on simple geometric forms to create movement patterns. I then chose to place different time signatures on top of each other. But it creates a certain mathematics that could go on forever and that makes various effects occur. Not because I chose to design them in a certain way, but rather what the mathematics creates when different equations fall in and out of each other. In and out of unison, canon etc. This sounds extremely abstract, but when you see it, it’s fairly concrete. I knew I wanted to start with a square and over the duration of the piece move closer and closer to a circle. I had this idea of the piece going from a compressed tension towards a release, a place of letting go or drifting away. As a metaphor perhaps of both my sense of time and also my desire of what meeting the end might be like. Even from an early age, I've had this sense that it must be such a relief to let go of consciousness.
The second practice is a completely new one for me and is still in its early stages. This practice created all the solo and duo materials that you saw on stage. We started this practice by copying a number of clips that each dancer had on their most used social media app. They basically learned 10-15 clips by heart as accurately as they could and then I had 6 different methods in how to chop up, smear, de-construct and transform these materials, images and emotions to create a kind of a flickering gestural dance with many contrasting directions, desires and imagery.
Performers: Philip Berlin (above), Pär Andersson (below), And so we're gone, Dansens Hus c/o Elverket, 2023, ph: Märta Thisner
C-P: Very interesting. How do you generally work with dancers? The cast (ed's note: Pär Andersson, Philip Berlin, Madeleine Lindh and Jade Stenhuijs) was fantastic by the way. The dancers were really a joy to watch on stage. It felt like they brought a lot of “themselves” into the work.
B.S: I'm happy to hear that! Yes, they are fantastic! I’m really blessed to be working with them. It’s a close collaboration and we worked really hard, but also had a ton of fun. I always work with improvisation and my main work is to coach the dancers into the suggested movement language. I record the entire process and then edit the moments that I feel are suitable for the piece and the topic. The dancers then get these edited clips to study their own movements. From there we start to manipulate the material until it eventually becomes the dance you see on stage.
I would say you always see a lot of the dancers' own personalities in my pieces, actually in all pieces. I strongly believe that it’s impossible to choreograph a person 100%. A big chunk of what you see unfold in a body is the composite of previous choreographies, training, past experiences and so on.
Performers: Madeleine Lindh, Jade Stenhuijs, And so we're gone, Dansens Hus c/o Elverket, 2023, ph: Märta Thisner
C-P: Who might be some of your recurring collaborators? I’m assuming you’ve amassed a few over the years.
B.S: Quite a few, yes. For example Susanna Hedin who made the lighting for this last work. This was the tenth performance we worked on together and with the composer Hans Appelkvist it was our third. For instance, I have worked really a lot with two dancers, Sophie Augot and Anja Arnquist, and built most of my work together with them. I also worked for more than 10 years with another great composer; Victor Saiz. The list could be made very long but what’s important to say is that it’s always a precious teamwork. My biggest talent is that I’m quite good in convincing great people to work with me. I couldn’t do the work I do without a close and intimate work relationships with the dancers. I see it as an act of braiding; braiding choreography and dance together and it’s impossible for me to do alone.
C-P: Let’s rewind a little for a moment. The first time I saw a work of yours was back in 2013 with
Fictional Copies at that dance festival at Moderna Museet and ArkDes which sadly never saw daylight again. I vividly remember a very cinematic scene for which Rihanna’s superhit Stay served as a score. I think that work ignited my interest in dance there and then so thank you for that. What are some other past experiences of presenting choreography-based work within the contemporary art realm that comes to mind? I’ve heard of a stint at Magasin III (Performanceexhibition, 2011) that I sadly missed.
B.S: It makes me so happy to hear that Fictional Copies stayed with you. No pun intended. Jokes aside, Magasin III has contributed quite a lot by presenting Tino Sehgal for example, and other important figures in the contemporary dance scene but that perhaps the traditional dance institutions haven't embraced fully. Moderna Museet has a long tradition of presenting contemporary dance but it feels like it has slowed down quite a bit, no? Bonniers Konsthall has also shown quite a lot over the years, probably many other places that I’ve missed. From an international perspective the visual art scene in Sweden seems less invested in contemporary and post-modern dance than many similar institutions internationally. I've never really understood why, do you? For me there are many links to explore here.
Performer: Oskar Landström, Fictional Copies, ArkDes, 2013, Ph: Nicklas Dennermalm
C-P: Totally. On that note, we chatted a while ago about how different the dance scene is from the one I’m a part of, namely visual arts. In many ways there are obvious overlaps, yet I often feel that there’s a gap in terms of audience. Why do you think that is? Also, feel free to share a few words on how you find the collaborative aspect within the dance field, both between peers and institutions. Speaking on behalf of the visual arts, I can see a slow change finally happening with major institutions stretching out to each other in a way I didn't see some years ago.
B.S: My feeling is that arts institutions in Sweden, both in visual arts and dance, have failed to show how connected our fields are and that we share a common history. My impression is that the audience doesn’t know how various movements in art history has played out for example in visual arts compared to choreographic work. My guess is that the audience doesn’t see the connections because the institutions have failed to highlight them. If someone would make an exhibition on say a certain visual artist that works in a minimalist tradition, why not connect it with minimalist choreography or music? I think there’s a lot to gain for the audience to see how similar concepts are embraced in different artistic expressions. From my point of view it could make the statements and values of different art movements even easier to grasp. Somehow I think it’s a missed opportunity… Regarding the collaborative aspect, I think we’re quite good in creating fruitful collaborations, parties etc. because there’s very little money in general so we basically have to.
Also, and perhaps foremost, because it’s a collective art form. From how we are trained to how the educational programs look and how the field is organized. Neither is it possible to write down our collective knowledge. It’s within us and in order to share our knowledge, we have to meet and dance together.
Portraits of Björn Säfsten, ph: Chrisander Brun
C-P: From my point of view, you are one of the local frontrunners with several years of experience from various institutions and roles; as a dancer, choreographer, festival organizer, moderator and so on. What’s your take on the local dance scene in relation to what’s going on internationally?
B.S: Hmm, that’s a great and quite tricky question. Especially in this very moment. I’ve been working for over 20 years with this scene and there has been periods where there’s been more of a strong paradigm to join or to resist. But for the last 8 years or so, the scene has expanded and gotten more diverse. That’s great but it also makes it hard to conclude exactly what’s going on at the moment. Also several institutions with their own ensembles are increasingly making more contemporary work so the difference between the independent scene and the institutional scene has also lessened. I think we are somehow at a crossroad where people in general are wondering what will be the next movement or what direction things are heading.
Performers: Sophie Augot, Marianne Kjaersund, Alexander Gottfarb, Lost Night, MDT, 2022, ph: Märta Thisner
Within Practice, Eric Ericssonhallen, 2018, ph: Nemo Stocklassa Hinders
C-P: Also, tell me a little about Within Practice, a biannual festival that you last presented at MDT as part of Lustholmen?
B.S: Within Practice is a festival that I have been running since 2018 in close collaboration with Stockholm University of the Arts (SKH) and MDT and the last years curated together with Anna Efraimsson. We attempt to place the heart of the artistic work; the practice, the doing at the center of the festival instead of presenting finished work as most dance festivals tend to do. So it’s a festival where we invite choreographers and dancers to show and talk about how they work through practice presentations, workshops, conversation, concerts etc. I want it to be a place where the audience can get several different entry points into how contemporary dance is made and why. It’s also a hub for the Swedish contemporary dance scene to meet, dance and talk about what’s on the rise when it comes to the manyfold of artistic practices that we see today.
C-P: Lastly, with the year about to end, what might be coming up for you next year? For myself, before anything, I’m very much looking forward to some much-needed rest.
B.S: Oh, I truly need some rest as well. Next year I will tour quite a bit. And so we´re gone is going to Gothenburg, Lost Night a piece made 2021 will be performed in Vienna and I själva verket, a solo that we haven't touched on here, made together with Anja Arnquist, will keep touring quite a bit during the spring and early fall around Sweden. Then the first week of October we will organize the fourth edition of Within Practice. That is super exciting to me. So 2024 will essentially be a year of meeting the audience with several different works and traveling and touring around. I'm stoked.
Image credit front page: Joakim Nyström
For more info about Björn's practice, please visit: www.bjorn-safsten.com