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Researching power dynamics: Ofelia Jarl Ortega

It's with my partner in tow that I attend the premiere of Ofelia Jarl Ortega's Scenario. Making part of the programme of the international dance and performance festival My Wild Flag at MDT, the work is said to be a "parallel research" to another more extensive piece, Hegemony, about to premiere later in the fall and a work I will also get to see. Ofelia's name has been on my radar for a while and ahead of the fall programme at said venue, I've been told not to miss her work. "Ofelia is Ofelia. Her works are always worthwhile". Approaching her work for the very first time, my expectations are inevitably set accordingly. It's a late summer's evening and several bodies are engaging in various acts on a lawn outside the venue to what I later find out is a song by Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny. It's mesmerizing and moving in equal parts. At the end of the performance, I spot Ofelia who's also in the audience, and she's beaming with pride. Very rightfully so I think to myself leaving the site with my partner, both of us on a high.



C-P: Hello Ofelia. I know you and I have several mutual acquaintances but strangely enough, our paths have not crossed until now. I'm very excited to have this chat with you so let’s dive right into it. You graduated with an MFA in Choreography from Stockholm University of the Arts (Uniarts) in 2014. Would you like to tell us a little about your background prior to enrolling at Uniarts and also how you found your time there?


O.J.O: Looking back and identifying what’s important to say about my background I’d point to dance and music. Dance because I have my training there, and is where I situate my work. And music since it has always been important to me, both existentially and as a concrete practice of playing in bands and making music for myself. Now I can really see how music and rhythm has a major role in my work. On top of all this, growing up my dad was a percussionist and my mom a flamenco dancer.


Speaking of background, I consider myself Swedish-Chilean. My family on my mom’s side is from Santiago, Chile, and that is a big part of me - and ultimately my work. So family and friends and the queer circles I’ve been part of has equally formed me too.


I moved from Malmö to Stockholm in high school to attend The Royal Swedish Ballet School. I have a dance diploma from there, although I never really wanted to be that kind of a dancer. Instead I made works on my own, a lot of “experiments” working with friends who were musicians, visual artists, or just around… I had to figure out what existed out there, and that’s still my approach: going for the hardest things and the things I don’t know yet.


I was relatively young, 22, when I started my Masters at Uniarts in Stockholm. I was like a sponge and learned a lot while there. I had a good time, but I also struggled with feelings of not being good enough, and even though I did well, I was sure they were going to kick me out (they don’t kick people out in general). Despite this, I was determined to get the most of my time there.

I still struggle, I think I’ll always have doubts, the difference being that I'm now older (30!) and believe in myself and my work. Time has told and I now actually know from experience, which I lacked before.



C-P: In the years following graduation, it’s evident that things have taken off for you. More than once, I’ve heard people referring to you as “the darling of the local art scene”. How do you relate to things like that?


O.J.O: Wow, I get flattered by hearing this, but I have a hard time recognizing it. I can relate to “things taking off” but I also know the hard work that lies behind, and from my position being someone's darling is not the first thing I think of (or hear) in relation to my work. But I am fortunately supported by a number of institutions. It’s a tricky thing, I have a hard time trusting the support I get, but at the same time I feel I deserve a chance and a spot, like everyone else, and I tap myself on the shoulder saying “keep it up, Ofi”.


C-P: Having performed quite a bit internationally, what’s your take on the local dance scene?


O.J.O: The local scene or field for me has always consisted of friends and colleagues and since I travel a lot they are scattered. I have never thought of my work as bound to Stockholm, or any other scene for that matter, although I've felt more appreciation outside of Sweden, and more connected to contexts and my friends' work in other parts of Europe than here. Although some of them say my work looks really "Scandi", haha, but what is that really? I think healthy art scenes welcome diversity and span multiple art fields. The locality in local is perhaps more infrastructure and support (in terms of friends, love and colleagues) and that can too be a community that spans across several regions, countries, places….


Last year I decided to nourish my relations here in Stockholm, and I’m now connected to the artist-run platform höjden in Östberga, where I can contribute to the local scene by adding to this platform and community. In my work I invite peers to open rehearsals, join morning training and showings during the process, and I love when it’s reciprocated. I think in that way we can open up processes and together create the local scene we’d like to see and be part of.


In general I have an imaginary audience that I make work for, where I don’t have to explain myself, nor the work, that speaks to my imaginary audience on our level. But I also invite a real audience during the process consisting of queers and BIPOCs, that can help me think about these topics around power that I work with.

Locality is connected to where I feel at home, where I can thrive, who supports me. Loves, institutions, funding bodies, friends, family, partners, infrastructure, venues etc. I dream of living somewhere where I get to show my work more, where Stockholm is not the only option. I’d love to show my work more in Sweden. I don’t need to speculate on why I don’t, I try to be patient and show interest and do my thing.


Looking at other scenes from the perspective of a guest, friend, outsider or tourist, it usually looks great. I always think of moving to Chile. It’s my second home, but in my heart. It sounds cheesy, but there is really a half of me there. Work wise I think I’d have to give up a lot of security and comfort but that would be secondary if I just could live there. I’m really torn between these dreams, staying in Europe and working or going to Chile and becoming… happy, is not the right word since the situation there is tough, but more whole?



C-P: Even in times of Covid-19 with so many events in the arts having been either canceled or postponed, you recently premiered two new works, Scenario and Hegemony, at MDT in Stockholm, a venue where most of your recent works were either premiered or performed.


Tell me a little about working with Scenario; how did you find the experience of not performing your own work for once? Also, working with what I gathered joined more performers than in your previous works.


O.J.O: First of all, I’m so happy that I managed to present two works this fall, but mostly that I was able to work during this pandemic. We spent five weeks in Belgium before the premiere of Hegemony, and I could feel Corona lockdowns and cancellations and the risk of getting sick chasing us all the time. My solo StM was supposed to be presented earlier this year but got postponed only a few days before the show, so I know the feeling of having to cancel or postpone. Many things I had planned were canceled and some that could be postponed were, and others took new shapes out of necessity and because they could. Hopefully I get to present StM as planned at MDT in February 2021.



In my way of working, I usually have a bigger project that needs planning and bigger resources in terms of co-production and funding, longer research time, weeks of rehearsals during residencies which finally takes the shape of a stage piece that I also hope to tour. Other works are more research pieces that I work on in parallel to the “bigger” pieces. The smaller ones inform the bigger ones and can be a non-budget piece where I research and find out by doing. The smaller ones also span over time and take different shapes according to my and the work's needs. In those sibling or research works I create music that could become part of a bigger piece, I explore interests that I don’t know much about without the need to do, I allow myself another way of researching, a parallel kind of work… Hegemony is an example of a bigger piece and I’d say Scenario is a smaller sibling piece - smaller in the sense that we only worked for five days, yet big since they were eleven performers in total. But also a work on its own based on a longer research that has been with me for years, and the reason why we could do something over five days only. Hegemony and Scenario came to exist in the same research period, and Scenario is not the only sibling piece of Hegemony.


Having already been invited to present a work-in-progress of Hegemony at the Stockholm based festival My Wild Flag, the directors asked me if I would be interested in collaborating with the first year BA students of Dance and Performance at Uniarts. Instead of doing something completely new I decided to expand the research I already had going with my team from Hegemony to include the Uniarts students and make a parallel research piece. As you can tell, this is very close to my existing practice of sibling-projects informing each other - so having other bodies working on the material of Hegemony would be golden.


In Scenario we worked for five days together. I kept the form of Hegemony but left the concept out. It wouldn't be fair, not to me, the students nor the piece, to try and convey several months of research and experience in a five day process - yet I wanted to do something challenging and informing for me as well as the students and my colleagues. Hegemony is partly dealing with power games and I did not want the first year students, (during their very first week of school together!) to create and construct tensions in terms of constructed bullying, so I kept the base, in order to figure out some sort of “essence” of Hegemony as well as Scenario.



It was an easy choice not to be on stage in Scenario. It gave a hint of what Hegemony could do and feel like, I needed to try this, plus I wanted to give space to the students, not risking people looking at me for reference - this would be fine in a longer process - but a week was way too short for that, and would risk ruining the core of the work, that for me had to do with the conditions of the work as much as the piece itself. I had questions like: how can eleven performers all be seen and heard, feel good, do difficult things, and how to maintain the research with my colleagues at the same time, even though we’d been working on it for weeks and I had been researching it for months. In the end it wasn’t that hard actually; more people, more bodies, more questions gave more work and new perspectives.


I was proud like a parent. It was so strange to be outside. The whole protocol of how to do it was different. For me it has something to do with letting go of control. But I must say that it was much worse (or better) in Hegemony. Scenario was a premiere, yes, and high stakes, but also a one week process and a research presentation. Imagine Hegemony that culminated from several years of research.



C-P: And for Hegemony then, you worked with three male dancers; Darío Barreto Damas, Andrius Mulokas and Paolo de Venecia Gile. You mentioned “power games” but would you care to elaborate a little on some of the ideas that went into the work and the process?


O.J.O: I’ve just realised all my work deals with power. In previous works of mine I've used the gaze as a tool to manifest or explore power dynamics. In Hegemony the gazing isn’t as present, even though it found its way in there too. The dancers are exploring power dynamics within the group, and the audience is mostly a witness and sometimes addressed, but not to be examined by the performers but more to be reminded of the situation, and what they’re witnessing.


It was a big thing for me to work with only male performers. It was the first time I was not on stage myself in my work. For once I would work with male performers, while still proposing Ofelia-esque practices, movements and concepts on other bodies than female or myself.


I had some preconceived ideas that I would deal a lot with notions around femininity on male bodies, but once we got deeper into the piece I realized that was secondary, that queer femininity anyhow is at the core of my work. Objectifying male bodies was different from objectifying the female body. They weren't as exposed and made me want to work on other notions around power games which led to them exposing each other instead. I was more interested in them as performers than specifically male performers, and which specific group dynamics this group could work with. In that sense Darío Barreto Damas, Andrius Mulokas and Paolo de Venecia Gile are very much responsible for the course of the piece, in the process and on stage. I cherish the way they’ve received the work and made it theirs too.



I wanted it to get really risky with the power play, and for that I also needed to make it all good: I focused on trust and care, but also to rehearse well, pay well, give the piece a fair chance and make the best circumstances for the work. That’s always the case, but not always doable. Here I had the benefit of being outside and could work in a different way, having the overview, looking at the development of the music alongside the dance and light, the choreography of it all, imagining the audience, the queer one, and imagining what I needed as a choreographer and what I wanted to see in a piece. I also worked closely with the composer and sound designer Jassem Hindi throughout the whole process. The music is like a fourth dancer. The light designer Mira Svanberg came later in the process, but this piece didn’t need as much lighting as it needed music or bodies to exist. But I’d like to work more with lighting and more with Mira in the future.


I’ve never been happier about a work of mine as with Hegemony. I produced it almost completely on my own, and have had a sticky finger in every little part of it, yet I feel everyone in the team has had their own agency and that the baby is ours. It might sound easy but I learned over years, and the hard way, how I'd like to work with people and what’s important to me.


C-P: Some of your older works I know have been perceived as “sexually charged” for a lack of better expression. The idea of “voluntarily objectification” will resonate with some while I’m guessing it won’t gel particularly well with others.


O.J.O: I think all my works are sexually charged, and I like that. I find eroticism and objectification interesting, and power from the position of the vulnerable, to top from the bottom, etc. There’s an immediate power game in “voluntary objectification”. I like to present situations that are dubious, create uncanny and shameful emotions. In my work, to do that, I’d go through cliches and concrete images. In the end they are all just means to a more psychological end. The work is never solely about what you see, it’s just a thing to jump from to go deeper, further or elsewhere.



C-P: With a new year around the corner, hopefully one where things return to normality, what might be in the pipeline for you?


O.J.O: Next year I’m going to give myself time and space to not know again, to just research and do things unconditionally. I’ll spend time in the dance studio at höjden and if possible some residencies abroad.


Parallel to this, I have several smaller projects that I'm looking forward to. I’m just starting a few new collaborations, all of them connected to London, actually!


I’m working with visual artist Harun Morrison. Our first thing is a workshop we’ll host in the forest by his studio in London, and I believe more things will come after this first work encounter. It’s still very new to me, but I’m very excited to see where it will lead.


I haven't been working as much with props or set design before and this is also something I want to explore more. Normally the music and the bodies are more than enough to fill the stage in my works.


I’m busy with the body, and not necessarily in the sense of dance, but as in presence on stage, as psychology, as in with the audience. The body could also be the music, the performer, the constellations with the audience, or the other way around. I like to think of music and dance together in the foreground of the piece, feeding off each other and creating a very specific space. And now I guess that space can consist of objects too, and I can consider the space as another body to work more with.

I will also spend more time with the students at Uniarts and give a workshop there. Most of all I hope that Hegemony gets to tour. I’m still in that bubble in many ways.



Images:

  1. StM. Photo: Gustaf Iziamo

  2. C in the mud, version at Centre d'art Neuchâtel. Photo: Sebastian Verdon

  3. C in the mud, version at Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm. Photo: Evelina Åslin

  4. Scenario. Photo: Ofelia Jarl Ortega

  5. Scenario. Photo: Ofelia Jarl Ortega

  6. Hegemony. Photo: Natan Gullström

  7. Hegemony. Photo: Natan Gullström

  8. Hegemony. Photo: Natan Gullström

  9. C in the mud, version at Jacuzzi, Amsterdam. Photo: LAZOO

  10. StM. Photo: Gustaf Iziamo


For more information about Ofelia's work, please visit:

www.ofeliajarlortega.com