From the TELEPHONE Interview Series.
I met dancer Christoph von Riedemann through a collaboration I did this past March with choreographer Lesley Telford and Ballet BC. The process was intense and unlike anything I’d ever done before. I created a layered spoken word piece which became the score for a duet called If I Were 2, performed by Ballet BC’s Emily Chessa and Brandon Alley. Coming from a much more informal performance practice, I found working with the company exhilarating and, at times… discombobulating. Though everyone was very welcoming and remarkably calm through what must have have been a stressful process (the program had three world premiers!), I was grateful that Christoph seemed to make a point of being especially friendly to me, as a visitor to a very different world. I didn’t get to work directly with Christoph, so I was excited to sit down with him after the process ended, and hear his thoughts about some of what I experienced. - Barbara Adler
Barbara Adler: It seems like there's a perception that ballet—if you were to really stereotype it—is this form where really beautiful people do things that 'regular' people can't do. I wonder if you feel like that's still part of the public perception, or if that's changing? And, if any part of that is true, how do you feel being on the inside of that?
Christoph von Riedemann: I think that I don't like the stereotype. Dance doesn't always feel beautiful, it doesn't always feel elite. It doesn't feel like all of the things that are projected on it. Inside, it doesn't breathe that way. It's really heavy and gross a lot of the time. It's effort. But I do feel that there are places where ballet is asked to be its stereotype... or, dancing is asked to be that. And then I feel, because of the amount of effort—emotional, physical, and mental—that's required to put yourself, moving, in front of people, it can really warp your sense of self. I think that I'm very, very privileged to be in a place that celebrates the individual versus some sort of aesthetic, or some sort of idealized version of a person. I think that Ballet BC is a bit of an exception. But I think that we're challenged, a lot of the time, with the expectation that people have going to a theatre like the one we perform in.
The way you're marketed...
Yeah... and even Ballet BC's history. It's really changed. So, I feel like we're kind of at a crossroads, re-defining how we talk about what we are, and how people see us. That's a problem of dance—this expectation of beauty...
I think though, when you say that there's this effort and there's this weight and heaviness... I think that's also part of the popular fetish of ballet… that these are people who have put themselves through this really strenuous, rigorous thing that the average person either wouldn't be physically capable of doing or wouldn't have the mental fortitude to do. So, how does that play out for you? Do you ever think about the fetishization of work, or of rigor?
I think that I probably have an obsession with working. I probably have a bit of a tic to need to be doing something that's really all-consuming. But I find that a lot of the time the amount of the work that we've put into the thing can inhibit us from achieving a lot of the things we’re asked to do. We're working on this piece right now, and we just had a big talking to about how someone off the street could probably dance this better than we could, because we have so much history. So many pathways already exist in our bodies. To get to our natural state is kind of hard, actually, because we've undone, or done—we’ve made a lot of patterns. I think I need it to be hard. I'm someone who makes things hard for no reason.
Something I've been thinking about a lot, that maybe relates to that in terms of choreographed dance, is vulnerability. From my vantage point, it feels like you, as a dancer, have to be willing to be incredibly vulnerable, just on a very physical level, because it's your full body that's subject to critique and editing. It sounds like that's something you do feel, when you're in the process?
I think that dance is the best attempt at democracy.
Kind of... because there is this huge expectation to make and produce, and a choreographer has a huge expectation to arrive at something. But the medium is breathing and feeling and can be hurt.
Meaning, the dancers?
The dancers, and so, that can be a problem. And I think that when it works best, communication is the most important thing in the room. And when priorities are clearly established, where the work is the most important thing... At the same time, realizing that we're all people and have to deal with one another that way, while being asked to do something super, super sensitive. So yeah, I think that it's just a problem and an opportunity to try to be better with one another while we make. But it's a hard thing.
So, it's like a testing ground for some kind of human relationship...
I think so, and it definitely fails. It's a clunky machine. But I think it's really beautiful when it works.
Yeah, I've wondered about that. Because as a writer, I obviously take notes and get edits, and not everyone likes everything I make, and it's kind of an expected part of what I do. But I wonder if there's something about it being your body, and your full body, and your visible full body, that makes it somehow more personal.
I've tried to work to disconnect feedback from being personal.
Right, of course.
I try to see it objectively, and see the larger vision. I can get very caught—and I know I have, when I've not been ready for feedback. And I've been like, "this is my arm. Don't talk about my arm like that!"
Like, it is you—
Right. Because we all care so much about the art, we make ourselves vulnerable and sometimes become sensitive. You just have to disconnect from your ego a little bit.
Right. But in your development as a dancer, when and how do you learn to say 'no?’ Do you feel like there are different consequences for saying no in different kinds of dance, or different stages in the process? What would you say your relationship is to 'no?'
I don't know… I'm working on it. I'm working on being able to say ‘no.’ I think that there's a way to figuring out how to say ‘no’ with grace. Especially, because we're dealing with dancing. It's not dangerous, no one will be directly hurt by watching dance. You know what I mean? So, I think sometimes it's good to remember that it's also… that there's not so much consequence or something.
But do you feel like that might be changing right now? Because we're in this cultural climate where everyone's talking about microaggressions and the violence of language, and I assume that there's a bit of discussion about that in terms of dance as well. And, as 'the medium,' you're not necessarily directly the author of the statement, but you're physically enacting the statement.
It's so hard, just realizing how much I need to be okay with myself, and how much I can give myself to someone's vision and trying to balance that all the time. But it's a puzzle… I think that something that would probably add to that is also the way we make work now... A lot of the stuff is generated by the dancers.
So, dancers are becoming a lot more empowered. I feel like there's also something about knowing your power. It's not an argument and it's not really a fight, it's just that it can be liberating to know that you're actually an essential piece of the machine. And so, I think that I feel, now—it really feels in the company—we're all more than bodies in the room. We're essential minds and collaborators. The individual is becoming super necessary, which is nice.
So, my favourite part of performing poetry live to accompany dance is that sometimes, when we time it out really perfectly, so that the movement is happening right as I'm initiating the right word, I can actually feel that I'm part of the movement. So, I can imagine a bit like I’m a part of a leap or a really intricate gesture, or even something sensitive and small. That's amazing for someone like me, who is not going to have an opportunity to move like that. It's not really in my scope of experience. I'm wondering if there's a comparable experience like that, that you have as a dancer.
I was going to say that it works both ways. I find that I speak better when I'm dancing. I can communicate better as a mover than with my words. When I have had the chance to dance with spoken text, I felt the same way, that we're connected in some kind of intricate way of speaking. I think there's that same satisfaction that comes the other way. It's mirrored.
I really like that kind of sympathy with something else that's happening. I wonder if you ever feel that kind of sympathy with non-human movement? Like, if you ever look at something in the natural world, or animals, and feel sort of connected to it in that way?
Yeah… I think there's always a wonder and awe thing, when you see nature just being.
Yeah, sure… But sometimes, when I watch a dog running really fast and catching a frisbee, I can actually feel—sometimes, I feel I can put myself in that body.
But I think that's because their intentions are so clear. It's all about that Frisbee, it's just joy and being clear. We're a little bit more confused. I think that was kind of what was being brought up to us in that piece I mentioned earlier: that someone off the street could do this piece better. They would maybe connect to a super direct version without any kind of stuff inside of them. But we can be very inefficient, because we've been asked to do things that are kind of unnatural, and then started to make them natural. It's hard to get to the directness of the impulse.
I recently learned that choreography is often built on specific dancers and that the physicality of those dancers becomes part of the choreography. So, you've learned roles that were developed on other dancers. And I wonder what your relationship to those other dancers is, and if you ever think about them?
When I joined the company, another dancer, who had also been at Arts Umbrella previously, left. It ended up that I filled most of his roles that season, because there were pre-existing works that we were doing. And so, it was a joke—where I started to build "Alex" coordination. It almost felt like I could improvise in a similar tone to him, just from learning the stuff he'd built, and also knowing him as a person.
Is that a nice feeling? Is that kind of like when you catch yourself speaking like a friend?
Yeah. It totally is that thing. Where you notice someone else saying an expression that you use a lot, it's a very similar feeling. But it feels like a different task from creating. For a while, as you're learning it, the fun is more putting on this other person's skin. But then, because it's you, you kind of translate it into something that feels right. It's a fun thing to try to become someone else's experience.
And then as choreography gets passed down, is it always learned from the original, or would someone potentially then be learning the roles that you took from Alex?
Yeah, there is an amazing human lineage to dance. Because the only way we can record it is with video. People have tried to document it other ways, but it only really lives in memory… things can really distort over time. Like, this TELEPHONE interview is probably very in line with that, with how much something can change because it's been passed on. So, the person after me who dances these things will learn it off my body and it will be a translation of Alex's work that I downloaded and figured out and made my own. I'm sure that things will be lost, and also that there will be some new things.
I think it would be so interesting in program notes to know a little bit about that history and to maybe have some of the contributions of the dancers who were part of it. Visualizing that lineage would be really interesting to audiences. Because I don't know if I would have ever have thought about that unless I had been told about it.
I think that there's a lot of opportunity in turning down the formality of dance presentation and opening up the inherent beauty and humanity that exist inside the effort of dance making. That's something I've been talking about with some of the dancers in the company, trying to figure out ways that we can open it up, that still holds a certain level of product, or quality. I think it's a balance.
I think that people would be interested in that.
…The cogs of dance are kind of neat.
If I could pull us back to that idea of being inside someone else's body, because you're learning choreography that was set on their bodies… How does that work with your relationship to the choreographer? How much do you think about getting inside the choreographer's head, or body, or whatever that combination of things is?
Something that I'm really interested in right now is how everyone found dance in their own way. So, everyone has built a language with it, a relationship to each piece of it, and built their own things. So, when I meet a choreographer, more than stepping inside their own skin, it's maybe trying to understand their history, or learn their language. It feels more like an effort to communicate. I think that when a dancer is empathetic to the fact that they come from another history, every single choreographer comes from another history, and therefore, their expectations are based in their own history. I think that's when a dancer and a choreographer can come together in a really exciting way. Especially right now, when a dancer is more empowered and choreographers are asking for collaboration. It's like learning a completely different language that is based in a structure you both understand.
Your schedule is pretty much non-stop. I wonder how that relates to individual performances? It almost seems that you're working and learning and creating so much that there's not even really time to get strung out, or exuberant even, about an individual performance night. Is that the case, or do you still find yourself having that kind of adrenaline and performance high?
I always have that. I'm a very nervous person before I go up on stage. I used to hate performing. That was the part of dancing I was not into. I didn't want to go on stage. I just got too nervous and would over-perform or over-think. But it's an important part—it's part of the job. There's a lot to learn there. And I was not up for the confrontation of performance.
In what way do you feel it is a confrontation?
I think I used to feel that more. As a young dancer and a student, even though that wasn't the energy that was in the room, I felt that there was going to be judgement. Emily Molnar (the Artistic Director of Ballet BC) was really wonderful in proposing this idea of it being conversational, and realizing the two-sidedness. You're meeting people, and it's nothing more than a conversation. I think I used to put a lot more expectation on it. I used to look at the long trajectory: "If I don't do well now, I won't be able to..." I worked on undoing that, and really trying to show up to the conversation has been liberating and exciting. Now, I think that performance is not an end point, it's part of the research, it's part of the tinkering.
Tell me a secret that we can't see from the front of the stage, but that everyone backstage knows about.
“Secret” implies that it's hidden. I think maybe it could be a common stance, or a detail.
I feel like a secret that exists, that we try to keep existing…
Oh, shit, don't—
No, no no… it's more… it's fine... It's that we were on the street, like, just before we did the show. That we are… that there's nothing different between the audience and the performer. A lot of the time that feels like a secret. I feel like when, especially in a theatre like the Queen E, when the curtain goes up, there's like this suspended disbelief that we've been behaving like this for a long time. The fact that we've been stretching, or listening to music an hour before.
Or probably getting sushi at the same restaurant the audience was at.
Totally. And not to make dancers feel like these special animals, but it’s just that people kind of put that onto it..."Oh, this world has existed for a while, and it's just opening, and now we're watching it." As if dancers move like this all the time… I think that's kind of a secret. Or just a funny thing that exists in performance.
I think that’s a good secret...
Vancouver-born Christoph von Riedemann began his training at Arts Umbrella under Artemis Gordon and Lynn Sheppard. During his time there, Christoph worked with James Kudelka, Lesley Telford, Gioconda Barbuto, Crystal Pite, Walter Matteini, Francesca Carotti, Wen Wei Wang, Aszure Barton, Fernando Magadan and Stephen Shropshire. Christoph has participated in the Banff Summer Dance Program, the Nederlands Dans Theater Summer Intensive and the Movement Invention Project in New York. He is thrilled to be in his 3rd season with Ballet BC and to continue working with the company’s incredible artists.
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