Writing with my pants down

Ran Brown

Writing with my pants down

Interview with Mårten Spångberg

On April 2012 Mårten Spångberg devised the conference "Choreography as Expanded Practice", in collaboration with Bojana Cvejic and Xavier Le Roy. It was held in Barcelona and Ran Brown met him there to talk about his writing method, the claims that he doesn't like to dance at all, and political dance education.

You pointed out at some time that you started out as a dance critic. Would you please elaborate on that?
I was trained as a musician, and somehow I started writing about opera in a nonprofit magazine. This magazine was forced to have something about dance, because of some art council that they got money from, and since I was the youngest in the editorial board, they told me that if I write about this dance stuff, I could also write about this Italian avant-garde opera. Quite quickly I realized that it's much more exiting to write about dance then opera. What was interesting is that when I wrote about dance, I didn't need to write about the history of the choreography, I didn't have to write about the history of the piece, I didn't have to write about the history of the interpretation, so writing about dance was not so much about interpretation of established capacities, but was very much about inventing ways of seeing. Writing about dance was more of an exploration, learning something about the world. What happened was that the abstractness of dance was excellent from the writer perspective. I took on a mission for myself, not to use metaphors that we know, but to use metaphors that expand: the audience, or the reader, had to become activated, not only consume imagery, but also activate himself in image production. So first of all it was articulation, enabling producing a language about dance. And then it was also about coming home after a performance that wasn't even bad, and knowing that there has to be a text in the morning, but not knowing how to do this. I couldn't give up, I couldn't say: "it's not my cup of tea" - that kind of review is too short and I had to put something out. To force articulation is interesting, I think, and I was forcefully articulating also what I am not interested in. I set up situations that force you to not maintain yourself as yourself, to not be able to produce belonging. That was quite extraordinary, and I had to do it 4-5 times a week.

Marten Spangberg

When I was writing I was quiet often accused by dancers and choreographers, coming to me and saying: "Marten, you really don't like dance!". However, I think being a critic is not about being a dance lover; it's much more about loving it so much that you can also say "no". a dance critic, like a teacher or a school director, is an ambassador for dance, and if that means being endless benevolent than that's a bad idea. The dance critic has also a responsibility to say: "you know what, you are a nice guy, but this piece is not very good. And I have to let you know about it". So the ambassador for dance is somebody who has a long term perspective.

There was this great dance critic in Sweden, somewhere in the late eighties, who wrote extremely good reviews - both in the sense of good texts but also – and that was the problem – he only wrote good reviews. In 50 or so many years someone will come and study the dance in the eighties in Sweden and think dance in Sweden must have been amazing. Being a critic is also to have a responsibility to the community to change it into whatever, to work for its' changing.

The statement that you made of the dance critic's responsibility takes us to the etymology of supervision or control that the word 'critic' has in Hebrew. How does the dance critic decide what's good or bad? Who sets up the criteria?
A critic who knows what good judgment is should stop. The work of the critic, especially after 1960`s , is very much about staking out territories, it’s a matter of becoming intimate with the practice, and listening to where it is, and sort of filling these provisional spaces with articulation and terminologies, being in friction with practice as a way of organizing. It's a kind of gardening, cultivating, the critic is sort of organizing cultivation.

I think critic is not about making law. Critic is not about the execution of law but it's about the testing of laws, testing how we can feel about something, how we can understand something. When it comes to dance, there are basically two modalities; for some critics, the job of the critic is to write the same review every time, the same critic every time – in the sense of format, so their personality as a critic doesn't stand between the reader and the work. For others, this is not about representing what was there in a kind of transparent or objective manner, no - on the contrary, it's about writing as subjective as possible, in order to produce confrontation, to produce difficulty, to produce turmoil.

Was this approach accepted by the editorial?
When you get some money from the art council you don't get it for what you want to do, but for what they want you to do. And still your job is to do what you want to do. So it's all about undercover business, it's all about Camouflage… I think that it's important in times of neo-liberalism, and in whatever position you are in the practice of art making. There is a moment when it's too nice to identify with scarcity, with too littleness.
In the 90` I worked a lot in an institution for rehabilitation medicine, and I was very close to a professor of physiotherapy. One thing that is problematic with physiotherapy is that the patient identifies with his or her symptom: it feels good to identify with the pain, because it also makes it possible for me to say: "can you take the groceries for me?" or "I can't go hiking in the mountains because of my elbow". So a lot of the work of the physiotherapist is to give the patient confidence to give up the identitary capacity.

It's the same thing with our work - how can we give ourselves the confidence to not identify with our subordinate position? It's so easy to identify with the minoritarian practice of dance and choreography. Fuck that- as long as we do this, everybody else is going to be super happy, because then I am always begging for it… To be self announced "underdogs" is a very comfortable position.
Complaint is also a way of saying: "it wasn't me, don't blame me, we were the underdogs, so we don't have a stake here".

I can really see the connection between your approach as a dance critic and your educational manifesto.
I live in fear of neutrality, of this notion that as a critic you are not suppose to have an opinion – and isn't that the critic's job, to have an opinion? I am more interested in writing with my pants down, so it's clear that it is an opinion, it's my opinion, and I am not going to cover it up.

It's the same thing when it comes to education. So often I have heard people say that my education is so biased, so political, it's not fair for the students. Here, again, I am not attracted to the idea of passing knowledge; I am interested in passing this (specific) knowledge or more so, I am interested in certain modes of us producing heterogeneous landscapes of knowledge.

Let's say when I go to driving school, I want to pay as little as possible to get my license as fast as possible, so I ask them to show me how to do it and imitate . Then, if everybody has the same driving license traffic security will be better. Now, turn it around and say: in choreography, if all the students come out with the same knowledge it will be a very boring thing, because obviously also the dance will be the same. Moreover, if the programmer for the venue of contemporary dance comes to choose the best student, but since they are all the same, he could only choose by their looks or rich family or whatever. Education has to make it difficult for the one evaluating, so that when the programmer comes he will need to take all the students, since they are all different he couldn't choose only one of them. When it comes to choreography or artistic education, it's a matter of making each student explore or invent their own specificity or their own being-special.

Another aspect of dance education is that as dance people we don't have enough discourse. It is important to have theory classes and have somebody to talk with us about Walter Benjamin or whatever, but we shouldn't do it in a lecture space, we shouldn't approach the dance student or ourselves as if we should also be philosophers, we should do this in the studio, sitting in an embracing dance circle. We shouldn't invite professor Mr. so and so because he is so fucking prominent, but we have to do it ourselves. What the student needs to do is not to say: "ahh, I understand" - that's a bad moment, when the student understands he puts it in a luggage compartment and forgets. The important thing is to infect the student with thought.

Think of this image of the students open the studio door, take off their bag of theory and leave it outside, and then they go in and start to do phrase work… The question is how we can make theory be in everything, so when we come into the studio we are not using theory to judge or to justify, but it sort of sticks on us. We shouldn't have a library in our school, but we should put a lot of books in our studios, and the first section of the dance library shouldn't be dance composition (that we will read anyway) - what the library should have is all the other books.

Marten Spangberg

Where does your own work as an artist come in?
The question that shows up is: "it's your work, but for whom is it? And in what ways is it for whom?" But of course I don't give a fuck about my audience; I do the work because of myself, because of what I am interested in, full stop. If I start to negotiate my audience, then it would become a service, and it's important that the artistic production has some sort of autonomy, which is a blurry object in itself. But even though I don't care about my audience, it doesn't mean that my work is necessarily personal from beginning to end.

I see so many choreographers and artists who work for their own expression. My work is highly individual, but is also always there for The Expression, not for my sake. I am passionately involved in dance, not in my dance, but in Dance. By expression I mean dance as an expression, dance as a modality of moving towards somebody, or bringing something forth. I have my specific perspective in this production or in this particular dance, but it's still there for the expression – I am working for Dance.


Mårten Spångberg is performance related artist living and working in Stockholm. His interests concern choreography in an expanded field, something that he has approached through experimental practices and creative process in multiplicity of formats and expressions. He has been active on stage as performer and creator since 1994, and has since 1999 created his own choreographies, from solos to larger scale works, which has toured internationally.

Ran Brown is founder of the online magazine Maakaf and head of the research program at Kelim - a place for thought and practice in choreographic work. Ran teaches contemporary technique and dance theory at The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and at The Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts.