29th April is the birthday of Jean-Georges Noverre, creator of modern ballet, and to commemorate this, since 1982 it has also been International Dance Day. This day is dedicated to celebrating dance, revelling in the universality of this art form (across all political, cultural and ethnic barriers), and bringing people together within a common ‘language’.
Sofia Dias and Vitor Roriz are the perfect people to talk to about dance, and their (possibly surprising) connection to the Champalimaud Foundation, given their role as Resident Artists in the context of the “Bridges to the Unknown” initiative.
Sofia and Vítor are a duo of independent dancers and choreographers. They began collaborating in 2006 on the research and creation of performances that have since been presented in over 17 countries. Words, voice, sound and objects have become the focus of their work, thus throwing another light on the connection between movement and gesture. In 2011 they were awarded the Prix Jardin d'Europe and given the first place of Aerowaves Spring Forward 13 for their performance Um gesto que não passa de uma ameaça ("A gesture that is nothing but a threat"), which questions the hierarchy between words and movement.
Below is the transcript of our conversation on Zoom:
Q1. What attracts you to dance as a medium for artistic expression?
Vitor (V): So dance is our main means of expression, maybe because there is this notion that language and the other means of expression weren't enough for us to do what we wanted to do.
And also because dance is connected to a kind of a primordial way of relating with ourselves, with context, with others around us. And that's why the International Day is so important, because it brings attention to this ancient way for human beings – and not only human beings – to communicate with each other, to engage in a certain level of intimacy, of community, and a communal experience that doesn't only go through the expression of ideas through language or through a rational way of engaging with interpretation, and the way we conceive the world.
Sofia (S): Also as an art form, dance has become very malleable, because it gets influenced by so many other art forms. So dance is almost a transdisciplinary area because it contains so many other things, it can embrace many different ways of entering your subjectivity and that's the reason, maybe, why we keep on doing it and calling it dance because it's a very open field.
V: It has a level of abstraction of subjectivity that, for us, is very connected also with concepts and ideas. But we are also trying to enhance the subjectivity, the abstraction and the ambiguity of dance, because these are three qualities that we feel that are totally necessary in the world that we live in, where communication is the ruling area and is almost hegemonic. Nowadays, everyone has to communicate, in a very effective and efficient way, their ideas, their opinions. And dance is not about that, it is about the grey areas, the subjectivity, the not taking things for granted.
S: It also deals with something that we all share which is our body! That is something concrete and very strong in the sense that it's the means that we use to make dance. And I am talking about movement now, not dancing in the artistic field, but movement itself is really something that we share and that's it's very ephemeral and needs our presence totally. It needs the physical encounter, and that's very important for us.
V: Maybe because of that, the ephemerality of dance, that this art form is closer to our nature. I mean what is the art form or what is the area of the human condition that is more ephemeral than dance? We feel that dance is the most ephemeral art form that you have. There are just traces in our memory or in our bodily experience, and that's very connected to the absurdity of existence! Everything is going to end, so there is a connection that is very primordial and connected with the essence of life, and with the absurdity of the ephemeral!
Q2. What is the connection between art and science that you are trying to explore through the “Bridges to the Unknown” initiative?
V: There is something that dance and science share, which is this amazing curiosity to see how we function. The way we perceive dance and our field is really in the sense that we are very curious about how our bodies and minds work. But, where scientists pick something and look at it, trying to find evidence, or data, we work with our own empirical experience; so it's really about how we perceive our experience and how we try to include our perception in our dance, so it's always informing. And I think we share this kind of obsessiveness of always looking into things in detail, fragmenting everything to see how we work.
S: And it's really based on experience, on facing the same problem together. It's about being present.
Q3. What attracted you to this project particularly?
V: The connection between art and science is not something recent. In the past, scientists were artists, writers, painters, philosophers – everything could be connected – but industrialisation caused specialisation. Specifically to this project, we were drawn to the idea of interdisciplinarity. Julia Salaroli (Bridges to the Unknown) reached out to us and was instrumental in our decision to first visit the Foundation, given her enthusiasm for the project. From the beginning, we were really struck by how the scientists spoke passionately about art, and about our work, and we had that strong experience when we presented our work and these scientists (whom we had never met before) and just listening to how they perceived our work was something that made us want to be here!
S: We just wanted to keep the dialogue going! I think when anybody has specialised their knowledge into one narrow point – whether that's dance or science or whatever – the lens is always on that one thing. So, it is really interesting to cross fields. We were really amazed by their perspective. And we really must thank the Bridges team for reaching out to us and starting this exchange.
V: We usually use language to express how we feel, but when dancers communicate with scientists, it is like we are from two different countries, so you need to find another way to communicate. Just from the first conversations and discussions, it is clear that both sides see each other's work from a totally different point of view and describe it in ways that we have never explored before. It is already opening up how we see our work and influencing the way we do things, and our expectation is that, maybe, our scientific ignorance gives something back to the scientists and how they perceive their work, too! For us, we never really thought about what your body and brain is doing: when you move your hands, or a scientist picks up a microscope, or a mouse runs around, we see these movements as a kind of choreography, but when the scientists are explaining the mechanics and biology of this, we found that, sometimes, we would ask questions in a way that offered a different perspective. This horizontality, this exchange of experiences and perspectives, is really at the heart of the project. We are more interested in finding more questions than we are about finding the answers!
Q4. Is there a specific ‘goal’ you would like to achieve with this project?
V: People tend to look at things from a utilitarian perspective: "what does 'this' bring to 'that'?"
That's one of the reasons why it is so special to be here at the Champalimaud Foundation, because the labs are in a level of research that is not just totally utilitarian: they can be theoretical and experimental. In that sense, we connect because we are not necessarily thinking about what we can do to improve society, for example; we are working on a level that is founded on basic curiosity about how things work.
Interview and editions by John Lee, Content Developer of the Champalimaud Foundation Communication, Events and Outreach team.