Being on the move. A conversation with Bára Sigfúsdóttir.

Bára Sigfúsdóttir - The Lover (c) Aëla Labbé

At the age of twenty-one, Brussels-based artist, dancer and choreographer Bára Sigfúsdóttir (b. 1984) left her home in Iceland, curious to explore the paths beyond the horizons that had been opened up to her by the Icelandic Academy of Arts. Ever since, she has been on the move. But for Bára, being ‘on the move’ doesn’t just equate to a desire to get as far away as possible from her original starting point. She also sees it as a way of reconnecting, looking for the space from which her creativity originates, the one that connects all the places she dwells in: the image-space of the body when it becomes a meeting ground.

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I have always felt myself to be a mixture of South and North, East and West. Actually, I believe we all are. We carry the genes of ancestors that had to migrate to find a space for themselves.

Dancing started early for Bára Sigfúsdóttir, moving to the sound of ballroom swing and Latin grooves: samba, chachacha forever. When she finally decided to take dancing lessons, however, as a teenager in the nineties at a local school in Reykjavík, she was immediately told that she was a very late starter; maybe too late, that is, to become a professional dancer. In order to master the basic techniques, she was required to attend classes with much younger children. And when, just about to turn nineteen, she returned home after a year in Texas, USA – the first time she had left the island for a longer period, filled with longing to discover new places – the school principal told her that it was ‘such a pity’ she had gone abroad ‘since it had fatally damaged her prospects.’ Despite her insatiable desire to learn, Bára felt lacking, sad and frustrated. And if I’m not mistaken, her body language betrays a lingering hint of all those emotions, when she talks about that period.  A desperate application to a dance school in Amsterdam led to a painful rejection, based on a so-called ‘lack of coordination’.

Luckily, the Icelandic Academy of Arts had just launched a university-level training programme in dance. A former teacher recommended it to Bára, who subsequently applied and was accepted – she was one of just six students. “It really was a guinea-pig year, the whole set-up was purely experimental. We had to improvise a lot, which appealed to my taste for freedom. And I realised that the narrow-minded ideas about when you traditionally need to start or stop dancing could easily be replaced by a more research-oriented idea of dance and a more reflective, less virtuosity-based attitude, much like the approach you can find in art schools. This really opened up many directions for me.” As a matter of fact, the very next year saw Bára enrol at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten (University of the Arts) in Amsterdam, where she forged some lifelong friendships. Fast forward another year, and eager to move beyond the emphasis on craftsmanship and technical improvement in Amsterdam, she auditioned for P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, where she was accepted and studied for three more years, from 2008 until 2011.

Keen to seek out her own trajectory, Bára eventually left P.A.R.T.S without completing her studies. Instead, she created her first solo, On the other side of a sand dune (2012), based on the memories of old Icelandic women. During that process, she met Klaartje Oerlemans, who became her producer and still is today – by now under the heading of the choreographic platform GRIP. All the while, Bára kept performing for diverse artists (Or and Oran dance company, Miet Warlop, Quan Bui Ngoc, Aëla Labbe, Iris Bouch & Kobe Proesmans, among others). But, with Klaartje´s valuable support, she also embarked on a series of self-initiated choreographies. Merging disciplines such as music and the visual arts, these works allowed her to travel in all cardinal directions, while maintaining Brussels as her principal base. THE LOVER (2015), a collaboration with French photographer Noémie Goudal, Icelandic musician Borko and Belgian architect Jeroen Verrecht, catapulted her to the Circuit X-programme and got her on a tour of the Low Countries. TIDE (2016), with Norwegian composer and musician Eivind Lønning, forged artistic links between Brussels, Mechelen, Reykjavik and Oslo. And her most recent work, being (2017), with two Iranian performers, brought her from Ghent to Teheran, before returning to Brussels again.

TIDE (c) Nanna Dis 2016, Brussel

When we meet to talk, over coffee with a scent of Japanese green tea in a Brussels café, I express my amazement at the pronounced international aspect of her artistic journey to date and ask whether this has something to do with trying to break away from her island birthplace – a worn-out cliché, I know. Yet, as there appears to be hardly any ice to break between us at all, and with neither of us claiming any specialised expertise on the topic of ‘internationalisation’ whatsoever, Bára immediately explains that the international character of her collaborations is far more coincidental than it is intentional. “When I choose artists to work with, I’m looking at who they are as people and artists, and not where they come from. Eivind Lønning, the musician I worked with for TIDE (2016), for instance, just happens to be Norwegian. But it was his very specific way of improvising with sound that I was interested in for our collaboration. The same goes for the residencies I choose to work in. I select them because of the specific contexts they provide, since every space and place will feed differently into the creative process. In fact, when I come to think about it, I doubt whether I consider myself to be an international artist at all.”

Doubt makes for a good conversation. It opens up what seems self-evident. It creates the conditions we need for an encounter, an exchange of perspectives on the basis of not-knowing. “At this point”, Bára says, “I feel as though I’m experiencing a moment of transition. I’ve worked hard over the past few years: three pieces in as many years, THE LOVER (2015), TIDE (2016) and being (2017), plus I’m also now co-curating the Nowruz festival with the Nona arts centre in Mechelen. Lots of wonderful things have happened, so I know I’ve been lucky, but there have also been some challenging and disorienting moments along the way. Right now, having lived through this acceleration in my productivity, I am really looking to find a space where I can meet and listen to new stories, not even trying but just allowing creativity to come. That is how I like to approach a creative process: not knowing what will happen already but allowing myself to be gradually transformed by it, past new encounters and improvising on the spot.”

As artists and citizens, it is important to understand the reasons why we travel. We are responsible for what it can bring to a community, but also what it can destroy

Living in a time of transition, looking for a space, waiting for the transformation to come: I imagine there are worse ways to summarize what it takes to live, work and survive as an international artist.

Yes, perhaps that makes me an international artist after all. It’s just that I mainly associate the word ‘internationalisation’ with an economic process, rather than one that is cultural or artistic. Whenever I hear it, I think of ‘exploitation’: corruption, unhealthy and unfair competition, a lack of balance between our existence and our environment. Besides, I don’t like to label. I love living in Brussels because the city and dance scene is incredibly international, but does that make me an international artist? I’m not sure. The same goes for how I describe myself as an artist in general. Of course, people call me a dancer and a choreographer, for instance because I studied at P.A.R.T.S. and work in the so-called dance scene, but I rather see myself as someone who works with movement. It’s closer to the visual arts, I often think. I prefer to say that “movement” is my medium.

Movement also happens to be a key feature of internationalisation, both in terms of  how easy it is to travel these days but also in respect of migration on a global scale. What does it mean to work with movement in a world that also seems to be continuously on the move?

There are lots of people who cannot travel, so there are many absent voices in this ‘globalised’ or ‘international’ world. As artists and citizens, it is important to understand the reasons why we travel. We are responsible for what it can bring to a community, but also what it can destroy. I generally think our origin should not limit us to travel. I am aware I was lucky enough to have been born in Iceland to simply have that opportunity. I have never needed to show anything but a valid passport or visa in order to travel, and up until now these could be easily obtained. It remains unjust, however, that our world functions with groups of people having so much more priority over others, merely based on the place where they happen to have been born. In moving through the world, and for this very reason, I have always wanted to create a space that brings people together.

Why did you leave your country of origin in the first place?

I needed to leave Iceland in order to pursue opportunities that were not available to me if I stayed. To learn from different people. To discover different approaches. And perhaps even more crucially, to simply have the space to be myself. Iceland has a small population, which is charming in a way, but it can also feel suffocating. My parents were poor. They did not have a large social network, let alone a cultural one, so this was not something they could provide. In fact, coming from the countryside, they felt out of place in the turmoil of Reykjavík; especially my father, who felt dislocated, while my mother worked immensely hard to support our family. We lived in a sort of bubble really, maintaining our old countryside habits in the midst of modern city life, not least because we also spent most vacations and every summer in the beautiful countryside. In fact, when I met people from Iceland later on in life, they often mistook me for someone from the countryside, since I speak so much about my time spent there. Besides, I soon learned that the contemporary Icelandic dance scene, which is in itself very interesting, suffered from a lack of funding and, as a result, offered fewer opportunities. I saw many artists leaving. Some returned, others did not.

Presence can happen through distance, just as you can experience distance while being present in a specific location or situation, too. In short, you do not always have to be in a place in order to experience it.

That is the secret law to all good storytelling, indeed: it transports you to a place where you are not. Yet, since your first solo was based on memories that were recounted to you by old Icelandic women, how did you communicate their life stories through movement? Dancing and storytelling don’t seem very compatible, do they?

Maybe I must first explain that for me storytelling itself has always been closely linked to my father, to whom I feel a strong connection. He is a peculiar figure, living near a lake, just outside a village rather than in the heart of a community, close to nature, and often alone. I consider him to be an artist, although he does not make art, as such. Why? To begin with, he is a bird expert, not because he studied ornithology, but because of the knowledge that he inherited from his father. He has this wonderful sensitivity that enables him to listen and look, which is a crucial quality if you are to acquire knowledge from what seems to be silent and unseen, from what nature says and shows, whether it be vegetal or human. For instance, I have always known him to visit elderly people from the area he grew up in and listen closely to their stories.

I see, that’s where you got the idea to collect stories for that first solo yourself?

Partly, yes. My father is the most amazing storyteller himself. In fact, he reminds one of an ancient travelling storyteller, someone whose stories take you to places where you have never been before, who tells you tales that allow you to travel yourself. So when I went back to Iceland to spend some time with him, I got indeed inspired by his habit of listening to people’s stories and so I started visiting some women in an elderly home myself. You know, I have always been very eager to speak to people, to hear their perspectives, or learn how they experience the world. I have always wondered what it would be like to temporarily be someone else and to know how it feels to be in their shoes. So when I met this wonderful woman who was a hundred years old and who made me realise she was already considered old before I was even born, no matter how lively and young she felt, I instantly knew that I wanted to work with her startling perspective on time and age in the performance I was about to make.

But in that first solo performance you did not present yourself as a storyteller in the end. Or did you?

No, I do not work as a storyteller – I make a bad one in comparison to my father. A storyteller makes you look at the world through his or her eyes. What I do, instead, is turn my body into an image whose movements are nurtured and organised by underlying stories. There are clear references, at times, but I am much more interested in layering the stories in my dance performances. I always search for an under-layer of communication, so to speak, a moving space of reflection and questioning where perspectives can meet.

Medusa (c) Aëla Labbé

The image of the body that is present and nearby allows us to make contact with something distant?

Exactly. That is why I always try to distance my emotions, as in THE LOVER (2015), for example. I can get emotional when I think about the particular subjects I work with, but in my art I search for another way to communicate. That does not mean people can’t get emotional during my performances, of course, but I want them to reflect for themselves and have the freedom to choose how they see and feel things. By distancing my emotions, I think I can create a more interesting space for questions and reflections. I don’t provide any answers with my work, and I don’t have them either. I prefer to act as a catalyst for thought. Through movement, I hope to ask questions that we can collectively deal with.

Are politics at work in that poetical ambition?

I have always found it important to avoid being explicitly political in my work, but in wanting to create a space to come together and share experiences, I imagine it is clear that I believe in collectivity and community. Contemporary society puts so much pressure on people – it’s a case of non-stop working and unending production. I wonder what meaning it has. Where will it lead us? “Sometimes, making something leads to nothing” to quote one of my favourite works by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs. Can human values have more impact than capitalistic ones? I do not want to be naive in this, but I sometimes think we need some naivety in order to keep on believing in things.

Can you be more specific?

Can we, as citizens, connect in a collective way and, as a result, effect a radical and meaningful change? How might things develop differently if we allow ourselves the time to reflect and think, instead of all these actions that seem to be taking place on autopilot? Would we make faster progress if we took more time to reflect? And how do we find this time? It is not a given. The increased emphasis on greater productivity – always cheaper and quicker – makes us less contemplative. Both as an artist and a citizen, like so many others, I feel a huge need to find answers to this problem. Creating a freely accessible space for reflection in my work, both for myself and for others, is my response to that need.

In searching for that open space, it appears you are also looking to cross boundaries – boundaries between people, societies, cultures, ages… Is this the case? Is it something that art can or should do?

Art can indeed be a way to transcend boundaries. But each artist must independently decide how to approach that issue. I’m not convinced that it should be a goal. We need diversity and versatile approaches, an awareness of one’s choices. Personally, I prefer to think that I’m looking for dialogue with my work. It is already part of the process. I have an idea, I’ll try it, the trial feeds back on the idea – sometimes it conflicts or leads me to new thoughts – and then I have to listen and continue from there. There is a constant interplay between giving input and stepping back again. The need I feel to receive or to listen is often as great as my need to suggest, or sometimes exceeds it. It is key to trust this communication process, like in any kind of meaningful relationship. All players and factors in the process are in a constant search of their role.

Do you think these mutual poetics are specific to dance, or to the collective energy of the performing arts?

No. First of all, dance, to work with movement, is an art form of infinite possibilities. We are all labouring under misconceptions as to what dance actually is. Secondly, as I said earlier, I like to think of my body as a visual entity that has the potential to communicate layers of thought, emotions and sensations. As an approach, it is perhaps closer to the visual arts than to dance, or at least in the way that we tend to perceive dance nowadays. Thirdly, in respect of boundaries, there is a cultural and societal obsession with definitions, yet in the end it shouldn’t really matter too much how we define things. To draw a frame around things, and therefore create expectations, can sometimes limit or even block our thought processes, whereas I think it is important to allow ourselves to experience art with all our senses. In this regard, I believe there is huge potential within the field of movement, one that I feel is only just beginning to be explored. It’s really fascinating. Perhaps we will start referring to dance as movement, which is what is happening in the Iranian dance world. Over there, what you do is far more important than what you call it. Their approach, which is caused by their current situation as citizens, puts them perhaps a step further in the evolution of our art form. Everything is process.

I kept on returning; I started to gravitate towards Iran. And since repetition and returning are essential to all learning, whether mental or physical, it also became this space where I was confronted with my background, my knowledge, my expectations and my limitations, and opened up to another way of being.

In being you collaborated with two Iranian artists, Masoumeh Jalalieh and Alireza Mirmohammadi. You apparently distanced yourself so radically during the process, when you were searching for your respective roles, that – for the very first time – you were absent from the stage. You directed, while Masoumeh and Alireza performed. Can you tell us more about how that creative process evolved?

Sure. It started with a workshop I gave in 2014 at the UNTIMELY Festival in Teheran. Masoumeh and Alireza were participating and I was intrigued by their skills and their presence. The dialogue that grew out of the encounter generated the creative process that eventually resulted in being. During this period, Masoumeh and I wrote a text in which we described our movement performance as a meeting of two individuals on stage, focusing on the development of human dialogue, the sharing of a space. We also conceived it as an exploration of how to communicate with one another within the context of our cultural similarities and differences. We wished to find a common language of movement that would transcend the cultural preconditions and social constructions that impact upon our lives, our behaviour, our choices, our knowledge and our identities. In trying to enrich one another’s reality by combining the various questions we had in respect of our differences, we eventually wished to make a contribution with our performance to the development of an inclusive community of global citizens.

That sounds idealistic, especially in terms of transcending boundaries and differences. Did it work?

Some things did, others did not. To begin with, what struck me about working in Iran was people’s openness towards strangers: people you barely know will generously invite you to their houses or to travel with them. They have a completely different concept of time. This was the greatest revelation. In fact, it made me feel completely at home in the country. The energy I felt in Iran was similar to the one that I knew from my father: it is very different to what I feel in Reykjavík, Brussels or other Western cities, where our quality of life is generally diminished by the constant stress on quantity and multi-everything. As a result, I kept on returning; I started to gravitate towards Iran. And since repetition and returning are essential to all learning, whether mental or physical, it also became this space where I was confronted with my background, my knowledge, my expectations and my limitations, and opened up to another way of being. In that perspective, my decision to direct the performance and leave the stage open to Masoumeh and Alireza was not about distancing. It was about getting close in a different way.

So what did not work? Did you come up against any censorship in Iran when staging their encounter?

We knew about the context of Iran’s official culture, but we turned it into a creative framework. Since we wanted to be able to perform the work both in and outside of Iran, without changing it, we decided that we would take the current condition of censorship in Iran’s official culture as a working alphabet, or a code, and use it as a device through which to perform and give physical expression to the actual work. For instance, Masoumeh could not touch Alireza on stage, and there were several body parts that neither could reveal, to a certain extent. This was the starting point for our research. The trouble we run onto, however, was that we ended up with huge visa problems. We missed a whole month of our working period and got to know that only one week before. Luckily, I knew an Icelandic-Indonesian artist who could temporarily help us out, but of course, I felt very stressed about all the extra work of fixing and organizing outside the studio.  

So border control and problems with visa turned out to be a much stronger impediment on working internationally here than having to deal with censorship and other cultural frameworks or subtexts?

Yes. It’s a problem of inequality that exceeds the arts. For instance, Alireza’s wife wanted to come to Europe and attempted to obtain a visa so that she could visit her sister in Germany. But the visa was refused. That is simply the reality for many Iranians. My European boyfriend once received an invitation to travel to North Korea, but this woman could not even come to meet her sister in Europe.

Globalisation and internationalisation work better from West to East than the other way around, you say?

Sure. We are born the same, but we don’t have the same rights. It depends on where we are born, as I stated earlier. This very realization appeals to my sensibility and responsibility as an artist as well. On the one hand, it is true that we need to address the plurality that is locally present; you don’t have to go to the other side of the world to find diversity or people who are different from you. But on the other hand, we must remain aware that we do not meet everybody in our immediate surroundings. There are a lot of people who cannot travel. A part of the world’s diversity is lacking in our streets. There are many parameters we are not aware of. I feel lucky to have the chance to dislocate myself in order to distance myself from what I find self-evident and take for granted as well.

So dislocating yourself as a artist is a way to open up and negotiate your own cultural borders, too?

Like names, borders define what can be said and can be seen. I look for what is unsaid and unseen. As long as you do not focus on borders as an end in themselves, they can become an invitation to meet what you do not know yet. When working with censorship, for instance, we would especially give focus to the subtext that emerged out of that cultural context, the political control of the body in this case. But there is a subtext to every context, just like there is a way to read between the lines of what you reveal in a movement performance. We made being via working periods and residencies in Teheran, Potsdam, Neerpelt, Groningen, Ghent, Brussels and Istanbul. All of us got dislocated at some point, so all of these locations have had an impact on the performance. Particularly, the subtext of Istanbul resonated strongly, as an age-old meeting point of East and West. That triggered so many connections.’

How did Masoumeh and Alireza experience their dislocation, performing in the Western art scene?

Well, apart from our troubles with the visas, which meant that they constantly had to travel back and forth, and which seriously hampered our research capacities and the time we needed together to just get on track, they were both quite impressed by the prestigious venue that we played and rehearsed in, as they are used to working in an underground scene. They were curious, especially, to know how the audience would react, especially since they were concerned about not being trained as professional dancers – unlike me, for that is how they initially perceived the situation. To me, however, the true point of interest was their personal and imaginative ways to work with movement, regardless of being ‘professionally trained’ or not. I felt we had a lot in common in how we approached the body.

The diverse, culturally established codes of dance did not generate another border to move beyond?

Contrary to the traditional idea of dance, I am not interested in making a hierarchy of movements. Movement performance, to me, is about communicating through the presence of one’s body, whether it does something or not, let alone something technically difficult. It’s about what the body allows to be felt. In that respect, I generally prefer to work with the body’s vulnerability and fragility. In the end, we are all incomplete, and I think there is a beauty in sharing one’s incompleteness.

Being, Bára Sigfúsdóttir, Masoumeh Jalalieh & Alireza Mirmohammadi, 2018

Our society is constantly expecting us to be in control, not least by naming and identifying. In so doing, it feels as though society is trying to keep everything and everyone in its place. Restlessly, I would even say. In reality, it keeps us from moving, however. It keeps us from accepting and embracing the transformation that is actually taking place. That is why we sometimes have to cut loose, I think, from what we are or seem to have been, so as to reconnect with the experience of being in a state of transition, both individually and collectively.

Talking about incompleteness, being seemed to me about reaching out for the missing other, the one that might complete yourself but that always remains at a distance. Perhaps this is a reason why you were not physically present on stage for the first time, too?

We simply thought it might be too illustrative if the meeting had been staged between the three of us. Then it would have looked as if we had labelled ourselves as male and female, East and West… while I generally prefer to avoid labels. But in fact, even before we had started to work in the studio, I had already felt and decided that I needed to be present in another way, as an alternative to being on stage myself. I wanted to create conditions that allowed all of us to speak for ourselves, to have our autonomy. It is a logical step, I think, in trying to turn my presence into a meeting ground and a medium of reflection for others. This force was already driving the movement in my earlier performances, too.

Is it a response, too? In having your own bodily presence lacking, I feel as though you touched upon a taboo of our own Western culture, a sacred rule that demands that you manifest yourself, that you put yourself in the centre of things, in order to obtain success and recognition. Wouldn’t you agree? 

Essentially, it is all about letting go of control, as this is the only way that something unexpected might happen. Our society is constantly expecting us to be in control, not least by naming and identifying. In so doing, it feels as though society is trying to keep everything and everyone in its place. Restlessly, I would even say. In reality, it keeps us from moving, however. It keeps us from accepting and embracing the transformation that is actually taking place. That is why we sometimes have to cut loose, I think, from what we are or seem to have been, so as to reconnect with the experience of being in a state of transition, both individually and collectively. For the only thing that we can be certain of, as many say, is that everything keeps changing. Nothing is permanent. All is ‘on the move’. It’s funny.

What’s funny?

The remark makes me think of my name.

What does it mean?

Bára means wave.

Image from MOSI, an ongoing collaboration with photographer Aëla Labbé.

Je leest: Being on the move. A conversation with Bára Sigfúsdóttir.