Maria Hassabi and Robert Steijn

Two choreographers meet onstage at Danspace Project.

Robert Steijn

How did this collaboration come about?
I met Maria for the first time when she performed Still Smoking in Vienna, and I liked the piece a lot, especially the sense of space between the dancers. And I was intrigued by the way she directed a nondancer [artist David Adamo] to move in a very open and fragile way. This dancer had a very touching presence onstage. We started to talk about her performance, but soon also about art in general, life, love, the dance market, the usual things to learn about each other. This dialogue never stopped. These talks started a friendship, with always in the background of our minds—at least in my mind—a wish to make something together onstage.

What compelled you?
I was intrigued by Maria’s heightened awareness of what it means to present a body on stage. Because I mostly work with Frans Poelstra in our company called united sorry, I started to have a wish to collaborate with women choreographers. With Frans, I feel that we act as two boyish, somewhat older men working together. We share the same kind of humor, and we both are already too old to be deadly ambitious, although this doesn’t mean we are not serious in what we do and that we are not working hard. But we feel very independent within the European dance scene. In my wish to meet women artists I worked as a performer with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Latifa Labissi, and now with Maria. However, I noticed that the difference in gender didn’t play such a strong role in making this piece together. I discovered a strong sense of humor with Maria, although it is definitely a different one than I share with Frans. And we both have the drive for being inclusive in our work—everything what we do on stage matters, every breath, every gaze of the eyes—and we share a strong love for details, especially concerning the timing. I can be a freak about timing.

You have said that you “try to get into a state, where the passing of time loses its importance and where the sense of death gets integrated in being in the moment.” How are you doing that in this piece?
I try to take nothing too personally onstage and in the working process; I try to get an awareness that also deals with everything that is outside the borders of my own body and existence. It is as if my awareness can escape from my own personage, and from an overview perspective, I start to observe my body as an embodied navigation system in a universe that is full of other bodies. Onstage, the Robert who thinks he owns or is the body that wears the name Robert died metaphorically, and from this perspective there is the opportunity to start an awareness that is inclusive and no longer thinks in separations, as in Robert and Maria, in you and me. In my work with Maria, it means that I want to deal with our collaboration from a overview perspective without censoring myself or her. The aim is to coexist as two human beings that inform each other about what happens inside and outside [of] them. We challenge each other to become aware of and give room to all the shifting moments we create and share in space by our connected bodies.

Is it improvised?
Nothing is improvised, only the timing is totally open, because it is lived at the moment of performing. There is a constant dialogue going on about how we pass and live time. Who takes the initiative to move, who follows, where do we lose ourselves in a communal act or movement, where do we change the sensitivity, where do we transform the intention?

How do you approach the idea of love in this work?
Love is for me a strategy to escape power relationships or hierarchal thinking between people. I started to make theater to explore how this kind of love could manifest itself in working with myself, with others, and how it could transform the notion of work itself. Devotion is a word I like a lot and which is very close to my interpretation of love. Devotion to your work, to the fact you are sharing the space with another artist. Love keeps the curiosity alive to what can happen, and love forces you not to be afraid of the results, whatever happens. When you love someone you get also attracted to things which a lot of people even don’t notice, see or appreciate. In this way, I want to see the performance; I try to embrace the work unconditionally, whatever it will look like at the end. And I am in love with the smallest moments.

How did you and Maria begin this process?
Of course we talked a lot. At a certain moment, we started to move for each other, and looked at how we could find a format to move together in a way where we both could stay creative. I think we both had the wish to make something that stayed close to the reality as we experience ourselves together in daily live. The title indicates this already. No forced theatrical illusions, no forced love affairs, to make a special, strongly romantic performance. What we do onstage is the result and the showing on the spot of a dialogue between two people whose work is to make art with the body onstage.

It seems as though part of the piece is about exploring the similarities within opposites: Did you really think you were so different? And what about now?
A big difference is that I got engaged in art as a spiritual quest toward a body that is capable to connect with everything and everyone in its surroundings in a open, nonaggressive way. I went into the art field because I wanted to communicate new ways of giving meaning to the sense of time and space from the perspective of my own body. I felt that dance made it possible to research and show these different ways of connection where the barrier between inside and outside at least becomes blurry. Maria and I share an obsession for how the body finds its meaning in time and space onstage, although she can’t be interested in the spiritual context that I sometimes give to it. We hardly talked about shamanism or spirituality. I think we meet each other in the performing together, in our love for the work we do onstage. Working with Maria heightened my awareness of how to keep the body alive, also in the so-called still moments.

What is the inspiration behind the piece?
To show love as an efficient consequence of being alive in a world connected with others.

How do you define “getting lost”?
In my private life, a lot of the time I’m lost, especially when I reflect on my intimate relationships and when I start positioning myself as a choreographer in an aggressive international market, full of hypes and fashions. Onstage the feeling of getting lost is a totally different one. It feels like a coming home in the body, in different mind states that you didn’t know were possible. It is a dive into the unknown, and although you must give up rational control, because you are onstage, you still can observe yourself doing it. Things you wouldn’t accept in your private life, you can let it happen onstage. It is difficult for me to get lost onstage, because the stage is a place where I am able to observe myself. So you can observe yourself in getting lost, which is a contradiction in itself I guess. In my shamanistic practice I seldom get obsessed in a way where I don’t know what happened to me; I work more with a trance state that makes you lucid about everything that happens in the space.

Could you talk about the process?
By encircling each other, talking, moving, reacting, we found a certain very intimate place to meet. The result is a continuous, intense proximity in which we can be playful, honest, passionate and humble at the same time.

What has working with someone else taught you about your own work?
I learned to trust the basic quality of a movement, an act or a tone; I learned how an intention can become clear by embodying it by the most minimal shift in the body.

How have you pushed each other creatively?
For sure, Maria pushed me creatively. It was never about surviving each other and looking for compromises, it was always about finding a creative life together onstage—without any compromise, but with new forms and new conditions and ways of thinking. Maria pushed me to rethink my ideas about the difference between being and doing something onstage, and how unclear this division can become when you find something that absorbs your usual way of behaving and thinking.

How did you decide whose name would appear first in the title?
Does it matter? I remember that when we decided for the order of names, we liked the sound of Robert and Maria better than Maria and Robert. In traditional ways, the man lets the woman go first out of a form of politeness. Does it mean that I am not polite to women? Or that I am not traditional? I hope it is because I am not that traditional.

Robert Steijn | Maria Hassabi</a></p><p><a href="/newyork/section/dance">See more in Dance

Maria Hassabi

How did this collaboration come about?
Robert and I met close to four years ago at ImPulsTanz in Vienna. He had seen Still Smoking, and after we met he told me he wanted to be a part of my work. We’ve kept in close contact since then and met each other when I was in Europe or he was in New York. We always made time to improvise, without having any deadlines. As our friendship and collaboration grew, I realized I wasn’t interested in setting work on him or directing him, I was intrigued by the idea of us finding common ground. Our relationship always felt good and honest. In the summer of 2008, I ran into Ralph Lemon in Paris and introduced him to Robert. Later when Ralph was telling me about his Platform [“i get lost”] that he was thinking of curating, I thought of Robert right away. C’est la.

Why did you want to do it?
Somehow this collaboration made me curious. I liked spending time with Robert in and outside the studio. In a funny way we realized we always talked about art and love back and forth, from one subject to the other endlessly.

You say that you “work with what is known in order to dive into the unknown.” How are you doing that in this piece?
Well, naturally the creative process is directly connected with the “unknown.” Even if the ideas behind a project are concrete and well researched, I still never know what the final product will end up being. It is like waking up in the morning and having a full schedule planned, but you never know what each day will bring. For this piece as well, neither of us knew what we were going to make or propose.

Has Ralph Lemon been involved in your creative process?
I spoke extensively with Ralph over the last two years about work and process. Specific projects were not always the focus. Ralph has been a major influence in my work and practice for many years. I first met him when I was 18 years old at CalArts. That’s a while back.

Did you and Robert propose certain questions or movement ideas to each other?
Many. We are both very strong-minded and deeply committed to our individual work and aesthetics. My work is my belief system and the same is true for Robert. The challenge was to find the meeting place. This was not easy. We made lots of other choices before arriving to this particular show.

It seems as though part of the piece is about exploring the similarities within opposites: Did you really think you were so different? And what about now?
We are different. We are very different! That’s the beauty of us coming together and the challenge. This is our attraction to each other.

After spending so much time working alone and with your own body, could you talk about the experience of working with someone else?
I have indeed spent a lot of time working alone, and material gets made primarily by me, on me. This is the way I work by myself in the studio for a while, trying to understand and clarify the concepts before my collaborators join the process. In a 50-50 collaboration, one’s individual clarity doesn’t function the same way. We had time and space to be alone to rethink and process our ideas, and yet everything had to be discussed and decisions always had to be agreed on by us both.

How do you define “getting lost”?
The getting lost for me is directly connected with entering the unknown through the creative process and creating a task, physical or conceptual. This is a formal decision. From here I push farther, both physically and conceptually, many times to uncomfortable places that are new to me. Formal decisions and conceptual tasks get tweaked by the body’s limitations, its timing and space. You’ve seen me shaking onstage with tears coming out my eyes. These responses are not choreographed. They are results of the task, and the reactions are different each time. They keep me and the other performers in the work on the edge, present, real and vulnerable—flirting once again with the unknown. We just have to stick to the form.

What has working with someone taught you about your own work?
I had to learn to let go, to relinquish control. But in the end, I know I love being the driver, even though I don’t have a driver’s license and automobiles scare the hell out of me!

Robert and Maria is at Danspace Project Thu 15--Sat 17.

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