Q&A: Ivana Müller talks about her participatory works

Ivana Müller talks about her participatory works as part of the Crossing the Line Festival

Ivana Muller's "We Are Still Watching"

Ivana Muller's "We Are Still Watching" Photograph: Sanne Peper

The Crossing the Line Festival is back, and among this year's lineup of movement-based artists (Trajal Harrell, Xavier Le Roy) is Croatia-born, Paris-based choreographer Ivana Müller. For the festival, Müller presents two participatory works at New York Live Arts. In anticipation, she talks about why she chose to stir the audience: "I can tell you I'm very critical of participatory theater." That's a good sign.

If you think participatory works aren’t for you, think again. As part of the Crossing the Line Festival, visionary choreographer Ivana Müller offers two: We Are Still Watching, which takes the form of a theatrical table reading—spectators create a community while reading a script together—and Partituur, her only piece created for children (seven and up, including adults); participants receive instructions through headphones and act—or not—accordingly. Armed with a lucid ability to shape a performative experience, step back and watch it unfold, Müller, who was born in Croatia and lives in Paris, takes on the idea of a spectacle: Suddenly, bad theater becomes good. Here, she talks about challenging the relationship between performer and spectator.

Why did you want to show these two works?
The choice came more from [Crossing the Line curators] Simon Dove and Lili Chopra because they saw a line running through both: the idea of participation. This is not very usual work for me. If we say that While We Were Holding It Together was a kind of “Müller’s manifesto”—in the sense that it was the piece that has been shown the most and written about and also the most representative of my work—these are maybe the most incongruous pieces. They explore the idea of participation and that was something that I worked on in 2011 and 2012 a lot. It had to do with further inquiry about the relationship between performer and spectator—something that was always in the core of my work—but it also coincided with some changes in society, especially in the Netherlands, but also in Europe.

What are you referring to? 
There has been a massive change of cultural policy and also about the thinking of the place of art and culture in society. And that’s maybe why I was taking ideas about this relationship between performer and spectator to thoughts about what does it mean to be a spectator? And also, what does it mean to be a citizen in terms of engagement, and how can we have a voice and how can we be political outside of some kind of dominant routine ways of being civic, like voting? This is mostly in reference to We Are Still Watching, which I made with a group of colleagues: Andrea Bozic, a choreographer who is based in Amsterdam; David Weber-Krebs, an artist based in Brussels; and Jonas Rutgeerts, a dramaturge who lives in Belgium. We were talking, and I came up with a concept of this scripted piece.

In We Are Still Watching, the spectators are the only participants. Why was that idea intriguing?
Because they are performing and representing a community at the same time. It’s a weird event; it creates something that is beyond representation. People really talk to each other in this. Apart from the script, there is no presence of an authority. The author is not present.

And there is no director?
No. There are no professional performers; there is no professional technician. It’s people left alone. [Laughs] Okay, they have a script, but they also have to make a lot of decisions. On the other hand, it is a very scripted piece. That is to say, if you follow the script, you get a sense of a completed work. It’s not that you have to improvise things and can do whatever you want. It plays somewhere in a very interesting line between something that is extremely fixed and something that is just terribly loose. It’s just like any society.

What about Partituur?
It’s the first-ever piece that I made for kids and probably it will be the only piece I ever make for kids. I immensely enjoyed working on it, and I like kids, but I always have a bit of trouble with children’s theater or with any theater that is made for a specific community. I got this as a commission from a festival in Utrecht in the Netherlands. It’s a good concept: They ask an artist who has nothing to do with children’s theater to create a piece for kids or with kids. For many years they asked me to do it, and I couldn’t—I didn’t have time and maybe I was not so super interested, but then in this reflection, again, about the relationship between spectator and performer, I realized that I was always troubled by children’s theater. When I was a child, I was annoyed by people onstage who wanted to infantilize me more than I needed, or sometimes as an adult I was really annoyed by colleagues that write text and then let kids speak that text as if it is theirs. As a spectator, I always had a problem—I could never be critical, and I don’t like that. I want to be critical and not just empathic, saying, “Oh, they’re cute, they’re nice.” I thought the best would be to work, again, in a kind of closed-circuit to create a performance system in which the kids would be spectators and performers for each other. So there is no outsider. Actually in Partituur, everybody has to participate. So if you have parents bringing their kids to do this, they also have to participate. They cannot watch. They are not guinea pigs that are doing experiments. Once they start watching them, they have a different status. Everybody has to be in it. Also because it’s a kids’ piece, I wanted to make a political piece, and I was thinking, how this could be possible? It was very interesting, because before we made the piece, we worked in schools and did a great deal of research. I didn’t know anything about this culture.

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