Wilson Le Personnic - maculture.fr
Skatepark interview with Mette Ingvartsen

1 – After projects that questioned how we represent and perceive nature and sexuality in society, your latest work seems to address new questions and ideas… Could you share some of the background behind your artistic research and how it’s evolved over time?

Skatepark is indeed part of a new direction within my work, and one that has been developing over the last 3 years. The Artificial Nature Series and The Red Pieces were more thematic cycles concentrating on one topic in a kaleidoscopic way, whereas the pieces I’ve been developing recently do not share a common topic, but rather a more general approach towards an expansive and ‘permeable’ choreography. The way I’m working at the moment is based on observing movements that already exist in public space (for instance skateboarding) or in the world (like migratory movements) to understand what they express, or what they are an expression of. Through this, I have also started working with performers who are not educated as dancers, but come from other backgrounds and differ in ages.

In The Life Work I worked with Japanese women in their late 70s and 80s who migrated to Germany when they were in their 20s. The piece is based on their personal stories – it is a collection of individual portraits that also form a larger collective whole. In The Dancing Public I enter into a collaboration with the audience as I attempt to reactivate movements and narratives about dancing manias, or dance epidemics as they were also called, that took hold in the streets during the Middle Ages.

I think Skatepark is a continuation of these approaches. During the last year I’ve had several concentrated periods of work with a group of 12 skaters and dancers between 11 to 35 years old. Some of them have only skated for a couple of years, while others have been moving on wheels for more than half their lives.

2 – Formally, Skatepark is very different from your previous projects. How does this new piece draw on or echo your past work? Where does the new creation fit in the larger body of your research?

Skatepark isn’t so different from my previous works if you look at it conceptually. I often start from observations of phenomena or social practices that exist in the world, and try to understand those through choreography. This is also how I started working on Skatepark. What’s different for me is that for the first time I’m working with performers, across generations, where the majority don’t have professional training in the performing arts. This has challenged my practice tremendously and has opened up new ways of working together. I often think of this piece as a group portrait of all the performers in it. For instance, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work with singing, an activity I observed in the skatepark, but I did not know which songs we would sing, nor who would be singing them. So, I asked all the performers to each bring 5 songs or pieces of music that for them would fit in our skatepark. The soundtrack was developed from this approach and from the songs they proposed, and combined with approaches I was interested in continuing myself from The Dancing Public, where I was working with singing overlaid on electronic music.

I’m also still working on ideas around community and collectivity, and through that trying to understand the counterculture or subculture that skateboarding is. This echoes earlier works where I was trying to understand the counterculture of the 1960s.

3 – For Skatepark, you were interested in the world of the skatepark. What is it about this place and its people that attracted your curiosity? What potential did you see in the space? Could you retrace the origins of Skatepark?

The idea for Skatepark came about 4 years ago, in a period when I was spending a lot of time with my two kids at Ursulines Skatepark in the centre of Brussels. I found the speed and the precision of the skaters’ movements very impressive, and it also reconnected me to a period of my life, as a teenager, when I was roller-skating myself. I used to love being on wheels and experiencing the flow of movement: the feeling of being able to defy physical laws like gravity, surface friction, or resistance. Watching the skaters at Ursulines brought back those memories and sensations of gliding through space. It was something I practiced a lot in parallel with my dance training.

It was not only the fluidity and flow of movement that made me interested in working on a performance, but also the hard work, the repetition, and the persistence of someone who wants to pull off a certain move and will never give up trying. It is laborious work to become good at skating and to acquire the necessary skills to feel free while gilding on wheels. This was a contradiction I found very interesting – the fact that fluidity and flow does not come on its own, but is something that needs to be articulated, rehearsed, tried, and tested – and within that I found a metaphor for society in general. What if a skatepark was a microcosm of the world? What would we then be able to learn from it?

I also had the feeling that I was seeing an unusually heterogenous community co-existing in a very organic way. Not to say that there are no conflicts or frictions at the Ursulines Skatepark, but I had the feeling that it remains a public space or square that is organised in a rather open and inclusive way, permitting all kinds of different activities to take place.

4 – What are the main questions that have driven the research of Skatepark? How did you start thinking about and designing the piece?

Skateboarding has this origin story, a myth really, about how some surfers in California moved from sea to asphalt one day when the waves were low. That story influenced me quite strongly, although I later learned from a feminist writer that skateboarding was not invented in this moment but well before! Still, the transformation of one practice into another was inspiring when I came to consider the choreographic potential of skateboarding.

In the Californian origin story, captured in the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys, skateboarding is also bound up with rebellion and trespassing on private properties, where young skaters (some of whom later became famous, even legendary) would skate in empty swimming pools until the police arrived.

Through this I became interested in skateboarding as an anti-establishment practice, a counterculture, a rebellion, or an anarchistic approach to private property that displayed an anti-capitalist attitude.

Some might ask what skateparks have to do with the beginnings of skating as an illegal practice that happened in streets or pools – and rightly so. Skateparks are in general strongly debated – loved and hated by skaters for different reasons. There is a divide between skaters who think that skateboarding belongs in urban space which has not been ‘designed’ to be skated, and those who are happy to finally have a ‘free’ space where they can skate without dealing with noise complaints or repeated encounters with the police. I’m interested in the tension between these two perspectives, and the piece, I hope, is also a reflection of this dual understanding of what skateboarding is. It is both about freedom and about control. It is at once an anti-establishment practice and a highly commercialised activity. It is a lifestyle, but it is also an Olympic sport. It is freedom co-opted by capitalism, but it also still offers a genuine possibility to feel unrestricted and empowered while moving on wheels. It is something you do alone, but equally something you do together. It is at once competitive and brutal, and community-based and inclusive, depending on where and with whom you experience it.

Historically it is a very masculine discipline – or female skaters have not been given the same attention as their male counterparts. But there is a feeling that this is changing today, with female skate collectives (for instance bx_elles here in Bruxelles) creating opportunities for female skaters to appropriate the practice and contribute to more inclusive understandings of how public space can be differently used.

As a female choreographer, these questions have also been important to consider while working on this piece. How to give space and voice to girls and women within a skatepark? In Skatepark this ended up becoming quite literal as two of the performers, Poppy and Julia, also happen to be great singers, so their voices are literally heard in the show.

What I am trying to figure out with this work is what are the forms of togetherness and co-existence skating gives rise to, how does it form communities, alternative ‘families’ and ‘homes’, and how does this produce a specific way of sharing public space that can be inclusive.

5 – You have been developing a practice that you call ‘permeable choreography’. Could you define it? What is at stake within this practice? How does it unfold in Skatepark?

I have probably always been working on choreography as a permeable practice – permeable to other artistic disciplines, to social and political questions, to theories and thoughts, to voices and music, to technology and to nature, to anything you can imagine, reterritorialising it from the confines of dance history where it is an isolated practice of the body. I consider permeable choreography to be a way of looking at the world, or a way of looking at existing movements to try to understand them.

In Skatepark we are dealing a lot with what it means to represent a skatepark on a stage. When I first started to work on the piece, I thought we might do it in an actual outdoor skatepark, but I realised that besides skateboarding and roller-skating, I was also interested in all the smaller movements surrounding the practice: sitting around, eating, drinking, talking, listening to music, singing, dancing, laughing, partying, and so on. I thought that these movements would need to be reframed in order to be seen as choreographic alongside the skating. Otherwise they would simply appear natural – something that belonged completely to its environment. Displacing them onto the stage seemed necessary to me, and I also didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of invading a skatepark / public space with a performance.

I was interested instead in making a connection between my practice as a dancer and choreographer – one with a particular knowledge of the apparatus of theatre – and the knowledge of the skaters and performers that I have been working so closely with to develop this piece. With this work there is also a desire to reach out to skate communities in the cities where we go to perform, and to invite them into the theatre. We organise a workshop a couple of months before we come to perform, and we also invite some of the skaters we meet to come and be part of our attempt to transform an entire theatre into a skatepark.

6 – Could you describe the creative process? How did you put together your team? How did you start working with them? Did you alternate between sessions in a natural environment / real skatepark and in the studio? How did this new working context change your usual working methods?

Finding all the performers was a long process that took more than 6 months. In my work I often search for different ways of being together, and for this piece I was searching for people I thought could get along in a group, like a cross-generational group of friends who enjoy spending time together. I spent a lot of time in the skatepark to find the performers, but I was also helped by Ian Dykmans, and later by Damien Delsaux, who is now performing in the piece. Nine out of the twelve performers are skaters and not professional performers, whereas the three dancers who joined all have a strong relation to skating as well.

The beginning of the creation took please at Poppy’s skatepark, a place she courageously runs by herself in an old industrial building in Erembodegem just outside of Brussels. It felt like a ‘home’ for the piece, a place where we felt comfortable working and where we developed most of our material. It had all the ramps and other elements that we needed to get to grips with and eventually incorporate into the scenography. After that we worked in dance studios that we transformed into skateparks for a couple of weeks at a time, while we waited for the actual scenography to be built. For me the creation really started the moment I went out to the skatepark to find the skaters, and took off when I began testing concrete ideas I’d gotten from observing this public space. The working period in Poppy’s skatepark was also formative to the piece, because of its roughness and the DIY mentality it was built with.

7 – Your choreography always forms itself in connection with props and environments. How did you conceptualise the space of Skatepark? How did you work from the space/scenography?

The scenography was developed in collaboration with Antidote Skateparks who normally build skateparks for public spaces. I worked closely together with Pierre Jambé who is a skater himself, and together we conceptualised our park so that it would fit the choreographic ideas I was developing. I realised from the very beginning that the architecture would define the piece completely, so it was a process that started very early on, and one that forced me to work out the overall shape of the piece before I even started working on it. I knew that it would need to permit different forms of skating to create variations in the movement, that there had to be a kind of ‘stage’ in one of the corners for a concert scene, that I wanted to have the feeling of a half pipe but without actually having to build a half pipe, and that it had to feel like a public square that could be inhabited by the performers. We went with Pierre to Ursulines Skatepark to look at the movement and architecture there, and that’s where he made the first drawings. From there he worked with a 3D design program, adapting it a lot over time. I am grateful to Pierre and Stéphane Thonnard for their persistence and dedication, and also to the entire technical team of the Théâtre National in Brussels who actually constructed the park, which was a very big and complex job.

8 – You are once again collaborating with the lighting designer Minna Tiikkainen and the sound artists Anne van de Star and Peter Lenaerts. How did lighting and sound come together with the choreography of Skatepark?

We talked a lot about how to understand the skatepark not as one place, but as many – as a heterogeneous space hosting different cultures, backgrounds, ages, languages and voices, but also musical styles, dress codes, situations, activities and atmospheres. In the light, sound and costumes for the piece we have tried to reflect this heterotopia, which in our case is perhaps also a utopia – a place where cooperation is more important than competition, where friendships and alliances seem to rule, where skating together is just as important as skating alone, where different genders and backgrounds have space to find a voice, and where different skill levels of skating can coexist, because there is something more at stake than competitive virtuosity.

In a skatepark, there are often lots of activities going on at the same time. One person can be listening to recorded music, another playing an instrument, and others singing or talking. Working with Anne van de Star we decided to use multiple speakers to reflect the way skaters will bring their own speakers to a skatepark to listen to music. We also still use the theatre’s own sound system to create the feeling of shifting from one reality to another. With Peter Lenaerts we’ve now started to work on how to make the sound move around or ‘skate’ the space.

With Minna Tiikkainen we are busy with understanding how urban lighting feels and how we can recreate those sensations on the stage. One thing we’ve noticed is that even in full daylight there’s always a lot of other lights on in the city, often with a lot of strong colours. There are also more subtle lighting colour changes that come from clouds drifting across or covering the sun. For the piece’s final scene, we’re exploring ways to capture the energy and chaos of a skate party through light.

For that final scene, Jenny Defays has also been working on how costumes, make-up and masks can give access to vertiginous sensations. In his book The Forbidden Conjunction, the skater and visual artist Raphaël Zarka makes a direct connection between vertigo and the feeling of moving on wheels. He analyses skateboarding through various definitions of play and considers skateboarding as a ‘vertigo game’ comparable to other games that evoke strong physical sensations – like spinning till you drop or riding a rollercoaster. Masks are tools that allow us to access such vertiginous sensations, because of the way they allow us to lose ourselves, at least for a moment. They permit a transformation of the body that Foucault beautifully describes in his text about the utopian body. “To wear a mask, to put on make-up, to tattoo oneself, is not exactly (as one might imagine) to acquire another body […] it is to place the body in communication with secret powers and invisible forces.”

Just like skateboarding!