She likes to work with dancers eight hours a day, to watch them in their everyday life, to build relationships with these people who will go on to embody and make her visions real on stage. I met the Athens-born choreographer Toula Limnaios in Prenzlauer Berg, in a former GDR gymnasium, which houses the dance company cie. toula limnaios, which she and the German composer Ralf R. Ollertz founded in 1996, in Brussels. Since 2003, they have been permanently housed in this space on Eberswalder Strasse, turning the Halle Tanzbühne Berlin to one of the top destinations for those interested in contemporary dance and staging two new productions every year. Where does this fascinating interplay between music and movement of intense emotion and almost esoteric quality come from? I’d like to take a peek inside this prolific choreographer’s mind.
The most recent performance you choreographed, “the thing I am”, dealt with the ebb and flow of passion and pain as they are experienced, individually, by people in their relationships. What was the initial question or wish, the starting point from which you set out to develop your theme?
There always are some ideas which I keep returning to, questions and images that keep my mind busy and won’t go away. One of these has to do with the way each one of us experiences pain, physically as well as psychologically. And I know that when this is happening to me, I realize that one thing is the outer expression of myself and my feelings, the way they are exhibited and are thus visible, and one other thing is what is happening and is expressed inside of me. So at times like these, I tend to pose questions about the thing that I am. This thing that I am, is visible outside of me, while so much is happening inside of me. It is like I am my subject and at the same time my own object. This is what I set out to develop with this piece, this duality.
How does this “thing that I am” -or, for that matter, the thing that we are- works in a relationship ?
Actually, I did want to touch upon the issue of relationships and pose some questions about the thing we are. But of course, who I am to speak for everybody else? So I chose to speak about what I am. And as far as I am concerned, this I exists in relation to another person, I can only relate myself to someone else. Otherwise we are alone.
Do you believe that we are not really alone?
Of course we are alone in the sense that each one of us is born alone and dies alone. And quite often there come times when we may have very strong feelings which we cannot share with anybody. There are times when we are alone with ourselves. However, I believe that in our path in life we are not alone. In fact, after all, we are not alone. We are born of parents, grow up in a family, usually, share an education with others. And anyway, don’t we depend on others as we go along? We do; we depend on other people, our meetings with others transform us, we change through the years. I for one am not the same woman I was as a thirty-year-old. In that sense, we are not alone.
In what ways have you changed through the years?
I suppose that the most important change has to do with the distance I am now able to take, the ability I have developed to not be as dependent on my relationships as I used to be. I am here speaking also of my intimate relationships. Dependence is something that makes one suffer, that makes it impossible to feel free. The way I see it, each relationship comes as a bond, as a little chain that makes you a little more imprisoned. Every relationship that I have comes to be added to the one before it, and thus a sort of a string is created.
What drew you to dance, professionally, in the first place? Why did you decide this is what you wanted to do with your life?
This is easy to answer, even if I am not that good with words. Each person comes in this world for a reason. And I may not know why I am here, but I do know that I am not one who communicates with the world and expresses herself perfectly with words. Words are not my tool. But I have always been thirsty and hungry for movement, for action…It is a need, a strong one. I was always like this. Already when I was a child, all teachers would say to my mother that this little girl has to dance, she’s full of energy, she has to somehow focus this energy. This is how I came to dance, and I feel it was natural, it was right for me all along. With dance I don’t need to speak. And isn’t it so often difficult, for all of us, to find the right words in order to express ourselves in a difficult situation? Whereas with dance, we are moving and speaking with our souls. Or, let me tell you this: with dance, it is like we are speaking with something that is bigger than us.
When you begin working on a new choreography, is your starting point a feeling, a thought, a movement, or maybe the music? How does it all begin to become real, to take shape?
For each scene that we are working on with the dancers, the process is a little bit different. The road to creating something new, to discovering something, is never the same. We always arrive by way of a different path. However, my head is always overflowing with images. Ever since I was a small girl, I have been trusting in my very rich imagination; a rich visual imagination.
Might that explain how you manage to put on two productions each season?
Indeed I am often asked how I manage to come up with so many ideas. The images are there, in my head. And thus it becomes possible to stage two new productions a year. Our repertory of 16 years numbers 32 pieces. This truly is quite a lot. But coming back to your earlier question about the way we start working on a new choreography, the images keep coming and they multiply as I work with the dancers. Experimentation and work trigger my visual imagination. Of course I am also dependent on the dancers, of whom I ask questions, with whom I share ideas. Improvisation is an integral part of our creative process, naturally. And then the time comes to turn the images into movement, into concrete situations.
When does the music come in?
The music comes at the same time as everything else. This is one of the principles on which Ralf R. Ollertz and I have based our collaboration, right from the start. At the time we founded the company, in1996, we had both been more or less suffocating in our collaborations. We were not at all happy with the way the music was dealt with, the way it was understood and composed for dance performances. The norm called for a sort of narrative music, a very illustrative music. Neither of us agreed with this artistically. And my only other choice was to pick some CD and work with music that had already been composed. This did not satisfy me, it did not answer my needs. When Ralf and I created the company, we agreed that we would stay completeley independent of each other. This means that Ralf’s music does not illustrate what we do, it is not descriptive of the movement. In turn, we do not interpret the music.
How does this function? May I imagine it as two independent universes that come together?
Yes, exactly. Τhe music is being composed as we work on the choreography. We start working simultaneously and follow our parallel creative paths. Sometimes the composition might follow improvisation, other times it will divert and move on its own. What it ends up being, is in essence a dialogue. This is a dialogue of two separate, independent entities, each of whom can go on existing in the absence of the other.
So what brought the two of you tοgether and made you decide to found a company was your shared need to be independent?
That’s right. Αnd this has also kept us together. Before founding the company, for example, what would trouble me, was how dependent the dancers tended to be on the music. I didn’t want that for our company, this is why we very often work in silence. You know, it is very hard not to follow the music. Moreover, it is very hard to realise that there is music inside of us, and to listen to it. To this music I want my dancers to be able to move. Working with Ralf for 16 years now, we have developed in such away that when I see dance, I can hear music and when I hear music, I can see dance.
Your company, cie. toula limnaios, was founded in Brussels. Why did you relocate and settle in Berlin?
Around 1996 – ’97 both Ralf and I had received invitations from the Akademie der Künste. Each of us was offered a studio here, so we started travelling back and forth between the cities. As time went by, we realised we were so often in Berlin that it made sense to move here, permanently. It just felt right to be here. And it has proved a very good decision.
When did you move into this space on Eberswalder Strasse?
It certainly did not happen from one day to the other. It took years. When we moved here, we were starting from scratch since our work was not known in Berlin. And with time, little by little, doing one project after another, this changed. The space that now houses our company came into our lives in 2000. At first we only used it for our rehearsals. Back then we were staging our performances in the Theater am Halleschen Ufer, the HAU2 as it is today called. But in 2003 the new artistic director decided that they did not want to focus on dance that much – and it is true that our performances are very physical, we do not fall in what we may call conceptual category. This change meant that we were suddenly left without a theatre, so we eventually decided to take a risk and use this space, despite its very obvious limitations, one of which is that it is not big enough.
What is the story of this space?
This is one of the oldest buildings of Berlin. It was built in 1870 and is included in the protected Historic Monuments of the city. The front part, however, was built in the 1950s, a few years before the Wall was erected. During the GDR years, this was a gymnastics hall, and the room in the front was used as an office and meeting place for the trainers.
How has this space, with its advantages as well as the limitations that it puts upon you, affected your creative work?
I have experienced working in this space as a huge privilege. First of all, being here has changed my life. You have to realise that before taking the plunge and using this space for performances, I was completely independent. The mental and psychological effort that was included in transforming this into a theatre was definitely significant. But this space, because it has such a strong character, played a big part in the way I evolved as an artist. Consider this: There are 150 seats in there, in front of a stage from which no dancer can go in or out. They way it is constructed, all dancers have no choice but to remain on stage at all times during the performance. We simply do not have enough space. So this was one thing that I had to incorporate in my creative process, this inability to allow a dancer to go out of sight.
In general, what happens is that the audience tends to focus on one or two dancers, while the rest go in and out of sight. Having all the dancers on stage all the time is a very unusual way for a choreographer to compose. But in our case, that was it: the challenge for me was to manage to create a dramaturgical line for each and every character. Each person that you are watching on stage is equally important and you can really follow them through the piece.And this I have been doing for every choreography ever since we moved in this space. It is a very exciting way of composition. It is difficult, it does not make my life easy, but it is exciting.
Being in the audience I had to somehow do my own editing, in order to be able to watch the performance. I had to choose whom to follow and to shift my attention from one to the other, so that in the end I was watching a customized performance. If I had the opportunity to watch the same piece, I would adopt a different viewpoint, so as to allow myself to make up a new story.
For me this effect is vital, because we work a lot with associations. And I try to arrive at a feeling or an image by indirect routes. For instance, when my subjects are passion and pain, and I am searching among the images in my head, I need to lead you through them by indirect associations. Each theme a dancer is working on, has at least four or five significations. The dramaturgy is not completely open, we have a line running through the piece, a certain way that it is being developed. But this is still done in an open way so that the persons in the audience can make their own associations, their own visual editing and create their own stories. The choreography that I do is polyphonic. As a viewer, you have to make your own choice.
Do you always work with the same dancers?
Actually I am very loyal to my dancers and I can work many years with them. Right now, out the eight dancers, one has been with us for seven years. Two others have been working with us for two years, and five for one year. Until 2010 we had a company of dancers with whom we had been working for a very long time. But naturally, there comes a certain point in our lives when we may have other needs; to have a family and raise kids, or to study some more. So in 2010 we agreed that it was better to part ways artistically. Since then I have been in the process of rebuilding a company, with love and a lot of patience.
Is it then important for you to always work with the same dancers?
It is like I was telling you earlier, when we were talking about relationships. With the dancers it is a kind of relationship that we come to cultivate, it is a dialogue that we are involved in. And daily life is a big part of every relationship. I like to see the dancers in our everyday life, to see how they are working, to watch them when they come in for rehearsal, if they are tired, or happy, or sad because of something…all those details of everyday reality. When you know the persons you are working with, when you are familiar with their ways, you can always go deeper, do more substantial work. Consider this: With a project, people come together for three months, and as a choreographer you always stay on the surface. Why? Because everybody takes all their knowledge, everything they have already acquired, and bring it to the piece. They don’t search any further, they don’t dig deeper.
In what way does cooperating with the same people over many years make a difference?
We work altogether every day for eight hours every day. We have a year-long contract with the dancers. In fact ours is the only independent dance company in Germany that does that. It is highly unusual. When you know the people well, you can go deeper. You can say, “no I know you, I do not want to see this movement anymore. I don’t want to always see the same expression in your face because you think that you are dancing, I want to see that you are moved from the inside.” Things like this you cannot know about a person when working together for a limited amount of time in order to do only one project together.
There are trends in contemporary dance. Do you care to follow them?
No, I don’t. I am in a very privileged situation, I try to be authentic, to be true to myself. This is what’s most important to me.
Do you have any expectations from the viewers?
Simply to be open. Because if you are thinking about the dinner you will have later, or about all the work that’s waiting for you, then I can not touch you. It is like in relationships, to be open is the most important part.
You have also been a teacher of choreography; what is it that you most wish your students to take away from your classes?
Simply to realize that that there are no tricks, no secrets. As a choreographer, you are allowed to do everything. Really. But in such a way that it is sincere. Very often I say to them, just practice, just act, you learn a lot through simply acting, simply practicing. By doing, you learn. As you do in life.
Katerina Oikonomakou, September 2013
Watch a portrait of Toula and cie. toula limnaios by ARTE
The vimeo page of cie. toula limnaios