Choreographer Antonio Bühler on his experience of mentoring Gati Residency participants.

Antonio Bühler, Swiss choreographer, was in New Delhi mentoring selected dancer/choreographers who participated in the Gati Summer Dance Residency and presented their work at “All Warmed Up”, the showcase performance held at New Delhi’s British Council Theatre recently. Known for his path-breaking work choreographed with Brigitte Meuwly, who co-founded the group Da Motus! (literally, “Give Movement”) with him in 1987, Bühler is also trained in Yoga. The productions of Da Motus! cover a range of themes, some presented in the open on busy city streets to an audience of startled passersby, and others in theatres. All the works, however, while also displaying an impressive virtuosity and group coordination, do exhibit an engagement with issues that go deeper than form — human relationships, the breath that lives within the bodily cage and without, change and renewal, and so on. Seemingly an ideal choice for mentoring this summer’s Gati candidates, here Bühler answers a few questions on his work with the Gati participants:

Some of the participants this year have earned a name in a traditional classical dance form of India. As a choreographer known for work that goes beyond the boundaries of even general definitions such as theatre, dance, or conventionally recognised body art, did you ever face a challenge in negotiating the seeming limitations imposed by the traditional arts in which these dancers have trained?

To be a mentor for six different personalities was a challenge in itself, regardless of the differences in technical and cultural backgrounds. I was certainly more cautious, as I am not too familiar with Indian sensibilities. I therefore made an effort to adopt a sensitive approach to build trust so that my ideas and observations would be seen as constructive, not destructive.

The participants in the residency showed great commitment, worked hard and their work was to be respected, regardless of whether I could relate to it or not. Interestingly, the person who was trained most in traditional forms, discovered an extremely personal and creative approach. While she did use her solid traditional techniques, it was to research new forms and means of expression where the aesthetics of the tradition can no longer be recognised. I believe that the limitations are due less to the technical background and more to whether one is mentally willing to tread new paths of creativity, to the visual experience and to the engagement with other forms of expression. Techniques acquired through training are ultimately only a tool with which creativity can be given expression.

How much did each individual’s dance vocabulary shape your approach to the residency?

I tried, as best I could, to empathise with the ‘artistic universe’ of the individual residents. I wanted my contribution to be in the sense and the spirit of the individual performances. Of course I am not wholly objective, as my opinions, too, are based on my sensibilities. But I always tried not to formulate personal comments but to use general parameters such as the dimensions of time, space and energy in my arguments. I have often questioned them and tried to differentiate between the essential and the superfluous.

I have also placed great emphasis on intensity and presence, something that is however more relevant to interpretation. After all, the choreographers were also interpreters at the same time. In addition, I wanted to make them aware of the quality of a conscious movement sequence.

What was your impression of the young choreographers you worked with during the residency?

The participants varied in age, training and experience. Not everyone who takes part in a residency is also a creative artist or has the personality and sensibility required. Most of the participants were young people who had been influenced by certain forms, whether of Indian or western origin. Their future development will show whether they are capable of acquiring a more personal and original form of expression. Be that as it may, this residency experience was extremely important for them. Gati Dance is making a vital contribution here.

At any rate, I appreciated their commitment, their will to learn and to gain experience. It pleased me greatly to see that the work environment was always friendly and constructive. Their choreographic work was always in the forefront, which made for an extremely professional exchange.

New choreography is often about breaking conventions and stepping out of comfort zones. What is your advice to aspiring choreographers…how does one succeed in transforming a good concept into an impactful dance performance?

I don’t know if there is a definite formula for this — anyway, I don’t have it. Chance plays a role in the artistic process, instinct, this higher and deeper dimension that is not easy to capture. Perhaps this is why art has a ‘divine’ dimension that surpasses our limited intellect.

Of course one must engage intensively with the chosen theme or concept, not necessarily in intellectual terms, one must empathise with it and be ‘inspired’ by it. The body, the chosen movements should ‘sway in the frequency’ in which the desired statement vibrates. Practise a lot while trying to remain genuine and honest.

Often it is simply the zeitgeist that also plays a role. Dance is an immediate art form. Who knows how many great works could never be appreciated only because they did not match the taste that characterised the time or because they were poorly conveyed? Dance cannot be compared with literary or plastic work. The potentiality of these works can be discovered much later too and can be appreciated.

How important is communication with the audience…is the audience supposed to ‘understand’, in the way we comprehend a performance of say, an age-old story, or a conventional repertoire that has been classified classical?

I am of the opinion that as soon as one decides to perform a piece in public, the audience must be taken into consideration in the concept itself. After all, my performance is addressed to the public — otherwise I might as well stay home and perform for myself. If I want to convey something, then I must also think about how I can best convey it, without ‘betraying’ myself or my project and without making lazy compromises.

It is less about being ‘understood’ and more about remaining ‘readable’ so that sympathy, feelings, associations, questions, wonder and even uncertainty can be provoked. I believe that dance as a body language may and should appeal more to the senses and the sub-conscious than to the intellect. We live in a highly intellectualised society that wants everything explained and we are being taught increasingly to work with reason. Our instinct, our senses and our feelings are diminishing. I value it when an artwork penetrates into the deeper layers of my being.

How has your study and practice of Yoga influenced your approach to art?

As a contemporary artist I have generally been influenced by eastern tradition. What would contemporary dance have been without the significant impact of Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Kathakali, Kalaripayattu, etc.? These practices from the East have and continue to have a tremendous influence on dance in the West. The exchange or the influence actually works in both directions. One therefore wrongly feels that contemporary dance is primarily of a western nature.

My engagement with Yoga and its related practice has caused fundamental shifts in my priorities and values in life. I am now, for example, in a better position to relativise our choreographic work, but that probably also has something to do with age and experience. I pay more attention to the intensity and awareness of a movement sequence and attach great importance to perception: internal and external. Perhaps it has also sharpened my focus on what is important, true to the motto: less is more.