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Interview with Adrienn Hód: Soft Spot or What to do with mothers on stage?


After having the opportunity to see the mesmerizing Soft Spot show - created by the Hungarian choreographer Adrienn Hód, two dancers born in Slovakia, Martina Hajdyla and Soňa Ferienčikova and their team - I’ve got an immediate urge to know more about this piece of art. What caught my attention, as I am a dancer and choreographer with keen interest in dance theory and history myself, was the unmistakingly radical approach and clear vision present in the concept of the show. At that time I had not been aware that someone with philosophical leanings, a weakness for dance (and my partner) had a few months ago provided Adrienn, Martina and Soňa with a lecture to help them with some of the research questions around the show. Adrienn readily agreed to meet both of us one sunny morning in Prague at the beginning of this autumn. We spent with the full-of-life Hungarian choreographer with very strong analytical as well as intuitive mights (and so much more!) an inspiring time. We would like to share with you the most interesting parts of our conversation. I want to thank Petr Soukup for his considerate editing of the text. _Hana Polanská

Hana Polanská

In your CV it says that there is only one contemporary dance school in Hungary. What are the principles of education or what is the curriculum of this kind of school? How did your education influence you?

Adrienn Hód

The important element of this school, Budapest Contemporary Dance Academy, was (and still is) the director. His name is Iván Angelus. In the beginning of the 80’s he had this small car, a trabant. He went with it to the West to check what was happening there. At that time we only had pantomime, folk dance and ballet courses in Hungary.

From the first moment I felt like everything was different in this school. The colors, the light, the aesthetics, the wooden floor, the music they used and the rules. And Iván’s personality. The way he spoke. And the team around him. He also invited a lot of teachers from abroad. So it was a kind of intense, new energy. I learned a lot there.

It was actually like a cloister, like the space where nuns live. We were there from the morning till the night and were always really immersed in something. Also, Iván was wearing white colored clothes only. He has got a bit of a guru personality in him.

HP

The atmosphere you are describing reminds me of Bauhaus school a lot.

AH

Yeah, I can see what you mean. The idea of this director was to touch very different types, styles, and languages of movement, because he believed that contemporary dance was included and spread through all of those. He thought that we have to learn about a lot of ways of thinking through movement, while also analyzing the movement. With this educational package at our disposal we can then find out how we, personally, want to connect to the world or to the public. We can then decide for ourselves what our quality of movement is. The possibilities were wide open and not at all given in advance. We and the teachers just had to make sure to spend a good amount of time with only one quality of movement. If it was only something like two hours, you wouldn’t find out exactly what the quality consists of, you need more time than that. We also learned from traditional dance techniques, like ballet or folk dance. We were in contact with release techniques, with Graham, Limón and Cunnigham. We also learned salsa, capoeira, martial arts and acrobatics. I think this open and inclusive way of learning was a great approach. I feel that it is a bit limiting if somebody is stuck in one singular dance style. Once you have learned it, it is very hard to leave it behind, it takes a lot of work. It also kills the creativity of choreographers as well, if they simply connect aesthetically to something very strong, and then stop there. For example, there is the famous choreographer, Jiří Kilián. I went to see a modern ballet piece once and they made an exact copy of Kilián’s work. And this copy was much worse than the original. Jiří Kilián knew what he's searching for. But the copy stayed on the surface. I always want to see the real thing.



foto Michal Líner, ze zkoušky inscenace Soft Spot

HP

I was really fascinated by the SOFT SPOT show. This was the first time that I saw your piece. And it made me curious about how you're working. From which point of reference your movement material starts?

AH

My approach to the movement material is developing and changing over time.

When I finished school I was kind of young, 22. I decided that I am not going to continue my studies abroad. I wanted to start to practice right away as both a choreographer and a dancer. At this period, because I was one of the performers on stage and dancing, I worked with other choreographers too. And I was also teaching dance.

When I was approaching 30 I was finished with dancing. I knew that I had to decide whether I am staying on the stage as a performer or I am done with it. Some people can do both at once. But I realized that I can't. I decided to finish dancing. And this decision brought up a significant difference. When I was a performer on stage I was working more through my movement. From the inside. But when I left the stage I needed to find a way to tell my performers what it was that I wanted to see. Where they should start. Because I didn't want to show them myself. I was observing what they were doing. And trying to find a common language with them. How do we get to understand each other? A dancer and me?

In the series entitled DAILY ROUTINES (2010), with my company HODWORKS, we actually built the whole process of rehearsals and experiments to find and create this common language. We focused on very simple tasks: What does it mean when the body is in the space? What about the spaces between the body parts? What is happening between me and the space, me and you? Only this was important. So we started with only the angles. But if I go for angles, which angle do I go for? A small one? A big one? How big will the angles be? What about extreme angles? Impossible angles? Minimal angles? So we tried to go through every option that we had. Sometimes through the dancers. Sometimes through me. And this research took a long time. Like two years. All that time with HODWORKS we were working without any particular production.

HP

I can see that it was very analytical. There was no narrative as the starting point.

AH

Yes. We just saw the body and examined how it reacts. The meaning was coming immediately through it. There was no theme. We did not focus on just one thing. Like, say, happiness. Nothing like that.

HP

So there was no emotion, no narrative...

AH

We were more concerned with space, and dynamics of time.

HP

And from what you say: also effort.

AH

Yes. There's muscle tension. And if you start to vary that - there is already a dance.

Then we wanted to deal more with emotions. And breathing. And we also questioned performativity: in what way are you there? What is your connection with the public, or what is your connection with the others? This was altogether the first big period of creation. Still without a specific productional goal. I felt that once we would go for production everything would change. Including the ways of our thinking. And I also thought that I needed time to find tools that would be my own.

Petr Soukup

It seems that quite a lot of people from the local Czech dance scene are nowadays searching for the same thing: time and space for themselves without the pressure, deadlines, productions in a short span of time. For you it was different: you started there.

AH

Yeah. And this research period really helped us later on. It gave us a base for a long time. Of course, we didn’t always go back to use this for the creational processes, but at the beginning this base was our starting point.

HP

How was it economically possible - without production?

AH

For those two years we were not making any money from it. Everybody was making their living by doing something else, working somewhere else. Like teaching, and so on. And after those two years we started to actively apply for the support for our projects. We earned money to produce and create our pieces.

But I remember that when we were working on our first production, a piece called BASSE DANSE (2012), we went through a lot of suffering. How can we do this properly now? Now we have a time limit. Before we didn't have one. We just went to the studio and spent five hours there. We didn't need or want to arrive from one point to another. We were just there. It was an immense freedom. We were really enjoying it, the dancers as well as I. We didn't have to put out something. But then everything changed. We were trying to find only a very fragile frame for BASSE DANSE. It was still a very abstract piece.

However we had to make some decisions. And I suffered with that. The clothes. What should the performers wear? I hate clothes on stage. Because everything means something. If it's white, you have an elaborate symbolism of white coming with it. If it's black, you have the symbolism of black. If it's modern or old or... Everything has some meaning. You can see it immediately: they have money for clothes or they don't have money for clothes. The clothes carry a lot of information. And I struggled with this. We asked a fashion designer to prepare something for us but I didn't understand it. This is one of the reasons why much later a period came where I decided: no more clothes on stage. But I will talk about nudity later on…

AH

So after the experimental research period the first steps were very hard for us. In the next show we worked more with structures, with the edges of the space and we managed the space more specifically. We still kept it all very abstract. We are dealing with four dancers there. They either have or don't have space around them. They are on the wall or in the structure of the matter that was on the stage: the curtain, the space underneath - we use the black box. The movement is abstract. I think this work is better than BASSE DANSE. We were able to use more of our material based on our two years research period. And it was more fluid.

We called it THE WAY MY FATHER IMAGINED IT ALL (2014), or something like that. Kind of a silly title.



foto Vojtěch Brtnický, z inscenace Soft Spot

NUDITY

After this show we got rid of clothes altogether and started to perform naked. Because I don't want performers to be in clothes. Please, no clothes. Let’s go for nudity. Pure. Simple. Only the body. And of course this brought up a lot of other ideas. Like taboos. Why the taboos? What does nudity mean? And in which cultural context does it mean that? It’s very different in Hungary, in Scandinavia or in Serbia. All this brings a big package. The nudity leads us to more questions. How shall the bodies move to have an unprovocative way to connect the audience with (their) nudity? Their moves can’t be just aesthetic. They can't just "show something". [Adrienn demonstrates] When I'm sitting on the chair, and you can see me from the side, it has a more erotical vibe in it. Once you take everything away and there is just a body I believe that the audience becomes involved in it in a different way as well.

We were not using nudity to provoke. People from the audience when we asked them told us that after watching our piece something was really different for them. It felt as if they crossed some line.

They carry this package with them. In it there is a bit of shame. A need to make sure. What do the other(s) want to see? When this happens and the show goes on and they are still sitting there they forget about the nudity after some time. They just see the skin.

And the nudity as clothes. They see the body as a character, and no longer this strange thing that makes them uncomfortable.

HP

Not a phenomenological body. Rather a symbol? Or a sign?

AH

Yeah. Also, the dancers don't have eye contact with the audience. They are in the space, but they are not performing “for” the audience. Because that would be different. If I am looking directly at you when I am naked then it's a very different situation. It's like a striptease or a seduction of someone.

HP

A lot of shows are built on seduction. They want to seduce the audience.

AH

Yeah, that's also interesting. [Both laugh.]



foto Vojtěch Brtnický, z inscenace Soft Spot

VERBALITY


AH

In the next stage after nudity we started to use verbality, voice.

HP

How did you get to voice?

AH

It’s very important for me when I work with someone for a long time, to not simply bring my concept which they would follow. I really want to know what they are interested in at that very moment. Because I believe my job is actually minimal. They have a bigger job than me. They are on the stage. It is up to them to perform. And if they don't feel "the material", it won’t work. Thus I just go on and ask my performers - at least those that I know really well: how they are, how they feel about their professional career, what are they curious about, what disturbs them, what would they want to examine, what is it that they would like to do.

I think that there are limits to what it is possible to express through movement. We can’t work with any theme. But other than that I am listening to them and I hear them.

When I am working directly with my company, HODWORKS, one production takes one year, we have time so I ask them even repeatedly.

On the other hand, I don’t ask the people that I am not so familiar with. If someone else calls me as an applied choreographer we are working with a very different timing.

They invited me to SEAD (Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance). I have felt a bit uneasy and I didn't have the patience to “go into the forest” with them: because who knows where we would come out? I felt like they wanted me to make something fantastic. And I was to be there just for the week. Oh my gosh.

When the hosts had a chance to watch some of my previous work, they sometimes really want exactly that something that they saw and liked. I think it's better if the expectations are clear. If I would just follow my artistic instincts they may end up asking: what are you doing? And then they would be disappointed. In their eyes it is not my style. When I went to Salzburg (SEAD) I also felt that I didn't want to deal with their characteristic improvisational stuff. So I had prepared a very clear concept. In the U.S. before the American football match they have this parade. The musicians and the girls. It's a big show. They also stand on the tribune to make formations. It is very frontal. And they repeat the same gestures. They march through the streets, then the group arrives in the stadium. It's real choreography. They practice a lot. Ladies mostly, winery fancy dress. Big makeup and hair made up, with very shiny faces. There are 20 or 30 dancers in the group. That was the starting point for the movement quality I chose. And there were forms that emerged there. And the students studied them from the videos. I simply put this in parallel to a very melancholic music. Because during the original shows it is full of drumming and so on.



foto Betty Frajková, ze zkoušky Soft Spot

AH

With the girls, Martina and Soňa, I was in between, because I felt, ok, they are just two. So maybe it will be easier to handle them than a bigger group. And right away they told me that they are mothers. I started to think about what that meant. What do I do with mothers on stage? Later on we left this path. I believe that they still want to work with this mother stuff.

But as for me, I didn't connect to the mother aspect. And we had just six weeks. Sometimes, if it's a short time you have to test the alternatives very quickly. During the last two weeks that we spent in Budapest we checked four different ideas. One was the theme that we ended up with: forms with and without meaning, how the forms change and how it all is inscribed into your mind: to feel or sense what is happening. But at the beginning this was very abstract.

Then there was the power game theme that you provided us with the lecture on Petr [about rudiments of Hegel’s philosophy]. I really liked this idea. If the decision would be just on me, I would have gone for power relations. But as for the girls, they were not so sure. It was not just movement-based. They would have had to fight. It was more cruel and rough. More of the rural energy. And we also wanted to include power relations to the public. We wanted an even bigger, unknown power entity to enter and break all the rules of the game…

Anyway, it would have needed a lot of research and you would have to be really deep in it. - Because it's also kind of a provocation. What exactly is this power stuff…? But because of the hesitation of the girls we had to choose the other theme.

We were also working with another idea that involved slow stripteas. It surfaced because I'm attracted to those times of the birth of stripteas and burlesque in the 20’s and 30’s. Why? Because there was a scene. There was a quality of the dance. And it's a bit artistic. I also like the frontal opposition idea because it makes it clearly a striptease. Which means that you want to seduce people or you want to lift the libido of the people a little higher or you want to relax the people. They can go out, they drink and there is a lady on the stage taking off clothes. But there is also this strongly theatrical aspect to it. Music, costumes, story, quality, who is there, how they do it. It's totally like theater. I was working on a British movie at the time. There is a man in it going to a bar in London. And we needed a big scene around the bar. During this work I researched a lot of the 40’s, 50’s burlesque.

So that was another of our possible choices: to go for the burlesque style theme. Our idea was two solos. Contemporary dance movements but still striptease in the center.

HP

I can feel that some of that is still shining through there.

AH

Yeah, I agree.

HP

Would they have taken off their clothes?

AH

Yes, something like that. But as you know we finally chose a different path.



foto Vojtěch Brtnický, z inscenace Soft Spot

HP

On that note: Can we talk about the SOFT SPOT show as I saw it in more detail? I appreciated a lot that they had all the time - or almost all of the time - their faces concealed. I am a big fan of masks worn during performances. Because there is no facial expression to influence me as for what the performers are feeling at the moment.

AH

That was the reason why we covered them. No face, because it is also a lot of information. Are they tired or not? Their age is visible! The coverup of their entire bodies takes away the gender too. I instructed them that I don't want to see that they are females, their female energy. We wanted the performance to be more androgynous.



On the other hand, I also wanted to focus more on the body as such. To make the tops of their bodies a bit naked at a certain moment as a contrast to the rest of the body that is totally covered. In Nitra the audience told us that, especially with Martina, they were at times unable to decide.

HP

Whether she's a male or female? I had the same experience. Especially because in the end, when they take off some parts of their bodies, her body had something very masculine in it.

AH

Yeah. We tried to emphasize that also with the bigger size protection (note: suspensor).

HP

She looks like a boxer.

AH

And in-between man and woman.

AH

Soňa has got bigger breasts whereas Martina can get closer to a body that is in line. And the veil over their faces, that was another big question. We had a rehearsal with Martina and at first we thought about burkini. A garment that is worn by Islamic women when they go to the gym or to swim. Only their face is out. There are even Nike Burkinis. I liked this combination of religious confession and a big Nike sign. I like the contrast in what you see. That it is kind of that thing, but not (exactly) that.

HP

Do you like to use cultural references of this sort?

AH

Yeah, I do. Especially when the contrast is able to trigger your mind, when it makes you think. There is a question of faith. And there is also the Nike logo which is Western, sporty, capitalistic, made in China… It messes with your first idea that spontaneously emerges in your mind. And Martina quickly suggested during our conversation about the veil: what if we just had our faces covered and our bodies totally exposed? After striptease and burlesque, this was another theme involving nudity. They could have been naked. But we put this idea aside.

We went for the black material covering the entire body. For layers to add playfulness. Opened up the tops of their bodies, showed just the hip or part of the buttock, to make it all more puzzling.

HP

Which is also visually dividing the body into parts.

AH

Exactly. But at the end we decided that we would make all of these motives a bit more subtle: that we only make some changes towards the end of the performance. Then Martina came with a more concrete idea of clothes covering their entire bodies, with the t-shirt and all the other stuff, and I felt like that was really good. Because we actually didn’t need any of the “personal”.

PS

The veil, it feels, besides else, like a nun.

AH

It definitely brings a lot of associations. What is it? Is it burka? Is it sort of a widow veil? Covered face of somebody who was killed?

PS

They remind me of Samurais as well.

AH

Yeah. They also cover the face when a mother wants to calm down her child - to protect it against sun or noise. Also when I am flying on an airplane I cover my whole face when I sleep. Instead of just eyes.

We were also discussing whether the figure should be black or deep gray. When I look at the figure more attentively they are like shadows. Not real. Sometimes I feel like I can go through them. At other times in some composition of the light it feels like they are covered in ashes. Or even like a black hole. An ephemeral image of the kind. The sensation of the human body is a little bit lost. And also there is an impression of them being not three but two-dimensional. A drawing or animation.

PS

Would you say that it is like a person changing into an object? Can you see some kind of transformation like that?

AH

I know that what I see is living. What is unclear at certain moments is whether they are persons or ghosts. Half human or half machine or androids. But we don’t decide which one it is.

HP

It again reminds me of the Bauhaus era. Of Dada and other avantgarde when they also worked a lot with the masks to get through to something that they called ur-form that transcends us. Especially the first scene with the masks and text running through their displays. What I saw at first was primarily the utopian technology and perfect shapes. And then it totally changed. Those two kinds of “masks”, or perhaps two layers of the mask, were important for my experience as a viewer.

AH

At first we thought that we would use only the virtual-reality glasses with the digital outside display. And the hair and everything would be out. But it was getting more and more important that also the face and all of the (body) surface would be disguised. Okay, so then we decided that we do both and we arrived at the conclusion that you saw presented on the stage.

HP

In the annotation there is also something about utopia and darkness.

AH

Sometimes I feel that the light design that Tomáš Morávek did and the black space helped to bring up the theme of darkness. And the smoke and the performers standing as if they were just shadows, unreal, evoked after the war times and damage, fiery feeling, bodies there. But not the happy kind of post-war era with a baby on the breasts.

It is also an interesting question what part of this stuff is conscious and what is unconscious.

Because I believe that when you know what you want, you just know it and it's totally not unconscious. But if you don't know and you are searching around there is a bigger chance for some of this unconscious stuff to show up. I am able to create a field where you don't know exactly what's happening but also where it is very clear what is happening. And that is quite an important skill to have at your disposal. I like both of those aspects. Because throughout rehearsals sometimes I see some quality in dancers but I can’t name it or categorize it. Sometimes it is very good not to know what it is that I have just spotted - and it brings me joy. I remember that during the creation of SOFT SPOT we realized how even the tiniest change in a physical form can trigger a change in your mind to see it completely differently, to lose the original meaning of it. This phenomenon is abstract, complex and hard to work with, I believe. But it is a good example of me being happy when I see something that I don’t know what it is.

HP

Very often we can’t help ourselves but try to find the “meaning” in the movement or even in the dance piece in its entirety…

AH

Yeah, all the time. And it happens immediately.

PS

I personally like the moment when I don't know.

HP

Yeah me, too.

AH

But you sense that it's affecting you?

PS

Yes, because you become affected directly without the filter of meaning. You are somehow activated - without being able to act.

AH

You are activated because even though you don't know exactly you have to be aware, you can’t close your brain to it.

PS

This set of elements that you described: post-war era, ghosts, shadows, darkness, etc. reminded me of the Babylon Berlin series where there is the dark theme of the people damaged in the first world war. When you lose your eye or arm you can get a new one, the technical one and get closer to perfection. Like robots. That was the message I believe.

AH

This makes me think about how I also like the effect that up until the end there is no skin visible. There is the human because there is a shape of the human body. You can go more amorphous though. So it's not extreme…

HP

Yeah, but how Martina moves for example for me, how she twisted and stretched very often I also had the feeling that she's not a human being, and that the arms and legs are in such impossible positions and constellations that it makes this impression on me. So you were also deconstructing their bodies.

Like a body after some horrible accident. Or a murdered one.

AH

Yeah, the body showing its fatal fragility.



foto Vojtěch Brtnický, z inscenace Soft Spot

POLITICS AND ART

HP

Would you say that your art is political?

AH

Somebody once said that every art is political. Because there is not just aesthetics. Even if my aim wasn’t to be directly political, some ideas and themes are already politicized anyway. Sometimes the feedback of the audience, amateur as well as professional, tells you what is tolerated and what is not. F.e. one feedback on our last piece (Amber, 2021) coming from the leader of a dance institution in Hungary sounded like: ‘we don't want to see two males dancing together too close and too intimate on stage because it's not right.’ I didn't intend to be political when we created that piece that way. However the government in Hungary is really pushing a LGBTQ+ hate campaign. LGBTQ+ people can’t get married. They can't adopt a child. The government has also accepted a law saying that you can’t ‘propagate’ to students under 18 that there is such thing as romantic and sexual relationships between same-sex people. And this makes what we do very political. These topics are getting more political day by day.

PS

Your piece entitled Grace (2016) mixes some views that are actually hard to reconcile. Kind of a blasphemy. The saint and the sin in the same “image”. It is dynamic, provocative, but not explicit - I would say that it is quite political.

AH

One of our pieces is called Mirage (2019). And it became a political topic in the media. They really wanted to describe it to us, to me, what it means to be a good Hungarian citizen. I got really angry. Because I thought that they didn't have to tell me. I'm Hungarian. And that if I want to use Béla Bartók’s song and do some very humoristic, ironic stuff - I can do it.

It's hard to describe this question. Because they don't know us. They don't approach us directly.

But they know how they can push us. With not giving proper money to certain artists, companies, cultural organizations, venues, etc. They kill our scene. Probably you heard about the story of the SZFE (University of Theatre and Film in Budapest) (1). I would say that at that time it was quite visible that there was something political in the air. Now we have the old school, with a new director and his new team. A lot of people left. As for students, if all they have is just one year in front of them, they stay. If they have more they leave. They created this Free Theater academy. Which means a very hard life because of no money. If you want to study there you have to pay, so it's a private school.



But it's also good for education because this new school brings new ideas and new programs and departments.

HP

What is the idea of the audience around the stage in SOFT SPOT?

AH

We thought a lot about the space and length of the piece. My first idea was to open the space, like a gallery or museum, with people coming in and out. From say six o’clock till midnight. If they wanted to stay there, they stayed, if not, they left. Then we used this idea for the theater stage in a shorter time span of some eighty minutes.

HP

And the open ending…

AH

It is always interesting. Sometimes the audience comes in and they immediately sit down on the floor. Like, for example, now in Nitra. They felt as if there was a wall and they were quite far from the area, some four meters or so. And there was a show in Bratislava, the space was not as big and the frame was in the middle and there was not much space left for them, so they crossed through the square, interacted more. And in one of the shows in Ponec Theatre in Prague they also moved a lot.

HP

I was quite surprised that some people there were actually crossing the square or sitting in the middle, under the light. And they were kind of doing their own performance part. Did you want this? Have you been prepared for that kind of behavior?

AH

I think we wanted this to be open for whatever might happen.


Hana Polanská and Petr Soukup




(1) The intendant of the National Theatre and his supporters in the cultural politics decided to take over the Theatre and Film University which they labeled as a 'liberal nest'. Since the university legally belonged to the state but had a structural autonomy, with political and financial pressure they restructured the institution, erased its autonomy and organized it under a private curatorium, led by them. When the students realized what was happening they started a blockade which created a huge wave of solidarity in Hungary and also from the international theater and film world. Names like Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Thomas Ostermayer or Cate Blanchet stated that they are supporting the students and the autonomy of theater and film education and there were several big protests during the three months of the blockade. The pandemic worked against the students who had to stop their protest due to the increasing covid numbers in the country. Despite the enormous resistance, the government didn't change anything in its plan, and took over the university with several other universities, rearranging them under private curatoriums.


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