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Learn more about dance in Munich! In TTmag dance creators talk about their aesthetics and approach, dance formats and Munich dance topics are put under the microscope!

Stephan Herwig
A virtuoso of silence and community

Stephan, one of my first encounters with your work was "Editorial Bareback" Editorial Bareback” from 2013. Is it true when I say that your choreographic work has since become increasingly abstract?

I understand why many people describe my work as abstract; however, I always put bodies and human beings on the stage – quite conscious of their respective individuality. And these human bodies are, for me, not at all abstract – but, on the contrary, extremely real.

But never ostentatious – instead, in a certain way, introverted. When "Schweifen" appeared in 2016, the critic Malve Gradinger wrote about a “profound interrogation of the body”, and about the attempt to dance “inwardly”.

I had already started doing that about six years earlier. In “Somewhere” I asked myself the question: “What would happen if the dancer, who was actually trained to have a presence, just tried not to be present?” Their body is present, but their spirit turns inwards. It was fascinating that exactly the opposite happened – namely, the body become even more real, more present than it already was. That was a very good experience, and very brave as well, because we danced approximately 70 per cent of the piece with eyes closed and didn’t bother ourselves about what the audience was seeing. I believe it was then that I began to enquire about the origin of movement …

Is it the search for this origin or primaeval source of movement that drives you?

In every first rehearsal with the dancers, your main job is to decide: how shall we begin? What will I prompt them with – as a question or as material for a starting point? And then I generally let the dancers first feel their way about in the dark …

Do you also have the feeling that particular elements in your choreographic work stubbornly keep recurring?

I’ve never tried to create a signature style. For each piece, I consider what I do and what I don’t want to work on. Every piece is influenced by the one that preceded it, whereby similarities emerge. And I have preferences. When certain things happen, I just really like it and can then watch it for a very long time.

What are those “things”?

For example, I’m very fond of still moments in which the audience has time to contemplate the dancers without distraction. Something that isn’t actually allowed in normal social interaction. When does anyone just contemplate the person opposite – regardless whether it’s a stranger or someone familiar – without expecting conversation or action? …

You have been working as a freelance choreographer since 2006 and, after one year of no funding, received three-year grant from the city of Munich in 2019. What has that actually changed?

The grant came during a time of self-reflection and proved that there are people who see me and my work … With individual project funding, each project is an advertisement for the next. With the Optionsförderung [three-year grant], I can risk making something that might not be so well received. And I can also much more easily establish new and longer-lasting contacts with other artists.

Though, just now, regarding your collaboration with dancers such as Anna Fontanet or Maxwell McCarthy, there is great continuity. What does this long-term collaboration give you?

The longer you work together, the more you trust one another to go deeper, and the less you try to impress the other. I know from my own experience as a dancer – I worked with Micha Purucker for a very long time – that, on the one hand, you try give the choreographer something new. On the other, you also know that you don’t have to dish something up. After all, the choreographer chose someone, and chose that person multiple times. This sense of trust is something that I really value. But in return, new dancers bring a freshness with them, new perspectives, momentum and ideas.

How does your background as a dancer affect your work as a choreographer?

My years of dancing were my years of apprenticeship. I came to choreography because I’m creative myself and didn’t want just to realize other people’s work. That’s why I sat in on every rehearsal with my ears wide open – and when choreographers worked with other people, I stuck around and listened to their discussions with lighting designers or composers, how they dealt with the dancers and the theme. I found all that hugely interesting, which is why I consciously sought out very different choreographers in order to see as great a range as possible.

Were you more interested in different modes of interaction than in specific dance languages or aesthetics?

Communication has a huge influence on work. And on the decision for particular dancers and how you bring them into the creative process, and possible artistic conflicts. In other words: do I use dancers as a tool or do I approach them as independent artists who don’t necessarily have to do what I tell them? And this sense of value – not just for the body but also for the mind and everything else that dancers brings with them – I’ve experienced this, and that’s how I wanted to work, both as dancer and later as choreographer. The way a dancer thinks and feels during the rehearsal process is extremely relevant and has an influence on creative output, and therefore, in a very direct way, on the aesthetic of a work.

What qualities must a dancer have in order for you to want to work with them?

Definitely a certain “coolness”. I like it when a dancer comes out on stage and radiates a real presence, but also has a very strong sense of their own body …

How important is individuality to you?

I find it extremely important that there’s no randomness in whatever a dancer does, but that you can recognize: that’s Anna, that’s Maxwell, that’s what they can present and it’s only they who can present it like that. That’s also something I find problematic in contemporary dancer training: that everyone should be able to do everything, which at first glance seems to be a great basic requirement. But then, ultimately, everybody can and does do the same thing

There is a special Herwig-ian virtuosity of reacting to one another. To my recollection, there are in "Rhythm & Silence" so many near collisions that you can hardly believe that it was apparently largely improvised.

In general, I’m less interested in whether something was improvised or rehearsed, but rather if it happens authentically in the moment. And that usually works best when the dancers really have to react to each other. In other words, they need to know about their vocabulary, their body and the relationship to the other dancers, but not what exactly is going to happen the next moment. That way, everyone is extremely alert and clear, and that creates a tension that I really love.

How important is the time factor in your work?

The enormous role that time plays for me is something I just experienced in my last piece, in which its passage became very clear through not using music. I also find it fascinating how differently that’s experienced and why the word “Langeweile” (boredom) is considered negative. It only signifies a “lange Weile” (a long while). That can also be something positive, allowing a lot of time for something. These thoughts are always very present, this consideration of how much time I allow for a moment to develop and establish itself, before I start something else.

How would you describe your relationship to music?

Music is hugely important to me – precisely because I have been gradually reducing it more and more. Music has a very strong influence on how and what you see. Just look at horror films. That’s why I’ve tried to see: what can dance do on its own, what atmosphere can it create without distraction and without amplification? That has interested me very much over the years and ultimately led me to think: get rid of music. Iwant stillness and I want the rhythm and sound to come from the dancers themselves. But for my next work "In Feldern", I’ve brought a composer on board.

Will he be composing music that is non-manipulative and non-distracting?

In earlier work, I often used sound as a counterpoint to what you can see. Where the journey in the next piece will lead, I don’t yet know.

These questions were asked by Sabine Leucht in the summer of 2020. She is an arts journalist, theatre and dance critic and writes for publications including the Süddeutsche Zeitung, taz, Theater der Zeit and Münchner Feuilleton.

Tanztendenz Munich e.V. is sponsored
by the Munich Department of Arts and Culture