Interview with Kenneth Flak

Kenneth Flak, is one of the three young and magnificent choreographers of Korzo Productions from Hague, Netherlands, who have been invited to Shanghai Dutch Culture Center for a 2-nights modern dancing show titled “Dancer’s Life” with the subject “Here we live and now”, and a 5-day workshop face professional modern dancers and related professionals.

Hereafter, “T” stands for Ling, “A” stands for Kenneth Flak.

 

God Studies

T: Your performance in Dancer’s Life: God Studies #3 was presented at another dance event from ‘Voorjaarsontwaken‘(waking of spring) in 2008 and is the last in a movement study for the evening-length performance ‘Of Gods and Driftwood‘.

Do you somehow believe the “gods” as the one who wake up the spring of life? What’s your belief and religion? As well, the title ‘Of Gods and Driftwood‘ reflects quite some reference might from philosophy and literature, which philosophers and writers you’ve been influenced by?

 

A: I don’t believe in any gods at all, as anything other than potentially beautiful metaphors (sometimes less than beautiful, unfortunately). My interest in religion mainly reflects my interest in the human mind, and how we work as a species. I guess one of the main philosophical sources of inspiration for the piece was Nietzsche, with his emphasis on the irrationality of the human mind, as well as his ideas on power. I am also very interested in the work of Michel Foucault, and what I think of as his way of revising and updating Nietzsche’s thoughts for our society. Another important influence was the work of Tor Åge Bringsværd, the Norwegian author that wrote the text for my performance. He is a very popular writer in Norway, for readers of all ages. His books were some of the first ones to introduce me to the Norwegian mythology, which is, ultimately, the basis of the piece, so it was natural to ask him to collaborate on the piece once it was clear that I needed to deal with the mythology.

 

T: God Studies #3 is a solo, and you’ve been acting the 3 gods in your dance.

How you trying to “mentally and physically being” the Odin, Thor and Loke who hold quite different characters among each other? And from your dance, I find Loke is the most interesting and impressive part, do you find this attraction and irresistibility from so-called “evil and dark” power? How you balance them?

 

A: My approach to embodying a character usually starts with the movement material: by working out the specific movement patterns of a specific character, I gradually get the “feel” for that character, which I then use to dig further into the movement material, feeding back into my understanding of the character, and so on.

 

The “evil and dark” powers are always the most interesting to work with for artists, and the ones that tend to trigger the imagination the most. The villain is usually the most interesting, complex character in a good movie, and I believe there have been many more depictions of hell than heaven in the Western arts. I guess there are some evolutionary reasons why we are better at fantasizing about the bad stuff that can happen: Good feelings are relatively simple, whereas trouble can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Maybe the people with the most vivid imagination had a better chance of surviving?

 

T: According to my poor memory, in the first part of God studies #3, there’s a certain pattern of movement: Twitching, which (I guess) share the same gesture from CPY17. Is there any occasions that you find some movements repeating, and difficult to innovate new ones? How you continue a certain style through your performance while create some dancing elements relevantly new?

 

A: I am not so concerned with finding brand new movement patterns. Only on very rare occasions do I see movement systems that I think are absolutely new, and I don’t necessarily think it would be a stamp of quality if choreography did have genuinely new material in it. I am much more concerned with developing material that I find relevant and appropriate to the theme, or character, or topic of research that I am working on at the moment. The twitching material that you observed in God Studies #3 felt appropriate to the state of mind of the character I wished to portray at the moment. Of course, I do return to certain movement themes that are conditioned by my training, and by my previous performance experience, but without these I would not have been able to create anything at all. It’s a bit like language: It would be very difficult to communicate anything at all if we were to reinvent the language fundamentally each time we wanted to say something. For something new to arise we still need stable and relatively unchanging structures.

 

T: The introduction of your dance note: “The universe of these Viking gods is brutal, violent and beautiful at the same time: the only thing that matters is survival, and, where survival is no longer possible, to die in style. What do these characters represent for contemporary man?” What would be your answer for this question?

And these lines remind me the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the great painter Caravaggio, as well the film Thor directed by Kenneth Branagh will bring the 3 gods onto Silver Screen. How you would like to tell me the unique beauty of Dance compare to other art means?

 

A: Your questions are actually related to each other in an interesting way. There is no simple answer to what these characters represent, this became more and more clear to me as I continued working with them. They have the potential of being some kind of allegories over how humans behave towards each other, their strategies of survival and interaction, and their ways of thinking about life. One of the things that I find particularly salient for us today is the lack of absolutes in the mythology. There is no simple scheme for good or evil, which relates very strongly to most of the philosophies of life I adhere to.

 

The advantage of dance is that it can sustain this openness. Dance is a very poor medium for giving absolute answers to anything at all. It is, however, an excellent medium to create and play with associations and images in a very dynamic manner.

 

T: I see in your current projects, there’s one entitled The Chinese Room; would you please share a bit this story with our readers?

 

A: The Chinese Room is a duet for dancer Külli Roosna and myself, working together with light designer Thomas Dotzler (Sweden) and multimedia artist Kunihiko Matsuo (Japan). The performance deals with the question: What’s the next stage of human evolution? Will we become a kind of permanently on-line hive-mind, will we finally merge with the machines? Will the machines finally merge with us? What’s taken all of this so long to accomplish? What would the programming language be that could create such a fusion? The title, The Chinese Room, refers to a famous thought experiment by American philosopher John Searle on programming and understanding. It would take too much time to explain it fully, but his basic position is that machines can never understand what they are doing, since they are basically only fulfilling a program. He believes humanity is a very different story, one that cannot be understood in terms of simple programming rules. I wouldn’t be able to say who’s right in the subsequent debate, but I am not so sure Mr. Searle is right in his assumptions.

 

T: I’ve read quite some articles about the Chinese Room from John Searle, and related Turing test, theory of Ludwig Wittgenstein, quotes “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”, the latter happens to be my favorite philosopher. There are still huge disparate debates about AI and human mind. I believe the Simplicity will be the direction.

 

A: If I understand you correctly, I agree with you. I believe Turing’s point is valid: If you cannot distinguish between a machine and a human, then, per definition, the machine must be intelligent (or the human being must be a kind of machine). By proposing this test, Turing elegantly bypassed a lot of philosophical problems bordering on metaphysics, suggesting a solution for the artificial intelligence problem that is quite simple and pragmatically: If it talks like a duck, walks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it is, for all practical purposes, a duck. Whether or not the duck understands itself as a duck or not is irrelevant. The important thing is the function of the system, rather than the presence or absence of self-awareness and understanding of the system’s rules… (And who’s to say that we—carbon-based human beings—understand the rules guiding our own thoughts and behaviors? I think one of Foucault’s major achievements was to make us think about the underlying structures of the thought systems that we take for granted.)

 

T: I believe KORZO PRODUCTIONS cooperate with a lot of young or leading choreographers and connected with new and stimulating initiatives in the global dance scene.

Is there any plan that Korzo will bring some more events and activities like ‘Here we live and now‘ in China?

 

A: I certainly hope there will be more interaction between Korzo and the Chinese scene; although I don’t know what the concrete plans for this are at the moment.

 

T: This time participating 3 choreographers: Joeri Dubbe, David Middendorp and you, there’re quite some difference among your topics and performance methods, especially Joeri Dubbe’s Prospect Future, it’s so amazing how the 3 dancers move their body, and the cold and warm sounds, light and set design, I’m sorry to say but this is my favorite among the three. Would you often discuss among the choreographers to share ideas?

 

A: Unfortunately I don’t get the chance to discuss and share ideas with other choreographers very often. I’ve had this possibility occasionally, and it is generally a very rewarding process.

 

A Dancer

T: Please tell our readers a bit more about how you started dancing? And were there any particular situations which held you found difficult to continue it, if were, how you cover it and keep forward?

 

A: I started dancing quite late. I came to theater from a martial arts and acrobatics background. My initial studies were traditional Stanislavsky-style Theater directing, but I found this very unsatisfying at the time. I was more interested in how to use movements on the stage, which led me first to a physical theater school and later a modern dance school in Amsterdam, while, at the same time, starting to work as a dancer in various freelance projects in Norway and the Netherlands.

 

T: How the idea came to you to study Martial Arts? You held the same love both for Martial arts and dancing from the very beginning? (I guess it was after your 8-year-old Trumpet Tour 😉 I laughed your joke with MacBook Pro.. lol)

 

A: My first love was definitely martial arts. I grew up watching Hong Kong nijna and kung fu movies, and wanted to learn all the stuff that they could do in those movies. Jackie Chan was my hero long before I’d even heard of Baryshnikov, Nijinsky or any of the other dance legends… Growing up in a working-class small town in the south of Norway, dance was virtually non-existent, except as something that certain girls would do as a hobby.

 

T: You’ve studied Yoga, Martial Arts, Modern Dance, and Acrobatics!. I had a feeling when I saw you in close, which your body can do much more than you applied in God Studies #3. Would you kindly tell me more about your training in Acrobatics?

And since you mentioned you’re teaching it in Balettakademin, your students are children?

 

A: My acrobatics training is quite eclectic. Some of it comes from the martial arts, some of it I’ve received from circus artists (first and foremost partner acrobatics, but also valuable handstand training), and a lot of it has been developed while working with choreographers like André Gingras. Gingras uses very acrobatic movement material in his pieces, and encourages the dancers to develop their own style in the working process. I have learnt a lot of my skills from the research we did while working on his productions. The teaching at Balettakademin has been for adult students training to become professional dancers.

 

T: This actually reminds me an interview of M. Alain Seban, director of Centre Pompidou; he said the scenario of traditional folk art form (e.g. circus) has been down in a heart-breaking trend. How the situation in North Europe is, are there quite some shows going on frequently?

 

A: I don’t deal very much with traditional folk art forms, so my knowledge of the field is quite limited. I am, however, very interested in the new circus that has been emerging the last couple of decades. I’ve had the privilege of caching some student projects at the University of Dance and Circus in Stockholm, and see a great deal of potential in that particular field.

 

T: In your CV, you’ve composed for several choreographers. You taught yourself composing? How you find the interaction between music and dancing?

 

A: I am pretty much self-taught in the field of music. I started out playing trumpet when I was 8 years old, and have pretty much always played one instrument or another since then. Now, I guess, my main instrument is my MacBook Pro… The interaction between music and dance is, for me, one of the most fundamental links in my work. I tend to think of dance as embodied music, and music as a form of dance that exists only in the auditory field. It can sometimes be difficult for me to separate what is what when I work with the two fields; a lot of the parameters I deal with are the same, and I do think the cliché statement: “my body is my instrument” describes very precisely how I picture myself as a performer.

 

Walk 10thousand miles and beyond

T: You’ve been based in Norway, Netherlands and Sweden. When the first time you went to America (Canada included), what was the most so-called culture shock for you? I believe you were impressed performing on a famous and great stage, what’s the difference from it than small or local spaces such as DCC, i.e. difference of audience, and the performer physiological status? Plus, I find most of your works are solo, is there any reason?

 

A: Going to the US was a big shock for me, simply because I believed I knew the culture very well. They looked like me, dressed like me, I had seen all the TV shows, I had worked with a lot of Americans, but still: When I got there, everything was subtly different in such a way that I couldn’t quite grasp what was going on. The feeling abated after a while, and I felt like I was able to “get” the way of being pretty well. Still; I would still not dare to say I understand American culture.

 

Regard performing at prestigious venues: I don’t think there is a fundamental difference in how I approach performances, and how I regard myself as a performer.

 

Actually, most of the performances I’ve been a part of have not been solos, but the solos have attracted some attention, especially CYP17. Still, I have done some solos. Frequently there is a lack of resources that makes a solo a viable alternative. If this is the only reason, it is usually quite sad. However, I find the format of a solo very attractive in its own right. It is truly one of the most difficult tasks a choreographer and a performer can set themselves, and one of the potentially most rewarding. I love watching a monologue or a solo dance, where one single person can command the attention of an audience. There is a potential for a very special connection between pubic and performer in these cases, and I believe that the imagination of the audience can be triggered in a more heightened way.

 

T: Since your experience in India when participating the Artists Residential Project, the great impact from Oriental culture (philosophy, livelihood, Mythology), connected with your martial-arts-based Japanese influence, what you find in this journey?

 

A: I try to distinguish quite clearly between the different cultures and traditions I have been drawing from, and am very careful when using the word Oriental. I find that the differences within a single country like, for example, India, are so great that it becomes very difficult to speak of a single essence or cultural spirit or something of the kind. If you extend that to including enormous countries like China and Japan, the number of disparate traditions and systems of training and thought become staggering. The Orient is a very convenient bag for Westerners to lump together everything east of the Ural Mountains, and assign some kind of commonality to this. I don’t think this bag is a real bag, though…

Accordingly, I can only really say something (and not even a great deal) about the traditions I’ve trained within, and the places I’ve worked at. I’ve been lucky enough to share in some very interesting thoughts and training coming from India, China and Japan, but I regard them as being as different from each other as Western classical ballet is from either one of them.

 

T : About Oriental Culture, exactly like you said, I’m embarrassed threw out such a blur question.Under the understanding of “Each Chinese is absolutely unique” and “Each human being is absolutely unique”, while still, regional aspects are still there.The original intention is to see how you, as a outcomer(rather than outsider), being impressed and read through this Journey? (After all, the story about the West and the East has been over-told, I completely agree).

 

A: One of the most important realizations I had when I first spent time in India was when I talked to a very educated, excellently trained tabla-player (classical Indian drums), and mentioned Beethoven to him. He replied: Beethoven is he one of your classical composers? Afterwards we had a very interesting exchange about the history of music in Europe and India. It made me realize just how small European culture is on a global scale of things. The gigantic figures of our history are but local celebrities. I guess this was my own small version of the Copernican revolution, realizing that the sun didn’t revolve around the earth after all… This realization has helped me a lot, giving me a degree of freedom in how I deal with my own culture in general and the contemporary dance scene specifically. Living and breathing in this culture sometimes makes you think it’s the only thing that is real and important, but if one can step out of it a little bit, it opens up an enormous, undiscovered world of possibilities—that will then also feed into the contemporary arts scene, I hope.

 

T: About this time the China tour, where you’ve visited? How you think about China? Actually, I found something similar to the Chinese QiGong gestures in your dancing movement, as well the famous Chinese female dancer Jin Xing participated on the Friday evening. What’s your impression of Chinese dancing, or performing movement?

 

A: This was my first trip to China, and I only visited Shanghai. I certainly found Shanghai very alive and bustling, very metropolitan in every way. The sheer size of China (and Shanghai) would make it very difficult for me to say much about it, other than my immediate impressions. Like I mentioned before, I do come from a background of Asian martial arts, first and foremost Japanese, but I also have some training in Chinese forms, amongst others Tai Chi and QiGong. These have had a great impact on my movement vocabulary. There are also certain philosophical themes and contradictions in the martial arts that I find very interesting and that keep feeding my work. This is reflected, amongst others, in certain gestures, leg positions and performance strategies.

I am, unfortunately, not in a position to say much about the Chinese dance scene yet. I hope to come back and make a closer acquaintance with it later!

 

T : Déjà vu & Coincidence. I taught myself a bit French, (une peu di peu). When I found the word ‘Déjà vu’, you can’t imagine how exciting I was. The phenomenon ‘Déjà vu’ has happened to me millions of times, i.e. a 100%-now scene happening in front of my eyes which recalls a real-like experience that I’ve been somewhen being exactly the same scene. What’s more, in a visual art performance Blank Point by artist Edit Kaldor presented in Dutch Culture Center as well, she points that the Life is continued by countless incidents, whereas I prefer to call ‘Coincidence’, e.g. you share the same given name as Kenneth Branagh, the film director of Thor I mentioned in the interview (Slow as I am just found it today). These even tiny coincidences keep fascinating my life. How you think of these two?

 

A: It sounds very interesting to live in this state of perpetual recognition. I’m not so lucky, unfortunately. Tor Åge Bringsværd keeps saying: Coincidences are our friends. I believe we, as human beings, are masters at creating patterns of recognition when- and wherever we see them. I guess this is one of the things that make us a fabulously interesting species…

 

About Kenneth Flak

The Norwegian Kenneth Flak began his training with yoga and martial arts such as en ninjutsu and kalaripayatutu. He studied philosophy in Norway and studied at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts. He subsequently took up residence in the Netherlands to study mime and modern theatre dance at the Amsterdam Academy for the Arts.

He has performed in choreographies by Keren Levi, Blok & Steel en André Gingras (CYP17, The Lindenmeyer System, Hypertopia and trans.form) and others.

In 2004, he was invited to be artist in residence by the Attakalari Centre of Movement Arts in Bangalore, India. Here, he made the full-length choreography Uberfor European and Indian dancers. A preliminary sketch of this piece was featured at the’Voorjaarsontwaken’ festival 2005 in Korzo theatre.

In September 2007, he was richly rewarded for his for his dance achievement in Gingras’ soloCYP17 with the prestigious Bessie Award (N.Y.); first awarded to a “Dutch” performer.

‘For a primal, yet hyper-clinical performance with an unflinching intensity of focus; a complete embodiment of man as a twitching, convulsing lab rat in a future world shaped by genetic engineering and alien abductions in CYP17 by Andre Gingras, presented at the Danspace Project.’ (From the jury report Bessie Awards 2007).

Choreographer André Gingras and dancer Kenneth Flak were invited earlier that year to perform CYP17at the famous Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York; at the end of the performance they received a standing ovation by the famous Mikhail Baryshnikov himself. They returned to New York in May 2007 for a number of performances at the Dancespace Project. As happened elsewhere, the New York press was full of praise for this Dutch production:

‘It’s not often that a dance lives up to its ambitious program notes (‘the freak show of the future’), but Mr. Gingras has created a bizarre, funny, often disturbing piece that does just that, and he does it mostly through movement. Here is a world that couldn’t be evoked by anything other than the physical detail of Mr. Flak’s extraordinary dance.’ (New York Times 5 May 2007)

At the 2008 CaDance festival Kenneth Flak presented his latest Korzo Production Of Gods and Driftwood which is based on the legends of the Norse gods. Of Gods and Driftwood will tour around theatres in the Netherlands ’till the end of February 2008.

 

For more information, please go to this artist’s official site: http://www.kennethflak.com/

 

 

 

 

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