Feature: Introducing Robyn Orlin - An Unorthodox Beauty

Monday 12 August 2013

Robyn Orlin

South African choreographer Robyn Orlin has been pushing at the boundaries of performance art and dance for over 20 years. Regarded by many in her homeland as something of an enfant terrible – even ‘a permanent irritation’, these days her company’s work is now supported by the South African National Arts Council. Dance Umbrella this year presents a UK premiere of her work Beauty remained for just a moment then returned gently to her starting position… writes Donald Hutera…


There are probably as many ways to define beauty as there are people in the world. The South African choreographer Robyn Orlin doesn’t claim to have hit upon a definitive meaning, but to create the hour-long performance Beauty remained for just a moment then returned gently to her starting position… she and seven members of the company Moving into Dance Mophatong took care to probe and play with the subject.

“What’s beautiful to you most probably is not beautiful to me,” Orlin says. “We as a group spent a long time eventually understanding this. I mean, we all agreed that the sun and the way it sets is beautiful but that what it brings once it’s gone – certainly on the streets of Johannesburg – no longer can be spoken about in terms of beauty.”

Typical of Orlin, her humorous and continually inventive production uses a variety of means – acrobatics, video imagery and spoken text as well as dance – to open up issues around culture, history and identity. Eschewing the gloom and doom often associated with depictions of Africa, Beauty remained… reflects a continent of people many of whom are nomadic, tribal and endowed with an instinct for decoration and display. As Orlin has observed first-hand, plants and shells might be used alongside more modern accessories – rifle cartridges, say, or the tops of ballpoint pens – as objects of self-adornment.

In the show itself a tutu is fashioned from discarded water bottles, and there are voluminous skirts made of plastic carrier bags. For Orlin the emphasis is on creativity. She describes the piece as an “accumulation of beauty” that “plays itself out sometimes as something very abstract.” No wonder one critic has dubbed it ‘performance art, South African style.’

Orlin has been making provocative dance-based work – and, in doing so, also making political waves in her native country – for more than three decades. Early in her career she was dubbed ‘a permanent irritation.’ Asked how she earned this label she replies, “I think it had to do with the fact that I was very critical of the structures for dance in South Africa in the time of apartheid. And rightly so. It was very racist, sexist and all the ‘-ists’ you can possibly think of, and it needed to be challenged.” This Orlin did through her art. “I just kept on making work regardless of no funding and criticism.”

When she’s not on the road, Orlin divides her time between South Africa and Berlin (home to her and her film-maker husband Oliver Schmitz). She has no permanent company but instead goes from project to project, finding different co-producers to help bring her ideas to fruition. “I’m getting older,” she says, “but there is still that critical spark in me. There are things that fascinate me in the dance world, and in my surroundings, and I still have a need to talk about them. Dance just happens to be my tool.”

Denise Luccioni surtitled Orlin’s 1999 production Daddy, I’ve seen this piece six times before and I still don’t know why they’re hurting each other… from English to French. In the process she became a big fan. Calling Orlin an unorthodox visionary, Luccioni deems Orlin’s work “a thrilling mix of chaos and structure. Robyn’s brain is hyperactive. She has ideas all the time, but she doesn’t force them on others. She’s fun. She looks like a neat little lady, but she’s politically very aware and outspoken – a militant with a great sense of irony. She chooses performers for who they are, has them improvise and then feeds on what they do and adds to it. She’s always open to changes, and tantrum and excess, but she frames all this in a visual structure – whether through video or other scenography – that becomes grand.”

Orlin talks about herself in simpler terms. For Beauty remained… she says, “I worked the way I always do when making a new piece: I open everything up with surgeon-like enthusiasm and hope the dancers and other collaborators will follow me. Most of the time I’ve been very lucky.” The piece invites audience participation but, says Orlin, this “is not a must. People can either participate or stay in their comfort zones and watch what’s happening around them. What’s great is the way the dancers work with the public.”

As for her penchant for long titles, Orlin says, “I find them sometimes when people are talking; I take what they say, or I read something, and start playing with words. I hate talking about my work and having to explain it, so titles really function as programme notes for me. They also allow for a lot of free association on the part of the audience, and that makes for healthy viewing.”

Part of Dance Umbrella 2013
Robyn Orlin / Moving into Dance Mophatong
Beauty remained for just a moment then returned gently to her starting position…
Stratford Circus, Fri 18 & Sat 19 Oct, 8pm | Sun 20 Oct, 5pm
Tickets: £15 (£12 concs.) More info/booking

One Hour with Robyn Orlin
Sat 19 Oct, 6pm & Sun 20 Oct, 3pm (free to ticket holders)
Orlin reveals her working methods through an interactive creation with the audience.

Weekend Lab: Robyn Orlin’s Working Methods – Inventing personal vocabularies
19 & 20 October 2013 Venue to be announced. More info/booking
£50 (includes both days of workshop + Sat evening performance of Beauty remained… & pre-show ‘meet the artist’ session)
Presented by* Dance Umbrella*, the Barbican and East London Dance in partnership with Stratford Circus.

This article also appears on www.danceumbrella.co.uk



Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.

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