Interview: Ina Christel Johannessen - on zero visibility & Northern Light

Friday 7 November 2014 by Carmel Smith

Ina Christel Johannessen

Zero visibility corp.‘s …it’s only a rehearsal is one of the only shows in Sadler’s Wells Northern Light season which isn’t a UK premiere. It has been performed around the world to acclaim since it was made in 2003. We talked to choreographer and Artistic Director Ina Christel Johannessen about the production, Nordic art and where that intriguing company name comes from…


Back in 2004 when you took …it’s only a rehearsal to the Edinburgh Festival, the Guardian said “These dancers are magic together”. Ten years later the same dancers, Line Tørmoen & Dimitri Jourde will be dancing it again in London. Have any other dancers performed it?
It has only been Line and Dimitri performing ..it’s only a rehearsal, it was made especially for them. They had just met each other back then, and since they have been a couple, and had a child together.
We stopped doing this performance after a while and since then we have been creating several other performances together, the three of us. …it’s only a rehearsal is really Line and Dimitri’s piece.

In the Northern Light season, this is one of the few productions which isn’t a UK premier – and you’ve toured it extensively in Europe. Why do you think this production has been so successful – and so popular across many countries?
We’ve performed it in several places in the UK and in Europe. We have been twice to Canada, New York – it has been very successful.

It is a small piece for me – I like more people, I like huge sets. In this production everything is simple, open. The structure is really clear, it is following a straight pattern. What is important is the relationship and the contact between the two performers, which is unique. Their timing, how they see each other. It is a lot about the gaze, to see and be seen, to watch each other, and to watch the other person naked or unrobed. When are you naked? Not necessarily without clothes, but without any defences, which is what this is all about. These two performers are together, and their timing and contact is what makes this very unique. It is a love story, or a love or hate story, it is simple and that’s what we keep on wanting to watch.

Are you aware of a Nordic style in dance and other art forms – or is that too much of a generalisation to be useful?
Of course you are always looking for an aesthetic or a wish of expression. I have heard a lot about what I am doing, and people always refer to Ibsen, something that is really serious, or often kind of dark, feminism. Henrik Ibsen was one of the first real feminists, and subtext in his stories was very crucial. When you say something you don’t necessarily mean what you say because you mean something else. You have to look beyond the spoken word to understand the meaning of it.

There is a dark atmosphere and aesthetic in a lot of Nordic art, but I have done a lot of white and bright rooms. For me, a white room is not cold, it is clean and open with a lot of possibilities. I never try to hide anything, I put everything forward. A lot of the Nordic painters from the last century were famous for the Nordic light, and the light in the Nordic countries is special. Half of the year it is light – we have the midnight sun – and the other half it is completely dark, so we do have a special connection to the dark, and the mountain and being trapped inside a fjord etc. But of course it is difficult to generalize.

Where does the name of your company come from?
Again I refer to the subtext, when you say something and you actually mean something else. In the case of zero visibility you can’t see anything, but you have to look beyond what you can’t see or understand. You have to wait for the turning point, or all the turning points and interpret the different lines put together. It is the audience’s interpretation – “look behind what you cannot see”.

Also, as a company established in the nineties, and being a true nineties post modernistic company, it was also referring to pop culture, the Die Hard movies – the crucial scene where the flight with the main character’s wife can’t land – “zero visibility, zero visibility, we can’t land” . That is of course a completely different reference and inspiration.

In the UK recently there has been a lot of discussion about why there are so few high profile women choreographers. Is that an issue you are conscious of – and have you encountered obstacles in your career as a dance artist, as a woman?
I was at a seminar at Sadler’s Wells some years ago, where this was the topic. I think that female choreographers often make a group around themselves, and not necessarily work on commissions for other companies. You try to make your own little community where for instance loyalty is important. The selling aspect is not as important as the creating aspect in my opinion. I see that there are a lot of young male choreographers, who are invited to do a lot of the huge productions, and have the courage to say ‘I can do anything’. I for instance, have to wait before I can do cello music, I still have to wait a few years before I can do The Rite of Spring. I like to be humble and taking time finding my way and being sure that I am good enough and that I have the tools for creating and for handling big stages. I think maybe the courage is what is different for men and women, not necessarily how they are solving the situation.

Is the lighting and design as significant a part of your work as the choreography?
Absolutely. The starting point is the space, and the light: how can the light be built into the space, how can it be reflecting the surfaces, is it natural light, is it a daylight feeling, is it an evening? In our latest performance, “Terra 0 Motel” we had a little house in the middle of the stage and we tried to work with natural sources, you could see the sunrise, the sunset, the night etc. I heard that a lot of the Nordic choreographers and also theatre makers are very concerned about the light and the tempo and the light cues together with the music, using a lot of time programming the movement of the light. There are a lot of changes in the light in Norway, and for me lighting and light design is something I work a lot with. It is really a crucial part of the work.

As I mentioned earlier, in …it’s only a rehearsal, it is a very simple piece, the set design is super simple, the light design is super simple, nothing is really happening there, so this is really a rare performance in our row of different creations. It is the shining, reflecting floor that is making the aura around the performers. The space and visual is for me very important.

You usually use electronic music in your works – do you collaborate with composers, or prefer to source ready made music?
Of course I love to collaborate with composers. In one of the latest zero visibility productions AGAIN – I worked with a Swedish composer, Marcus Fjellström, who composed for a full symphonic orchestra. It is kind of classical modernistic, and also electronic. This autumn I was also working with two Belgian composers, performing live and composing the music, for Gothenburg Opera Dance Company. It is all a matter of practice, money and time. In …_…it’s only a rehearsal_ the concept is using all the tracks from one album. Murcof has been really inspiring to me, and I still like the music.

Away from the theatre, what do you like to do when you are in London?
Of course I look forward to going to London – it is a central place for all kind of art. I love Tate Modern, and they always have fantastic exhibitions there. I also like a lot of the Asian food in London. Unfortunately I don’t think I will have time do much more than that while I’m here this time.

zero visibility corp. – …it’s only a rehearsal, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells 11 & 12 November
www.sadlerswells.com

The Northern Light season concludes with Cullberg Ballet’s Plateau Effect ,13 & 14 November
www.sadlerswells.com

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