While in Europe in June and July of 2016, I spoke with contemporary dance artists in their mid-career and beyond about how they sustain themselves and how they move forward – physically, creatively, psychically, practically. I focused on Brussels, Belgium, and Berlin, Germany. I am continuing these conversations here, at home, with Canadian dance artists. Below is the beginning of a series of portraits of artists carrying out their lives in dance.
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Chaussée de Forest, Saint-Gilles, Brussels, Belgium
Sarah Ludi & Danielle Baskerville
I met Sarah Ludi for tea at her home on Chaussée de Forest in Brussels. Ludi was born in Switzerland in 1971 and currently lives in Belgium. She has an ongoing collaboration with ZOO/Thomas Hauert and performs with Rosas and Mette Edvardsen, among others. Since 2012, she has been a qualified teacher of the Alexander Technique.
Danielle Baskerville When did you first work with Rosas [Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s acclaimed Belgium company]?
Sarah Ludi I stopped studying, school that is, very young. I have nothing, no diploma. I stopped school at seventeen to work with a company in Switzerland, and then I was with Rosas. That is why I moved to Belgium. It is what I wanted. Now I think, ‘Well, I could have waited a few years,’ but not then … oh my God no! [Laughing]
DB It would have seemed like a lifetime!
SL I was there for five years before I had my children. I came back from time to time for small projects, and during this past year, I have been working with them on an exhibition called Work/Travail/Arbeid [a reimagining of De Keersmaeker’s piece Vortex Temporum]. We performed it at WIELS, the contemporary art centre here in Brussels, for nine weeks last year, and there are more dates to come. It is quite physical.
DB Your work with Thomas Hauert and his company, ZOO, is also very physically demanding, at times virtuosic. How do you maintain that physical intensity, the cardiovascular demands, etc.?
SL Yes! Of course it is complicated when you don’t dance daily anymore, your need to still stay in shape. And while the Alexander Technique is an amazing tool for me, it can’t help with stamina and intensity of training. I have to find another way and I don’t have much time. So I am not so good in that area anymore, I don’t think. [More laughter]. I have been lucky so far; I don’t really get injured.
Thomas is a really close friend, and we have been working together now for seventeen years. It is a very strong relationship. Thomas is always interested in finding more and more ways to move — it is very physical, very challenging.
I also work on projects that aren’t physical at all. Right now I am involved in a project with Mette Edvardsen. She is Norwegian and is working on a minimal approach to a series of solos. For this project, Living Books, I learn a book by heart. This means at the moment I teach Alexander in the morning and then spend the afternoon in the library working on the text. Nothing in there for the work of the heart. I try to run every now and then but … I really have to make myself do it. So, yes, it remains a question, as there is also the family.
DB Alexander Technique helps you maintain the general health of your body, despite not being particularly injury prone to begin with?
SL Definitely. It is true that I have always been quite solid, but it has helped me enormously. Also in terms of how to prepare myself and how to recover.
DB So often the shortness of a dancer’s career is a purely physical matter. There is the luck of the draw as to whether your body is made to do those things, and if you have the right support structures for your body that are affordable. And also coming across the right thing at the right time, as has happened for you.
SL I’ve heard that in Canada you can get money to, to … what is the word … reconversion … to learn another job? Another profession? But then you must sign something that says you will never dance again? I find that … so … amazing?
DB Don’t worry, the ‘sign on the dotted line’ part has changed. And was never quite so dire … the DTRC [Dancer Transition Resource Centre] is quite amazing, in part because they keep dancers dancing longer. I think this in turn helps the ecology of the art form stay balanced.
SL I always appreciate seeing older dancers perform. It is always so rich. But it’s true that you don’t see it that often. For myself, I feel I have a special situation. Ten years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, I started to take some weekly Alexander Technique lessons and I really liked that. I really loved my teacher, and I remember very early on thinking this is something I would actually really like to do, later, one day. I went on having lessons with her for three years. And suddenly I thought, I want to do this now — it will help me to dance longer; it is a way to take care of myself; and I want those two things to inform one another. So I did it. It took me three years. During those years I took a kind of half-break from dancing and took Alexander courses every morning. There were lengthy breaks, like a university course, so I was still able to tour and perform with ZOO/Thomas Hauert and Rosas.
It was a bit of a break from the constant work and touring, which ended up being really nice for me. The studies were amazing, and so was being able to slow down for a bit. I was tired of touring all the time, of being away all the time. I have two kids (the oldest is now fifteen) and the routine was getting to be too much.
DB How did you manage this financially?
SL I had help. In Brussels there is an organization called VGC [Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie]. I met with someone there who told me I should apply for a kind of scholarship, a form of financial aid to work on an artistic project but one that does not require you to show a product. That was perfect for me. Knowing that I would do less creative work over the course of those three years, I was worried that I would not dance enough. So I was wanting to have some studio space to work on my own, for when I was not involved in other projects, and also to reflect on what I was learning with the Alexander Technique. He really encouraged me to write about that, which I did, and I received the money. That was fantastic, as it covered about half of my training costs over those three years, which were very expensive. As you know, Alexander Technique is not recognized. It costs a huge amount of money. But I was ready to do that even without the help of the VGC — I knew it was what I wanted to do.
DB And you were able to do that training here, in Brussels?
SL In Leuven, twenty minutes by train from Brussels. Since then, I have been dancing quite a lot, but I also really enjoy teaching the Alexander Technique. It is quite a strange period where I try to do everything! And it’s not that easy, I must say. Things have evolved in such a way that I now allow myself to say no to some projects — even some that sound really great, with people that I love. Sometimes I regret this, and sometimes I don’t, but I try to find the balance. And I am still inside that process; nothing has really been achieved. [Laughs]
DB Big choices rarely result in the simplification of our lives! But there is a deep satisfaction in choosing the right path at the right time.
SL Yes, I think it was the right time for me. Any younger and I would have been like, ‘Ah, what is this?’ It made me realize how important it is to be self-aware, outside of the dancing practice. That was a link I had never made. It made a huge difference to realize I am my own instrument, and I am using myself in everyday life as much as when I dance. That was big.
In Rosas now, when we do those very intense exhibition performances, there are so many injured people. We played in Paris for two weeks last March, and nearly every day there was someone dropping out. Then of course the pressure is higher for those that … survive, and we get very nervous! Bodies are fragile; they get injured. And I can see when the pressure gets to be too much, too much stress, at least in big companies like this one. It’s really tough.
Although with Rosas there is support — there is always a masseuse there, and you are helped when you have to go to the doctor.
DB You mean the company provides it?
SL No, not directly. The masseuse, yes, they are there on tour. But you are really encouraged to take care of yourself. All the same, I think injured dancers everywhere, don’t you agree, feel so badly, always. No dancer lives that experience in an easy way; there is always so much guilt, so much stress. Coming back too soon after an injury, all of those things.
DB Yes, we go through all the mental strain that does no help for the body as it is trying to heal.
SL These are some of the big reasons why dancers stop.
DB Do you think we have more to say as we get older?
SL Yes, I think so. The people with whom I work are all very keen on continuing to work with older performers. They like the mixture. Thomas has had a core of dancers since the creation of his company, ZOO. He believes in the accumulation and continuation of knowledge, experience. With Anne Teresa I am dancing with those my own age and older, and then with some guys who could be my sons! She also likes to perform still, and she is well over fifty. But she likes people to be fit, and if someone is injured, she will indeed take someone else. So that remains the main problem — the practicalities. But of course there are people who work in less physical languages, like my work mith Mette, for example.
But my fate has been more to work with people who are very interested in movement, so that requires care. And I myself am deeply interested in movement, perhaps more to the point. Although I know my body is somewhat less resilient than it was, now I know how to work better. So I think the one thing compensates for the other, makes up for it. Or that is my wish, and so far so good. How long that will last, I simply don’t know.
I really appreaciate working in different ways now. I actually couldn’t imagine just dancing in a company all the time anymore, but that is personal. The company life no longer attracts me. I love working on projects, the variety.
DB It is an act of artistry, the need to branch out, no?
So for me the Alexander studies were incredibly interesting, but also to have a break, a repose, to see things another way, from another angle. It was really, really very rich for me.
Since then, I approach projects in a different way. I mean, I am the same; I am the same woman, same dancer, but I am also different. I think that I am quieter, and I have less expectations, in a very positive way. I more easily take the good of things, and leave the rest behind. It is also a principle behind Alexander Technique — allowing yourself to have your own rhythm, to take your own time and space. I feel good doing it, I feel good teaching it. I know I still have everything to learn in that field. I am a really young teacher, and that is a beautiful feeling. It also makes me feel less dependant on the dance market and on the performing. But when I am dancing, I love it, and now when I tour, I am always extremely happy.
This conversation is the third in a three-part series. Read also perspectives from a mid-career dance artist in Canada and from other Europeans: Diving Deep with Valerie Calam and Diving Deep with David Zambrano and Mat Voorter.
To follow Baskerville’s research, visit the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists website where Baskerville is a board member and will continue to share stories from Canadians and Europeans about a life in dance at mid-career. Baskerville’s research is supported in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.