What are we fighting for?
An insight into our process with József Trefeli

They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

For NZDC those lemons were the ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns requiring us to stay home, thus cancelling our planned national tour…AGAIN. And the lemonade? Embarking on a long-distance, international, digital creation project.

Being stuck at home in a lockdown that never seems to end can be pretty confronting as a dancer. You start to ask yourself where your job sits in this new world of masks and social distancing. You crave connection and purpose and to feel the endorphins of a good sweaty dance class again. In some ways it is a reassurance - when you miss it then you know you still love it, but it doesn’t make being away from the studio and stage any easier.

After a solid six weeks of dancing in small spaces negotiating furniture legs and carpet burns, of messaging “Sorry, which zoom link is it?” at 8.59am for a 9am class and of going for neighbourhood walk number 430987, motivation can start to wane pretty quickly. But in true creative form, with every challenge imposed, there is always a new opportunity. In a time where zoom is at the forefront of our daily lockdown lives, dance & performance have shifted to the digital world. So, when our Night Light premiere was unfortunately cancelled for the second time in two years and with subsequent touring off the cards, embarking on a zoom collaboration to make a new dance film, seemed like a good way to test how far our creativity could stretch across international waters.

“What Are We Fighting For?” is a creation led by choreographer József Trefeli, director Bartek Sozanski and dance film extraordinaire Caroline Bindon, in collaboration with NZDC dancers Carl, Chrissy, Ngaere and myself alongside four European dancers, Fabio, Madeliene, Killian and Amury, all based in Switzerland. Over two weeks we worked into the NZ night & corresponding morning hours in Geneva to create four duets, exploring the idea of what art, and more specifically contemporary dance means in a world where audiences are unable to fill theatres in a way that we were once used to.

The whole process was documented, and our elaborate home filming station captured us fumbling our way through technological difficulties and language barriers, not to mention the occasion Wi-Fi glitch, as we figured out how we could come together with complete strangers on the other side of the world and make dance through a screen.

In dance and life, I am a firm believer that humans should endeavour to never stop learning about themselves; their history; their passions; their ambitions. So, something that gives me hope and reassurance in these testing times is hearing what individuals have been able to reflect upon and grow from during the slowness of lockdown months. In putting this philosophy to József, his response was that for him, the learning was somewhat more of a reaffirming of his calling in life: “We will make work, no matter what. I will make choreography. I will dance, as it is my vocation and my passion, and I cannot imagine my life without dance. This pandemic was a turning point where I could have moved away from dance but no, I am definitely in dance to stay.”

At 5pm every evening, 11 faces would pop up on zoom; “Good moooorning!” While the sun was setting in Auckland and with the Swiss crew sipping on their 7am coffees, we would discuss the agenda for the day. From the get-go it was clear organisation was key in streamlining the process, and the clarity of what we needed to achieve choreographically was always forefront of discussion. József, a man with abundant energy and drive, would pose questions to us asking us to reflect on then & now; what fire does this time ignite in our mind and bodies?

Next, I would meet my partner Italian dance partner Fabio - him in his cherry blossom wall-papered lounge, me in my bedroom with the stripey rug. After navigating a joint warm up to prepare our bodies and minds, we would work in four fast paced 45-minute blocks, doing a combination of improvisation to create duet material, and also learning unison choreography that NZDC had formed with József online in June 2020 (when our original tour of Switzerland got cancelled by the first NZ lockdown).

…just quickly, let’s take a stroll back in time, to a place where the word Corona was associated with a summer beer, and masks were reserved only for the likes of dentists and doctors. And travelling, remember that?! In May 2020, NZDC was meant to partake in a lengthy international tour, presenting to audiences throughout Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. During this time we were scheduled to spend two weeks in Zurich working with József in the studio (in the same room, in the same country, in the same time zone… what a concept!) developing new choreographic material for a work to be presented in both Switzerland and Aotearoa the following year. Cue, global pandemic and border closures, meaning we were forced to ‘pivot’ our plans, resulting in our first experience of zoom creation.

In a tumultuous, weeklong process of 7am starts in NZ, and József working through the night, it was fair to say this was a challenging experiment in making work at distance. We learnt a lot from what worked, and what didn’t in this time - mainly things like time/music lags, the scale & visibility of small dancers on a big screen, and tiredness of long sessions on zoom. Despite these challenges, we produced lot of new material, which become the base phrases for what with worked with in this year’s creation period.

In speaking with József upon the completion of phase one of the project, I asked him to reflect on his experiences of working in such unique conditions, at a time where the ways of the world are new and at times very daunting for the arts. He made a good point, that with international collaborations in their traditional form having been put on hold, the one upside to this is an invitation to rethink and reorientate our process of creating, “This pandemic has the potential to be a turning point in history on many levels, including world-wide general health, mental health, ecology, self-preservation, awareness and consideration to others. What is the role of the arts during this time?” I felt inspired by József’s tenacity. He is going to make this project work no matter what - I think this is a true testament to his love of dance.

Fast forward back to the present - part 2 of the project…and about ten minutes into our first rehearsal together, Fabio and I came across our first obstacle - the fact that zoom is in mirror, therefore my left became his right… making a process of teaching dance moves with all limbs and facings a ‘backwards deciphering challenge’. Quickly, we got good at using objects in each other’s rooms as directional landmarks instead of traditional lefts and rights. “Now lunge with the back leg towards your house plant and lift your couch arm up” was our new sophisticated method of communication. Secondly, and far more entertainingly, my thick kiwi accent combined with Fabio’s lack of English (my admiration for the three other languages he already speaks fluently aside) led to a lot of google translate, and a lot of “Say that again please?” with confused looks on our faces. Ironically, we found it easiest just to dance together on the screen, refining movement and meaning through gesture and a sense of feel in our bodies, and in this way we achieved a lot in a very short space of time. Many laughs were interwoven as we created our long-distance duet, and I was constantly in awe of Fabio’s additional 22 years of experience on mine - it was so nice to be able to share stories and perspectives on what has overall been a tough two years for the arts, especially dance.

Through thick and thin I will find ways to continue collaborating on new projects with others and continue learning from them. Researching with other artists forces me to challenge and further develop the pathways I choose to create my work... enriching experiences which opened my eyes to completely different cultures with vastly diverse approaches to creation from which I learnt so much about other people and the environments in which they create.” József Trefeli

And just like that the creation phase was over. The in-house cameras & lights were switched off for the final time and our international buddies could sleep in once again.

After saying goodbye to the nights of zooming and sending in the sound and visual footage - a huge feat for the techno-dinosaur that I am (stick to dancing I say), it was onto our individual location to film our duets.

I was based at the Victoria Park underbridge (cue minor freak out of all the pigeons that live up there) where I spent the day filming with Caroline’s experienced eye directing shot after shot, trying to get as much recorded as possible to send back to Switzerland. It was a fun day out, and it felt great to move again in a greater expanse. The passers by doing their lockdown laps of the park became the closest thing to an audience I’ve had in a while, but it was enough to bring some much-needed purpose and drive back; a reminder of how good it feels to perform again…albeit on the bird poo adorned concrete.

Now we wait, with the footage in the hands of the Swiss editors, I am intrigued to see the final product… the lemonade from the lemons of Lockdown 2021.