[ two interviews
with david zambrano ]
The following two interviews conducted with David Zambrano give an excellent introduction to his thinking about dance, improvisation, cultural exchange and more.
Interview I by Marianne Valkenburg
Interview II by by Agnès Benoit
Interview with David Zambrano
by Marianne Valkenburg
Originally published by the Henny Jurriëns Foundation
"In the West there is too much emphasis on 'Papa-Head'
and not enough on 'Mama-Earth'"
The Venezuelan dancer, teacher, and choreographer, David Zambrano, has worked in North and South America, Europe, and in Asia. He likes best to teach in places like New York and Amsterdam where there is a mix of different cultures, and he dreams of living one day in a world without borders.
Q: You have written in your CV that you have dedicated your life to cultural exchange and to developing the creative process in a world without borders. Can you elaborate on this?
DZ: I have been traveling a lot since 1981, and since 1987 a lot in Europe. As a Latino, I had some problems with immigration everywhere, so I ended up thinking that it would be a great world if we simply had no borders. I have really always thought that way. This may be a dream in the real world, but not in the classroom. In the classroom I have my open borders. Especially in Amsterdam, where you have people from different countries in the same city, and all in the same classroom. Since Europe opened its borders in 1992, it is easier to travel through it. Before this I would go, for example from Spain to Germany, and immediately run into problems at the airport: 'what are you coming to do here, how long are you staying,' etc. And then I would have to leave these countries every 3 months or 90 days. Now it is a little easier, especially since I have my permission to live in Holland.
At a certain point (1984) I founded and directed a festival in Venezuela, and began to think about combining cultures, or making it a real cultural exchange festival. People would come teach whatever they had developed, and then perform. But not only perform — they came and got involved in cultural exchange with the different communities living in Venezuela. I was quite picky about the teachers — they had to be the kind of teachers that allowed the students to find also their own ways of expressing themselves. The people I selected were willing to share rather than simply come and dictate a specific form. This was a very exciting time, and it opened the door to other continents for me.
Q: Do you consider the dance world to be without borders?
DZ: I would say not yet. The dance world that you are talking about is the Western dance world. We have been influenced by only one side of the world so I still think that we can have more exchange. Sometimes I feel like we are quite behind in comparison to some martial arts people in Asia in many ways. What energy means for dancers, for example, is very different than what it means for masters in martial arts. While we (in dance pieces) really want to fly, to crawl into the ground, to jump from high places, etc., I think that in the West we often get lost in the theme of the choreography. The theme of a piece may be very clear in words, but the body still doesn't quite understand it. There is then a gap; too much papa-head and not enough mama-earth. Yes, I think there is a gap.
Q: You write further in your CV that you believe in improvisation as an art form and in choreography as a way of developing it. What do you mean by this?
DZ: I don't know you very well, but I believe that before talking to me, you read many books about how to speak, how to question things, etc. However, I don't think that before this interview you read a specific book with a specific formula in order to ask a specific question. You have been using what you learned. This is the way I use choreography — as little books, or rather chapters in a big book. Sometimes I take a specific structure within which to work. I then set a movement vocabulary that can be repeated many times, and I call this then a choreography. You can repeat it over and over, you can teach it, you can express it at the moment. Then once you know these 'words' very well, you can repeat them and use them forever. Then in your life, whi ch is an improvisation, you can use them according to the needs of specific moments. When I go on stage and then need a specific chapter (depending on the moment, the public, the time, etc.) I open the book to the right place and say, yes, I can use this part right now. That's why I say that I use choreography as a vehicle to further develop my way of expressing on stage.
Q: On the basis of what you have seen in different places in the world, do you have an idea of how dance will evolve?
DZ: I certainly have my wishes. I wish that many of these very important choreographers would be able to just get up and make a dance in front of one's eyes. Some famous painters, you know, they just take the canvas and immediately do something — this is fantastic, and it takes 20 seconds. I would say to choreographers that they should just get up and make a dance in front of us, rather than using the situation of closing their doors, working for 6 months away from the world and then coming out with something.
Finally, I would love that we would be able to fully speak through the body, like how we are able to speak with words. I hope that in the future, maybe in ten years, that dancers will be able to write with their feet.
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Conversation with David Zambrano
by Agnès Benoit
Originally published in Nouvelles de Danse 32/33
"On the Edge/Créateurs de l'imprevu"
"I think I'm a full-time movement researcher."
Conducted May 1995, during the workshop "La Composition Instantanée — Approches et techniques d'improvisation," organized by Mark Tompkins at the TCD (Théâtre Contemporain de la Danse) in Paris
Q: How would you define yourself as a performer? Do you consider yourself as an improviser?
DZ: Yes, before anything else I like to see myself as an improviser. I like improvisation a lot. That's what I've been doing since I started, somehow without knowing what I was doing until I met Simone Forti and other people, but especially Simone. When I saw her doing... (David imitates animal sounds), I said — "that's what I love to do."
Q: She's not as wild as you are.
DZ: But at that time she was doing a lot of animal studies, now she's more into locomotion and talking. Still, she's like an animal.
Q: Were you thinking about animals before you met Simone Forti?
DZ: No, I had never thought about animals, I was thinking about many other things, I loved to play with cartoon characters, and somehow through the years I'm finding out that it's something like that... but it's not really like that... it's something like animals... but it's not really like animals... it's something... It depends. It depends on the circumstances.
Q: When you improvise in a performance, do you have a compositional sense in mind?
DZ: It depends. Sometimes I work with a specific space, a specific quality of movement, a specific image that I have, or music and see what happens there. Sometimes I just go inside the room totally open.
Q: Do you have a preference between structured improvisations and open improvisations?
DZ: I like both very much depending on the circumstances and also on the day, because sometimes I go totally open and nothing happens. That's the risk of improvisation, and sometimes with a structure — you have the structure, nothing happens but you still have the structure, somehow the structure works.
Q: What do you mean by — "nothing happens"?
DZ: It's hard to say because there are magic moments when you feel you have control over all the forces. You have this direction, that direction of force, you have control over them, you feel very aligned with the space. You feel you know very well what's behind you or in front, also you know the relationships of parts of your body through the center, you find a game of interaction with each part and the space. When I find a game, when I find a playfulness, then it's happening, but when I feel I have to force it to make it happen, then it's hard, and sometimes that happens because... It's hard to say but it's really inspiration. Most of the time I'm very inspired, but when it doesn't happen, it's awful, for me and for the audience.
Q: When you perform an improvisation, do you give it a name?
DZ: Yes, I make a basic structure, and that structure I give a name. I can play inside that structure, it can change depending on the theater and all the possibilities. I have a few solos that are like that and they change depending on the year and my experience.
Q: Do you work on the structure between each performance, or do you just perform it?
DZ: I just perform it and find out other things during the performance. That's what I love to do — to compose right on the spot, inside the structure.
Q: When you perform such a solo, do you find yourself going back to the same habits?
DZ: I wouldn't say habits, I would say images. When I go back to the same picture, I say, "Oh, I know this, it's so familiar and I can play with it." But when I come back to the habits I feel stuck, that's where I feel the difference. Also, in between those solos that I have structured, I have performed a lot of totally open improvisations, I just give a name for that day.
Q: That means you enter the space without knowing what you're going to do.
DZ: Yes, definitely, but I have maybe twelve years of experience in improvisation, so I have developed my own language, I have things to grasp on to if I get completely lost.
Q: Do you practice for yourself?
DZ: In the technique class, for example, through teaching, it helps me a lot to keep moving the energy. The technique that I have developed is a great exercise for me to do before improvising, it just opens up those channels and "windows." I also improvise as much as I can with other people, interacting with them. I don't like very much improvising by myself in the studio.
Q: Do you like performing solos?
DZ: Yes, I love performing solos because I know my world very well. There's still more to know but I know enough to play with and I like it. I also like to perform with other people that I "click" with, it's fantastic. It gives me other information and I get stimulated. It's very difficult to perform with people if it doesn't "click."
Q: For the performance at the Dunois Theater, will it be an open improvisation? [This was a performance by the group Klick-Clique which included dancers Mark Tompkins, Sasha Waltz, Frans Poelstra and David Zambrano and musicians Johannes Bauer and Dietmar Diesner]
DZ: No, I don't think so, we did open improvisations before but somehow they didn't work out so well. We come from such different worlds, and all of a sudden we come together for three to four days, so we definitely need some time to interact. It's not because we're improvisers that we can just go and do a great performance together — it doesn't happen like that, you cannot predict it, but somehow that's exciting. It's weird but it's also exciting.
Q: Do you enjoy watching improvisations?
DZ: There are some people I like to watch a lot. When I see that wild animal performing I get excited. But when I see a person making some kind of intellectual imaginary work, it's a little bit cold for me, there's a lot of thinking from the brain and then it's not really happening. I don't know how to put it into words, but one is more from the heart or from your center of intelligence, your intuition, the person is really aware... the other one is more like trying to interpret your imagination that comes into your brain. That kind of improvisation I don't feel very connected to, but it's a good exercise.
Q: In front of an audience, do you feel responsible for what's going to happen?
DZ: No, I don't think something has to happen in order to please the audience. Most of the time I feel that if something happens for me, in the space and there's some fun, I feel I'm able to transmit that to the audience. But if I am concerned about making something happen, then it's a little bit hard and forced, I cannot transmit it very well to the audience. Also it depends on the audience — I have performed improvisations that I felt very uncomfortable with, I even had to stop early because I had nothing else to say, and for some of the audience it was a fantastic performance, because there was something about shapes, space... Sometimes I think that the book that I have written for my body has good structures so that when I perform, the movements are accepted, even though it wasn't so much fun for me, and I know very well when that happens. But when a "click" with the audience happens it's fantastic, that's what keeps me going with performing improvisation — it's like... it could be orgasmic, when it's orgasmic, it's fantastic.
Q: That's how you keep up with your energy?
DZ: Yes, somehow. I'm very concentrated right now on recycling — borrowing from others if you're very tired, if you've got too much you borrow calmness, or you borrow more strength... For me it's very important — how to recycle? How can I teach that to people, to recycle their energy?
Q: Do you think improvisation is a way of being, a state of mind, or...
DZ: Yes, it's a way of being, it's life, for me it's my life. I've never thought of improvisation as "different" from anything else in the dance world until I went to the United States. There especially, everything is so defined — you're black, you're white, you're Jewish, you're this, you're that, you're Latino, you belong to a minority group, you're an improviser, you're a post-modern dancer, you're a mover. All of a sudden I was put in the category of improvisers, so I said, "Okay, I'm an improviser, I guess." But I never saw a difference in what I was doing daily.
Q: So there wasn't a conscious decision of — "Now I'm going to improvise."
DZ: No, it happened when I started to do salsa in Venezuela.
Q: That's what you were doing in Venezuela, ballroom dancing?
DZ: Yes, ballroom dancing is very popular, it's part of the culture.
Q: Other than ballroom dancing, did you study other styles of dance in Venezuela?
DZ: Not really. When I decided to become a professional dancer I took a workshop for six weeks. I was in computer science for four years, then I shifted my whole career to dance. But I was dancing all the time in discos, and I had been dancing salsa ever since I was very young at parties, I also loved to imitate Michael Jackson, all these disco dancers, I used to love to dance. I still do, but at that time I was just doing it without thinking, "Oh, I'm a professional dancer," until I met somebody who told me, "Why don't you become a professional dancer? Go to the United States and make your career in dance. Here in Venezuela it's very hard, so if you can, go out there." I could and I went.
Q: You went to the United States to study dance in college.
DZ: But I went to a very bad college. Somehow it was good for me because I could do independent study. I took workshops outside of college and I went to the American Dance Festival several years; there I met Simone Forti and other people. I also met Pooh Kaye and fell in love with her work. When I went to New York, I worked with her for two years, that was a real training for me. Also, I was teaching all the time when I was in college because I didn't really accept the techniques that were taught there, like ballet, modern dance, jazz and tap... I wanted to play with people, then I got to know some people that weren't dance majors. We became a group in college and worked for three years. I was teaching all the time, whatever I was learning from outside I was teaching it at the college, that's how I developed all these things. So, when I got out of college I felt very good, even if my teachers told me I would never become a professional dancer if I didn't go to the Alvin Ailey school, or anything like that...
Q: How long have you been improvising?
DZ: I started performing in '81, but performing completely improvised works, I would say since '83, so a few years. Still I have much more to learn. People like Julyen Hamilton, Simone Forti, Jennifer Monson, or Frans Poelstra, for example, are masters of improvisation on stage. I love what they do and they're very inspirational. I still have a lot of respect for them even if what they do is not what I do on stage. But I see that they're so comfortable and so calm in performing what they love to do and that's very exciting. Sometimes I don't know if it's more exciting to go to take classes for a long time with somebody that could be very inspirational or to watch one night of performance of somebody that will shift your whole world around because it will open up all the possibilities. When you watch somebody you say, "My God, this is also possible, and that was possible!"
Q: For you, what does it mean — to be in the moment?
DZ: It's a very hard question, but it's something about knowing through your whole body where you are, knowing that from your center you can make any relationship with different parts of your body into the space, "From there I send my thoughts into the space, through the body, in different parts." You're right there but aware of everything else around you. When that happens I feel I'm in the moment. I must tell you that it doesn't happen all the time on stage, because when the audience comes there's always that nervousness that takes a while to go away. You warm-up the relationship with the audience and then you are right in the moment, you accept. It's like accepting what it is, accepting where the person is, "Okay, now I have a damaged toe in my right foot, now my right hand is a little bit weak," but I still can be free, I can talk from my center into the space and I can still design. There's a lot of traffic right now, we're talking, I'm trying to be aware of my back... When all that is starting to happen, I can find a moment of — "Wow! Hum... I got it. Okay, let's try again." And now I feel a little bit in control of the forces that come through the body. I can make decisions on my own more easily, I have my "channels" open. I can direct through that space, I can compress the space, expand the space, transform it, I can mold the space, I can move myself through the space, I can be part of the space, I am the space and all that happens at once, that's when you can say, "Okay, that's the moment," and you're very well planted on the ground. There are so many factors! It's so complex and yet so simple!
Q: Can you say that your dance is not from the intellect, but more a thought form, throughout your body?
DZ: Yes, I'm more an intuitive dancer. Intuition is my force. For sure it's thinking but not only thinking from your brain. It's more like placing your mind in your whole body or in each part of your body. It's more that I follow models of holography — everything involves everything, and every part of your body is you and you're part of the whole body. I follow more that model — metaphysics or quantum mechanics. Or this thing we see is not really what we see — what we perceive is sometimes more real than what our intellect is telling us. When we're able to smell through the whole body, that is when I say, "Wow!" This is very hard but at least possible. When our body gets transformed into liquid stuff or rubber legs or something like that... I'm more into changing definitions, or using your definitions according to your needs in that specific moment. You have preconceived knowledge but in that emergency moment you realize that that preconceived knowledge doesn't work at all, so you have to make a new one, you have to find other changes right away, otherwise you're in danger. This is possible.
Q: What do you do when you don't dance?
DZ: I think I still dance when I don't dance, or dance is everything. Because what you're asking me is how I define my dancing? What is dance for me? Is it just going to the studio and dancing? Right now, I don't see a separation between what I perceive from moment to moment — that's a hard question you're asking. I think I'm a full-time movement researcher.
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