Dancers performing O Snap

Erik Kaiel, choreographer – part one

Erik Kaiel is a  Lebanese-American contemporary dance choreographer now living in the Netherlands. His choreography has won prizes and he and his dancers have performed and taught all over the world. In part one of this interview, I asked Erik how he balances different aspects of his creative work and how he navigated difficult times to reach this stage of his career.

Can you tell me a bit about your creative practice?

If people ask what I do, the first answer is I’m a contemporary dance choreographer, but in practice that means a lot of different things. Very often you’ll teach some dance, you will do collaborative projects with amateurs, you’ll make a piece with professional dancers which may or may not go on tour, or I’ve also taught in the university as a guest teacher on dance programmes. And I think these things feed each other. A problem I see sometimes is that people over-define and say, this is the one thing I want to do, but the doing and the teaching and the engaging with your audience, all of these things feed the others – something you learn in one area feeds the others – and you grow faster because if you take something you’ve learned from one arena to another, there’s a kind of spark. It helps to not get in a rut, and not feel like you’ve run into a wall. It’s like water, it’ll just find a way to go around – so maybe it’s not the way you thought you were going in the beginning, but it is the way that you’ll end up flowing further, and then connecting to that thing where you thought there was a wall.

How do you manage those different elements of your work?

The two nicest things are making new work – if you know you’ve got eight weeks in front of you or six weeks to just go in the studio every day and make it and think at night about where it’s going, it’s just such a luxury. But it’s totally not a sustainable thing, you couldn’t just make a piece and then instantly start making the next piece. And in the last few years there was a moment when the career really took off, and where I was probably saying yes to too many projects, and it got to the point where you had another new project and you didn’t have enthusiasm for making the next new thing. It’s like adrenaline, it just runs out at a certain point, and you still need it but it’s not there any more. So it’s important to think about sustainability, and combine that with the ambition somehow.

“Sharing the work, it’s like drinking a nice wine; afterwards, seeing the faces of the audience and what they got from the show, and then you carry that with you throughout the day”

We made a model where we’re a small company and we tour a bunch of different work. So the dancers are in three or four different pieces, and we do a different show each week or even two different shows in the same week. That keeps it a little fresh. The standard model where you tour one piece and you do that dance for months on end – soul-killing is too hard, but it becomes by rote instead of by enthusiasm. But it is also nice to have a stretch of touring. You’ve set it up, you’ve done the slog-work to get everything in place and then you just go, you have that really intense hour once or twice a day where you’re performing the work, and the other time you can explore the town, meet people, and that’s really nice. Sharing the work, it’s like drinking a nice wine; afterwards, seeing the faces of the audience and what they got from the show, and then you carry that with you throughout the day, that feeling of purposefulness or usefulness.

What was your pathway to this stage of your career? Was dancing something you always wanted to do?

I started dancing in high school. I went to one of those ‘Fame’ high schools, and I really enjoyed it; then I was at an international school, and when I was done with that I knew I wanted to study somewhere with a dance programme. I was really drawn to the form. And as I was doing it, I think I knew in high school already that I wanted to be a maker. I enjoy dancing, but if you think of music, how there’s theme and variations, there’s different types of dancers and quite a few really derive satisfaction from understanding exactly what the choreographer wants, and physicalising it and doing it, interpreting what the choreographer’s intention is – and that’s a good dancer. I was a mischievous or bad dancer, I was always thinking what else could we do? Always thinking in parallel universes to what we were doing. Or later, how can I use this for telling a story? So in improvisational work or more rough work I was fine, but if it was really precise work I was not the right body to be in that work. And that’s okay. But when I finished my Masters in New York I made a deliberate choice not to try and get into one company that would tour a lot and just learn one person’s work, but to work with a lot of different smaller companies to experience different aesthetics.

“Martha Graham talked about that queer feeling of dissatisfaction … there’s something that doesn’t exist in the world that needs to be put out there. There’s something that keeps you going, that need to make and to put out into the public space”

And I actually went through a time when I wasn’t making so much work of my own, I was just observing other work, and in New York you have to work two, three side jobs to support the dancing habit, and I would try to do things like work with a dance festival in the technical area or something, and this would mean you would figure out the lights and sound for, like, a hundred eight-minute pieces, and run them in a two-week period, and this gave me a tremendous exposure to different kinds of dance, what’s working and what’s not, from a kind of neutral place where you’re not emotionally invested in the success of the thing. And I think it was actually a really great learning environment, because you can read dance history as much as you want, you can see the pieces that you really love but not necessarily understand why you love them, but there is something that – if you find that one person that makes work that you really love, then why do you need to make work like that? Martha Graham talked about that queer feeling of dissatisfaction, like you are happy to be doing this process, but there’s something that doesn’t exist in the world that needs to be out out there, and even after you’ve made a piece it’s there a bit, but it needs to go further, like it’s not present enough. There’s something that keeps you going, that need to make and to put out into the public space.

And how did you move on from that learning environment to where you are now?

I was in New York about ten years in total, and towards the end of it I started to feel like it was repeating itself. I could see the edges of the context in New York. And also, there are just too many performing artists in New York, it’s like a goldfish bowl with a thousand goldfish in it instead of three. And you see that sustained success there doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the work, it’s how deep the pockets are of the boyfriend or the parents of a particular person, and that’s – you could take the struggle on if it’s a fair struggle, but if you think, I could spend my life here busting my butt and five people will see the work… It’s okay, but if you really want to do something with what you learned in your time there, then you just need to go somewhere else, somewhere more peaceful.

First I was down in Washington DC for a while, improvising and working a bit in that scene, and then a friend and I found a bit of seed money and we did a tour of the west coast, because I’m from Portland, he’s from San Francisco, and we knew people in LA and Seattle and Vancouver, so we could work our way up the coast. And that was a great experience; to make an evening-length work with just the two of us was an intense thing, and we performed in alternative space and the audience that came was very often not a dance audience, it was just friends of friends or other people not in the arts world, and to share the work and have a discussion with them about what they experience…

“You have to impress the programmer or the funder to be able to continue to make the work – and somehow the work gets further and further from communicative and more conceptual, and that’s problematic for me”

Dance is a communicative form, but the further you go professionally the more it almost doesn’t matter what the audience thinks, you have to impress the programmer or the funder to be able to continue to make the work – and this creates a certain work but it’s like somehow the work gets further and further from communicative and more conceptual, and that’s problematic for me. I talk sometimes about the myth of Prometheus and fire, and there’s two acts: stealing the fire, and bringing it back to the people. And you will see very populist, family-friendly, dumbed-down work where they say it’s for everybody, and they’re really busy with bringing it back to the people, but the fire’s almost extinguished, it’s going out. The work is not really alive.  And then you find people who are really all about the fire, but they’ve forgotten it has to come back: there’s a fire, but nobody is experiencing it. And so it’s to somehow be servant of two masters, to achieve both those tasks; to fan the flame and to get it back to the public, and get them to feel the flame, not just know that it exists. And that’s a nice thing for a live performer, but it’s still weird sometimes, like you’ll go somewhere and you’ll do your performance and people clap for a few minutes and your performance conceptually is all about community and belonging and fighting against loneliness, and people clap and then they go off to dinner and you’re just alone on the stage thinking, what am I going to do before I go to my hotel room? I’ve warmed everyone else, but…

Tell me a bit about your creative routine… 

The key is to find that thing that you need to tell. If you can tap into the root of that thing you need to tell or need to express, it makes writing the applications to ask for money to make a work so much easier. You can use plain language in a much easier way; if you’re not sure, that comes through in the writing when you’re trying to communicate what it is you need to tell.

“Don’t let it stay in the theoretical; find something in the real world where the chance for sparks is there”

Then, the routine is to find opportunities – and that can be browsing the web, it can be talking to other people – but somehow, whether or not it’s an instantaneous money-making thing, you need to connect with other human beings, to somehow stir the soup. In dance that means go to improvisation sessions with other dancers and just play. Because maybe you find someone you connect with and you think, we should make a duet together. Don’t let it stay in the theoretical; find something in the real world where the chance for sparks is there. And then it’s about ordering your life. There was a time in New York when I broke up with a girl, she kept the apartment and I couldn’t find something affordable. I ended up putting my stuff in the basement storage area of a theatre where I knew the people, and I was sort of house-sitting for anyone who was on tour and needed their cat fed or their plants watered. And so for five or six months I was just hopping around. With Airbnb now it’s not such a big deal, but then it was really quite something that you didn’t know where you would be the next week. But if you compromised, if you took that high rent, suddenly you would have to spend three quarters of your time making money and one quarter making art, and I was there in New York to make art, and I needed to spend one quarter of my time making money and the rest making art – for free, unfortunately! But it’s all part of the process.

Have there been any times that have been particularly difficult? Did you ever consider giving up?

Yeah absolutely. And literally I was thinking, what else would I do? If this was not working, what else would I do? And that, ironically, was the moment the career really took off, about eight or nine years ago. Because it kind of incubates on a small scale, and you think, is this a hobby that I enjoy doing? Or is there a chance that you will actually influence the world in a positive way or that this can be more of a sustainable practice? Or do I have to think about what else I can do with the things that I’ve learned in this field? It wasn’t like I couldn’t sleep at night, I was pretty much at peace with it, like it’s been a good ride, I’ve got a lot out of the experience I’ve had. And I think it’s important not think that it’s giving up, and just say for a little while I’ll do something else.

“Teaching is returning to learning, and deepening your practice and your understanding. And I definitely think those years of teaching, even though I didn’t want to be a teacher, I wanted to be a dancer and a choreographer, it made me better at those things”

For me when I left DC I went to the Netherlands and for the first two years I was teaching movement composition in a university, and it was great, I loved teaching. It wasn’t the job I thought I’d have, but it’s the one that fell in my lap. And you don’t want people to become copies of you, you want them to discover their own aesthetic – and ask I’m asking these deep questions about what is your aesthetic, on the train ride home I’m thinking, I don’t know if I can answer that question I asked my students this morning! So you start to think about your own answer to these questions. And I think teaching is returning to learning, and deepening your practice and your understanding. And I definitely think those years of teaching, even though I didn’t want to be a teacher, I wanted to be a dancer and a choreographer, it made me better at those things. And you have to step outside the ego sometimes, and embrace a new opportunity or possibility, and see what you get out of it. And very often it’s like sun or water for a plant. It’s not the way you thought you were going to grow, but it’s more resonant, because now you have a wider base than before, instead of this one, thin desire direction.

Coming up in part two of this interview: inspirations and turning points, earning a living, and what creative success looks like…

Find out more about Erik’s work – and watch video trailers of some of his work – here.

About This Is How We Make It / Jayne Stokes interview / Viccy Adams interview / Iain Laurie interview / Erik Kaiel interview part two