Dancer between two buildings

Erik Kaiel, choreographer – part two

In the second part of my interview with choreographer Erik Kaiel, I asked him about his inspirations, how he earns a living and what advice he’d give his younger self. Read part one of the interview here.

What are some of the things – people, opportunities, inspirations – that have been essential to you? What kind of support have you had along the way?

One of the big inspirations was during my undergraduate years, I took a half-year senior seminar about the grotesque: film and literature and other things. This idea that something is repulsive and you cannot look away from it, I really like those threads pulling in different directions at the same time. One of the things we came across was an idea of Bahktin, that what marked the difference of modernity was the presence of multiple voices inside the same text. Because if you have a singular voice, you’re replicating the voice of the church, the voice of the state, it’s the voice of authority saying: this is how it is. But once there are multiple voices there’s the possibility of resistance, of different directions, there are different perspectives. That for me was really freeing. It’s like in classical music, you want a bit of dissonance that can then resolve into a harmony, and it’s the same with bodies: from all these different things it resolves, and then maybe something new arises.

Since then I’ve really always been a magpie artist. It’s about finding the shiny thing or the interesting concept in a different field and bringing it back to your field. And this means you need to read a book, go to a film, not encase yourself in the one medium. Do something that’s completely different to what you do, and ask how can something that arises in that field illuminate my field. It’s the cross-pollination between things, that’s where the interesting stuff arises.

What were your turning points, or what achievements are you most proud of?

There’s this duet we made, it’s called no man is an island. I lay on the ground and the other dancer is standing on my hands and then he dances for about fifteen minutes on my body. My eyes are shut, I’m passive, he’s very active. That piece, I think we made it in about twelve hours – and most pieces you spend weeks on. But the thing is, the dancer and I in that piece, we had done projects together, like site-specific things, different improvisation projects, we’d worked together for two years. And when we have audience discussions, the children have two questions: they want to know does it hurt? And then the other question is, how long did it take you to make this? And it’s an impossible question, because really you need to talk about the twenty years of dance training that you had before you did it, and even more than that we used the example of a poet, that if a poet spends three hours a day writing a poem for ninety-nine days, and they’re decent poems, and then on the hundredth day in about five minutes the best poem comes. But that five-minute poem will never come without the ninety-nine days of slogging through and pushing and trying. And so it’s the same thing.

“I can work in the field of dance for the next twenty years because I see that we really discovered something … and it’s so evocative that people, whether they have a dance background or not, are really touched by it”

And there’s something about doing that piece – we’ve been doing it now for about eight years, probably 600 times – we joke sometimes that the butterflies have left the building. You go through the movements and for you it’s a sequence of physical actions that’s lost its magic and mystery, but every time you finish and the audience is turbo-charged, it’s like they drank six espressos and they’re like, that was so amazing, so alive… There’s something for me that’s really satisfying. It’s like I can work in the field of dance for the next twenty years because I see that we really discovered something that’s a metaphor stripped down to the bare bones – and it’s so evocative that people, whether they have a dance background or not, are really touched by it, inspired or moved by it; and it’s in the form of the piece, not only in how you perform it, because whether you perform it enthusiastically or just mechanically it still has the same effect on people.

Do you earn a living from your creative work, directly or indirectly? If not, how do you get by? How do you balance earning money with focusing on creative work?

I do now – but it’s literally the last three years, I would say. I think for the first fifteen to eighteen years after I finished college it was scraping by to make ends meet. In New York you knew it going in: there is no subsidy system there. So you rehearsed for free, you performed for peanuts, and you just had to have side jobs to pay your rent and feed yourself, and start paying off your student loans. When I was teaching in university that was a help, but it was still just teaching half-time. I think, if you really want to be an artist, you have to not say, what does everyone else do? Not say, I need to have this and that and the other thing; or, I need a two-week vacation and then if there’s time over I will make art. Instead you say: I need a place to sleep, I need to eat, and I need to support my art-making – and then organise the rest of your life around that. It’s a fundamental upside-down-ness of your priorities, and that means you can’t go to the movies every time you feel like going to the movies, or you can’t buy two bottles of wine, you have to make do with one for a few days. But I think that’s okay.

And it’s a bit weird when you don’t have to check your bank account before you take money out of the cash machine – but it’s also funny because we’ve been performing on some large stages recently, and it’s not like this big jump in how much you earn. And that just depends on what field you go into. Actors who go into TV and film, they make radically more than you do, and you just have to not be jealous. In most art forms you’re going to affect a few people deeply, and not a lot of people superficially – and of course we all have the fantasy that we’re going to affect a lot of people deeply, but for most of us it’s not the way it works. It’s not useful to be jealous. And you also have to appreciate the freedom that you have.

What about security, is that important to you? Particularly now you have a family…

The family’s the biggest thing. I got invited to do street performance in Cairo, two months after the Tahrir Square uprisings. And normally I’d just say yes, particularly to something interesting in the developing world, but here I was like, is this safe? Not only for myself but for the dancers. In the end we did it, and it was fine, but you do think about these things. I think before I had kids I would be like, yeah let’s go. But you think about your kids growing up without a dad if something happens to you, and you feel a bit more anxious about it.

“It’s finding that balance between being a parent and being an artist – and I find it’s helpful to do one or the other intensively”

And because I have to travel for my work, it tends to be a third of the year you’re on the road, and I don’t want to be just a Skype dad. So how can I organise it so that the kids know that they’re loved whether I’m there or not? You definitely end up buying guilt presents. It’s finding that balance between being a parent and being an artist – and I find it’s helpful to do one or the other intensively. It’s harder to bounce back and forth between domestic life and artistic life. And I think it comes back to this idea of having some nothing time. You need an expanse of nothingness before the artistic thing can rise – and children are wonderful, but they’re also distracting…

You do also think about pensions, but you can’t let it paralyse you. You have keep working and think, I’ll do what I can. I also think about the kids and university – you don’t want them to come out of school with crippling debt, so how can I squirrel away a bit for their college fund so that they can make a free choice about what they want to do and not just think, how can I make enough to pay back my debt. I live in Europe now, and if I’d chosen to stay in the States and be an artist, your kids suffer. The health insurance isn’t as good, the schools they end up going to… They pay the price for the freedom you wanted. And in continental Europe it’s a bit different. So that leaves you free to make art without a huge backpack of guilt towards your children.

 What would creative success mean to you?
Creative success is somehow about sustainability, and it’s not necessarily about your vision, it’s about an authentic vision. And to me that has meant surrounding myself with dancers who are technically quite good, but more importantly who really have their own imagination and their own ideas – and that means that along the way by working with you they’re developing their own artistry, but it also means that they won’t stay with you forever, at some point they’ll break off to do their own thing or form their own group. And to somehow have the ego resilience to be okay with that, not to view them as competition as they leave but to understand that by taking them on your journey for a while you are giving them important values. And there’s a satisfaction that the things you did with them are disseminating, they’ll be doing those things with others, expanding into the world.
We all dream about one big gesture that’s going to be recognised by others as an amazing thing – and it’s okay that that’s not the way it is, that it’s all incremental and slow. That you have to find your satisfaction in the tidal progress. It goes out, the next day it goes a little further, there’s an ebb and flow – and on a personal level sometimes it feels like you’re stranded, like you’re a whale that got beached for a second, but the water’s going to come back, it’s going to okay.

“The really quiet thing, which is often the most interesting thing, can finally be noticed, because you’re not so busy hurtling forward in that direction which is where you think you want to go”

So creative success for me is – success is a funny word, but it’s more where you find your satisfaction. That satisfaction isn’t a point, and then it’s done, but that it’s somehow with you as an overtone to the music of your life. And that makes you more resilient, it makes you more patient, and it lets beautiful new things come out. And it’s also why someone like Arvo Part, in their 40s or their 50s there’s a phase of wisdom or patience with life; the really quiet thing, which is often the most interesting thing, can finally be noticed, because you’re not so busy hurtling forward in that direction which is where you think you want to go. And that for me is a sort of a zen success. It’s the success that lets you take a deep breath and be at peace with who you are, what you’re doing, and not think: why the hell did I choose this, and everyone else has a house and a car and nice things and I’m scribbling on paper in a cold room…

What advice would you give to your younger self?

A big thing would be don’t go right away to graduate school. Go out in the world and experience some things first so that when you’re in graduate school you have a bit of life. A dancer’s career is like a mayfly, it’s so short that you need to get where you can because you’ve only got so many years the body can do it at a really high level. But I still think, especially if you know you want to be a maker, it would have been better for me to figure out what was that thing I really needed grad school for, to develop further. I think also, it’s something about discipline. I’m a little bit allergic to discipline, which is funny because dance requires a lot of discipline. But just to have  a bit more discipline in the doing, and to accept that that’s going to help the imagination. It’s going to sharpen the instrument to be able to express exactly the thing that’s in your mind. That’s not only for dance, I think it’s true for a lot of creative types: if you want to express something in an exquisite way, you need to push through some of the stuff that feels like a slog.

Tell me about your next project…

I’ve been commissioned to make a new performance in Vienna with Tschungel Wien, I’ll be touring Nebraska in December, and my company will be performing in Pittsburgh and Montreal in January.

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 one