© Apollonia Theresa Bitzan

Why death of all things?

Fundamentally every work on stage is concerned with death, it’s even an encounter with death. If you want to overstate the case, the audience watch people who are alive but are gradually getting closer to death over the time that elapses. And the audience too have got closer to death by exactly the length of the performance. A few years ago, I had a kind of near-death experience on stage but that was not the decisive reason for me to address this topic so explicitly. Neither was the pandemic, which has made death more present for people: death no longer prevails only in distant regions of crisis or in individual dramas, now death approaches directly in large quantities from the hospital round the corner.  Death is now what has to be avoided at all costs.
I’ve always been fascinated with the ›problem‹ of representing death in dance. Dance can have a lot of representational problems (for this reason dance still tends not to be taken so seriously as an art from) but the problem of death is very acute. At the same time, however, no art form is so profoundly concerned with the transcendence of the physical body as dance or gets close it – at least that’s how I’ve always understood dance personally: as a physical practice that attempts to push back the barrier between what is human and what is more than human.
Basically, I wanted to have another good look at existential questions that I’ve always asked myself and to try to answer them through physical experimentation. How does death dance? How do dead people dance? How can I dance with death and what exactly is the presence of death? And how can I actually live in the constant presence of death? The dance of death is, of course, life itself. So what we’re doing on stage are exercises in living and dying.

Can you tell us more about your near-death experience?

It was an experience that confronted me with my own mortality and vulnerability. Before then, I’d thought of the stage as an area that was about losing control. This changed a lot afterwards: I became more of a control freak and then I suddenly realized that there can be almost more scope for freedom in a controlled setting – which is something I would definitely have doubted previously and I’m still very torn about. My first shows were only created for that one moment: they couldn’t be repeated and nobody wanted them to be. They had more of a feeling of ›doing it as if it was the only and last time‹ – extremely romantic, of course, but I really didn’t think there was a great deal of a future in what I was doing and I didn’t actually want there to be. 
Later I wanted to pay my rent and to involve other people and to pay them too. But you can’t be quite so wasteful with other people’s resources and suddenly what you’re doing has to last longer and the word sustainability crops up – which shouldn’t seduce you into making conformist work or overburden you with responsibility and accountability. Genuine experimentation requires a thick skin – because I have opportunities that a lot of others aren’t receiving, I think these need to be taken. Fortunately, I’ve always felt like an outsider everywhere, so I don’t feel much stress about conforming to norms. If I get funding from somewhere that’s great, but if not, then I tend to think I didn’t really want to go there anyway.
I’m now 35, so I’m the same age Dante was when he suddenly ›fell by the wayside‹ in the middle of his life. Suddenly I got the feeling how short my life is and how many things there are that I still want to do. When you’re a teenager, all your options are open and then suddenly you notice that you’ve (unintentionally) chosen one of them. I find that thought very claustrophobic.  
Covid was definitely a reset button. Everyone around me suddenly started having children or buying houses and overall I found it very depressing: is there really nothing else to do? So now people concentrate on accumulating property or trying to leave their genes behind while everyone is slowly dying out?
At the same time, we have an absurdly aged society and a socially-rooted panic at the prospect of death. The unspeakable nature of death. My own panic about it. But I think it’s more my panic at the idea of an unfulfilled life.
That’s what I wanted to work through and so I started a study group of people who I thought had a very particular (or highly conscious) approach to life and death – some of them from dance but others from very different fields. People who I wanted to participate in this negotiation with the dance of death and who could also define it from their own perspective. Of course, initially I thought of older people, who share the fact that they have already lived for a long time and survived a great deal.  That is a superpower in itself and, of course, as a dancer I’m very interested in superpowers.

What occurs to you about death and femininity?

Hm, well there’s been a connection there for a long time: Eros and Thanatos. For a long time, it was certainly more established to put a woman on stage as an art object, as something to look at, an apparition of beauty – who was most beautiful in death, because then she is at her most object-like.
If we look at the history of European theatre and art in the last thousand years these two roles were very strongly represented: the ›femme fatale‹ and the ›femme fragile‹. On the one hand there is the woman killing for pleasure, who brings about men’s doom, and on the other there is the victim abandoned to her fate and controlled by others.  
These stereotypes have, of course, been transformed in our time but the definition of femininity can cover a great deal and is also a matter of identification. In this respect we are children of our time and tend to take a more playful approach to it. On stage I like working with supposed male fantasies – I have them too :-)

What interests you about Dante’s fantasies of death?

We’re actually not that interested in Dante per se or in interpreting his Divine Comedy – we simply want to create a Divine Comedy and by that we mean a ›comedy‹ that uses the most impossible stage material of all, that deals with life and death and also the question of transcendence. In TANZ we had already dealt with a (Eurocentric) notion of dance and when the Ruhrtriennale invited us we were keen to do the same with theatre. Also the Divine Comedy is teeming with the ›femmes fatales‹ and ›femmes fragiles‹ I mentioned earlier and we felt provoked by that … In this show I wanted to bring together performers who could lead us through so-called dying exercises, whose practice is close to dealing with life and death, distinct from mere representation. Or people who simply because of their age bring this precious experience with them of having been alive on the planet for a long time. What can they teach us about life and its meaning or lack of meaning? 
I was also interested in how the Divine Comedy is divided into three: hell, purgatory and paradise. Of course, this has massive Catholic connotations but what if we start by assuming that these three worlds all co-exist in a/our present-day reality and especially if we view it through the lens of: ›what is hell for one person might be heaven for another‹. These binary distinctions between good and evil are so deeply anchored in our basic moral principles, whether we like it or not.
Dante is accompanied by various different characters on his journey through the afterlife, we reflect that by looking at the life of a dancer… and how she deals with age, transience and death. In our Divine Comedy a variety of typical dance situations are represented that show pupils and teachers in their habitat. We want to deal thoroughly with the dance of death but also with how this subject is passed on from one generation to another. And it should also be possible to see broader themes here: ageing, identity and femininity and how the way one relates to one’s own body regarding these issues has changed during the last century… actually within the cast we’ve got an entire century represented on stage and that makes it very exciting to approach these themes together. There are several Virgils on our stage who will lead people through the evening with dances of death and exercises in dying that will ultimately vindicate Dante’s insight that it is ›love that moves the sun and the other stars‹.