Interview with Anou Skan / June 2019- Marseille

(Söyleşinin Türkçe versiyonuna buradan ulaşabilirsiniz.)

Interview and edit by Banu Açıkdeniz 

Last year in June, the Museum Vieille de Charite in Marseille organized an exhibition called “Saharan Mondes Connectes” (Sahara Connected Worlds) in cooperation with IRD- Institute de Recherche pour de Développement (The Research Institute for Development). Anou Skan was in the program with “Les Collectes de Geste en Exil” (The Collection of Gestures in Exile). I was also invited to perform with Anou Skan in the beautiful courtyard of the museum Vieille Charite. Vieille Charite was built in the 17th century as a charity house. It is also known as the place where Arthur Rimbaud passed away.

The project “Les Collectes de Geste en Exil”(2) had two parts: a film screening and a dance performance. The film was created by Anou Skan from the video recordings of gestures collected during the workshops in four different refugee centers. And the dance piece was based on these gestures.

On the 7th of June, just before our performance I had an interview with the company members, Sophie Tabakov and Laurent Soubise. We talked on the project Les Collectes de Geste (The Gesture Collection) which they have been working on since 2010. Anou Skan is a dance company founded in 1993 by two dancers Sophie Tabakov and Laurent Soubise in Lyon. Their goal is “to create public events, which may involve dancing, poetry and music” in connection with different cultures around the world. They explain their works as both artistic and educational. Every year through their workshops and performances they come together with many people from different social classes, ethnicities and ages.

During the interview we strolled around various concepts like archives, gestures, fasciatherapy, movement, exile… We were in a small tea house right across the church Notre Dame des Accoles. Notre Dame des Accoles’ bell tower which was looking down on the beautiful port of Marseille also took its place as the fourth character in the interview. You may hear its voice from time to time, while reading… 

I hope this interview will give a sense of a fresh journey to readers in these days of the pandemic in which we are not able to travel freely…

Banu Açıkdeniz: Sophie and Laurent, what was the main idea when you first started the project Les Collectes de Geste (The Collection of Gestures)? 

Sophie Tabakov: I started working on traditional dances in 2004. It was a brand new area for me, because I was coming from the contemporary dance world. In contemporary dance we are not expected to work on traditional cultures, but to produce “contemporary” stuff. In other words we are supposed to go to places where people have never been before. When I started working on these dances I realised that there are some things inevitable, things that we cannot avoid. I felt that there were some places we all had been before, in the past. Today we carry their traces within our gestures, and we will keep on carrying them tomorrow… Then I started wondering “Where do these gestures come from?”. I think they are coming from some heritage that we are not aware of. All day long we are surrounded with gestures: gestures of our family, our job, ourselves… So we have a kind of an “alphabet of gestures” that we deal with. 

And then it seemed to me that it could be interesting to ask people about their alphabets: the gestures that we internalize without paying attention. This is our first heritage, even before culture or language. Those movements are the vocabulary given by our family, our social and cultural background. So I wanted to start learning about people’s alphabets…

Laurent Soubise: For me working on people’s gestures was about finding the essential emanation of humanity. This is something that we all have in common, we all share it, beyond languages and cultural behaviours. 

So we preferred to go to the welfare centers for refugees where nobody speaks the same language, nobody has the same history, nobody comes from the same country… We would try to understand each other by hand movements, facial expressions and by our bodily habits as dancers. We had to communicate with them without speaking or with very few words, and of course with “gestes” (gestures).

Once you’ve got a gesture then you start looking at it from a qualitative perspective, you will find something deep inside it.  And the more you get closer to the quality of the gesture you will get closer to the quality of the relationship between human beings. We all have it in ourselves. But if we don’t pay attention we can miss it, although it has been there all the time… We emphasize other ways of communication. However gestures are one of the most important means of connecting people. 

B. A.: Before talking about the workshop and the concept of gesture I would like to ask you the foundation of the project. Who did you work with, which institutions cooperated with you? For instance, the performance we will present today as part of the exhibition… You first created it for the FITE (Festival International des Textiles ExtraOrdinaires) in Clermont-Ferrand, right? So from the very beginning which institutions, festivals or individuals supported the project or became a partner?

S. T.: Actually, this is the fifth version of “Les collectes de geste”. Since the beginning, our partners have all been public institutions. We have never worked with the private sector for this project. Our first partner was the Lyon Municipal Archive. In these archives they keep documents that belong to people once lived in the city like addresses, memoirs, city plans, photos of streets or ancient buildings… etc. In every city in France there is this public service. Every citizen can visit those archives for free. For example, if you want to learn about the history of your street, you will visit those archives. 

So, we met the director of the Lyon Municipal Archive, Anne-Catherine Marin, she is a very nice lady. And we started talking about archives and their unchanging destiny through human history. When there is a war, one of the sides takes advantage of it. And the first thing they do is to go to the archive and burn it down. This is the first thing they do… So archives are very important. We mentioned our perspective to her that archives are usually seen as pieces of paper, but they can also manifest themselves in terms of bodily behaviours. She agreed, “it can be both material and immaterial” she said. So briefly, as she was really interested in the project, Lyon Municipal Archive became our first big partner. 

After that, we continued to work with various associations; and not just with refugees but with people from some specific districts, with kids, with teachers etc. We were curious about the answer to this question: “Which gestures are living with us?”. It could be an interesting way to express feelings. Some people might be uneasy to convey themselves by writing or talking, but with gestures they might be much more comfortable. Then we participated in Le Grand Bivouac in Abbeville. It was a festival focused on the theme of “travel”. There was a Gypsy [Roma] population there. Kids were not able to attend one specific school since their families were constantly changing places. They were going to travelling schools. We collected gestures of cooking from these children. We asked about different ways of cooking and their gestures. 

And then the textile festival, FITE came… They’ve got financial support from the Ministry of Culture. In France, the Ministry of Culture has an objective to promote artistic activities in some districts where cultural venues -like theaters- do not exist, or in places where people are not able to go to such activities. So, as an artist if you want to work in that kind of a district you can get some grant for that. But of course you have to be able to communicate with the people living there, maybe you will need to stay for a while. The place you go could be a countryside with some villages that have no theaters. It could be a hospital, a jail, a refugee center etc. A place where people are not able to attend cultural events… So the festival organisers asked us: “ Where do you want to go?”.  And we chose the refugee centers. Because Anou Skan has been dealing with the question of exile from the very beginning.

B.A.: And Sophie, do you think there is also a connection with your background?

S.T.: Yes for sure, exactly. My father was a refugee. But for Laurent the connection is about what makes us human through life, about living. My father being a refugee affected me a lot in my whole life. I always felt like I was a little bit aside. 

We have been working with a writer years ago, Alain Glicose. He was from a refugee family who had migrated from Asia Minor back in 1923.

The cover of a cartoon book Manolis by Alain Glykos. He is a French author with Greek origin. The book is based on his father’s memories from the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923. 


B. A.: Was he Greek?

S.T.: Yes. And he told us that his father never talked to him about what happened back then. Just like my father… He did not teach him the Greek language, like my father didn’t teach me Bulgarian. And he said that his father had left him one thing: the fear. When I heard that, I realized that my father had given me the exact same thing, the fear.

When there is a situation of exile, there is always the same pattern. Parents do not talk about it, but they transmit their feelings to their children. I grew up with that feeling. I was not comfortable. Without knowing the reason, you realise that you have a fear of something that does not exist. Because it is just a feeling. 

So, you see Laurent has a much more philosophical, universal approach; with the idea of equality to all. But my departure point is personal and emotional. And this is the way I deal with it, by creating. Now, Laurent says he wants to elaborate on the subject of fear, with some connections to fasciatherapy training.

L.S.: Human beings are living in a body and this body is like a sponge. This sponge lives in a lively surrounding and this surrounding is also inside of the sponge, like the sponge is inside of it… We are in life but at the same time the life is inside of us. For peace and silence, you have to have a good balance between the inner and outer surrounding. And silence is found only in stillness. But it is not enough. Because the human being is here to “become” (devenir). His/her aim in this world is to “become”, and not to stay still. Life is a movement. So we are inevitably in motion, we are forced to be restless, even if we need stillness in order to have a good balance between our inside and outside. 

S.T.: In French “restlessness” (agitation) is similar to being worried or uneasy (être inquiet, être mal à l’aise).

L.S.: Since life is motion, we need to move. Human beings are always in a feeling of restlessness, because “to become” is mandatory. So restlessness is both a natural and an inevitable feeling. But if our purpose of action is in balance with life then we still feel the restlessness without having the stress. When it is not in harmony – when it is not a natural restlessness- then this feeling turns into fear and oppression, and it becomes a disease. I mean when it is not accorded to the motion of life… 

(At this moment the church bell just across the street started to ring loudly.)

B.A:. You have opened an insightful parenthesis. Reflecting upon what you have said, maybe we can also suggest that this “natural restlessness” is also the force that provokes humanity to discover and create… This is a relieving and encouraging perspective indeed. You have been working on fasciatherapy for long years. I hope we will be able to have a broader conversation on this subject and its philosophical implications later on. Now we can close this parenthesis and come back to the workshops. 

When you first started your project for the textile festival FITE you went to these refugee centers. What kind of an announcement did you make when you get there? For example, with whom you were expecting to work with and who did step up to be voluntary for the project? How did it go in the first place?

S.T.: First we wrote a project and applied to several refugee centers in France. But they did not accept us. Until one director from a refugee center said “Well… It seems interesting!”. Then we were able to start the project in four different refugee centers.

B.A.: It is interesting that they were not so eager for this project in the first place. 

S.T.: Yes. At first they did not want this project to take place in their centers. The welfare centers for refugees are usually located in some districts where not many things are happening. So people staying there get bored all day long. They are killing days waiting for the administration to give them permission to stay in the country. They are not allowed to work, so they just wait… As their fear is so big even if they attend some activities they cannot concentrate well, because of this enormous stress.

(Bells were ringing continuously… Then at some point we were all surrounded with a melody. It was too loud so we weren’t able to keep talking. At one moment Laurent and Sophie looked at each other and started accompanying the song the bells were ringing. Sophie found it strange because it was not a church song, but a very popular one, and it was not very usual to hear those songs from church bells. It seemed the bell was determined to join our interview…) 

On the other side, these refugee centers wanted to organize some activities in terms of public relations. That is why some of them found the project interesting. Once they decided to accept our project, they made an announcement: “Next week there will be a workshop. Come and try!” Our plan was to go to the first center and stay there for two days. On the first day we would explain the project and start working and the next day we would shoot the videos. Our final aim was to create a film. But then we realised that it was not a good idea to organise a workshop in the morning time. Since they were not able to sleep at night, they could not make it in the morning.

(Bell sounds got louder again, it was hard to talk.)

They were having difficulty in falling asleep at night, because they were so worried. Most of them had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). First morning, we waited but nobody showed up. Finally around noon some people appeared. So we learned that the best schedule was not in the morning, but later.

Also, once they participated in one of our workshops they were satisfied and did not appear in the second meeting. The first day we had a wonderful workshop with those people. They gave fantastic movements, it was really great. Then we came back with the camera for shooting two weeks later and nobody showed up, but the others, new people came. 

(At this point Laurent went to Vieille de Charite to check the stage for the performance.)

We realized that in their situation it was highly demanding to suddenly stop and get focused on something else. Because they were under a huge amount of stress. During the workshop we always needed to say “relax, think of something else…” etc.  For them it was a very big effort. So we changed our minds and decided to organize a one full day only: we would meet them, do the workshop and shoot the film, all in one day.

We came back a few times to give dance workshops to the welfare center in Lyon. We invited them to our dance studio, they met our students. As we were also in Lyon it was easier for us to stay in contact with them. But the others were far away. 

B.A.: Where were they, in other cities?

S.T.: Yes, in the center of France, approximately four hours from Lyon.

B.A.:  The people you worked with in those refugee centers, where were they coming from? 

S.T.: Many of them were from Sub-Saharan Africa. There were a lot of people coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan. A few Iranian and Iraqian, and some but not many people from Syria, Kosovo, Ukraine and Georgia… Most of them were suffering from severe diseases which could not be treated in their country. They were looking for medication. Some of them experienced traumatic events, for example their village was burned down. In Kosovo, Georgia and Ukraine the situation was different. They were not running away from a war but from the mafia or the blood feuds.  For instance, if there is a contract on them in a blood feud they have to pay -with their blood- for an orphan’s revenge whose father was killed by someone else from their family, maybe two generations before. You know these feuds ride for generations. And many people from those Slavic and Balkanic countries were running away from mafia contracts.

B.A.: The refugees in the centers, have they been staying there for a long time, or come recently?

S.T.: People in welfare centers are refugees who ask for asylum when they arrive at French territory. It can take 10 to 20 months for the authorities to decide whether they will give the residence permit or not. And during that time they can stay in those welfare centers. But when the answer is given [positive or negative] they have to leave the center.

B.A.: Among the participants, is there anyone who had to leave the country afterwards? 

S.T.: Yes, some of them are gone. Some had disappeared, we don’t know where they are. And some got the permission to stay, they were Syrians mostly. We saw many different situations…

B.A.: From our previous conversations on the subject I assume we can consider this project like sharing “gifts”. At least I understand that you wish to organize it that way and you pay attention to it. You care for giving as much as taking, so it transcends a one sided relationship. First, you give a movement workshop to the participants, then you ask them if they would like to express themselves through some “gestures”. And if they want they can also share their personal stories with you. I would like to learn more about the workshop and especially the creation of gestures. Once you’ve made the introduction, you start working on their specific gestures. To begin with, how would you describe a gesture? And what is your method to get into the details of it? I mean, in order to achieve a refined example, probably you are giving some instructions to the participants on effort, phrasing or the articulation of their movements. As a dancer and a choreographer how are you dealing with that material? I know it is a long question but please start from wherever you like. 

S.T.: Actually these are connected. At the beginning we get together in a circle. We explain what we’re gonna do with very simple sentences. Some of them can understand French, especially those coming from Africa since French is a formal language in many African countries due to the colonization. So some of them understand and the others do not understand at all. Then we put on some nice music, refreshing and opening…. But not meditation music. We choose the music very carefully, because in fact the music is the starter. I think in these workshops we often played songs from Phillip Glass, Eleni Karaindrou, Jan Garbarek and Anouar Brahem etc. Then we start working on arms. We ask them to repeat the movements with us. So little by little we manage to get them to go slower. But it has to be natural. While moving all together with our arms, we start mirroring each other with Laurent. Then we come together in a circle again and keep on moving to the music. Once we have a relaxed atmosphere, we start showing some gestures to make them understand what we are doing. Laurent shows gestures or movements from daily life and I give some more abstract movements, for example a feeling… So they get the idea that they can do both. Little by little they understand what kind of movements we propose them to give. At the beginning it is just moving slowly, and then in a while they start creating something important for them.

In these workshops it never happened to us that nobody understands anything. There is always one person who understands perfectly what is going on. And the rest of the group communicates with that person somehow and the information spreads all over.

So, we start every session as “two people and a group”. In less than an hour there is always one person -understanding French or not- knowing one hundred percent what is going on. And then we just have to let it go. As time passes they start creating very interesting movements. 

First movements are a little bit like copying each other. They are looking for something. But in time the movements get very impressive. You can feel it, because the energy changes. No matter which cultural background they come from when the energy changes in that room  everybody can see it. So, little by little people realise… “Oh something is happening”. And everyone stays within this flow of energy on their own level. It was really fantastic for us to observe that. 

Usually people come to our dance workshops with a purpose, with the knowledge of why they are there. And suddenly you realize that the same thing is happening here at these workshops, which means that you can work on it now. We saw people doing very interesting things. For example one Syrian young boy who had escaped from war created this movement: Children are dying and then they grow up again from the earth like flowers… 

A man who had escaped from Afghanistan was ironing a skirt, another was feeding a baby. So maybe they couldn’t stay in their homelands because they were interested in things which they were not supposed to, like babies and skirts… And they were giving those things to us with so much trust. 

After performing their gestures they seemed to get free from their weights, just like the moment you speak the truth for yourself. And when it is over, all of them come with a sense of a blessing… Not because we necessarily deserved a “thank you”. It is just because of the atmosphere, it suddenly changes in such a way that they enjoy making those movements. They simply enjoyed… Because movement is joyful, the body likes to move. For pleasure or for artistic reasons, wherever they come from everybody can taste it.

B.A.: Listening to you, I imagine how pure movement can open a range of possibilities in front of us and if we tune into this very frequency somehow all communication can flow easily, without any effort… Besides that experience there is also the artistic dimension. I wonder how you dealt with working on gestures technically. For example, when a participant shows a gesture which may be a sketch of a physical action, how you go deeper in details. What kind of directions you give in order to encourage them to carve it out.

S.T.: We say “That’s super, please keep it! And you’re gonna do it three times”. Because we take three shots with the camera: general, close up and a very very close one, for details. So they have to do it three times. We ask to limit their facial expressions, as some of them were using excessive mimics. We explain to them that it’s not something theatrical so we don’t need too many expressions. We propose to reflect it to their movements. And sometimes they go too fast, we show them to get slower. We say, for example, “do the same thing, but slower”. 

B.A.: Probably they perform the actions within the pace of daily life and you ask them to lower their tempo? 

S.T.: We want to make it slow but actually slowness is not what we are really searching for. We ask them to pay attention to what they are doing. Because when you make something important to you, you go slower. We explain it to them. But, there is an exception: the working [labor] movements, they are rhythmical by themselves. 

B.A.: As a matter of fact, you tell them the situation: “Do it as if it is very important to you”. So they accord their physical action to this very situation.

S.T.: Yes.

B.A.: There is another character in “Les Collectes de Geste”: the coat. In the movie at the beginning of each part performers put on “the coat” and at the end they take it off. And during the performance we are on stage with these heavy coats on us. In the whirling part -which takes 12 minutes- we put the coats on, take them off and play with them, by shifting their weight against our bodies. But one of the coats is much more special, the one we see in the movie with colorful threads. Why did you choose to have it in your work? What is the implication of it?

S.T.: “The coat” is what you were not able to take from home on the way to exile, the things you left behind. In French we have an expression: “You only have a shirt on your skin”, meaning you lost everything. Dispossession… And the thread is an encounter, the mark you left…  Every little piece of thread was from each person who gave a gesture for our collection.

(At this point Laurent came back. We talked about the stage set up. He told us that they put the stage diagonally in the courtyard. This created a sweet little shock for a moment. As the time was running out, we said “adieu!” to the bell tower and walk down by the sea to eat our sandwiches and get some rest before the performance. So, we completed the last part of our talk by the port of Marseille with the refreshing sound of waves which made it difficult to decipher later- while editing this interview- but that was totally fine…)

B.A.: While designing this work on gesture did you check on any references about the topic, works done by other artists? For instance Rudolf Laban is a founding figure when it comes to movement analysis, he was also interested in gesture as a key concept. He described the basic effort actions which also provides a tool for creation. 

L.S.: Yes there is a lot of research on the subject. But in the dance field we haven’t met anyone working on this with that specific link.

S.T.: Laban was very interested in labor, in gestures of labor and the way of using them… He also saw a link between work and recreation. A community is much more lively when they are working, for example during a harvest time. And afterwards they keep on moving for celebrations, dancing and rejoicing… So the bodies keep nourishing with movement again.

B.A.: This reminded me of gestures in traditional dances, for example traditional labor dances. While I was dancing at the university or later in the dance-music performances of Kardeş Türküler Project we worked on plenty of dances relying on these kinds of work movements. And as an example to traditional labor dances, a Greek dance comes to my mind: the sponge diver dance, michanikos from Kalymnos island.

S.T.: What a coincidence, I was thinking of that, too! And some African dances come to my mind which tell us about keeping the foods, planting the seeds… So it is a very universal heritage.

B.A.: Gesture is a key concept for western theatrical dance as well. I recall some contemporary examples. For instance, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker has been creating dance scenes out of repetition of gestures within certain rhythmic patterns (eg. Rosas Danst Rosas). Pina Bausch’s brilliant works were basically focused on gestus, gestures that underlie certain social conditions. Also there are some works that bring text and gestures together: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan’s “Zero Degrees”, Crystal Pite’s impressive work “Statement” with NDT dancers and physical theater ensemble DV8’s “Can We Talk About This” series are the ones that come to my mind…

A gesture can be very plain and simple, but it is also possible to dive into its details and explore qualities like rhythm, articulation and effort etc. So it is always a charming material for dancers and choreographers. In the movie, the gestures of participants were quite detailed and impressive. It was a very nice experience for me to learn some of their gestures while preparing for this performance. First I tried to imitate their hand movements, but it did not work. It was not a technical challenge, I was feeling that I am not getting closer to their manners. Of course mere imitation of the shape was not helpful. When I changed my perspective and tried to imagine putting myself in their shoes, then I started getting closer. I suppose it shows that with all participants, you created a genuine material in this film, from the heart…

I think our time is up, let’s finish the conversation here. Laurent and Sophie, I thank you very much!

Sophie: Thank you Banu! Now shall we go to Vieille Charite for our performance?

Laurent & Banu: Yes!