“Loyalty”, Adam Linder ©Diana Pfammatter

Grounding Ballet: In Conversation with Adam Linder

Calling from a cab on the way to the airport, the Los Angles-come-Berlin-based choreographer Adam Linder talks to Liza Weber about his new work “Loyalty” and renovating in the ruins of ballet. Shown at the Tanz Im August festival from the 25 to 26 August 2022, “Loyalty” was performed in three acts just like any ballet but proved, on several counts, unlike any ballet.

A catheter bag hangs from one wall. A handrail from the other. The otherwise empty stage is bathed in the blue light of an X-Ray box. I’m taken back to the sterile smell of a hospital ward and wonder: is ballet on its last legs? Terminally ill? Perhaps dying?

Adam: I wouldn’t use the term ‘hospital’, but the aspects you mention, maybe in some way I’m kind of operating on ballet, like there’s me going back into ballet and renovating and operating on it. And on the contrary, I would say that there is a kind of treatment happening to ballet. It’s not dying, it’s resurrected.

When the lights fade to black, the lasting image of “Loyalty” is one of dancer Riley Watts lying on the ground, albeit with his limbs lifted, as though levitating. The only part of his body that seems to be touching the floor is the crown of his head, as the other dancers, pulling at his feet, deliver him in what is clearly a symbol of rebirth.

Liza: But as with any rebirth, there’s always this question of what is retained from the original state or form? What is carried over? And, as you said in your post-show talk, “Loyalty” is “renovating in the ruins of ballet”. But then ‘renovating’ is itself a term that encompasses everything from conservation to preservation and restoration. And I wonder, if it were on a spectrum of sorts, where would you place the work?

Adam: I think that’s really on point, because if it’s occurring it would only be on a spectrum, like it couldn’t be black and white. And I think for me, what is really retained is the language of it, the vocabulary. That it has this fixed vocabulary that organises the body in such a precise, efficient, and loaded way, and denotes everything that lies underneath the most traditional of European values. And it’s not necessarily about wanting to retain them, but about having a language that is connected to them, which allows you to see, in a way, how far we’ve come in relationship to embodiment.

There was certainly everything you’d expect to see in a ballet, from the dignity of the Grand Jeté to the freedom of the Fouetté. And yet there was something else happening here. An inversion. When dancer Vânia Doutel Vaz bourrées to the back of stage, for instance, her hands do not float in demi-second, but are rather clenched at the ready in fists. Likewise, when Joshua Harriette pirouettes on the diagonal, he soon spirals out of demi-pointe, in which everything is pulled taut, to knead his carves out in ever chewier chassés. All the while Linder’s dancers are clad in black, velvet mini dresses and latex sock garters, as if strutting their stuff at a Berlin fetish club, albeit to the sound of the British avant-garde band Coil—so confrontational is, at times, his take.

Adam: If you can bring all the social qualities of today, let’s say, group dynamics, polysexuality, self-reflexivity, if you can bring that to ballet, it’s such an amazing, weighted counterpoint to understand progress. And so that’s what interests me now about working with ballet. I love the form. I can fetishize all its physical qualities. But it’s such a powerful contrast to where I feel like I am in the contemporary. And that’s why it’s interesting for me to work with this language. There’s a lot of tension there. So, in that way, what I want to dig into is the lexicon, the dictionary of it, the steps. Its staid values, its romantic narratives—I want to do away with those. And then meddle in how to transform the symbols and the relational organisations. And it will be a process. But I think that the question of ballet today is a really interesting project.

Liza: Right?! And it’s a wider project. I see that alone in Berlin today we have the Staatsballet staging a series of conversations called “Ballet for the future? We need to talk!” And as part of that they’re taking to the river Spree to do a boat tour—ballet on boat. So, it really is part of a bigger conversation, and I wondered whether you were aware, and feel part, of a wider conversation, perhaps with other institutions, but also other choreographers?

Adam: Hmm, well maybe, but I don’t work in the context of ballet. I’ve never shown my work in a house that shows ballet. I made a work from a contemporary perspective that is working with the vocabulary of ballet, but is doing so in exactly the same independent, experimental context in which I’ve shown my work for the last ten years. What I recognise is that there doesn’t exist that many choreographers that want to work, and that maybe have the background and knowledge to work, with ballet from a position of critically questioning it, whether in relation to its form, or in relation to its politics of aesthetics. Ballet is in a crisis, and in some ways it’s a museum, where these companies still insist on carving out these museological pieces. And there’s only really been, in the last hundred years, two people that have made serious incursions on it, and that’s Balanchine and Forsythe. So, it’s impoverished for experimentation in some way. But it’s very valuable in terms of its cultural interest.

Preparatory movements like pliés and tendus do not always go where one might expect, but rather unfold on tangents and yet lower planes of alignment. A bent knee does not always signal ‘lift-off’, for example, but rather the beginning of a more intimate relationship with the floor. Indeed, Linder’s ballet is rooted in, rather than raised off, the ground.

Liza: As you said before, since the language is so loaded, there comes with it so many expectations. And in terms of your relationship to those expectations, Adam, are you there to undo them? To play with them? How are you shaping expectations?

Adam: This is the first piece in a new chapter of my work, so I think it’s maybe too early to say. I think that the dramaturgy of this piece, and the way it works symbolically, does not necessarily fit into all people’s expectations of what it should be, or what it can be. I think that this work proposes a lot of things around polyglot relationships and chameleonic identities in relationship to form. I think it also presents ballet’s theatricality, but in a much more symbolic, meta-narrative kind of way. So, I think that there are already things in this work that I’m going to expand on and go deeper into in the next works. And that’s what I’m excited about. So, I’m busier with that, than with people’s expectations.

Expectations are thrown out of the stage door when dancer Douglas Letheren performs a Neanderthalian solo butt naked. He goes from standing upright with his arms in bras en couronne to half bent over with fists beating at his chest. Indeed, there seems to be a reversal of the image of human evolution, in which the Homo Sapien becomes the Homo Habilis. It is furthermore an image in which ballet’s relationship with the ground is foregrounded, as Letheren at first learns to read and write in the sand, before ultimately learning to walk the talk.

Liza: I was wondering how much of that finding the ground, or that constant struggle with the ground, is like mapping a devolution? I mean, we think of ballet more in terms of evolution, but maybe you’re mapping a devolution in form, right? A coming back down to the ground?

Adam: No, I think that’s a really astute reading of this relationship to the ground. You know, sometimes you’re just working intuitively and it’s not until after that you see what the piece is. But yeah, I think that you’re absolutely right, there is this kind of like winding down and winding up. But there’s also a lot of ballet that is supported by the ground and runs along the ground. And you know surfaces are really important in my work. And when I work in the exhibition space, the walls have been very interesting in understanding how a body is working and seen in an exhibition space. So, I think for me, ballet, and the planes that it works on, is perfect for the ground. I’m interested in exploring that more, but not necessarily in terms of the vertical axis, of decaying down or growing out, but rather the floor being a major, dynamic motor for ballet. And thinking about all the surfaces of the body that can touch the floor, because in ballet, as we know it, only the feet really touch the floor.

Rolling through every vertebra of her spine, Louella May Hogan gradually gains momentum from the ground, before lifting up into a gravity defying soubresaut. Only it is her head and not feet that float a foot from the floor. For this is ballet turned on its head. Entrechats are too inverted, when a duet of dancers perform them lying on their sides, as though fish out of water—tails flapping for fear.

Liza: And will that ground always be in the theatre or can you imagine it elsewhere? What is the future ground for ballet?

Adam: I don’t know. Because it’s true, there are few theatres where to really use the floor is dynamic in that way due to sight lines. I’m really speculating now, but maybe if there was a possibility that the idea of the renovation of ballet was a collective effort, with multiple choreographers, then maybe it would mean that the design of the theatre in the twenty-first century needs to be rethought.

Liza: Well, you talk about bringing other cultural forms into ballet, imbuing them with the rhythm of the tap dancer, say. But in doing so, you’ve got to think, into what kind of spaces? Into what spaces can we take ballet?

Adam: Yeah, that’s an interesting point, but I can’t say I’ve gotten there yet. But I have a lot of plans and ideas going forward, and you know the question of renovating ballet or the question of doing something fresh with ballet, doing something that’s relevant today with ballet, is also a question of production, it’s also a question of context and it’s also a question of methodology and format. So, for me, the question of how it can intersect or cross other art forms is not so much about what’s on the stage, because that will happen anyway, but more about who’s contributing to its whole ecosystem. And that relates to how a company is structured. I have ideas around how a dance company can be a more interdisciplinary entity and, if that’s possible, how we can produce very interesting things in terms of your question of where ballet is performed. You know, on the stage I will always work with different composers and artists and fashion designers and lighting designers. But I also think that it would be cool to think about new approaches and cross-polinations in relation to the company organization, the branding, the movement between contexts, the financing and the associated artists, such as architects and writers. I think this is possible, but it’s not really on the landscape right now.

Liza: So, are you going to create such a dance company of your own, Adam? I’d love you to. And I’d love to be a writer in residence there.

Adam: Right now, I would be interested in taking on an artistic directorship position, probably in co-directorship with someone. And yeah, there have been some conversations, but concretely, there’s nothing lined up. YET! I have a vision that I’m working on and speaking to people about. It’s about where do I establish the production or the actual place of the next chapter of my work and how do I get those funds. But I’m pretty committed to finding the way.

As the title to the piece attests, Linder’s occupation with ballet is no casual affair, but rather the start of a more serious relationship, which, if “Loyalty” is anything to go by, is committed to grounding ballet in the here and now, so that it may have a future.  

Loyalty” by Adam Linder was shown from the 25 to 26 August 2022 at HAU2 as part of Tanz Im August. The 34th edition of Berlin’s international dance festival, presented by HAU Hebbel am Ufer, took place from 5 to 27 August 2022.

You find the dates of the next shows of Adam Linder in Europe on the artist’s website adamlinder.org.