Hanna Gillgren and Heidi Rustgaard are Co-Artistic Directors of H2DANCE. They have been making work together since 1999. They create work for theatre spaces – such as ‘Duet’ which was a finalist in The Place Prize in 2013 – and at times for public spaces. They have a long history of involving the public in the work as both participant performers and as audience members who are given a level of control over the execution of the work.

Examples of works with public involvement include ‘Choreographus Interruptus’ (2004), On/Off (2011), ‘Say Something’ (2011) and ‘Strangers and Others’ (2017). ‘Choreographus Interruptus’ explores the roles of the audience, performer and critic. In the performance the choreography is interrupted at various points as the audience is invited to act as critic and to make their own decisions about what should happen next. ‘On/Off’ is a collaboration with ‘What if: projects’ – a London based architects devoted to developing ideas and strategies for more sustainable urban environments. The piece was presented in an abandoned car showroom on an industrial strip near the Thames in London. The electricity for the show was generated by the audience through riding a set of bicycles situated at the edge of the performance space; if there was no cycling the sound and lights went down and the performers were instructed to be still. ‘Say Something’, a movement and sound work created in collaboration with composer Sylvia Hallett, addresses themes of individuality, group behaviour and conformism. For each geographical location in which the work is shown H2DANCE work with a local choir. The performance involves professional dancers, the choir moving through the performers and audience while in flocking formations as they sing, and the audience freely moving around and through the space. In the new project ‘Strangers and Others’ – which is currently touring – the audience are the performers. They wear silent disco headphones as they enter the stage to be observed by Hanna, Heidi and no-one else. The headphones relay a series of live instructions for meetings and encounters within the group. The work explores themes of socialization and autonomy.

Rosanna: It seems that your work often has a very direct address to audience – sometimes through a talking to them or through the way that you involve audience within the works. Can you tell us about the kind of relations with audiences that you seek to create in your works?

h2dance: Our work meets the audience in various stages of its development. These meetings are very important to us as artists and crucial to how the work develops. Through these meeting is where the work comes alive and reaches its full potential. Our practice has a social aspect and is created by engaging local groups of different ages and backgrounds to become our audience, participants and performers leading up to the final work. They are part of the creation, and their response and feedback during the process influences each stage of development and the direction and outcome of each performance. Strangers & Others was developed through one and half years with local participants during residencies in five different countries.  Each residency and encounter with an audience raised several new questions in particular around agency and consent. We are interested in getting to know and understand a broad spectrum of social groups and cultures and how we are similar and different at the same time.  Our work contributes to the field of expanded choreography exploring ways in which an audience can become part of or respond to the choreography, and in Strangers & Others they are the work. 

Rosanna: Your work often addresses themes of the individual and the group. Can you tell us a bit about that – what motivated that drive and how it has changed over the years?

Duet (2013) image credit Benedict Johnson

h2dance: Since 2005 we have explored meetings of differences. It stems from our own personal relationship to one another and how we see ourselves in relation to groups and the people we work with through our creation process. We have a deep wish to learn about and understand different point of views, and a fascination with how we meet each other across social groups. There is an ongoing exploration of our two distinct and different characters and voices co-existing, agreeing to disrupt each other during process and performance. Each project takes a similar starting point exploring behaviour, conformity, power balance and manipulation, but each time from a different angle. The new angle is influenced by what we learned and experienced in the previous project.

Rosanna: With ‘Strangers and Others’ – which premiered in October of this year (2017) – there is a kind of obliteration of audience. Or perhaps a complete re-positioning of the means by which an audience experiences the work. A traditional onlooking audience no longer exists. Instead there is a (literally) active, decision-making, performing audience. It seems that ‘Strangers and Others’ takes a fuller shift away from a theatrical representation of the themes associate with individual and group. And instead offers a direct experiential encounter as performance. Can you tell us about the development of the work and what brought you to this?

h2dance: Initially we asked ourselves; what does community and integration really mean and how do we, and can we come together across different social groups and cultural backgrounds? It became important for the work to be participatory, for the audience to find a more experiential and active way to address these questions. The fact that there is no witness to the performance apart from us, makes it easier for the audience to respond honestly to our instructions.  We are working with silent disco headphones, the audience is divided into groups getting different instructions, which creates a layer of doubt and confusion.

Strangers & Others (2017) image credit Benedict Johnson

Choosing to present the work on stage frames the questions; who takes responsibility and when do actions have consequences? In the process we questioned, how we can become aware of our biases, create empathy and space where meetings of difference can take place and how we engage with strangeness. Some of the instructions given in the performance are deliberately pushed towards social taboos. We are interested in how the chain of events and stage gives the audience permission to go beyond what they would do in real life. Everything is deliberately building up slowly through repetition of the same gestures where in one instance the gesture comes across innocent and abstract, later the same gesture suddenly is loaded with meaning. As a final stage to the performance, we have created a space for the audience off stage. This is the first time where they will speak to each other and for many audience members when the reflection on what they have just been through starts to take place. 

Rosanna: Thank you!

Notes and sources:
Feature image Strangers & Others (2017) image credit Benedict Johnson
‘Choreographus Interruptus’ was created and performed by H2DANCE, Donald Hutera and Dimitris Papakiriasis/Leo Kay. It was commissioned by Guardians of Doubt and Dance 4
‘On/Off’ is a collaboration between H2DANCE and ‘What if: projects’ working with composer Sylvia Hallett. www.what-if.info/about/

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