The young company Siamese Cie/Gloed vzw is the Brussels home of two choreographers with an impressive track record in dance and choreography: Rosalba Torres Guerrero and Koen Augustijnen. The organisation was established in 2017 as the base of operations for (B), the first joint production under their own name. Siamese Cie as ‘home’ can also be taken literally, since in daily life the two have lived – for many years – under one roof. Perhaps it is no coincidence that bonding, exchange, feeling and orientation constantly surface in the conversation about their work and life. Richness is another such word that stands out.
While Koen Augustijnen grew up in wooded Flemish surroundings with a lot of sports and a father who besides his activities as a jazz musician was also politically committed to the Flemish emancipation movement, Rosalba Torres comes from a Swiss-Spanish artist family in Geneva, with a renowned sculptor as father. They got to know each other during the recording of a video clip of the Antwerp band dEUS.
Koen Augustijnen recalls how he caught the dance bug when studying history in Ghent: during a Wim Vandekeybus performance: What the Body does not Remember. “So, this can also be dance,” he wondered, and after a friend convinced him to audition with Vandekeybus he, totally out of the blue, was allowed to follow a two-week internship with the choreographer, who saw in him a true-blooded dancer and advised him to follow workshops instead of a full-time dance curriculum. And so it was that Koen Augustijnen joined Alain Platel and les Ballets C de la B in 1991. End of history studies. He would create ten choreographies under the wings of les Ballets.
For Rosalba Torres it was different: in Geneva she was already exposed at a young age to very diverse dance techniques: ballet, jazz, modern and contemporary. After secondary school she followed a full-time dance programme at the Centre National Chorégraphique in Angers, France, an institution that played a key role as the European cradle of postmodern dance coming from the United States, long before it broke through in Flanders. Fundamental to her view of dance in this training was a brief but profound introduction to Japanese butoh dance by Amagatsu of Cie Sankai Juku, and the work of the French choreographer who died very young, Dominique Bagouet. She continues to rave about “his dance as a latticework of refinement and detail”. What especially made an impression was the theatrical potential that you could find as a performer in each micro movement despite its very abstract language.
Mood and feeling
The further career of Rosalba Torres is an ever-increasing quest for the relationship between inside and outside, for what she can give of herself as a performer within a given dance or theatre language. After her professional debut with French choreographer Philippe Decouflé with his comical stage scenery, she went to Germany to work at the National Theatre of Weimar under the direction of Ivo Ismaël. The sombre depths of German dance theatre produced a small shock effect. In her nine following years – with Rosas – it is the intricate theatrical layering that appeals to her, more than the mathematical approach to choreography. She remembers how fundamental her search was for an inner language and nourishment in abstract and formal pieces like Rain or Drumming. “Without that, you are in an empty carcass. Transcending this with your imagination, giving it its own poetry and rhythm as a performer, that’s what I found fantastic at Rosas, together with the group of very physical dancers at the time”. When she made the switch to les Ballets C de la B and the method of Alain Platel in 2005, it was to drill even deeper into unknown inner states of feeling in, among others, VSPRS, Pitié!, Out of Context (for Pina) and C(h)oeurs. “The contact with the other group members, their way of dealing with material and theme, the risks they faced and especially the human aspect in Platel’s work, continue to nourish me,” adds Rosalba Torres.
Moods and their expression are also a central focus in the career of Koen Augustijnen. He spent time in Portugal with Francisco Camacho, a fellow dancer from les Ballets, to work on one of his projects. “Camacho is an exceptional dancer and artist. He taught me to look for movement that starts from an emotion, for example fear, while Alain Platel, especially at that time, preferred to use images or photographs as starting point. Francesco also taught me to improvise around such a state of mind, not to fix the movement, but to create a tension that holds the attention – which has a lot to do with rhythm and the dosing of energy” says Koen Augustijnen.
When it comes to grounding, like Rosalba Torres, he has a strong link with butoh, in his case the MB workout (Mind and Body, Muscles and Bones) of Min Tanaka, which he often uses in work processes and workshops. MB develops coordination, the independent movement of body parts, centring and, above all, being grounded. In addition, the method strengthens the awareness of space, direction and rhythm – all basic elements in dance. “When I followed a workshop with him long ago, after a few weeks I was able to jump twice as far and precise”, says Koen Augustijnen.
Beyond les Ballets
When les Ballets C de la B was forced to economise in 2013, for both Koen Augustijnen and Rosalba Torres this meant the end of a long, intense collaboration and connection. “I felt like a horse in gallop that is suddenly blocked”, said Rosalba Torres who was touring with Pénombre (2011), her first own choreography under the umbrella of les Ballets. Fortunately, the network that they developed at les Ballets still provides support today.
One week after they left les Ballets, Rosalba Torres received an offer from Germany from the great theatre director Karine Beier. She had seen her during the Ruhrtriennale festival in a Platel production and was looking for a very physical Cassandra for her version of The Trojans. “She left me completely free to interpret the role. Despite the text material, in a language that I barely know, far from Platel’s familiar work with affect, I threw myself into it completely – let go of everything and found that I had loads of tools. Something opened up – I suddenly found tremendous freedom”, explains Rosalba Torres. That was the beginning of a two-year collaboration with fantastic actors in five Greek tragedies, first at the Schauspielhaus in Cologne, then at that of Hamburg where Beier became artistic director. Rosalba Torres met Polish director Krzystof Warlikowski during the same period. He would be directing Lulu by Alban Berg at the Muntschouwburg and for the opera asked her to rewrite the role of the dying swan. Again she was given and found the freedom to create a physical alter ego for what the central character could not express in words. She worked with Warlikowski three times: first in two De Munt operas, Lulu and Don Giovanni, and then in Phèdre(s), as an alter ego alongside star actress Isabelle Huppert.
Koen Augustijnen was also invited abroad during his difficult post-Ballet period, bringing with him the poetics of his own creations: the connection between cultures and disciplines. In Australia he danced an acclaimed solo for the Marugekku company of artistic director Dalisa Pigram, an aboriginal woman who, in addition to her choreographic work, also works to protect the language of her community from extinction. The story has not ended: in Perth he completed the premiere of a full-length triptych alongside Dalisa Pigram and Serge Aimé Coulibaly.
Another intercultural proposal for Koen Augustijnen came from Lebanon, from festival organiser and choreographer Omar Rajeh, for the production Beytna (which can be translated as “Our House”). The impetus was his strong memories of family celebrations where starting in the morning, cooking, singing and battling for the most beautiful poem took place. In addition to Rajeh and Augustijnen, Japanese choreographer Hiroaki Umeda and Togolese Anani Sanouvi are also on stage together. In the meantime, Koen Augustijnen is also a welcome guest choreographer in Germany, for example with the dance ensembles of Staatstheater Oldenburg and TanzMainz, and at Konzerttheater Bern.
Because they live together, Rosalba Torres was already unofficially involved in these work processes in Germany. In 2017 they made their cooperation official in Hochzeit for TanzMain. It appears that the constellation is firing on all cylinders. From season 2018-19, they as Siamese Cie are artistes associés for a period of three years at La Comédie/Scène Nationale in Clermont-Ferrand, where they will inaugurating the new buildings with Hochzeit.
Their first collaboration as a duo dates back to 2013, just before they left les Ballets C de la B. At the request of dramaturge Hildegarde De Vuyst, with her and ten Palestinian performers under the umbrella of the Royal Flemish Theater (KVS) in Brussels, she created the successful production Badke, a transposition of traditional dabke. In Palestine and in Brussels they worked with a performer group that was eclectic with respect to both dance background and habitat: two hip hop brothers from a refugee camp, traditional dancers with dabke in their blood, performers from Ramallah who had studied in Europe, as well as circus and acrobatic performers.
Rosalba Torres tells how she reluctantly joined the project initially: “I had my doubts. Who did I think I was: was it legitimate to work with a dance and a culture that was not my own? An extensive discussion with Hildegard and Koen took place beforehand about how in this cooperation with ten Palestinians we could focus on issues such as the place of the community, the individual, the collective, masculinity and femininity. This surfaced new insights that won me over.”
Koen Augustijnen did not need convincing. If he had reservations about Badke, it was more about the folk dance aspect. But in Lebanon, where he first came into contact with dabke, he had seen updated versions in Beirut’s nightclubs. Dabke in punk mode, danced with lots of fun and humour. He also knew Palestine through tours with his own productions. “I knew how dabke lives in Palestine, at celebrations. I saw a new generation of Palestinians who know what is going on in the rest of the world, through social media, but at the same time are connected with their roots. It was precisely this that interested me”, he says about it. The decisive factor was the workshops he and Rosalba Torres gave for four years to the young dancers and performers of the Palestinian Performing Arts Summer School, a joint initiative of les Ballets C de la B, KVS and the A.M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah. It is clear that dabke is in line with the basic values of their work and life: the energetic power, the earthly, concrete and intuitive nature of dabke, which is very centred, danced close to the spine.
In this excerpt, a dancer isolates herself from the group of ten, on a stage that is empty except for the lighting plan. Her individuality is underlined by the unanimous row of backs behind her and by the headphones on her head. We do not hear her music. What we do hear, however, is the joint rhythm of voices fuelled by footwork from the row, as a counterpoint to her solo trip (one dancer does not participate; he seems to be a connecting symbol between the group and the individual, and later will be the first to turn around). The dancer enjoys herself in a long movement phrase in which she injects the rhythm of the dabke dancers behind her with other dance styles: pop, musical, street dance, and a spiral movement that could have come from contemporary dance. One by one, the others break away from their row to become her spectators, until they all break out together again in the festive and infectious rhythm of dabke in which they now also incorporate elements from other styles.
(B) Boxing and dance
Their interest in a distillate with its own signature also reigns in (B), an intense dialogue between boxing and dance, and the first production under the name Siamese Cie. Three professional boxers from different styles and cultures are on stage next to seven top dancers from hip hop, breakdance, popping, theatre, and also from dabke, since one of the Badke dancers is part of this team. “We always try to choose personalities and work with what we have. Because the human element is ultimately what we want to have in our choreographic work, in dance as an art form”, emphasises Rosalba Torres.
It turned out to be no easy task luring boxers onto a dance stage. While doing the rounds of boxing clubs, they already noticed the big contrast between the enormous strength of the boxers in the ring, and their often unexpected vulnerability and insecurity. This again brought the choreographers back to the work process with tasks around the Japanese principle of honne (your inner experience) and tatemae (what you reveal to others). An inspiring tool they had already used, and want to use again in future creations. A second important track in their work processes is the dissecting of other forms of movement or dance – in this case the dance of the boxers, in the case of Badke, that of folk dance. The question that the makers ask themselves is which parameters determine these forms of movement, and how they can transform them rhythmically, choreographically and kinetically into contemporary dance.
For (B) they eventually found three splendid boxers and people: Alka Matewa, Samuel Koussedoh and Sinan Durmaz, who outside the boxing ring is a salsa hero. “We didn’t want to take them too far out of their comfort zone, and are all the more pleased when we hear from audience members that they don’t know who in (B) is the boxer and who the dancer”, says Rosalba Torres laughing. While the dancers, for their part, received coaching in boxing techniques, her professional eagle eye continued to see the difference in basic attitude in their movements: the dancer who plays, the boxer who fights to stay alive.
In (B), Koen Augustijnen and Rosalba Torres are shifting the boundaries between dance and boxing, between dancers and boxers. What ultimately emerges is a great humanity, with drive, suffering and passion as the impetus for transformation. Rhythm plays a key role. The combined rhythms from the rock-solid video images of Lucas Racasse, the movement material, lighting plan, scenography and soundscape create a myriad of interspaces for personal and social layers of meaning.
At the beginning of this fragment the two boxing champions, Alka Matewa and Sinan Durmaz, compete against each other. On the wide video screen at the back, two energy circles flash – or are these the fathomless eyes of one of the hell dogs that we hear in the background, in their mythological role of guardians between life and death.
Rhythm is omnipresent in the excerpt as a binding element between boxing and dance. Dramaturgically, the performance as a whole follows the rhythm of a boxing match: each new scene is always ended to a new variant of the bell sound that you hear after a boxing round. In the fragment, a drum section takes over immediately after the bell. It determines the joint rhythm with which the eight other performers hit their respective punching bags, not the other way around. In the same movement, the video image takes up their number and verticality, in eight bar shapes, initially in the same rhythm: later in the scene, we see the image increasingly take on a life of its own. On the stage, voices underline the effort. Another rhythm between boxing and dance is contained in the blue-and-white delimited boxing ring within the larger stage floor. Around the floor there are seats that are both spectators and rest benches for the performers, with all the dance and boxing paraphernalia around them. The lighting plan is an important player in illuminating this double boxing and stage floor, from boxing circle to square club workspace, to dance floor.
Here boxer Samuel Koussedah (with boxing gloves) now parries the Palestinian breakin’ beatboxer Mohammad ‘Barges’ Samahnah, with their movement material evolving into a comic-dance duet. Then the three ladies, themselves no pushovers, let go in a mix of combat and dance styles.
More information about Koen Augustijnen, Rosalba Torres Guerrero and their artistic careers can be found at siamese-cie.be