Athena Mazarakis: Inter.fearing
Tell us a little bit about how you got into dance and what attracted you to this art form?
I’ve always been drawn to dance – as a child I did ballet, tap and modern – but it was at University, studying Drama at Rhodes University, that I encountered Physical Theatre and was inspired by the power of the expressive body. It was through my training with Gary Gordon and Andrew Buckland and my work with the First Physical Theatre Company while at University that I developed the passion for this form and the way it draws on all the resources of the performer and speaks to the audience both viscerally and intellectually.
Tell us a little bit about your creative process, how do you go from a concept or an idea in your mind to a complete dance piece?
This varies from piece to piece but generally I work a lot through improvisatory strategies to excavate and develop material which is then shaped into structured material. There is always a process of investigation which is both physical and research-based, this involves much reading and the sourcing of ideas and images across multiple sources. In this process for Inter.Fear, which is an equal collaboration with Hansel Nezza, we began with an initial investigation of the thematic concerns of fear as interference, which we presented at Dance Umbrella. For the National Arts Festival we are doing a complete re-working of the piece – we are re-structuring and re-framing the work and are doing so also with the input of our collaborators: Digital Artist Tegan Bristow, Designer Jenni-lee Crewe and lighting designer Barry Strydom. Each member of the team contributes creatively to the process. Hansel and I have the overall artistic vision which enables us to steer and shape the work into the final product.
You have performed in many different stages where do you think local dance is compared to other parts of the world?
I think South African dance is of a high standard. We only need to look at how many of our artists are touring internationally to see that our work stands shoulder to shoulder with work internationally. In fact, many South African dance artists work more abroad than they do in South Africa.
Dance is a somewhat marginalised art, what do you think needs to be done in order to ensure that there are more spaces for performers such as yourself to showcase your work?
I think we need to start re-imagining the ways in which we support our artists. Funding is scarce and is growing scarcer. We need to start imagining and creating alternative resources for dance artists. For instance residency programmes where dance artists have access to physical resources such as rehearsal space and administrative support would enable these artists to better manage their careers and provide them with a measure of stability. We also need to find alternative platforms to showcase work. The existing platforms are much needed and do much for dance artists but companies and artists cannot exist by presenting works on one or two platforms per year.
Who would you say are some of the people that have had the strongest influence on you and how?
I would have to say that my initial training in the Drama Department at Rhodes University has been most influential in my development as a theatre-maker. Gary Gordon who was then head of department and Artistic Director of the First Physical Theatre company has been a huge inspiration in my development as an artist, as has Andrew Buckland. My collaborators and colleagues through the years have also been, and continue to be inspiring and influential, these would include people like P.J Sabbagah, Juanita Finestown-Praet, Gerard Bester and Craig Morris. Jay Pather, who was the supervisor for my Masters creative project, was also hugely inspiring as an academic and as an artist.
At the festival you will be presenting Inter.fear tell us a little bit about how the idea for the piece came about?
Hansel Nezza, the Berlin-based Spanish choreographer, and I articulated an interest in working together. Hansel proposed this title as the idea of fear as interference was something he’d been interested in and was researching at the time. This resonated greatly with my own interests. I had been doing some research about Johannesburg for a site-specific work as part of the Afropolis exhibition in Cologne, Germany, at the time and had been thinking quite a lot about the notion of fear and how this shapes our movement in the city. Through discussion we thought it would be very interesting to examine this topic of fear as interference from our different socio-political and geographical contexts.
Fear is of course something you have dealt with before in 37 degrees of fear, how is this production different from that?
37 Degrees of fear was choreographed by Juanita Finestone-Praeg, I was just a performer in the first version of the work, performed at the Dance Factory. I therefore only engaged the notion of fear from within the artistic vision of Finestone-Praeg and have not dealt with this theme in my own choreographic work before.
The work looks at the role of fear and how it is part of the human condition why did you choose this as a subject matter?
As I explained in an earlier point, Hansel Nezza and I were interested in how this common emotion plays out and shapes our experience of daily life across different contexts. The issue of fear is highly pertinent in the contemporary global context with its increasing levels of economic instability, civil wars, the environmental crisis, increased poverty, disease, terrorism and violent crime.
Both you and Nezza come from different cultural backgrounds, where was the common ground that you found within each other to create this work?
We have a shared interest in the methods of investigation in dance creation with a focus on the body and an expressive physicality that does not sit comfortably within the confines of contemporary dance. We also share an interest in the engagement with Interactive Digital Arts and the possibilities that this collaboration opens up for the dance artist. Furthermore our different cultural backgrounds are a strength in the creation of this work where we are interested in a transnational exploration of fear.
There are multiple narratives unfolding here, and most are based on research that you guys conducted, there is this sense of a monolithic human experience in the work.
On the contrary. We are by no means suggesting human experience is ‘monolithic’ although perhaps you mean homogenous? The fact is that the human body is hard-wired to respond to fear. When we are faced with a fearful stimulus certain biological responses are triggered – these are indeed universal. However, it is exactly the subtle differences in the ways in which fear is used as a controlling mechanism in different contexts that we are interested in. The common fears we experience each day in South Africa for example are not the fears the same fears that someone will experience in Scandinavia for example or in a famine ravaged war zone. However we are looking at fear as a universal phenomenon, it is a necessary response which is wired into our survival instinct and it is therefore something that is basic to all human beings. Context however is always shifting. For me and for us in Inter.Fear, choreography and theatre making is never about being didactic and offering one view: it is about posing questions, opening up possible new perspectives and posing challenges to the audience.
This production is very much multi-media tell us a little bit about how you went about adding the various facets of the show and what value do you think they add to the overall narrative?
I would not call the work ‘multi-media’ – as this is has become too general and non-descript a term. Inter.Fear makes use of Interactive Digital Arts interfaces as designed by one of South Africa’s leading Digital Artists, Tegan Bristow. The digital art is being developed alongside the work – Tegan’s proposals therefore inspire and inform the development of the piece. This is an integrated process where the digital art creates another layer of meaning in the work. It also allows for possibilities, both aesthetic and conceptual that would not have been possible previously. These are very exciting possibilities that add a level of ‘aesthetic magic’ to the work while engaging the work conceptually through a different medium.
The original work was much shorter, how did you go about extending it for the festival and how did you go about deciding what to add and what to take out?
We are literally Re-creating the work. The first offering at Dance Umbrella was an initial exploration into the thematic context. We are using this investigation as a springboard to re-imagine the work entirely. This is a very exciting process as we have much to draw from through our initial exploration but are now re-working the material, the style, the format and the design. The engagement with the digital art also shifts the work onto an entirely new level.
This is very dark subject matter, did you have any reservations about tackling this is the core of your story and how have audiences reacted so far to the work?
No, we have no reservations. I feel it is the role of the theatre maker to engage pertinent issues, to provoke audiences, to challenge them, to get them to think. One of the central elements of this piece is the music, what role did the music play in determining the choreography for the production and how did you go about selecting the music? We have commissioned an original score for the work. It is composed collaboratively by Spanish artist Liannallull and Hansel Nezza. The score has been created to evoke a certain atmosphere that holds and carries the emotional thrust of the piece.
What can audiences expect from you this year in Grahamstown?
An engaging cutting edge work that is visually, viscerally and intellectually impactive.
What are some of your future plans and initiatives that you are working on?
We are working on the distribution of Inter.Fear on international platforms. I am also working on finding national platforms for the work I recently performed at GoetheOnMain called Standing By.