Dancing around the questions of boundaries and belonging
Germany-based South African Jessica Nupen discusses her dance ensemble work ‘Don’t Trust the Border’
Jessica Nupen’s dance ensemble work Don’t Trust the Border uses bodies to investigate borders, migrancy, relocation, exile, longing and belonging. A South African-born, Hamburg-based choreographer and performer, Nupen uses Johannesburg as a conceptual basis for her work. We spoke to her ahead of her performance at William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea on Friday:
What was your inspiration for this piece of work?
Don’t Trust the Border explores the way in which different types of borders and boundaries impinge on our everyday lives, and the implication this has for the simple, human concepts of trust and openness.
In our current global context of exceedingly visible and extrinsic borders – Trump’s wall, geographical boundaries, Brexit – my work seeks to engage with the psychological and intrinsic borders that we hold within ourselves. Fear of new ideas, birth, death, lightness and darkness, and cultural crossovers and divides.
Where do these borders begin? How can they end? How do we trust them to such an extent when they themselves are such fragile and moveable concepts? We base laws, rules, ideals and philosophies on these borders – both tangible and intangible – that continue to emerge, disappear, oscillate, and change shape, and yet we take them as fixed.
You are a dancer and now a choreographer – tell us about your artistic evolution?
I have always been hungry to create and this hunger began in London at ballet school when I had access to space and ample performers. Experimenting and working with many artists, directors and choreographers across Europe since the beginning of my professional dance career has meant being exposed to an enormous landscape and range of aesthetics, processes and very talented people.
This has definitely informed my artistic evolution as well as the mentorship and voices of people like William Kentridge and Robyn Orlin who have encouraged an almost “abandoned play” approach to the artistic process. Also, the fact that I still perform myself has been incremental to understanding the role and agency of the performer in relation the choreographer and the work.
You live in Germany but also tell very South African stories in your work: how does living there affect your creative process?
Johannesburg is a space from which I draw much of the inspiration, inquiry and conceptual basis for my work, which is most often fine-tuned and acted out in Germany. My roots in SA and my subsequent career abroad inspire me to interrogate the notion of borders. Living in Germany has given me an outside eye and valuable distance to SA which I use to measure my ideas in conjunction with creative processes I have developed while working in Europe.
The importance placed on the conceptual and experimental nature of creating in Germany in comparison to a very movement-oriented approach in SA allows me to play with the mind and the body. Although I have been based in Europe for over 14 years, SA retains a big part of my creative ideology and inspiration. I also enjoy working with South African performers and the rigour and intellectual Afropolitan insight they bring to global subjects.
You work with South African fashion designers in your productions – can you tell us a bit about the collaborations? In Don’t Trust the Border I worked with Joel Janse van Vuuren who is a Johannesburg-based fashion designer from a very creative family. Joel is one of the most open and versatile designers I have met and together we conceptualised the idea of the costume aesthetic based around the idea of dualism. Joel then flew with this idea and created beautiful crafted and cleverly thought out reversible bomber jackets depicting military and anarchist themes.
He also designed all the props in the piece and hand-made most of them himself including a robotic monster-like dictator which he created out of abandoned plastic bottles found in a garden in Hamburg. Joel’s creativity is limitless and the discourse around the work was always playful and challenging. With Rebellion & Johannesburg (created in 2015) I worked with Anmari Honiball, also Joburg-based and also vastly creative. Anmari quickly established a strong costume modus operandi for the work which brought the contentious characteristics of the Johannesburg Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio and Tybalt to life. Both Anmari and Joel know no fear and challenge the design through movement of the body without ever compromising the fashion artistic and I admire that immensely.
Are you planning more work with the Centre for the Less Good Idea, and what are your next plans?
The global contemporary arts are moving further into the interdisciplinary direction where synergy between choreographers and writers, composers and architects, and dancers and film makers are becoming more prevalent. The centre embodies this ethos of cross-disciplinary collaboration and I hope to be creating and presenting work with the centre in the future. I have always been fascinated with working with artists across diverse mediums who have not had previous experience with dance and whose approach to working on a choreographic piece differs greatly to that of my own. This brings a sense of newness, risk and opens up further dimensions to the aesthetic of the work. I will be exploring this in my new work with the forms of dance, opera, visual arts and rap with dancers and singers from SA, a Canadian composer and a German orchestra. The piece will premiere in Germany in 2020.