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Fronteiras | A conversation with Ana Rocha

14th June 2022

Fronteiras is a new performingborders series engaging in research on language, translation and cross-border working methodologies, tapping into how language and perception of cultural signifiers changes when working transnationally.

Ana Rocha is, amongst many other things, a dramaturg and programmer based in Porto, with whom I have had the pleasure to work with and experienced the nuanced and explorative ways she accompanies and challenges you throughout the creation process. Working all over Europe in various capacities, straddling the frontiers of live art and dance, Ana has a unique style of parkour-ing across the sector and working with some incredible artists along the way across not only art forms and languages, but socio-political borders. The invitation to Ana started with an intended proposal to break some research ground into what a pan-continental European notion of live art dramaturgy might be and how we might position it in the cross-border, language-navigating context of the independent culture production methodologies.

Olá Ana. Welcome to performigborders. Could we start with a short introduction to your practice as a dramaturg across Continental Europe.

From Portugal to the other European countries, working across borders is literally a mirror of diversity.  “Across borders” meaning that you work between and with a multitude of material and immaterial frontiers, which also is related to play with the awareness of context and be caught and influenced by what is singular, as well as the meaning of ‘collective’ in each territory. It is important to be aware that a pre-knowledge of what ‘Culture’ means as a concept changes through once you encounter reality on sight and with practice.

This is to say that in the realm of performing arts, there are a high percentage of freelancers and it’s not usual for a professional to make their career in one country throughout life. It starts from education and pedagogical paths, and it is also related to where some of the main arts \ theater \ dance companies are based, or what country offers best support for Arts & Culture. In these terms, studying and the development of one’s academic path and practice influences in early years the first steps to cross a border. Brussels, Berlin, Stockholm, Amsterdam or Angers are examples of poles of attraction where the eyes of young students are set to design their future. 

And in relation to my own drift still up to now, as other colleagues, I’m more times in projects that are not portuguese-initiated, and I am often working and collaborating with groups of people and teams that are composed of people coming from different backgrounds and places that they call “home” that are very distinct of where we rehearse.

A sort of parkour in the European arts  scene is a cross-border, transverse act in itself and it’s hard to deny the ever changing circumstances, the need to adapt, to readjust, the capacity to shape-shift the self either in body language, spoken expression and intention, also because there’s no other way to navigate. This is the main word when you see yourself in this context. To be with it and within it requires versatility and capacity to shape-shift, look from the others gaze and to hear what is their desire even if the wish itself is not materialized or clear. 

Most of the time it comes with a vision, a theme, a subject, a will, an active purpose to transform and understand this universe where we try to engage in our daily lives. To be in this practice one enters in a sphere of presence and absence, oblivion and absolute awareness of the real, while in most of the cases it requires a certain state of zazen, which asks you to sit still and be in the state of vibrant observation with all your senses at once every moment. 

I’ve not conventionally studied to step into this role, it has encountered me as I dress up in this vest whenever is asked for, either as a “ghost writer” or truly stamped with this term. Directly related to the dramaturgy, more than the text itself in motion on stage, it belongs to a continuous curiosity of what it is there, in the environment and in the mission to which you are called to. It’s a path with a wide-open gate where embracing chaos and undefinition is a strong base part of the job. It resides in a continuous quest of trial as if every time is a new cooking challenge or an alchemical quest. The direct relation to the context implies an initial excitement and a hold back many times, either for a creation on stage or a program of events, even when carrying experienced baggage, the principle question is what is there to be manifest? And what can be seen is that apart from state, formal theater, the way “fictional landscapes” are staged nowadays have a stronger influence from the free scene ((freelance professionals and non-profit organizations working within arts & culture without regular funding/non-regularly funded state bodies). 

So, this is where I also reside, in between attention to what revolves from an underground collective force and a so-called conventional space of representation, as a research practice of improvisation and structure. 

LAVACURA(c) Renan Martins

Can you tell us a little bit about your understanding of dramaturgy in performance art and the challenges you face with it, as a maker yourself, working with different languages across borders.

It could be said that there’s no way to translate ‘dramaturgy’ but this could be a non-adequate term because there are features in one’s body that come to light in the eyes and body of the viewer. One cannot foretell what is inside of a viewer, in audience sense. You can always try to reach and communicate but what becomes their vision of what you offer is the mystery of the show. The viewer will absorb you, your presence, your moves, your existence and your offer, and from their state at that precise moment another narrative will spring in their unconsciousness. The relation that acts inside of the viewer is the point of relational transformation from what is seen and given, and its result is an inner understanding and an agreement of that shared moment of becoming a witness. The work of a dramaturg has a connection to this in a way that is also an active witness of unraveling the wish or will into a communicative figure and shape.

There are questions to address, apart from being context related, in what one wants to communicate. And here might be the tricky point on how to measure and what to measure your tools with. Is it to a specific kind of audience? Is it to a broad spectrum of viewers? What medium are you using and to what extent  with your words?

In the realm of performance art this game can be ambiguous and asks precision of me, even when building a blurry picture. Translation is a key to this door and here is also where dramaturgy can play an important place. It’s not a given job as terminology, meaning, interpretation of the way a piece is composed as much one can master it, has always a great margin to be sensed and understood differently. So, to whom do you place it and why do you do it, comes also in first hand, along with concepts and actual concerns. Decoding expression and what lies within spaces of a text demands preparation and research. 

The experiencing of time nowadays rushes one to respond to schedule, capacity of lively being present and rapidly change of reality, financial constraints and work conditions. Cultural politics and sustainability go hand in hand to an awakening of active citizenship, playing with a conscious view of each community and their local speakers. 

These ingredients are present but also battling and dealing with the demands of curatorship or “fashionable themes”. In a kind of speed where differences are near enough to build a closed homogeneous overview, dramaturgy has an assignment to maintain a critical eye to enhance the strong need for underlying positive existence and resistance of multiplicity. 

This to say that to support and maintain the value and truth of each perspective, subject or entity, considerations in terms of socio-politics reflected in curatorial programs for example can and should be plural, multiple, and pollinate in parallel to the communities’ voices in order to open active awareness and not to slide into tendency threads. Its part of this where dramaturgy also stands, within legacy, present and one step ahead looking towards the future, igniting other possible paths, crossings and thoughts.

OcioSAmente by Ana Rocha

What are the distinctions between the work of a dramaturg and the concept of acompanhamento de artistas*? How do you navigate between the two?

I could say that sometimes, almost more than others, the two bonds and mix-up.

From what I’ve experienced, how one distinguishes the work of a dramaturg from “acompanhamento de artistas” it really depends on the artistic team or the artist you are collaborating with. Viewed from the point of accreditation and recognition, a dramaturg has a certain status, as it is perceived with a certain value and knowledge container that sets boundaries to what is in reality “acompanhamento de artistas”. A dramaturg in a basic sense is seen as someone that holds knowledge, a walking “library” to share and feed the artistic process and design a structure of principles, which becomes the structural spine where all the elements are linked and knitted to. In a usual way its role is to build a text where everything is “justified” and, within the timeline, meets perceptivity through transitions of beginning, middle and end. All this engagement and attitude also depends on your own implication and behavior within the work. 

From my point of view, it is a service of midwifing together with all the team elements, there be producers to technical personnel, makers, to stage, light and sound design, in direct dialogue with the artistic direction. 

More than information and active listening, this requires an ongoing analysis of the surroundings. Each team group of people with whom I work is a constant changing and single community, therefore my relation from one to another asks for a continual update whenever during the many phases of the creative process as well on the start and closing moment. 

It asks for the capacity to empty yourself as many times needed in order to meet the possible fitting texture for the particular context. One dies, lives and resurrects in the infinity of creation yet one has to find the corner of its own energy for it not to be completely disturbed. It is a bee hive where the honey is the process that will lead to the final state, usage and consumption of the piece in its economical, communal and metaphorical terms. ‘Acompanhamento de artistas’ holds space, and exists as (sweet) glue from structure, to human relations, and creation. To operate between these worlds is not an easy, simple, straight lined ride, as a freelancer, there’s many moments when you meet a “black hole”, deserted moments or an unexpected fluxus of work.

In your experience, what are the main differences between working across different languages and cultures/contexts?

Needs and rules. Politics and community habits. Economy and social status. In global terms it comes down to rights and recognition of worth. Each element plays a determined role even if it comes from an “external place”. Within the reality of arts and culture, and more specific within performance art we dribble with the constant debate for social awareness. As we travel from one land to another where democracy is flagged if you stay long enough, and this may take only a couple of hours in one venue \ context, you might become clear that although you are in the same country but in that region things go in a very different way. Places where there’s less you may meet more, because the survival mood demands it and collaboration rolls up its sleeves and dances the dance together. The basic thing here is the same, to observe, to become a witness in the first seconds and be humble enough that what you will learn might be more than what you came to teach. Often you understand that law is made out for you to bump into it, but in circumstances where scarcity of means is the beat of the hour, creativity and will to share and improve comes to the surface. The word of the hour lately is resilience but if interdependency would be taught as fundamental for social growth and better basic conditions, diversity would gain another place and respect.

OcioSAmente by Ana Rocha

We once talked about how the North of Europe provides better working conditions and better pay than the South. Can you reflect on this and how it has influenced your work across borders?

Back in 2009\2010, I went to work in Berlin in a project that I believed to be temporary and with a duration of 6 \ 9 months, which then became a sequel of years. In this city,, I had the luck to start working with a Belgium-based company which kickstarted my relational parkour to experience working conditions that I have not met in my own country. 

So from then on my understanding of your true value by the hour, travels, per-diems, venue hosting and presentation contexts confirmed something that I thought not to be possible. It is partially still true that even as a freelancer, your income if you work with a North European company or artist (depending on what kind of support it has), is different from the South (and this became a big debate during the pandemic era, in Portugal where the arts and culture reality came to the surface as in other countries). 

There are many points as positive outcomes, as another eye to the conditions and rights for professionals within the arts, but there’s much more to do and there are imperfections in any of the systems, even in the North of Europe. What is here to consider is the attention and relevance truly given to Arts and Culture by each government, and its realization that this sector is as much part of social and economical growth as any other. To give better and fair work conditions to these professionals, it is of most importance to develop a state of equality and development, and if not there might be less quality and people engaged in this sector, not only in stable companies but also in the free scene.

From my early years, I observed throughout my professional career a continuous relation with many different kinds of organizations, institutions, more formal to non-profit or dyi groups. And over these twenty years some shifts have been felt, but still basic conditions of work have to be addressed so a consistency and stability within the relations between both individual and collective gain more sustainable ground. 

The worth and value of one’s time and acquired experience does not resonate yet with the income and this results in preference to work with and in companies based in countries where economically these issues are seen from a more positive perspective.

But anyway, not all is dark nor golden or blue, and the fact of working in different contexts across Europe gave me another awareness and confirmation of the specificity of each one of us working for Arts & Culture and how much is important to be politically involved so attention and priorities  in the creation process change.

*acompanhamento de artistas translates to ‘accompanying artists’

Ana Rocha (Porto, 1982) é produtora, curadora, coreógrafa, performer, dramaturga e por vezes escritora, uma espécie de canivete suíço. Resumindo, trabalha na área cultural e artística como mediadora há 20 anos. Ela estudou História da Arte, Arte Contemporânea e Artes Visuais. Co-dirigiu e fundou a MEZZANINE – associação cultural sem fins lucrativos. Integrou outras estruturas culturais e colaborou na produção de diversos festivais, como o Sónar+D’22 (Lisboa). Participou em projetos internacionais TRANSLOCA, CARE where? \ CAREZINE, Tranzfabrik. Apresentou os seus próprios trabalhos performáticos, Fraud by Nature (2012), Stabat Mater Furiosa (2017), LAVACURA (2019), Manual da Falla (2019), MudAres (2020), Entretanto(s) (2021) and OcioSAmente (2022). Participou de projetos de artistas visuais e coreógrafos como por exemplo Fabienne Audéoud, Isabelle Schad, Benoit Lachambre, Antonija Livingstone, Gretta Sarfaty e colabora com Renan Martins, Mariana Tengner Barros, Bernardo Chatillon, Xavier de Sousa, Meg Stuart, Phillipe Quesne, Elpida Orfanidou, Igor Dobrivic, entre outros. Obteve a bolsa DanceWeb – Impulstanz’12. Concluiu o SPCP de Deborah Hay, “Dynamic” (2012). Faz mediação cultural e programação (TAMANHO M, XXATENEUXXI, Cultura em Expansão, To School Out of School \ Colectivos Pláka, TanzKongress’19, CURADURA), colaborando junto a organizações informais para as artes e instituições como a Câmara Municipal do Porto. Foi associada do Ateneu Comercial do Porto, colabora como consultora da estrutura de artes performativas da Sekoia, entre outras. Foi membro do núcleo de organização da Ação Cooperativista. 

Ana Rocha (Porto, 1982) is a freelance producer, curator, choreographer, performer, dramaturg and sometimes writer. In short, she has been working in the cultural and artistic field as a mediator for 20 years. She studied Art History, Contemporary Art and Visual Arts. Co-directed and founded MEZZANINE – a non-profit cultural association. Ana worked with other cultural structures and collaborated in the production of several festivals, such as Sónar+D’22 (Lisbon). Participated in international projects TRANSLOCA, CARE where? \ CAREZINE, Tranzfabrik. She has presented her own performance works, Fraud by Nature (2012), Stabat Mater Furiosa (2017), LAVACURA (2019), Manual da Falla (2019), MudAres (2020), Entretanto(s) (2021) and OcioSAmente (2022). Participated in projects by visual artists and choreographers, as for example Fabienne Audéoud, Isabelle Schad, Benoit Lachambre, Antonija Livingstone, Gretta Sarfaty, and collaborates with Renan Martins, Mariana Tengner Barros, Bernardo Chatillon, Xavier de Sousa, Meg Stuart, Phillipe Quesne, Elpida Orfanidou, Igor Dobrivic, among others. Obtained the DanceWeb – Impulstanz’12 scholarship. Completed Deborah Hay’s SPCP, “Dynamic” (2012). Ana does cultural mediation and curatorial programs (TAMANHO M, XXATENEUXXI, Cultura em Expansão, To School Out of School \ Colectivos Pláka, TanzKongress’19, CURADURA), collaborating with informal organizations for the arts and institutions such as the Porto City Council. She was an associate of the Ateneu Comercial do Porto, and collaborates as a consultant for different cultural projects as Sekoia’s performing arts structure. She was a member of Ação Cooperativista.

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