Nicole Morel and Lea Hobson create a dialogue between dance, community, and architecture

Pro Helvetia South America, Arts de la scène

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Choreographer and architect toured South America with their piece ‘A Journey on Moving Grounds’, presented in different public spaces, and started developing a new collaboration

Swiss choreographer Nicole Morel, from Antipode Danse Tanz Company, and architect and set designer Lea Hobson saw in an open call for the 2019 Prague Quadrennial an excuse to start working together. The pretext led to “A Journey on Moving Grounds”, a piece performed in public spaces that interact with the architecture and the public.

With a series of islands sculpted in white polystyrene blocks, the group of dancers move and blend with the space, creating new landscapes, shapes, and patterns, transforming the structure. The images they present subtly echo the consequences of climate change, drifting icebergs or the slow destruction of the environment.

“From the start, there was the wish that it would not be too concrete, giving space for interpretation,” Nicole explains. “But then you get to a completely different social reality and don’t know what is going to happen. How we and the public react, and this moment of exchanging, it’s all really rich.”

Nicole refers to their experience in South America. In October and November 2023, the group toured with the piece in Brazil and Colombia, where they participated in Cali’s Dance Biennial. The sixth edition of the Colombian festival featured a Swiss focus, bringing together five works by contemporary artists and groups.

After their performance in Cali, Nicole and Lea sat down to talk about the work, their collaboration, and their views on cultural exchange. “By dialogue, by meeting other people, people you wouldn’t know if you stayed in your own world, I guess that’s when things get a bit interesting”, says Lea.

They also shared how their journey through South America and its buildings sparked the idea for a new project together.

Group of dancers over with blocks dancing on an open area in a city
Nicole Morel during the performance in Cali

You’ve both been working in a multi-disciplinary way for a while, but how did you two, a choreographer and an architect, start collaborating?

Nicole – I met Lea at the opera, and that’s where we started our conversation about urban spaces and the connection between people and where they live. Lea was the set designer for this production. It was a piece by Shostakovich, a work that was ordered by the Russian government at a time when they had built a big residential neighbourhood and wanted to promote it. And I think the piece is quite brilliant in being able to please the command and yet have a critical view about it.

Lea – Yeah, there was a lot of thinking about what is in space and your relationship with the city. And being French, I related a lot because the history of the suburbs, especially in Paris, is very linked to immigration and people being pushed further and further away.

Then we saw there was an open call for collaborations between architects and choreographers for the Prague Quadrennial. And so, I said to Nicole: it’s a great excuse to try and work together. The brief was working on patterns and time repetition, themes that interested both of us in our individual work. Within an hour in a café, we had a concept. So that’s how it started.

And how is this concept of body, architecture, and space interacting with the public? How did it change throughout the process?

Nicole – I think the piece has two parts, the one we have created and the final bit where we leave it open to the public, when we work with this idea of playfulness. This was part of the concept straight away. But then when we got to the material, it became very clear that the improvisation was going to be hard. I mean, today for example, the floor was quite slippery. So, the material also dictated a bit the way we approach it, but this was also the idea: depending on where you are and what you encounter, you react differently. This in situ practice.

Lea – I hate the idea of an architect just coming and answering a brief without including the people who are going to use this space. And I really like this idea of not knowing what’s going to happen and letting people experience the whole thing for themselves, have fun with it. In Prague, for instance, people would be eating on it, would build a temple… 

Nicole – …take a picture, build a high tower, and destroy it straight away. The reactions were very different. And that is the beauty of it as well. 

Lea – It’s actually never the same because the soundscape, the space are different, some movements have to be improvised or adapted, you interact with people, you never know what’s going to happen. I think, in the end, that is how we [human beings] should adapt to the environment.

The piece is very abstract but also deals with specific themes like climate change. How do they translate to the public? 

Nicole – Very differently depending on where and when we do it, on what’s going on in the world. The space is wide and quite abstract, so I think this gives this freedom for people to project different things, even though we have quite a clear narrative.

Lea – And it kind of evolves a bit too, because at the beginning the images of icebergs and melting, all of it was really strong for me, I was more in a in a state of despair. And as Nicole said, I think depending on what’s going on in the world, it may change. Now it’s not that I feel more hopeful, but we need to really build together. 

You’ve been to Brazil (Recife and Teresina) and now Colombia (Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali). How is it touring with this piece in South America?

Nicole – I think it was the most interesting thing because the first images we had with the piece were glaciers, cold, something we experience in Switzerland and is related more to a imagery of the North. Bringing it to Southern countries, there is this question, how is it going to be seen? From the start, there was the wish that it would not be too concrete, giving space for interpretation, but then you get to a completely different social reality and don’t know what is going to happen. So, how we and the public react, and this moment of exchanging, it’s all really rich. And the fact that we are far from home and got to stay a little longer is also a lot in our daily experience, we get to be more focused.

Lea – And I find it really inspiring, something in the audience here is different than in Europe. It’s a sort of joy and, and we say in French: décontracté, quite chill.

« A Journey of Moving Grounds » at the JUNTA Festival in Teresina (Brazil). Photo by Caio Negreiros

You’re talking about cultural differences, and in South America we feel that one of our most special intelligences is improvisation, easily solving issues with few resources. However, this might not always be seen as a positive asset, especially in contexts like Europe, where things are planned with more time, control, and funds. But the world is changing, we’re now discussing the scarcity of resources. Do you think younger generations in Europe are shifting the view on production, maybe pushing the structural boundaries?

Nicole – Yes, I hope, because I had that feeling when I was a teenager, when my generation was much more easy-going, improvising and finding solutions. And you have to be creative when you’re young in Switzerland because it’s so expensive. So, when you’re young, you are usually quite open. I think it’s difficult to maintain this spirit in these countries because you start working in an environment that pushes you into something tougher, there is a social pressure. It’s weird for a country that is so rich, we could do so much more.

Lea – And I think what’s quite hard now, compared to our generation, at least, is that we didn’t have the weight of this mass extinction. We had other issued, but there wasn’t this other layer: the world is crumbling down and what do we do?

Do you feel there is a community of artists who worry about all these situations?

Nicole – Yes, I think so. As I am based in Fribourg, we have a very small community of artists, so we are in a place where we struggle to make art possible, to have it as a source of income. It takes time, but the community is evolving. Sometimes artists are lucky enough to be in very protective places which allows us to be with our sensitivity. It’s not always easy to get to that part where you just create. But it’s linked, things I want to create are linked to the life I live and what I perceive. For me, they [reality and creation] must communicate.

Lea – And by dialogue, by meeting other people, people you wouldn’t know if you stayed in your own world, I guess that’s when things get a bit interesting.

Performance at Cali’s Biennial

Now that you had this experience, are you planning something new together?

Nicole – Yes, and South America was very inspiring. Well, we love the material [polystyrene] for certain aspects, but it’s more and more an ecological concern. That’s not the best material, let’s be honest. So that got us thinking. At some point, I started to plan this trip and research the cities and we started to envision the piece in certain environments. And somehow, by chance, I found this cultural centre in Bogota, Gabriel García Márquez, with circles and bricks. Then we got to Brazil and bricks were everywhere, even on high buildings. The Municipal Theatre has bricks on the stage, on the walls. Favelas are made out of bricks. In Colombia, we found these tall buildings (Torres del Parque, by architect Rogelio Salmona) with the Plaza de Toros right next to it, all in bricks. It’s a material that is very, very present here. It opened the door for us. Somehow, the way it’s used is much more creative than in Europe. It’s so rich, and coincidentally, Lea did her master’s about it.

Overhead image of Torres del Parque
« A Journey of Moving Grounds » recorded in film during performance at the Torres del Parque, in Bogotá. Photo by Daniel Villamizar

Lea – Yes, maybe because I’m half English, I’ve always been a massive brick person. So, she [Nicole] was having her moment with her bricks, and I said, you know, my first project in set design was a whole set in bricks. Then we started talking about the material in a very different way. Because it’s not just sustainable, it’s quite accessible, they’re made from local substances, they come from the earth that is just next to you. It’s a universal material.

Nicole – For this tour, we had to understand what kind of polystyrene each country has. It’s not always the same density. But this process also created a link with the locals. And with the bricks could be a whole thing, how do we make them and then how they go back into the places you got them? So, I’m interested in doing dance, but I’m also interested in what will allow the dance to happen and continue somewhere else.

Biographies

Nicole Morel is a Swiss choreographer, dancer, and director of the Antipode Danse Tanz Company based in Fribourg, Switzerland. She graduated from the Hamburg Ballet School in 2003. As a dancer, she worked at the Compañia Nacional de Danza 2 under Nacho Duato and Tony Fabre in Madrid, ballettmainz and Ballett am Rhein Düsseldorf Duisburg under the direction of Martin Schläpfer. Since 2014, she is developing her own work as a choreographer in an interdisciplinary manner, often in collaboration with other artists like the stage director Julien Chavaz or the sculptor Andrew Hustwaite, combining kinetic machine sculptures and contemporary dance.

Lea Hobson is a French and British freelance architect and set designer based in Paris. She graduated as an architect from ENSAPB (2011, Paris) and as a scenographer from the Royal School of Speech and Drama (2013, London). She has designed sets for theatre and opera productions with NOF Fribourg, artistic installations with La Fabrique des Impossibles and Mains d’Oeuvres. She won the exhibition design of the Medinatheque (2014, Mucem) and has designed exhibitions in London, Paris (Landweek). She has developed expertise in participatory design processes, urban planning, and performance projects, as well as in the reuse of materials. Lea also works in film and digital photography, as well as collage and drawing.