Ruth Childs plays with memory through body and music

Pro Helvetia South America, Arti sceniche

Nota: questo post è disponibile solo in inglese.

Dancer and choreographer presented her solo ‘Fantasia’ on a tour in South America, including a participation in Cali’s Dance Biennial, and commented on her work and exchanges

When first creating her solo pieces, dancer and choreographer Ruth Childs decided to take a step back. Having had a career alongside choreographers and companies such as La Ribot, Gilles Jobin, and Yasmine Hugonnet, the Geneva-based artist felt the need to take some time and develop her own movements. And started approaching her work from another perspective: through music.

Collaborating with sound designer Stéphane Vecchione, she made it to her first solo, “Fantasia” (2019), an investigation on the body and its musicality. In the piece, the dancer explores her physical and emotional memories with music ranging from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to Dvorak’s Slavonic dances, which she listened to as a child. Stepping into a white room, she invokes, plays, dialogues, embodies and fights with these musical recollections, using colour to punctuate and organise them, in an abstract auto portrait. Her body shifts from a human figure to an animal-like creature or to simple vibration, and her movement at times controls music changes and sound distortions.

“Very intuitively, I realised that these big classical heirs, which are part of my own personal, intimate memory as well as a collective memory, they were triggering very spontaneous reactions in my body,” she recalls. “It’s funny because some of these big classicals are used in really bad TV ads or cinema and sometimes they’re just amazing pieces of music. So, there is this kind of ambiguous relationship, for everyone it triggers something.”

In November 2023, she started a three-week tour of the piece and one workshop through Colombia and Chile, including a participation 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. During her stay, she granted the following interview, in which she discussed her work and the complexity of cultural exchange.

“Getting in touch with different realities of theatres and how they’re used to working and how we can adapt with our Swiss way of working, learn how to negotiate. All of that is super important, to be in touch with modesty,” she says.

Dancer wearing black shirt jumping with her arms up
“Fantasia”, by Ruth Childs, in the 6th edition of the Cali International Dance Biennial. Photo by Edward Lora

“Fantasia” is your first solo and was created during a residency in Berlin. How was this process?

It was a period when I was first starting to make my own work; until then I’d been working as a dancer for many companies. I received a scholarship from Geneva to go to Berlin for six months, and it was kind of the first time where I was starting to experiment and try out things. I was collaborating with Stéphane [Vecchione], and we started with music projects, they felt more comfortable. Because dance is such a big thing for me, having danced with so many amazing choreographers and having this heritage from my aunt [dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs], it was a little bit too intimidating. So, I had to take some time to understand what I thought about choreography.

You ended up going back to your memory, not in a literal way, but in a more universal one. How was it translating memory through the body?

Very intuitively, I realised that these big classical heirs, which are part of my own personal, intimate memory as well as a collective memory, they were triggering very spontaneous reactions in my body. It was linked to something very familiar and at the same time I was like, “where is this coming from?”. My reactions are very raw, direct, and they just come out at some point. They felt on the one hand very intimate and on the other hand very new. And there’s also something to do with our relationship to this type of music. It’s funny because some of these big classicals are used in really bad TV ads or cinema. And at the same time, sometimes they’re just amazing pieces of music, it’s overpowering. So, there is this kind of ambiguous relationship. And for everyone it triggers something, maybe something nice, maybe a feeling of being sick of it.

“Fantasia” teaser

They are very well-known themes but bring out so many different experiences.

It’s not only what this type of music represents for us universally or in certain contexts, but the relationship between music and dance. Growing up with classical dance, you’re always counting, you have to be on the music. And then suddenly with contemporary, postmodern dance, it must be new, conceptual, you have to separate music from dance. With this piece, I’m trying to play with that relationship. So, with the sound designer, Stéphane, I’m having a type of dialogue and fight with the music, and at the same time accepting that the relationship between music and body is amazing. It creates so many emotions.

The sound is quite precise and strange at the same time. How did you create it?

Stéphane always proposes a sound system which is very specific to the work. For “Fantasia”, we had the idea of using classical music as a kind of ready-made. So, you do hear two movements from Beethoven’s symphonies from A to Z. He also deforms one of the Slavic dances from Dvorak, mixing it like a rock piece. And then there’s this whole thing with the microphone where I activate the music with my voice or with sound. It’s like me talking to the music. Some of the words I say or actions I do are coming out like raw memories from this music. It was a playful concept that he [Stéphane] invented for this piece, which brings humour and maybe some irony to the relationship of this of this type of music. Here in Cali, it was a little bit hard to do it because there was so much sound in the theatre, so it was not as subtle. But the piece is also about how music is directly related to live performance and how it can come out of my body.

You also divide the narrative through colours, expressed in different T-shirts and wigs.

Yeah, that was very intuitive, I drew that from Disney’s “Fantasia” [1940]. The purple especially is a memory from that film. And I was very inspired by a film [“Art Make-Up”] by Bruce Nauman, where he is painting himself in white, pink, green, and black. I was really fascinated how you change your project just by using colour and time. Like, what happens if you only see the red for two minutes, but the black lasts 20 minutes? It’s the same costume, but a very simple colour change can give a different way of reading what’s going on. The figure that it makes the T-shirt and the wig are something very childish and also a kind of creature, animal.

Dancer with arms open, wearing red wig and T-shirt
“Fantasia”, by Ruth Childs, in the 6th edition of the Cali International Dance Biennial. Photo by Edward Lora

Now that you’ve toured with it for a while, do you think it changes a lot depending on where you go?

Yes and no. It’s not so much about the countries, it’s more about the people that are sometimes in certain places. I do it several times in the same theatre and it’s different from one night to the other, it depends on how people are feeling if. They have this spontaneous reaction to this music, either they hate it, cannot stand it, or they’re happy, wanting to dance to the music.

It feels like the best thing to do is to be as loyal to the piece as possible, depending on where you go. That means really concentrating on making it work because the piece is very formal, some technical requirements are quite difficult. So, we come to a different place and you’re like, “okay, what should we adapt?” We were realising the compromises and also thinking the chance it is for us to be all the way here [in Cali]. Here I was really touched because I felt like people did accept the piece and they were curious. I was also a bit sad because I could know that technically it was a little bit less precise, but I was still quite proud of how the whole team came together.

During your tour in South America, you’re also conducting a workshop. How is it?

I use motifs from “Fantasia”, give participants task-based exercises that are coming directly from the process of the piece, for them to try to find their own path in this process. Most of my work is transforming through shape and figures, but also playing with rhythm. And I also like using music without having music. So, the music in your head, these kinds of exercises, which are also quite new for some people, for different cultures. Recently, when I was in China, people were impressed that one of my main tools for creating art was intuition. You can be disciplined in your use of intuition. For me, it’s the only way to be sincere, and artistic process is not to think about what might be interesting for everyone else. And here in Cali there’s a very strong culture of dance, very energetic, while I do very minimal things. So, it’s really interesting to see these differences and kind of “negotiate” with everyone.

After Colombia, you continue the tour in Chile. How those slow tours work for you and what kind of exchanges do you encounter?

There has been a big gap in touring with Covid, we’ve forgotten how stressful it can be. It’s great to be able to make longer tours, different activities. So, I’m happy that we’re here for three weeks, but it feels like it could be even longer.

Here in Cali, walking around the city, it’s very loud and joyful, with all sorts of people dancing, it’s super beautiful. It brings back some kind of spontaneous relationship. But the place where I feel the most direct exchange is probably in the workshops. I can also experiment; see how I can use my tools for some intimate group work. This is very helpful for me, to see how bodies react to my propositions. I’ve been touring in South America before, but I was not as involved, I was not the director of the project. So, getting in touch with different realities of theatres and how they’re used to working and how we can adapt with our Swiss way of working, learn how to negotiate. All of that is super important, to be in touch with modesty. It’s funny because I come from a background of privilege, but I grew up in the United States, where artists are not the privileged ones. There is structure, but to be a contemporary dancer in the US is really difficult. So, I’m very aware and sensitive in Switzerland about how amazing the structure is, it’s possible to get financing for projects. Besides, in Europe maybe we’re used to having things really organised beforehand, knowing what’s going to happen. And then I find it very beautiful how people fight to make art in places where it’s less easy. I feel it’s really important to keep these exchanges going and to kind of get over ourselves a little bit, make things happen.

Biography

Ruth Childs is a British-American dancer and choreographer. Born in 1984 in London, she grew up in the United States, where she studied dance and music. In 2003 she moved to Geneva to finish her dance training with the Ballet Junior de Genève and started working with choreographers and directors such as Foofwa d’Imobilité, La Ribot, Gilles Jobin, Massimo Furlan, Marco Berrettini, and Yasmine Hugonnet. Since 2015, she has also been working on a re-creation and revival project of the early works of her aunt, the American choreographer Lucinda Childs. In 2014 she founded her company Scarlett’s to develop her own work through dance, performance, and music. Ruth is currently one of the artists in residence at Arsenic in Lausanne and the associated artist at CCN2-Centre chorégraphique national de Grenoble (2023-2024).