Flemish choreographer Jan Martens is one of the leading European dance artists of his generation. With obsession, passion, and dedication, he has developed a hard-to-label body of work—one which has garnered worldwide attention for its radical, daring, and reflective approach to connecting dance and facets of contemporary life.
The Dog Days Are Over, Martens’s international breakthrough work, was inspired by the photos of Philippe Halsman, the artist best known for his LIFE magazine portraits in the 1950s. Halsman would shoot stars like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe simply jumping, but it wasn’t so much the images that struck Martens as it was what the photographer had to say about the images: “When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.”
The Dog Days Are Over features eight dancers engaged in one physical act: the jump. A repetitive exhaustion that will prove the dancers to be nothing more than performers at the service of… yes, what exactly? A critical performance about the thin line between art and tricks.
I recently sat down with Martens to talk with him about the passions and inspirations that influence his creative process, and his view of the responsibility of each of us as the choreographer, the performers, and the audience.
Cis Bierinckx: What sources help your research, and what are your main concerns while constructing a work?
Jan Martens: All my works start from things that keep my mind busy and/or matters that I observe around me. These can be books, movies, social issues, and more. It’s a wide range. One of my earliest works, A Small Guide On How to Treat Your Lifetime Companion (2011), was inspired by 5X2, a film by the French filmmaker François Ozon. The source for the duet Victor (2013) was vaguely based on news items covering the internationally renowned Dutroux child abuse case in Belgium. More recent works, such as The Common People (2016) and Rule of Three (2017), are more connected to issues related to the internet and the way we deal with information streams.
The overall concern in my work is a need for transparency. I really like to show how things function and are constructed. I want to strip away the “hiding” aspect of theater. Therefore, I like to keep my work very simple and minimal, without sets, so that the focus stays on people, on the performer(s). Within this context I am always looking for different outcomes. Some works are very theatrical, almost narrative, others very abstract.
Bierinckx: Who are some artists who have inspired or had an influence on you?
Martens: Being born in Belgium, I was lucky to grow up in an environment where it was very easy to get access to what got labeled “the Flemish wave” of artists. Their works formed an introduction into contemporary art for me. At 17 I saw Jan Fabre’s As long as the world needs a warrior’s soul (2000), which put me on the road to discover Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. I found her work not only new and beautiful, but it affected me as well in the way it turned pure mathematical patterns into an emotional mood. For The Dog Days Are Over I also found inspiration in the American contemporary dance heritage, and more precisely works by Lucinda Childs. I knew somehow from the start that I wanted to relate The Dog Days Are Over to ’80s minimalism and repetitive movement. To me, my work talks a lot about art versus entertainment. Postmodernism and minimalism came to my mind at an early stage for this piece.
Bierinckx: How did the idea for Dog Days arise, and what were the main issues you wanted to tackle with it?
Martens: A lot of elements came together. In 2012, I was asked by the Dutch dance company Conny Janssen Danst to work with her company on a new work, Pretty Perfect. It was the first time I could work with larger group of dancers, as before I only created solo and duo work due to financial limitations. It was a unique opportunity for me, one that tempted me a lot, but at the same time I also questioned the offer as those dancers were all neoclassically trained—the kind of dancers I had never worked with before. Up to that time I had mainly created choreographic portraits and love duets. This group of dancers represented for me a rather prototype or generation of vain dancers/executing species with a body-strong cult. My question was: how do I create a piece with these people?
Secondly, Dog Days was grounded in the big financial cuts the Dutch art scene faced at that time. It made me reflect on what becomes of art when it gets related to the number of tickets sold and the pressure of reaching a bigger audience. This doom thought about art versus entertainment made me think about what art is, and what I want the audience to see? A third source to this piece was reality television. We like to watch people who have it worse than us. Is seeing people suffer entertainment? I wanted to create a kind of situation in which the dancer, as a disciplined and vain creature, pushes physicality to an exhausting limit in the presence of an audience that should feel a bit of responsibility as well. In this sense it became a piece about responsibilities, the relationship between choreographer and dancers, performers and audience, audience and cultural policies. All of this ended up in a 70-minute jumping piece.
I wanted to create a clear and subtle work but also wanted to bring humor to it. For some people it is a funny piece because the continued shifting repetitive patterns and the absurdity of it. While at the French premiere an audience member screamed, “This is torture! Hurray for the dancers but not for the choreographer!” In a way, it’s interesting because as an artist you always hope that your work and your ideas will have an effect on the spectator. I try to relate to the audience, and at the same time I like to bring them out of their comfort zone. For instance, a previous piece, Victor, could be read as an example of a warm relationship between a father and a son, or as pedophilia. To me it is important to move the audience into a confused situation during the run of a work so that they reflect on what they see. The time goes so fast now that there seems to be less and less time to reflect. I see each of my performances as created time to reflect. The Dog Days Are Over is hypnotic but simultaneously transparent. It transforms slowly so that it gives the viewer a lot of time to question themselves: Why am I here? Why do I like it? What is the rest of the audience thinking about this? For me this is what an artwork can do in these times of being multi-functional.
Bierinckx: Can you tell us a bit more about your musical score decisions for the work?
Martens: Similar to the sound and patterns used by Anne Teresa De Keermaeker and Lucinda Childs, I immediately had Steve Reich rhythms and measures in my mind. The way I constructed the piece made me decide to use the rhythmical beats of the shoes on the dance floor as a minimal score. Then first half of the piece starts in working lights over performers and audience. Once these lights fade out some Bach music comes in. By doing this the previous action turns into theater, a play. What’s more, I wanted to create a friction as the loud music and the darkness makes it more difficult for the performers to count their own rhythms, spacing, and to keep up with the complexity of the demanding dance. I chose Bach because of his virtuosity. In his music you almost hear the creator sitting, thinking, and composing what is in certain ways the same the dancers are doing at that moment. In the music and the dance one feels the logic, but it’s hard to grasp. Therefore I made the choice to overlap both.
In the beginning of the piece what you see is what you get. With the shift I wanted to accentuate how theatricality manipulates the perception of the spectator. The dancers have to count for 70 minutes. In the first part you sometimes hear them counting out loud just to stay together. Towards the end the vocal counts are set to evoke a drill/totalitarian association and to shift the work, bit by bit, into a kind of musical vibe. By doing this I want to examine if art and minimalism can reconcile with entertainment. How close can it come?
Bierinckx: Many articles label Dog Days a political work. Do you agree with that?
Martens: I see it as a political work because its aim is to raise questions about responsibility. It asks what is the responsibility of each of us as the choreographer, the performers, the audience, and its relationship to cultural policy—something that comes up very much these days, for example, the #MeToo movement in dance. The other political act is that I want to put a universal truth in my work that affects audiences in South Africa, Europe, the Americas and every other territory in the same way. Each time I try to reach this truth by making the performer a human being that communicates with an audience. I like to make the boundary between performer and spectator disappear. It is important for me to elevate art by [using it to express] that we are equal, that we are all common people. I think that the physicality, the diversity, and the different bodies I put on stage can help do that.
Bierinckx: When you’re at the Walker, you will also treat audiences with excerpts of your latest work, Rule of Three. Can you tell us a bit about what influenced this piece?
Martens: Rule of Three is different from everything I’ve done before. For this work I was researching how the brain functions and how our mind deals with the impulsive updates we receive nowadays. In contrast to my other pieces, in which I mostly limit the information, I overload this work with a zapping input of references and moods. So it became a work with a lot of different choreographies and performance qualities in one piece. The works shifts from an almost ’60s Cunningham dance aesthetic to a more dramatic and conceptual rhythmical dance. Normally I set the rules for all my works but with this piece it was the opposite. In Rule of Three each part is still somehow connected to rules but the editing of the amount of material created, in a way, a certain freedom for me.