Rituals, dark comedy, and dance
Constellations – the new work from Stefan Jovanović – explores the relationship between power and gender through a series of vignettes, featuring historically marginal archetypes of witches, fools and prophets. Gender fluidity and social dancing are invoked to examine new ways of understanding social politics – specifically how to be together in a common physical and emotional space.
I caught up with Stefan Jovanović for a behind-the-scenes look at Constellations.
What was your initial inspiration for this work?
As I trained in architecture, a lot of my inspirations come from the built environment. Edward James’ surrealist park – Las Pozas in Mexico, Anselm Kiefer’s underground caverns in Barjac, and Nicki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in Capalbio were all references for the work. I always try to imagine how these places of beautiful otherness can be inhabited and performed. The spaces trigger stories in my mind and in my dreams, becoming sets for contemporary myth-making performances.
I’ve always been fascinated with magic and its portrayal in western society, along with the figures depicted as practising witchcraft and spell-casting in the history of visual arts and literature. Albrecht Dürer’s etchings and Francisco Goya’s drawings were initially inspiring to me but quickly became limiting, as they’ve set a strict gendered and aesthetic precedent to how we understand these archetypes today. More recently, I’ve been inspired by the paintings of Paula Rego, the poetry of Kate Tempest, and work by choreographer Meg Stuart.
Lastly, after spending time and training with shamanic practitioners for the last seven years, I started to realise that there is a lot of magic at play when people come to gather with the intention to transform something personal from within. These sacred ceremonies inspired me to create a space within the theatre for otherness, for gathering, full of myth, allegory, and magic.
You’re bringing together an eclectic group of creatives to collaborate on this work. How did you select who to work with on this?
As my practice spans between architecture, dance-theatre, and somatic therapy, I’ve been part of a number of artistic groups, trainings, and collectives over the last decade. Most of my collaborators are individuals that I studied with, was in residencies with, or simply discovered – either through word-of-mouth or by following them on Instagram for a while before approaching them for this project.
I work with my sense and intuition, so when I see images or sounds of someone’s work that I feel fits the energy of the project, I approach them. One premise was that no two creatives came from the same background or training. Inviting this diversity to collaborate together in the studio is one of my definitions of radical togetherness. Coincidentally or not, we all share a common interest in changing the way dance and theatre gets made and shown.
The show features direct engagement with the audience – how heavily does it rely on audience participation?
The performers invite the audience to dance with them at certain moments during the show, often involving different forms of ballroom dancing. We try to keep it light, playful, and inclusive. The beginning is always a bit harder – negotiating that fourth wall, accepting to be vulnerable and accepting to dance with a stranger. Once five, six, seven people get up, it starts to flow.
When we have encountered reluctance in the past, that’s always been respected, and sometimes those people change their minds later on and decide to join in anyway. I chose ballroom dancing as a means to facilitate engagement, as it allows for intimacy and adventure simultaneously, never putting the spotlight on any one individual.
It’s also rare to get the opportunity to connect with the performers at such a direct level during the performance, and it creates a different form of empathy when the audience become spectators again.
What does Constellations tell us about the relationship between power and gender?
Power can lie where it is least obvious, and gender is not what it appears to be. Power is a construct of the imagination – it is what we believe it to be, and it has systemically created a binary gendered reality in our recent history. Constellations proposes to develop an alternative to that belief system.
There is a lot of content in the work that both directly and indirectly addresses masculinity and femininity – male and female phenotypes, dress, appearances, and physicality in relation to who holds power in the space. However, like a torch, it needs to get passed around. We work a lot with animal embodiment – the bestial, the innate, the reptilian brain – an energy that is pre-gender, as a way to offer alternative understandings of power in relationship to body.
Is Constellations a creative response to Brexit?
It wasn’t intended to be, but we have to address it nonetheless. The creative team is made up of Spanish, Italian, Canadian, Norwegian, Serbian, Swiss, English, Israeli, Australian, and Swedish performers and designers. I think that says a lot on its own. I’m also grateful that the project has received continued funding from Arts Council England, which for me is the creative response to Brexit.
What do you hope that people feel when watching Constellations?
It’s a difficult ask to design people’s experiences – that’s personal, not for us to impose. We create an environment that I hope will be stimulating and invite audience members to ask questions, to be curious, to be challenged on their own fixed narratives about gender, power and queerness.
The show operates somewhat like a shamanic ceremony – pendulating between comfortable, familiar, already-seen territory and uncanny, unfamiliar, troubling waters. This wave is intended to expand the individual’s threshold for tolerating pleasure and pain, and perhaps surprising oneself along the way.
Photograph by Moad Musbahi, featuring Katye Coe, Roni Katz, Pau Aran Gimeno, and Charlie Cattrall.