Natasa Govedic with Ivana Müller

This year’s Zagreb Dance Week Festival features the work of yet another Croatian dance artist living and working abroad – seemingly a requisite pattern for international success nowadays. Theatre director, choreographer and performer Ivana Müller has emerged as an artist to watch, deftly juggling a string of contemporary languages of multilayered irony in subversion of traditional theatre vocabularies, and combining different media forms on stage. We have met as Müller presents her Lovely Performance and a video-based research project documenting various stylistic and poetic approaches to dance embraced by a number of Croatian choreographers.
You went from the island of Rab to Amsterdam, via Zagreb. Tell us more about each of the stops on this artistic journey.
– My journey has not been as linear as it may seem: I’d rather describe it as circular. While studying comparative literature and French in Zagreb, I participated in a number of dance and theatre workshops organized by the Croatian Movement & Dance Institute and the Moving Academy of Performing Arts Zagreb/Amsterdam. I had no formal dance education at the time.
As my studies drew to their close, I was in two minds over whether I should devote myself to literary theories and stay within the academic context, or pursue my interest in dance and theatre and turn it into a career. The second option seemed more “real” at the time so I went on to and subsequently graduated from Amsterdam’s School for New Dance Development, a dance academy offering four-year courses in choreography. I never abandoned my pursuit of literature, though, finding it directly applicable to my stage work. All in all, “language” – in the broadest sense of the word – persists as one of my core subjects. Moreover, I tend to explore various issues of narration and their interrelations through different media. Thus, for instance, the connection between video, the written text and live action in Lovely Performance builds up to a specific form of associative narration.
I am still deeply interested in storytelling and beguiling by means of stories – which has a naïve and elementary aspect. On the other hand, I feel that there is something “theatrically incorrect” in the very act of storytelling: there is some kind of reticence towards the immense wealth of what stage expression has to offer. If my only wish was to tell a story – and stories are linear by default – I would be writing books rather than dancing.
Judging by the particular brand of storytelling in your performances, you are quite at home with intermediality – intertwining stories in different media?
– All my pieces so far have been media bastards: mongrels issued from a number of artistic languages or arts. There are people who do great work in the so-called “pure” forms. I prefer using a language which combines photography, video, dance, text… Maybe because I cannot identify myself with any of those arts in particular. Neither do I strive for exclusive reception within any single critical circle or audience.
On tour, I have often seen critics trying to fit my performances into different boxes. Some have pegged me as a visual artist, others as a dance artist, while there have been those who have seen me as too cerebral altogether: I am perfectly happy with these multiple categorizations. Moreover, I find searching for “pure” genres quite ridiculous. I believe that it is far more important HOW you use media or genres than WHICH media or genres you use. All the media experiments we do in theatre today have long been common practice in visual arts, where it is quite “natural” for an artist to find parallel expression in performance, video, painting, sculpture etc. Genre is a question of strategy rather than vocation.
How does making a piece as a solo artist differ from being a part of an ensemble or directing other people?
– The difference is… the cost. Solo pieces are cheaper than ensemble pieces. Joke. There is a real difference between performing and directing, given that the director views the performance as a special, privileged voyeur. He or she is a mirror manipulating the performers in a positive way. When performing, you think “organically”, you are not overly keen on intellectualizing. From a director’s point of view, however, intellectualizing is basically what your job is about. Sometimes it is good to be both inside and outside. Personally, this is the method I feel most comfortable with: even when not on stage myself, I like to repeat what the performers come up with in order to gain physical insight into what they are trying to say and see where a particular bodily impulse may lead. We work way faster when we combine the outer and the inner perspective. I never videotape myself to analyze a particular movement; I prefer repeating it over and over again. And then, there is my “artistic family” in Amsterdam – a handful of fellow artists with whom I often discuss my work in progress. That helps a lot too – having an ongoing common discourse and awareness of specific artistic problems.
Irony seems to be your favorite rhetorical mode: is that yet another deviation from THE expected meaning?
– You are probably right. It seems to me that distancing may often establish a “truer” intimacy – taking a step aside may enable you to see “more”, while the object, the person or the problem in question sharpens in focus. This distancing from the expected – the primary and predictable meaning – is at its most interesting when so subtle as to make the spectators wonder whether or not you are being serious or ironic, and when irony can still produce an emotional response. Semantically, the very definition of stage – both traditional and the not-so-traditional – allows for one’s gaining a hero status by simply making an appearance. You become a “model”, “the chosen one” without any extra effort. What is interesting is to find a way to stay on this stage without using it as a mere pedestal.
What are you reading at the moment? How do text and body come together as your fields of interest today?
– Those are two different questions. I am currently reading Bresson’s Notes sur le cinématographe, an art manifesto of sorts. I am also reading the “must read” authors of the moment, Deleuze’s Logique du sens, for instance. In fiction, one of my favorite authors is Haruki Murakami (Wild Sheep Chase). As for your second question: it is interesting to explore the ways in which text and body may tag one another and find where the shift in their basic interpretation takes place. Another path to follow would be using verbal text as an extension of physical text or vice versa.

This latest piece of yours ironizes the social role of the hero, as well as the whole logic of excelling, being the best, being a genius or an Olympic champion etc. Does this deliberate de-heroization have anything to do with the power of criticism, or does it tackle our overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, as we live in a media world constantly producing new/fake heroes?
– I do not feel powerless. I think that it is very healthy to de-heroize the world around you, and that this gesture is sobering rather than desperate. I have long been haunted by the idea of heroism in all shapes and sizes, especially given the precariousness of the hero-icon status in this day and age. Heroes have become a disposable commodity.
What I am interested in right now resonates more with exploring a particular brand of “unconscious” anti-heroism. Interestingly enough, it is very difficult to do anything “unconscious” in theater, the stage itself being the space of evidence and self-consciousness. That is why I focused on heroes as personae of non-reality – as media fictions of heroism with their untouchable “charismas”, and the very fact that, more often than not, heroes are mere images, somewhat deprived of a real body. In English, the word “hero” is polysemous, simultaneously denoting a hero, a principal character of a story, as well as a personage – its meaning is, therefore, triply fictional.
I have also done a survey among some fifty friends and colleagues, asking them to come up with a definition of a hero, or to enumerate their heroes for me. This was really hilarious. As it turns out, most of us have no heroes: if we ever had any, they have eroded. I think that heroism is a “state of mind”; you do not become a hero yourself, somebody else has to make you a hero, “groom” you for a hero. And why would one ever aspire to the hero status? Why would one want to see someone else enthroned as a hero? We seem to be submerged by some rather subconscious waters here.
Your perspective seems to be Dutch rather than Croatian… Locally, fictional heroes are more likely to be identified in relation to their wartime track record and Hague Tribunal eligibility…
– I am definitely not speaking from any Croatian political outlook. However, my perspective is not Dutch either: I’d rather term it as general and human.

Your Lovely Performance comes off as a powerful satire of various instant religions and needs of spirituality in terms of supermarket video epiphany. Which culture does your satire belong to?
– It belongs to many cultures, and to U.S. culture in particular. On the other hand, the Netherlands is a very Calvinistic country, where the overwhelming need of spirituality has recently taken the form of exotic journeys to Thailand or India – for six months at a time rather than a week, involving total “cleansing” and “rebirth”. Of course, while economic poverty may not be an issue, the Dutch have been plagued with a number of domestic problems. But I do think that the problem of bogus piety is just as present in Croatia.

Do you intend to spend more time working in Croatia?
– I find occasional visits to Croatia extremely important, namely because I feel this country currently has a very interesting artistic climate and some fascinating young authors. I’d love to work on specific projects in Croatia, but I do not intend to “come back for good”. Besides, I tend to live a nomadic life, without looking into settling down anyplace in particular.
For the moment, I feel I’m in a very good place: I can gain enough support in terms of production, financing and artistic encouragement, which is very important for my future development as an artist and for my work. I haven’t lived in Croatia for eight years now and those years have been just as formative as my childhood and adolescent years: not only with respect to the experience and knowledge I have gained, but also mentality-wise. Developing one’s mentality is an ongoing process, and geography is not its only determining factor. The very idea that an artist can be “accomplished” is quite absurd. An artist can – has to, rather – play his or her game, be aware of his or her “artistic signature”, but he or she “grows” forever. I think that the crucial problem with many young people is that they are quite passionate about wanting to do things, they are immensely motivated, but they do not know what thei