By Merel Eigenhuis
In this interview dancer, choreographer and theatre maker Benjamin Kahn talks about his performance “Sorry, But I Feel Slightly Disidentified…”, representation and power relations.
Good afternoon, Benjamin! To start off with the first question: why did you ever want to work in the field of performing arts?
To work in the performing arts field was not necessarily a clear goal from the start but something that slowly and gradually grew by different experiences. I tried many things: I studied law, economics, dramaturgy and theater but I found out that I was more fascinated by putting things in form, into the body, into physicality. This brought me to study at the national circus school ESAC in Brussels, to then become a dance-performer myself for ten years. Today, by choreographing myself, I find in the meeting of bodies and politics a very powerful tool.
Where did you get inspiration for the concept of this performance?
At the moment we started the creation for “Sorry, But I Feel Slightly Disidentified”, I had been a performer for a long time but wanted to explore the process of creating. I found it a very challenging situation. When I started this project, I had no concept. The concept was the wish from me and Cherish [the performer in the performance] to work together. So, if we talk about the concept, the idea was more to start from the two of us and to understand what this relationship already contained in terms of poetics, politics and possible physicality. This first work has been about understanding these themes and how both our history and experiences meet or clash.
So you made this performance together?
Yes and no. There is a difference in the way we relate to this performance, Cherish as the performer and myself as the maker which implied a specific collaboration in the creative process of this performance. It’s a difference in the way we relate to each other but also in the way society perceives us. If I state, “we made it together!”, I avoid a lot of problems about our relationship, because we both represent certain stereotypes. I don’t want to avoid this political situation that this performance contains. But at the same time, of course, we did do it together. We’re very close, also in life, so it’s not detached from that intimacy. But my route in the process of making this performance is very different from hers.
Interesting that you brought this up, because I was also wondering: how are you dealing with the power relations and questions of representation when you (as a white man) are working with Cherish Menzo (a Black woman)?
For me this is something that we cannot look away from (still now) due to our history and the constructed systems. I find it a very complex question to answer. which is also what we try to articulate in the form of a performance and in a non-binary approach. For me this creates an opportunity to understand, negotiate and exchange in how we perceive and relate to each other. So of course, in this performance I also look and investigate my own gaze and which relation to power it already contains. It also depends a lot on who asks this question.
That’s a good question, as well.
Also, for me this relationship of power is not only linked to the process of making, but also for who we are performing for and where we present the performance. We performed at theaters and festivals, but also in gymnasiums and classrooms of secondary schools. The younger audience has a very different way to interact and respond to this performance. The question of relation and power has not been asked. Instead a lot of different concrete and urgent questions pop up.
I am conscious about the power dynamics involved. Even the title is problematic because I created the title and it contains this ambiguity. Is it an apology or is it, again, a reinforcement of white privilege? At the same time, if you think about the history of theatre, the person who creates something, often goes beyond his own narrative. You always go beyond the personal. Like Chekhov, writing about the suburb countryside of Moscow: he’s not part of it himself. It would be problematic for me to start from myself. I did try, though, to portrait myself but I didn’t find the same urgency.
But it is true that we ask ourselves why this relationship of Cherish and I immediately refers to the relation of powers and questions of legitimacy. Every power relationship is different in another situation, being a dancer myself I am very aware about power relationship in this world. I wonder if every creative process needs to be referred as a power relationship. I think that when two artists are working together it’s not so much about power, but how we divide responsibility in the making of a performance.
I hope this performance that tries to show the complexity of apprehending the other, does not portrait Cherish as a victim, and also not as an empowerment to her, but opens a discussion about this complexity and how we collectively embrace these narratives. It’s to collect and to react to collective narratives and not to morally comment on them, even though it’s impossible to do so
But, I think even this question is somehow problematic because it implies right away that one could always perpetuate a situation of power and one is always seen as a victim.
When talking about representation and politics of the body: is there a difference in the way white and black bodies are represented on the stage? And is it changing, in this political climate?
I think, but this a very personal opinion, that representation hasn’t changed. First of all, the contemporary dance field, that is a very European and white-knowledged, it the terms of maker but also in the terms of its audience. For example, in other dance fields there is a different representation. I think that our approach is still very exotic to the “non-normative body” and this goes beyond the race question. The awareness of a disbalance of representation has improved but for me its these bodies are still considered “outside” the norm. We are still far from a normality where the questions that you ask in this interview do not have to be asked. We are still not ready to talk about something else than the questions we assigned them. Which is for me the question of identity. This is for me still a strong relationship of power.
At the same time, you have to start somewhere…. But, indeed, we won’t overcome the problems by speaking about it like it’s a binary opposition.
Yes, it shows how complex this problem is. How on the one hand, you have to embrace the urgency, and on the other hand, how to embrace the complexity and think outside of the box.
The performance of Benjamin Kahn, “Sorry, But I Feel Slightly Disidentified…” can be seen at Staddschouwburg Utrecht, October 28th at 19:00 and 21:00. Tickets can be bought here.