Barbie dolls, Rage Against the Machine and ketchup: Q&A with Jan Martens

Jan Martens is one of Europe’s most exciting choreographers known for his exploration of contemporary social dynamics through perceptive humour and by poking a mischievous finger at controversy.  His recent works Sweat Baby Sweat (2011), Victor (2013),The dog days are over (2014) and The Common People (2016) have been received with international critical acclaim.  He closed undisciplined one if his earlier works, Ode to the Attempt (a solo for meself).

We asked Jan to take five and share his thoughts (and some of his incredible energy).

Q: How did you become interested in choreography?
A: By seeing works by two Belgians. As Long as the World Needs a Warrior’s Soul by Fabre when I was 16 which completely blew me over; it was crazy, hardcore, sexy, graphic, loud, and without shame. It was the first work of contemporary performing arts I’d ever seen and I was completely won over. There was ketchup, chocolate, Barbie dolls, naked people, a shower on stage, Rage Against the Machine...
So in my research around performing arts, I figured out that contemporary dance was a thing and that it meant you could earn money by dancing. Which really provoked a short-circuit in my brain, it seemed so absurd.  And in my research I bumped into a video of FASE by ROSAS. Violin phase it was. W A A A U W. There was like no clear dramatic input by the performers, it was pure form and mathematics but it had such a huge emotional impact. That was really a new experience. So it was really started by FASE. Thank you Anne-Teresa!

Q: What excites you about the art-form at this current time?
A: Well there’s so much talking and information spreading going on. We meet less and less in real life, and more and more on the web. I’m even typing down these answers on your questions not knowing how you look like or how your voice sounds. So I think dance is really raising possibilities to come together and to witness and experience physical contact and intimacy. I think as a society we don’t understand the full consequences of digitisation. Don’t get me wrong, sitting in a cave and eating raw meat and making drawings on the rocks is not where I wanna go back to, but allowing time for togetherness and making contact with each other is something which I wish to happen more. And I think DANCE is the ideal art form to make that happen.

Q: In Ode to the Attempt you reveal your character and history in a series of snapshots around your motivations. That seems a huge territory to cover. Was the work epic to develop or was it sparked by an epiphany in reductionism?
A: No it wasn’t epic at all! Before the creation of this work I had been making a lot of portraits: of people, of relationships, of communities. And then there was this idea about making a portrait of an artist, and fuel it with my own biographic elements. So it became an auto portrait which I think became a portrait of my generation. It sounds big indeed, but actually I was just questioning myself how could I bare myself in half an hour? How could an audience get to know me better, even understand me, while at the same time talking about a creative process, making it more graspable what we as artists do, what we question, how we work. Like all the other works, it is an attempt to make the gap between audience and artist smaller. We are all born with a vagina or a dick or sometimes we have it both. But actually we are all the same. 

Q: Do you think it’s possible to be truly honest about ourselves or do we instinctively apply filters?
A: That’s a big one. I think we do apply filters, but maybe applying filters is typically human and so very honest. It’s like a kind of survival instinct maybe. 
Maybe let’s look closer at a clear example: when I go to the gym and it’s full of these guys whose pecs are bigger than my head, then I start to walk a bit wider and make sure my gayness is not showing off. Cause I’m afraid they will yell FAGGOT at me under the shower or drown me in the toilet. 
But in the end I don’t think it really matters if we put filters or not. I think being aware of when u are putting them is the most important.
I think this was quite a truly honest answer.

Q: Who is your greatest hero?
A: Oh my god. Am I going to write: my mom? Yes. My greatest hero is my mom. 
My mom and Virginia Woolf.  

Q: Here’s a random one.  Mars tourism; yes or no? 
A: That’s a definitely no. It’s now already very hard to turn down my ecologic footprint and I’m pretty happy with the earth: it has cities, oceans, woods, people and the UK. It’s pretty the UK. Really pretty.

© Phile Deprez
Barbie dolls, Rage Against the Machine and ketchup: Q&A with Jan Martens