Im Rampenlicht

Interview with Nir de Volff

© GICF / Katja Harbi
© GICF / Katja Harbi

Born and raised in Petah Tikva, Nir de Volff first entered the world of dance through Folk Dance. He was spotted for his talent and energy and was accepted to one of Israel’s most prestigious dance schools. After being chosen for a production of Pina Bausch’s Dance Company at the Tel Aviv Opera House, Nir set out to explore the world of European dance-theater. His path led him to Berlin where he has been living and working for the past 15 years. In 2007, Nir founded his own company, TOTAL BRUTAL. His latest production, “Come As You Are” opened to critical acclaim at Dock11 in Berlin. Besides creating and producing his shows, Nir has established himself as an internationally sought-after teacher.

He teaches his movement method Use/Abuse to curious students all over the world – from dancers in New York City to kick boxers in Warsaw, lawyers and opera singers in Frankfurt, visual artists in Rotterdam, and lady boysin Tokyo.

K: When did your path into the world of dance begin?

NdV: It sounds early to me today, but actually I started pretty late for dancing. I was about the age of 15-16, and it was an on-off relationship at first. I started to dance and thought this discipline is nuts, and I don’t know if this is what I want to do. Until I understood – actually yes, this is it. I got into the best school back then, Bat-Dor, moved to Tel Aviv, and danced every day. When it was time to go to the army, I was chosen as one of three
male dancers as “Excellent Dancer of the Year”, and the army allowed me to keep dancing. It was an amazing luxury – otherwise, maybe we wouldn’t even be sitting here today.

K: How would you compare dance training in Israel to training in Germany?

NdV: It depends on the interpretation of the teacher, but I think the classic basic training is the same everywhere. I had great teachers and very good colleagues, so the level was very high. And, of course, there is the Israeli energy. Everybody is very energetic and eager to be the best. In that sense, there is something special in Tel Aviv: People are very ambitious, and they use their energies to achieve ambitions. I have the feeling that dance schools in Germany are still quite conservative, and there is a lack of diverse training schools. There are a lot of different ones, of course, but they mostly define themselves as either more classical or more conceptual, as is the case in Berlin. I think there is much more space for creativity in German schools.

K: What made you decide to step out of the Israeli dance scene and explore other places?

NdV: One of the most significant moments in my life was when Pina Bausch came to Israel to perform at the Opera House, and they were looking for dancers. I had nothing to lose, went to the audition, and was one of the dancers she chose. I was performing at a very young age at the Opera House with the company of Pina Bausch for about two weeks. This totally changed my view on art and made it very clear to me what my idea as an artist was: I don’t just want to dance beautiful, abstract movements, but I want to say something. The experience of being part of this company changed my whole life. There is something in German dance-theater that is part of my DNA; it is a built-in part that I needed to discover. So, after two or three years, I decided to leave Israel and give this new experience much more space in my artistic life. I took a bag and 5.000 D-Marks in traveler’s cheques. It was supposed to be a journey, which has now lasted for 18 years, starting in Wuppertal, then Brussels, then Amsterdam. I fell in love with Amsterdam immediately and stayed for three years. And it was clear to me that Berlin was the next step. You could feel that something was happening, and I wanted to be part of it. That was in the end of 2003.

K: You came here as an Artist in Residence at Dock11 – how did you learn about this

NdV: Wherever I go, I do research: What can this place offer, and what can I offer to this place? Which place could actually welcome me, and to which place can I give what I know? Dock11 was all gray; it looked really apocalyptic. But all of a sudden you entered a studio – a beautiful studio with white floors and blue shiny chairs, in really good taste, in a language that I immediately liked visually. I contacted them and sent them a videocassette – back then it was still a videocassette. They fell in love with my work, and I found a new home – very easy, very fast. It was a good match from the beginning, and we’ve been together for 15 years. My most successful show in recent years, “Come As You Are”, is running there as well.

What does it mean to be an artist in residence?

NdV: It means that you have people who trust you for the long run. It means that you have a soft space to make mistakes, to develop your language, and present ugly things as part of the process. The managing directors, Wibke Janssen und Kirsten Seeligmüller, are working with the philosophy that in art there is no wrong or right, but there is the try that is important. That’s what made it a residency, and not just a production house.

K: Can you tell us a little bit about your own movement method, Use/Abuse?

NdV: Use/Abuse is a method that fits anybody who wants to move because it is based on our breathing. And since we are all breathing, my assumption is that we can all move. It was not developed from dance; it actually came from observing a lot of different people – singers, actors, acrobats. I came to the conclusion that this is what connects us all. You just need to be motivated or have the curiosity to discover something about your body and yourself. Each body can do different things; each body has different breathing qualities. I am actually asking a very simple question: How do you breathe? How can you develop different rhythms with your breath? And with these rhythms, you already dance. Without being aware of it, something is opening up in a positive way. It creates happy people all over the world.

K: How do you develop a new project?

NdV: I work with things that happen in my life or around us, social or political topics that are important in the moment, but also timeless. For example, I have worked on the theme of “neighbors”, on “picnics, weddings and funerals”, on how we socially behave on the beach and what our relation to water is. In Bangkok, I did a whole show on the phenomenon of Big Brother, which I find fascinating. How do you take the most extreme personalities, put them in one room, and leave them there for 60 or 90 days, just in order to sell a program? I usually choose a universal subject that has a very clear connection to the times we are living in. Before talking to anybody else, I ask myself what it is I want to say about the subject. What is the role of the body with regards to this social or political phenomenon? How does it influence or change our body, influence our energy, our aggression or our satisfaction? Then I define the idea and ask the people I work with, how each of them can create a relationship to my ideas. It is a long, nice, funny, sad, intimate, personal, and individual process.

K: Your latest project, “Come As You Are”, has enjoyed great success. You work with three Syrian dancers who came here as refugees. How did you develop the idea?

NdV: “Come As You Are” is indeed a very special and different project from other projects I do – because the impossible found the possible. As we all know, Syria and Israel are horrible enemies, but they were living quietly for almost thirty years. However, still as enemies who have zero connections. With what is happening in Syria, all of a sudden, I see my neighbors, my so-called enemies, next to me, standing on the subway, buying in the same supermarket as me, eating the same ice-cream I eat. For me it was like a new light in my life – I could meet my neighbors. I could talk to them, we could laugh together, have serious conversations, learn each other. We all read about the horrible stories of surviving, how they arrive in Europe. We read about horrors that have been going on inside of Syria, inside of families, murders, loss. And then I thought: Yes, but what has happened to them here, what is really going on inside their mind and with their bodies? So the piece is not only about my artistic language: In “Come As You Are”, I wanted to give them the space to show who they are as artists, what struggles they are dealing with, physically and mentally. And I wanted to show their hopes, their disappointments, their fears. It was immediately a huge success because people were thirsty to know more about Syrian artists, dancers, male dancers, and not just about everything we can already read in the press.

K: You met your neighbors for the first time in a different place – how was it like?

NdV: I have friends and worked with artists from Jordan, from Egypt, Arab Israelis. My goal is to work with artists from most of the Arab countries I cannot enter as an Israeli. It is a life mission. What I found surprising and refreshing is that the Syrians I met and I, we share the same belief in the strength of hope, in being optimistic. We come from very complex places where death is a usual thing that can happen anytime. Then I discovered that we like the same food, the same flavors. And we can understand each other’s humor easily. I also discovered that they are late all the time and that they are very emotional, warm and welcoming people. This is very generalized, of course. Each person is part of a
puzzle of their culture. But if I can generalize the experience, this would be it.

K: What are your upcoming plans?

NdV: I work internationally a lot and will keep on developing projects here in Berlin, when I get the possibility. But I am more and more going out to other cities in Germany and other places. For example, the USA is whole new platform for me, and I would love to bring my knowledge and experience, my humor and energy, my questions and thoughts into this gigantic jungle. There are some starting points in New Mexico and New York, and I would love to present “Come As You Are” in Jewish theaters and culture centers across the US. As for the upcoming year, I am planning projects in Macau, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Nagano in Japan and, of course, in Berlin. And, as I said, the fire for New York is burning in me!

Thank you for your time and for the interview!

If you would like to follow Nir and stay up-to-date on his projects, you can find him here:

Interview by Katja Harbi

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