Elena Sgarbi and Tim Volleman are professional contemporary dance artists touring nationally and internationally with NDC Wales. We met with the couple on a sunny Saturday afternoon to learn more about their dance practice, their existential and professional partnership, and Tim’s interest in filmmaking and technology.
For people who don’t know you, who are Tim and Elena? What are your stories?
Tim: I was born in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. I am a dancer and many other things, although it’s hard to clearly define what I do. I’m an eclectic: I love a bit of everything and very different things. I love movement and bodies, the feeling of flesh and muscles and all that they can do. I am also a technology geek: I know how computers look and work from the inside and the outside. I am very closely involved in the dance sector from a big perspective: I used to be in the board of the Dutch dancers union, amongst contract negotiations, pension plans and re-education programs. I have a lot of secret (and less secret) lives and my story revolves around finding connections between these apparently distant interests.
Elena: We are friends, colleagues and partners in crime. Tim is my best friend, we work together, we live together, we spend practically 24h a day together and when we don’t, it feels a bit like I forgot something important at home. At the same time we are very independent: normally it takes people a while to realise that we are together if they don’t know us. We have different interests and often different views on things. That’s probably how we keep sane!
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
Elena: Some of my favourite childhood memories are playing with my brother. We used to have an invented language we spoke to each other. We would use this jabber talk and then whisper in each other’s ear what we actually had meant to say. Some may call it cheating… haha! But it worked for us.
Tim: I remember I used to climb my room’s wardrobe all the way to the top. I loved thinking that I was setting off for a big adventure. It used to be my quiet space, where I liked to think about new inventions to enjoy a better life... haha! Once I made a sort of treadmill that would allow me to deliver objects at a distance and it was working on sun energy!
What about your first memories of dance?
Tim: As a child, I used to see my mom dancing: she is a dance teacher and back then she used to join classes herself to keep in training. On days we didn’t have a nanny I would join her to the venue and wait outside. I remember a huge glass door from where I looked at the dancers inside. Turning and jumping were my favourite bits. I would memorise moves and replicate later by myself.
Elena: I decided I wanted to start dance classes when my parents brought me to see CATS the musical, when I was around 6. I was so overwhelmed that for weeks after the show, that was the only thing I had in my mind. I received the soundtrack CD for my birthday and for days in a row I would dance my way into Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’s life.
How did you two meet?
Elena: We met in Rotterdam, where we both studied at Codarts Dance Academy. We were in the same class and from the first moment, Tim decided he was going to be my friend, so slowly he carved his way into my life and waited for more than two years until I realised that I didn’t want to live without him.
Tim: We met in a dance class for the first time. We were new in Codarts, it was our first improvisation class. I saw Elena, I didn’t even know her name yet but I thought “she’s a pretty girl!”, and I remember thinking “forget about it” so I wasn’t even nervous. After a while I noticed a body joined me to dance and as I turned I saw Elena! That was a bit of a shock!! I never thought she would choose me to dance with... After that moment it took me two yes to get her.
Tell us a bit about your existential and professional partnership. How do you influence each other and how would you define the threads that connect your personalities?
Tim: We are definitely different, different approaches and different points of view. We always use this to test each other’s ideas and ways of working. I love the discussions we have. We really make sure every perspective is covered.
Elena: Dance has always been a glue between us: we grew together on stage as much as behind the wings. After graduation we always had alternating periods when we’d work together or separate, so we both developed our own individuality but always searched for the other’s opinion and confrontation. We are both quite stubborn and we enjoy being challenged. We spend hours discussing certain subjects and I think we sort of became each other’s biggest challenge.
What is your definition of dance and what makes it an art form?
Tim: I struggled for a long time with this question: almost 20 years! I come from a family of athletes: my sister is in the olympic team for gymnastics, my brother competes in judo at European level, in general all my family have always been involved in sports. As a young dancer I couldn’t understand why dance would be considered art: as a dancer you train like an athlete, you aim for being the best, and so on. Later in my career I understood. Through dance you can say things that with sports you don’t. You can let people feel, confront them, even let them reflect about things of the world they live in. Ultimately you can offer your audience the option to choose: they can continue seeing things the way they saw them before or see a different perspective on things. Sport can be very emotional and surely can touch you in very deep places, but the objective is different: a dancer might aim to be the best but Dance will never aim at that.
Elena: I always loved dance because it allows a story to be told without the need of words, it’s an international language. As a child my dream was to be able to speak many languages and well, I think it did come true! Even in non-narrative pieces, the audience will perceive ideas, emotions or the performers’ state of being. I think art’s main goal is communication, whatever it is and to whomever it is, and I see dance as a very powerful means of communication.
Can you describe your movement styles in five words?
Elena: Expressive, powerful, sharp, elegant, controlled.
Tim: Flowy. Precise. Flexible. Articulated. Goey.
Tim, your latest production, Panopticon, explores the themes of online privacy and personal exposure. What inspired you to create this dance performance?
I love technology and I’m very interested in it too. For more than ten years I’ve been helping out companies with their social media strategy and exposure. To keep myself up to date I have to do my research and over the years it shocked me to realise how much online companies could so easily know about the individuals behind a digital profile: with not much effort people can be targeted based on their income, education, health, sexual preferences... all of this is a goldmine for advertising companies and companies who use profiles as a business model. It shocked me even more to realise that people are so unaware of this! I started digging into it. And the more I found out the more restless I got, so I decided to explore this on the stage too.
You also explore dance and movement through the medium of film. What is your creative strategy for bringing together dance and film, and what are the difficulties of expressing the feeling of movement through the lens?
Film is a medium that has always tried to be as real as possible. Look at the recent developments: image quality improved, our own screens became better, higher resolution. We now speak of retina displays that are comparable with what the human eye can see, we see 3D experiences to simulate reality in almost every cinema, and today even virtual and augmented reality. All of this to make the recordings as realistic as possible. I think that all these special effects also exist when we perform as dancers for an audience. I will always remember the time when a young member of the audience told me how amazing the performance was because it was “like watching a 3D movie, but than better!” (At least technology still has some way to go...) On the other hand, a camera can be at places where an audience can’t. Show things you could never see otherwise. And most important, in video time doesn’t exist the way we know it. On film years can pass, when the film only might take 20 min of your own time. I am looking for ways that the camera can enhance the experience of a dance observer, how to combine clips from different angles, different speeds, different rhythms in order to create movement through the editing. Can video really offer some kind of precision and articulation as the human eye does?
In what ways do you think filmmaking can help widening the imagery and the freedom of dancers and choreographers?
To start, everyone has a camera in their pocket nowadays. It’s a great tool that is now accessible to the masses. You just take out your phone and shoot! Possibilities are endless. Very easily you could even make a multiple camera movie. And I’m not talking about a couple of cameras but dozens of cameras! Video gives us the opportunity to preserve dance, to play with it and edit something which is by nature volatile, that happens and then vanishes. Something which is just a moment can be transformed into millions of different possibilities that can be enjoyed time after time.
What metaphor would best describe how you feel when you dance?
Elena: I love metaphors. I’m a very visual person, so I constantly associate movement to visual imagery, recognisable situations or commonplaces. They are tools, but they allow me to always see the routines with new eyes, rather than repeating something very abstract.
Tim: Dancing to me feels a bit like being in a time machine: sometimes when I perform time seems to be going by extremely fast. My favourite experience though is when time almost stops! Reduced to such a slow speed that’s almost magic.
What would your advice be for someone wishing to pursue a career in dance?
Elena: To keep open to all kinds of opportunities. Often we start our career with a specific vision about what we want to aspire to. It’s a small, difficult world where only a few people seem to really be successful. Along the way you’ll develop different interests, things you might not even consider yourself ever being involved with, but more often than not, those will be the most significant experiences. I think pursuing what comes your way, openly and wholeheartedly, truly determines personal success.
Tim: Don’t do it. Did I provoke you? Do you have this feeling in your gut that you don’t agree with what I just said? Do you honestly refuse my heartfelt advice? Then, but only then, by all means, go for it. Like the advice Simone Kleinsma gave me when I was young. Many people will tell you things. It’s up to you to only listen to those who do it with the right intentions.
How does the city of Cardiff influence you creatively and how would you describe its art scene?
Elena: I don’t live in Cardiff to the fullest. Work at the moment brings us very often out of town and when we have a few days off we try and go to families and friends in Italy or the Netherlands. I find Cardiff a very fast growing city though: I can feel the excitement of new things coming every week. Something I miss is hearing more Welsh in the capital: I love the language, it’s completely fascinating.
Tim: I’m relatively new here: I’ve been living in Cardiff for one and a half years now. I work full time at NDC Wales touring nationally and internationally and very often I also travel back to The Netherlands to visit family and friends. It gets hard the get to know the art scene in Cardiff. But people I meet around are inspiring and full of interesting facts. I love to talk to people about worldly affairs, politics and points of view. It makes my brain sparkle!
Who are some of the inspirational characters in your field that you follow and what do you admire about their approach?
Tim: I admire artists who use their art to give people something to think about. A different perspective on the world, society, life. I think that’s very important especially in the times we live in. A lot of things are taken for granted and I’m afraid if we don’t nurture and protect those things, they will disappear. It takes a lot of courage to speak up and stand for what you believe in.
Elena: I admire people who have the most different interests, those people that you think “they do so many different things, how can they truly be good at anything?” I think keeping your mind busy with different worlds helps you to take distance and put everything in perspective. It might be a character trait of mine: I’m an everything or nothing kind of person, a diver. Having inspirations from different directions really helps me at finding perspective.
If your life would be a dance performance, what would you name it and why?
Elena: Happy with coffee. As a good Italian, I started drinking espresso at an early age and now, each and every single day as soon as I wake up, coffee is a certainty. I need at least one coffee, whatever the form. I admit it doesn’t even really need to be good coffee: it can just be caffeine, haha!
Tim: “Why?” I have always been one of those “why-kids”, I always looked for reasons and consequences. Still now, that’s one of my favourite questions, although I know the “why” question is one of the most unsettling ones, as very often there’s not really a unique answer to it. Speaking to people, especially when I have the chance to talk to an audience, I would always try to formulate the questions with How or What, in order to avoid asking Why. But truly, that’s what I’m looking for.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Tim: 1. What career will I pursue when I won’t be dancing anymore? 2. What is the value of dance as an art form? (It looks like a question I should be able to answer, but telling someone that has no affinity with dance whatsoever, in three sentences, what is the value of dance as an art form, is something I would like to be able to do.) 3. How can we collectively, every human on Earth, stop climate change without giving in too much comfort?
Elena: 1. Do we choose in life or does life choose for us? 2. Does the Earth live in a repeating existence? 3. If I had a superpower what would that be?
What is inspiring you right now, and how do you emulate it through your current work?
Elena: I have never thought that I would enjoy teaching. Growing older in a profession which is relatively short though made me realise that before ending my dancing career and maybe stepping into something completely different, I would like to give back to the field whatever I could. Right now, next to the work on stage, I have some coaching responsibilities regarding participation and education in dance and I really enjoy being able to communicate to a totally different kind of audience.
Tim: At the moment I’m interested in communication and connection. How to connect different aspects of my life, how to speak with my body to an audience, how to communicate with a computer or how to transmit an idea to someone else. These are all languages, different ways to communicate and make connections. I’m intrigued by what the “grammar rules” are for all these languages, in order to learn how to speak them.
What about the future? How do you see yourselves evolving as dance artists?
Tim: In the future I would like to explore dance in a digital environment. How does dance fit into technology and how does technology fit into dance?
Elena: I think once I will leave this beautiful journey of performance, I might want to step into something completely different. I think that an artist will always be an artist, though. Whether on stage, on canvas, or working in a chemistry lab, the mind of an artist will always find connections and look to join some apparently very distant aspects of life. I very much look forward to that.