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Joy Alpuerto Ritter & Lukas Steltner

The celebrated Berlin-based dancer and choreographer Joy Alpuerto Ritter has been selected for the annual two-month choreography residency of the Goethe-Institut Montreal and the Circuit-Est choreography center, which starts in September this year.

By Philip Szporer

Especially given my diverse educational background in ballet, contemporary dance and urban dance, it is exciting to find my own individual language that defines my style.

Joy Alpuerto Knight

During the residency, Joy Alpuerto Ritter will work with actor and breakdancer Lukas Steltner on a new duet entitled Wiederkehr, which deals with the topic of war and its cross-generational consequences. Philip Szporer spoke to the two artists about the upcoming residency via email.

Joy, you were born in Los Angeles but lived most of your life in Europe. What are the biggest differences that you have noticed between the North American and the European (especially German) culture?

I was born in LA and moved to Germany with my mother when I was 5 years old. I'm in Freiburg im Breisgau Joy Alpuerto Ritter & Lukas Steltner | © David Azurzo grew up and lived in Germany for 31 years. I worked here mostly as a freelancer (with choreographers like Christoph Winkler, Anja Kozik, Heike Hennig and Constanza Macras) and noticed that Germany has many institutions that support the dance scene. The government finances most of the country's theatrical productions. So I was able to survive just because of these freelance dance projects. I doubt that this is possible in the US because I know a lot of dancers there who need a second “normal” job to be able to pay their bills.

I have a feeling that the US commercial scene is much more dominant than theatrical arts and that most people are much more focused on the entertainment arts. The US has had a worldwide influence with its underground urban dance scene, such as voguing, hip hop and breaking. This dance culture also had a great influence on me. In everyday life I have experienced that North Americans are much more communicative, they have more small talk and politeness is a high priority in their daily interactions. In comparison, Germans sometimes come across as impolite and very direct. It's hard to say which country I prefer, but I know that the only reason I was able to become the dancer and artist that I am today is because I decided in 2004 to stay in Europe and not go back to Europe with my mother USA to go. I think it was the right decision, but for that I had to do without my family. Later I was able to use the Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour from Cirque du Soleilgoing on a worldwide arena tour (US, Canada and Europe) for two years and I loved it; it felt right at the time.

You are a well-known dancer, but what is special about choreography?

I like developing my own voice and movement aesthetics as well as sharing my own perspective and point of view. Especially with my mixed educational background of ballet, contemporary dance and urban dance, it is exciting to find my own individual language that defines my style. (Since 2005 she has been passionately using different styles, such as hip hop, breakdancing and voguing.) What appeals to me about choreography is that you can touch the audience. You can stimulate them to enjoy, think, feel and intensely feel with a performance. It's a scary, but equally great challenge to suddenly have more responsibility and control as a choreographer.

Is that what best describes you today?

I am a dancer and a choreographer. For me these are two completely different things. The biggest challenge is to be good at both. As a dancer, I've experienced failure, success, confusion, loss, pain, and love in many forms along the way. I think you never stop learning, but I can say that I have a lot of experience as a dancer. It helps me become a choreographer, but it's still a completely different role and challenge that I've always wanted to try my hand at. I am still in the process of strengthening my voice as a choreographer and I hope that people can hear me and understand my language.

Lukas, please introduce yourself briefly.

I am 31 years old and live in Berlin. I have dance experience in B-Boying and breakdance. I also love to explore different movement concepts, for example from contemporary dance, new style, hip hop and popping. Besides that, I'm an actor. In my job I wanted to do something where I can combine both art forms on stage. I am now at a point in my career where I really want to create my own work and, above all, try out the possibilities of B-Boying in the dance theater context. I would also like to find a way to bring movement and language together.
  • © David Azurzo
  • © David Azurzo
  • © David Azurzo

There are many ways to tell a story

Joy, you have worked with several choreographers in the past few years and you said that their approach to “scenes and movements” inspired you. Could you elaborate on how you have adopted or adapted some of these approaches?

Improvisation is a great and useful tool for creating movements and scenes. But it has to be used like a technique. Some of my mentors have helped me improve my sense of improvisation and find the freedom and responsibility to carry a scene on my own just through these exercises. With this experience I became very self-confident and playful in improvisation. There are so many ways to approach embodying an emotional state for a scene. For example, one can begin to sense the feeling of the specific emotion and let the body react naturally to it. Then you develop a repertoire of technical movements that can represent that emotion. And in the end, the movement vocabulary tells a different story than the emotional feeling, which creates a completely new tension. When working with movement concepts, one is limited and forced to find a certain quality to express a certain state.

The music in a scene affects the movements and emotions. I like to work with background noise to give the body and mind room for interpretation. Rhythm patterns and good beats with a strong bass give me the weight and musicality to move to. Classical music can also be a good choice, especially for this piece, because it has so many layers of emotion, complexity, and story. There are many ways to tell a story, for example in an abstract or literal way. It is up to the choreographer how he / she wants to tell a story. I take these approaches and then figure out which ones are best for a particular scene or project.

I read with pleasure your application for the residence. Can you both share the impact that war circumstances had on your families?They both relate to experiences in World War II, which was a long time ago. Did your family's experiences have a big influence on how you were raised or how you were raised?

Joy Alpuerto Ritter & Lukas Steltner | © David AzurzoLukas: There is an interesting book called “The forgotten generation“By Sabine Bode. It is about war trauma in childhood, which can have consequences over several generations.

My family had to flee when the Red Army conquered the Prussian territories. The experiences of those chaotic months shaped my grandparents. And I am sure that my mother also “inherited” some behaviors that arose from this experience. When the so-called refugee crisis started and right-wing propaganda began to circulate in 2015, my grandmother said something like, “You should stop blaming these poor people. We were all refugees at one point or another. "

Joy: My maternal grandparents moved from the Philippines to the United States with six children to give their families a better life. You never looked back. I didn't really see the effects of their war experiences growing up. I also grew up mostly in Germany with my mother and my German stepfather. Later, when I was in the Philippines for the first time, I learned a lot more about my family history from WWII. My paternal grandfather was separated from his mother and has looked for her for half his life. When his wife and children wanted to immigrate to the USA, he could not leave without having found his mother and therefore stayed. This had a huge impact on my own father. In my case, the issue of separation is the single most important aspect of my family history that I want to find out about and ask about. The desire for a better life has made previous generations strong and their belief that it can go on and on and that one has to stay positive is a typical trait that they have passed on to the next generation.

It is obvious that the two of you are drawn to these captivating personal memories of family history. Tell me, why do you want to explore this facet of your past?

Joy: We know that our grandparents won't be able to share their stories for much longer. Therefore, before it's too late, we want to find out as much as possible about our family history, understand their actions, and value their stories. Especially because they went through such different phases of life that we cannot even imagine.

Lukas: When my grandmother got sick, in the last few years before she passed away in 2018, she started to retrace her story and that of my grandfather. Of course, she did her research in the best way she knew - based on memories and old photos, she made a family tree that goes as far back as she could get information. I think she wanted to make sure that as her grandchildren we don't forget where we come from. Maybe she wanted to help understand the past and how it shapes people. I think the Second World War is still a formative event for German families, even though it was so far back that most of them don't want to hear about it anymore. One thing that really made me want to explore our homecoming theme further was a story my grandmother told us. When she was a child, around six or seven years old, her father came back from Siberia after years of imprisonment. All she could remember by then was growing up without a father. When he entered her house through the door, she and her sisters hid under a table because they were afraid of the strange man in their house. It's hard to imagine how her mother felt when her husband came home after such a long time and she didn't even know if he was still alive.

War and separation are universal issues

Their stories are so culturally diverse, yet the themes of war and separation are universal. How do you intend to present this narrative (wars, the families separate and reunite, escape, etc.) for the audience? How do you transform emotional states into performative material?

Lukas: When we were sitting with Joy's father and great-uncle in the Philippines, we talked about their family history and finally came to the second world war. For us, who are used to a German / European perspective, it was an aha moment. Even though we were at the end of the world, we talked about the same subject that shaped our families, and that's when we began to understand why it is called World War.

War and separation are universal issues. Ultimately, they affect people and their relationships with one another. We want to extract the substrate of the associated side effects and show their effects where they are most serious: in the lives of real people. Dance and language are both powerful expressive tools. We want to find out where words are needed and where we can embody emotions shaped by events such as separation, alienation, fear or distrust.

Disciplines merge, elements of the disciplines are mutually exchanged. Finding new artistic expressions requires exploring and experimenting, which means that you never know exactly what will come next. How do you both approach this collaboration?

On the one hand, this residence is a great opportunity for both of us to get to know each other better as artists and in our creative process. Our approach is based on communication. We collect ideas for scenes and images that we have in mind, talk about concepts of movement that we want to explore and about content that we want to show in the piece. All of this mainly happens before we move into the rehearsal phase. Then we go to the studio and try out these ideas. We are both very different dancers and we are aware of the strengths of our own dance styles and want to find communication between these two languages. Therefore we try to stay open and find a balance - between things that we have planned and considered beforehand and new ideas that arise during the improvisation and in the process. We trust each other's intuition.
It seems like an important aspect of the project is building empathy. Talk about this idea.

Well, empathy is important for mutual understanding and thus also for a functioning everyday life. We believe that theater, as a magnifying glass for relationships or emotions, can help change perspectives and create awareness. It can especially help to highlight universal values ​​or to shift contexts from the past to the present.

Another big topic of the project seems to be the identification. In other words, the question “who am I” seems to be of central importance. Please explain this perspective and how it may be related to the project.

We believe that people are shaped by their past. Even if you try to ignore your past, you are influenced by what happened to you or your ancestors. In connection with the project, it is an interesting perspective not only to present the story, but also to investigate how it has influenced our lives (Joy and Lukas).

Do you have any expectations for the residence?

We hope we have a great time in Montreal and want to thank you for giving us this great opportunity through the residence. We hope that we will get as close as possible to our goal of a full-length piece.

Joy, you've lived and worked in Montreal before. What is so attractive about this city for you? And what inspires you about Montreal's artistic scene?

I love the mix of European, French-speaking culture and the North American mentality. The people all seem very honest, friendly and peaceful. I have in Cirque du Soleilin Montreal (at the Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour) and had the opportunity to work on an outdoor performance with Milan Gervais, a Montreal-based choreographer. I also took part in an exchange project with Christoph Winkler and then came back with the Akram Khan Company and our touring show Until the Lions (for which she was nominated for Outstanding Female Dancer (Contemporary) at the UK National Dance Awards 2017).

That was the first time I was working from Crystal Pite and La La La Human Stepssaw and it blew me away. I've met artists from different backgrounds from the urban dance and contemporary dance scene and some have become good friends. I have great memories of the outdoor festivals on the streets of Montreal, exhibitions, nature and parties. I like the artists' open perspective and appreciate the fact that they take fusion urban dance, circus and contemporary dance to a new level.
Luke, apart from the residence, what is it about Montreal that attracts you?

For me it will be the second time in Montreal. I visited Joy for a weekend when she performed Until the Lions in Tohu. It was March and I saw more snow than ever before. So I'm very excited about the underground city. I'm looking forward to exploring more of the vibrant urban dance scene, it's really exciting for me.I also hope to learn something from the Montreal art scene.