Tramway Digs Dance

Louise Ahl of Ultimate Dancer and Laurynas Žakevicius of Low Air Urban Dance Theatre talk about their dance styles and their upcoming performances at DIG, Tramway's six week celebration of dance.

Feature by Emma Ainley-Walker | 05 May 2015

The Tramway theatre opened its doors on 24 Apr to Dance International Glasgow, a six-week festival celebrating dance across the city, mixing together exciting Scottish and worldwide dance companies. Scottish-based Ultimate Dancer and Crew, and Lithuanian company Low Air Urban Dance Theatre present their two works as a double bill, evolving from very different dance styles and backgrounds, showcasing both the festival’s diversity and its spirit: bringing dance of all styles and origins, and presenting them side-by-side. 

Sitting down in a break from rehearsing at The Beacon Arts centre, Louise Ahl, aka Ultimate Dancer, talks of the “generous spirit” she found in artists and audiences in Glasgow that led her to base herself and her work here. “It was amazing how much people gave. I felt it was a really great place to develop as an artist. I studied in Dartington in England – that course doesn’t exist any more, and nobody would stay around to make work there, so I really missed the sense of community. I felt that when I came to Glasgow.” Supported by The Work Room and beginning with Holy Smoke to work as an associate artist at Tramway, it’s clear to see how that community has supported Ahl.

Low Air, meanwhile, is a company (in their own words) “born out of two very different and together very similar individuals." This pairing, the now-married couple Laurynas Low and Airida Air, will be making their first visit to Glasgow, but that aforementioned community spirit is one that will lend itself to their show Home Trip. Emailing The Skinny ahead of their trip, choreographer Laurynas Žakevičius explains, “We are thinking about what the ‘home trip’ would be for Glasgow audiences, and we believe that each of us has felt a gap or distance that separates two human beings; the alienation due to expansion of a social media is huge.” He hopes to provoke audiences to stop and think: "Shall we turn back to our families and give a real hug, instead of a ‘poke' or a 'like’?”

At the beginning, Home Trip evolved from the idea of being away from home, but as Žakevičius continues: “When we started analysing this topic in a more precise way, we came up with the idea of a trip inside ourselves.” It also prompted them to ask the question, “What is home for us?” The piece looks at the gaps between generations and the relationships between parents and children, becoming a very personal work. As he tells us, it became almost a form of therapy in which he could explore his own family distances. “After the premiere," he says, "my father came to me and said, ‘I got you.’” This illustrates the personal nature of the piece and the emotions it elicits. 

"Shall we turn back to our families and give a real hug, instead of a ‘poke' or a 'like'?” - Laurynas ŽakeviCius

According to her website, Ahl’s work similarly explores "big existential questions." She talks about the “exploration of time and space” as a basic structure to choreography. “For me there’s lots of ways you can explore space, and the body in space, thinking about us as human beings in the universe. Already that is quite a big existential thing and then you come to questions like ‘Why are we here’ and ‘What do I want?’” For Ahl, dance and choreography can deal with the abstraction of these questions, opening up the exploration.

Through their performance, both companies bring in other areas of art and styles of working. It is Ahl's first time making work for a group, not just as a solo performance. “Everybody in the piece is performing everything so everybody is on stage all the time and everybody is dancing, playing instruments of different kinds and operating light and sound. Everything is based on the stage so we all have this shared responsibility of making everything happen.” It echoes the community spirit she talked of earlier, and shows how dance as an art form can open out into other areas. For Žakevičius, combining dance, music and drama in Low Air’s work “clashes together” and “forces the audience to think outside of the box.” 

Although the themes of the pieces may meander in and out of similar zones, the dance styles are very different. When Low Air established in 2012 they were the first urban dance company in Lithuania, and they believe that urban dance forms being recognised in a professional area for their “creative and powerful choreographic language” is incredibly important. “From the very beginning, our goal was to educate audiences and let them experience hip hop, to show it [being] as professional as possible, not only as a thing for teenagers in the streets,” says Žakevičius. And it is important work, changing perceptions and opening up the world of dance to new styles, and to younger audiences and performers. Home Trip received the Golden Stage Cross award for choreography, and of this recognition, Žakevičius says, “Every recognition brings extra pressure and responsibility. On the other hand it gets easier to continue our creative progress.” And it aids their practice, bringing the dance style into education through the Low Air dance school with a professional, acclaimed gravitas behind their company.

Ahl, by contrast, is working with a crew primarily made up of non-dancers, apart from dancer Rachel Gammon who works with the Figs In Wigs performance company. Divina Kniest, who joins us on the sofa for this interview, met Ahl during a Creative Scotland-funded Shamanic workshop in Austria last October. She studied theatre pedagogy, while Fritz Welch and Jer Reid are both musicians so "they’re not really dancers in a conventional sense." Ahl tells us, "Those are the kinds of bodies I’m interested in seeing rather than technically skilled dancers.” It could of course be said that through this exploration of other bodies, she too is opening up dance to new audiences and new performers. And Ahl also explores education in her practice, through a masters programme she began for herself as an arts project two years ago. “I call it the Non-Institute for Choreographic Enlightenment (NICE),” she tells us. This institute explores "choreospirituality," the last module of which is the performance of Holy Smoke. "I’ve been developing different fake healing practices as part of NICE, and Holy Smoke is a continuation and explosion of all these things, building on different types of healing processes." Taking up a master's under her own steam, Ahl explores the ideas of when you stop educating yourself. "I’m a bit careful about talking about it as education," she says, but asks, "Isn’t making work as an artist a self-education?" – ending the interview on another existential question.

Dance International Glasgow, Tramway, various days until 5th June. Home Trip/Holy Smoke, Tramway, 15-16th May, 6:30pm, £11/£8