Courage and Integrity: An Interview with Charlotta Öfverholm

“I make the audience feel something,” says Charlotta Öfverholm. “I think that is what I’m good at, actually.” Öfverholm is the Artistic Director of Compagnie Jus de la Vie, based in Stockholm, and the creator of viscerally impactful dance theater. She studied dance at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and theater at UCLA before embarking on an ocean-spanning career between Europe and New York. She has danced with DV 8 Physical Theatre, Bill T. Jones, and Complexions (among many other luminaries), and created solo and duet pieces, such as Pas de Deux Sans Toi, that are often described as “raw.” “Instead of cooking the carrots and putting butter on top, there are actually more nutrients if you eat it raw,” Öfverholm elaborates with characteristic humor. She will be premiering a new work with Peridance Contemporary Dance Company in New York this month as part of PCDC’s spring season. Click here for more info. The World Dances spoke with Öfverholm about her new piece, her creative process, artistic integrity, and more.

Can you please tell us about the piece that you’re doing with PCDC?

I’m excited to work with the really good dancers. I call it After Lazarus. I always work with a theme. It’s not only movements—there’s always a concept I try to keep from beginning to end. This one is about, somehow, that we are alone here on earth. Even if we have a lot of people around us who might help you and be your friend, they might also put the knife in your back. You never know, you must always be attentive, both about people around you and about forces of nature. It’s like, if you’re running on a lake that is cold and icy you don’t know: will you drop down or is it strong enough to hold you? How much do you dare to give yourself to someone else or to take care of someone else? Or are you afraid? At least you have yourself, but then you are alone.  I think it has to do with this existential question. I mean, it sounds like my pieces are very heavy, but I think there’s a lot of humor in it. We need to have humor and sarcasm and the ability to make fun of difficult things. It’s not to throw anything away or to devalue it; it’s to say that it’s ok and that we can still laugh. 

The first thought I had watching your work was that you are courageous. Where does that come from and what have been some of your influences?

I think it’s everything you go through in life, and in your dance life. If you don’t learn from it, it’s very easy to try to be like everyone else, to try to fit in. I still work on it everywhere, every day. But when you find your own voice it’s much easier to share it, and also to create and be yourself. It somehow makes life easier. In one way it makes life harder not to fit in, but it makes it easier when you want to share and create with other dancers. It’s a way of surviving, actually.

I went to school in New York. I went to Ailey first and continued to work with a lot of black dancers in the beginning. It was very inspiring and powerful. When I moved to Europe, it was more Pina Bausch and tanztheater. That melancholy and humor, it goes straight into your heart. You can joke about things that are very serious and then actually the message becomes very real and raw. So Pina Bausch was very important as an inspiration. Then I was dancing with DV 8, which is something I never thought would happen. Lloyd Newson is someone who takes such risks. Also Batsheva—these kinds of movements, the big and animalistic movements, I like a lot.

Do you identify with the dance vocabularies from the influences you mentioned, or work in new idioms?

I try to make things new. It’s me, my own body and what is natural to me. It’s what flows in my body that I try to convey to other people when I choreograph. I was thinking about that the other day, what I do and if it’s new. There were years when I felt that my art was so old fashioned. Right now everything is so conceptual and dry in Europe. You should not move, not make people feel anything. It’s a strange thing that’s “in” right now in Europe. It’s like non-dance. You should not dance; you should represent concepts. But now I feel that I am not old fashioned. It’s so strange—it goes back and forth. In America I think that I am very new. What we see on stage in American modern dance to me feels a bit stuck, with big companies doing the same things they were doing 40 years ago. If you take class, the people who are teaching do a lot of innovative things. There’s a lot there, but in the theaters you don’t see it so much. Sometimes I feel like I’m very conventional, and sometimes I feel like I could teach people something new.

How do you work with dancers to help them learn your choreography, which, as you say, is often different from what they might be used to?

I see that it’s difficult for classically trained dancers to understand. If I only talk about the movement style, it’s a challenge. I try to get them to move much bigger, drop their heads, feel everything. But if I start to talk on a more human level, I think everyone understands when we talk about images. “He’s going to kill you if you don’t start to run right now!” Urgent and powerful images.  We continue working and I think there’s a different spark inside them. I love it. When you work in big companies in Europe everything is very safe. Many of the artists at the institutions in Europe have good jobs, good salaries. They don’t have to get off work and be a waiter somewhere. It’s like they have a big position that’s very secure. In New York, they’re very hungry and work very hard. It’s an amazing thing for a choreographer to feel.

What would you like to do next?

I would love to have two things. I would love to work together with a very strong artist, collaborate with somebody. And I want to not take away what I have but to add something new so I have a new voice for myself on stage. The other thing is that I would love to just be a dancer and have someone else tell me what to do on a project. I would love to work with someone who has worked so much with themselves that I could rest in their art.

What would you look for in collaborators for those projects?

It has to be something you feel in your stomach: OK, I’m interested in this person! I can’t say I want this and this and this. It’s something that just catches you and you feel like you need to know more about this. It’s intuition of feeling.

How do you cultivate your artistic intuition and voice?

I do yoga every day and I try to have time for myself everyday. This is part of my daily life, but I also try to listen to people and try to understand where they come from. If something doesn’t work with yourself, in a personal relationship or working relationship, instead of just saying no, understand the other person and it becomes something much more interesting. Everyone comes with their own heavy stories and lovely stories. And why not understand each other instead of cutting off and becoming lonely? Maybe, if I understand this person, maybe this person understands me as well.

What advice would you offer aspiring artists?

I always say, even to very professional people if they listen to me, you really have to find yourself, even if you don’t want to choreograph.  The only person that you really have is yourself. You have to learn what, who you are. It’s the most important in everything.