Purple Magazine
— The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

imre and marne van opstal



the sibling choreographers take a wild, nonbinary approach to dance, using prosthetics and primal movements to reflect on contemporary anxiety and the post-human condition.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s start with creating choreographies as siblings. Do you always work together?
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — For the big creations that we do for theater work, we usually collaborate, but we also do smaller projects independently.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And have you been dancing together since you were kids? You’re almost the same age, right?
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Yes. We come from a family of dancers. We have an older sister, Myrthe, and a younger sister, Xanthe. And we all dance. We started from a young age: I think I was seven, and Marne was six. We grew up dancing together, and then we split roads because he went to a ballet school, and I went to a modern dance school. But we ended up coming back together.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Yes, there was a time when all four of us were dancing together at the Nederlands Dans Theater, and that’s where we realized that, creatively, we wanted to pursue something together. We really hit it off, and it just felt organic. It makes a lot of sense because we’re from the same nest — we share the same values and the same ways of looking at things.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are your parents dancers?
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — No, my mom was a competitive swimmer, so she knows what it is to be an athlete. She also went to the art academy and is very creative in that way. And my father has always been deeply into sports and music. He was in an African djembe band, playing piano and guitar, but he became an engineer.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — It’s funny because a lot of people ask us what made us want to become dancers. To be honest, I think it was just because our oldest sister started dancing, and we could somehow put all of ourselves into this thing that was creative and artistic, but also physical. Because we were all very physical kids. But later on, you go through so many selection processes — you start super young, and then you go to the conservatory or to dance schools — and then you start to realize, “Oh, we do have something that is special.”
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Or unique in that way.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Of course, you have to look at your parents. You have to be like, “What did they instill in us — their values and the way they look at the world?” There was always music in the house. My mom was always asking us to be creative, to draw, to make things. She gave us the tools to create.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Yeah. And it also definitely allowed us to be free and crazy and just be ourselves, not taking ourselves too seriously. I think there was a lot of support for what we chose to do in our lives. Dance is not the normal thing to choose.

ALEPH MOLINARI — And having an athlete mother surely taught you a lot about pushing the body and having discipline. Is dance similar to sport, in terms of always trying to reach a new limit, a new possibility?
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Yes, dance is very extreme in that way. Like we said earlier, you start young. And this is because you have to mold your body to do the things that we do onstage. You have to shape your bones and the structure of your body. You see this in other sports as well, but the difference with dance is that we need to look good doing it. We need to pretend like it’s effortless, most of the time. We need to be graceful. We need to do it to the beat, while we’re counting in our minds. Sometimes people ask me, “What are you thinking about when you’re onstage?” I’m like: “I don’t even know. I wish I had the answer.” Either I’m thinking a hundred million things at the same time, and it accumulates to absolutely nothing at all, or I’m thinking nothing, and my body is just doing the work. It’s very strange.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — The only difference with sports is that we don’t have to win a medal. We don’t have to fight for a title. We don’t have to fight to score a point. But we do want to get better at what we do, and we do want to improve. You still have that element of pushing your limits, mostly because it’s also very competitive — you have dancers around you who might be better at something that you maybe haven’t…
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Tapped into yet.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — You learn so much from the people around you as well. Looking back, I also believe that, growing up, we did push each other to a higher level…

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s interesting. But also, compared with sport, choreography is an open language. It expresses emotions.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Yes, exactly.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you qualify your choreographic language? For me, there’s a lot of choreography that’s visual, but you have an approach that’s more conceptual — that says something.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Yeah. I’m glad you see that.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Yes, that’s nice because we’ve done a lot ourselves. We’re also incredibly critical. In a way, we’re just messed up. We can’t always really see dance for what it is. And I’m sure filmmakers or fashion designers go through the same thing. It’s hard to be objective.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — We always come from a specific theme that we want to work around. Or an idea that reflects back on life and on ourselves, but also maybe on society.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your choreography, from what I’ve seen, is very much about love or community or people coming together, fighting, or getting back together.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — What we do a lot — and maybe that’s the beauty of doing it together — is that we reflect on the world around us. And we need to translate this into a feeling that people can perceive or take away.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Or relate to.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Sometimes what you do is very sexual, too. There’s a particular nudity; there are these new organs, like the prosthetic tits.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — It’s true. We like to speak about the human body as well. We are dancers, so we are very expressive in how we want to communicate emotions or feelings. It’s not necessarily that we want to shock people with it, but it’s more to say, “What’s the problem?”
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Let’s take the silicone breastplates, for example. How can you talk about the taboo of nudity if you don’t show some kind of nudity? So, people, when they’re watching it, can reflect on that and say, “Yeah, actually, why do I think this is upsetting?” Or: “Why did I initially think: ‘Why are they wearing this? Or what is this supposed to mean? Or why is this taboo, really?’” And this is what we did with Baby Don’t Hurt Me. They start by speaking about their issues. We didn’t want to hide that. For the dancers, especially, to be transparent onstage, to talk about stuff that is real to them… And it was hard to create for them because it was very personal. Almost therapeutic. You’re like: “Am I really going to say that onstage? I’m not acting anymore. This is actually a part of some of the shit that I have to deal with.”
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Because normally, as a dancer, you might be doing a part that is not connected to you as a person at all. It’s almost as if you’re playing a different version of yourself, like in a movie — which is completely fine. But the moment you are allowed to make choices and can embrace and bring something of yourself onstage, it creates a different emotional layer. It’s not an act anymore, and so it shows a lot of vulnerability. I think that, as an audience, you can feel and sense when it comes from an honest place. Like anything in life, I guess.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And are there common themes in your choreographies? Because I see it as having to do with identity, love, and sex — which today are very important because we are losing contact with the body. We’re losing contact with the other. We’re always on Instagram and the Internet; our life is increasingly influenced by social media. And dance is the opposite.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — From the moment humans first came into existence, they were already dancing, you know? And I think dancing comes from a very intuitive and a real…
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — … primal thing.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — It’s a very primal thing. Dancing, back in the day, was like drinking and sleeping and eating. You learned it through observation and demonstration from person to person, from tribe to tribe, from generation to generation. And now, it has become more of a formalized art form. Of course, it exploded in the way that dance became this thing with a lot of combinations of styles. But sometimes we have forgotten why we dance in the first place. That’s why I also feel that everyone should be dancing still. Everyone should be moving their bodies because that, in a way, is how we connect to our sexuality, our sensuality, the way we feel inside of our shell, our vehicle.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — You’re absolutely right. And it is in part because of what you mentioned earlier — because we live in this super cerebral society, where everything is just plucking that string of intelligence and rational thought. And I think that, as creators, we need to get people back in touch with their feelings and with their own bodies. And the best way to do that is to show feeling and to show what the body can do. Because in the end, when you view that, it’s almost like you get to experience your own body watching someone else.

OLIVIER ZAHM — From the beginning, from the past to the future, as long as we dance, we are together. It’s as simple as that, right?
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — It’s a ceremony. It’s a ritual.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — If we have taken something from the period of being at home for too long, we understand that we need people around us, community, touch. It’s so important for all of us.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because dance is about celebrating a community.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Yeah. Celebrating. It’s grieving. It’s everything.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In your work, how do you create a new movement? Because your movements are very specific, sometimes robotic, but sometimes also very free…
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — We like to distort the body, also. Sometimes they’re not even human anymore, but more animalistic.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — We like things that make you think about life and death or about just being alive in this world. And then there are other things that come into it that, like Imre said, are primal. Like love, fear.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Very Francis Bacon.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — It’s true. He loved to distort reality as well. Yeah. We like the weird. We like the surrealistic.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — We like the ugly beautiful.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Well, it’s like there’s this weird thing when you watch a nature documentary, right? You see this lion, this majestic animal, shredding this gazelle. On the one hand, the reaction is: “Wow, that’s gross. That’s disgusting.” And on the other hand, you’re like, “Wow, how beautiful is that?”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. How a spider moves. If you look at it up close, it’s incredible.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — The thing is, nature is dancing all the time. It’s free of judgement. Birds dance. Animals dance. The trees dance in the wind… With all these frequencies and rhythms that we all feel… I feel like we’re so stuck and separating ourselves inside this idea of what we think we are, but we all belong to the same universe. Freedom these days became a concept, and I think it’s a state of mind that we can choose to experience in any given circumstance. We always have a choice to “be” free and move freely.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — It’s weird. We used to have to move. If we didn’t move, we’d die.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This is what virtual reality is pushing us toward: to be at home in a virtual world, which brings everything to us without us having to move.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — It scares me a little bit because that virtual world just taps into your thoughts. There are so many things that we perceive. Like, for example, this would probably be a different conversation if we were here in person, right? We would feel each other’s energy.

MARNE VAN OPSTAL — This is also the beauty of live dance. The audience comes in — they paid, they got a ticket, they are committed to sitting there, in that chair, or to stand, for a certain amount of time. There is this contract that they made with the performers. It’s like, “We’re going to sit here now, and we’re going to let it come over us,” you know? And there’s something so beautiful about that. This is something that I’m sometimes really scared about with the digital age — that we lose a complete sense of what is important.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — It’s so isolating.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — But then, there’s also possibility, so it’s tricky.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think that your dancing and this liberty that you try to find in the body are a way of challenging the conservative academic dance that exists today in choreography? Because you were classically trained, but there is a rupture in the way you dance.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Well, we worked our way through the Nederlands Dans Theater. I’ve been there for 11 years. And NDT styles are more based on academic dance, like you said.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — But then, for instance, I was also dancing in Israel with the Batsheva Dance Company, doing a lot of Gaga, and that’s a newer way, I believe. The way movement is being explored in Batsheva is very different from anywhere else.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Sorry, what’s Gaga?
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Ohad Naharin, who was the artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, created this method. Imre danced there for three years, and she was basically exercising that method every day.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Gaga originated from Naharin’s need to communicate with his dancers and his curiosity in the ongoing research of movement. It’s based on a deep activation of the body and physical sensations often imbued with rich imagery that stimulates the imagination, and the layering of information builds into a multisensory, physically challenging experience. Which then provides a framework that promotes unconventional movement. I love it, and my body loves it. Also, this movement method is not just for professional dancers — it’s for everyone.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — So, of course, it left an influence.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because, as dancers, you’re living in a small community, and you all influence each other. Right? People go from one group or from one ballet to another, exchanging techniques. It’s interesting.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — It’s interesting because, as a dancer, you have body memory, muscle memory, which is something that musicians also have. They will have played a piece maybe four years ago, and they can just read the notes, and the body remembers. It’s the same for us. We’ve worked with a lot of different choreographers, with their styles and their ways of working — we have just integrated all of that.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Like a sponge, you know?
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — You’re like a sponge, like memory foam. When I start improvising, I don’t really know where it all comes from. It’s been many years of layering ideas and technical skills and stuff.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — But also, along the way, you find your own language and way of moving, and you start to understand what you connect to and what turns you on. Like “I like to move like that, and this how I want to express myself.” Of course, this comes on top of all the layering and tools you’ve learned on the way as a dancer.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Talking about identity, do you think that dance is a good way to express the subject of gender transformation today? I believe that hasn’t been represented that much in the dance world so far. But at the same time, it’s so obvious because dancers are nonbinary, right?
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — I think the dance world is the perfect place to break gender roles. But also to explore what it means to be masculine or what it means to be feminine, what it means to move like a man or move like a woman. Because all those things have very different layers to them. And I think the dance world is super open. It’s very accepting. It’s a loving community where queer culture is very much accepted and integrated. The only problem that I see now is that, at the end of the day, we are also performing other people’s visions, other people’s ways of perceiving the world. As a dancer, you don’t always get to say what you want to do. And I think you see it happening now more. That’s also the reason we created Baby Don’t Hurt Me — it’s also to shed a light on this. The more the narrative changes, the more we’re going to be opening up to this conversation, and the more naturally it will find its way into the concepts of choreographers. But for that to work, we still need to do a lot of work in the dance world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — My point is that classical ballet tried to codify gendered movement: men dance a certain way, carry women a certain way, and women move a certain way, dress a certain way, etc. But when you go backstage, all the bodies look the same.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — People really do like to think it’s rock ’n’ roll backstage. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — But in your choreographies, men and women are very interchangeable. It’s very free, nonbinary.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — We are very much interchangeable as well. I don’t connect only with my female side. I definitely also connect to my male energy. For Marne, it’s the same. I think we’re both sensitive to that. As a dancer, when I had to be put in a dress, I was always quite insecure.

IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Because I felt it didn’t really connect to me as a person.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Also, like I said before, I think it’s such a shame sometimes that certain physical traits or aspects of personalities are attributed to a gender. It’s so limiting. This is why we don’t want all the women to be fragile or to not be able to make their own decisions onstage because they somehow depend on men, or men to be always…
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Strong partners.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Strong or never show sensitivity. Because I don’t think I’m less of a man than any other man out there for being gay, for example. I don’t see that as a weakness. I see this as a strength. When I work with men, I want to see their sensibility.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But the way you do your own choreography — I see it as a permanent transitioning. Women and men still have their gender, but they morph, and they interact in a permanent transition, like you’re expressing something about this nonbinary evolution of our time. Ten or 15 years ago, big choreographers didn’t even think about it.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Yes, of course, but we’re also a different generation. I think we both have had different experiences, and we can’t help but reflect that somehow. Back then, they just didn’t have these conversations. It wasn’t spoken about. But with Baby Don’t Hurt Me, that was specifically the idea: to talk about gender and love and identity and how those things interweave. But you know what? I realized it really depends on the dancer. We really just work with what the dancer brings us naturally. And that is more a certain energy or a way of moving… We’re going to put that in the work because that’s why we fell in love with this dancer in the first place.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. Because each dancer is like a color.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Yeah, exactly.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yellow is not blue. You can mix the blue and yellow, but you can’t change the colors.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — This is exactly how we think. We fall for personality. Of course, at some point, you have to assume that every dancer is a capable dancer. We’re just interested to see: how do you connect to our ideas? How do you make that your own? Can we feel you? For example, when we work, I do not need to see a copy of myself or Imre.
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — No, no, no. We give them a toolbox. But in the end, it’s about them, how they want to translate it inside their own bodies. It’s their body that I need to work with. It’s a dialogue between us and the dancers.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — But so far, and this is interesting, what we realized now with this generation of dancers — and this is maybe why it’s so prevalent in our own work — is that dancers want to talk about it. It’s not just us. Dancers want to talk about breaking the norm. And that’s also why it’s there.

ALEPH MOLINARI — So, the relationship to the body has been liberated in new, more gender-fluid ways. But going back to the impact of the digital age on our relationship to movement, what is your vision of the future of dance? Are you optimistic?
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — It’s tricky because, on one hand, you can see already that technology is driving us in one place. On the other hand, I have the secret hope that because we’re going that way, we are also…
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Turning the other way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Resisting?
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — And that means that we are going to be looking to make personal connections again. We are going to be wanting to see life, real things, things that we can touch. I definitely see this virtual space for the future, and I think dance will have to find its way to be part of that because this is clearly where we’re going. As to whether I think this is the best place for dance… No.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you’re not scared about the future?
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — Maybe not scared. You just want to be hopeful that everything will just find its place. Virtual reality can exist in there — but life events, too. It would be sad to see humanity going more and more inside their homes, isolating themselves in a computer or a simulation. Dancing together, but not really dancing together.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — Yeah. Or you have one moment in the middle of the show when you take off your headset because you’re done. What I really feel is people find it extremely hard to commit to something. And I know from my personal experience watching dance or live theater, it’s like this. You’re really into it, it’s amazing, you’re super engaged, and then there’s a moment where you’re kind of: “Okay. I’m going out of it.” But then again, something starts to change. And then, boom, you’re back in, you go into a trance. It’s like a trip, right?
IMRE VAN OPSTAL — It’s a roller coaster.
MARNE VAN OPSTAL — And a lot of choreographers create this trip, like a movie, the pacing of it. It’s done purposefully to give you the chance to be in it, to take a step out of it, and to go back in. But I think the moment you get bored, like with Netflix, you just turn the thing off, or you go and watch something else. I don’t know, a lot would be lost. Basically, what you get are little bite-sizes of art.



[Table of contents]

The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

Table of contents

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