History and Subjectivity: An Interview with Eszter Salamon
Edith Boxberger and Sandra Noeth (2007)

Edith Boxberger/Sandra Noeth: You were educated in Hungary in two very different dance forms: folklore and ballet.

Eszter Salamon: The importance of these different practices was on different levels. Hungarian dances were something I grew up with. I learned it already in kindergarden from my mother. On the weekends I went with my family and friends to dance here and there. Later I danced on stage and went on tour abroad. It was kind of part of everyday life for a very long time. I started ballet at ten. I went to a boarding school in Budapest, so I left my family and entered a different world. I could make a link between these forms. It was not that they were completely separate, but the one was more for pleasure and the other more to prepare for professional life. There was not any other alternative form of professional dance training at that time in Hungary. And there was - maybe not more than anywhere else – this military ideology that ‘you have to suffer’ in order to become a good dancer.

What reasons were there to leave the country?

The limitation I felt was in a professional sense, not in a po- litical sense. When I was young, I did not really feel limited. I could travel, with my parents, with the folklore ensemble, but I could not dance there. I realized this and was depressed for a year or two and I wanted to stop dancing. At that time I was not able to imagine that I could do something, take the initiative or work with people or with myself. I needed some tools. It really happened by coincidence: I went to Paris to see friends; I met people, stayed there and continued dancing.

Usually an education prepares you for something that you can develop. You said no to both practices.

I wanted to learn a different way of moving, which was somehow a very different use of the economy of the body. Especially in classical ballet, you have to be very efficient. There is expression, but expression comes from technique. I really had to reorganize my body, my way of walking and moving. So it was a postural change, a literally and symbolic postural change. There are also codes and steps in Hungarian dance, but they are more ‘friendly’. It is written, but you reinvent by actualizing and there is no aesthetical criteria whether it is well done or not – of course not when presented on stage. There is a difference of regime between the two, something that I categorize as more similar to a social practice than a strictly representational form.

So your attitude towards this practice is ambivalent?

It is very difficult to have clear yes or no positions – as one can see in my piece Magyar Tàncok. Dance is somehow al- ways subversive, because it is not a ‘productive’ form of work in society. It always has this potential for leisure, pleasure and exchange. On the other hand, it is completely embedded in symbolic structures and representation. Should we still keep this culture of folk dances alive? I have a lot of ‘no’ and on the other hand, I have a lot of ‘yes’. Because it was also a context in which I was happy until a certain age, when I became con- scious of certain things that became problematic for me and I did not agree with any more. But at the same time, and maybe especially during commu- nism, this kind of dance practice played a subversive role, not as a revolutionary act, but on the level of everyday life – ha- ving fun, feeling good, listening to music and at least creating a circle of energy, even if it sounds a little bit strange. Back then, even the stage form of it was potentially subversive if we consider the fact that the Russian army was still in Hun- gary. So it is not so easy for me to position myself in this question, because I know the potential of this practice.

Is the notion of ‘West’ and ‘East’, which is produced and main tained in discourse, relevant to you too?

These notions are historically constructed, so to erase them would not be so easy. The main problems were the complete non-continuity of dance education and practice from modernity to post-modernity and the lack of the institutions that could help in the development of a choreographic culture and its theorization. Eastern Europe was not the place where art history was made during the second part of the 20th Century. Therefore there is a dominant narrative from which the East was excluded. The only exceptions to that are music and literature. Today, the situation is very different in each East-European country. Therefore there is no such a thing as a common rea- lity. In that sense, the division lost its pertinence. Though cultural policy in general and the institutional infrastructures regarding performance and contemporary dance are healthier and more developed in the West, the division has become obsolete on the level of artistic production. For example, I find more relevant what is happening in Slo- venia or in Romania than what is happening in Italy. At the same time, we don’t hear anything about Hungary... There are different kinds of inclusions and exclusions and I suppose they each have specific contexts.

 I left Hungary and went to France, because I was not able to undo that division and to initiate something on my own. As a dancer, I worked in a company where dancers had many nationalities, so my Hungarian identity was not a big deal. When I started my own work as a choreographer, my concerns were more related to the questions and concepts I was dealing with or the socio-economic reality of production in Germany and in France, than the fact I was from Hungary. It is funny, since I became European, my Hungarian origins resurfaced and at the same time I’ve never showed my work in Hungary. I was always told it is too experimental or conceptual for a Hungarian audience.

I made the two pieces related to my past, my education and to Hungary, Magyar Tàncok and AND THEN, about four years after I had begun creating my own work. What is maybe new or special in a way about the ‘Hungarian Dances’ (Magyar Tàncok) is that tradition is rarely spoken about from an individual point of view. Tradition always be- longs to the masses and space for individuation or subjectivity is very limited. So that is why I wanted to make this piece, to cast a light on those traditions and their practices through my personal experience, in order to show a different perspective or dimension of them. Yes, Magyar Taàncok was very much related to me and not to Hungary, even though the people, who I invited to create the piece, are from Hungary and are part of my family. The piece can also be read as the history of my body: how my body was trained and transformed through these different disciplines. Another specificity of it was presenting a popular dance form within a contemporary dance context.

AND THEN is different, the point of departure was the name and people who carried that name. Actually, I wanted to find Eszter Salamons everywhere in the world. And I found ‘So- lomons’, in Namibia, on the Fiji Islands, everywhere. Then I reduced the project to the name written exactly like mine and I found most of the women in Hungary, because it is a Hun- garian version of the name ‘Solomon’. So it happened that the link to Hungary became very strong through the indivi- duals. I could not have foreseen that aspect of the project in the beginning of my investigations. After a while, I used this homonymy as a way to create formal research.

I wonder, if in AND THEN, the ‘Eszter-Salamon-identity’ does create a collective, an ‘Eszter-Salamon-collective‘, and if this would also be a way to try to touch something that is still back in Hungary – even if it was not so in the beginning of the pro-ject.

For me, it was very interesting how the material, the interviews happened. Of course, you always provoke an interview, but the way how stories and more and more material came up – we really had a lot, about 35 hours – it was a bit like, wow, this is 20th Century history seen through women’s eyes. A kind of transversal scanning of history, but in a very fragmented way. And then, it is strange to say, but the material made the material and afterwards it was all about constructing the pi- ece by editing the material. Working with text is very different from what I used to do with movement. It has a very different quality, ability to create resonances and narratives.

The formal aspect of the piece and the division of the two realities on stage were the major decisions I made; the rest was all about constructing ‘regions of experience’ by using the narration, the video images, the acting, the singing, the sound and the lighting. I did not want one or the other reality to become stronger than the other, because the idea was to try, as much as possible, to create a third thing, which would be the two realities together. So I was concerned with these formal questions and I was interested in how I could still keep that individual-lives-level of the material and create a multiplicity that is more, much more than the separated parts of the text or the apparitions of faces.

In the piece, you talk about bad physical sensations and you link these sensations to certain experiences, to ballet for example and to personal fears.

The idea of self-presentation was important for this piece, meaning that we were not concerned with revealing the truth, but only with how a story was told. One of the questions in the interview was: tell me an anecdote of your dreams and then you have a certain flashback. Yes, my hypochondria and my fears, where it could come from or when it started. Even if ballet was easy to learn for me, nevertheless, practicing it damaged my spine. In dance, it is often like this, a lot of people after a certain age say – sorry for the expres- sion: “I fucked up my body, and I didn’t realize it”. And with this technique, it was even worse, because I was very young. I linked my ballet practice, which was very much about contai- ning, pushing, controlling the body, with the experience of a sort of paranoia and fear that I experienced during my child- hood in the 1970’s and 80’s in Hungary. I spoke with Bojana Cvejic, who collaborated with me on the dramaturgy of the piece and who is Serbian, about our experiences of socialism and capitalism. Gilles Deleuze spoke about schizophrenia in relation to the West and capitalism. Paranoia could be related more to the East or societies based on censorship. So in the symptoms of everyday life, I translated paranoia into my body as hypochondria: imagining bad physical sensations or illnesses, out of the fear of having them for real. So to create that link is maybe a fantasist ana- lysis, but it makes sense somehow.

Is it important for you to say whether you work in performance or in dance?

I am a choreographer. I relate to dance history and not to performance history. Naming what you do as an artist is important, but the market still labels you. In relation to my own work, I don’t see how it would help to understand it better if it were called performance. I am more interested in expanding the understanding of the medium, instead of putting another name to it, and in reflecting on what dance can be, instead of what it should be.

Your first piece What a body you have, honey was also a strong statement in this respect.

Yes, back then, I was already thinking a lot about how it is possible to question representation, especially of female bodies in dance, society, altogether – without using representations of clichés. Because it is not easy to try to work with a critical goal and not just to repeat the thing you want to criticize and to make another spectacle out of it by presenting it. I created a big white costume. I decided to move slowly in a white space. I did not use music. I wanted to work on creating an experience of looking and to present a figure in transitions; something so slow and long, that the action of looking would be called into question. And maybe the way of looking could change the mode of seeing and thinking. It is an old piece, but in terms of the effect it creates it is still a currently relevant one.

You always work with different people, in different places – what does this mean for the organization of the work?

Even if I live in Berlin, I don’t work there. I have to search for money everywhere and Berlin has no money for independent contemporary dance projects. So I am a displaced person and I work with a lot of artists of different nationalities. I will be part of an artistic and an education project next year. It could be a new step. Maybe I will shift and work differently in the future.

I go often to this place in France, PAF, initiated by Jan Ritsema, which is based on the principles of self-education and self-organization. In spite of the artistic institutions and structures in the field of performance and because of the changing economical reality of contemporary artistic produc- tions, there is a need, a desire to find other ways of learning, other ways of working, producing, rethinking the practice for today’s need and preferences. PAF is about finding alternative possibilities to create dynamics of working and exchanging outside the limited frameworks that institutions usually offer. PAF-fers come together to discuss, write, show, criticise each other’s ideas, projects, texts or works. PAF is about sharing and producing knowledge and developing a broader sense of exchange.