Different Ways of Organizing Bodies in Time and Space

An Interview with Fabian Chyle

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Fabian Chyle is a German dance artist, choreographer, Dance/Movement Therapist (DMT), and DanceAbility instructor. Over his long career, he has worked as a DMT in many situations, most notably with sexual offenders in jails. Here, he shares his road to becoming a DMT and some of the environments he’s worked within, how he sees similarities in the underlying approach of DMT and DanceAbility, and how his experimental choreography is an extension of his work as a DMT in that he views it all as different ways of organizing bodies in time and space.

A woman in a glass cube moves almost upside down. Around her, people walk up and down public stairs.

From Misplaced X, photo courtesy Fabian Chyle

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Can you share a little about your dance history and what shaped you?

I didn’t dance at all when I was young. I didn’t even think about becoming a dancer. Coming from Stuttgart, I saw the Stuttgart Ballet and my parents took me regularly to the theater. I have early memories of ballet, theater, and live music, but I never thought it was something I would do. When I was 19 or 20, at that time, young men had to go to the army in Germany, and if they refused, they could do social work instead. I refused, so I ended up working one and a half years in psychiatry. That was a very intense time for me. I was so agitated by this new experience that I went out dancing every night because I had so much energy in my body. I met this person who said they were doing a funny course and asked me to join. It was a contact improvisation class. I went and I was more or less hooked. I also attended a workshop in Dance/Movement Therapy. I thought it was interesting looking at mental health and the body. I went to a workshop and was hooked on that too. I went to the teacher and said I wanted to become a DMT, and she said, “You are way too young. If you want to become a DMT, you have to be more mature. Why don’t you just dance for yourself?” That’s how my passion for dance started.

Through the workshop in contact improvisation, I found out about the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam. At that time, it was the only dance program in Europe that you didn’t need a background in dance to attend because you basically auditioned for four months. I decided to move there, and they took me. It was a post-modern dance education; a lot of people from Judson Church Dance Theater, the Trisha Brown Dance Company, and guest teachers from performance art. It was a really nontraditional dance education in the late 80s and early 90s. That was great for me to enter dance as experiencing my own body through somatic practices.

In my third year, I decided to go to New York and spend one year there, and it shaped my vision of dance, going to all the studios and trying the different techniques, not that I could do them all. That was profound and has been one motive in my dance career: How do we produce dance? How do we construct the body? How do we construct interaction?

I got my degree in Dance, and it was very clear I wanted to do my own work. At that time, for people with a dance background like mine, it was not so easy to find jobs with major companies. I was also teaching, but after a couple of years, I wanted to relate differently to people through movement. I was teaching a lot of workshops. It felt like I was always starting at the same point: I would work with the participants for five days, and then leave and start over. I felt like my material didn’t develop. I had the old impulse of getting my masters degree in DMT. I got a grant to study at Columbia College Chicago. I worked for a year afterward at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Five dancers outside on brick pavement walk and move in different directions.

From WE COSMOS, photo by Andre Symann

I’m interested in how you have used DMT to work with sexual offenders and in forensic settings. How did you get involved in this application of DMT and what has been your experience?

I actually started inside St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. I had this wonderful supervisor who was in between the first and second generation of DMT practitioners. She loved to work in the high security prison. I went with her for three months, and she said, “I’m not telling you what their crimes were, I just want you to experience them as human beings and moving bodies.” That was a wonderful experience. I tell it because I’ve worked for a long time in this context. You really need openness to see through their crimes and connect to what is human in them, like everybody. It’s hard to listen to those stories or read them, and then it can be harder to connect to the people.

For me this work was so interesting, when I came back to Germany, I wanted to continue. I ended up in a different context of forensics. In D.C., I worked more with paranoid schizophrenics, and in Germany I worked with people with personality disorders. Through that, I developed a program with a colleague who was a drama therapist. We focused on how, in jails, somehow there is a lack of working on the crime itself and the meaning of the crime for the offender, to have them go through their history and understand what they did. We developed a body-based method where we worked with 10 clients for two years. We reconstructed their criminal, family, and body history through dance and drama therapies. From 2005 to 2015, that was my main focus in DMT. That was an inspiring process to move through inner landscapes that could be quite troubling. For all the people you work with, you have to connect to them. Connection means finding something that physically connects. When I worked in jails, I mainly worked with men. I had to find movement qualities that connected with them, so I used aikido elements developing movement sequences.

I also worked with groups in a more classical psychiatric setting that were process oriented DMT groups. At the same time, I worked a lot with people with dementia, which is kind of the opposite of my work in jails. Looking back, I always created a tension within my work, so I was entertained.

Seven dancers on grass are moving around and amongst a series of taut strings.

From WE COSMOS, photo courtesy Fabian Chyle

You’re also a DanceAbility Master Teacher. Why did you decide to become a DanceAbility instructor and what settings have you mostly used DanceAbility in?

I know Alito from my first dance school in Amsterdam where he was teaching. I always liked the work but never thought I would do it. Between 2013 and 2015, I wrote my dissertation on the DMT work I did in jails. When I was finished, I needed a month of dancing and I needed to move. The only course I could find that ran a whole month was Alito’s DanceAbility teacher training in Vienna during ImPulsTanz. It was interesting for me because a lot of the material I knew from other contexts, but the way it’s brought together in DanceAbility is from a different angle and underlying with different concepts. It was very inspiring. I find it not only a training in creating inclusive settings, but a training in improvisation and choreography. I like the combination of being very structured and trusting the information in the space. I like to facilitate through structure in open space, and it connects strongly for me with DMT. DanceAbility is not a therapy, but there’s a lot of commonalities in how we look at the body, how people move together, and the autonomy of each individual’s process.

Since then, I use it a lot in my own teaching. Funny enough, it’s been difficult to create mixed-abilities contexts. I work in institutions with people with disabilities, or contexts with people without visible disabilities. It’s hard to convince both contexts to invest in the other group and to come together. I’m giving up on that a little slowly. I’m a professor now, which is really time consuming. But I think it’s a real issue. Somehow, it’s underestimated how much extra effort it takes. I do have a lot of able-bodied groups, and really try to see the able-bodied group as a heterogeneous group and not assume they are all the same. I see how people, through DanceAbility, really broaden their movement repertoire, create social choreography, and develop another movement language beyond their own.

About ten dancers stand and move on brick pavement in the shade of trees.

From WE COSMOS, photo courtesy Fabian Chyle

You’re also a choreographer. How does your work as a DMT inform your work as a choreographer?

I did my first piece in 1991, so I’ve been choreographing for a long time. I did one piece in the jail with a group of sexual offenders, a group of women suffering from sexual abuse, and a group of young people. We brought these three groups together and we rehearsed and performed in the jail. It was the only time I did something more artistic in the jail context. For me, my artistic work and therapeutic work have always been separate in the product, but very much connected if you define choreography as the organization of bodies in time and space looking for movement patterns. When I choreograph, I’m looking for different ways of organizing through movement. It’s all really connected.

A dancer in a glass cube filled with newspaper is scrunched down against the glass. A busy metropolitan scene is behind him.

From Misplaced X, photo courtesy Fabian Chyle

How would you describe your choreography? Are there one or two pieces from your repertoire you’d like to share?

My choreography goes through different phases. I’m always reflecting and rethinking how I produce, where I want to put the dance. I’m very much trying to create context for the body so the body can be experienced by the performer and audience in different ways. The body is a space to dream in. My work has always been quite experimental, but it’s also been traditional in some ways, like choreography in the black box, and working for a couple years with contemporary composers and musicians. Then I left the theater and did a lot of performative work.

The last couple of years, because of how my work life has gone, I also included more artistic research that came out of me getting my PhD and getting involved in research questions. My last pieces were away from the theater and in community and urban spaces using research methods. The last piece, WE_COSMOS, was a three-year project I did was Mike Lazar from Tel Aviv who is a geophysicist, sculptor, and musician. We were interested in how the vibration of objects that is always around us influences the body. Mike developed ways to make compositions and paintings out of the vibrations around us. We had an open art studio in Essen where we held workshops based on the measurements of vibrations. We created little performances with musicians. Everyone could join, but it was dialoguing on how people perceive their environment in terms of vibration and energy, and how they would like to change it. It incorporated artistic research and community approaches to create art in a more accessible way. As artists, we leave an imprint. If we do a show in a black box or in a theater, you leave an imprint on the audience, but we got interested in leaving imprints on the environment in our cities. This was my last project.

I have also been really interested in immersive forms of dance and body performance. I started in 2004 to create glass cubes, one was 1x1x1 meter, and the other was one meter wide and two meters high. Basically, in one you could sit, and the other you could stand. This project was called Misplaced X.

Within each cube was a performer for eight hours who would do one thing over and over again. For example, in one cube there were old newspapers piled up, and a performer lying on top of them, and over eight hours they would rip up the newspaper very slowly, and at the end all the newspaper was ripped up and you couldn’t see the performer anymore. Through one action, the whole world of the cube would entirely change. We had them installed in different theaters. That’s an example of how I’m interested in immersive forms.

In another piece, we did improvisations for 52 hours nonstop, which was really cool. We had an online performance service where people would call us up and we’d go perform in their living rooms, like a pizza service. I’m more interested in these kinds of forms because I’m often asked to give lectures, but I don’t like to talk and present. I wonder how I can change the format.

One dancers moves slowly with fabric in a vertical glass rectangle in a public bathroom.

From Misplaced X, photo courtesy Fabian Chyle

What’s next for you? Do you have an upcoming focus or project you’d like to share more about?

Because I just took on this new job as head of the DMT program at SRH University Heidelberg, there’s not so much time to do new projects the last two years. In my dance career, there have been moments when I withdrew a little bit to see what is interesting to me, and I’m in this phase again. My body is aging, and this has also been influential to my work, using my own body to reflect on my practice. We all know that our bodies are changing, but are we willing to include it in our artistic practice not as something with a negative connotation? It’s new information which has to be taken in, and then asked: How does this new information inform my artistic practice?

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To learn more about Fabian, visit www.fabianchyle.de.

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