Carmel Koster discusses Shrine ahead of its debut at Illuminations festival
Carmel Koster is very busy. She’s a choreographer who draws from a flourishing diversity of influences and interests, and you’re as likely to find her leading her own street-dance troupe in Estonia as you are to find her running voguing workshops or putting together immersive dance routines in her current city of residence, Berlin. Her projects tend to be theatrical, spectacular and deeply personal, and none more so than her most recent, the beguiling and enthralling Shrine, a thirty minute exploratory dance commissioned by arts organisation Metal, choreographed by Koster and devised by Forest Swords, also known as Matthew Barnes, who put together the original score.
Barnes’ score is constructed entirely of sounds made by the body, which were then sequenced and layered to create a sort of echo chamber of an audio experience. It’s a little while since his full-length, Engravings, came out, but the composition is a welcome return to form, with Koster’s choreography is the perfect accompaniment. Performed by the aptly named Owen Ridley-Demonick, the dance is dark and brooding, lit only by stark and strobing white light. It follows a narrative of internal struggle and self-expression, all the while pushing the limits of movement. All in all it’s an immense multi-sensory experience, so we caught up with Carmel to find out how she does it ahead of its unveiling on 29 October at The Night Museum at The Museum of London.
Is Tallinn as a city an influence on your work?
Tallinn is where I grew up and it had a massive influence on my work. Both my parents were and my mother still is involved in the Estonian dance scene. Since the early 00’s they used to organize a lot of workshops, festivals and brought over tons of amazing teachers and artists who were a great inspiration to me. Before that there really wasn’t any streetdance, jazz or much of contemporary dance happening in Estonia.
They used to run a big dance studio that ended up being like a Mecca for myself and the friends we formed Twisted Dance Co with. We used to train all day, stay after hours to jam during the nights, experiment with choreography and created these guerrilla dance performances. There was an old stage in the studio which we utilised and converted into a theatre to host our productions. Everything was super DIY from creating costumes and scenography, mixing the music, painting and decorating the space and doing PR for the gigs. That was a real start in my career as a dance artist and the knowledge I gathered through that is immense. I still very much enjoy going back to Tallinn to produce new work, it’s because there isn’t as much distraction and there is a lot of space to play around what makes it a great place to vent, process and create. Also because I still have an amazing group of friends and collaborators there who inspire me on a daily basis.
"There needs to be energy in my work, that’s what inspires"
Do you feel part of a movement in Berlin?
I don’t think I am necessarily a part of a movement here in Berlin. I enjoy staying active and taking part in different projects and scenes weather its to do with music, dance or film. I’m a part of the Kiki ballroom scene in Berlin (shout out to the Legendary Kiki House of Juicy Couture) which I think is really blossoming in Berlin and I have also picked up DJing thanks to the great support of the Sister movement over here in Berlin. If anything I would like to think that I feel apart of an overall movement that promotes diversity and non conformity in whatever I am involved in.
Is your work more a product of theory or of raw expression?
I think it’s really 50/50. I guess when I first started creating it was really only about the raw expression. We channelled our feelings, taste in music, fashion, attitude through our performances and really didn’t think too much about the bigger picture nor did we really care what anybody had to say about us. When I think back at it we had a very Punk attitude.
Since my studies in Laban, especially with studying choreology I feel my thinking about dance has really shifted and definitely opened up in many ways. I am automatically more tuned into analyzing the material I create and looking at it in more of a dramaturgical way, which adds a new dimension to my work and how I communicate with it to both my peers and the wider audience. For me it’s important to keep both elements though, there needs to be energy in my work, that’s what inspires.
How does working on a project like this differ from your work with streetdance for Twisted Dance Company?
Twisted was formed in my teenage years together with my brother Rene when we were about 15/16 so it’s more of a project that defined our teenage years. With Twisted it was always about shock, entertainment, humour, cool choreography and an attitude. With Shrine I really wanted to strip it down from these elements and create something much more fragile. Also the fact that it’s a solo makes the creation process different from working with a group, it’s a more personal delicate process. Working with a group you’re always bouncing ideas and a lot happens through jokes, experimenting and the input of you group. It is amazing to be able to work independently on such a platform with great collaborators.
It’s not that common to have cross medium projects of such a high scale where you get to still be very creative and expressive and tour your work in world class venues and festivals. With Twisted it was always more local but with Shrine I have the ability to realise all these ideas on a much bigger scale. In many ways working on a project like this is really just an extension to what I used to do with Twisted.
What is it in Matthew Barnes’ score that you felt chimed with and inspired you?
I think I can’t really pick just one aspect it’s the whole score in its entirety. Matthew is great at creating these emotional atmospheres that just fill the space in a really magical way. That itself translates into dance very organically. The contrast of the powerful and the fragile gives it such great dynamical range, which I found very inspiring. I think I played the whole score about 10 times at home on these massive speakers lying down and writing about ideas that it triggered in me before I headed to the studio to create actual choreography. It has this very hypnotizing meditative quality to it.
"Shrine is about embodiment and growing into your physicality, discovering different qualities of movement, pushing yourself into extreme body situations, surrendering to as well as opposing the sound and space"
There seems to be a struggle at play at the centre of Shrine. What is it against?
From the performers aspect the struggle is very real. It comes from the choreography integrating with the round space its performed in, the chaotic lights and the surround sound. So already in that aspect it’s a very challenging piece to perform that will translate into a struggle for the audience. As we were devising Shrine that was never the center point though. It’ s more about embodiment and growing into your physicality, discovering different qualities of movement, pushing yourself into extreme body situations, surrendering to as well as opposing the sound and space. Perhaps the most notable “struggle” addresses the masculinity vs femininity and I think that also comes to play in the music, at least for me. But weather or not you see that as a struggle is more up to the viewer. In my eyes its more about finding and indulging both sides of that.
This will obviously translate differently to everybody depending on their point of reference both for the performer and for the audience.
There’s a sparsity and simplicity to Shrine in comparison with some of your other work. Why is that?
I think that comes somewhat directly from the music. For me it has a minimal, meditative, pure and fragile essence to it. So was a natural progression to make the physical side compliment and play in accordance to that and to find a balance between the music and the movement. A lot of the influence and ideas behind the choreography come from the philosophy of Butoh so taking time and space became very important. I wanted it to carry an element of realness so it would be more authentic for both the performer and the audience and carry more substance then just an act performed on autopilot. The idea was to make the audience feel as if they are witnessing a sacred ritual or some kind of an awakening.
Watch Shrine as part of The Night Museum at The Museum of London on 29 October.
Illuminations runs from 28 October to 11 November