Rethinking the way we gather: Choreography and Constellations
by Stefan Jovanović
Stefan Jovanović is a queer Slavic storyteller, performance-maker and therapist. Initially trained as an architect, he later established a career in the performing arts and trained in Family Systemic Constellations and Somatic Experiencing®, integrating therapeutic modalities into his artistic practice. His stage work explores ideas of radical togetherness, systemic inclusion and ancestral trauma through a maximalist aesthetic that combines sculpture, ceremony, dance and design. Creating cultural spaces for healing sits at the core of his practice. In his therapeutic practice, Stefan fuses learnings from a decade of spiritual self-development, plant medicine, somatic sensing, voice-work, dance, body release, and trauma healing with visualisation techniques, touch, talking, and movement therapy. Stefan works extensively with LGBTQIA+ and neurodivergent communities. In 2016, he assisted Dr. Peter Levine and Betsy Polatin in their workshop Trauma and the Performing Arts.
Website: http://studiostefanjovanovic.com, Social media: @studiostefanjovanovic
Rethinking the ways in which we gather: Choreography & Constellations
What if we were more aware of the dynamics that influence the way we relate to each other? How would our group dynamics change? And how could this help us to evolve?
I am interested in creating spaces where people can come together to consciously practice communicating non-verbally, with a particular focus on pre-verbal communication to better understand ourselves and each other. I weave together my practices as a choreographer and family constellation practitioner, inviting participants to explore choreographed social dancing, singing, drumming, and sound-altering technology
Seventy percent of what and how we communicate lies beyond the spoken word, and often beyond our conscious awareness. There is a connection between our non-verbal communication and our pre-verbal communication. Additionally, our communication is influenced by archetypes – ‘characters’ of consciousness – as well as by previous generations, and by the collective, and the land, who all influence our thinking, how we communicate with others and how we act. This in return profoundly affects the quality of our relationships – and the quality of our creative output and ability to collaborate and co-create.
A few years ago, I was commissioned by Sadlers Wells to create work around the theme of radical togetherness. This is the creative journey that unfolded: In the summer of 2018, I began developing Constellations, a piece of artistic work which eventually became a piece of experimental dance-theatre at the intersection of drag art performance, dark comedy, ballroom dancing, and archetypal theatre.
In an atmospheric setting populated by large sculptures made out of steel, designed in collaboration with British designer Jack Hardy, glistening in a hazy auditorium lit by lighting designer Patrick Morris, 5 dancers welcomed audiences dressed in garments designed by Canadian-Lil’wat costume designer Curtis Oland. Audiences were invited to social dance with the performers and with each other, reflecting on what the power relations are between performers and spectators in the theatre.
The storyline of Constellations follows the archetypes of the Witch and the Fool, and questions their historic relationship to stereotyped, gendered representation. What would happen if pop culture presented witches as men and fools as women, or abolished gender all together in the presentation of these figures?
I was very interested in trauma stories that reoccurred in the same geographic location generation after generation. I was also interested in how the architecture of the buildings we inhabited influenced our gathering based on the trauma stories that may linger in buildings that have been abandoned, lost function and/or purpose. The beginning of our creation period involved the exploration of this influence of place. We worked in two deconsecrated churches in London, The Asylum Chapel in Peckham and the Welsh Chapel, in Soho.
In the Asylum Chapel we worked with unlabelled constellations*, setting up “the witch” and “the fool”. I asked my collaborating performers Katye Coe, Roni Katz, Pau Aran Gimeno, Sara Ruddock and Charlie Cattrall to use their felt-sense to feel into the history of the rooms, neither of which were foreign to the witches and fools of 19th century Victorian society or the queer club-scene of the 1980’s; individuals outcast from normative orthodox views that nowadays might be labelled as neurodiverse, rather than mad or insane.
In both spaces, we consciously sensed into the spirit of the churches, whilst tuning into the bodily sensations arising from dancing in such environments. We tracked our own excitement, fear, curiosity, anger, and love that arose amongst us and later our spectators.
We also learned to recognize that which does not belong to us, but belongs to the stories of the built environment around us. We left these spaces honouring the experience and further crafting our relationship to the archetypes we evolved throughout the project.
A couple of weeks before Constellations premiered, I was confused about how all of these varied practises and fields could come together. It had become a challenge to integrate the collaborating performers’ varied artistic practises into one cohesive show, whilst retaining an abundance of content generated from each of our site-specific church visits. What did we learn by performing in the churches? How could we possibly convey the immensity of the stories we felt within the archetype of the ‘black box’**? How do we negotiate what are often unspoken contracts with audiences that we have never met before?
I decided to practice what was at the core of this work: to examine forms of communication and relating that are beyond the visible. We needed to set up a systemic constellation for the work itself, where the show, in its meta-physical essence, would become the issue-holder or client, the cast become participants to their own performance, and I would be facilitator in service to the project’s intentions.
To this end, a group of 20 volunteers from the dance and therapeutic community of London joined us one late Spring afternoon in 2019, and we explored what happens when the Issue Holder/client is not a human, but an idea phenomenologically embodied by a human representative.
Each performers picked a representative for themselves, strangers who bore no loyalties towards the cast’s internal dynamics, dramas, and histories. Representatives stepped in for the Show, the performers, the audience, the Fool the Witch, and the Institution. Sound and movement within the dance studio were the main forms of communication. There were a few sentences every so often, but the non-verbal modality dominated the room. The ending of the constellation was done in silence, as tears began to flow, bodies moved in rhythm, a howl was heard every once in a while, and each individual moved to where they felt they belonged in the space. Perhaps it was a climax, like that visceral moment of resonance and empathy that we feel in a piece of theatre that speaks to our own story and life. The session ended with embraces and heart-felt good-byes between individuals that had never met before.
The storyline that emerged from this experimental constellation was then used to establish the narrative arc of the show, using the cues and sentences developed in the constellation as clues to the timing of the lighting periods of musical intensity and silence, where to begin the show, and where to end it. Most importantly, the constellation served to help us understand each performer’s rightful place within the story.
A month later, the show premiered at the Lilian Baylis theatre and ran for 3 nights, open to the wider public. Each performance was a reiteration of that facilitated constellation, developing every evening as new audiences sat at the edge of the field.
Eventually, we invited the audience into the process as well. The question we occupied ourselves with was – How can a group of performers, channelling the ancestral lineage of a historic site, transfer and convey that trans-generational meeting and somatic sensing to a stranger?
We asked the audience to consider the following questions – Who holds marginal and dominant roles within social spaces? Who leads and who follows? Is the choreographer always directing? Does the lighting designer always sit behind a lighting desk outside of the spotlight? Are the technicians only meant to operate behind the curtains and wear black attire so as to blend into the backdrop? How does the theatre’s staff become part of the show in a meaningful manner? Can the audience decide which route the show will take? How are the genders influencing the direction of the performance?
Audiences were invited to ballroom dance and converse with one another, as oral histories were passed on from performer to spectator. In engaging in such a way, audiences were asked to occupy the perceived field transmuted from the churches into the black box. What happened in that moment is hard to transcribe. The performers, decked out in drag, make-up and costume, were not only present as themselves, but were also embodying the spirits of the spaces encountered at Asylum Chapel and the Welsh Chapel. At that moment, when the members of the audience were being invited to dance, they were also engaging in a social dance with characters long gone, fools, witches, ancestors who live on in the bricks and mortar of a derelict architecture.
Seen through the framework of the Orders, the exploration of the relationship between audience and performer and between performers explored the order of Exchange. The importance of venue in the devising and the performing touched Place. The historical context of witches and fools brings in Time and Space and through the exploration of the marginalised and excluded the order of Belonging was also explored.
What I propose in conclusion is an invitation towards re-thinking the ways in which we gather and the practises that we share when we do.
Architecture serves a central purpose here. It is a container that holds performance and interaction; it holds social choreographies like systemic constellations. The research and performance work I’ve done so far suggests that we must look to the spaces that we currently have access to, the buildings and lands that have served one or many purposes.
Sensing into the geo-social ancestry of these spaces offers an effective way of telling a story, of creating dance and theatre. Translating that story from performer to audience holds the possibility for empathy to be generated between the living and the dead, the forgotten, and the missing as those previously excluded are invited back into the field.
In this way, communities arriving into the field from different belief systems can perhaps learn to exchange somatic knowledge and experience the power of the field through pre-verbal and non-verbal resonance . Our imagined architectures, digital or physical, become the means to a much simpler end, that of connection.
* Black box is the performance space eg traditional proscenium arch stage space/in the round/site specific)
**unlabelled constellation – sometimes known as blind constellations where the representatives do not know whom they are being called upon to represent. Sometimes the facilitator will know, sometimes it is completely randomised and becomes clear either as the constellation unfolds or is revealed afterwards.
Bio image: Stefan Jovanović photographed by Camilla Greenwell
Top image: ‘Constellations’ by Stefan Jovanović, featuring performers Roni Katz, Katye Coe, Charlie Cattrall, Pau Aran Gimeno. Costume design by Curtis Oland. Set design by Jack Hardy. Lighting design by Patrick Morries/Iiode.live. June 2019, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. Photograph by Camilla Greenwell.
Bottom image: ‘Constellations’ by Stefan Jovanović, featuring performers Adam Kaasa (as Bliss Carmxn) and Katye Coe. Costume design by Curtis Oland. Set design by Jack Hardy. Lighting design by Patrick Morries/Iiode.live. June 2019, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. Photograph by Camilla Greenwell.