It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually entail? In this interview, the sixteenth in a series, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with Emilie Gallier (FR). In September this year, Emilie was appointed as a researcher at the ATD Lectorate for one day a week.
Part 16: A thousand kilos of worms in every hectare of land
At secondary school, I wanted to be either a biologist and scientist or a dancer. I chose the latter, but there was always the geek in me drawn to doing in-depth studies of Laban’s system of dance notation. It was only once I was in the Netherlands, though, from 2007 onwards, that research took a formal place in my work. When I was doing my Masters at ArtEZ in Arnhem I made dances I could write about. Or, more accurately, I was able to write from the dance.
Am I right in thinking that from 2016 to 2021 you were doing a PhD at the Centre for Dance Research at the University of Coventry in the UK, and that in the same period you participated in THIRD, the two-year artistic research programme run by the ATD Lectorate?
That’s right. The title of my doctoral thesis is Reading in Performance, Lire en Spectacle. In my work I often focus on dance, language and writing, and how they interrelate. The origin of this interest lies in the distant past [laughs]. As a child, when I visited the market with my mother she always used to say ‘Pas toucher! Don’t touch with your hands, only with your eyes!’ I was convinced I could touch things with my eyes. One of the things I wanted to investigate in my research was whether you can make your gaze tactile. What happens if you use a tactile gaze to read a book – as if you’re taking it in with your entire body?
What was it that attracted you so much to artistic research?
Research is something you do across a period of several years, and it can give rise to a wide range of shorter and longer-term projects, such as a live show, a reading, a workshop or a publication. I’ve always been attracted to that broader timeframe, and there are lots of different aspects of me that can come to the fore in the course of my research – aspects of who I am, and who I can be. Alongside being an artist and choreographer, I get to be a teacher and educator, a reader of graphic novels, a mother reading to her kids in the evening, a gardener.
Could you tell me something about the research you are doing at the moment?
Three years ago my husband and I found an old farm in Normandy. We were looking for a place where we and our children could spend part of the time closer to our family. Around the same time, my brother Cyril left his career as a landscape worker to cut out an existence as a permaculture gardener. He wanted to show the potential of a different aesthetic, one that embraces chaos and the awareness that not everything can be controlled. My brother and I set up the foundation Les Minières, a space for connecting regenerative agriculture and artistic practice. There are fifty of us now – it’s very much a social project.
For the last few years I’ve been working between here and there (NL and FR) with visual artist Nina Boas and artist-editor Nienke Terpsma on the research project Gleaners and the Worms. It was through my dance practice that I developed an interest in the human body in the stooped posture – the one adopted by someone searching for shells on the beach or harvesting vegetables. You get a very different experience of the world in this stance: you lose the broader overview, and that brings with it an element of uncertainty. You become more integrated in the landscape. I believe this shift in perspective is important in the context of the ongoing climate crisis.
Alongside that, I became fascinated by earthworms. I feel a similar sense of urgency about them. My brother told me that earthworms constitute the largest mass of land animals on the planet: there’s a thousand kilos of worms in every hectare of land! Their tunnels plough the soil better than any tractor could, and they digest everything three times which means they make a big contribution to soil fertility. The very last piece of research Darwin did focused on the earthworm. As an elderly man, on rainy days he would go outside, accompanied by his son, carrying a lamp to look for the worms coming aboveground. That sense of ‘useless research’, connection with domesticity, the earth and caring for the greater whole is something I can identify with.
As a gardener, does your brother also get something out of this exchange with art? Is the inspiration reciprocal?
That’s a good question [laughs]. I’ve been saying for years that my brother is the real artist of the family. Last June, Daniel Linehan and Michael Helland, two choreographers working in Belgium, gave a workshop on our site. After scouting the area for two days they took a group of 15 people on a tour of the garden and forest. Cyril joined them and he was really enthusiastic about the experience. He said, ‘I saw things in the garden I’d never seen before!’ Art induces a continual opening-up of our perceptions. We think we know what something is until we realise it can be known in a completely different way. Something like that happened for my brother because of that intervention by the two artists.
Daniel and Michael got everyone to form a circle around a newly planted Paulownia tree – it’s a fast grower, with large heart-shaped leaves. Its place is at the centre of our herb garden, which is mandala-shaped. The group did a stamping dance around the tree. My brother was laughing when he recently said, ‘I don’t know if that’s why, but the tree is growing really well!’
In September, as well as joining the staff, you became one of the first two researchers to be appointed to the ATD, along with Rajni Shah.
That’s right, it provides the context in which I will be able to further pursue my research. At the same time I also want to be making a direct contribution to the ATD. In my experience as a teacher, I always love to experiment with different forms of researching and publishing through embodied and artistic practices. And I’d be excited to share this experience with practices of reading and writing through dance with ATD students too. Some students laid out a garden on the roof of the ATD on Jodenbreestraat, and I’m keen to create a link between the garden and the school library. At Les Minières, we’ve got a collection of books on dance and on agriculture. I’m wondering which books the students here would want to read. What would be inspiring for them? I plan to kick off a regular reading practice during the ATD Research Month this coming January.
Text: Hester van Hasselt
The complete series of interviews Artistic research: New pathways to new knowledge? you can read here