Interview: Anna Krzystek, choreographer and performer

Interview: Anna Krzystek, choreographer and performer

published in the Scotsman, 27 March 2011

Undeterred by claims she wasn’t ‘dancerlike’, Anna Krzystek found success on her own terms…

‘I WAS 16 years old, in a gym hall with lots of other kids, and there was a dancer doing this abstract movement to a soundscore,” recalls Anna Krzystek of the moment that sealed her choice of career. “The kids were all screaming and shouting and throwing things at this poor performer and I thought, ‘That’s it. This is what I want to do with my life.'”

As she tells it with an impish smile, this story reveals a lot about Krzystek, a quiet, reflective but incredibly strong performer who has boldly done her own thing regardless of people’s reactions. In the dance world, where women’s bodies are subjected to intense critical scrutiny, Krzystek is a rarity. After years of honing her craft she is now in international demand, but as a young woman she was repeatedly told she wasn’t tall enough, thin enough, flexible enough or pretty enough to be a dancer. It’s a success that has constantly inspired me in my job at the Work Room in Glasgow – where Kryzstek (actually strikingly beautiful) has developed two of her shows – and it seems particularly worth celebrating today, on International Women’s Day.

Not a stage school kid, Krzystek didn’t attend dance classes as a child growing up in East London and says she wasn’t interested in anything artistic. “Maybe I’m wrong in saying that,” she adds, reconsidering. “As a child I was always one of life’s observers. So that aspect was there from day one. There’s always been something about me looking at the world like a big installation, finding how things connect.”

In the gym hall that day something changed irrevocably for Krzystek. In that dancer’s challenging performance she experienced a sharp break with the world she already knew. “It created a space to breathe, to think, like being in a clearing and I could take a deep breath and say, ‘I don’t have to be like these other kids, screaming and saying this is boring, I can just be myself.'”

This wasn’t easy, however. “The first obstacle was, ‘You’re too old and your body is incorrect’. I wasn’t into sports so I was badly co-ordinated. I looked incredibly clumsy and not at all serene and ‘dancerlike’.” Krzystek prefers not to dwell on this. “I don’t want any violins!” she laughs. Rather than feel sorry for herself, she explains, she simply “went somewhere where people told me, ‘yes, you can do it'”.

This was New York, where she spent three years training with legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham. “I’m so very grateful for that. My work is very far away from his, but things that have stemmed from his thought process have been incredibly influential to me. The beautiful thing was that even though they danced as an ensemble it’s embedded in his work that you are an individual within that, and you do it how you do it.” Like Krzystek, Cunningham had struggled to make work within a system that didn’t initially support his ideas. For dancers of both sexes, the traditional western dance forms enforce a strong gender archetype.

“In classical ballet, usually young, childish girls are being manipulated by these big, superior type men … princes and warriors,” says Krzystek. “But in contemporary dance and ballet there are many strong female dynamic dancers. The beauty of Cunningham is that the movement is shared between men and women and they are expected to be able to do the exact same thing.

“I haven’t really particularly thought of myself as a feminist,” she considers, “but I do think there is, after all this time, such inequality. In dance you can get a way with murder as a male, because there are so few men that as long as you are interested and have a smile on your face, you’ve got the job. But women have to push and be more competitive and fight to get a look in.

“Ultimately I didn’t want to exist in that so I had to create my own way. In dance training you are taught X, Y and Z but as an artist perhaps only Z is the thing that stands out for you. There’s so much in dance that is not important to me and if I hang on to those things it would be so detrimental, so I have to let them go and hold on the essence of what’s important – to me.

“I’m doing it more and more and in that sense I’m finding a strength within myself and what I’m doing. I could relate that to a kind of feminism, that I have to do things the way I choose to do them, but I will remain quiet and don’t do the hobnobbing. I’m not the life and soul of the party. I’m quite happy not ever going to a party in my life. It’s not a negative, it’s a strength, and if I can channel all my energies into the work I do then there’s a strength there.”

Krzystek’s devotion is almost monastic. On a typical day she rises at 6am, reads and then goes to work in the dance studio for eight hours before going home again to work on her admin and reflect on the day’s work. She rarely takes a day off over the 12 weeks of studio time, and combining that with preparation and reflection it takes the best part of a year to make one of her performances. She is renowned for her fastidiousness and attention to detail, in the exquisite painterly atmospheres of her live performances.

Krzystek has a deep respect for her audience, and each performance is the chance for her to offer them a new perspective, a clearing.

“The artist is always asked to take risks, it’s the thing people desire from artists, but a programmer might not take risks because they consider that their audiences are not able to engage with that kind of work. I don’t tell stories but I do engage with my audiences, and yes the ideas need a bit of thinking about, but the work itself is wholly available and there is no risk. I have a lot of respect for my audience, I think that people are very clever and that they can see and hear and engage with more than what is thought possible.”

Krzystek’s new show, Face On, is the most intimate and challenging thing she has ever made. “Nothing is hidden, it’s all there to be seen and I’m facing up to those consequences,” she says. “As a performer I’m co-existing with a filmed sequence and a soundscore. It awakens your sensibilities that things can happen in the same space and time, it’s not one space or other and you can acknowledge every one of them for the good and the bad.”

Performances like Face On offer an experience of openness and a place for personal and political contemplation. “It’s about exploring ways of co-existing in the world,” she says. “My work is quite violent at moments; there is violence around and you can’t escape from it, but there are moments that are very beautiful.”

Krzystek’s ideas on co-existence are inextricably connected to her desire for tolerance, and for difference to be celebrated.

“As a human being I connected with that dancer who was making abstract shapes, and the majority of my peers at the time didn’t, but just because I was brought up in that kind of environment at that time with those kinds of people, then the implication is that I’m then not allowed to see certain things in my own way – there’s a preconceived idea of what I will like and what I won’t like. I just don’t understand that at all. I think people can make up their own minds, in their own way, in their own time as well. We don’t have to get the whole picture straight away, it can keep leading us on to somewhere else.”

• Face On is at Tramway, Glasgow, tonight at 7pm, as part of the New Territories festival. For more information, visit and Laura Cameron Lewis is creative co-ordinator of Tramway-based dance space The Work Room.

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