Transform everyday gestures into art

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For her ongoing dance project, the choreographer Katja Heitmann collects people’s habits and peculiarities – how they walk, stand, kiss, sleep and fidget.

TILBURG, Netherlands — Mahat Arab, a 26-year-old Dutch spoken word artist, cracks the knuckles of his left hand several times a day when doing tasks that scare him, like driving or using the phone. Karolien Wauters, a 23-year-old dancer, often tucks her hand into the waistband of her leggings. And Chandra Merx, a 41-year-old councilwoman in Maastricht, raises her eyebrows, not only as an expression of surprise but also as a reflex when she’s in a hurry or lost in thought.

For Katja Heitmann, such movements – an unconscious routine, a tic, a distinctive gait – are the core of the unique personality of every human being. Heitmann, a German choreographer from Tilburg, believes that everyone has at least one gesture that is unique to them. “If you pay close attention, you know that no two bodies move in the same way,” she said.

Heitmann, 35, has been collecting examples of these movements for three years. In 2019, she published an open call for “donations,” inviting people to contribute their own habits and mannerisms. Your collection now contains the movements of 1,023 people – how they walk, how they kiss, how they sleep, how they stand, how they fidget.

The project, dubbed Motus Mori (which means dying movement), relies on a team of 10 dancers to keep these gestures alive. Nothing of the movements is photographed or filmed or even recorded in writing, except for a minimalistic note card per donor.

“In today’s society, we try to capture humanity in data,” said Heitmann. “But we lose something that way.”

Their inventory is analogue and ephemeral: the dancers store the gestures in their muscle memory. They often stage five-hour dance installations open to the public, where they reenact the movements of hundreds of people. “The archive”, as one dancer put it, “are our bodies”.

The work fits in with the longstanding practice of choreographers who relate to everyday life, such as Pina Bausch, who drew inspiration from the memories and emotions of her collaborators, and Twyla Tharp, who incorporates everyday actions like falling and hopping into her performances. But rather than observing from afar, Heitmann and her dancers work directly with volunteers to find out which of their moves are worth saving.

The interview process begins as soon as a volunteer walks through the door. One of Heitmann’s dancers discreetly accompanies the subject around the studio for an hour, asking about everyday activities such as working or commuting while mimicking the individual’s anatomy, from the curvature of the spine to the deflection of the feet.

It’s tempting for volunteers to sit more upright than usual, or to portray an ideal version of themselves. “I really wanted to do it well,” admitted Karen Neervoort, 64, the dean of a local performing arts school, who was an early gesture donor. But the dancers encourage openness by sharing stories about their own bodies or examples from other participants.

“I always thought people were generally reticent, but within the first few minutes they tell us so much,” said dancer Wies Berkhout. “They trust us with their insecurities and trauma.”

It helps that the interviews are essentially private (first names and age only) and take place amidst glowing staging and an atmospheric, slow-paced soundtrack. “You enter a very specific space, an art installation that already opens you up,” said one of the participants, Ranti Tjan, the 56-year-old director of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.

As in an earlier piece, Pandora’s DropBox, a somber meditation on the pursuit of perfection, Heitmann conceived Motus Mori as a response to what she sees as a cultural tendency toward homogeneity — evidence of which she finds in examples as varied as urban planning in Tilburg and the uniform dental work of their students. (“When they smile at me, they all have the same teeth.”)

For Heitmann, there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” move as long as it’s authentic: an ordinary stretch (wrists, neck, toes) or scrape (two-finger pinch, side sweep) is just as dignified as sentimental (a hair-thin kiss , a handshake in childhood) or complex (martial arts techniques, religious rituals).

There are also movements that accompany classical music (index fingers conducting), television (hanging upside down on the sofa), and Instagram (duck faces). There are expressions of pain (twitching), boredom (thumb twirling), ecstasy (dancing), terror (paralysis), old age (pulling out dentures), and insomnia (pacing). For every meaningful movement, there are just as many that aren’t, whether they’re distracting habits (ring spinning) or bad habits (gnashing your teeth or biting your nails).

After completing the interview, the dancer reinterprets the donor’s movements in the slow, precise language of Heitmann’s choreography. Her performances, many of which are open to audience participation, explore contemporary themes such as identity and technology (“Siri Loves Me”, “For iTernity”) in a tense, minimalist slow-motion style. The dancers are visibly shaking and sweating, struggling to keep their bodies still, even their eyelids. The originally natural and fluid gestures of the volunteer are broken down into isolated fragments; a wave or crossing of ankles behind the other could last for minutes, a deliberate aesthetic that keeps the movements at a detached, analytical distance.

“The gesture is the vocabulary and the choreography is the grammar,” Heitmann explained, adding that her choreography was intended to convey “a sense of melancholy.”

Watching how another person interprets your body can be enlightening, if not unsettling.

Stijn van den Broek, 33, who works at a second-hand shop near Tilburg, found his movements “looked less elegant” than he thought. Arab, the spoken word artist who donated his so-called “scared hands,” said the process gave him a newfound sense of ownership of his knuckle-cracking. “I feel like I’ve claimed it as mine,” he said.

Tjan, the director of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, realized that he tends to arrange his body in a way that takes up less space. The dancer who interviewed him “discovered that I hide my thumbs,” he said, pressing them flat on his palms. “I had never thought of that, but it was spot on.”

As a result, he made some adjustments in his professional life, beginning with the acquisition of a flashy jacket. “It’s this bright yellow color, so you can’t miss it, or you can’t miss me now,” he said.

The archive is ongoing and living, meaning dancers cannot clock in and out. “Your body has to stay in training. When you stop, your artwork is gone,” Heitmann said. “I don’t want machines for dancers, but we must try to conserve as much as possible.”

Occasionally, other people’s movements intrude into the dancers’ lives. Berkhout, who works full-time as the collection’s curator, noted that forgotten gestures sometimes resurface unexpectedly. One morning she woke up in a fetal position, hands clasped between her knees, although she usually sleeps with her limbs outstretched. The pose belonged to a Ghanaian woman in her 40s whom she had interviewed the year before. “This is Dora,” she thought.

There is no end date for the archive, which is largely funded by Dutch cultural institutions and various charitable foundations, and supported by residencies in various European museums and galleries. In theory, when a dancer retires, another inherits the role and associated gestures. This commitment makes the work especially valuable for people dealing with losses. Heitmann has received interview requests at hospice centers and hospitals. After the death of a young Belgian woman, her mother and boyfriend donated movements on her behalf. Her family attended several performances, Heitmann recalled, “to say goodbye or to memorize together.”

Heitmann also contributed used movements, which she associates with her father. After his death, he left only the bank statements and tax reports that the federal government was required to keep for him. It shows “a very one-sided picture,” she said.

The dancers now perform his movements like those of any other donor: like Heitmann’s father, who was a dance teacher, scratching his head or how he instinctively sucked in his stomach when passing in front of a studio mirror.

The gestures weren’t particularly important, she realized, but neither were his tax returns. “It’s a more human memory,” she said.

Donors pictured: Mahat Arab, Marijne van Dam, Marianne Defesche, Ton Joore, Chandra Merx, Danii Merx, Karen Neervoort, Merijn van der Schaaf, Bernardie Schols, Yda Sinay, Marieke Smeets, Ranti Tjan, Frans van Vugt.

Dancers pictured: Wies Berkhout, Julia Thirdij, Eleni Ploumi, Ornella Prieto, Karolien Wauters.

Surfacing is a column exploring the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie and Josephine Sedgwick.