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People in Motion - Saskia Oidtmann researches dance as improvisation and choreography

Four narrow, vertical lines appear in the distance on the runway of Tempelhof airport. They approach slowly. Four people come into view, walking in-step in slow motion. They lie down, roll onto their backs, slowly stand back up, and playfully stretch out their arms against the wind. Passersby stop, smile, or look irritated. Who are these four?


Saskia Oidtmann researches movement. She is most interested in unplanned, unconscious, and unpredictable movements. Her PhD project “The Choreography of the Event” comprises both practical studies and a theoretical analysis of the terms “event” and “choreography” – at the crossroads of dance science, and cultural studies. “I want to find out whether choreography, despite its continuous structure, can bring about discontinuity.” Oidtmann researches whether an event – unique and ephemeral by definition – has a place in the repetition-oriented field of choreography. 

The history of a place influences the choreography 

The practical aspect of her study involves three dance performances in urban space choreographed by her. At Berlin sites steeped in history – the now-defunct Tempelhof airport, Rathaus Schöneberg and Tempelhofer Hafen docks – she and three other dancers perform three choreographies. “The choreographic work was preceded by a long observation phase,” Oidtmann says. For weeks, the 35-year-old researcher has been watching hundreds of people in front of Rathaus Schöneberg: She observed wedding parties, visitors to the local authorities, visitors to the market, and people resting on the steps of the city hall entrance.  “How do people walk, stand, sit?” the trained dancer asked herself. These studies along with the history of these places influenced her choreographies. In front of Rathaus Schöneberg – which for decades served both as the Schöneberg district city hall and as the seat of the West Berlin state senate – prominent figures delivered notable speeches. Among them was John F. Kennedy’s, in which his “Ich bin ein Berliner” went round the world as well as those from Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth. This was also the site of student protests against the visit of the Shah of Iran on June 2, 1967. Benno Ohnesorg, one of the student protesters, was shot only a few hours later in front of Deutsche Oper. “For many decades, the city hall square was a very important place. Today, it is mainly used as a parking lot,“ Oidtmann says. The quartet performed their dance at noon during the ringing of the Liberty Bell, a gift from the American Allies. To spark interest in the district’s history, the Tempelhof-Schöneberg district authority financially backed Oidtmann’s dance project. Oidtmann studied film and theater in Bochum and Berlin as well as on-stage dance and choreography at the Laban Center London. Since then she has been working as a dancer and choreographer. As a freelancer, she offers movement training to actors and advises directors planning to include dance scenes in their films. In April 2014, she became an associate member of the post-graduate program “Visibility and making visible. Hybrid forms of visual knowledge” at the University of Potsdam, where she is earning her doctoral degree under media scientists Prof. Dr. Dieter Mersch and Prof. Winfried Gerling. “I like practical and theoretical work,” Oidtmann says. “But switching between the independent scene and research is not always easy.” That is why she prefers keeping practical and theoretical work in dialogue, which allows her to immerse herself in what she is doing. 

The unpredictable as part of the choreography

“Over time, my subject has expanded,” Oidtmann explains. “I have come to focus even more on everyday movements: walking, stumbling, and also falling in urban space.” The PhD student developed an interest in what happens anatomically and psychologically when we stumble and fall. She, therefore, installed cameras in public places in Berlin and recorded people’s movements. Particularly suitable were treacherous places such as streetcar tracks, basement shops, and wet asphalt – where one tends to stumble. “What interests me most is the moment before people realize they are falling. This is when something surfaces.” At this very instant, a person’s essentiality shows. These involuntary, unintended, and unpredictable movements are what she researches. At Tempelhofer Feld, the former airfield of Tempelhof Airport, Oidtmann performed stumbling and falling. In slow motion, she and her three fellow dancers fell to the ground, stood back up, and leaned into the wind like the pilots who took off from here over a hundred years ago. In the movements she tried to experience what a fall or crash can be like. How much of your weight can the wind hold before you fall? At what point does the body lose its center of gravity, its stability? What happens if a dancer falls unintentionally? The young researcher assumes that choreography aimed at repetition also has an instinctive moment – even though this contradicts her theoretical definition. “Does choreography leave room for something singular? Is the eventful also a part of choreography?“ Oidtmann asks. She hopes to also be able to use the event, i.e. unexpected movement, in choreography.In her work, the doctoral student is attempting to combine two disciplines: From an academic point of view, an event cannot be planned, because it is inherently unique and ephemeral. In practice, however, choreographers use the method of “structured improvisation” or improvisation according to certain rules. “Within a fixed framework, there is an interpretive scope for the dancers, in which they can operate differently, for instance by shifting tempo or accentuation. In this way, there is room for both the singular and the eventful.” Does that mean a dancer can experience something in practice that is unsupported by theory? “I, for one, find it quite exciting to reveal the original and integrate it into the production,” Oidtmann says. That is why everyday movements are more important to her research than stage movements. At the same time, it leads her to the question: Is there a relevant boundary between improvisation and choreography, or are these terms not at all antonymous? And if so, what makes a production a production?

Art between spontaneity and intention

“What most irritates onlookers is when we do exactly what they do.” At the weekly market in front of Schöneberger Rathaus, market salespeople almost feel satirized when they see four dancers making movements similar to theirs. Children asked: “Mommy, why is this woman walking so slowly?” At the end of the day, the only difference between an enactment of everyday movements and the actual movements is likely the intention behind it, that is, the intention to be art. Practical studies have demonstrated that an event need not necessarily happen very quickly. Irregularities may also occur in slow movements. The performers decide spontaneously whether to dodge passersby in the market, run into them, or withdraw a movement. The final results of the study are not yet available, but an important thesis has already been posed: “spontaneity and immediacy can be provoked choreographically”. To what extent art, then, must be something planned and staged is now more of an open question than ever.Jana Scholz

The researcher 

Saskia Oidtmann studied film and TV studies, theater studies and art history at Ruhr University Bochum and Freie Universität Berlin as well as stage dance and choreography at the Laban Center London. She has worked as a dancer, choreographer, and in filmmaking since 2005.

Universität Potsdam
Am Neuen Palais 10
14469 Potsdam

Text: Jana Scholz
Online-Editing: Daniela Großmann
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