TEACHER PROFILE: NINA WOLLNY
With boundless energy and a curiosity for learning, Nina Wollny joined Anouk van Dijk’s company fresh out of school. Now a Master Teacher of Countertechnique, she inspires dancers around the world with her knowledge and passion. How rare it is to encounter someone so genuinely in love with dance, teaching and movement. Taking us back to how it all began, she gives us an insight into her Countertechnique journey.
By Madeline Harms.
Tell me a little about your personal background.
I was born in Bremen, North Germany, but mainly grew up in the small town of Kreuztal in the West of Germany. My father is a doctor and growing up I remember watching videos of hip operations and having many anatomy lessons with him. He is definitely the reason and inspiration why I am so fascinated by the human body. My mother is originally from Surinam, so I also grew up with this South-American culture. I have many memories of big family parties and dance-offs.
How did you start dancing?
As a kid I trained intensely in all kinds of sports, from ballet to gymnastics, even tennis and volleyball. I just loved the feeling of movement and could be busy for hours - playing tennis, dancing the Nutcracker, or climbing a tree. One of my favourite games as a kid was actually making-up and analysing movement. For example, I would create movements about climbing a tree, then explain how to do these movements to invisible people. I really loved the balance of doing all the different things and looking back I feel it was important. I never consciously thought about becoming a professional dancer as an end goal. Even though the intense training that I did at a young age could have, in a way, been intentional to prepare me for it. I was actually prepared to have a career in medicine, to take over my father’s practice.
So what changed your mind?
As a teenager I was part of a semi-professional youth ballet company, alongside my other sports. One day my teacher took me The Netherlands for a ballet school audition. They turned me down saying ‘it’s not that you’re fat, it’s just that your “Afro-American pelvis” is not really working for the ballet world’. All I remember thinking, as a young ballerina, was how they had told me I wasn’t fat (yay!). Anyway, they had seen that I was a strong mover and encouraged me to apply for Codarts University because of the variety of dance training. I had my first contact with modern dance a week later at the audition. I had no idea what I was doing, but I felt like I could finally express myself in a way that I was missing in ballet.
What was your first encounter with Countertechnique?
Now that’s a funny story! The very first class I took from Anouk was during my first year at Codarts University. I had never missed a moment in class, but during my first Countertechnique class I suddenly felt dizzy and had to sit down. I didn’t understand the class, and I was really annoyed by that.
After the class, I remember my classmate Philipp Fricke asking me how it was and I replied quite nasty ‘you know, if I want to do plies and tendus I’d rather do it in a real ballet class’. That was all I had to say! So it just goes to show, whatever your first experience maybe, it doesn’t mean anything for where it can take you.
After this experience, how did you start working with dance company anoukvandijk dc?
A little while after our first meeting, I saw her company perform ‘Microman’ and this was the first contemporary work that left a big impression on me. It made me laugh and the movement inspired me. A little while later, the company announced an audition and in the description it wrote - ‘you must dare to be ugly’. This really scared me, but intrigued me at the same time.
One very important moment in the audition, was during an improvisational task when Anouk asked me if I liked my body. After the past years of getting used to my feminine, and very muscular, structure, I was at the end of the process of changing my view on my body, so I answered ‘Yes I actually like it’. She asked if I wanted to change anything, and I replied ‘No, actually not’. She then asked me what I liked best, so I pulled up my shirt and showed her my six-pack.
I came out of that audition finally thinking ‘Yeah I like myself!’ and I left the room without the “ballerina” stamp. Anouk’s Countertechnique class had released my ballet tension and I remember feeling like it was a magic spell. Those two things were worth so much and I felt different. I was ready for a new step.
How has your professional relationship with Countertechnique and Anouk developed?
Anouk’s choreographic work was not about developing Countertechnique, but it was the training and research that gave us the tools to survive the day, to be able to grasp the coordination, and to open up our bodies in a multi-directional way.
Every project that I did, it became more systematic and refined. For everyone, it was a constant research within the challenge of the work, as well as in the training of the class to prepare us for the repertoire. Warm up class was always a room full of people in research mode, playing and sharing.
Over the years of working with Anouk, with every new project she brought a new challenge for herself and for the company, and I have also adopted this habit in any work that I do. With each process, alongside the choreographer’s intention, I also give myself a personal challenge. I make the choices and the decisions to what I bring to the process, and I enjoy taking the reigns on that. It comes from my own curiosity and inner research, and at the same time can contribute to the choreographic work in an unexpected way.
You have taught for a long time now, what is your approach when you come into the studio every day?
When I teach, I also get deep into the technique every time. When I prepare to teach, I ask myself what am I feeling curious about? What tool from the toolbox do I want to dig into? I then share this information with the dancers and guide them through the class, whilst researching the information the myself. What I explain to actively think about during the exercises, is exactly the thought process that I am also working with, so that we can go on a journey together. There is a fixed structure to the class, so you know what to expect. But at the same time, because Countertechnique is not the steps but how you approach the steps, it gives space to play with inspiring information that is inside the Countertechnique Toolbox.
After all these years I still have moments of new realisations! Every place is different and people are different, therefore there will always be contrasting responses and results. Every time something new can happen and this inspires me! Every new piece of information, is a new possibility. I will never ever be done with learning, therefore I will never be bored. That’s why I love dancing. Dancing is, basically, dealing with the essence of being human every day. Fully embracing your humanity and even getting paid for it!
What would be your most frequently asked questions from dancers?
When dancers have moments of realisations in Countertechnique, there is a lot of adrenaline and excitement. That energy gets transformed into enthusiasm geared towards Countertechnique and therefore, dancers want to grab it. I am often asked how we can hold onto that feeling forever. But it doesn’t work like that - an end result is just an end result. That ‘feeling’ of Countertechnique is not what I am doing. It is just the result of being in the process of applying the task-orientated approach of Countertechnique. If you are concerned about the end result beforehand, because you want to “get it”, then it doesn't work. When you let go of this, and use the moment to just do what you’re doing, that is when it is actually happening. That’s the big difference between a process-orientated approach and an end-result approach. The reason why we need to let go of wanting to “get it” is to have the space to actually do the work. It’s definitely a paradox to deal with, especially in a world that seems to be focused on the end-result.
Any favourite tools you would like to share?
I don’t really have a favourite tool, but I do go through periods where I am interested in one tool, and I geek-out on it. At the moment I am into the idea of freeing the nipples. Or in other words, realising that your nipple is not your shoulder and they can move separate from one another. It gives a wonderful freedom to your upper body and arms. I have been exploring idea a lot and on the latest One Body One Career Intensive at Chunky Move in Melbourne, on the last day I decided to fully embrace that freedom and took my top off. I felt like I was flying. Your breasts are not an obstacle, they are there to help you fly!
Now I am at the point where…I really believe that I will never want to stop dancing. It just gives me so much energy and makes me so happy and healthy. It really is the most amazing part of being alive.
Find out here where Nina is teaching next.
Next month, the Teacher Profile Interview Series will feature Teacher Countertechnique Joy Davis.
The Countertechnique Teacher Profile Interview Series is a monthly publication, initiated in October 2017. Madeline Harms is an Australian dancer and writer, currently based in Mainz, Germany. Learn more about Madeline on her blog Travelling Dancers.