TEACHER PROFILE: ANOUK VAN DIJK
No stranger to determination and risk, the Founder of Countertechnique and former Artistic Director of Chunky Move, Anouk van Dijk, has crossed oceans in her extensive career. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Van Dijk has built a rich career of performance, choreography and dance development. Now based in Melbourne, Australia, she is planting the seeds of Countertechnique around the world.
By Madeline Harms.
Tell me a little about how it all began, what inspired you to pursue an artistic career?
I grew up in a small town in the east of The Netherlands, and it was here I started with tap, jazz and modern dance classes as a teenager. When I was 15, I saw a professional dancer perform a solo, up close in the studio. I’ll never forget how I saw this human being radiating energy like I had never experienced before. I felt immediately drawn to this freedom of energy and other level of how one could exist. This event had an enormous impact on me, and was my inspiration to pursue dance.
How did you find the transition into the professional life?
For my generation it was ‘all or nothing’. The independent scene didn’t really exist yet, so we had to get a job with a company fast. I was lucky because the artistic director of the local dance company came to my university and somehow picked me. Nowadays, the range of employment opportunities is bigger, and the artistic diversity much greater. The flip side of it is that most dancers have to combine very different artistic practices in their career, often simultaneously. Countertechnique was developed with the diversity of contemporary practice in mind. It aims to empower dancers by giving them tools they can apply in any given situation.
You have had quite a diverse performance career, could you give me snippet of it?
In the late eighties, repertory companies for contemporary dance became popular in the Netherlands. As a result, I danced in an eclectic range of repertoire, from Cunningham to Butho and everything in between, working with choreographers such Stephen Petronio, Bebe Miller, Tere O’Connor, Mark Haim and Amanda Miller. When Amanda founded Pretty Ugly Dance Company in 1993, I joined her group until 1996. From 1996, I only performed in my own work.
Is there a particular obstacle in your career that you would like to share?
It was very tough to break patterns of the stereotype I had inadvertently created for myself as a dancer. I was very fast and had massive endurance, therefore I was always used as the power gun. Being good in one thing also limited myself in developing more broadly. When I chose to explore other sides, be vulnerable, soft and slow, it proved a real struggle. Retraining and learning another physical language was challenging, I would often revert back to what I knew. I persisted though, and I’m really happy I took the risk. To go to unknown places and challenging myself is key to what I do even today. It is also a quality that is required for many dancers who first encounter Countertechnique. It requires letting go of many assumptions that have been imprinted on dancers during their training and careers, and it takes courage to let go of things when it is not yet fully clear what you will get in return.
What triggered your need to start exploring your own method and way of teaching?
As a senior company dancer, I had often experienced that rehearsals in the afternoon required a completely different physicality from how we were trained in the morning. Starting as a resident choreographer, I found also that my physical language was so specific that the dancers were not equipped for it. In 1993, I left the company to figure out how I could develop this physical language, and explain it to others. It was not a matter of inventing it, it was about uncovering a logic I knew had to be there. I felt the existing techniques were looking at it from the wrong angle, because their basis was that the one place of control was the centre - I had a hunch the answers were somewhere else.
When was your ‘aha’ moment, the real beginning of your technique?
There have been so many ‘aha’ moments over the past thirty years, but the first I clearly remember was when I was still dancing with Amanda Miller’s company. I was rehearsing a duet with one of the other dancers, Michael Schumacher, we were on the floor, and he casually suggested ‘When you move your arm forward towards me, why don’t you move your pelvis away from me’. Playing around that day with this simple idea, I immediately felt ‘Ah that creates a lot of stability - great!’. And that was it! That was my first insight into the concept that two things could be moving away from each other to create stability. In the years to follow, I began building on this idea, exploring it in my own movement and body. There was a lot of trial and error, but slowly I started to see the logic.
How did the technique develop into the teaching method it is today?
After six years or so, my personal research had developed into a codified training method, preparing dancers for my movement material. At that time, my company began to receive multiple-year funding, allowing me to build an ensemble of dancers. This is when the more in-depth exploration of the movement system really started. Nina Wollny joined my company straight out of school in 2002, and worked with Countertechnique from day one. She started teaching Countertechnique in 2004 and her contribution to the development of the system has been enormous. In the following years my other dancers also started teaching, all very organically. When Codarts University in Rotterdam asked us in 2008 to implement a four year Countertechnique course in their curriculum, I realised it was time for a formal teacher training. Besides my own dancers, we also had two participants who had never been part of the company. When they were able to successfully complete the teacher training, we realised the methodology had developed beyond the shared physical language of our dancers ensemble. It was exhilarating! Countertechnique had developed into an autonomous movement system.
Who have been particularly important figures during your career?
As a young professional I studied in New York, and I discovered Nina Wiener’s classes, who introduced me to the idea that a class could be based on finding alignment through constant movement, rather than static positioning. Later on I encountered William Forsythe’s improvisation technologies, which completely changed my relation to the space around my body. Another key figure was Alexander Teacher Tom Koch, who helped me build a refined awareness of how my mind and body were interconnected. Insights like these stimulated me to explore the thoughts and principles that eventually led to Countertechnique.
What is the fundamental difference of the Countertechnique teaching approach?
I don’t know the finer details of every technique that’s being taught today, but creating freedom and stability by directing and counter-directing movement provides a unique perspective. Unlike most other techniques, Countertechnique also doesn’t include the concept of a centre. Lastly, Countertechnique uses a formalised class structure without working with a preconceived idea of what something should look like. Instead it offers information that can be applied to the process of dancing itself – a much more useful approach than constantly having to stress about the end result. This information is organised in the Countertechnique Toolbox, a virtual knowledge bank from which dancers can pick the tools they want to work with. It’s not just the theoretical concept that differs, however, it’s also the language we use and the atmosphere we create in class. It is crucial, therefore, that dancers first experience the principles in class, as you cannot start studying Countertechnique from a book.
What are the current developments of Countertechnique?
It’s a never-ending loop of offering information, feedback, evaluating and developing the technique further. Having been at Chunky Move over the last seven years, has really helped develop Countertechnique to the next level. Building an entirely new group of amazing dancers has enabled me to test and rethink the different elements of the system, and from that have come some important new insights. Whilst the theoretical framework becomes ever more refined, at the same time we’re always trying to make what we teach more simple and effective. The annual One Body, One Career Countertechnique Intensive (OBOC) that Chunky Move hosts is really the main instrument for us to test the latest developments and create a holistic experience of learning and applying Countertechnique in various situations. It is an important opportunity for dancers wrap their heads around the technique, and to get a good understanding of the vastness of it - in only two weeks. It may not possible get it all at once, but the intensive gives a solid introduction into the movement method.
So what is the resulting experience as a dancer?
Countertechnique just seems to create happier dancers! Learning to apply the Countertechnique tools empowers dancers, and enables them to make their own choices in their dancing. It doesn't matter if you’re working out how to balance on demi-pointe, fall to the ground, or how to communicate with an audience - it all connects to one another. Feeling empowered will make you more confident and in control of how you choose to develop yourself as an artist. Which is what a successful career is all about for me. It’s liberating for dancers not to have to live up to someone else’s standards, but to be able to set their own goals and to have the tools to achieve them. It just makes dancing so much more fun!
Find out here where Anouk is teaching next.
Next month, the Teacher Profile Interview Series will feature dancer and Master Teacher Countertechnique Nina Wollny.
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.