About Anouk van Dijk
Anouk van Dijk is a choreographer, dancer, artistic director and the creator of the movement system, Countertechnique. She ran her own Amsterdam-based dance company from 1998-2012, and was Artistic Director of dance company Chunky Move in Melbourne, Australia, for seven years from 2012-2018. She's currently a freelance choreographer.
Having graduated from the Rotterdam Dance Academy in 1985, Van Dijk spent the first ten years of her career as a lead soloist for Rotterdam Dance Company and Amanda Miller’s Pretty Ugly Dance Company. From early on, she was attracted to the creation of performance and from 1996 committed herself exclusively to the conception, construction and performance of her own work. In 1998, Van Dijk formed anoukvandijk dc, her own company dedicated to creating work that sought to provide an insight into the many facets of the human experience through the lens of contemporary dance. In 2012, she was appointed artistic director of dance company Chunky Move in Melbourne, Australia.
Anouk van Dijk has in her career produced twenty-five full-length works that toured the globe, at the worlds leading festivals and venues including Festival d’Avignon, Adelaide Festival, Sydney Opera House, Dance Triennale Tokyo, American Dance Festival and Festival TransAmériques. Central to the foundation of Anouk van Dijk’s work and the training of her dancers has been Countertechnique, the movement system Van Dijk developed. Upon her departure from the Netherlands, Anouk van Dijk was awarded the Golden Swan (Gouden Zwaan) – the Netherlands’ most prestigious dance accolade – in recognition of her outstanding artistic and academic contribution to dance in her home country.
The following interview with Anouk van Dijk is part of the publication Dance Techniques 2010, which can be downloaded for free. The interview with Anouk van Dijk was conducted by Edith Boxberger.
What techniques have you studied, and what has influenced you? I studied at the Rotterdam Dance Academy, a contemporary dance school where Graham, Cunningham, and Limón were the main techniques taught, where we also had ballet six days a week. I had several important teachers, but one really inspired me to find my own method: Charles Czarny, a man with the sunshine on his face. He would go to the mirror
and kiss his own reflection. I found it very peculiar, being seventeen, eighteen, but I also understood that this man is very happy. He taught me, as I now teach my students, that as a dancer you have to come to terms with yourself, love yourself—and do so rather sooner than later because dancing is such a demanding profession.
A lot of my fellow students found Czarny’s classes extremely boring because he would teach the same class for weeks in a row, but for me it was an eye–opener. Every day he chose a distinct topic that we worked on exclusively—like breath, tension in the neck, parallel position, musicality, weight, phrasing in the music. It was endless. In Countertechnique, this conscious shift of focus has become a very important facet.
What happened after you graduated? After
my graduation in 1985 I went to New York and studied downtown, midtown, uptown. Downtown was Movement Research, where I took classes in Release Technique and Contact Improvisation. Uptown, I studied tap
and midtown I took ballet classes. I just felt I needed more knowledge.
Then, after contracts at Werkcentrum Dans and De Nieuwe Dansgroep in 1988, I joined the Rotterdamse Dans Groep. This company was going through a golden era at the time: Stephen Petronio, Randy Warshaw, Tere O’Connor, and Amanda Miller all did their first commissioned works there, so I was really lucky. I was in every piece, doing a lot of dancing. But I didn’t know how to deal with it, stamina–wise. The mentality of the company was: Do it all by will power. And since I am physically a very strong person, I would get injured because of over–powering, putting too much strain and power on my muscles when I was tired. I got really skinny, I didn’t know how to keep up eating enough because I was so exhausted the whole time. So then, it became like, ‘I have to find ways how on earth to survive this career.’
Which ‘ways to survive’ did you discover? In that difficult time, I first heard about Alexander Technique. I was intimidated at first, I really came from the ‘doing’ side, not from ‘contemplating what I was doing.’ And since Alexander Technique is not a dance technique, I found it a bit scary when I heard dancers say, ‘I am truly transformed, I dance so much better this way.’ But since it was clear I needed to find some other way to survive in this career, I was determined to find new information. In 1991 I started Alexander Technique lessons with Tom Koch and I can say from the heart that without him, I would not be dancing still—I would have destroyed my body. And I think a lot of dancers who have to stop by the time they are thirty-three or thirty-four have to do so because they never learned to dose the power and flexibility they have in their bodies.
What changed in your dancing? It took me much longer to find out what was helpful from Alexander Technique than I had anticipated. Only when I gave up trying did it suddenly click for me. I even remember standing in the room with Tom’s hands on me, desperately thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve tried it all, I understand what the technique is about—but I just don’t get it.’ So I was standing there and decided to do nothing more than repeat, in my head, after Tom: ‘Now let go of this and this, Anouk, and widen that and that—with no expectations whatsoever. And suddenly it worked. And I remember thinking—very Dutch–like—‘Did I spend all this money to find out it’s that simple, not expecting, not doing anything?’
Of course it took me another year before I started to find out how to use it in dancing. I remember the piece I was in, the section, the music, the movement, when I realized that what I was thinking was really working. While I continued moving, I doubted I could still have this Alexander–directing going on in my head while I was moving full–out. I was afraid I would start to mark. But I found that I could actually move with less energy. By the end of the piece I was not nearly as exhausted as I usually was. I realized, ‘This is really important, I’m learning to apply the Alexander principles in movement!’ That was really a turning point.
Why did you develop your own technique? I started choreographing almost the same time I started to dance professionally. In the beginning I choreographed on
my fellow dancers. Soon my work became too specific for them and I realized that if I wanted this specific quality, I would have to help them to find it.
In my early classes I made my first attempts to analyze what I was doing and how to teach this. In 1993,
when I joined Amanda Miller’s Pretty Ugly Dance Company, I really went deeper into research on my own body. The other dancers were always taking ballet in the morning, but that was not very helpful for my body. So one day I started to develop my own class, to find a format that would keep me in shape while I was on tour. One other dancer joined me, so that’s basically when Countertechnique as a teaching method started.
I started by thinking about which exercises, from all I had learned over the years, were good for my body. The next question was: Why is this exercise working so well for me? And then: Why is it working this way, but not when I approach it that way? I started to basically analyze everything I had learned until then and very soon I found I was doing something essentially different from other teachers.
What did you find? When I would teach movement phrases, dancers would try to copy them and then afterwards couldn’t walk anymore! So I started to analyze: ‘Why is it so different, what I’m doing? The movements I do seem to be very extreme on other bodies, but they don’t feel extreme to me.’ Since I could do the movement just as easily on the right side as on the left, it was not an intricate choreographic thing that only felt good on my body. They were simply dance steps, but with a different coordination and speed. One day Michael Schumacher and I were doing partnering work and he said to me, ‘When you bring your arms towards me, send your pelvis away from me.’ This created a nice stability. From his remark, I started to think about the concept that if the primary movement moves in one direction, it doesn’t mean the whole body does— another body part can actually be moving the opposite direction so that the first part can move more in the primary direction. With that in mind, I started to reflect more consciously on my own classes. And I realized that whether I was thinking from my fingertips, my whole arm, or from a joint, the outcome was always the same: Two things are moving away from each other. Then I started to work with that principle.
Why did you decide to call this a ‘technique’? Sometimes people say, ‘this sounds like that special training for basketball players that I saw on tv,’ or, ‘it sounds like that method for actors that was developed in Brazil.’ And probably it does! None of these thoughts, taken by themselves, are completely new. When I explain about the kinetic logic of the weight going outside the central axis, and that by sending something else the other direction you can stabilize yourself, it is a physical law. This is nothing new. But to put these different elements together and use it in dancing is definitely a new approach. And because the process to accomplish this takes time, it has become a technique that you need to study in order to master it. That’s why I decided to call it Countertechnique.
Isn’t the term ‘technique’ in some ways contradictory to what you are trying to achieve? The word technique seems to imply a dogmatic restriction, but it’s actually the opposite. Technique is something that gives you tools, offers you possibilities. I hear a lot of choreographers say that they denounce technique or don’t use technique, but what do they mean by that? The assumption seems to be that technique can only restrict. But technique is something different than kicking your leg up high or holding a shape, so people need to rethink what technique is. Technique encompasses different skills one can learn; these skills will add up to the knowledge of your body, of yourself, and the choices that you make—and will provide you with a range of physical and mental possibilities. So technique is much more than just the aesthetic outcome.
What is your goal with Countertechnique? Countertechnique stems from an interest in helping dancers to have a less strenuous daily practice. It is a really hard profession, and we have a lot of things that work against us. The aim in Countertechnique is to give dancers tools to make it lighter, to make standing on your legs, bending your legs, bending forwards, falling, jumping, and so on, easier. Equally important is to make dancers feel less negative about themselves, to trust themselves, and have them be less judgmental on how they are progressing.
How do you communicate that as a teacher? A Countertechnique teacher needs to be interested in the process of helping dancers and have compassion for the fact that when a dancer makes mistakes, it is rarely because of laziness or disinterest but mostly because of misunderstandings or fear. In Countertechnique we’re gentle, yet demanding. The aim is to get a wider range in our movements, a bigger capacity in our bodies. But to go beyond our limits and to stretch our possibilities, we don’t need to forcefully push ourselves. We can achieve this by thinking differently about our bodies and trust the fact it’s actually possible that by using less power and energy, we can create a greater effect.
Do you follow a strict concept in class? Already in the early beginning—inspired by Charles Czarny— I decided that the first part of the class should always be the same, with exercises that you can dream. As professional dancers we need to train our bodies in order to rehearse and perform the work. And assuming the work you’re doing is interesting enough by itself, you don’t want to be busy in class with picking up someone’s steps or choreography. Therefore I was determined, at a very early stage, to never develop a class based on my own choreographic material.
So the first part of all classes is exactly the same? We have, of course, more exercises than can fit into the approximately thirty minutes, but a teacher picks x amount of them so the progression within that time-frame remains the same. In the first part there are always elements that prepare for the rest of class, and where exercises change every two or three days. All the exercises have a clear purpose and a specific name, and there is an entire rule system in how to choose exercises for class. This one is for this, the other one for that, and if you do more of this one, you do less of that one. It might sound dogmatic, but the whole point is that the exercises actually serve as a framework for the dancers to free up their mindset.
How much has the teaching changed over time? First, there were teaching exercises and movement phrases, classes, and finding out that people could not do it. Then it went through the phase of helping dancers find out how to do it, figuring out why they could not do it. Now we are in the process of breaking it down even further. My main interest now is how we train communication between our minds to our bodies, in movement. And what effect does this have on understanding and applying the principles of the Countertechnique?
What ideas or images do you use in your teaching? Countertechnique is a task–oriented approach: it is not an imagery–based or sensory–input approach, which is really distinctly different from, for instance, the Muller Technique and Body–Mind Centering. We don’t use imagery as a teaching tool because it doesn’t work with our task–oriented approach. I am not going to teach the sensations of what I am experiencing while dancing to somebody else. I teach the process, the way into it, so the dancers will have their own, personal sensations.
Are dancers able to relate to that? Some dancers ask, in the beginning, whether they are allowed to feel anything because they come from a background that uses imagery as the source of inspiration to move. And I say to them, ‘Of course you can feel, you are human beings!’ If one wants to use Countertechnique principles, however, he or she should not start out with a fixed idea of what the experience is going to be like. That is the big difference. When you use our task–oriented approach, you can go into a complicated multidirectional turn with a fall and then, while you are in it, you can experience the sensation. Of course. And the sensation can be totally trippy. But you cannot accomplish the same movement sequence by trying to predict beforehand how the experience is going to be; then you are not in the moment of the process.
What is so crucial about this kind of presence? My aim is for the dancer to establish a quality of movement that is so sincere that both the dancer and the viewer experience it as if it was really created in that moment and can never be repeated that way ever again— the dancer in dialogue with his body, the space, his audience, fellow dancers. It is a presence very closely related to improvisation, a presence where the craft of the performer can really stand out. Through Countertechnique the dancer can achieve that same state in a movement that’s choreographed. The person is not busy with the audience’s perception of him- or herself, the person is in the process of ‘doing’. In the doing, all the layers of putting up appearances disappear. And if a dancer works from that, through that, towards that, then movement always becomes more interesting to watch. Always. And I think that’s the key— the key to depart from and to aim for. It is both the pathway and the goal.
How exactly do you accomplish that as a dancer? In Countertechnique, only the process really counts. Certain things you can only do in process, things are all happening at the same time: You turn, and while you do this turn, body parts go in different directions (head makes a circle, right arm goes the opposite way, your working leg is slowly unfolding), and you are also in the process of falling horizontally from your central axis and you change direction in space as well. Moving this way, it is impossible to visualize or predict the out- come. The only way it can work is to go into the process of doing it. You cannot predict the end result; you cannot control movement from one center or the body parts are not able to operate independently of one another. One can only let go. That’s why we say Countertechnique is a very task–oriented way of learning how to move. You are not judging yourself, or hiding that you are judging yourself. You are just there doing your thing: observing, making decisions, being in the flow of the moment—all at the same time.
And how does that translate to your classes? People who see the class for the first time, especially the first half, might think it looks like Cunningham, Limón, Release, even like ballet. We work, for instance, on becoming aware of the space, aware of the people around you, and aware of the trajectory of your weight, your breath, and more—doing this while you do plié, while you turn, while you swing your head, while you détourné. We work on really seeing what is around you, really sensing the floor underneath you, on a very direct and immediate presence. This immediate presence will lead into double presence, which leads into scanning and working with directions and counter directions. The movements and steps simply accompany the dancers in this process–oriented way of observing what’s happening, and in making decisions. That’s why a format using the same exercise progression for the first part of every class is so important; the class serves as a skeleton. Within that skeleton, you can focus on what you want to be working on.
How do you see the future of the Countertechnique? We are, in a way, only at the beginning. The formats on how to use it and in which circumstances are in the process of development. We teach in different places. We have a four-year relationship with Codarts/Rotterdam Dance Academy to implement the Countertechnique into the curriculum of all first, second, third, and fourth year students. In the beginning we only taught senior students, but our experience showed that a dancer has to unlearn so many things in order to be able to move in multiple directions—like having false assumptions about themselves, fear, or being over–judgmental—a lot of things that are basically in the way of just being here, so we thought why not start in the first year so they don’t have to unlearn all this? I am really curious what will result in the next couple of years.
What background do people need in order to teach this technique? At the stage we’re in now, the people who teach this need to have a dance and an Alexander Technique background. They don’t need to be Alexander Technique teachers, but they need to have studied it thoroughly. One has to be very smart in analyzing what is happening in the body, and one needs to understand the refined differences. This you cannot learn in two years; it takes much longer.
What do you think has changed in the last years in respect to technique in general? The whole hierarchy has changed; dancers have become enormously emancipated over the last twenty years. A dancer has a different role in the creative process now, and bodies have different knowledge. I am sometimes shocked, however, to find wherever I teach in the world that people still have similar information in their bodies as twenty-five years ago—very often not helpful to help improve their dancing. That motivated me to really pursue the development of this technique and to try to present it in an accessible format. So I developed the Countertechnique toolbox that, in the end, enables dancers to work independently of a teacher. All this information will eventually become accessible in the format of a Countertechnique website, as well as a workbook for dancers.
Are there new influences on the technique? I am teaching more into the details of specific Countertechnique skills, peeling back more of the layers, and thus discovering more about the essence of it all; this leads to interesting discussions with young and inexperienced dancers, and leads me to think further about what needs to be developed next. The other day I had a discussion with a young dancer on what ‘thought’ is. Is thought coming out of a feeling or an observation, a judgement? Is it coming as a response, or is it an initiation? If we are talking about directing your movement by thinking, for example, and I think, ‘I release my arm joint and I take the weight from my fingers in space,’ is that a thought or an image? Or is it the observation of what is going to happen? Those are things that I find are important to be able to clarify.
Language seems to play an important role. I found that the language we use when teaching is crucial. When something is being explained in dance, we all assume we hear the same, but in practice most dancers interpret what’s being said differently. I think this is a problem we cannot completely solve in the dance world. What is different in Countertechnique is that we specifically address the communication problem so students and teachers are aware of it and communicate about it. I want all the teachers to really know why we do which exercise when, and how, and why it’s there. And to share this gradually with the dancers so they, too, deepen their understanding. Therefore a Countertechnique class is extremely detailed. I want to use some sort of common sense language that is least likely to be misunderstood.
What do you want to give to young dancers? A smile, first and for all. That they trust themselves. And that they feel confident to use their own mind. Not as something rational, not as something holy, not as something apart from the body. Your mind is your body! That’s what I love about the Chinese character for mind: Mind is heart, and heart is mind. I wish we Westerners could express these two notions in one single word because it says everything about how we are, in essence, connected with ourselves.
Interview with Anouk van Dijk by Edith Boxberger, as published in Dance Techniques 2010