Choreography οf Life: Kristīne Brīniņa and Her Documentary Dance Method

Kitija Balcare*

Abstract

This essay aims to characterize the documentary dance method developed by Latvian choreographer Kristīne Brīniņa. In her personal work, Brīniņa experiments with authenticity through verbatim and documentary theatre techniques, combining them with contemporary dance in the form of site-specific theatre. Her approach prioritizes devising with performers to ensure the inclusive engagement of all participants. In Brīniņa’s work—in documentary dance theatrical performances—the body becomes a social text reflecting current issues in society, simultaneously on both a collective as well as an individual scale, thus enabling a contemporary form of storytelling through the language of everyday movements.

Keywords: documentary dance, verbatim, authenticity, site-specific theatre, theatre of the real, Kristīne Brīniņa, performing arts in Latvia

Introduction

On 23 November 2023, Kristīne Brīniņa received the annual award as the best choreographer in Latvia for her choreography of Hamlet at the Mikhail Chekhov Riga Russian Theatre. When receiving the award, instead of expressing her gratitude, Brīniņa expressed her outrage at the current socio-political situation in the world outside theatre buildings. She emphatically criticized the rapid decline of biodiversity, the hostility of people in the digital environment and Russia’s aggressive and bloody war in Ukraine. At the end of her speech, the choreographer laid down on the stage floor in a silent pose illustrating a cut-down tree. She had adopted the same pose a few days earlier in a ceremony enacted by environmental activists during a silent protest against the deforestation of old-growth forests in Latvia in front of politicians’ windows outside the Cabinet of Ministers.

Choreographer Kristīne Brīniņa at the annual theatre award ceremony “Spēlmaņu Nakts” (“Night of Players”), 23 November 2023. Photo: Matīss Markovskis

Although the choreographer received the award for her choreography for a dramatic theatre performance on a classical theatre stage, Kristīne Brīniņa also creates her own theatrical works. Besides choreographies for theatre performances in conventional venues in Latvia, Brīniņa develops original productions exploring both the beauty and bitterness of everyday life in relation to the local communities. These works are based on a documentary approach to community stories and their translation into the language of everyday movement in site-specific theatrical performances. Brīniņa describes her artistic approach as a documentary dance method—a method where movement becomes the main means of documenting everyday life itself and through that movement engaging spectator empathy:

I document and then I try to understand from that particular documentary material what it is that I see, what particular language and movement expresses it all, including the text. I document and observe dance in it – the documentary method of dance, that’s what I do. The documentary method opens up a space for whatever else dance can become. Personally, I can no longer draw the boundaries—now it’s a choice of what I take from all this dance, what is the most important thing to put into a particular work.

qtd. in LSM.lv 2022

It is important to highlight Brīniņa’s practice for several reasons. Firstly, she represents the  experience of the first Latvian choreographers who did not have to deal with political constraints during Soviet reality and censorship.  Secondly, Brīniņa uses her education and experience as a choreographer for the creation of written theatrical work, combining movement with dramaturgy, drawn from the documentary experiences of diverse communities. Thirdly, Brīniņa reveals her approach as a woman-choreographer to storytelling in which an ethics of care and an exploration of socially essential relationships are evident.

This essay explores Kristīne Brīniņa’s approach to working with documentary techniques in two performances (theatre and performance are used synonymously making a distinction from performance art – K.B.) made during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first instance can be seen in the site-specific performance in an urban square Trajectories of Childhood (Izdzīvot bērnus, 2021). The performance highlights the relationship between children and their parents who embody their own children, physically and mentally. Parents become performers and explore their children’s movements in the research process, creating emotional links across generations.

The second instance can be seen in the performance-walk River (Upe, 2021), choreographed with young actors of Liepaja Theatre as a site-specific performance, highlighting personal stories of a local community in one of Latvia’s cities, while poeticizing them through the language of movement. By using documentary research, Brīniņa translates movements and words into intimate stories which unfold within everyday landscapes. Thus, in her theatrical works, the body becomes a social text, while the performance itself turns into a form of contemporary storytelling through the language of authentic movements.

Choreographer Kristīne Brīniņa, 2023. Photo: Lilita Baumane

In the discussion below, I explain how Kristīne Brīniņa uses a documentary approach which combines verbatim principles, physical theatre and dance. In the first section, I describe the historical context of contemporary dance in Latvia, taking into account the post-Soviet legacy in the country in order to place Brīniņa’s practice within the theatrical landscape of Latvia. In the second section, I explore the body as a social text according to Brīniņa’s approach, which aims to achieve authenticity in theatre. Finally, I explore documentary dance as a form of theatre of the real (Martin 2013), a synthesis of verbatim, physical theatre and devised theatre.

Contextual Landscape: Body as Social Text Through Time

As Susan Au has observed, “Modern dance can be adapted to suit the artistic needs of performers of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds” and, furthermore, “contemporary modern dance frequently employs a narrative style that defies conventional storytelling techniques” (Au 195). Kristīne Brīniņa asserts this thesis in her practice, which she characterizes as follows: “I am interested in people’s stories and experiences that help me to better understand myself, society and the time in which I live. Documented situations and conversations are my main tools for working with dramaturgy and choreography” (qtd. in LSM 2023). Her work resonates with a theoretical approach in which documentary theatre draws primarily on written or visual records, whereas verbatim theatre relies on oral testimonies, often those of marginalized communities and others who did not make it to the frontpage (Nibbelink 375).

Using both documentary theatre and verbatim, Brīniņa also includes features of physical theatre and chooses site-specific forms. Her two most recent projects respond also to the post-pandemic reality in which “a post-pandemic world is more suspicious of the body and of touch” (Evans 413), where one can observe how theatre, by working outside the confines of a building, has experienced “a perceptual shift from a static spatialisation of time to the livelier temporalisation of space” (Hannah 344). Therefore, it is not a coincidence that Brīniņa has synthesized of all these theatrical elements, particularly in times of the pandemic, by globally challenging time in history. This practice also resonates strongly with the vision of researcher Wolfgang Funk, who believes that authenticity is foregrounded at crucial moments in time (Funk qtd. in Schulz). Before delving into the Brīniņa’s contribution to the documentary dance development in Latvia, I will review the controversial historical context in which social realism and censorship were predominant.

Looking back at the history of dance in the 1960s, we can observe that many Western choreographers had moved away from dance as a professional skill, using everyday movements instead as their source and inspiration for dance performances. In such an approach, “everyday took centre stage as subject matter for performance” (Kolb 431). At that time, according to dance researcher Alexandra Kolb, aesthetic strategies were created to close the gap between art and everyday life. For instance, one of the founders of Judson Dance Theatre, American choreographer and dancer Trisha Brown, used her iconic site-specific work to highlight the simple act of a person, dressed in casual clothing, walking in an urban environment, in her production Man Walking Down the Side of Building (1970). In this work, she focused on everyday movements and their relations to dance through emphasis on individual gestures (Finbow).

The meaning of everyday movements was created through the context provided by the choreographer. This process of meaning-making also coincides with the experience of Brīniņa. When asked at what point she realised that everyday movements had become art, she answered: “There has to be a clear answer to the question of what the performance is about” (qtd. in Balcare, “Pārrakstīt stāstus kustībās”). A fully contextualized history of Latvian choreography must convey the harshness of the Soviet occupation of Latvia and the psychological realism of the Iron Curtain; during this period, dance served mainly as an illustration or interlude, yet underground sporadic efforts were made by the avant-garde—for instance, pantomime as a means of challenging the existing political regime. According to Latvian dance researcher Dita Jonīte, in the 1960s and 1970s the Riga Pantomime Ensemble with Roberts Ligers and Ansis Rūtentāls Movement Theatre first appeared: Ligers and Rūtentāls are perceived as pioneers in contemporary dance practice in Latvia, drawing attention as they did to the bodies of the performers (Jonīte, “Choreographer in Contemporary Theatre” 68). As Elswit notes, “The ampersand between theatre and dance has such a long history that it might in fact be more useful to consider their currently accepted separation to be the anomaly” (3).

Theatre as a cultural form offers significant possibilities for framing and understanding the body (Conroy 11), given that “the body is a site of power and site where power can be questioned” (5–6). During the Soviet occupation of Latvia, when censorship was the norm, the body on stage was simply an object for official storytelling within a frame of social realism. However, underground movements, such as pantomime and other non-verbal performing arts, planted the first seeds of freedom which bore fruit in 1991, when Latvia, together with other Baltic States Lithuania and Estonia, regained independence from Russia. The Soviet occupation of Latvia had a significant impact on the development of contemporary dance throughout the country. 

Kristīne Brīniņa (ex. Vismane, born in 1987) is among the first of the Latvian choreographers free of the unbearable legacy of the Soviet occupation.  She grew up in an independent country, received an education in contemporary dance and was brave enough to challenge the previously existing borders of dance performances: she blurred the lines between dance performance and dramatic theatre, emphasized documentary and explored places outside conventional theatre halls. Kristīne Brīniņa studied in Riga Choreography School (1997–99), graduated from the regional sports high school Murjāņi Sports Gymnasium (2006) and completed the Bachelor of Arts degree in contemporary dance from the Latvian Culture Academy (2011). At this latter institution, she created a dance performance entitled Holotropic Breathing (Holotropā elpošana, 2011), an exploration of inner freedom; in her words, “it is about indulging in Marcel Proust’s spontaneous writing with body ink” (see Dance.lv). After graduation she continued to develop professionally by participating in masterclasses in Israel, Austria, Belgium, U.S,A., Italy, Netherlands and Venezuela, and, in the process, she internalized various approaches to choreography.

Choreographer Kristīne Brīniņa. Photo: Anrijs Požarskis

A new generation of contemporary dance choreographers, active in Latvia for only two decades, have gradually brought contemporary dance to various stages and diverse sites. As Jonīte points out, “they have significantly influenced both the aesthetics of their productions and developed the degree of participation and co-responsibility in dramatic actors” (“Choreographer in Contemporary Theatre” 66), since these artists have no personal experience of political struggle during the period of Soviet occupation. This new generation, including Brīniņa, has developed the field of contemporary dance and added novel theatrical layers to dance, including devised theatre, community theatre, documentary theatre and others, to express the current socio-political moods of society. These new trends allow young Latvian choreographers to explore current complex realities, similar to the practice of contemporary European choreographers such as Jérôme Bel of France and Christian Winkler of Germany. These latter two choreographers also express an interest in linguistic acts which illuminate the political responsibility of speaking and suggest a means of coping with social anxieties (Czirak 504). Productions created by these two European choreographers strongly resonate with contemporary social and environmental issues, a key point of interest for the Latvian choreographer Kristīne Brīniņa.

As a representative of the third generation of artists who graduated from professional contemporary dance programs, Brīniņa came into the spotlight in the 2010s, experimenting with existential topics. For her very first solo performance, ZEIR (ZEIR, 2011), Brīniņa found inspiration in meeting a woman picking mushrooms in the forest. Next, she staged a follow-up performance What Is ZEIR? (Kas ir ZEIR? 2012), devised as a conversation with scenographer Rūdolfs Baltiņš. In this second work, she continues to ask what dance is and is not, and what one should and should not do in the theatre (Jonīte, “Laikmetīgās dejas” 297). From the very beginning of her artistic practice, Brīniņa finds inspiration in everyday life situations while, at the same time, broadening her personal view of what contemporary dance is.

Hamlet, director: Viesturs Kairišs, Mikhail Chekhov Riga Russian Theatre, 2023. Photo: Inese Kalniņa

Since then, she has choreographed both classical plays and original drama, including documentary theatre and devised theatre on socio-political and ecological topics. At the beginning of her career, she created solo performances as self-reflection but then turned to devised theatre performances with an emphasis on real-life stories. Her extensive professional skill and interests are apparent not only in constructing imagined reality, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet (2023) by Latvian director Viesturs Kairišs, but also in reconstructing factual events without a fictional layer, such as the stadium performance by Latvian director Valters Sīlis Victory Is a Moment (2020), the reconstruction of a historically significant football match between Latvia and Turkey in 2003. Throughout her career thus far, Brīniņa has consistently gone her own way to create original theatre. In 2021, she received an award for contributing to the development of Latvian dance, a concrete recognition of her work to expand the boundaries of choreography and reflect on social issues.

Victory Is a Moment, director: Valters Sīlis, Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival, 2020. Photo: Lilita Baumane
Searching for the Aesthetics of the Everyday

With regard to the role of the body in theatre, British theatre scholar Colette Conroy views the body as a means to consider the points which connect people and the world (32). Brīniņa’s approach incorporates a view of everyday life and people through the magnifying glass of theatre in order to resonate with spectators. Embedding theatre in everyday life and society, documentary theatre shows what stories are told and suggests which stories should be narrated more often (Nibbeling 374).

It has been noted that “theatre of the real includes documentary theatre, verbatim theatre, reality-based theatre, theatre-of-fact, theatre of witness, tribunal theatre, nonfiction theatre, restored village performances, war and battle re-enactments and autobiographical theatre” (Martin 5); these forms attempt to reconstruct, represent or reframe reality by utilizing collected information, both verbal and nonverbal. In her study of the theatre of the real, American scholar Carol Martin highlights how understanding the real has gradually shifted from prioritizing verbatim sources and documentary to recognizing a variety of forms and methods (Martin 4); this shift resonates with Brīniņa’s search for authenticity in dance performances. She works with entire families, both parents and children, and projects the individual worldviews and authentic movements of the children into the bodies and minds of their parents.

In theatre studies, the concept of verbatim (Latin for “word for word”) is closely linked to storytelling and is often associated with a socio-anthropological approach to creating dramatic material for theatrical performance. As verbatim theatre is a form of documentary drama based on recorded material from real-life characters and events (Paget 317), documentary dance, by analogy, is a form of storytelling based on material recorded by performers and translated into movement. As noted by playwright Rony Robinson, pioneer of the verbatim method, interviews with so-called “ordinary” people are then dramatized by the performers who conducted the interviews (qtd in Paget 317).

The term “verbatim”designates both a particular theatrical technique as well as the method used to create dramaturgical material. As Brīniņa uses this approach, however, her interest is deepened by engaging “ordinary”people; that is to say, non-professionals or amateurs. In her work, children are interviewed, and their everyday movements are noted; these same children are then interpreted by their real-life parents as characters in a performance.

River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Liepāja Theatre, 2021. Photo: Justīne Grinberga

Such parent-performers are challenged to embody their children and adopt their points of view, thereby shaping a documentary dance performance. Combining verbatim theatre with a creative process that involves the local community allows the choreographer to experiment with content and form. As theatre researcher and dramaturg Synne Behrndt emphasizes, “the devising process is more akin to an experimental laboratory . . . the deviser has to create material whilst simultaneously drawing up potential structure or a holding form” (370).

At the beginning of her professional career, Brīniņa worked with the Latvian New Theatre Institute (Latvijas Jaunā teātra institūts). Through her work with local communities, she found pleasure in working with people who were not involved in the performing arts: “Gradually, through colleagues and friends, I learned different ways of documenting, not only to capture the present, but also to bring the present to the stage.” Such an approach to choreography could designated as “social anthropological,” a label also used by Brīniņa.  As Brīniņa observes,

Each of my works is an exploration of the limits of documentality. My desire to explore motivates my current research for my MA thesis, which aims to explore the boundary between documentality and fiction; I focus on performances in which documentary facts are interpreted or conveyed through different artistic means (qtd. in Balcare, “Pārrakstīt stāstus kustībās”).

Thus, in her own original work, Brīniņa aims to rewrite stories through the medium of physical movement. When working with the actors, the choreographer leaves space in the drama for them to create or add their own illustrations of the movement. She also writes down the movements based mainly on associations:

I really try to characterize the movements in writing. This includes a physical description, as well as an assessment of how the movement, the gesture, will accompany the text. Sometimes I write it down in words, based on associations. Others would wonder at my notation, look at me with amazement and wonder if I am all there. I am. . . . Sometimes I add illustrations to my notes so that I can remember how high or at what angle to raise my hands.”

qtd. in Balcare, “Pārrakstīt stāstus kustībās”

Bearing in mind that “authenticity is a transient and elusive state” (Schulz 80), Brīniņa aims to translate verbatim stories into theatrical language but without losing intimacy. She leaves behind the conventional theatre hall, enters a mundane environment, keeps everyday clothing for performers and rewrites everyday movements in their bodies, adding various life stories which could be personal, if not for the spectator in particular then for friends, neighbours or colleagues. Brīniņa generalises the documented experience without losing her close-up view of experience; she preserves the unique individuality of movement, intonation and expression.

River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Liepāja Theatre, 2021. Photo: Valters Pelns

As British scholar-choreographer Kate Elswit points out, “a body onstage is not an end in itself, but a gateway to alternative ways of thinking and knowing that occur all the time with and through the body” (Elswit 9). For Kristīne Brīniņa, the body is neither an object nor a demonstration of the capacities of the performer’s body; rather, the body represents selective movements in nonverbal narratives which are inclusive and intimate and which strive for authenticity. Movements of performers are psychologically grounded and thus support socially sensitive and personal narratives previously collected by performers themselves via the devising process. The language of the body is foregrounded in crucial moments; for example, when one relates painful memories of family abuse or searches for answers to questions of life and death. Using the language of the body, the choreographer approaches spectators through purely tactile means: when words are too heavy to narrate a verbatim story, a bodily memory is more expressive than selected words.

Conroy first considers what bodies are visible on stage; secondly, she considers how the actor’s body becomes a neutral channel of communication that can be rehearsed for a particular character without losing the aura of the personal (5–6). As noted above, Brīniņa prefers to work with amateurs, such as children and their parents, as well as young actors, and she assumes the role of a neutral medium, retelling stories of local people from Liepāja while protecting their anonymity. In her work, Brīniņa addresses relevant contemporary issues—for example, societal violence, motherhood, isolation and solitude, crime and incarceration, ecology and the environment—and often chooses to work directly with non-professionals and amateurs in dance, some of whom are not even actors. She has, thus, expanded the social dimension of movement and dance in Latvian theatre and dance in general.

Boajan Cvejić, professor of dance theory, argues that choreography and performance “have a capacity to structure bodies, movements, gestures, spatial arrangements, and thus propose, instill or rehearse another social order rather than being reflective of an existing one” (qtd. in Oren). The ability to talk about challenging social issues and ask uncomfortable questions through documentary dance characterizes the work of Kristīne Brīniņa as choreographer; direct interaction with the local community is a crucial component of her performances. Her interests lie in the extraordinary lives of ordinary people and their attitudes toward life; in discussing the importance of collaborating with non-professionals, Brīniņa noted, “I don’t know if the people involved in my performances realise how important they are to me” (qtd. in Leščinska).

Brīniņa’s approach resonates with that of musical theatre scholar Stacy Wolf and choreographer Liza Gennaro, who note that “what is deemed to be too explicit for the spoken word to express finds ‘voice’ in dance” (Wolf and Gennaro 164). Wolf and Gennaro proposed seven primary functions of dance in musicals; these are dance as an exploration of character, a narrative tool, an unspoken aspect of libretto, a transitional device, a means to develop character, a metaphor and an abstraction within the narrative (148).

For Brīniņa, body movements are psychologically purposeful: on the one hand, they provide a generalisation of everyday movement; on the other hand, they embody a vivid visual metaphor. An instance of this approach can be seen in a segment of the performance River: spectators, as they make their way to the performance, witness two men embracing in a cemetery as they form a still monument without movement or language. In Cunningham’s work, stillness is also a valid choreographic choice (Au 165). Later in the performance, after one of the performers depicts his routine life, there is a sudden shift to the synchronous movements of two actors who project a sense of longing for a friend who has passed away but whose imaginary image is clearly visible; these actors are the same two performers whom spectators have seen embracing in a cemetery at the beginning of the performance.

River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival, 2021. Photo: Lita Millere
River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Liepāja Theatre, 2021. Photo: Justīne Grinberga

Another segment from the same performance of River is the soliloquy of a beautifully dressed long haired woman. She shares her memories of her youth until her story is interrupted by the entrance of her abusive husband on an imaginary stage in the yard of apartment buildings where she works as a janitor. Instead of relating her violent experience through language, she interprets her painful story through a bodily illustration of violence, suggesting an invisible, violent hand which grips her hair and sweeps the ground with her beautiful body clad in light blue clothing which is soiled as a result. Such experiences which Brīniņa expresses through bodily movement are deeply painful and sincere. The synthesis of verbal narrative and physical movement conveys harshness in the of lives of characters, whom the author describes with a conciliatory lightness as she asks how to start one’s life again after experiencing loss.

River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Liepāja Theatre, 2021. Photo: Justīne Grinberga

Striving for authenticity, Brīniņa often uses site-specific forms for performances set in urban spaces, as does American choreographer Merce Cunningham in his performance Events. His production did not require a formal stage, as it could be enacted anywhere (Au 165); consequently, a traditional front and centre approach did not exist in his works (156). Using site-specific forms, rooted in the principles of physical theatre and focused on social issues, Brīniņa also assigns agency to particular places and also creates an immersive experience for the audience, merging imagined performance space with real-life landscape. She achieves a high degree of authenticity, creating a feeling that spectators participate in everyday life and feel empathy with those whom they meet.

Brīniņa aims to create a range of environments and types of interactions with the audience in her mono performance-conversation for children Have We Met Before? (Vai esam tikušies agrāk? 2023). The performance lasts approximately fifteen minutes and constitutes a gesture of the post-pandemic era to meet the audience in a variety of places, such as a market square, a nursing home or a library, among others. As dance historian Susan Au emphasizes “site-specific choreography often allows a physical closeness between performers and viewers that is difficult if not impossible to achieve in a proscenium theatre” (Au 207).

Have We Met Before? by Kristīne Brīniņa, 2023. Photo: Lilita Baumane

In the performance-walk River, the audience is in motion and merges with living scenography in context. The choreographer strives for an immersive atmosphere during the performance and erases the classical front and centre approach. Spectators take part in a performance walk within an urban environment, moving along with the performers and searching for the most compelling point of view. Thus, in this documentary dance performance, the boundary between performative action and the spectator arrangement is erased, thereby creating a more authentic experience for the spectator. Kate Elswit, elaborating on the interdependence of dance and theatre, asks, “what does dance look like . . . when movement is defined by something beyond the body?” (68). By adopting the forms of performance used in River, Brīniņa assigns agency to the landscape as it changes throughout the performance, thus adding one more layer of authenticity to her dance dramaturgy and arousing empathy among the audience.

Performers in Brīniņa’s works are not only stage professionals but also members of the local community with no experience in performing arts. For Brīniņa, the performing body is a subject through which we see the subject’s point of view toward imagined reality, based on documentary facts and, therefore, legitimized within the broader society. For example, in the performance River, the audience is also in motion: they take part in a performance walk in an urban environment, moving along with the performers and searching for and finding the most compelling point of view. This practice erases the boundary between performative action and spectator arrangement, and thus brings authentic action even closer to the spectator.

River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Liepāja Theatre, 2021. Photo: Anete Zulmane

Authenticity has also been maintained as far as possible in the costume design for both productions. Echoing the approach used in the 1960s by Merce Cunningham in Story (1963), where the dancers themselves chose what they would wear from a range of second-hand clothing (Au 156), the costumes in River were created from clothing found in the theatre. This practice functioned to complement the clothing style of individual performers and also reflected the personal style of the character in question.

In Trajectories of Childhood, most of the clothes came from a second-hand clothing shop, while the themed hoodies were purchased from a print shop. Together with the artist Ieva Kauliņa, the performers selected their clothes as a stylized copy of children’s clothes. As Brīniņa noted, “Thinking about parents trying to fit into their children’s world, it seemed important to translate this awkward but sincere dedication into clothing. So, we copied the prints from the children’s clothes and painted them onto adult clothes” (qtd. in Balcare, Private archive).

Trajectories of Childhood by Kristīne Brīniņa, 2021. Photo from the private archive of Kristīne Brīniņa

If the choreographer focuses on a vision of future society in the performance about children, she records what has already happened in the performance about the inhabitants of Liepāja. Young actors in scenes perform personal and often sad stories as they describe the relationships of city dwellers.

Trajectories of Childhood: Creating Intergenerational Links

Dance historian Susan Au maintains that the use of everyday movements has also contributed to making dance more inclusive; for example, by finding a place for non-professionals in dance performances (Au 209). In this way, the body becomes a social text. A striking example of such inclusivity can be seen in Brīniņa’s documentary performance Trajectories of Childhood. By 2015, Brīniņa had already created a documentary dance performance Catch Me! at Ģertrūdes Street Theatre. It was created by studying the children’s actions, such as walking, playing and frolicking, which the parents of the children tried to reconstruct in the performance following a composition created by the choreographer. The movement material was then supplemented with documentary video footage of the rehearsal process (Jonīte “Dramaturģija” 357). For this performance, Brīniņa named six primary school-age children as her co-choreographers and designated their parents as the performers.

Trajectories of Childhood by Kristīne Brīniņa, 2021. Photo from the private archive of Kristīne Brīniņa

Six years later, the same formula was brought to life again when she created a new documentary work, Trajectories of Childhood, with local residents as part of the Liepāja Art Forum 2021 events in the urban environment. The idea was conceived even earlier, when the choreographer was conducting classes for primary school children at the theatre school Zīļuks and invited them to discover and draw their favourite movements.

Trajectories of Childhood by Kristīne Brīniņa, 2021. Photo from the private archive of Kristīne Brīniņa

The performance of Trajectories of Childhood also included the rules of community written by the children. The choreographer entrusts the movements of the five children to their parents, who were neither professional actors nor dancers but, rather, engaged parents. Each child-parent pairing has its own rhythm of movements, approaching the personality of each child, without unnecessary caricature. There are somersaults, rolling, hiding, accidental shuffling, a lot of philosophising. The work has a circular composition: it begins and ends with a game that involves a wheelbarrow. At the end, the adults disappear unnoticed from the improvised backyard stage, leaving in their place, in a visual social network, the real authors of the movements, the children. As one of the parent-performers Ilze More points out:

This performance so far is one of the most important events in my life in relation to arts and also in my connection with my children. At the beginning I had a feeling of what and how are we going to experience now, because the children behaved quite chaotically, and the threads of their conversations tended to be scattered. Kristīne created a big picture that we, as parents, probably wouldn’t have thought of: the longing of children, the unknown and how they look at it.

qtd. in Balcare, Private archive

This choice of the choreographer is wise for preserving authenticity, entrusting the movements to the parents rather than to actors or dancers, and thereby allowing the performers a great opportunity for self-discovery. It is more effective in its documentary effect on the audience, especially because, at the end of the performance, the real choreographers, the children themselves, enter the imaginary performance venue green square under the large chestnut trees in the seaside city of Liepāja. While theatre researcher and practitioner Daniel Schulz has explored authenticity as an aesthetic strategy, for Brīniņa the attempt to stage the real is no longer an aesthetic strategy but rather a means to achieve authenticity. As theatre researcher Liesbeth Nibbelink has noted, “documentary theatre becomes a tool for investigating the construction and framing of reality”; in other words, a way to “recycle reality” (375).

Trajectories of Childhood by Kristīne Brīniņa, 2021. Photo from the private archive of Kristīne Brīniņa

The documentary performance Trajectories of Childhood is a co-created performance which exemplifies devised theatre; at the same time, it is an attempt for parents to embody their children’s mentality and see the world through their eyes and occupy their shoes. For the spectator, it is an open discovery of the world view of primary school-age children, both in dialogues tied to the realities of the moment, such as the pandemic or the election of Trump, and in movements that reveal attitudes towards each other and the world. Thus, for this performance, the body becomes a social text, documenting this time scrupulously both in attitudes and movements within a specific social group, that of primary school children in 2021. As performer Ilze More observes:

There is one moment in the play when I have to speak my daughter’s lines and I can barely control my tears. “I would like to live forever.” This simple sentence accompanied me with a sad sigh and made me see what is so important about myself, about this performance, about my family, to live every moment with the feeling that we could live forever without regrets.

qtd. Balcare, Private archive
River: Reviving Community Life-stories

Documentality is also present in Brīniņa’s performance walk River (2021), which premiered in the seaside city Liepāja and highlighted stories of various city dwellers in Liepāja. The production featured a documentary dance performance with a devised theatre approach, in which young actors from Liepāja Theatre, many of whom were students, approached local people searching for their personal stories. The performance was inspired by the sensation that loneliness is impossible, which Brīniņa describes as follows,

we are all in constant relation to what is around us: the ground, the bench, the tree, the pet, the friend, the neighbours and everything else that is both near and far from us. Even without seeming to notice each other’s presence, we continue this endless flow of relationships” (qtd. in “Liepājas teātri”).

River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Liepāja Theatre, 2021. Photo: Justīne Grinberga

Brīniņa asked young actors to use a verbatim approach not only for verbal stories but also for non-verbal communication with the people whom they approached. The task included finding and writing a life story and also understanding the body language of interviewees, answering the inner question of why a specific gesture was used by a particular person while telling a personal story. Actors were required to understand the gesture and learn it technically. The author justified this requirement as follows: “It helps not to lose your message, not to fall into your interpretation, but to hold on to the protagonist of the story, becoming the medium of the story” (qtd. in Balcare “Pārrakstīt stāstus kustībās”). Brīniņa’s approach resonates with that of Conroy, who views the body of the actor as neutral medium of communication (6).

Although each story was developed by actors, the choreographer compiled the stories in a dramatic structure with characteristic movements as a performance-walk through the city. Young actors led a two-hour performance walk; energetic, diverse, expressive and flexible, they shifted with ease from children’s yard games to seniors’ garden work, imagining and reliving different ages. The chosen stories are inclusive in that they mirror people of different ages, genders and lifestyles and allow them to transcend the boundaries of a particular story or scene, hearing references to what they have already heard in another scene. This interconnected dramaturgical approach allows us to see more clearly that the islands of outer loneliness of the chosen inhabitants of Liepāja, the protagonists of the performance, are nevertheless located in a single archipelago of islands in the midst of a river. Meanwhile, the performance addresses the issue of underrepresentation of older people in the theatre with regard to their public visibility and isolation, as they are often confined to indoor spaces (Kolb 438). Thus, performance as a walk through several locations not only validates the authentic stories of seniors, giving them a voice in theatre, but also positions them more democratically in an urban environment. This applies to all older members of the community, including those who are spectators for only one episode; for instance, when an episode takes place in their neighbourhood or in front of a shop which they frequent.

River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Liepāja Theatre, 2021. Photo: Valters Pelns

Documentary stories of Liepāja dwellers, based on the actors’ monologues, continue to some extent the socio-anthropological research of Latvian life stories in the theatre initiated by Latvian director Alvis Hermanis and actors from the New Riga Theatre (Jaunais Rīgas teātris) in the 2000s. In Brīniņa’s approach, however, these life stories are not detached from the documentary environment but rather remain within it, enhancing the effect of presence and authenticity without caricaturing characters. The living space of the people interviewed was an important component of the performance River, which expressed time and life flow metaphorically through the urban spaces. The performance was shown in the urban environment of places attached to the authors of the stories; for instance, the yard of a private house or urban garden, which enriched the storyline without imitating context on stage. The inhabitants’ living environment thus created a sense of their presence.

River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Liepāja Theatre, 2021. Photo: Valters Pelns

Documentary dance, choreographed for a specific place outside the classical proscenium theatre stage, also requires the physical proximity of the audience, allowing them to identify more closely with a performance of life stories and embrace what they hear. By not bringing the performance to the theatre stage, the creators of the performance inhabit an actual environment and remain faithful to the awakening empathy in the audience, physically involving them in the shared experience. This encourages a closer and deeper involvement with everyday life and the fellow human beings with whom we share a courtyard, a street or a city. The essential point is that an actor can tell a story neutrally and maintain empathy among the spectators without invoking the voice of the person who experienced the events in the story.

River by Kristīne Brīniņa, Liepāja Theatre, 2021. Photo from archive of Liepāja Theatre

The actors’ monologues provide a framework for stories which are narrated vividly through their own movements; these stories are minimalistic, precise and meaningful. The synthesis of stories and movements includes painful episodes in the lives of the residents of all ages. The author acknowledges their pain but also asks how they might recreate their lives and overcome what appear to be dead ends. This is the essence of the choreographer’s bold agenda: to speak clearly and honestly about painful social issues, but without losing a glimmer of hope.

Conclusion

In the discussion above, two site-specific performances are compared: Trajectories of Childhood and River, both created in 2021 by Kristīne Brīniņa in cooperation with local communities. In both productions, there is an absence of dominant characters, thereby depicting a world of social equality and inclusiveness and acknowledging that each voice and movement matters. Trajectories of Childhood, performed by non-professional actors as a self-reflection on family matters, is located in one neighbourhood yard, whereas River flows throughout the entire city of Liepāja, restaging personal stories of city dwellers collected and enlivened by the young actors of Liepāja Theatre as short scenes from city chronicles. 

The verbatim or documentary theatre approach relies on documentary material such as conversations, interviews and recordings; in her method of documentary dance, however, Brīniņa goes a step further in two ways. First of all, she maintains authenticity through her choice of location, choosing not to remove the story from a specific life setting, but rather to leave it in the environment inhabited by the community. Second, the choreographer maintains the authenticity of the stories, in which words and text are also present, through the documentality of the movements; she transfers movements from their function in life to their role in performance, not as a form of imitation, but as a means to express her vision: “For me, choreography is the awareness of movement and the articulation of the body. When working with video documentation, my choice is primarily one of content, not aesthetics” (qtd. in Balcare, “Pārrakstīt stāstus kustībās”).

This brings movement closer to the illustration of the story, but the balance found in her performances between words and movements also makes these two artistic means of expression equally important: they complement each other to achieve an understanding of actual lived experience via metaphorical representation. Therefore, I view performance as neither dance performance nor a documentary performance but, rather, as documentary dance performance as created by Kristīne Brīniņa, based on the holistic documentation of life stories, supplementing verbal expression with nonverbal expression rooted in everyday movements. Brīniņa’s works take the spectator outside of classical theatre venues, reducing the distance between art and everyday life, while adding a level of metaphorical representation to everyday routine through contextualized bodily movement. Therefore, for Brīniņa, the documentary dance method, rooted in verbatim physical theatre and devised theatre principles, is a personal form for the theatre of the real.

Note:  This research is funded by the Ministry of Culture, Republic of Latvia, project “Cultural and creative ecosystem of Latvia as a resource for resilience and sustainability”/CERS, project No. VPP-MM-LKRVA-2023/1-0001. 


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*Kitija Balcare (Mg.sc.hum.) is a Latvian theatre critic and research assistant at the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia. Currently she is working on a PhD degree at the University of Latvia. Her research interests include environmental humanities, posthumanism, ecocriticism, documentary theatre with a particular focus on ecology and sustainability in the performing arts. She is a member of the scientific committee for the project Sustainable Theatre Alliance for a Green Environmental Shift (STAGES). She also writes popular science publications on issues related to the environment and sustainability. Contact information: k.balcare@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2024 Kitija Balcare 
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