In conversation with Marloes van Houten Dutch dancer choreographer and art director who remained undeterred in face of many odds to reach the pinnacle of her dancing career. A brave inspirational dancer who believes in living a passionate & destined life.
RR: Let’s start at the very beginning. When did you start learning to dance? And when did you know you wanted to become a professional dancer?
MvH: Let me answer this question with 2 stories.
a) I remember my mother telling me about my first day at the daycare, I must have been 3 years old. As strong willed I was, I was also observant and a dreamer. The first hour I spent watching, not saying much. Then after an hour, I saw that the radio was lying on one side, I moved quickly put it on my shoulder and walked around singing and dancing to the music. Apparently, I knew clearly what attracted me most as a child. I remember especially that piano gave me goose bumps and my body naturally would swayed and moved as if taken hold of by the music.
b) My mother is a (remedial) teacher and was always focused on getting us to read. So every week we would go to the library and next to the library there was a ballet school. While walking past it, I was pulled towards it like a magnet. I wanted to see what was going on inside. I begged my parents to send me for ballet lessons. Finally they let me go when I was 10. They noticed all I would do in my free time was learning acrobatic tricks in the living room, or trying new (dance) moves. They allowed me to join gymnastics at 7 yrs. Not long after joining I started to compete at regional level, and was invited to a higher competition level but for that I needed to travel far from home and my parents had no possibility to bring me and pick me up, so I stayed on with the regional competition group.
RR: You have a background in cultural geography and development studies, and you are a dancer and choreographer. How do you combine these two sides of your life?
MvH: I am fascinated with movement; movement of people, movement of the body, and about cartography; the body can be seen as a sensory map, with the environment it has been exposed to imprinted on it. I work a lot with the imagery of the body as a landscape, a landscape shaped by the ideas we are exposed to, the experiences we are part of, etc….
Then there is the city as a cartography, where the history (even the undocumented stories) is still omnipresent. Since dancers are trained to fully open up their senses they often pick up on things part of the‘genius loci’(spirit of place) that fall outside of the realm of conservative and mainstream representation.They can use their bodies to tell undocumented stories and redefine the meaning of a place.
In development studies you learn about the history of places and how to develop areas that do not function optimally . As an artist you can use your cultural geography skills to research and understand a place, and pose questions through your performance. The performance then becomes a reflection on what is happening in society and possibly inspires and opens windows of opportunity of how to move forward and bring the flow back.
RR: You had sustained major injuries & were incapacitated for a while and dancing again seemed to be a distant dream. How did the turnaround happen?
MvH: Yes at the age of 27 I strained my body so much that my meniscus were worn out and damaged. They had to be removed. I was advised that I could do what I wanted until it pained. Dancers have a high pain barrier,this means I went beyond what was good for my healing process. I ended up with a reactive knee that refrained me from dancing or even walking normally for 4 years. The doctors told me I would need to accept not being able to walk properly for the rest of my life.
I did a post master in expressive arts performance & education and learnt to use multiple art forms to create…..which made it possible to re-start creative work like community art, art therapy projects, but also art directing interdisciplinary productions.
The second turn around came in 2014 in Hongkong. I learnt how to walk normally by that time and restarted my ballet technique classes. In Hong Kong I learnt more about energy flow and fascia in the body. This supported me to move through pain and blocking my body, so I could continue to train my body back to a more professional level again.
What I learnt in this period is that a lot of my identity was based on ‘performance’:your skill set, what you accomplish, how useful you are. During my injury I needed help from others to get around and my days consisted of just going to the rehabilitation centre and not doing anything useful/spectacular. I learnt that growth is not only determined by going forward, fighting and using your will power, but growth can also mean standing still embracing things and growing roots. I learnt about feminine energy and how to step into it more.
RR: Hong Kong has a special place in your heart. Why is that?
MvH: At first I just came because I won a PhD scholarship. I did not really like the city, it was too overwhelming for me. When I came the second time, in 2014, I merged in the artist world…thats where the fun began
Hong Kong has a vibrant energy to it. Also, there is a strange duality of growth energy, where everything (no matter how extravagant) is possible,but the plumage at the surface/outside is based on a conservative Chinese value system and a society where there is a big gap between rich and poor.Many have grown up in small houses where their parents needed to work long hours to get by and keep up with the high living costs in Hong Kong.
I am fascinated by the mix of innovation vs conservatism, Eastern vs Western medicine, and bustling city life versus the quiet nature. All of this together makes Hong Kong a diverse space, an interesting mix of contrasts residing side by side.
RR: You practice dance not only as performance, but also as therapy/healing. How do you do that? And with whom?
MvH: Yes I studied at the European Graduate School in Switzerland to use Expressive Arts (a mixture of art forms) in performance, education and therapy. My PhD was focused on how dance and choreography can be used when working on identity. Dance, music, drawing, poetry in therapy/healing can be used for the physical, emotional and mental well being. A lot of what feel and how we perceive the world happens at an unconscious level. Our perceptions are shaped by previous experiences stored in our memory and sensations, or as embodied wisdom. The arts support making a connection with these memories and sensations, even if they are traumatic. The arts bring movement to trauma, stored in the body as excessive flight/fight energy that has not been released causing pain and suppression of pain through destructive habits.
RR: You recently played Lady Fortuna in the Dutch National Opera production of The New Prince? How was the experience?
MvH: Great experience. The art director Lotte de Beer had a really interesting take on Opera, she wanted to breath new life into the opera scenes. The New Prince a revu show was a fusion of musical and opera.
The cast from US,Italy London and The Netherlands was a brilliant group and it was a great experience to work with such talent.. The theme, a reflection on power and the misuse of it, appeared highly relevant to the current times of political upheaval. Lady Fortuna’s means ‘she who brings’and stands for the Feminine in all her glory.
I currently experience a global shift that is about to happen where patriarchal systems are confronted, teased and hopefully altered by everyday Fortuna’s, by feminine leadership. Power and leadership need the feminine and masculine to contribute and bring their qualities and expertise to the table.
Many sectors in society still are pre-dominantly patriarchal. We need the Lady Fortuna’s to sit at the directors table, and be part of high level decision making on national and international issues.
Written byDr Rituparna Roy
Ritu lives in Amsterdam and teaches at Leiden University College and the Leiden Institute of Area Studies. An alumna of Presidency College and Calcutta University, she formerly taught English Literature and has been a Postdoctoral Fellow at The International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden. Author of two books, South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh (2010); and a co-edited ICAS volume, Writing India Anew: Indian English Fiction 2000-2010 (2013). Apart from regular academic work, she writes fiction, occasional columns on India for the IIAS Newsletter, and blogs about Indian Cinema and her life in Netherlands at www.royrituparna.com