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Johan Inger brings a distinctive Swedish flavor to contemporary dance -- it isn’t easy to pinpoint the specifics, but the honesty, humanity, and humor shine through. Classically trained, he gravitated swiftly to contemporary dance as a high-profile performer and later choreographer with Nederlands Dans Theater. His works, contemporary dance with a classical edge, and recently including highly successful narratives, are in the repertoire of companies across Europe and the USA.
ICONS: You trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School and joined the Royal Swedish Ballet Company in 1985. Was there any training in choreography at the school? Were there choreographic workshops in the company?
Johan Inger: No. At that time, we just wanted to become good dancers. We were like young stallions wanting to turn and jump as high as possible. Of course, I thought about choreography. I’d played with the idea but didn’t see myself in that environment. I first came in touch with choreography when I joined Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT). I was 23 years old, and there was a yearly workshop that everybody signed up for. I thought, ‘why not? I’ll do two minutes. If it’s bad, at least it’s over quickly.’ That was the start but I discovered something at that moment and it became a sort of drug, an addiction. You create something, you give it away, and you no longer have complete control. You’re sitting in the audience rather than dancing it yourself. There was something at that moment that I thought was exciting, and I felt both vulnerable and powerful. I could reach an audience in another way, communicating not through my dancing but through choreography. That I thought was extremely interesting.
ICONS: What inspires you to shape movement? Where do your ideas come from?
JI: If I do a more abstract work, then the music is often the inspiration. (I don’t like the word ‘abstract’, since we are all human, but …) I get images through the music. I listen to it, it touches me, and I start to see situations. At other times I’ll have a very clear idea of something I want to address, and then I try to find music for it. So, it’s a little different each time. For me, a big step into the choreography is through the music, so I find it difficult to work with composers and commissioned scores.
ICONS: How different is the process for a narrative work?
JI: There is a lot of planning before I go into the studio, and I absolutely love it! I will meet with my dramaturg Gregor Acuna Pohl several times a week in the morning, plan the piece scene by scene and select each detail of the music. I love to do narratives because you really have to plan. Then the challenge is to go into the studio and create it and, of course, also to find the magic. But you know where you are going because you are following the story.
It came to me when I was creating Carmen that I feel comfortable telling a story, and maybe I am a storyteller, though I may not always be good or successful. When I embarked on the project, I felt that all the ballets that I had watched and have been part of since I was 11 at the Royal Swedish Ballet School had an impact on me and were somewhere in my DNA. There was the knowledge; I knew a little bit about how to do it. This happened quite recently and was a new opening so I’m really happy about that.
Now when creating more abstract work, I dare to be a little bit bolder; I maybe use choreographic patterns that I can’t really approach in a narrative because they don’t belong in that world. There are things that influence me and things I can try. And always have good people around to push me.
ICONS: You have been both company director and freelance choreographer. Do you prefer to create with your own selected group of dancers? Is there a different choreographic challenge in working with new, unknown dancers?
JI: I’ve reflected on this a lot. Yes, it’s great to have a company to work with creatively because you can keep on building from where you last left off. You can work very quickly because you start to know each other, and there is a certain flow. This leaves time to focus on other things. That part is very exciting, but it comes at a price. The price is that you have to manage those people, and that wasn’t really my cup of tea. Then, as a freelance choreographer, you arrive, and you’re the flavor of the month. You come with a completely different energy that also creates energy and gives you a high. But, of course, you might, at certain points, have to compromise on what you would have done if you had a company. Or a group that you have been working with for a long time. But if I honestly look at myself, at who I am, I would say what is best for me is to be a freelance or a house choreographer.
ICONS: Do you try out specific sequences with your favorite dancers before meeting a company?
JI: I have done it, but rarely and only when I have very little time. Then I will start creating with a couple of dancers here. But I’ll think twice before I do. With new dancers, what I like to do with each new work is spend a couple of days creating what I call a ‘bank’ of material that we can steal from when we are in the creative process. I like to spend time getting to know the dancers while they get to know me a bit. So, there are a couple of days of playing around and finding that material.
ICONS: What do you ask of your dancers in the studio? Do you expect your dancers to be co-creators who are able to take risks?
JI: I don’t improvise, of course when someone does a move in a different way that I like, that is great, and we keep it. It goes a little bit both ways but for me, what is important is that I can recognize myself in the piece. If I would ask dancers to create a section and it’s not mine, that would be dishonest towards the work, towards me, and towards the dancers. So I have made the bank, and then the dancers can play with the choreography in the bank. We can turn it upside down and do whatever we want with it, but it’s still sort of within me, it still comes from my DNA. In some companies, the dancers just want to choreograph, and they want to be as much a part of it as possible. Later I go to another company and they expect to be spoon fed, so I can’t rely on consistency. Also, I’ve never learned improvisation techniques myself, so I don’t have the tools to give them.
ICONS: You’ve worked a lot with the young company, NDT2. That must be a very special environment.
JI: They are very talented, they are very fresh, and they will follow you to the end of the earth. Other companies are going to be more questioning and judgemental. NDT2 are like open books, they want to learn, and they plunge into it. That gives a certain energy. They probably get the best pieces because they are so open.
ICONS: What sort of atmosphere do you try to create in the studio?
JI: For me, I’ve come to realize more and more I need the dancers to feel creatively safe so they can try things so that they can exaggerate and they can even fall on their ass. I try to create a good, positive atmosphere in the studio so we can try things, and I can say, ‘my idea is rubbish’. We must all feel trusted and not judged.
ICONS: It is also a vulnerable time for the choreographer.
JI: Yes, of course, the choreographer is probably the most insecure one in the room. So, I try to give as much as I can; I try to be silly, so they dare to be silly so that they can be themselves. There should be very little prestige in the studio in order to make good work.
ICONS: As a choreographer, when is your happiest time? In the studio, during first stage rehearsal, or watching the finished product?
JI: The process of choreography is a little bit mysterious; sometimes, it just flows, and you have the wind in your sails. Being in the studio with the dancers when it’s going well, and you’re having fun when you discover things that maybe you didn’t think you could find – that is really exciting. That would be my reason for putting the studio as number one for happiness. The first stage rehearsal is always a nightmare. You see the piece for the first time at a distance because you’ve been sitting with it in the studio, you’re close up, and it has great energy. Then you move out, and you see all the mistakes that you didn’t see in the studio! Later you sit in a premiere; you’re proud of what you’ve done. You’ve managed to communicate to the audience, and they appreciate what we have accomplished in work. That is also extremely rewarding.
ICONS: What is consistent in your work?
JI: Well, I think I would say humanity - as pretentious as it sounds. I’ve always been interested in human relations, what our failures are, and how we can be so beautiful and so ugly at the same time. I also think, when I look back on what I’ve done, there has been a lot on the themes of relationships between men and women or with mothers. There have been a lot of themes about us as people, as individuals, how we try and how we fail in moving forward. How we sometimes achieve our ambitions or our journeys. When I make a piece, I like to see it as a journey. I also like to make a piece that can include more than just dance, it can make me laugh, make me cry, or it can make me think. It can move me, and it can confuse me. If I can manage to create a journey that has different flavors in it, that would be ideal.
ICONS: In this way, you seem to resemble Mats Ek. Was he an influence?
JI: Yes, when I started choreographing, I was always compared to him, and it bothered me, but now I sort of embrace it, and I’ve grown to think of him as my artistic father. Choreographically, a big awakening for me was seeing Cullberg Ballet and Mats Ek’s ballet, ‘Gamla Barn’, many years ago when I was still in ballet school. I didn’t know dance could be like that. I didn’t know in dance, you could laugh and cry; it was such a human adventure. I was trained as a classical dancer, and I was in a classical environment. I saw this new style, and it shook my world, so to speak. So now I know that he is my artistic father, and there are both inspirations and continuations. We share things and have similar backgrounds, and I’m okay with that. I was drawn into his world, and it had a great impact on me.
ICONS: In your Carmen, we witness domestic violence. Is it important to link happenings in the world to show dance as a relevant developing art?
JI: Absolutely. I would never describe myself as a political choreographer, but we are all human and affected by what is happening around us. Consciously or unconsciously, that will affect the decisions that you make and how you see and approach your work.
ICONS: What would you, the Johan of today, advise the young Johan just starting out?
JI: I would say try do as much as you can, and don’t worry if you fail. You are going to meet your failures later. You will meet your ideas and all the stuff you tried at the beginning as an older choreographer, so go for it, and don’t take yourself too seriously. See it as a long process and be forgiving.
ICONS: Where do you see the place of dance in the future?
JI: Dance has always been the ugly child of the opera house, but it is the branch now that is doing best. I still see dance being attractive to a younger audience while a lot of the other art forms struggle to attract younger audiences. I can see dance having a future.
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MORE DETAILS AND BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION ABOUT JOHAN INGER:
SAMPLE VIDEO TRAILERS:
CARMEN, choreography by Johan Inger, Compañía Nacional De Danza, Spain, 2017:
IMPASSE, choreography by Johan Inger, Netherlands Dans Theater 2, 2022:
Photography © Bengt Wanselius, Portrait of choreographer Johan Inger
1) Photography © Viola Berlanda, Don Juan, choreography by Johan Inger, Aterballetto 2020
2) Photography © Joris-Jan Bos, IMPASSE, choreography by Johan Inger, NDT-1, 2020
3) Photography © Ismael Lorenzo, Rain Dogs, choreography by Johan Inger, Ballet Theater Basel, 2011
4) Photography © Alice Blangero, Petrushka, choreography by Johan Inger, Ballets de Monte Carlo, 2018
5) Photography © Celeste Lombardi, Don Juan, choreography by Johan Inger, Aterballetto, 2020
6) Photography © Celeste Lombardi, Don Juan, choreography by Johan Inger, Aterballetto, 2020
7) Photography © Jesús Vallinas, Carmen, choreography by Johan Inger, Compania Nacional de Danza, 2015
Photography © Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images, Choreographer Johan Inger
Photography © Yan Revazov, Out of Breath, choreography by Johan Inger, Stuttgart Ballet 2022
Photography © Joris-Jan Bos, IMPASSE, choreography by Johan Inger, NDT-2, 2020
CREATIVE TEAM ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:
Interviewer: Maggie Foyer
Executive Content Editor: Camilla Acquista
Executive Assistant: Charles Scheland
Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov
Dance ICONS, Inc., February 2023 © All rights reserved.