“Rhythm makes you brave” – an interview with Marije Nie

Amsterdam – This year there have been demonstrations all over the world in the spirit of the Arabian Spring. The reason might be the raise of a bus ticket (Brazil), or the removal of public space (Turkey). No doubt that there is a deeper dismay. The demonstrations are basically peaceful, but somehow the authorities don’t know how to handle the situation and sometimes the situation turns out to be extremely violent. During the demonstrations in Ukraine this week, an EU-decorated piano was placed in front of the riot squad. The 22-year old person was playing Opus 64 of Chopin as a protest (NRC). Maybe it is a bit surreal, but it certainly made an effect. In almost every demonstration music plays a major or a minor role.

by Charlie Crooijmans

A month ago News and Noise spoke to Marije Nie. She is a ‘musician with her feet: a dancing percussionist’. Pioneering in avant-garde tap dance, she always tries to find a connection with different cultures. This year Nie got involved unexpectedly in the protests of Istanbul this year. It had a major impact on her and it will be part of the dance film she and her friend, the German documentary filmer Eva Stotz, are working on. The project is called One Million Steps and it’s about the rhythm of a modern city.

How did it all start?

“Eva and I met through a mutual friend. We spent time travelling together, went to some crazy festivals and we did a retreat in a little French island, where we really connected. We realized that we were both working with rhythm. As a documentary maker, Eva wants to know about the speed of a place, how people move, and the architectural rhythm. For me as a tap dancer, rhythm is the basic source. With million steps you can travel a long distance, but I stay at one place, it’s a different journey. This is why we wanted to make a dance film, about the difference in using your steps. It has got to be in a big city, where there is a lot of movement, to find out what happens if you bring these differences together.”

Why did you choose Istanbul?

“It was December 2012 and I had a concert in Istanbul. Eva was free and we said, well, Istanbul seems like the perfect place. It’s familiar in a European way, but it is still like an adventure. Going into the unknown is a big part of the steps you take in your life. Istanbul as a city symbolizes cross roads and turning points. It’s a global city where the old and the new are intensely mixed. The journey of this country to modernity and democracy is a long one. Now there is a particular difficult, interesting phase. So all these things came together for us, and we came there and we felt right about it.”

How did you start filming?

“We didn’t plan anything. The first place where we filmed was just outside our apartment in a very ugly kind of neighborhood and it was raining. But we just went on the streets. I started dancing and Eva started filming. Just like this, without ideas, only with our crafts. It was at a busy cross road with shiny wet streets and a lot of colored umbrellas. It was very beautiful.”

How did the people react?

“The people are very open and spontaneous. We felt an easy connection through rhythm and music. Men started to dance on the rhythm of my tap dancing. People smiled or started singing. I really wanted to avoid becoming a street musician, because then I would have created a little stage and I didn’t want to be on the stage in front of an audience but to be a part of the real life. This is the reason why there is a lot of normal walking by me, to have both modes in the dance.”

So this was just a test for the actual film?

“Yes. When we went back in April with a little crew (camera, sound, one or two assistants, and the producer). We were also very interested in space, how it is used, and how people move in and through it. Space is always an issue in the city, especially in Istanbul with 20 million people cramped together. Space, gentrification… what about the poor people in the business centers or in the heart of the tourist area, what to do with them? Or what about the parks? In a way it is related to new capitalism. You feel that the people of Istanbul started to be aware of this. They realize that the powers that be are selling out their old places, their free spaces.”

Are you referring to the protests?

“Totally! There were already demonstrations at the Gezi Park. Everyday there were concerts and people trying to save the park. It was already an issue, but it hadn’t exploded yet and we weren’t that aware. To us it related more to the question we were asking, how do you use space, is it functional, is there space for dance for music for creativity, or just hanging around.

So that was our April shoot and then we came back and started editing. Great, we thought, really lovely moments but it missed a bit of spice, a bit of pepper. Just at that moment, literally in that week, the protests started to explode. Of course we were glued to our computers following everything. After a few days we said, we have to go back. This is exactly what we were touching upon.”

What were they planning to do with the Gezi Park?

“To recreate an Ottoman army barrack and make it into a shopping mall with a couple of trees in a court yard. Their argument: ‘We are restoring a historical building, and we are keeping the green’. It seems that this is part of a nationalistic vibe of Erdogan to the national identity, Ottoman, the Turk identity. End of this summer, when the Gezi Park protests were finished, the bulldozers were back, but the court ruled that they are not allowed to build yet. It’s not clear what the status is right now.”

Turkish prosecutors have charged 255 protesters, including seven foreigners, over the mass demonstrations that swept the country in June (Global Post)

How did you include this outburst of protests in the film?

“We were already dealing with a related question and that really helped us. In April we filmed in Tarlabaşı, a beautiful old neighborhood that is being broken down for gentrification. The people are thrown out of their houses, which is actually a much bigger issue than Gezi Park. But who lives there? Gypsies, Armenian people… so you see how it works. But we had been there and we filmed there, so we were on track. It was more a matter of how to tell the story cinematically. Of course when we filmed in April we had a different vision of the film. So we had to change that. It has not been easy, but I think we have it now.”

How did you solve it?

“Well, we had to let go of the original story, because we made a kind of fictional story about a dancer who goes for a concert in Istanbul and doesn’t get picked up. She loses her suitcase in the Bosporus and travels through the city without anything. It might have been a bit of artificial, but it was our way to tell this. And now we tell the story what actually was happening.”

Did you also film at the Gezi Park?

“Yes, we filmed a lot around the park. We arrived when everything was really occupied, both Taksim square and the park. It felt like a festival. So it was this kind of peaceful, joyful exuberant moment. The night after we arrived the police broke through the barriers of the barricades of Taksim Square. They cleared the square, but the park was still occupied for another week. All round the square were police squads. Maybe you’ve seen it on TV, but Istiklal, the busiest street of Istanbul, turned into a war zone.”

Weren’t you afraid?

“It was dangerous. I was very scared, but also with a lot of adrenaline. It is funny how everyone reacted. Because the filmer, Eva, who is a real documentary filmer, had the instinct to go forward. She wanted to be on the front line and catch the moment.”

In what way could you continue to have this interaction of rhythm and dance?

“There is a whole continuum of movements, from functional to dance. There is this huge grey area where movements become dance. You could see the situation in the city as a big choreography between the protesters and the police. All the body movements were totally focused on this situation. So you could see it as a dance in the real world.”

But you wouldn’t tap in the middle of it…

“No, that didn’t seem appropriate. But there were of course these street protest samba bands; you know with the marching drums and people clap. So there were lots of rhythms and you could feel that rhythm makes you brave, you just feel it happening. First you are like, okay, then people start clapping, you feel united and you feel that you are strong and then comes the band and then they are like, COME ON!”

Like a military band…

“Absolutely! You get a bit high by doing that and you forget a little bit the danger. There was one moment, for me the most important one of the entire film, just the day before the park got cleared. We filmed a scene on the barricade, one of the major barricades. You have the Taksim square with all the police and then behind it the park with all the protesters. It was one of the really intense days because nobody knew what was going to happen. Everyone thought any moment now they are going to come in with full charge. We started drumming on the barricade. I started tap dancing and it echoed through the streets, it sounded like bullets. The protesters were like, “stop, you can’t do this because you are going to provoke them”. We said, “No, we have to make music out of this situation”. Then people started clapping, people flocked towards it (you can see it in the video below, CC) and I was standing there. Then out of the crowd a trumpet player comes. He plays Bella ciao which is the partisan song of Italy from the communists (anti-fascist resistance movement active in Italy between 1943 and 1945, CC). It was also one of the anthems of Gezi Park. You hear it everywhere. So, he was playing this and we were drumming and tap dancing. After we were done and people were clapping, one woman (we have her also on film) started screaming ‘Her yer Taksim, her yer direnis’ and everyone joins in. The meeting of all these emotions, the music and the dance, it was all incredibly powerful. In the back you see the police carrying their big guns…

What was actually beautiful to realize is that they were chanting, “Everywhere Taksim, everywhere resistance”. Taksim, I learned later, means – in the musical sense – improvisation, where you can do the personal exploration of the music. I thought that here is a beautiful musical metaphor here. It gives you such a connection with the place and to their music. After all this I feel very connected to the Turkish resistance.”

Is the movie still in postproduction?

“Yes. Of course we have deep financial difficulties, because we were looking for one shooting period and planning to make a 15 minutes of dance film. Everything was under control and now it just grew into a much bigger project. We also decided to do very low budget and purely on a little crowd-funding budget we managed to get from all our lovely friends and supporters that made it possible. But now it became more than twice as big and many times as much work.

Now the film will have a duration of 30 – 40 minutes. There will be three layers: the images, the music – music that we filmed on the streets with the tap dancing and a soundtrack – and there will be a layer of voices of people from Istanbul telling very personally what they experienced and what it meant for them.”

Tell me more about the soundtrack.

“I got very interested in Turkish music, in the incredible rhythm culture. The whole thing actually is really deep. It just goes on and on. I am definitely not an expert but I feel that it is related to Persian and Indian traditions. The rhythms of words seem to ground everything. The rhythm cycles are more like a translation of poetry or sometimes even literally of words. So it is more like a dance of the mind or of words. This is really intriguing.

This storytelling, I can hear it. How it develops and how it plays. For me it has a personal connection, what I told you in the beginning, with tap dancing you make a journey and this is a lot how I work. You are not like a drummer who can play the same groove and then the band take over. You are usually telling a story by making a journey. Especially if you allow yourself to breath in the rhythm also, instead of being super straight, then it becomes very close to what people do in taksims.”

Who else is in the band?

“There is Mehmet Polat who plays the oud. Mehmet is a library of music. He plays Ottoman compositions, Sufi, folk and improvisation. So he is kind of the heart of the band. Oguz Buyukberber, a clarinet player in improvising and contemporary music. These two Turkish musicians are very embedded in the Dutch and international scene. I thought we also needed to have an electric guitar, someone who can really make a wall of sound. So I asked Rafael Vanoli. He is like a wizard with his sounds.”

What’s the name of the band?

“Köçekçe. It is a Turkish tradition in Ottoman times when young boys would dance women dances, dressed as women with make up and everything.

Now you mentioned it, I was wondering how the Turkish men on the streets looked at you as a female tap dancer on the streets of Istanbul.

“This is something I am not sure about. The position of the woman in Turkey is so much more problematic than I realized. Also because all the women we met are like this super strong emancipated women who want careers and who are really active. But this is just a tiny part. Historically the position of the woman was very restricted. It was a culture of purdah, keeping the women completely isolated. You still have honor killings in the east. Our assistant, a Turkish woman, said, “All the men are really open, enthusiastic and kind to you, but you are a stranger. If I would do it, it would be a completely different story. I would have big troubles”. So I think because we were so obviously étranger, we are outside of their system. Then we are doing such a crazy things. They can’t really place it, but I think the overwhelming strangeness of tap dancing is when you see it, you are just a little overwhelmed by surprise. You really break through something. This is why I think the reactions could be so open and honest. Set their prejudice aside, maybe.”

Do you think the film will be shown in Turkey?

“We are going to do our best. We are really going to work for that. I already have many contacts with TV and film festivals. It is a little bit depended on the political climate where it can be shown. Because in any kind of national of state sponsored festival… definitely in the alternative area it will be shown.”

So you need to find more money?

“Yes, this will be necessary. We are talking with a producer now in Holland, and we hope someone will buy it. This would be amazing and she is also going to help us to do a postproduction subsidy. There is no way to know whether it is going to happen, but there are options. I think the film deserves a little bit of funding.”

Are there going to be any concerts with the band?

“Yes, one of the intents is that we can make a whole evening program with the film and the concert of Köçekçe. Even, but we have to see if it will be possible, we can do a rhythm work shop, a rhythm dance work shop, so not only the audience can get enthusiastic but they also can join. In the best case it would end with a dance party. Because it is so much about allowing you to dance and everything it symbolizes. The motto of the movie is a poem by Rumi:

Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, when you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance when you’re perfectly free.

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