© Kurt van der Elst

A conversation with the choreographers of Kabinet K, Joke Laureyns and Kwint Manshoven, chaired by kabinet k's dramaturg Mieke Versyp

Kwint: promise me came about as an idea during the workshops we organised in the summer of 2020. In Still playing but different we wanted to bring the children of our previous creation as long as we are playing together again after a long period of enforced inactivity. Two weeks of improvisations with a team we knew very well. Without working towards a performance, without a concrete goal.

Joke: What struck us during these workshops was the great intimacy and physical surrender. A desire to push boundaries. The wild enthusiasm with which the children threw themselves into the »arena«, the tension in their bodies: this we found beautiful and inspiring.

Kwint: But the themes of promise me slumbered in our minds for some time. We thought of the words »tilting«, »swinging«, »twisting«. Perhaps an expression of our eagerness to start anew, the urge to give our all. That was the spirit in still playing.


Joke: This eagerness and urge is actually always present in our work. Just like mutual trust and freedom. Our work is always about what it means to be human, in all its layers. With each creation, we highlight a different facet. For promise me, we finally had the time to delve into a specific aspect: an awakened, alert curiosity, openness, total surrender to »us, here and now«.

Kwint: It is a response to the sign of the times. These times are permeated by fear, caution, a desire for security. This asks for another attitude. A desire to offer a »sanctuary« in which you stand up against these tendencies. The stage is a perfect biotope where you can claim and show this freedom.

Is promise me a new step in your oeuvre?

Joke: I see an evolution in the way and the context in which this performance has been created. The fact that we worked with three children from the cast of as long as we are playing, plus Kwint as a dancer and again with Thomas Devos as a musician, means that there are fi ve people on stage who are familiar with our language. We knew Zélie from »Les ateliers C de la B« (a series of workshops organised by the dance company Les Ballets C de la B, in which kabinet k took part); her sister Téa and dancer Ido Batash are new. This familiarity of a large part of the cast with our work meant that during improvisations we came more quickly than usual to the core of what we wanted to convey with promise me. The bodies of all performers easily found the dance language we had in mind. The children were really co-authors in this process, and that is unique. I see it as a deepening of our trajectory. I don’t know on what level this will be visible in the performance, but the dance material fell into place in a very organic way.

These times are permeated by fear, caution, a desire for security. Kwint Manshoven

In all your performances, you create a utopia as a reaction to the real world. You often call it a »sanctuary«. A place of trust.

Joke: Yes. We aim to create utopian and idealistic, but also dissident work. We certainly choose the ideal, the most beautiful performance possible. We seek a radical honesty when it comes to human existence. Not that we want to make things rosier. On the contrary. Harmony is not the issue in this performance.

Kwint: promise me is often rough and raw. It is of a brutal intimacy. Less tender and more layered than our performance horses. Because we highlight another, more dangerous aspect of human relationships.


Joke: The first word we used for this performance was »recklessness«. But that doesn’t quite cover what we wanted to tell. That is why I was so happy when we came across the text »Ode to my Scars« by the Flemish author David Van Reybrouck. He writes:
No, that’s the wrong word, recklessness. What it is then? Drive, glow. Yes, you need to use your body sparingly, but do you also need to use life sparingly?
That’s it for me.

»Seven dancers make a pact«, says a line on the flyer. What kind of pact is that?

Joke: The relationship between all the dancers evolves, in the course of a creative process, into a relationship of complete trust. You give trust and you receive it. This means that everyone knows each other so well that all boundaries and reserve disappear. As choreographers, we always want to install such a pact. This pact of trust is like a keynote. For example, the children say about Kwint: »we know your hands«. That is the physical translation of this trust. It is the basis from which you can observe everyone’s ability for surrender, care, intimacy and strength. When you watch a duet between Kwint and Ilena, or Lili and Zélie, or Juliette and Ido, you can see the specific dynamics between two dancers and the individuality of each dancer. You can see what they awaken in each other and read their characters through the way they interact. This constant synergy generates beautiful images. It is rich. And ambiguous.

Kwint: In this mutual trust between these seven people on stage, a duality slumbers. A layered quality. Dance is the perfect medium to show this ambiguity.

The term »duality« often crops up when talking about your work. Can you explain this concept?

Joke: Everything has a flip side. In addition to »the urge to live«, a concept that popped up during rehearsals, there was also the concept of »death defy«. Sticking your tongue out at death. Behind this childlike gesture lies a deep truth. Everyone recognises the finiteness, the heaviness, the blackness, the B-side of life. But you can relate to it in different ways. This fact can give you strength and make you vulnerable at the same time. It is not either/or. Not black and white. Very often people are looking for ready-made answers. People demand clarity. And then the camps arise, the polemics, the slogans, the polarisation, the identity disputes. While there are only nuances. In reality and also in a body.

Kwint: There are the big, trained bodies of the adult dancers and the smaller, untrained bodies of the children. This in itself is already a dual phenomenon. Adults and children can do the same movement with the same intention, and yet it is different. And it feels different for the dancers as well.

This pact of trust is like a keynote. Joke Laureyns

Joke: »Tilting« is an essential word in the vocabulary of promise me, a word that has strongly influenced the movements. Not that the dancers are tilting the whole time. It rather indicates an intention. In the sense of daring to stand in the middle of things. Not giving way, not fleeing, but walking the middle line. Staggering, tilting, at the risk of losing your balance. Recognising the nuances. It is a force to be on that middle line, in that ever tilting intermediate zone. promise me is about taking risks and letting go of certainties, that’s how we put it. On paper, that sounds hollow; in reality, these phrases refer to an attitude, a way approaching life that requires you to be strong. Our motto for this performance is: risk rather than stability. Curiosity above fear. Togetherness above self-preservation.

Kwint: We improvised around the slogan »I have never done it before but I think I can do it«. This introduced a mentality within the group that was decisive in the creation process. It is a practical sentence that helped the children to find the right intention. Which inspired them to create images and movements. We always stay far away from philosophic discourse during rehearsals. We hardly talk to the children about the themes, but we translate them in a purely physical way. Gradually, they start feeling the themes in their bodies, simply by dancing them. We strive to situate our work in this intermediate, dual zone. Is this for a young audience? Is it dance or theatre? Is it beautiful or is it gruesome? Is a ten-year old body dancing authentically or manipulated? To us, these are not pertinent questions.

promise me: I hear a demand in that.

Joke: It is an appeal. A cry, an urge for… For what exactly, I cannot put into words. I love the image of a hand grasping someone’s chin, to literally determine the direction of the gaze, to ask for attention. In that gesture, there is not only a demand; it is also a gesture of trust, because you don’t just touch someone’s face. It is again a dual demand. »Give me so much trust and security that I can feel completely free«. I think the world really needs this, people who can and may stand in their own strength. And not derive their strength from an assumed identity, from the group to which you belong, from a dynamic of us/them. When you quit thinking like this, you may find a vitality that, I hope, is contagious.
For a year and a half, we have also been preparing a future project with Palestinian dancers and children. Residents of the West Bank and Gaza. This project also influenced our rehearsals. promise me has an undertone of resilience and resistance. »Don’t abide by what is presented to you, and take responsibility for what you do«.

Your work is always inspired by the visual arts. Are there any works by artists that have inspired you for promise me?

Kwint: Michaël Borremans’ series »Fire from the Sun«. Young children smearing each other with blood. On the floor you see human parts. What struck us is not the horror of these scenes, but the curiosity of the children about their own and each other’s bodies. Very animalistic. Then there are the paintings by Caravaggio, which combine horror and beauty.
There is the film Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame by Iranian filmmaker Hana Makhmalbaf, filmed in the Afghan village where the historic Buddha statues, carved into the rocks, were blown up by the Taliban. The film shows the willpower of a girl learning to read. The way the filmmaker portrays this willpower inspired us. How this girl deals with war traumas. Her will to live and her contempt for death. The film ends with children playing, supposedly holding each other at gunpoint. »Die, and you will be free«, a boy shouts. A sentence with which he confirms a rule: if you fall down, you can continue playing. It is a game, nothing more, but these paradoxical words can also be translated as: if you are afraid, you won’t get anywhere.

Joke: There is again the »Ode to my Scars«, in which the author quotes the poet Kahlil Gibran: Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s yearning for itself. That too is a duality that all parents and by extension the whole of society must deal with.
And finally there is a quote from the Scottish poet John Glenday in a book about the work of the American photographer Sally Mann: You see it’s neither pride nor gravity, but love that pulls us back down to the world. Gravity is very decisive in a dance performance, and when you are lifted up you can move »like an astronaut in a space capsule« – that is how Zélie puts it. It was she too who said that promise me is all about love…

Translated from Dutch by Mieke Versyp