Human and very poetic – Joanne Leighton on »Türmer München« (»The Munich Vigil«)

She dances, choreographs, creates and walks – often for miles – through nature, for inspiration and very specifically to her »Vigil« project whenever it reopens somewhere. For almost ten years, choreographer Joanne Leighton has been visiting European cities with her »The Vigil« project. Here, she reveals to us her thoughts on »Türmer München«.

After ten years of »The Vigil«, what significance does your work have for you?
I feel very moved and humbled as the entire creative process is very important to me as an artist. I am touched every time we start the project: the transmission to the team of the respective cities, seeing how it is perceived and continued there, how the people of the city take their place in the project. And especially in these times of the corona confinement, I am very happy to be able to continue with the performances. The consistency of the project also feels relevant, in view of what we are currently experiencing around the world; it imparts on it an additional level of meaning.

Has the project changed much over the years?
It is new every time, in every new city! »Türmer München« has never been done before, and yet we’ve been doing the project for ten years. The work’s authorship is always the same: It’s always about that one hour, twice a day for 365 days, every sunrise and sunset … so the basic heart of the project has always been very consistent. What has evolved tremendously is, for example, the whole transmission to the respective team and the question of how we can bring the project to people who have no connection with art and culture. This question has become increasingly important over the years.

How did the idea for the Vigil performance come about?
For 30 years, I worked mainly with dancers on and for the stage. About ten years ago, I felt the desire to bring art into public spaces and to work with non-professionals. It was a real decision and marked a very strong moment for me in my work: I wanted to involve people regardless of whether they were artistically trained or not, to give them all an equal status. And I really wanted to create a work that would not take place on the few square metres of a small stage, but that rather was on the scale of the city. This idea of community is a running theme throughout my work globally. My aim is not to clean the individuality of each of us out, but for us all to unite in our uniqueness. In this project, I often find myself saying things that I also say to my dancers on stage, where the presence of each individual is just as important.

Presence and repetition are key elements of the performance, right?
Yes, I love the idea of repetition. The frame is always the same: Twice a day for a year, the same thing happens, apparently all the time, but the body, the person standing up there on the roof is a different one every time. It is a gentle presence of the body in public space, very human, but at the same time very poetic. And presence has always been important to me: I’m a pedestrian and love to walk for a long time and then to look about me. This very peaceful experience of reflection in the midst of nature has always fascinated me. That and the fact that this reflection always involves other people, even if you are apparently thinking only about your own life. So in this performance you look over the city, but also at those who live in it. But what does it mean to perceive other people, their lives and their stories: To regard other lives and be mindful of others, to take care of each other – in the best sense of the word? Those are the questions I want to draw attention to.

What other thoughts would you like to give Munich’s Vigils?
Choose a time and a date that have a meaning for you: Are you a morning or more of an evening person? Do you want to celebrate your birthday, the birth of a child or your wedding date? Do you think about the moment when you first moved to this city or returned after a long absence? There should be a special reason for your hour, that’s all I wish for. You don’t need any experience in culture, music or dance – it’s very simple, and we do all we can to make it possible for many different people to participate. Because if we only reach the audience that already visits the theatre anyway, we have missed something. I see The Vigil as a project in which everyone can participate and there are no hierarchies. I just want people to be authentic, to be just the way they are; there is no costume, no artificiality – you come as you are and you are here, that’s all.

What are the choreographic aspects of this project?
The piece itself is one big choreography. On one hand, the movement through the city is created by the project through the passage of the year, but also each meeting of the Vigils with their Companion and their ascent to the roof is like a choreography. And then there is the Vigil’s movement itself, whose silhouette can be seen on the roof: The immenseness of the view they enjoy, their thoughts and feelings – it’s never static. You can never be completely still, you always have movement inside you, in your body. You stand there with your force and strength and at the same time with your fragility – that’s the important point: It’s not the city, it’s who’s living in the city …

… and who looks out over the city.
Yes, the city is like a stage and the Vigil’s Shelter is the window to this stage. And the fact that the Gasteig itself is a theatre, a cultural institution, underlines the fact that we have an artistic performance here, even if the participants do not have to »perform«. They just have to maintain their presence, but that’s basically exactly what dancers do on stage. So we have a performer and an audience, but we can’t say for sure whether the Vigil is watching the performance of the city or the city is watching the performance of the Vigil; it all goes together and melds into each other. After all, when I perform on stage, I also see the audience and we look at each other; there is a direct connection between us.

What is your most beautiful memory from the whole Vigil period so far?
There are so many … for example the woman who was pregnant in her hour as a Vigil and had her baby with her at the closing meeting. It was as if we already knew the baby – the project had created a strong invisible connection between us. Or my first Vigil performer in Belfort, for whom I was Companion: at the end of his hour, he came out of the Shelter, looked up at the flagpole that stood nearby and realised that the rhythmic sound he heard all the time was the metal knocking against the pole. The disappointment was written on his face as he said: »I thought you were dancing out there during my whole hour and what I heard was the buckles on your boots«. He knew, of course, that I was a choreographer and this idea of »oh fine, Joanne is doing her dance« and his disappointed face at the same time was somehow a beautiful moment. Or the couple: she stood Vigil in the morning, he in the evening, and she left him a little note. And the passer-by, in Belfort at that time, who called us just in case because the Vigil was five minutes late (laughs) and we knew: someone is watching! It’s these little stories that touch me the most.

What is your vision for The Vigil in the future?
I have never worked on diffusing the project, but ever since the first time in Belfort we have received requests from other companies and cities. As long as this interest is there, we will continue to do it. Through these many years of work, it has gained ever more depth, which is of course nice. But the core idea is this: It is a performance with a beginning and an end, so it must, again and again, end sometime. One of the most important and perhaps most profound things I once heard about one of my performances came from a spectator in a little tiny town in France. He said: »I watched your performance, I was going through it with you, was very engaged and now it’s over. But it’s still going on in my head and I still feel it.« That’s what performance is for me: It always ends at some point, but when it has marked you, you carry it on with you – that’s why I do it.

Interview and text: Judith Ludwig