The ephemera of life, captured | Eszter Joo, Francesca Zammit & Julia Camilleri

Following their one-off performance SOMNA, accompanied by a photographic exhibition by Zvezdan Reljic, dancers Eszter Joo, Francesca Zammit and Julia Camilleri speak about the dynamics of loss that underpinned this piece, and claim the local dance scene needs to move ‘closer to people’ to survive

Silver gelatin lith prints, photographed and hand printed by Zvezdan Reljic
Silver gelatin lith prints, photographed and hand printed by Zvezdan Reljic

Could you tell us a little bit about the group of performers taking part of, and putting this exhibition-performance together? What are your respective backgrounds, and how did you first start working together? 

This exhibition and performance constitutes a collaboration between performers Eszter Joo, Francesca Zammit and Julia Camilleri with photographer Zvezdan Reljic. Joo and Zammit are in their final year of Dance Studies within the University of Malta. Joo is a Hungarian dancer who has trained in Budapest and Malta. She formed part of MU Terminal Contemporary Dance Company in Budapest before moving to Malta and starting to produce her own work. 

Joo and Zammit worked together countless times, touring in the UK and producing original pieces, one of which, ‘Tinja’, premiered at the Performing Arts Festival held by the University of Malta earlier this year. 

Camilleri studied theatre, dance and music and has performed in numerous theatrical productions. She met Joo at a physical theatre training course during which they discovered their mutual interest in dance, movement and the performing arts. They performed together at Mspace (Msida) and later collaborated on a choreography that premiered at Valletta Campus Theatre. This is the first project where we three will be working together in devising this site-specific dance performance. 

How did the concept for SOMNA develop? What were some of the initial ideas behind it, and how did it evolve into the production you’ll now be putting up? 

Silver gelatin lith prints, photographed and hand printed by Zvezdan Reljic
Silver gelatin lith prints, photographed and hand printed by Zvezdan Reljic

The concept for SOMNA at present is actually very different from the original idea that started the collaborative project. The initial thought was to use dance and photography in such a way that gives a narrative in two chapters – first through dance, and later on through images. 

In the process of amalgamating these two art forms more we came up with an idea that is linked to an earlier solo by Joo, building upon the theme of death. Our aim was to give the audience an experience that might be quite disturbing, yet subtle enough to allow progressive conversations about this somewhat heavy topic. The fact that our dance is performed in the condensed space of the exhibition room, rather than on a stage, gives a more tactile and intimate experience to each spectator. 

This is designed to break down the imaginary wall between the audience and the spectacle, bringing the subject matter even closer to the people. Reljic explored the same ideas in his photography as the performers do in movement, yet there is no literal mimicry between the two disciplines. They are equally separate and intertwined. The dance performance completes the experience, but needless to say the intriguing photographs by Reljic speak for themselves, at the exhibition.

At which point did you decide to incorporate photography into the performance, and what were some of the elements – be they thematic or stylistic – that you hoped the photography would help emphasise? 

Silver gelatin lith prints, photographed and hand printed by Zvezdan Reljic
Silver gelatin lith prints, photographed and hand printed by Zvezdan Reljic

‘No one has ever seen light [but] it’s light that makes seeing possible.’ –Amalfi. From the start, we imagined SOMNA to be an interdisciplinary art work featuring dance and photography. The project focuses on one central concept yet exploits the different potential of both art forms, layering them upon each other, asking the viewer to look deeper and discover more subtle messages in what they see. 

Both metaphorically and literally, photography is the directing of light: the chemical process that allows the light to expose the body, and the drawing of the audience’s eye onto specific aspects of the performance. Photography and dance often seem to be on opposing ends of a spectrum; one captures an instant that can be forever watched and replicated, while the other is exceptionally ephemeral – no dance can ever be performed in the same way twice. 

Together, the two art forms contribute to an evolving idea; a dance piece experienced once, and the photos a memento of that fleeting moment. Though the photography does not replicate the dance, nor fully commemorate it, the photographic aspect can reveal in SOMNA what the fleeting choreography did not capture. Both the performance and the exhibition ask the audience to be more attentive to the fact that change is constantly present around us, and that we can search for our own answers. 

What do you make of the local performing arts scene? What would you change about it? 

Silver gelatin lith prints, photographed and hand printed by Zvezdan Reljic
Silver gelatin lith prints, photographed and hand printed by Zvezdan Reljic

The performing arts undeniably form a major part of Maltese culture. From Carnival, local festas and Good Friday pageants to full-scale operas and theatrical productions of any size being produced for our numerous theatres. 

Though the scene may be very varied, we often observe that it is not made quite accessible enough. Emerging theatre and dance companies do not have the audiences that they would have abroad. There are many contributing factors to this – lack of open mindedness, fear of new concepts or styles, or simply the fact that people do not know about these performances. We find the latter to be especially true in the case of smaller productions where the cast might not be well established and/or do not have realistic means of gaining exposure or experience. 

If we’d ever be given the chance or ability to change anything about this sector, we would work to remove prevalent ideas of elitism, and create productions that are accessible to everyone, rather than recurring theatre goers. We think this is achieved not by creating material that follows traditional styles or ‘safe’ themes, but rather working to bring performances and audiences ever closer to each other. 

What’s next for you?

If only we knew! We hope to keep working together in the near future, and if not, we hope at least to be able to travel and spend time with each other. We all plan to remain involved in performance but we do not have anything concrete set up yet. You will just have to watch out for us and find out.

With the SOMNA performance having taken place earlier this week, the photographic exhibition by Zvezdan Reljic will remain on display at the Malta Postal Museum, Archbishop Street, Valletta until June 10

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