Nejla Yatkin: Experience vs. Labels

Nejla Yatkin
On life as a Choreographer & defying labels

“Yatkin’s work exists somewhere between narration & abstraction with considerable formal beauty."
—New York Times

My first encounter with American modern dance was connected to Chicago. Donald Griffith, my mentor and teacher in Berlin, was originally from this city. He had moved to Berlin while dancing with “Showboat” and ended up staying in Germany. Eventually he created his own company, Fountainhead Tanz Theater, where I studied for five years as a teenager. When I was 15, Donald invited Nana Shineflug and the Chicago Moving Company to Berlin to perform in a joint evening program at the Hebbel Theater as well as conduct Modern Dance workshops. It was an amazing experience! Never before had I seen dancers who could transform their energy in an instant and know how to explain and teach through the Chakra system. Twenty years later I find myself here in Chicago.

I have been a Chicago resident for almost three years now, but have not been around much due to my touring schedule. My work takes me to different corners of the world and connects me in a very intimate way with diverse communities. With each place it seems I leave a part of myself there and take a part of that place with me.

I believe dance should go everywhere and be performed anywhere. I have a group of dancers in New York with whom I create work on a project-by-project basis under the name NY2Dance.” We travel nationally and internationally. I receive commissions from dance companies or universities, perform at international festivals and work with other choreographers to create site-specific dances at places as varied as galleries, museums, street corners, churches, prisons, beaches and/or cemeteries. With each project I try to engage deeply and learn as much as I can. As an artist I have to stay open and fluid so I can react to and act with the present. Over time I have learned not to judge the circumstances of a dance engagement but focus on growing from the experience.

Early on I had heard about the United States being a melting pot. The idea of people from different backgrounds "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a new, common culture was intriguing to me. It called me, and I wanted to learn from it. I wanted to experience how different cultures navigated each other, were immersed in each other and melted into and influenced each other. I wanted to be one of many and not stand out. I wanted to be included and not excluded. I thought that the United States was the perfect place for me to learn and bring my influences together. However when I moved to the States, I discovered that it’s not quite a melting pot but rather more of a mosaic—a distinct multi-cultured society, which asserts that cultural differences within society are valuable and should be preserved.

This connects deeply to my upbringing: Berlin-born to Turkish parents, I grew up belonging to neither Germany nor Turkey, but was part of them both. I was fully immersed in both cultures. I would spend summers in Turkey but live the school year in Germany. When in Berlin, I studied Turkish folkdances. I was a member of a Turkish Classical Music Choir and went to Turkish school in the afternoon after finishing the German curriculum. I also studied everything German. I sang in a German Youth Choir, studied German Literature, German music, German art and German history and philosophy. I had my German friends and I had my Turkish friends. Looking back, I realize I never brought them together. They existed as two different worlds that as I learned to navigate.

I am evolving, building a bridge between the two worlds in which I was raised as well as the worlds in my art. I try bridge gaps between styles and aesthetics. My dances have no real category—they exist in a space between categories and outside of boxes. Many believe that labels help, but do they really?  Everything nowadays is labeled and boxed because we need to understand it in order to sell it or market it. In many ways that they limit our understanding of the art form. Labels and boxes don’t give us space to breathe.

Labels create boundaries and limitations and sometimes suffocate the art form. Why is there a distinct separation between the label “American Modern Dance” and “African-American Modern Dance” or “Black Dance”? Why is there a separation between black choreographers creating work and white choreographers creating work? Why do we have a label for “Black Dance” but not for “White Dance”? Who created these labels? Why is there a label for “African-American Modern Dance” but not for “Russian-American Modern Dance” or “Polish-American Modern Dance” or “Jewish-American Modern Dance”? Don’t we all use the same vocabulary and a common instrument—the body—and infuse it with our cultural and personal history? These are questions for which I am still searching for answers. I am also trying to figure out my own label. Am I a dancemaker? A choreographer? Or am I a Turkish-German-American multi-media dance/theatre artist? Can I be just a dancemaker/choreographer without labels? Will you still be able to experience my art?

To me, dance is meditation, not categorization. In meditation you come not upon a “knowing” but upon a “not knowing”—an insight into the mystery of existence that is experienced rather than understood. In meditation there is a belief that the very idea of knowledge gets in the way, since it suggests a formula that can be grasped and written down and communicated directly to others. Many Zen masters for example, insist on keeping what they call a “don’t know” mind, a mind that is open instead of a mind that wants to categorize and label things. Categorize and label by all means if you wish, but you will end up knowing only your categories and labels, and not the things that are categorized and labeled. Once we think we “know,” we close our minds to further possibilities, instead of waiting to see what experience brings.

Nejla Yatkin's lush solo Renatus, commissioned by acclaimed River North Dance Company, premiered at The Harris Theatre this past fall. She is a recipient of 2012 3Arts award. Nejla currently lives in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

-- developed in collaboration with CAR Dance Researcher Baraka de Soleil.

Published by CAR_Dance on Tue, 01/15/2013 - 2:53pm
Updated on Thu, 11/07/2013 - 3:54pm