The Dance Enthusiast Meets the 2015 Bessie Award Nominee Robyn Orlin (Part 1)
Robyn Orlin is a Bessie Nominee for Outstanding Music Composition/Sound Design
It’s fall and that means temperatures are dropping, performance seasons are starting, and dancers are revving up to see who will win this year’s New York Dance & Performance Awards (The Bessies). The 2015 nominees ( see list here) are what award-winning actor/director/writer Roger Guenveur Smith calls “an eclectic bunch.”
That eclecticism makes this interview series one of the most exciting of the year for me. With a blend of the usual suspects like the American Ballet Theatre and Mark Morris Dance Group positioned alongside artists like Smith, Storyboard P, and 600 HIGHWAYMEN, there is no question that New York (and even a bit of New Jersey) is a home for dance of all facets. See you on the red carpet outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem on October 19! - A. Nia Austin-Edwards, for The Dance Enthusiast
Controversial and provocative choreographer, Robyn Orlin has continuously pushed the boundaries of performance art and dance in the 20 years that she has been creating work. Although once marginalized by the conservative dance community in South Africa, Orlin's City Theatre and Dance Group currently receives funding from the National Arts Council. ( for more of Orlin's bio click here)
A. Nia Austin-Edwards for The Dance Enthusiast: When and where does your artistic story begin? Have you always known you would be a choreographer, particularly one who works with song?
Robyn Orlin: I always knew I would make things with my imagination. I have been working for the past forty years in dance, film, video and opera. I am a graduate (with the help of the British council) from the London School of Contemporary Dance and received a Masters from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on a Fulbright scholarship.
I am South African. I started off working in South Africa with all these different mediums. I now live in Berlin, but work all over the world. Coming from Africa, it is very normal to [incorporate] choral work and song in my work. It’s part of my universe.
TDE: This fall The Dance Enthusiast is celebrating 8 years! Can you describe your creative process (perhaps in 8 words or less)?
RO: I try to be sensitive with my subject matter - [keeping in mind] performers and public at the same time. I also try to keep a sense of humor.
TDE: What has been the biggest challenge in your artistic journey?
RO: Every piece of work is a challenge. I think directing opera has been a big challenge, as well as making this series with the guards of different museums around the world entitled The Babysitting Series. And of course working in dance.
TDE: What made you join Compagnie Jant-Bi in creating At the same time we were pointing a finger at you, we realized we were pointing three at ourselves…? Had the collaboration been brewing for a while or was it a new idea?
RO: I was asked to make a piece on the company, so I went over to meet the dancers. The piece began as an interrogation and understanding of several aspects of Senegalese culture. The collaboration with Germaine Acogny had been in the pipeline for a while…hence the piece!
TDE: Who is your artistic idol? Who constantly inspires you creatively?
RO: I am inspired by many things. It’s never really one thing. But my mentor for a long time was the late Barney Simon. He was a very important cultural worker in South Africa who was responsible for starting the Market Theatre. My inspiration also has many layers from Busby Berkeley to Pina Bausch to Betty Boop to William Shakespeare to Andy Warhol…I think you get the feeling.
TDE: What do you do when you're not creating?
RO: When I am not working (which is never), I spend my time exploring the cities of Berlin, Paris, Johannesburg, Dakar, and anywhere else I can!
TDE: What’s coming up next for you?
RO: A movie in the South Pacific for French television relating to climate change and told through the eyes of the water music women (women that sing and dance in the water while creating music in the water) in 2016. A solo piece with a young sangoma (healer) in Johannesburg, which will be premiered at the Montpellier Festival in 2016. And in 2017 I will [share] a new piece with Dominique Mercy and Kenneth Weiss looking at Louis XIV. Louis XIV has been a pet fascination of mine because, to a large extent, he has defined western culture for a long time. Even though culture and art is changing and shifting now, it is in reaction to what has been set up historically.
Robyn Orlin works in a rather eclectic way. She works from project to project and invariably tries to find ways of including the community and her audiences into her work. Her point of departure when making a new work is the immediate environment, which acts as a springboard to open up issues around culture, history and identity. The audience will often be found on the stage during a performance and the performers loitering with the audience - she would like everybody to dance and dancers to be able to be everybody!
Orlin has worked in diverse media including television, film, theatre, dance and opera as a choreographer, producer, dancer and teacher. Her work has been recognized in South Africa and abroad through various awards, bursaries and scholarships.
Robyn now finds herself living part of the year in Berlin (where her husband, Oliver Schmitz, is making films) and Johannesburg or on the road touring with her work. However, she spends her whole year yearning for her hometown Johannesburg, which is the source of her inspiration and creative drive.