The choreographer talks new dance company, KDV DANCE ENSEMBLE, and Funkhaus premiere.
“Let’s break some rules,” says Kianí del Valle at the end of our conversation; an hour-long call that eerily but organically circled back to what initiated it—crossing borders and opening doors, that is. Just a week prior, in the midst of the mess that an editor’s inbox is, an email stood out to me. A novel Berlin-based dance company, KDV DANCE ENSEMBLE, would have its premiere at Funkhaus, with Lotic, Floating Points and Raven soundtracking the show, and stylist Olive Duran putting together all looks for it. My appetite for multidisciplinarity instantly satisfied, I naturally wanted to get hold of whoever made the cross-cultural occasion come to life. And so, Puerto Rican choreographer Kianí del Valle was shortly on the other line.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and now based in Berlin, del Valle and her work have trotted the globe for over a decade, with shows at LA’s Getty Museum, London’s Barbican and Serpentine, or Copenhagen Contemporary, just to name a few. She’s worked with companies in the likes of NYC’s Alvin Ailey and RASTRO, and Costa Compagnie, a pioneer European group working with A.I. and dance. Del Valle has also delved deep into the music industry with work for OBJEKT, John Legend, Floating Points, and a recent world tour with CLARK. I’m literally trying to catch up on air as I write this, but you get the idea—who I have on the phone is an artist hungry for expression and collaboration, tirelessly pushing, crossing, breaking down to build up again. And this is precisely what’s happening once again early next month, when KDV DANCE ENSEMBLE premieres its first show at Berlin’s iconic Funkaus. Before I let too much out, let’s get into it with the source herself.
Before we dive deeper, how and where did the conversation about KDV dance ensemble start? What were the driving forces behind it?
The very first idea about the company started in 2016, when I was working a lot on various commissioned, quick delivery projects. I was missing the time to devote to research with other dancers, do my own thing without anyone’s control or direction. So in that year, I gathered all my favourite dancers from the different gigs I had done until then, and we made a short video, which originally was to be used for applications for residencies or theatres. I showed it to my friend James Lees, a director based in LA, who ended up connecting me to NOWNESS, who then released the video. But the video was actually of a rehearsal, and yet somehow I started being booked as a company even though there was no actual company to begin with.
But were you even in Berlin at that time or?
No, I was in LA and had been away from Berlin for a whole year by then. It was indeed a weird timing to release a video on NOWNESS with a Berlin team, while I’m in LA…
How did it go from there on?
After LA, I was on tour with Clark for almost two years, and then I worked in London for a bit. It was not until the beginning of 2019 that I decided that touring and moving had been enough, so I came back to Berlin. Simultaneously with my return, I was approached for ensemble work for 2020. So I thought, why don’t we do an audition and I can mix some old and new dancers I know, and it can be a good moment for me to reconnect with the scene in Berlin again. We indeed did the audition, but something unexpectedly beautiful yet overwhelming came out of it—for the first time I realized that my career, within those past 3 or 4 years, had really taken off. Almost 2000 dancers applied for the first KDV audition ever, each applicant mentioned very kind and personal reflections as related to my work; something I never anticipated.
Right? So I looked at every application and ended up inviting 50 dancers, from which 15 were selected for the company. It’s been rewarding but also incredibly hard. I saved some money in order to devote time to practice and research, and I’ve been supporting the entire process and the company entirely out of my pocket since last March. The dancers and I see each other for a week each month, the rest of the time I’m working a variety of jobs to be able to make this happen.
What made you not give up on this whole thing?
Them… The dancers. They’re my home.
And when does Funkhaus, and this particular show, come into the picture?
We had been working together for almost an entire year for two commissions, and then 2019 was suddenly coming to an end, so we thought: We need a premiere! [Laughs] The commissions we do are normally under the umbrella of the music industry, where choreographer and dancers are at the bottom of the creative chain. But then I spoke with Sam [Shepherd] from Floating Points, and I was telling him about my idea of the premiere and asked him if he’d like to come play at KDV’s own show and under my conditions, regardless of the fact that we were initially going to dance for him and his project. He was immediately on board, expressing full support for KDV taking centre-stage and Floating Points being invited as a performer.
When was this?
It’s actually crazy— just last November. Then I met up with literally every theatre in Berlin, and to my surprise, they were all excited about the project. There are a lot of established dance companies in the city, and in Germany as a whole, but in terms of a new approach to contemporary dance, it’s mainly a freelance culture with no actual companies doing their own distinct thing.
So you were quite literally creating from scratch without knowing where it’s going to end up eventually.
Indeed, and I was realizing what I was doing as I was doing it. But back to your question about Funkhaus—all theatres I approached, even though they were excited about KDV, were fully booked not only for the end of 2019, but for the entirety of 2020 too. I really wanted this show to be at the beginning of this year however, and then something unexpected happened at the exact right time.
We had rehearsed already at Funkhaus, because a close friend, Max, who until recently was a booker there, knows me from a show I did there with Clark, by which he was quite moved and so we stayed in touch ever since. After we did the audition, we needed a home for the company, so I put a post on Facebook and Max responded positively. He told me there’s a bunch of unused space at Funkhaus, so we ended up going there to check it out and eventually chose a storage room that was used as a cocktail room for those who waited for a show to begin in the GDR era. We were there all of summer 2019, outside of the city, near the water, and with everyone just having a beautiful time together. Frankly, we low-key revolutionized Funkhaus. Normally, it’s a place for musicians, but all of a sudden there were these 15 dancers stretching and running everywhere. It was great to see the nice response from everyone, however. It took some pushing and knocking on doors, but I ended up being the first dancer in residency at Funkhaus. And that’s how the premiere came about! [Laughs]
Funny you mention it took pushing doors to reach to that space, because the main drive behind the show seems to be your very own personal experience of migration and ever-evolving idea of a “home”.
Very true—I left Puerto Rico without having planned to do so. I had been painting since I was 5 and then went to study at the art university there. Dancing came much later, but in the first year of university I realized a lot of my paintings involved the body. Plus, I come from a heavy hardcore academia line of women. But then second year of university came around, and I quit. A family scandal followed, and I decided to go to NYC to just visit my older sister for a couple of days. During that visit, my sister pushed me to some auditions there, and I ended up being accepted at a company, hence, I never came back. I was supposed to go back on a Friday, but that day never came. I do feel like my departure from home was unplanned, but once I went on the road, I never stopped. Since my time in NYC, I’ve lived and worked in Montreal, Israel, LA, London, Japan, Russia, and, of course, Berlin. Without dance, I’d be lost in this world.
How does this experience tie in with the show?
In fact, it’s so weird. I had a flashback from a piece I did in NY, right when I had moved there as a scared island girl more than 15 years ago. I was invited to Dance Theatre Workshop to present a solo I titled it “Las Casas Invisibles”, or “Invisible Houses”. There were only 10 people in the audience, so absolutely no one ever saw that solo. I had the flashback about it recently and started laughing to myself, thinking about why I had named the “homes” in plural considering that the only “home” I had before that was just one, back in Puerto Rico. It suddenly hit me—it’s only now I can talk about the many houses I have had and will have. Funny how this idea from the beginning of my career turned out true and is now the title of this very first premiere of my company.
Funny? More like legendary, if you ask me.
And so you’re friends and have worked with Floating Points and Raven before, so I suppose that commission came about quite organically. But how did Lotic come to be part of the premiere?
Yes, Raven will open the piece, with a fragile, beautiful violin that somehow feels like a birth; a great start to the show. Floating Points has always been a dream of mine to include in a show of my own, but funny enough, he asked me—without even knowing who Raven is or that he’ll be part of the show—if it’d be possible to find a violin player too. It has all been such an organic, magical unfolding of events. So, Raven starts, then his violin weaves into, but plays together with, Floating Points, an unexpected collaboration of sorts. Then for the last part of the show, I wanted to find a producer, who’d be in stark contrast with the other two acts.
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Holaaaa ! Already in 2020 mood, there’s orchids growing in my chest.———————————————————————————Giving you virgen de la Guadalupe meets chancletera aunt getting ready for Navidad familia party meets emo tropical goth realness ?-> photo from collab series with dear @kittyschumacher for @coevalmagazine creative direction @kianidelvalle & @kittyschumacher photography @kittyschumacher styling @oliveduran & @kianidelvalle make up and prosthetics @leana.ardeleanu collaboration between @kianidelvalle, @kittyschumacher & @selamxstudio Production assistant @creo_en_todo cgi @sx_maxi_milane, @sx_steffen_bew, @sx_felixsilvestris, @kittyschumacher, @luka.lavrenci
Which is where Lotic comes in?
Precisely. Adding Lotic is also a crazy thing in terms of a music booking, because friends from the industry even told me you’d never see Lotic on the same stage as Floating Points; both talented artists, but entirely different bookings. And I also really wanted someone who understood where I come from, whose music would draw from my roots in the Caribbean. Lotic’s work evokes a physical sensation in me; her music almost feels like a future evolution of who I am now and of how my idea of home has evolved. So I invited her to come see a rehearsal and decide if she’d be up for joining. During that rehearsal, I was so nervous because I know how high Lotic’s standards are, yet I saw her cry as we were dancing. I thought she had an allergy or something. I had no idea what was going on, and I also starting tearing up. She said yes.
Amazing! And the brilliant team for the show doesn’t even end there. Tell me about your decision to ask Glamcult friend, stylist Olive Duran, to dress the dancers?
She’s the daughter of immigrant parents, which speaks to me personally, and she’s also respected in Berlin, which in turn opens doors for a new company. Olive has a wild idea however—we have 10 dancers, and she will dress each dancer, head-to-toe in red, in a different designer. We’ll work with the idea of accumulation, wherein we start with layers of clothing that gradually fall off as the piece evolves. At the end, there’s barely any clothing left, and the idea is that, as humans migrate, they don’t actually accumulate more, but instead they need less and less, because they grow through moving and hence know themselves better. So yes, Olive is truly pushing herself for this project, and I’m just so honoured.
You’ve previously stated that you’re not interested in perpetuating an “elitist” practice of dance. How does this premiere at Funkhaus achieve that?
The way I’ve developed my career has been through intuition. I’ve never had an example to follow and hence I always somehow fell out of how dance is done traditionally. If you asked me who my role models have been throughout the years, it’ll be an extravagant astrologer on local TV in Puerto Rico, for example. I’ve always felt like the underdog of the dance world, and my work inherently doesn’t touch on elitist norms of how dance can be done or presented. But I understand your question—Funkhaus is a respected space with legendary, academic history. And it’s a hard question to answer, to be honest. It’s a huge opportunity I’d never want to miss out on, and it came into my hands so I took it. Yet, I’m hyper-aware of the fact that, for instance, at Funkhaus you can only pay with a credit card, plus there’s tons of other simple things that make the space inaccessible and that’s not what I’m about at all. In the end however, it’s a Puerto Rican choreographer premiering a dance piece for the first time there.
To transcend certain systems, you must first be let in through the door.
Exactly, so let’s break some rules!