Portrait

Anouk van Dijk doesn't just think she can dance. She, and everyone else, knows she can. By Romy Ash.

The woman behind the Countertechnique, Anouk van Dijk

Anouk van Dijk – artistic director of Chunky Move, choreographer, dancer, developer of the Countertechnique – is sitting in an office chair showing me how she goes about “developing a movement language” in order to communicate with her dancers. “I ask them a question,” she says, “start a dialogue.” That dialogue won’t necessarily be spoken, but instead communicated through the movement of her body. 

“I set out the parameters, start the first ideas for the movement vocabulary, but then it starts to branch off, and it goes into different responses from the performers to it. One performer might respond in a very virtuosic way, and another might respond in a theatrical way, and from there I start to paint…”

We’re in her office in the hulking rusty building by Melbourne’s ACCA, a building that looks discarded, like a beached tanker. It’s a tiny room, no windows, just a skylight through a painted red ceiling. The light gives van Dijk a strange rosy glow. Of the no windows, she observes, “the misguided idea of architects that artists want to be separate from the world, when in fact it is exactly the opposite”. Especially van Dijk, who has moved to site-specific works that interact with their environment. 

“So sitting on the chair, I’m doing this movement,” she says. She’s wearing a stretchy black jacket that zips right up to the neck, long black pants, black shoes. She looks all one piece. Even though she’s just sitting there, her body shifts and moves in a way that makes that sitting strange. It looks as though she’s hovering a few centimetres above the chair. Her one, dangling earring trembles. 

“I could say, ‘Okay, you squeeze your shoulder blades together, your sit bones are to the other side, and you push with your feet into the floor.’ You change the texture of that: it’s softer, it’s more staccato, it goes more discombobulated, and that’s your palette.

“You have dancers who can go off with that for an hour, and it becomes really interesting to look at. Out of that they get into a state, and from there, we start to find the things that we end up putting in the work.”

She releases her body, and relaxed, she has all the sleeping physicality of a big cat in repose. 

“My first experience of dance was musicals on TV – Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, tap dancing on tables, against walls, Mary Poppins flying in and out of chimneys. Rhythm – I was very into rhythm, so I started as a tap dancer when I was eight. I had red tap shoes, believe it or not. I was the girl with the red shoes,” she laughs.  

“When I was 14 I started to take jazz dance. I was living in a small village in Holland. My teacher was teaching amateurs but he had such a way to inspire people. I was like, ‘This is so interesting, I feel so free when I move in that space. It feels like I can extend myself into a realm of the imaginary; that transcends my little town of very dry Dutch people.’ 

“It was an amazing discovery. One year later I witnessed a real professional dancer, from Paris, teach my teacher a dance, and that was the first time I saw a professional dancer up close, a few metres away from me, sweating, flying, energy, everything, and I was so impressed. 

“I came out of that studio and I said, ‘I want to be that, I want to be a dancer.’ So I went home, my mum was reading the newspaper, Saturday afternoon, her favourite time of the day, and I entered her door and said, ‘Mum, I want to be a dancer.’ My mum put down the newspaper, looked at me, and said, ‘Well, let me call the local dance institution and see if you’re not too old.’ ” Van Dijk says that at that time you had to be a professional dancer by the time you were 17. She was 15. “After I saw the light – it was a rush,” she says.

Van Dijk starts each day with dance, an hour and a half of Countertechnique, a way of dancing she developed to answer the physical questions she had been asking over her career. If she doesn’t do it, she says she gets “a computer arse. Sit on the chair, just sitting in front of the computer, ‘Oh, I’m getting so tired from sitting, I need to do something, I need to get up and dance.’ ”

In the rehearsal studios – one of which is bright and soft floored, the other that’s dark, lit only by spotlights and set up to mimic the performance space of Complexity of Belonging for which they are rehearsing – I watch van Dijk with two dancers, Lauren Langlois and Alya Manzart. 

Van Dijk and Langlois are on the floor. Van Dijk demonstrates, moving her body in a sort of pulse, and the woman watches her from across the mat. She doesn’t mimic, but instead takes van Dijk’s movement to its full expression. Manzart swoops in, and Langlois pulses into his arms. He swings her up and around his body and they move in what looks like a technical puzzle, but beautiful. Langlois has a high ponytail that flops over her face. As she moves I catch a glimpse of spine, a muscular thigh. She looks strong, yet her movements are light, fluid. At one point the man throws her across the floor and I think of van Dijk describing Countertechnique to me, a process that makes this kind of movement possible: “My body is moving in this way, ” she had said, “and so even though I’m falling, I can suspend the moment of falling.” Both van Dijk and I watch her and it seems like she pauses, suspended there for much longer than seems possible.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 4, 2014 as "Behind the counter". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.