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Sweatin’ with the ballerinas

INTERVIEW: Dancer-choreographer Paula Rosolen gets physical at the Sophiensaele with "Aerobics! A ballet in 3 acts!", on from Oct 1-4.

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Laurent Philippe

Quick: When you think of aerobics, what springs to mind? Richard Simmons? Jane Fonda? Big hair and off-the-shoulder sweatshirts and neon legwarmers?

In other words, perfect material for a trained ballerina. In her new work Aerobics! A Ballet in 3 Acts, dancer and choreographer Paula Rosolen strips away the stereotypes and the shiny leotards. Rosolen, who was raised in Argentina but has lived in Germany since 2003, has spent the past few years studying aerobics – in part the endless grapevines and overenthusiastic high-knees of 1980s home videos, but more so the world of competitive aerobic gymnastics and the workout’s military history. The result is an evening-length piece for seven dancers, playing as part of Sophiensaele’s Every Step You Take festival Oct 1-4. We talked to Rosolen about the ideologies behind aerobics, its similarities with ballet, and how it’s been contaminated by zumba.

What was the inspiration for this piece?

When I started my dance training in Argentina, there was no dance school, so my teacher rented space in a fitness studio. I saw aerobics going on and was really impressed. So something started there, but I really started working on the piece in 2012. In my work, I’m interested in things people do in their daily lives, and in popular activities and practices. For me, the concept was always clear: I wanted to take the material, watch it, take it apart, analyse it, get really close to it, and then put it back together in another way. I wanted to organise it as a dancer and a choreographer. It’s not as if I’m a fitness freak – I hadn’t done much aerobics before. So I spent a lot of time watching videos and trying to learn the material – cataloging and figuring out the possibilities of each step.

What else did you do to prepare?

I spent one and a half months training with an Argentinean aerobic gymnastics competitive team. That was hard. The first day was pull-ups, push-ups, a massive series of abdominals, jumps on the trampoline, splits in the air. I had a personal trainer there – she’s the best in Argentina, and she was so positive and patient with me. The patterns and movements of aerobic gymnastics are super codified, almost like ballet. There are seven basic steps, and certain rules about how the steps should be placed. I did a couple other classes, but nothing as intense. Pure aerobics is really hard to find – it’s much more contaminated with things like zumba and salsa.

What did your historical research uncover?

Aerobics was developed at the end of the 1960s by an American doctor who was training pilots for the American air force. It was meant to make them more fit and improve their resistance. It then spread through television programmes and VHS tapes – there was this ability to buy something and do it at home. American society was also prepared to receive and appropriate this sort of practice for its population – it was highly militarised, and all about being stronger and more productive, about workaholism. And from there, aerobics goes to Germany to Tokyo to South America to Turkey. Everybody was doing aerobics.

Is there music?

There’s no music at all, which was clear from the beginning. I wanted to underline exactly what is behind what we first see, to take away what’s cosmetic. In aerobics, the music is very dominant. It needs to be motivating, to pump people up, to create a certain atmosphere. I wanted to see what’s behind that. I’m also not interested in this state of exhaustion – we’re actually working to avoid that. Like in ballet, you don’t show that you’re tired. You show that you’re fresh.

You call it a ballet in three acts.

I’m working a lot with pianist David Morrow, who’s worked with the Frankfurt Ballet and William Forsythe since the 1980s. He helped me research the structure of the ballet, to see what happens in each act. For me, the structure was more interesting than the plot. The piece has no narrative in a traditional sense – there’s no plot, so it’s more like an abstract ballet. There’s a blackout between each act and the stage is cleaned, because we’re sweating a lot. It’s a mirrored dance floor, which for me was a reflection of studio training, of the mirrors in the studio.

All of the dancers have very different backgrounds.

It’s not about perfection, it’s about precision. We try our best to do the same, but because we’re so different, sometimes it’s not possible. We all have different bodies and different training. Some of us have ballet training and some have no ballet training at all, so you see differences in how these bodies react. I have ballet training, but I was interested in a form that had nothing to do with my training. Rehearsals were really tough for everybody. These are exercises meant to be done for one hour a day, not seven.

AEROBICS! A BALLET IN 3 ACTS Oct 1-4, 19:30, Sophiensaele, Sophienstr. 18, Mitte, U-Bhf Weinmeisterstr.