Interview with Momo Sanno and Maria A. Ioannou

by Érica Zíngano


Érica Zingano: While I was trying to write down some questions to ask you both for this interview, imagining what kind of questions should I ask, I was thinking specifically about you Maria, because you don’t live here in Berlin, so, for you, to be here this week, it’s a completely new experience, it’s a kind of displacement, isn’t it? But for you, Momo, I guess you are more used to life in Berlin, you’ve lived here for a while now, but you also live in Romania…

Momo Sanno: I live all over the world! Actually, I don’t really have a place where I live… But yes, I pay my taxes in Berlin and in Bucharest too, but I’m pretty much moving around! So, I’m permanently commuting between Berlin and Bucharest, because I moved back to Bucharest two, three years ago, and I’m making my base there also, but Berlin conquered me a long time ago…

ÉZ: And you Maria, are you enjoying this week in Berlin? How is it going for you, developing this new work here?

Maria A. Ioannou: For me, it’s very much like contrasting experiences, because I like to work out where I am first, orient myself, and then I can open myself to be creative and also to collaborate with someone else. But at the same time, I needed to rest, because I had a lot of things on before I came to Berlin, different projects and creative processes and so on… So, this period here was for me like a transition period, but this also made it very fascinating for me, because I will leave this place and I will still be thinking about it afterwards, thinking about what has been going on here now, because some trips only reveal their meaning afterward, when we are not travelling anymore.

ÉZ: Yes, that’s true, I agree with you Maria, things keep developing after a while… So, as I was telling you, I wrote down some questions earlier, should I start with them now? It’s kind of funny, funny in a beautiful way, because you both have this letter “M”, Momo and Maria, which is a kind of magic letter… Last year, I did a workshop with an American poet, CA Conrad, and he was telling us exactly that, because I guess he wrote a book called „Circle M“ or something like that, but anyway, he was telling us about the magic content of this letter… So it’s a beautiful coincidence to start to talk with two people who have this strong “M” as their initial! That’s also why I want to ask you about the very beginning of this project, when you have met for the first time. We know how the process of selection worked in this project, CON_TEXT, with speed dating meetings etc., and it was in November 2016, now we are in May 2017… And time keeps running… But, do you still remember what it was for you both that prompted the desire to work together? Which things were remarkable about that very first meeting in last November?

MS: For me, I remember, we just start talking, and I really liked, from the first moment, the vibration, I had the sensation that Maria just trusted me straight away through the computer screen. I felt a very good energy and a happy mood too, and very much the desire to discover more, and I think that’s one of the most important things, a very important one, also for other people, not only artists… The ability to not be stuck in their own little world, and to discover different opinions, other people’s opinions… Especially in this kind of collaboration, where two different art forms meet, in our case, literature and dance. I found it very nice and also the subject that she brought up into the conversation, the soul of the objects, from the first moment we started talking about this, and I thought it was interesting, because I’d never thought about it from this perspective before.

MAI: The soul of the objects, but also the objects as a way of understanding people, and the objectification of people, and their relation with objects, and the body as an objectified body…

ÉZ: Because you both, I remember, you were not in Berlin that day.

MAI: No, not at all.

MS: I was in Bucharest.

MAI: And I was in Cyprus, and we met on Skype, which felt a bit weird to me in the beginning, before actually meeting Momo in person. I thought, how would it be like to understand, there’s a chemistry going on here… And then, I checked the bios of everyone and I said to myself, Momo brings me the possibility to work with dance again, because I’ve worked with dancers in the past etc. And then when we skyped again, actually every time we skyped, I remember how he had this very peculiar way of holding his computer…

MS: Ah!

MAI: Yes, it was like everything was moving… I could kind of feel the vibes, the life, the happiness, the good energy, and he also talked about things with passion… So I had the sensation that if we’re going to work together, we’re going to work well, because he has this way of understanding, and he’s not really someone who thinks in a very straight way, like, I want to do this, and I want to do that, and I don’t care about what you’re saying… No, he’s very attentive and perceptive to the other, and his energy is very good, but sometimes my energy is not like that… So I guess he had the patience to actually deal with me, and to absorb other things, things that would make me tense.

MS: Especially when we create, sometimes we have very sharp ideas, because we are constantly thinking, there’s not one minute left when you stop thinking, when you don’t create. So sometimes, when you are by yourself, you start to see things very clear, like, ah, yeah! this is it!, but then, in the morning, when you meet with somebody else, like in this project, it’s more like, maybe it’s not that clear anymore, maybe it’s not that good. Then, all the time, since the first encounter, I tried to to put myself in a more flexible position, being able to listen to our wishes, but also our imagination.

ÉZ: Oh, nice, it seems really nice to listen to the word ‘imagination’ here, because this connects to the second question I’ve written, like different practices/same instrument, if we understand the body as an instrument for something… This mixing of different areas, resulting in a common project… Which is the main idea of this project, CON_TEXT, that tries to bring different métiers or backgrounds together, to cohabit somehow. Because you, Momo, you work with dance, and you Maria, you work with writing, but if we are looking for a common element, we could say that both practices involve the body (and by extension the imagination) but in different ways, different dynamics. So I would love to talk about your individual practices. I’m wondering how you managed to turn this mode of individual practice into a collaborative process?

MS: There are these two different fields, but somehow both work closely with the imagination, and they struggle a lot… Dance can be also something very literal and very precise, that doesn’t leave room for the spectator to envision something. But I like to take dance from outside of that rigid perspective. So what was challenging and what is challenging in this kind of encounter, I realized, is exactly that: not to say something totally precise, but also not to say something that has nothing to do with what is being said, to try to find that middle ground, that also leaves room for the audience to envision. But not being too systematic, not playing in an obvious way with words and movements, because if it happens like that, both would cancel each other out. That was the biggest, most beautiful challenge, to create that 3rd space, where the words from the characters of Maria’s writing, they meet bodily movements, bodily movements in real life.

MAI: It’s very interesting, because our piece started from a short story, that was written in different places (in an office or in a cafe) and in parts (on a piece of paper and on the computer), and suddenly this text, that has been deconstructed during these seven days of working together, in order to be able to be presented tonight, in this project, became something else… Because, what I feel is something like this: through this deconstructive process, I want to return to my short story again and see it in a different way, and change it, or maybe not, but this whole process kind of gave me a different way of seeing that particular short story. And how I can develop my writing further, because I think this bodily movement also opens up the idea of fluidity, like the fluidity of words, and how this can contribute for my writing after all, I’m interested in that, too.

ÉZ: So are you somehow working with Maria’s text as a kind of musical score?

MAI: We started with my text as a basis, and because of the fact that I’m a person that usually stresses when there’s no time, because for any project I do, I spend months preparing beforehand. We decided it would be better to start with a text that can be deconstructed, rather than having to construct a new text here and then also construct the performance and the collaboration… At least, this gave us more freedom to interact and to experiment with a combination of movements and words. It would have been a totally different process, it would have been interesting as well. But we didn’t have so much time to prepare everything.

ÉZ: Did you read the text before?

MS: Yes, I read it one or two days before starting to work with Maria, just to have an idea and I liked it. It captured my imagination, because different things happen in her text, also on many levels, a lot of characters and so on… And then, this question came into my mind: how can I be the character, the main character, without being the main character? For me, that was the challenge… To build up the character who has the same characteristic or the same identity, but not being a parallel identity, not having the same identity that the text already offers… And for me it was like, ok, how do I start? How do I move? Do I move against the rhythm of the words? Every text has a rhythm, and then I was trying to find that underlined space, that other space that engulfs and completes the text. So when I saw the text, I immediately saw where I wanted to start from, in terms of building up the character, because the character is like this, but then it has this other space, the inner space, that we can’t always see, and I think also in real life it takes us some time to connect with the interior space of any person. Most of the time we remain on the surface. There’s so many things beyond the surface, it’s much more intimate, much more beautiful, I think, the space that each person has beyond that, and some people don’t expose it as often, or maybe don’t show it at all, so I decided to start from that place.

ÉZ: And Momo, this was your first time working with someone from literature? Because Maria, you mentioned that you have worked with dancers before.

MS: Like here, in this specific case, yes, it’s my first time. I’ve worked in the theater, but I didn’t want to do this kind of work with text, like integrating texts in performances… But it was not in this way we did it here, that was pretty challenging.

© Evgeny Revvo

MAI: Yeah, with Momo the challenge was to try to break out of a strictly conceptual way of seeing things. Because I’m used to fragmenting texts so much that at some point the text can be lost, or it cannot communicate anymore in the way we want. So with Momo, I kind of thought about the essence of some things again, like: a text should somehow make people feel something, it should be able to communicate with people. Because usually in this deconstruction process, we deconstruct the texts, we remove so many things from them that at some point, there’s nothing left from the original text. And this collaboration with Momo reminded me again about that when I write I need to keep in mind that I’m communicating something, trying to communicate, it’s not just a dramaturgic procedure or an interesting idea or a methodology or even an illusion or whatever. The text should be able to make other people feel something.

ÉZ: So for you Maria, this process of deconstruction was like a kind of detachment work? Because in order to transform your text to be presented in this collaboration, you lost it somehow…

MAI: That’s the case with this collaboration and with collaborations in general: the texts get too deconstructed. So here we deconstructed my original text, but we also kept some elements, between the meaning and the feelings created… We kind of found a middle passage… And this is what Momo is and what I am. He helped me go back to my text and see some things from another perspective, maybe I also gave him back some other things too…

MS: Oh, she gave me a lot, a lot…

MAI: Yeah, I guess I gave him some other things…

MS: For sure! And it was important to balance our impressions, to take our feelings into account, as well as the audience. The whole time I was thinking: how can they connect with our piece? So for me it was important to build up a space, and naturally bring everything together… Beside the text and the movements, the design of the space, to change it a little bit, to change its mood. Each place has an energy, and how can we add something and change it in order to make people ready to understand what we are saying. So that was a big challenge, to create the scene, and another one was, again, to understand actually the same thing: what is literature? Somehow, through education, through school, I had always been given an example, this is like this, and it is often from something in my past that I find an example to follow: oh, that is the example, I have to become that, I have to be that… Let’s go in that direction! But what I’ve literally discovered here, through this collaboration, was also that literature and everything that is written has this inner space, like an echo of other things.

Maria: The layers, because the text has many layers.

Momo: So the essence could be the space between the words, the rhythm, the rhythm tells you something. In the first moment it can shock you, something like, I analyze this very well, this and that, and this process can already put you in a box, a box of your knowledge and other stuff, but if you let it think, if you let it breathe, somehow it builds itself, the words build themselves and remain exactly an essence. And that’s what it’s all about.

ÉZ: Exactly. I see the way you’re trying to connect your practice as a dancer with literature, you’re talking about rhythm and so on, things in common, but you’re talking about examples to follow as well… And then you have this idea of essence, maybe the essence of an artwork… But let’s consider a bit more the other side of it, for example the public. I’m the public too and I don’t know your previous works, I briefly read your biographies, I had some contact with you in the beginning, and now I come here, I see this space, this space that you’ve prepared, I see the scene… I’m already making some connections in my head with these visual elements here, that I’m seeing here, and the title of the piece… I want to understand it, what was its name again? Surface skin?

MS and MAI: “Concrete skin”.

ÉZ: Yes, “Concrete skin”. I know that I’m the public, that I’m an active part in this process, the process of understanding… I’m already creating possibilities of meaning, but for you, what does it mean? What would you want the public to get from this title?

MS: It’s like to discover yourself, it’s exactly what we’ve been talking about up until now, at least for me, the concrete sometimes suggests the roughness, the impenetrable aspect of one thing, a thing that you can see as very rough, very concrete, and also its structure. And the skin that we’ve designed is very soft, it’s very organic, it’s alive, it’s part of the real world too, it’s very sensitive.

ÉZ: But did this title come from your text or was it something that you did together?

MAI: Yes, it’s taken from the text, because Philip, the main character, is ill. He can’t really move or feel, or do other stuff, and at some point he wishes he could be turned into an object, because he feels more comfortable behaving like one or being used by people and this kind of thing. So it’s about a person who demands to be what he wants to be, even if it sounds surreal or abnormal, but maybe in the future other people are also going to want to be turned into objects, get objectified day by day. But it was beneath this surrealism of the text. Anyone who wants to exist in a different way, and how people see this, and how the two things contrast. How Philip feels and how free he feels inside… So this is what we actually experimented with during this collaboration, because Philip can’t move, but inside him the movement is huge. And we played with that, we brainstormed on titles, etc., and we both thought that „Concrete skin“ shows this contrast between the inside and the outside.

ÉZ: Yes because for me concrete is something which is real, something pretty real, and I have this sensation of the body as a thing which is not soft anymore, something which looks like a wall, a building or something… Concrete! But then, you’re talking about flexibility, and concrete skin, for me, is solid, so it’s a kind of paradox. Thus, thinking about paradoxes, I guess you both already mentioned the best and worst aspects of this collaboration, but let’s try to say it in other words: what was the hardest and what was easiest?

© Evgeny Revvo

MS: The difficult thing was this question, how can I move without dancing?, without becoming Philip and just becoming Philip? So I tried to create this character with a life of its own and still allow the public to feel these paradoxical relations. Always, when I create, I create also from the perspective of the audience. I ask myself, what do they feel?, what can they feel?, and then to offer some space to understand Philip from the story, because I think it’s very visual, very strong, and instantly you get an image of who, of what Philip is in the story. And then at the same time, to give a life that’s not in that story, so that was and still is the challenge… Whenever I’m creating, I try to bring out the different layers of the character and I try to make a distinction: it’s not me, it’s Philip, I say to myself, in order to detach myself from the character. But it’s still me, so how can I use the knowledge that’s in my body to understand certain things about the character?, and for me this was precisely the moment to explore this other space… And the easiest part of our collaboration was the contact with Maria, like, ok, let’s talk, let’s see how we can do this and that… Always being able to come up with new questions and at same time taking the risks that this kind of process has.

ÉZ: Yes, the process…

MS: The process and the lightness of it. Yesterday, for example, we just went to a park, and it was simply beautiful, instead of staying here and working indoors.

MAI: And we did the whole work there! Momo constructed the whole new scene there, it was very helpful. The sun…

MS: Yes, the process was one of the most interesting things to see, because the passion with which the people do their own stuff, present themselves and work is really important. And also in Maria, there’s not a true separation between the writing and the writer, I guess. They are just different aspects of the same being, and when we develop this kind of work, we can see the connections, and that’s the beauty of the process, because it’s absolutely real, you start to understand the work, the actions, it’s not like, you said something, but it should mean something else, you try to be somebody else. You are who you are, what you say, the work you do is reflected in the way you move. It’s very revealing the way she speaks, the way she writes… So, it was beautiful to discover that, ok, you’re not a dancer, but you write, and before that we are people. And it was nice for me, really nice, to discover the person behind the text.

ÉZ: Oh, that’s great! It’s so honest, so sincere. And you Maria? Let’s use this space we have here to put out your impressions too!

MAI: I think, for me, the first difficulty was to detach myself from Phillip, because I’m too attached to him. I have certain characteristics, I’m really attached to them, and when you start to love something you created, a person or a thing or whatever, it feels a bit weird when you deconstructed it, because you feel like you’re actually hurting it or killing it, because you’re just giving it the kiss of life and then you get it back… So it helped me a lot to accept the fact that Phillip is actually a person who deserves to be presented in a different way, deconstructed in a certain way. So that was the difficult thing, because actually I have my story, I have my text, but now we have something else. There were moments where I felt like, ok, now Phillip is starting to show something else and maybe that was not what I was thinking about Phillip, now he’s moving to another direction, that maybe wouldn’t be right. But then I realized that that’s not the point of this collaboration, the point of this collaboration is to try to create something new and develop something further. And the good thing about our process is what I said before, our communication, in a very direct way, our brainstorming, our talks, even if, deep inside, we might think, ok, I really agree with this, but…. Because there are always different ways of being ourselves, but we had a very fluid way of understanding each other. There wasn’t a single moment where I felt that Momo might get angry or I would kind of lose my patience or whatever… We didn’t have any of that, we understood each other perfectly… Even if we have a different way of seeing things and life, and so on, because Momo is very optimistic, compared with me, I tend to be more pessimistic in my life, I see the half-empty glass, and I guess he doesn’t see things like that…

(Both speaking at the same time, laughing at the same time.)

MAI: And what were the challenges? Well, the challenge was the space for me too, because we’re using a space that we didn’t know beforehand. It’s not like we chose a space that fit Philip’s movements, to this deconstructed Philip, etc. It’s a space that came with the project. I usually like site specific projects, using other kinds of areas, but I have the impression that the way we created the setting had also developed new possibilities, and I think when Momo had this idea, in the beginning I was like, why are we spending a whole day creating a setting? That was my initial thought, but then I said, ok, I want to create something with Momo, making this interaction with text and movement, even though time is passing and we are here doing this, this could be useful somehow. And it was only because we did what he wanted to, that we ended up creating a totally new dimension. We created something totally different from what we were going to do initially. And, if you’re coming tonight, you will see how all these things work together.

ÉZ: Yes, this setting is very beautiful, because it looks like a number of different spaces in a single space. There are 3 different dimensions, 3 different spaces, just using the paper and the walls… And the way the paper is cut, it looks like musical scores… Here, for example, it has a long rhythm, here it’s more like a short and precise rhythm, and this one here it’s totally empty, but already prepared to receive something, but we don’t know what. And also the paper, cut like this, made me think about skin… The paper as a surface, just like skin is a surface. I guess I have just a last question, which is about the project as a whole: if you could change something in its structure, because the project is based on this blind partnership and the idea of mixing two different people from two different artistic backgrounds, what would you change?

MS: At the moment, I haven’t thought about changes, it’s a kind of work that constantly moves! It didn’t get to the point where we regretted or felt something was missing… I see Maria every day, and in each rehearsal we do, I discover something else, another way of perceiving it. It’s nice, it’s very alive, it has a life of its own. And then, in the time we share when we meet, something changes: we are going to do something like that, and then, in the next rehearsal, it’s like, it transforms itself again, I discover a new and different way. I like it because it has kept me plugged in. But yes, the space was a challenge, because I also like to work with big spaces, dance needs space, spaces to be explored, to enable the body to get out of the body, and also for the audience to be able to see it, cause otherwise it feels like…

ÉZ: Limited somehow?

MS: Yes, limited. I like really big stages, it’s part of me. Here sometimes I was thinking, how would I do this on a big stage? I think it could be incredible, to have lights, specific lights, a bigger design to play with, as I said, we have so many characters, how can we bring the characters…

MAI: Yes, the text has many voices, many narrators…

MS: So, to play with this, it’s definitely a project that is not going to happen here, at least not now… And what we’re going to present is what we thought was possible in this space, offered initially by the project… But, how far can we go? I don’t know, because for me, it’s a very beautiful text, and the combination of both, text and movement, is very beautiful.

MAI: Of course it’s a challenge, because it’s a work in progress that will be presented tonight and not a kind of complete and finished work. It’s a different way of working as well, because we usually develop something until a certain point, and then, after two or three months, when we watch the video again, we kind of think, ok, I would do this and that in a totally different way, but now it’s a work in progress. Actually, I guess we are presenting it in a kind of climax moment, but we don’t know how far it would get… Or how better or worse it could be, if we had one, two or three more days, or another month, etc. So on the one hand this is a challenge, but on the other it’s a blessing, because we just have to let it go up to a certain point, and then present it as it is…

ÉZ: Sure, to deal with time, the consciousness of time as well, because the way that the structure of the project was designed by the commission works like this, just one week. And in the end, it is a commissioned work, but somehow you knew how to deal with it, because you brought a text, a previous text, for safety. You saved time.

MAI: Yes, a safety mechanism, but at the same time it is, I think, the exact opposite. I have the sensation that I would feel safer, if I had constructed something totally new, because the deconstruction of Philip for me was much more difficult… So even if the text worked as a starting point, the fact that we deconstructed it has created in the end a totally new text.

ÉZ: I agree with you, Maria, because, I guess, when we deconstruct something we end up creating another thing, a new thing…

MAI: I’m a short story writer, so I don’t know what it would be like to use a poem or another form… I like short stories, that’s my thing. Writing a short story here, a good one, a new one, and being able to play with it, it would have been very difficult, because I’m a very slow writer and of course the challenge would be to try out a new form, to work with poetry or maybe something else.

ÉZ: Oh, I totally understand the difficulties you mention… But besides that, do you have something else that you want to say about the piece, about the skin, the concrete skin, the contact… or even about Berlin?

MS: I love Berlin! I really do!

MAI: Berlin? I also love Berlin when it’s sunny! And I also love Berlin when I can share it with people, because it’s a nice place to share with people, and it’s a nice place to be alone as well… But when I come here next time, I’ll make sure I can bring my daughter and go to this park we worked we went to. Whenever I really like a place, I also project my life, so next time I come, I’ll bring my daughter with me.

MS: I think Berlin is different to the rest of Germany. Like New York is not America… It has its own life. And that’s connected with my life as well, my way of life, because before coming to Berlin, I was wondering about going to Stuttgart. I had a project over there and I lived there ten years ago… I went to high school there, the academy. But you can get really stuck there, it has a very dry atmosphere… It has its beauty of course, because of the hills and the trees, but in terms of atmosphere, it’s very dry. And Berlin, every time I come to Berlin, I discover new faces, new parts that are more colorful, different people and languages, and the city is so open, that people can leave behind their own heaviness, and all this just because of the space.

MAI: Yes, it has space! I didn’t expect all this space, it has an openness that I didn’t expect to find here, I mean, compared with other European cities I’ve been to, and this kind of made me think I could move here, because here we don’t feel suffocated, like in other cities, and we have this openness. And people here look pleasant, I think, and easy-going too. There is not this kind of coldness… And Berlin has this specific smell that I can immediately connect with, because every city I go to, I try to feel the smell of the place… But I guess, what I will remember is that stuff, that white stuff, and the wind spreading it around like snow… It happened yesterday, at Victoria park, we were sitting there and those white little things in the air, like snow, but it was not snow. That was for me a totally new experience. I’ve never seen anything like that, so many, on the ground… If I could describe Berlin, it would be this thing!