In 2018, the Flemish artist Seppe Baeyens presented his piece “INVITED” at Tanztreffen der Jugend. Previously, he had led a workshop within the Forum-programme for choreographers. As part of Tanztreffen der Jugend 2019, Baeyens continued the choreographic research for his new project “Birds”, which he began in Brussels and at tanzhaus nrw in Düsseldorf and which turns the public sphere into a stage. We talked to him about his intergenerational projects,  audience participation, the democratization of (art) spaces and the unifiying power of dance.

Seppe Baeyens © Danny Willems

When and how did you start dancing?

I was 16 and went to school in Belgium. At my school, every two years they would do a project with a choreographer or a director, students and teachers. My sister had taken part, and you would get a few days off when you did this project, so I participated, too. It was a dance project, and there I discovered a completely new language, a language without words. After that, I auditioned for fABULEUS, a company for teenagers working with professionals. I was 17 then and did a couple of creations with them …

So you never went to dance school?

No, never. For me dancing was more like a hobby that I was doing in my free time. But when I was 22 I took part in a professional production by the company Kopergietery in Gent and that started my professional career. I also started giving workshops and these workshops eventually evolved into projects. Ten years ago, I created my first piece. The cast consisted of 13 musicians and dancers, all of whom where kids and teenagers, and five chickens. It was called “We” and was dealing with questions like: Who are we as a group and who are the individuals in the group? After that I did my first professional creation under the wings of Kopergietery again: A duet between a grown up musician and a six-year-old kid called “The (Im)possible Friendship of Stef and Augustijn”. It was about the relationship between an adult and a child, a theatrical meeting with dance, music and film.

And why was it (im)possible?

It was possible and impossible. The question was: Can there be a friendship? Because Augustijn, the kid, was very quiet and spoke only French, and Stef, the adult, was kind of a punk and spoke no French. So two different worlds brought together. And this is also the base of my work: I am always trying to find ways to create a connection between different people or different communities, different worlds – with dance as a language and with the stage as an infrastructure.

Ultima Vez is a Brussels based dance company which engages a lot in socio-artistic and educational projects for specific target groups. In 2018, you presented the work “INVITED” at Tanztreffen der Jugend as part of Ultima Vez. When and why did you start working with them?

I first got to know Ultima Vez when I took part in a workshop about their piece “What the Body Does Not Remember” from 1987. Their language was very clear, very physical. I really liked it. Ten years later I met the director, Wim Vandekeybus, in Brussels. I went up to him and said “Voilà, my name is Seppe, I do a lot of things with kids and teenagers, can I do something under the wings of Ultima Vez?” He was like: “I don’t know you. But yeah, let’s try it.” And when he created the piece “Radical Wrong” in 2011, I did my first project for Ultima Vez, a one-week-workshops with kids and teenagers called “Radical Young” which focused on the physical aspects of protest and manifestations. One year later the company moved to Molenbeek, one of Belgium’s most diverse boroughs, and initiated a weekly participatory laboratory open to dancers as well as to people who haven’t been in contact with dance before. I went with them and started a dialogue with the neighborhood.

What did that dialogue look like?

I started doing research on working with different age groups in contemporary dance. At first, we reached out to the different organizations in the neighborhood of Molenbeek: schools, an organization for people with mental disabilities, an organization for elderly people, youth organizations. Then I went to each of these organizations and offered them a workshop, I gave them just a taste of contemporary dance. The second time I already mixed these groups – the elderly people with the kids and teenagers, with the people with disabilities … and that was more or less the starting point of mixing age groups and backgrounds in my work. Based on this research I developed “Tornar” – the first piece I realized under the wings of Ultima Vez. It tells the story of a group of people who are trying to rebuild a community after a disaster. The cast represented four different age groups, with the youngest participant being eight years old and the oldest 91, at that moment.


Yeah, that was Leon. He is also in “INVITED”, he is 96 now.

How did you meet?

I met him on the street, he lives in front of the studio and one day I invited him over. On the first day, he was watching for 15 minutes, on the second he stayed for two hours and on the third, he brought his training suit – and he was in. And since that moment Leon has taken part in every workshop I did, every creation.

Ultima Vez, „INVITED“ © Danny Willems

Since the beginning of your career you have been working with casts consisting of both amateurs and professional dancers of different backgrounds and ages. Why is this form of dance and theatre so interesting to you?

I’m always looking for a cast that mirrors the society. Also, I find it somewhat strange when I see a piece where a professional actor is playing a kid – for me it really doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t they ask a kid to play a kid? In my work, I am not looking for people playing other people; I am looking for real people who play themselves, or rather, who are themselves. We are creating things together, but with what comes from the people. In “Tornar”, for example, there are the kids and their spontaneity, their flexibility. On the other end, there is someone like Leon who has his history, his experience, his structure … And if you bring these two qualities together, it gives room for a new language; and that is also what I’m looking for.

Your pieces are emphasizing the strength of a diverse community while at the same time embracing the individual impulses of each of its members – is this some kind of political statement you want to convey with your art?

I think of it as a form of social engagement. In a world, where you have a growing gap between the left and the right wing, between rich and poor, I try to connect things. For me it’s more about composition and I develop it out of the impulses of the participants. Leon who is 96 has another impulse than the kids, he has another impulse than the man with Down’s syndrome, but for me it’s important to use the different impulses to create a composition. Is that political? Yeah, in a way, but for me it just feels like it makes sense. For me the differences between people in general – they are an asset, a quality. Also, I think, in our political, economic and cultural life we give all the power to the adults, but I think the kids and teenagers also have a lot to say and for me it’s important to listen to all of these people.

“INVITED” is a performance that invites the audience to become co-creators of the choreography as it is taking place. Again, the cast consisted of professional and non-professional dancers and musicians of all ages. What was your main impulse for developing this piece?

I began working with the concept of co-authorship after seeing “The One Minute Sculptures” by the Austrian artist Erwin Wurm in which the visitors are asked to carry out tasks, like “Stand on one leg and think of Spinoza”, for example, that way becoming part of the exhibition. I was surprised to see how easy it can be to go from just watching art to actively becoming involved in the making of art. And I wanted to apply that to contemporary dance. I wanted to democratize dance, to lower the threshold. I think there is a great power in dance. It’s a universal language, the body is the central element, everybody has a body, so I think everybody can take part.

Ultima Vez, „INVITED“ © Danny Willems

What is happening in “INVITED”?

We invite members of the audience to take part in different meetings on stage, with performers as well as with other viewers. At first, it is just standing and watching, then it becomes physical: a hug, listening to the belly of someone else, a handshake … After a while, we introduce certain elements with which we then develop a choreography together – like standing, walking, running, in groups, alone, in lines, in circles. And since everyone knows how to stand, walk and run, it is very accessible. In the end, ideally everybody is on stage, dancing.

A social utopia …

Yes, it is about joining different ideas and perspectives to create a collective artwork. And it is exploring ways to encourage people to get involved. It is also a space, where you can meet people that you maybe would not meet in another context. It is generating connection and understanding.

Ultima Vez, research for “Birds”, Lenteatelier, 2019 © Danny Willems

At last year’s Tanztreffen der Jugend you continued the research for your new creation “Birds” which will premiere in Brussels in 2021 . Can you tell me a little bit about that project?

“Tornar”, “INVITED” and “Birds” form a trilogy. “Tornar” dealt with community on stage, “INVITED” was about inviting the world into the theatre and with “Birds” we will bring the theatre to the world. We are going to work in a public space. There is an entire world outside these theatre walls and there are people who don’t have access to theatre, like, for example, homeless people. The cities are selling more and more of the public space – they sell it to bars, for example, that put up terraces where you can drink, but where you have to pay; so there is this gap between the people who can pay their seats and those who can’t. I think we have to return the public space to the public. So for me “Birds” is also about recovering and rediscovering the public space as a place where we can meet other people, where we can connect and not only as something commercial, something that has to generate money. The basic idea is similar to that of “INVITED”, but instead of in the theatre, we do it in the public space – where you have people passing by, where you have accidental audiences … and we use the elements of theatre to create a space with tension, we use music, maybe some lights …

You have been doing this research project in different cities. Was it always with the same cast?

For the creation, I will work with a cast of around 15 people of all ages, but for the research, like the one I did in Berlin, I work with a local cast. I like to work with local partners because they know the city; they know the good places to do this. During the Tanztreffen we were working in the studio every morning, preparing things, and each afternoon we went to the Breitscheidplatz to try out these things in the public space. On the last day, we did a presentation with live music. We put some chairs on the Breitscheidplatz, there was the cast, a lot of audience from the Tanztreffen, but also the accidental audience, who was there anyway, and then also the passing people. We worked a lot with the impulses of the passing people.

Ultima Vez, research for “Birds”, Tanztreffen der Jugend 2019 © Dave Großmann


For example, on that square people are walking mostly in lines, so we did a whole phrase on walking lines. One main element of “Birds” is infiltration – it is an experiment on our possibilities of infiltrating daily life in the public sphere. But also of supplementing, of adding things to it. A third aspect is our interaction with this daily life: How can we invite people to take part in choreographic elements that we establish in the public sphere?

“Birds” will premiere in Brussels in April 2021 and will then go on tour to various European cities.