From Central Europe to the Wild West: Interview with Bence Mezei
In a previous interview, FringeArts talked to Kelly Copper of Nature Theater of Oklahoma about Pursuit of Happiness, a work of dance-theater created in collaboration with the Slovenian dance troupe EN-KNAP Group. This piece will be performed in Philadelphia on September 20 and 21 for the 2019 Fringe Festival.
Here we talk to Bence Mezei—one of the dancers of EN-KNAP Group—who discussed his perspective on the project.
FringeArts: How did this project and collaboration come about?
Bence Mezei: As far as I know, Kelly and Pavol met Iztok [Kovač, artistic director of EN-KNAP] in some party somewhere some years ago where he invited them to work with his company. I remember that we had a sort of short audition talk with them in Ljubljana where Pavol gave all of us a piece of paper with their address on asking if we would write to him and become pen-pals. So from then on we began to correspond with each other via handwritten letters which we kept on doing throughout the entire process and even after.
The second time we met they came to have a two week workshop with us and brought a book which was a collection of cowboy dances describing in detail how to dance those dances and so we made a very long choreography using that book. During that process we also began to practice working with language.
After that there was a quite long break, can’t say exactly how long, but long, and so we took the initiative and began to organize evenings for ourselves outside of work, calling it ‘speech nights’, where we would all pick a monologue or some fragment from a play or film, memorise it and perform it to each other for fun and further practice. At times, also, we would meet up and read to each other out loud to strengthen our voices.
Then the next time we met, a couple of weeks before that, we received a mailing with a script, called Pursuit of Happiness, and when they came we began to work on a theater play. That was again a two or three week long process, and I remember we had an open rehearsal at the end which took about four hours.
Then again there was a break, and when the third time we met in Ljubljana, that was the last period of the process, about four weeks, in which the show got a heavy cut and took its final shape. This took about two years altogether.
FringeArts: What appeals to you about working with Nature Theater of Oklahoma?
Bence Mezei: Working with Kelly and Pavol to me feels like doing something important. Their devotion towards their work and people is very inspiring; as a person and performer it makes you feel what you do actually matters; it’s not just another show you do, but it is the show. It’s like making something that will change the world. That’s how it felt making Pursuit—like we’re making the greatest work of art of the century. We might have failed miserably on that but I totally believed in it. And every time we have the chance to perform it, that feeling of religious zeal that we’re doing something to people with performance is still in the air. I really love that. It makes me feel good.
The work with them is always extremely challenging but also extremely playful. It’s never something that can be taken for granted or figured out. The environment they create, I see it as a great zone where one can try and fail and try and fail, having fun trying to get through the obstacles set as best as one can, which most of the time leads to failure, but that’s fine as long as you try your best and don’t give up on the way.
FringeArts: What themes and ideas did you talk about during creation and rehearsals?
Bence Mezei: I recall mostly talking about theater. About being in performance, about the rules of the “game”, about the audience, about us performers on stage, us performers in the world—that kind of stuff. But also, outside of the studio, through correspondence we shared so much more: anything that felt good to say, basically about anything..
FringeArts: How would you describe EN-KNAP’s style? How is EN-KNAP’s style suited to exploring the themes of this piece?
Bence Mezei: At the time when we were making Pursuit, the dancers in this company had been together for many years, steadily growing together, and we felt like a family. I remember it became a kind of a trademark for the company, saying we’re like a family, and for a long while it truly felt like that. There was a lot of trust between us. We didn’t fear to try ourselves.
In EN-KNAP we worked with many various authors not just in dance but also in theater and film which has been always a great opportunity to learn and develop. I always felt our group was made of six strong individuals who could function very well as a team together, due to what we’ve shared together. It felt good working together; to wander off exploring unknown fields of performance, being in such a group felt really a perfect place. But also, the rigor and discipline we carried being trained dancers, suited Nature Theater’s rigor and striving to tackle impossible goals.
FringeArts: The work has a distinctly American setting and title. How do you approach the setting and ideas from a European perspective?
Bence Mezei: It’s like walking up into a bar in a spaghetti western. I love it because it makes you feel ridiculous. It’s punk. It’s not something that a contemporary dancer is supposed to do.
I relate to the genre through the cowboy movies I’ve seen as a kid and researched through the process. But also from the videos I watched on youtube of people speaking with southern accents and from whatever Kelly and Pavol revealed to us from their experience of living in the U.S.A. It’s been a lot of fun playing with this genre, so widely known to everyone; having the chance to pretend, very badly, to be badass Cowboys and dangerous Mexicans and call it your work feels really a privilege. Especially from the perspective of a contemporary dancer who does not expected to speak and act.
But I never really thought of the show as something distinctly American. Concerning the subject of it, I’ve been always looking at it from the life I experience every day as a person, performer, brother, son or lover; through my person and profession; like anybody who pursues a happy life, wherever in the world they may be.
FringeArts: What’s your favorite Western?
Bence Mezei: It’s Rio Bravo and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
—Introductory text by Seth Boyce
What: Pursuit of Happiness
When: September 20 + 21, 2019
Where: Mandell Theater at Drexel University, 3220 Chestnut Street
Created by Nature Theater of Oklahoma/En-Knap Group
Photos by Andrej Lamut