Residentie Jan Martens

Authenticity is what I am looking for. In its essence this is non-acting, and I work to eliminate the space for acting. By not completely rehearsing a performance we get a unique and honest image. Compare it to the botched selfies you don’t usually get to see.” – Jan Martens

Choreographer Jan Marten’s THE COMMON PEOPLE was premiered at the end of May 2016 during the festival SPRING. Martens staged this performance as a response to the progressive march of digitalization. We are forever sitting behind our screens and hardly interact with each other.

In the performance THE COMMON PEOPLE, which Martens designed with film director Lukas Dhont, 44 Utrecht locals, divided into couples, physically encountered each other on the stage at the Stadsschouwburg.  The participants had earlier followed workshops, and shortly before their performance they received a script with instructions. In this way THE COMMON PEOPLE was a social experiment, workshop and performance rolled up in one.

Workshop and talk of 18 May
Jan Martens had been in Utrecht for a workshop and a lecture prior to the rehearsals and performance of THE COMMON PEOPLE at the request of Residenties in Utrecht and in collaboration with SPRING, Het Huis Utrecht and HACKING HABITAT. Art of Control.

Central in Jan Martens’ workshop were the concepts ‘encounter,’ ‘improvisation’ and ‘body awareness.’ Martens nurtured a feeling of safety among the participants in the group by first encouraging eye contact with each other, and then through exercises to gain trust in each other and finally to physically touch each other.

All photos: © Anna van Kooij

The workshop took place in the mail room of the former Wolvenplein prison, which is also hosting the art exhibition HACKING HABITAT.Art of Control. This exhibition is about the domineering role of technology in today’s society, dovetailing with the ideas of Jan Martens. Experience in dance or theater was not required.

Visual artist Ienke Kastelein attended the afternoon workshop and later described her experience:

“Like some of the other participants I also chose a spot at the side of the stage. ‘Look at each other for a long while,’ was one of the instructions. That is not easy to do! Following Martens’ protocols people in couples touched each other. They moved very seriously and carefully, reaching out to each other. I suddenly felt like a voyeur. Watching exercises in intimacy, intimacy between strangers, not intended for everyone to see. The feeling of uneasiness grew. I felt a stronger and stronger sense of contradiction between what people were carefully exploring and the stage as a place for doing that. This is completely opposite to what I think intimacy is all about.”

Read more about her experiences and expectations (Dutch only).

Jan Martens also gave a lecture on the evening of 18 May in the Wolvenplein prison. He talked about his work and the ideas behind his work. He also touched on the experiences in the workshop earlier that day. After his lecture a number of experts active in various specializations responded to his ideas.

The panel consisted of:

Maartje de Jong: biologist/neuroscientist, Utrecht University;
Marijn Lems: program maker/dramaturge, Het Huis Utrecht;
Ienke Kastelein: visual artist, with work exhibited in Hacking Habitat.

All photos: © Anna van Kooij

A selection of the evening’s more memorable comments:

Jan Martens: “Authenticity is what I’m looking for. In its essence this is non-acting, and I work to eliminate the space for acting. (…) By not completely rehearsing the performance we get a unique and honest image. Compare this to the botched selfies that you generally don’t get to see,” he continued. “Each intervention for direction or dramaturgy is one too many.”

“Essentially it doesn’t matter whether you work with professional or non-professional actors. A good performance turns on expressiveness, and non-professionals can also allow something to happen,” said Marijn Lems.

Maartje de Jong: “We don’t enjoy physical contact with people we don’t know, and we never look each other directly in the eye. That feels uncomfortable and inappropriate. We avoid this kind of thing unconsciously the whole day through and that’s why it’s so interesting that Jan Martens puts this under a magnifying glass in this social experiment.”

“The viewer also plays a certain role in this performance. By watching people who are experiencing intimacy, you experience it yourself as well. And I can imagine that the participants in turn feel the gazes from the audience,” remarked Ienke Kastelein.

“I didn’t have to act like an actor. I was engrossed in each encounter, just as in daily life. I didn’t have to play a role, and was only busy with touching someone,” said a workshop participant.

“I think THE COMMON PEOPLE gives a glimpse of how in 2016 we deal with each other and with technology,” commented Jan Martens. “I portray a dying way of relating to each other.”


Photo: © Anna van Kooij

Performances THE COMMON PEOPLE 27 and 28 May 2016
THE COMMON PEOPLE had two performances:
– Friday 27 May, 21:00, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht,
– Saturday 28 May, 21:00, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht.

De Volkskrant gave an enthusiastic review of the performance (four of five stars): “This physical exploration produces moving scenes. The 44 participants made themselves vulnerable and interacted on the basis of trust.” review, in Dutch

The NRC Handelsblad also gave a positive review (four of five stars): “The Common People is the opposite of spectacular, but is a rock solid and refined concept, that in addition to being a statement is a plea for treating each other with respect, for attention and simplicity in the theater. Heartwarming.” review, in Dutch

THE COMMON PEOPLE will be performed in the coming months in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Reactions of participants
Some of the participants of THE COMMON PEOPLE shared their reactions after the performances:

“Wow! This was so intense and cool and I am so thankful that I was privileged to be part of it. It was an amazing and extremely intimate experience. The word that best says it is gratitude for an incredible experience.”
– Washant (man, age 39)

“I really enjoyed Jan’s workshops, supported by his team. I think he is specially gifted in gaining people’s trust and allowing purity, sensitivity to come to the surface. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.”
– Lucie (woman, age 51)

“I think it’s amazing how Jan and his team allow so many people from such diverse backgrounds and ages to meet each other on and behind the stage, and in such a short period of time have such intimate contact. Jan’s modest and invisible direction made a big impression on me.”
– Kazem (man, age 35)

“THE COMMON PEOPLE was a completely new experience for me. Both evenings I had unusual encounters, with people I had never met before. Thanks go to Jan and his team for allowing me to have this experience.”
– Herman (man, age 68)

Three questions for Ellen van de Mortel, coordinator participant recruitment
Ellen van de Mortel was a production intern in 2016 for SPRING and had the task of recruiting participants for THE COMMON PEOPLE. A very challenging job:  she had to find 48 people from Utrecht who were willing to go on stage and together would form a representative sample of Utrecht’s residents.  She talks about her internship.

How did you get start the recruiting?
To find participants we started by putting out a call via a variety of SPRING’s channels, such as our newsletter, our website and the social media. My SPRING coworkers and I also put the word out in our own networks and circles. This quickly generated a wide variety of responses.

And then?
Many enthusiastic people shared the call on social media and in their work and friendship networks. Online the word spread far. This not only worked via SPRING’s channels, but also via festival partners and various (closed) Facebook groups active in the City of Utrecht. In this way the call came to life and recruitment itself became a way of making contacts.

Did you also search for particular people?
I went out to personally meet and invite people for the project. I went to very diverse places, from student associations, to knitting groups, neighbhorhood projects and choirs. But also ‘soup kitchens’ van Resto van Harte and editions of Utrecht in Dialoog. All places where people can meet each other and are open to meeting strangers. Lastly, I also invited people from the street! So I met all kinds of people and several of them ended up taking part in this project.

About Jan Martens
Jan Martens (Belgium, 1984) studied at the Fontys Dance Academy in Tilburg and graduated at the Artesis Conservatory for Dance in Antwerp in 2006. He worked as a performer with various choreographers, among them Ann van den Broek and Koen De Preter, and began his own choreographic work in 2009. Martens travels the world with his performances VICTOR (co-created with Peter Seynaeve, a production of CAMPO), SWEAT BABY SWEAT (selected for the Dutch Dance Festival 2012 and Circuit X 2013 in Flanders), THE DOG DAYS ARE OVER (selected for the Theatre Festival Flanders in 2014) and the solo ODE TO THE ATTEMPT. In May 2016, the new show THE COMMON PEOPLE world premieres in tanzhaus NRW in Dusseldorf, with the Dutch premiere during SPRING Utrecht.

SPRING programs contemporary performances by (inter)national choreographers and theatre makers. These choreographers and theater makers dare to take risks and to challenge the boundaries of dance, theater and visual arts. This year, SPRING will take place from Thursday 19 to Saturday, May 28th at several theaters in Utrecht, but also in unexpected locations in the city.