Choreographer and director Cecilia Moisio (b. 1978) is known for her outspoken performances. With PINK PORTAL she brought an expressive and colorful ode to the vulva, and with REVOLT she made an explicit appeal to people to speak out and make a difference in society. With her performances she wants to tackle taboos and deal with unspoken issues. All this in a stimulating multidisciplinary form with performance, (music)theater, video, dance, and documentary.
Last December you premiered your first main hall production ‘Pinocchio Effect’ – in collaboration with MAAS Theater & Dans and Scapino Ballet – and next week rehearsals will start for Adi(c)sco at Club Guy & Roni. Does that mean a hectic period or just a calm before the storm?
It has been a hectic and intense period. Also, because it was my first main hall performance and there were many injuries among the performers, there were many challenges. It took some time to recover and regain artistic energy. It was also the first performance I made for 10+ and it was quite a taboo subject, about how parents lie to their children and children lie to their parents. And it’s about the dysfunctionality within the family. It was therefore quite confrontational and also critical of the parents. But that is also my goal as a maker; not to avoid things.
Your performances are always very outspoken, but always do thorough content research beforehand in so-called “Laboratories”. You conduct interviews with people who have experience with the topic. How do you begin such preliminary research?
The performance I am about to make at the invitation of Club Guy & Roni entitled Adi(c)sco is about addiction, which is quite an intense and confrontational theme. For this performance, we sought out people through word of mouth. I always try to make a mix of people who have gone through it themselves, in this case had an addiction and also who work with it professionally. For example, tomorrow I’m going to interview former psychiatrist within the addiction community Bram Bakker.
I try to collect both personal and professional stories. I try to find out what it feels like inside to go through that and how you exist in society and how people look at you, the personal suffering and the struggle. But also looking from the medical world at addiction. Why do people have it? How can you get out of it? What can you do to get out of it? The interviews are quite long, about one to two hours.
What did you want to find out for Adi(c)sco in this preliminary study?
I would like to put the physical aspect of addiction on stage. What does it feel like to be in that addiction. The pain you feel, the urge to want more and more and not be able to get out. The destruction in people to push yourself further and further into it. I want to reflect that in the performance. So, I ask a lot about the physical experience of addiction.
But also, how they view addiction itself. Is it a person? An entity? A part of yourself? I’m very curious about that. More the fantasy about it from the people themselves. What ís this addiction to themselves. I’m definitely going to incorporate that into the performance.
I often have the concept for the performance clear during my preliminary research. The preliminary research is to additionally get the text clear. But I also want to get information into the performance, a little education for the viewer about “What is addiction? We often think of addiction as “something dirty”; we often think of addiction as homeless people sleeping under a bridge, but of course that’s not what it’s like. It’s also people who participate in society that you don’t notice.
Addiction does not discriminate. It is also a disease and not a matter of willpower. I also want to give that information to the viewer, which is why I also interview professionals. To show that it is also a disease over which you partly have no power and for which you need someone else to get out of it.
“I recognize a certain temperlessness in my work. In it I also seek the extremities and the limits”
Your performances stem from themes close to yourself. What role has addiction played in your life?
I grew up with an alcoholic father. He had been drinking since childhood. He went through the 12-step rehab program 15 years ago, and then miraculously stopped drinking. But he almost died because of his addiction. It’s because of him that I very much have this fascination. But I also notice in my own life that I do have a temperance. When I was young I often pushed my limits. I tested a lot with that in ‘how far can I go.’ When I started to notice ‘ow, this is going to be a problem,’ I was able to get myself out of that in time. And in my work, too, I know this immoderation. I look for extremes and limits, so it is also something personal to me.
Did you involve your father in the preliminary research for the performance?
My father is too sick for that now, he’s in his 80s. He has a lot of problems with his health. I’ve asked him about his addiction before, of course, but I haven’t interviewed him. I don’t know, maybe it gets too close then. It’s very confrontational to do. But in the 12-step plan he went through, we also had a lot of conversations. And I did ask him the question about why he started drinking, so I do know something about it. But for me, the performance is not so much autobiographical. That’s why I also interviewed several people to broaden it and to include my own experience.
The performance Pink Portal, about the female body and themes such as sexuality, menstruation and motherhood, partly arose from questions you personally had about those themes. Were those unanswered questions also there around the theme of addiction?
With addiction, I also have many questions: where does it come from, why is it transmitted within families and intergenerationally, what happens in the brain when you become addicted? Addiction often comes from childhood trauma. Using, of course, is often escapism from something that happened to you. To fill a void, to not feel your pain. And for me, that does raise a question: what are the reasons people become addicted? But also: why does one person get addicted and not another?
Did you find out any new things?
I spoke with people who were heavily addicted and came out of that and about what they went through. I found it very exciting, but they were also very inspiring conversations. And also, very emotional. And yet, that human strength. I listened with disbelief to interviewees about how deep they were and how bad off they were and yet they didn’t die. While that will to die is always there when you’re very far along with drug addiction apparently, because you don’t see any other way out. But I think it’s beautiful to see how they got rid of their addiction and built a whole new life. When you talk to those people now you almost don’t believe how deep they were.
Are you perhaps also looking for a little hope?
Yes, in the performance I do want to go into that darkness. But your question, ‘Is there hope’…? Well. People’s stories also show hope, but there are also many people who do not come out of it. There is hope, but … yes, it is a very heavy theme. I am not someone who gives happy endings to performances. It is mainly to show to the audience ‘this is there’, ‘this is how hard it is’, ‘this is how hard people have to fight to exist at all and to get out’.
But it’s a good question, also for tomorrow. I will be doing interviews tomorrow and then I will ask that question as well. In the end, the hope is in the fact that there are still people who have crawled out of the valley and also become stronger. And who now no longer see addiction as shame, but as part of their lives.
“I’m not someone who gives happy endings to performances. It’s mainly to show the audience ‘this is it, and it’s hard.'”
Is there one conversation that stands out that is sure to recur in the performance?
I went to an NA (narcotics anonymous) meeting. That was very special to experience. You really see a cross-section of society there. Every meeting has a theme they talk about. And how they philosophize about it. It’s so beautiful how people are so self-critical, that they admit it’s their addiction and how they have hurt their loved ones. The enormous self-realization that there is and how they look very openly at their shortcomings. That was super inspiring, we would like to incorporate that into the performance as well. Aska Hayakawa, who is the writer of the performance, will also work on incorporating that.
Your performances are often about unconscious patterns of behavior that come from the expectations we have to meet, and the social norms imposed on us. Do you see this self-criticism as part of that?
Yes, the self-criticism, but also the social criticism. You have different addictions, of course. You have addictions that are ‘dirty,’ like drug addiction. But being on your phone is ‘normal’ and smoking is also ‘ok’. There are so many values to those things, but it’s related to a societal view of them. I think everyone has some kind of addiction. Whether it’s relationships or love or sex or watching porn.
I think society today is very much built to make money based on people’s addictions. I also want to comment on that. We can hardly escape it. This is very much in human behavior. It’s just the action of endorphins. We all have that. Look at technology, for example, gaming and apps are so built to get kids addicted at a young age.
With gambling, the same is true. I talked to a man at the casino who was a gambling addict. He explained to me how that is completely designed by designers to get people addicted to it. And that is also subsidized by the government. They make money from that. And on the other hand, they give the signal ‘addiction is bad’ and ‘then you can’t function in society’. That, of course, is enormously hypocritical.
As a creator, you call yourself a “psychological activist”. What do you mean by that term?
I do try to show things that are not ‘right’ on a societal level, that’s what I mean by the “activism”. But on the other hand, I also want to show how one person fights with such a problem. How from a personal point of view this can disrupt your life. In this case also society imposes addictions, but if you really get in trouble with it, you are actually on your own. So, the addiction is very much from the individual’s point of view, but in doing so I also want to point it out as a societal problem.
“Many creators don’t want to be informative or educational, but I want to be. I want to push that information in the audience’s face.”
Does your activism consist of wanting to bring the public the “unheard” story across the limelight and thus make themes discussable or do you also want to teach the public something?
I do try. I also try to really give information in the performance. That was also the case with Pink Portal, which was basically a whole summary: ‘fact, fact, fact.’ Creators often don’t want to be informative or educational, but I want to be. I still want to push that information in their faces for a larger audience. ‘See this in a different way’ or ‘feel sorry for these people’ or ‘this could be you yourself.’
It generally takes frequent repetition of a message for a shift to occur. Theater is a transient medium. For you anyway, where is the power of theater to convey an activist message?
I see it more as me doing my part from my ability and my love, and that is theater, which is what I grew up in and made my career in. I’m not saying that my performances alone are going to break the taboos, but I think everything together can cause that landslide. Although sometimes it seems like an endless road. Especially with the themes from Pink Portal. That sometimes you think ‘help’, those themes sometimes seem to keep coming back and sometimes the position of women even seems to get worse. This is just my way of doing my bit.
Expectations and social norms are partly culturally determined. You yourself are of Finnish descent and you work with multicultural ensembles. Have you been able to detect cultural differences when it comes to addiction?
In Finland, it is almost common to have an alcoholic family (laughing). Heavy use of alcohol is okay in Finland, which is less so in the Netherlands. But it is still not talked about. Of my father’s generation, almost half became alcoholics. That’s the Boomer generation. And of course, the Netherlands has other problems, more drug-related, as the “gateway to Europe”.
Every country has its own problems, but talking about them remains difficult. Dutch people already talk about things more, Finnish people don’t talk about them. It’s ultimately about the problem of shame. Because if it is not talked about and there is such a taboo around it, you are not going to seek help for it either. It needs to become more normalized so that you can have problems with it and that you need help to get out.
The performance takes place in a disco setting and is heralded as “a party that gets out of control and never ends. Should we expect something apocalyptic or, conversely, a celebration of intoxication?
With that disco setting and that endlessness, I also want to show the intoxication, that that can also be great. And also, the addicts I interviewed mentioned that feeling when you’re at your highest point; that’s the best feeling. And besides that, I always wanted to do a show in the disco style. I am a ‘disco baby’ myself, my parents listened a lot to disco when I was young, so in that sense there is also a link with my father. But of course, it is also the time of the rise of party drugs, losing yourself on the dance floor and going on and on. Almost all disco songs are about that; “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.”
When is the performance successful for you?
When I can make people in the audience go through an emotional journey. That won’t happen to everyone, but still that they feel confronted by it and feel what the performers experience on stage. So that it triggers something in the audience and makes them think more deeply about the theme.
It’s a tricky question for a creator: ‘when is it successful’. It’s double. You love every performance you make, yet you are always super-critical of your own work. And ‘successful,’ by the way, does mean that I stay true to my own vision as a creator. And by that, I mean that I want to push things pretty much ‘in the face’ of people and that’s intense for the viewer sometimes. But that’s the way I want to do it. So, I try not to make concessions in that because of other people’s opinions.