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Felix Ruckert | On Dance and BDSM (2005)

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On Dance and BDSM (2005)

Lara Martelli in “On Pain and Presence” / Photo by Mélanie Le Grand

An Interview with Felix Ruckert by Ellen at www.dom-unique.com / April 2005

Felix Ruckert is a well known dancer and choreographer with an international career. He also uses dance as a tool to express the dynamics of BDSM and he runs  workshops and performances around Europe. I wanted to ask him about his life  and his career for a long time now and I was delighted when he agreed to do an interview for us at Dom-Unique.com.

Can you please tell us why you chose dance as a way to express yourself and as a career ?

I was very a hyperactive child and grew up in the countryside. There I had a lot of opportunity to satisfy my urge for movement. I moved to Berlin at the age of nineteen to become a punk rock musician and there discovered dance as  a blend of action and musicality.  It was a choice of my own.

Were did you study and what were the strongest influences at the start of your career ?

I first studied in Berlin, which was pretty funny: I took ballet classes from the start because I wanted to do things seriously, but it was pretty difficult for me. Imagine a  twenty year old punk with torn leotards and Iroquese in the midst of 12 year old little ballerinas  in Tutus. After Berlin I went to Folkwang Hochschule Essen, at the time directed by Pina Bausch, so german expressionism was certainly a big influence… When I started my own company in 1994  I became more interested in the conceptual approach of american postmodern dance…

How did you discover BDSM?

In the late nineties I started to integrate audience members into my choreographies. I asked the dancers to actively touch, move, and manipulate willing audience members. I also invited audience members to touch, move and manipulate the dancers. People loved it. In a way I was already working with D/S situations without calling it that way. I started realizing how much people crave for physical touch and how much dynamics hold the clever and conscíous play with power. Any work in dance or theatre works with that dynamics: as a director or choreographer you try to make “your ” performer go places where he or she would not go alone. For the stage mostly, this implies a form of physical or psychological exertion. It might turn out as virtuosity in a physical or emotional sense. But the virtuosity alone is nothing without the fragility that is needed to become present on stage. So, in any way you try to push or seduce the performer to challenge his or her limits…to become permeable…to achieve connection with the audience…and of course the director-actor relation is very often full of erotic undertones.

I found a lot of parallels to S/M: In a session both physical and emotional challenges have to go hand in hand to achieve deeper connection.  It also proved to be pretty easy to introduce my dancers to S/M: As dancers they are used to work with physical extremes. They are tough and sensitive the same time. And as performers they are used to repeat their “sessions” with the audience over and over so they also know very well to respect their physical and emotional limits.

When did you first use BDSM as a part of a performance ?

I did an installation named « STILLEN » ( to appease, to calm down, to breastfeed) which was inspired by Japanese  Bondage, in 1999. Up to eleven dancers were tied up in fixed position or suspended from  the ceiling in an exhibition style set up. People could walk  around and observe them in their stillness. I used mostly hemp rope but also other materials and long stripes of linen or plastic for the bondage.

The next time I explicitly introduced typical BDSM elements into a show was in the 2002 performance « SECRET SERVICE ». It is a performance that people can only experience blindfolded! The audience of SECRET SERVICE enters one by one into the performance space, where they anonymously meet twelve dancers. In this “first level” they are moved around, stretched out on  the floor, lifted up, pushed around a bit, striked,  caressed and touched in very different ways, according to how and what they physically communicate to us.  We try to read their body language. It might be very dancy or playful or erotic or aggressive…Everything is fine as long as no one is endangered in any way. After this the people are lead out again and then have the choice to come back in for the “second level” . This second part demands a lot of trust. As a preparation the guests are not just blindfolded but also stripped to their underwear and cuffed. Inside we give them a rather soft introduction to D/S Situations, Bondage, cloths pins, whips and more. Mostly all happens without any verbal communication, except absolutely necessary. In that specific context, I feel it helps people to get into their headspace if they have no talking and no clear idea of their counterpart. In some cases we work with them in a way that they cannot even be sure if they are treated by a man or a woman. People are surprisingly adventurous in the « second  level ». There is about half of the audience that wishes to pass to level two after the first one. We got very skilled to find out quickly to what kind of treatment individual people are inclined to and adapt to that. As in some cases it  feels as a better idea we also manage to give them the opportunity to top us ( from the bottom !). People come out pretty touched, sometimes gleamingly happily, sometimes also quite emotionally shaken. We always have some helpers around to care for them after the sessions.

I also used flagellation and other forms of erotic submission in the last piece « MESSIAH GAME », that premiered just a few weeks ago…

Was it a difficult choice to do something so controversial ?

Not really. I can only do what I am  really interested in. Seeing how strongly and enthusiastically people react to «SECRET SERVICE » and other performances I am convinced now that pretty much every human being has sado-masochistic tendencies: you just need to find out the right props and plays to make them visible. I became a real missionary for intelligent S/M Play.

Please tell us a bit about the reactions you have had from the general public and the press?

The audience usually loves my work once they get to see or experience it, but since I am openly promoting S/M play a lot of people in the dance community and dance institutions strongly contest what I do and even try to push me out of dance. There are theatres and festivals that would never present my work and there are journalists that call my work manipulative, totalitarian and pornographic… Of course this doesn’t affect me just professionally as my subsidies are in danger or presenters do not dare to show my work anymore but it also hurts me personally. I still love dance and the way I work with S/M, I feel that there is a strong connection to it.

Do you think the general public is ready for this or is it still only for a few “scene people”?

It is a big challenge, but I think that is why people go to see art, no ?? « SECRET SERVICE » is very well accepted, but it is anonymous, nobody sees what is going on and that makes a big difference. People just feel the sensations and are happy. In « MESSIAH GAME » one could observe actual sessions going on on  stage, performers being tortured and screaming and skin getting red and swollen and there the audience reacted very confused and sometimes aggressive. The context of a theatre changes the perception of things a lot. Then People have their heads full of pictures of real violence and torture, their minds full of memories and traumas – and then they go start projecting their own trouble right away. Some wanted to jump on stage and « save »  the performers. Others felt violated to be constricted to watch this. Then again others found it boring. They were convinced it was all fake and just perceived it as a show. So they  wanted it more hard,  I guess, blood and legs chopped off like in the movies. For them I think it must have been a bit like watching a soccer game without ever having played it. You  cannot really understand what it is like and what it’s all about just by watching. So there is a lot  more work  to do with that piece….

Have you lost out on other career opportunities because of this?

Generally it is knife with two blades: Part of my success is that my work is provocative, that it is challenging. But I am in a free art market system, my funds are not permanent. I have a two year subsidy from the City of Berlin but for the bigger productions I have to find new money each time. The dance world generally is very bourgeois, lots of people there do not want sex in the theatre if it does not look disgusting or ridiculous. The idea of theatre itself is a subtle voyeurism. As I challenge such conventions of performance I am in trouble.  As long as I am out there as some kind of pervert avant-garde choreographer of the Berlin scene I am accepted. But no one would risk to give me the direction of a theatre for example. – even though that is what I think I deserve and need as a tool for my work today . I get invitations  from large ballet companies from abroad who commission choreographic work for classical dancers. I love to do that and would probably loose such opportunities, if they would read the German press. And there have been very concrete affairs, too: Shortly after the premiere of MESSIAH GAME, a theatre in Strasbourg cancelled a follow up performance there. The director was too afraid of the reaction of their very conservative city mayor. Last summer in Berlin, after a press campaign from the German yellow press, I actually received a formal  interdiction to furthermore use public funds for the organization of « xplore », an annual workshop event around BDSM and other body rituals, that I initiated to promote the idea of BDSM as an art form.

Please tell us about your BDSM workshops how did that start?

After the success of SECRET SERVICE I proposed a workshop to dance organizations which combined my new knowledge of BDSM with my dance experience. Institutions were skeptical. In the few workshops that were nevertheless organised I actually had then more BDSM people coming than dancers or actors.  So I realized that in the BDSM scene itself there is a wish for more skills. And I also realized that the methods of dance training –  being very simple and practical with the body, being attentive and analytic about its reactions etc. – are very helpful in teaching BDSM.  So even very experienced SM players appreciated these workshops a lot.

What can a newbie learn from your workshops?

The  « BDSM – a gentle approach –«  workshop usually takes five days: the first two days I just focus on the plain body. How it perceives and processes sensation. So I use a lot of my experience from 25 years of bodywork:  Release techniques as Feldenkrais for ex. to understand how you can relax someone – : as relaxed muscles and minds can take much more pain.  Yoga to learn how to breath and let go into pain. Elements from Martial arts to help the understanding of how you hold and use a weapon or toy against a person.  Anatomic information so people get a better idea of the sensibilities (and amazing possibilities!! ) of the human body. We spend time working on intimacy. People have to find out how far they want to go sexually in the context of the workshop, as they will play with the other participants. I use Acting techniques to help them exploring Role Play and Dominance/Submission situations. Stuff that usually makes the group strongly connect and that is also an efficient way to clarify personal limits and edges. Once they understood that all starts with the mind and that all the instruments are just extensions of your hand, that you only reach for a slapper if your hand is not sufficient anymore. That you tie someone up only when you feel how  he /she gives in when you hold his or her wrists tightly together. Then I pass on to props and toys. So the third and fourth day I give technical information and safety tips for the use of bondage, hot wax, cloths pins, whips and so on. Once they understand all this I make clear that all those rules and techniques are crap and pure theory if they don’t make your juices flow.  That the only « right » way to play is the one that is right for you and your partner. That is were communication and negotiation, but also fantasies and intuition comes in. The last day is reserved for longer and shorter sessions and scenarios were people actually practice with their new knowledge. I am very proud of this workshop as the participants enjoy it a lot and as it works for total beginners as well as for experienced players.

I know you travel a lot. Where have you held  workshops and performances so far?

That would be a long list…. Just let me tell you that I did about 600 performances and workshops all over Europe, in South and North America and in Japan over the last ten years. This year I will still work and perform in Japan, Belgium, Sweden, France and in Germany, of course.

You and you collaborator Caprice Dilba organize “xplore” in Berlin. Can you please tell us about this event?

In the last year in my researches around BDSM I met a lot of  very interesting people all over the world who  – same as me – transformed their sexual obsessions into an art form. Most of  these people do not consider themselves as artists, but the skills and sophistication they have reached with their techniques or rituals makes it feel like art to me. The lecturers of Xplore are experienced S/M Players, professional Dominas, Sex Educators, Tantra Gurus, Swingers or Psycho Therapists.  I do not care about their background. The importance for me when inviting them is only that they have something specific to contribute and that they are curious and open to meet other techniques and forms. Caprice is a producer and performer who comes from Communication and PR and who is also actively involved in S/M. We did not just want to organize a workshop event but to trigger the communication between the different scenes and subcultures. These researchers need intellectuals and artists  to comment on their work – not just for a better social acceptance but to point out the political importance of their efforts.  A welcome side effect of the « Xplore » concept was that it attracted  an audience that also consisted mostly of those members of the different scenes who enjoy to take a look on the other side of the fence.

This is the second year you’re organizing “xplore”. I understand last year  you made the headlines in some of the tabloids. Would you care to comment on that ? !!!

One result of the polemic was that the Senate of Berlin cut its funds for the project. So for this year’s issue we have to raise the price of the tickets and do not invite as many presenters from abroad ( we had Janet Hardy (« The Ethical Slut ») from San Francisco and Tristan Taormino from NYC) On the other hand the press campaign drew also public attention to the project and therefore maybe this years promotion could be be easier. We expect (and need) around 200 people to come.

What does BDSM mean to you and why is it important to express your feelings?

It is theater, it is play, it is therapy.  Sometimes it is just great sex and sometimes it is an ecstatic experience.  It is hot. It is surprising. Sometimes it is also really hard and I have learned things about me I did not really want to know. It is a tool  to deepen the experience of life by using our sexual urges. I would advise everyone to have the chance to experience it consciously – as most people anyway fool around with its power.

Are there still aspects you have not explored and wish to?

Thousands. The good thing about the body – and mind! – is that its possibilities are countless. I started as a heterosexual switch but lately play more and more with men as I found it much easier to submit to them. I am a very bad slave and I try to improve! I wish to work more with people that link S/M with concepts out of psychotherapy to get closer to the more hidden layers of personality. And of course play with those !!!

Where do you hope to be in the years to come?

In  Berlin. It is an oasis in the desert of worldwide sexual repression.

And finally where can we see your performances or participate in your workshops?

For performances check the calendar on my website. The next shows are in Brugge,  in Tokyo, in Berlin, in Stockholm, in Munich and Hamburg. The next time I will teach BDSM workshops is at the Xplore05 in Berlin July 22-24 and in Stuttgart in October.

Thank you very much Felix we wish you good luck with all your projects.