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Do It Yourself

An interview with Emma-Cecilia Ajanki about passivity, patriarchy and punk

Emma-Cecilia Ajanki is a Swedish choreographer who collaborated with Julia Giertz between 2007 and 2014 under the name The Mob. I spoke to Emma-Cecilia about POGO MOB, their 2010 work performed by Emma-Cecilia and Julia  with Jørgen Teller and Poul Laursen.

Hamish MacPherson: I first came across the trailer for POGO MOB, I think in about 2012, and I was really seduced by it. It was disturbing because it’s a minute of Poul dragging and tossing around you Julia, but I was also really amazed by how much skill was involved. So it’s been in my mind for a long time and when I started working on STILL LIFE I knew I wanted to find you.

Emma-Cecilia Ajanki: How did you find us? Because we don’t have a The Mob website anymore.

HM: I emailed Julia from her website [1] and she gave me your contact details. I also emailed someone that had written a review of it or a description of it. I think they know you as well. Sam Moore? [2]

ECA: Yeah. Yeah. Life has changed a lot in those nine years, so I’m not really living the same life anymore. It really feels like it belongs to a previous chapter.

HM: Because then you were in a particular scene or you were early in your career?

ECA: That was really early in my career and it was made in collaboration with Julia. We worked together very closely for seven years, and we stopped that collaboration in 2014, which is also quite a few years ago. So it was a really different way of living and making art. Yeah, I was really young. I was 23.

HM: Maybe it’s strange to talk about it.

ECA: I was really happy to revisit it because it is one of the performances that I’ve made that I’m most proud of, that I really like. So I was really happy to revisit my thoughts. And then when I sent you the video links, I didn’t look at the whole thing, but I saw the short version or the trailer and I still feel that the way we worked in making it and the result, I still really like it and that feels good.

HM: How you would describe what happens in the piece?

ECA: The audience walks into a black box and the audience seating is on three sides of the stage and they come into a very warm environment. Me and Julia and Poul, the other performer, and Jørgen who is making the music, we’re not greeting them in the sense of shaking their hand, but we look them in the eye so it’s a really relaxed and warm atmosphere. We were playing a song I think. Just a very relaxed feeling and then we start in a very naive and simple way. We read from a paper, a text that we prepared. A welcoming text where we describe what we have been working with. We talk about DIY and in many ways it’s extremely naive because we talk about it in a very literal way. We would approach it from a very practical point of view; we showed different examples of how bad it can go if you want to do things by yourself. We staged ridiculous situations…for example, we have a trampoline and I jumped on that and then I try and jump off and I fall on my knee and I hurt myself because I tried to do it myself. So it’s really a very extreme misunderstanding of this term DIY. So we’re playing on the sense that we’re Scandinavian and then…this part I feel is a long time ago. It’s harder for me to describe what we were really doing, but the function it has in the piece is that it uses a slapstick sense of humour that in one way warms up the audience. But I think, in a sense, it also lulls them into a false sense of safety even though some people look absolutely terrified at these bad jokes. So they’re thinking, “What is going on here?” So we worked very consciously with this first part of being drastically different to what we knew what was going to come as a way to create this emotional, or dramaturgical [3] journey for the audience to go through. How a space can transform from something quite a warm and welcoming and later on becoming something that most people perceive us and very uncomfortable and violent and this subtle change from the one to the other.

And then when we’re done with our cute presentation, we basically start what is the movement practice of the performance which is being moved. We don’t move ourselves but Poul, the third dancer, he does. And so we start again in this warm cute atmosphere, although the light in the room changes and the quality of the sound changes so there’s a sense of, “Okay, now it starts.” He manipulates our bodies to raise our hands up and wave to the the audience. And here again, we flirt a little bit with superficial, mainstream punk aesthetics and movements like jumping up and making a fist with your hand. And he controls our bodies to do this stylistic movement and then slowly we become less and less active in our engagement with the audience because in the beginning of this manipulation, we’re still very present. Then, Poul moves us to sitting on the floor and we become more puppet-like. We allow this moment. There is absolutely no fight in this. So this is what we do, this is how this trio functions. He moves us and we received this. I don’t know if manipulation is the right word and I cannot remember what we called it. Our working process was also not in English. But they are physical manipulations. He would move our bodies, we would not take initiative to any movements ourselves, but we would work in a sense; we keep a structure in our body at least in the beginning. We’re not complete rag dolls and this is the how we choreographed it as well. Quite precisely and in detail as to when we changed the quality of our bodies as we were being manipulated. And what type of movements that Poul does to our bodies and you can say that it goes from quite nice and waving to the audience and stylistic movements, to us becoming more and more ragdoll-like, but this is something more that you see from the outside because it’s not at all what’s happening on the inside. And Poul’s movements become more and more violent. He drags us across the floor, he throws us on top of each other. But what is happening on the inside here is that we’re extremely present in how to receive these strong manipulations and momentums that he’s giving our bodies and how to take care of ourselves. How to help him move us and at the same time, not to hurt ourselves.

HM: And this goes on for a long time. How long is it? Half an hour? 40 minutes?

ECA: Yeah, about half an hour. Poul gets physically exhausted because it’s really hard, controlling our bodies and dragging us across the floor. It’s a visible part, it’s a very essential part of the piece that the audience gets to see his physical transformation as well as going from being strong and really able to move these bodies around. He loses control and in the end in the sense that he’s just too tired to do it and he’s dripping in sweat. So there’s a clear change in his body from this. And this, the biggest chapter of the piece, ends when he is incredibly exhausted and then there is a moment of silence and we all stand on the line and then Jørgen comes out from behind his table where he has all his instruments and we all stand on the line and then for the first time Poul gets to speak because so far he’s just been a body. He speaks the text which is a cover of a punk song: “I’m so messed up, I want to hear…” You know the song, I Wanna Be Your Dog.

HM: Iggy Pop, right? [4]

ECA: Yes, exactly. Yeah. “…Now, I wanna be your dog.” And it’s in contrast to the position of control over our bodies that he was just in before. And then we perform a slow motion disco dance to this song together and that’s how it ends.

HM: What was the process to arrive at this work, both practically and conceptually?

ECA: Conceptually it was a very intuitive and easy process in a way. At the start of the process we did not have any funding so we rehearsed once or twice a week in the evenings with Poul and Jørgen for maybe two hours. So it was made over a long period of time but not intense rehearsals. There was never a full-day rehearsal or a whole week in the way that you would perhaps choose to make a piece if you could pay a salary to the people involved. I mean that just wasn’t a possibility because we all had other jobs to do. We started out from this idea that we were interested in punk and DIY. Juila and I had graduated from our training in 2009 and we started working on this in the beginning 2010. We thought it was somehow thrilling and a little bit provoking to choose to work with two older men as we were very young women. A different power dynamic that would normally be seen in the world, that we would be the bosses over these two men in their fifties. We started super simply by asking ourselves, “Punk. What is it?” We watched documentaries and films, but not in a very intellectual way. We stayed more in terms of popular culture, so we were not reading any academic texts about punk or anything like that. We would listen to music and watch documentaries about bands and things like this. And when we started working with Poul and Jørgen again, we started trying out different ideas. I can’t remember all of them now. Between the rehearsals, me and Julia would talk and say, “Okay, let’s try something like this,” or, “Let’s try to move in this way.” We didn’t have this plan of the performance being as it ended up being from the start, but we knew that we were working with power dynamics and somehow this phrase ‘do it yourself.’ And the reason why I say intuitively is that one day, I think Julia said, “Oh, instead of us moving ourselves, why don’t we try to have Poul move us?” because we were really literal about this ‘do it yourself.’ A very big part of our sense of humour as well at that time was to be extremely literal about words and not really think about what context they’ve appeared in. And then that’s how the practice with Poul moving our bodies was born. In the beginning, we thought this was a part of the performance and there would be other parts and other things would happen. But as we started doing it more and more, we realised all the layers and facets it had and that this could really be developed and that it was actually really interesting. We were working on different things at the same time and we had been been working in a festival in Aarhus in Denmark and we were sitting on the train back home to Copenhagen and starting to plan the rehearsals for POGO MOB. And then I think I said, “Why don’t we do this practice?” Because this is what we found interesting because of everything that happens. And then we both felt this was a very interesting path to go. And then we just did that.

HM: How did you meet Poul and Jørgen?

ECA: Poul was our contact improvisation teacher for the four years were spent at the National School of Contemporary Dance in Denmark. So we knew him really well but he was our teacher. He’s a lovely, lovely man and he would never have been this type of authoritative teacher in the sense that if you think about more old -fashioned hierarchical dance school type of relationship. And we asked him, “Do you want to do something together?” And he said, “Yes! Let’s do it!” He’s an incredibly talented mover and the intensity of the movements that we do in the actual show I think would have been impossible for us to achieve with another dancer. Firstly because me and Julia trust Poul and his physicality so much because we’ve been working with him already for four years in contact and conversation classes. And secondly he also knew our bodies really well. I think he’s been seeing us move for a long time and during the classes we would work together as well. His performance of manipulating our bodies that strongly and violently was only possible based on this long relationship we’ve had before. It would’ve been hard. I don’t know if it would have come up as a possibility without that.

HM: And by that I guess it was not only just that you could physically do that together, but he could trust you and you can trust him to be putting yourselves in a vulnerable position.

ECA: I think very much it’s the physical aspect because it is incredibly intense to do. And I was not hurt once, maybe I had some skin damaged on my feet once during rehearsals. We were working so hard with the technique on how to do it with skill and sensitivity as a dancer. That was incredibly important because of how different my body and Julia’s body were, so he could very easily think, “Okay, what is it that I can do with Emma-Cecilia’s body? What is it that I can do with Julia’s body? How can I throw Emma-Cecilia on the floor? How can I lift Julia?” all of these things and this was a huge part of the preparation and there was an incredibly joyful time making this piece because we had so much fun and it’s never really felt dangerous. But looking back at it, I think it would have been hard to go that far with someone else.

HM: It’s pretty hard question, but could you articulate some of the…tricks isn’t the right word…but what’s going on? Because I think when I first saw the trailer, it seemed like you’re completely lifeless at some points, but watching the full version, I can see that you’re alert throughout and there’s a real virtuosity in how you’re holding yourself but giving this illusion of being loose and out of control.

ECA: There are some basic tricks. If I’m on my belly and he grabs onto my legs and starts dragging me then I would sit my arms underneath my chest and that would be what was dragged against the floor. and also I have on this thick cotton hoodie. And during the whole duration of this we would keep…especially me as I’m quite hypermobile…so we would keep our core slightly contracted as to never fully be a ragdoll. We felt that if I completely relaxed on the floor and he would grab my arm, for example, then it would take me longer to receive the information of how he’s pulling me and adjust my body accordingly. And this is extremely subtle. It’s just about how to place, for example, the arm inside the shoulder joint the right way so the movement can travel through the body and not just pull the arm in a direction that would not create more movement.

And the same thing when lying down on the floor, I would never know if Julia would land on me. And we knew exactly that he would never throw someone on the other’s knees or head or things like this, but I would not lie relaxed on the floor because if my body was completely relaxed when she landed on me then, for example, my neck could go a little bit wrong. It’s this extreme activity in the body – not extreme sensitivity, but this hyper concentration –that makes this piece so much fun to do. Very few things have required so much concentration from me. You have no other option than to be fully present in the now and you can’t be like, “Okay, now it’s my turn.” I don’t know, I’m picturing some other performance where maybe the other dancer is doing more at one point and you’re just lying on the floor and then maybe perhaps you take it to the rest or you start thinking about something else for a little while, even though maybe that’s not what you want to be doing. But there’s no way to do that in here.

HM: Can you estimate how long the process was working on this?

ECA: The premiere was at the end of November and I think we were working the whole autumn, maybe three weeks in total. And we asked Poul to work with us the previous winter.

HM: And then, obviously as you say, you had been studying together, so you had that grounding for the team to build on.

ECA: Yeah, Poul had seen our other things like concerts and he would have followed this whole process. So he knew about our artistic work, and we asked Jørgen to make the sound because Julia had collaborated with him in another project. And he also knew us and what we do. So we all knew each other before starting.

HM: Can you remember what kind of reactions the piece got at the time?

ECA: Yeah. It got very strong reactions in the sense that some people thought it was incredibly uncomfortable to be in the audience and people perceived it as much longer than it is. That’s why I was so unsure now; is it an hour or half an hour? I was just surprised that it’s that short now. And I knew this, but it’s somehow surprising to me. We premiered it in Copenhagen. I think we played two nights in a row where a lot of people we know came and saw it. So we would have a lot of talk and discussions with them. And in many ways, a lot of people were really impressed by the physicality of it. But at the same time slightly disturbed and thought it was incredibly uncomfortable to sit in the audience. And a lot of people thought that it would only end if someone from the audience stopped Poul. For a long time, they thought it was a game of, “How long can they bear to watch this?” which it really wasn’t. But a few people had this reaction; The ones who reacted in a more emotional way. But the people who expressed something in general thought it was conceptually quite fascinating. This movement practice we developed around it was ‘all-consuming to watch’. Some people used this term ‘all consuming’.

HM: Okay. An impossible question to answer, but do you think the piece could be made today?

ECA: I don’t think it could. Of course, it’s impossible to answer, but I think…and this draws in a little bit to what POGO MOB is really about that I haven’t so far really gone to. We’ve just spoken about what happens. We’re two young women and an older white, very capable man, starts manipulating our bodies and in the beginning we enjoy it and then slowly we give up our own identities, our own agency. At least from the outside it looks like this. And we allow him to treat us really violently and we just take this. We don’t say, “stop”, we don’t stand up for each other. We just sort of disappear into this power structure where he controls where we are, when and in what way.

And then this flips in a sense that through this activity of him controlling us, he becomes exhausted. So the carrier of this power structure, in the end, is also a victim of it. Which we saw as a comment on the patriarchal and misogynistic structure that we have; it’s like nobody wins in this. And men are exhausted, not only doing and trying to…I mean this is a simplified version…only doing and trying to be really strong and carry the weight and telling women what to do. But they are extremely tired when they’d rather just, you know, chill-out and have a cup of tea. And at the same time, we are the victims in the beginning but after a while it becomes very clear that this task that Poul has set himself to do is it’s destroying him at the same time and this is where the importance of exhaustion comes in. And this happens as well. Actually, we were very happy about this reaction from the audience because in the beginning, they thought about us all the time and after a while when they saw his physical strain, then it changed to the effort that he was putting in and sort of focusing into the vulnerability of his body.

Who else can be on stage? Who else can be powerful?

The reason why I don’t think maybe it could have been made today is that in Sweden  as a young woman choreographer just starting to make work and then choosing to work with two older white men would mean, in a way giving them more space. I feel like the feminist discourse, at least here in Sweden, has sort of changed into being more about “Let’s just drop that. Who else can be on stage? Who else can be powerful? Let’s see examples of that and not just a portrayal of what is actually happening” And I think POGO MOB is, in a sense, a portrait of that and I don’t know if I was 23 today and I had just graduated a year earlier from dance school, whether I would have been thinking in the same terms as I was then.

HM: Even though you’re critiquing those power structures. There’s an argument that it’s better…not to ignore them…but just to not give them space. Not give them air even in criticism.

ECA: Yeah, this is a tendency I see in people’s work today.

HM: Did you see the work being in conversation with other pieces that are not so critical but may sort of dabble in similar imagery? I think I said in a previous issue of STILL LIFE that Eleanor Sikorski had written about rape culture and the duet and other kinds of displays of virtuosity where a man is throwing a woman around but maybe without a critical frame that you seem to be offering in the piece, particularly with the way your authorship is highlighted at the beginning the piece. [5] So yeah, I wonder whether you had been thinking about other kinds of works that might superficially seem similar but are actually quite different.

ECA: I don’t think we were talking about it in terms of these type of duets but we were definitely super aware of the fact that he is moving our bodies. But the reason why POGO MOB doesn’t fall into that trend is because we are doing just that. It’s not trying to be beautiful, It’s not trying to pretend to be a dance or anything else. It is purely just moving our bodies. It’s extremely simple in that sense, and I that’s why it illuminates this topic as well in a different way than a duet which is meant to be beautiful or impressive but then the internal mechanisms are exactly the same as POGO MOB but only decorated.

HM: Were you ever worried that it could be read as just another display of male power without any criticism, without any critique to it?

ECA: That was never really a fear actually. We were incredibly aware of the importance of the fact of saying in the beginning that we’re the ones who’ve made this performance. We never did it without saying it. I don’t know how we decided to do it, but it was really important for Poul personally that we say it because he really didn’t want anyone to think that he’d choreographed it. And I think because the whole piece is very transparent in that there is nothing there that isn’t real including the fake blood on my knee. That is created in the beginning when I jumped on the trampoline and I fall, and then I have this fake blood inside my jeans that then I fall on the knee and the blood breaks and then everyone thinks it’s a bad joke. And then later it’s extremely grotesque when he drags us when we are passive and there is blood. It’s transparent where all of these dramatic elements are coming from and we’re very consciously building this world. From the beginning it’s so clear that Julia and I have made this show and that we invited Poul to come with us. This is about ‘do it yourself’ in the beginning and then what it is about transforms but it’s never verbally said about the power structures. What I’m saying is that this transparency makes it somehow different to these other duets and it becomes about the movements themselves and not a duet trying to be beautiful.

HM: I do think the piece is virtuosic and maybe it’s not beautiful in a conventional sense, but it’s quite incredible to watch this display of skill. It is quite amazing in that sense.

ECA: Yeah. And I think the experience for the audience being in there, it’s quite…the music is loud with a lot of sub so it’s very bassy so the audience feel this effect on their body and then watching this movement is also or some people a bit of a physical experience as well because they think they can see that it must be painful or something, which it isn’t, but I think it’s in that sense, that kind of physical piece for the audience to be in as well. And I think virtuosity makes it just a bit balanced like the virtuosity and this and the music being so bassy even though it is loud, and your chair might be shaking it, it offers…not balance but maybe it shows the audience in a very subtle way that we know what we’re doing. And I think that gives a sensation for them just to relax a little bit because if it would have been just violence, it wouldn’t have been nice. It would have said exactly the same thing, but it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t also say anything really. It’s still a dance and I think that’s important and that’s where this virtuosity comes in and I think it has a really important function for how this piece is perceived.

HM: And having made it, did it give you new insights into punk and ‘do it yourself’?

ECA: Well, it ended up being about something very far from punk and ‘do it to yourself’. I mean ‘do it yourself’ as in what it’s meant in the punk movement. We had a strange obsession with England actually or we used to because we made this performance and then we also made a performance about Margaret Thatcher which came after POGO MOB which grew out of this whole punk thing…

HM: The other side of the coin.

ECA: But I honestly cannot remember what we thought of punk after.

HM: In reference to the punk pogo mob at a gig where you have people fighting and bouncing off each other and there the violence is mutual and reciprocal. But it seemed that in the piece that the violence is delegated to someone else. So I wondered if there’s anything to say about that, about this.

ECA: Yes. There’s another really important part of how we worked with the phrase ‘do it to yourself’. In the production we’re showing that it’s really hard to do things yourself. This is what we were showing in this slapstick humour way at the start, but what it becomes by giving our bodies to Poul in that way, we’re doing the complete opposite of doing it ourselves,…it’s about giving up and giving in to what is. And even though you might not be fully happy with it, it’s just an acceptance because you don’t really want to fight anymore.

HM: What happened after that? You performed it twice that in the premiere…

ECA: We performed it quite a lot. It was a successful piece. We were in Aerowaves [6] in 2012. With this piece, we also represented Denmark, at a Nordic showcase at Cinnars, which is a performing arts markets in Canada, in Montreal. And then we toured mostly through Aerowaves, but we’d been different places in Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia, other places in Denmark, Sweden. We did it quite a lot.

HM: And what other kinds of practices or work grew out of this or came afterwards?

ECA: One thing that came out of POGO MOB was this idea, just playing with time and perception. Not necessarily perception. We can’t really know how the audience perceives the time, but we’ve been working a lot with the duration of different things. And how this transformation and atmosphere and room, was a big interest for me and Julia in our work.

HM: Is there anything you feel like I haven’t asked you?

ECA: Yes, I think you asked this whether it’s important that there was two of us and one of him and I think this is connected a bit to this idea of the pogo crowd or the mosh pit that Sam writes about in his review. It has got to do with letting go of one’s identity and what he was doing to us was not personal but part of the bigger structure. And I think if we would have been two, it would have become more of a story of a personal relationship in a sense.

HM: Was there any other configuration ever considered? It feels like it came out of this historical relationship between the three of you, so it feels like it could, only have been that configuration, but I wonder if…

ECA: We did have one performance that was a bit different and it completely changed it. We had one injury once when my foot landed on Julia’s head and then her head banged on the floor and then we were performing the day after, so then we decided Julia was still in the performance and Poul would still drag her around and do something, but all of these more virtuosic things were on me.

You asked earlier about…I can’t remember exactly what words you used, but as I understood your question, you asked about the emotional aspects of doing this work. It was about how we trust each other, not only in terms of what we are capable of with our physical bodies, but how to get to that point. That time when I was bit more of a victim, I think it changed the performance completely. I was extremely upset afterwards. It became personal, even though I knew, of course, it wasn’t, but I felt that there was a negotiation in this practice that we had been working on the before the three of us where me and Julia were equal. And being equal gave me some protection in this and then we had this one run of the show where I was receiving most of the manipulations. It was extremely hard and I think it changed how the audience perceived the performance as well. And it became more of a story of a relationship between people. And I remember when we talked about it we joked a bit afterwards, “Okay. So he had one favourite,” and about how it kind of became sexual. So I think, us being two, and that we are very similar and him being one, gives a sense of it being a system that one’s part of, more than a personal story.

HM: I imagine during the performance, you would normally be in physical contact with Julia so when she’s not there for a lot of the time, it must feel quite different.

ECA: Incredibly lonely.

HM: Yeah, It’s not just that you know that she has a different role. You can feel it in all the different kinds of arrangements I imagine.

He felt really exposed. He could feel the audience’s dislike for him.

ECA: We are so incredibly busy, we’re actually in a sense more busy than Poul is, although he was the one doing all the work. But we’re also cut off from the audience because we don’t really look at them once the physical part has started. We just focus inwards and keep an incredible alertness and presence in our body. But Poul’s experience of performing this was really different, he felt incredibly lonely.

He did not like this role. He said he really liked the performance, but he thought it was really hard to do. He enjoyed the physical challenge, but he felt really exposed and often he could feel the audience’s dislike for him. 

HM: And did any of you have strategies for dealing with that or managing that?

ECA: We would talk about it. But if I would have made this piece now, I think it would have been more important for me to talk about these things. But because we were so young, I don’t think we knew so much about those things. I mean, Poul did but Julia and I were the leaders of this work and holding the space for how it’s made, we just spoke about it saying, “Oh, I feel like this…” but we wouldn’t take those conversations any deeper.

HM: We haven’t really spoken about Jørgen. He did the music, but he joins in with the dancing at the end and he’s another man in it, one that’s half offstage and half onstage. I mean his relationship to you is less obvious because he’s not manipulating you in the same way, but I wonder what there is to say about that.

ECA: Him joining in at the end…I remember we talked about that because in the end when Poul gets to speak this Iggy Pop song, Jørgen stops playing. I think it was important for us that, that he’s a part of that too and the way that last few minutes function, that’s an element that we somehow are equal there. Even though I know I’m crawling on the floor and you could maybe argue that me crawling on the floor and the rest of them standing up is unequal but we didn’t think about it in that sense, but the fact that we were all there, we thought of it as a release of the power dynamics that had been before and this idea of the slow motion disco, we tried somehow to make a visual poem in the sense that we were all just there and we’re trying. We’re all participating in these power structures. And yes, of course there are people who suffer more and others have huge privileges compared to other people. But we’re all stuck in the same mess. The same grid.


[2]  Sam Moore (2010) ‘POGO MOB’ in Wunderkammer. November 29, 2010.

[3]  Here, dramaturigical relates to the dramatic structure of a theatrical work.

[4]  The Stooges (1969) I wanna Be Your Dog

[5]  Eleanor Sikorski (2018) ‘Rape Culture and the Duet’, STILL LIFE Issue 2.

[6]  Aerowaves is an organisation that selects 20 European contemporary dance works each year and presents them across Europe.

Images courtesy of Emma-Cecilia Ajanki.