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Contemporary Dance in Istanbul, Turkey

by Elif Isikozlu

If you manage to walk a little way down Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul, turn left on the side street adjacent to the far end of the first mosque, follow it past a row of tea houses, stop just before you get to the Otopark sign, climb the stairs of an unlit building and ring the bell of an unmarked door.  You will find yourself at Çati (pronounced Cha-ti) Dance Studio, the heart of contemporary dance in Istanbul.

The studio is modest but functional: forgotten dance clothes strewn in the makeshift change room, old comfy couches on which to chat, floors that creak, a small sink, a messy but informative bulletin board, and most importantly a sprung wooden floor built by the very dancers that dance on it.

Çati, named after the roof its supporters help build, is the result of years of hard work on the part of a small group of dance artists who have chosen to freelance and is in the process of becoming an official freelance contemporary dance artists association. This is no small achievement in Turkey , where under the current government (and much to the dismay of many artists) the State theatre system is unduly influenced by members of parliament who would prefer more traditional, less artistically explorative work. Privately owned theatres do exist but they often produce popular work they know will generate an income, thereby leaving little room for artistic experiment and risk. In this socio-political climate, Çati Dance Studio is a rarity. It is a place where amateurs and professionals, however trained, are invited to try their hand at contemporary dance, Çati style.

Born out of the ashes of the Theatre Research Laboratory at the Muhsin Ertugrul City Theatre in Istanbul, Çati was founded in 2001 to provide Istanbul with a much needed and greatly lacking foundation for contemporary dance instruction, research and creation. Self-defined as a contemporary dance space, Çati values artistic exploration and research, thriving on a constant influx and outflux of technical and artistic information.

One of the driving forces at Çati is choreographer Mustafa Kaplan. He dances because he loves to dance and this purity of intention translates into his work, his teaching and his inter-personal relations. He is mentor to many of Istanbul ’s developing artists, encouraging them to pursue their interests both on and off the dance floor.

Be forewarned: his classes are not for the weak of spirit. If you give yourself fully to them (which his style of dance and teaching demands) they will teach you as much about contemporary dance as they will about yourself. This is not because time is spent analyzing the way you move but rather because his risk-driven, highly kinetic style of movement requires an immediate response, whether that be to engage directly with it or run from it. It is this response that will teach you things you never knew about yourself, opening the doors to artistic and personal growth.

Over tea, I ask Mustafa if he ever gets bored of teaching amateurs and new-comers when he could very easily stick to working with pros. He laughs. It turns out he is fascinated by the learning process, by the personal struggle we must all immerse ourselves in if we are to learn something new. Later that evening, during class, it occurs to me that his appreciation of this struggle (or in Turkish, mucadele, pronounced mu-ja-de-leh, one of the first new words I learned while living here in 1998) makes perfect sense; the struggle, mucadele, is what living and creating work in Istanbul is all about.

Originally from Konya (a city in south-eastern Turkey ) Mustafa’s choreography has been invariably influenced by Istanbul , the city he has called home for the past twenty years. He lives, breathes and moves to the rhythm of this metropolis and it is this rhythm;  his is a desire to be influenced by Istanbul ’s streets and sounds and this desire has resulted in highly successful work, performed at home and abroad. He wants there to be more critical consideration of the contemporary dance arts in Istanbul . He wants discussion and debate and he wants Çati to be a space in which this debate can take place.

The studio does not run on Mustafa’s energy alone. There are a handful of Istanbul-based artists who take on creative, teaching and administrative responsibilities. Among these are a Mathilde Monnier dancer who divides her time between Turkey and France, a bio-statistics doctoral student, an arts patron and philanthropist, a Pilates instructor, graduates of Dansacademie/EDDC, a Capoeira dancer and Sociology PhD student in New York and a few freelance dancers and choreographers. Çati is thus made up of a distinct group of individuals whose broad range of knowledge and talent, combined with a pure love of dance, ultimately make it work.

Now, anyone who knows Istanbul will know that my directions to the studio have been far from helpful. This is deliberate. Finding Çati is an adventure unto itself, one you must struggle through on your own. It is this process of discovery that will make your arrival at Çati all the more personal and satisfying and perhaps give you a very tiny glimpse of what all these Istanbul dancers have to dance about.

To contact Çati, write to:

Mustafa Kaplan at kaplanmustaf@hotmail.com
or
Omer Uysal at omeruysal@yahoo.com

Edited by Holly Messitt

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