In tune with the times: A Conversation with Kinsun Chan

by Anna Beke

About a decade ago, Kinsun Chan, who will become the director of the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden starting the 2024/2025 season, choreographed «JIT» (2015) alongside «Storm», «Unleashed», and «Peter and the Wolf» as the fourth creation for the Munich Ballet Academy. After «JIT», along with the other three works, had already embarked on its international journey, the choreography returns to its birthplace with the current revival at the Spring Matinee. The Ballet Academy eagerly anticipates the valuable renewed collaboration with its almost 'resident choreographer.'


Kinsun Chan, «JIT» is the title of your piece—what is it about?

My main inspiration for «JIT» was the just-in-time production system developed by Toyota in the 1970s in response to the global upheaval of the industrial revolution. Later, the Japanese attempted to develop a system to reduce waste as well as inventory and to save time in general—everything was digitised and optimised. Besides the “JIT” system, I found it inspiring to create a piece that functions somewhat like a factory itself and reflects the positive and negative aspects that capitalism and globalisation bring. My choreography «JIT» reflects our contemporary society.


Does the theme of mindfulness regarding environmental resources hold particular personal significance for you?

During my choreographic research, I was initially impressed when I examined fully automated robots and digitised systems, yet they also seemed disturbing to me. Because my mind told me, “So this is our society, a highly optimised and consuming system.” It impressed and disappointed me equally that our societal system had gone so far. I thought to myself, “How much is enough?” Additionally, humorous images came to mind: these highly precise industrial objects almost reminded me of cartoons in their movements. Other sources of inspiration were Jacques Tati films, which I greatly admire, and which also feature mass factory scenes—or of course, the legendary works of Charles Chaplin. All these sources of inspiration ultimately represent the human urge and instinct that have characterised all epochs, that we progress, improve our daily lives, and secure our survival. At the same time, we leave strong traces in nature and change things irreversibly. The key question is, where do we find a balance between technology and nature? Because without nature, we cannot live, that is undoubtedly true—a world without nature would be our downfall.


«JIT» is about ten years old. How relevant is the theme addressed there still today?

Currently, «JIT» is experiencing a real revival and has since been staged in various places. It’s wonderful for me to see the choreography returning to its birthplace in Munich. It also throws me back into that time and reminds me of my own journey from then until now. It’s actually amazing how incredibly relevant this piece still is today. Is that a positive or negative thing? On the one hand, it’s great that «JIT» still works for the younger generation of dancers, resonating in their bodies and minds, and that they can identify with the theme. On the other hand, one might think, have we really not learned anything in the meantime (laughs)? Ten years is not such a long time, but one still hopes that as humans, we will eventually understand our history and not repeat it. Back to «JIT»: Yes, the piece still works in many ways today, not only in terms of dramaturgy but also in movement language—it functions as a work itself. You can see that it brings great joy to dancers to perform the piece.

High Performance in Accord

Do you see a parallel between the two “JIT” worlds: the highly precise manufacturing with its assembly line functionality and dancers as efficient components of a “high-performance society”?

Fortunately, dance is not a factory but still very human. It’s one of the forms of human interaction where we still rely on facing each other and being together in the same space. But of course, the regulation of dance, the enormous discipline, and precision of its skill can easily be transferred to the corporate world with its manufacturing, where these attributes are also needed. In this sense, there are many parallels between the idea behind «JIT»: Dancers have already internalised this careful discipline and approach to their work from a very young age. And that, in turn, is something that can be applied very well to my piece «JIT», which also requires and demands great precision and synchronicity in movement.


Fundamentally, one can indeed understand «JIT» as a piece of social criticism. Therefore, the age-old question to you: How socially critical or even political can and should dance be?

I think that’s exactly what art can be but doesn’t have to be. That’s precisely the beauty of it: Not only dance, but all arts together are vibrations of our society. I think they should all be freely accessible and an inherent part of people’s education and development. Because art is a place that gives us the freedom to reflect and question ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. It’s a place where we have freedom of the press to look closely and consider ourselves as whole human beings.

All these inspirations and images came together in the work on «JIT», all these questions that I asked myself during the creative process. In «JIT», for example, there is a sequence that directly reflects an event of that time. It is the scene of the tables ‘flying’ upwards—this was inspired by a strike of the Staatsballett Berlin that I had learned about in the media the day before. This example also proves that the art form of dance directly reflects what is happening in the world around us. Much directly influences our own artistic work.


Has «JIT» changed significantly since its premiere, or is the piece still much the same as it was then?

It has essentially remained the same. But I always say, the beauty of choreography is that it’s similar to a fashion designer: They can create a dress for a specific woman and later adapt it to another woman. There are different bodies, different personalities. With choreography, it’s the same: The framework is there, but we may make some adjustments to make it work better for a different cast.

What has actually undergone significant change is the technical side. The original lighting for «JIT» was completed in about 25 minutes, which is extremely fast. In recent years, we’ve taken the time to further develop and refine the needed cues. If “JIT” has become even more sophisticated through smaller adjustments today, that has a lot to do with my assistant, Juliette Rahon—she’s truly amazing. She’s French but runs like a Swiss clock. Juliette is very accommodating to the dancers, yet so precise; she can tell you exactly where the eyes should look at which count, for example. She’s truly incredible in how she rehearses and re-stages a work. With the people I work closely with, the success of my work is largely based on trust. It’s actually simple for me: I have to feel that I can give them the keys to my car and my apartment and know that everything will be fine. I have the same feeling when I leave my assistant in charge of the rehearsal room, the dancers, the piece—I know, everything will be taken care of.

Choreographing for and with Young Dancers

What was the creative process like for a piece like «JIT»—did all movements come from you? Or did the students contribute their own ideas that were incorporated?

Every choreographer and artist has various tools they use. I work with many different tools that are strongly linked to my own professional background, which initially lay in visual arts and design. I didn’t start dancing as a young child but discovered this art form much later in life. When I create movements, my approach is always very visual. «JIT» itself was truly created in dialogue.

I never come to the rehearsal room with prepared material, never. I tried it once at the beginning of my career, and I didn’t like it immediately. I only function with spontaneity, and it’s important for me that my choreography is not necessarily about steps but about observing. My main tool is observing what is in front of me and what I want to create an atmosphere with. This, in turn, can open up the space for many different things. So, you observe and draw conclusions and results from it.

Sometimes, I’ll give a specific task or ask for a particular lift, but intentionally, I’m not so precise in my instructions because I want to see how each individual deals with it and what arises from it. When I develop a sequence, I find it exciting to work on three different versions simultaneously and observe their different developments. Then, again, I’m very precise. I recognize a certain form—similar to a sculpture—that I cut back to fit precisely. It’s like receiving a rough draft at the beginning and then refining it. Precision is extremely important to me in all things, and I want to create a special dynamism and energy. I always see myself as a ‘visual creature’ and love going to museums or looking at architecture. I feel the specific changes and immerse myself. That’s how I work. I’m interested in the landscapes that can change constantly through movement sequences, and as a choreographer, it appeals to me to be a designer of an emotionally charged space. The question of space is absolutely central to me. Whenever I’m invited to create a new piece in a specific place, my first request is, “Show me the space”—it dictates and determines my choreography.


With «JIT», you’ve created the fourth piece solely for the Munich’s Ballet Academy students alongside «Storm», «Unleashed», and «Peter and the Wolf». What attracts you to choreographing for young dancers in particular?

There are many points. But quite generally: I will always be a great advocate for the further education of young people, whether in dance or in other fields. When I stopped dancing myself and started choreographing, I created my first pieces for dancers in training—a huge gift for which I will always be grateful! I continued this activity, no matter where my career took me. I think it’s enormously important that young dancers have the chance to experience a wide variety of different styles and works. And I know that if you give them this experience and share it with them, it can change their lives.

What I appreciate about young dancers is their incredible energy, spontaneity, and unconditional willingness to learn, to give their best. And this enormous drive of young people is incredibly inspiring—in both directions. Of course, I also want to motivate them, but they also motivate me very strongly.

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