Thin the veil for a hot second: a conversation with Zahra Shahab and Rianne Svelnis


Since last week’s artist, Barbara, was experimenting with messy materials in her process, I asked Rianne and Zahra what their favourite messy material to work with was. Rianne said:

“My favourite messy material to work with is my . . .  body and mind on any given day.  Messy as fuck.  Like skin/flesh/bone/thought, sometimes organized feeling, sometimes messy feeling.”


In my conversation with the two of them, we spent a lot of time talking about process. I was pleased to hear that they were in a place of study and discovery, letting research drive their work, rather than a pressure to generate a product. At the moment they are focusing on tuning in, trying to continually uncover more about what they are working on, and asking, as Rianne put it, “How can we make it more of what it already is?”

I compiled a list of strategies they use in their process, which includes several that they didn’t necessarily intend as such but which struck me as great tools:



Their piece is grounded (conceptually and literally) in the position of the body face down on the floor. They are engaging in patient and rigorous physical study, discovering movement possibilities in and from this position, giving value to (often minute) detail, and exploring what is inherent to the belly-to-the-floor orientation of the body. Some things that came up were the safety and security of the position, afforded by the protection it gives to the most vulnerable parts of the body (throat, viscera) as well as the term “private belly space.” I wondered if they thought of these ideas mostly in conceptual terms, or if they considered the piece to be of a personal nature. The answer was quite clear: Zahra responded, “I hope it’s personal . . . who else would I make a dance about?” and Rianne said, “How could you possibly make anything that’s not personal when it’s your body?”  

With these ideas as the base for their research, much of their focus is on the internal — both as in the inside of the body, and also internal as in focused on the performer’s experience. Zahra said they are working “from the inside out,” rather than starting from a preconceived idea of what the piece will be and then figuring out how to engineer it. This process demands a lot of patience: Zahra told me she challenges herself in “how long [she can] stay without making a decision, how long [she can] just stay and scratch it, and scratch it, pat it, pull it,” allowing what they are working with to gradually change and grow without trying to “hurry up and make a dance.” Rianne was frank about it being challenging, saying that for her, this way of working often requires the uncertain step of “suspending disbelief and just doing the thing in the body, without knowing if it’s the thing.” But by letting repetition support them through this place of not knowing, with practice new things inevitably arise. As Rianne described it, “you don’t know that you don’t know until you feel the satisfaction of knowing… And then it’s pleasurable to have gotten there, but not knowing is really uncomfortable.”

Their focus on the internal is not at the expense of giving attention to how the piece will be perceived from the outside. In fact, it seemed to me like their process was a means of bringing together the visible and the invisible. At the same time as they are focusing on sensation, and things that are not perceptible to a viewer in a straightforward sense, they are also making aesthetic choices, and using, as Rianne put it, “all the tricks in the book that [they] can.” And so by being mindful of both at the same time, they are able to use “the tools of sensitivity and focus [to] elevate illusion.”

When I asked them what they hoped the audience’s experience of their work would be, I understood that their most valued aims are toward the invisible, and that aesthetics are used as a vehicle to these ends. Rianne said that she thinks about the way that different parts of the brain become active as one witnesses a performance, and considers this a dance, the movement of activity from one part of the brain to the next. She also said, “one of my hopes is that as I do it and as I’m witnessing it, it takes me somewhere else in my body.” In this way they again give attention to the internal, even in the consideration of the external perspective. Zahra said she thinks that the innately weird experience of sitting in a dark theatre with a bunch of strangers and watching dance can allow a “shedding, for a second, of our otherness”; and that in making performance she hopes to create a “thinning of the veil.” Though she hesitated to speak in these terms that seemed somewhat grandiose, and so she quickly added, “Just for a hot second. Just thin the veil for a hot second.” 

It was clear that despite much hard work, rigour, and criticality, the two are not taking themselves too seriously. When I expressed my admiration for the patience they bring to their work, they laughed, and Rianne said, “we also just hang out.” Zahra added, “we just watch each other roll around and praise each other for rolling around.” It was obvious that their friendship is very significant to their collaboration, and it helps them meet in the middle on things, as they sometimes have differing approaches. While Rianne joked about wanting to wait “an entire moon cycle” to ponder each potential decision, Zahra described her process quite differently:

“It’s exciting because it’s like throwing knives, like I have this empty space and I need to make something out of it. And I kind of like the violence of it because it feels like it’s kind of scary — like if I choose this, then everything else is eliminated. But I’m also like, it’s what I am brought to in this very moment of my life, so I’m just going to throw it, and then it’s going to cut out this weird shape, and . . .”

The thread of Zahra’s sentence got lost and picked up elsewhere, so I never heard exactly what would happen with the “weird shape,” but I thought I understood the general sense of what she was saying. They had told me how ritual was fundamental to the piece, conceptually but also structurally. For them, rehearsing is a ritual — showing up to the studio, changing into their dance clothes, returning again and again to the floor, watching one another dance, and everything else that gets repeated again and again as they continually re-examine the substance of Bound Inch, all this is part of the work. As Zahra said, “Everything that we brought to this moment, every conversation, every experience that we’ve had, every little look we’ve exchanged with somebody is manifesting in that little moment.” And so these ritual repetitions are essential, to the point that even, as Rianne said, “the gaps between the dancing is the dance.” I appreciated the attention to those small moments after the end and before the next beginning. And remembering Zahra’s hesitation at sounding too grandiose, I thought it also served as a nice counter-point to the larger ideas — a reminder of the value of the “hot second” of the in-between.

Thin the veil for a hot second: a conversation with Zahra Shahab and Rianne Svelnis

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