Italian-born contemporary dancer Melissa Ugolini talks about the role of dance in Turkish culture.
How did you start dancing?
Growing up, both my parents were musicians. I didn’t play any instruments, but I needed a way to interact with the music and dancing came naturally to me.
What prompted the transition from dancing in your living room to becoming a professional?
I was accepted into a dance academy in Florence, studying ballet, and graduated while I was still attending high school. As I grew older, I found myself detaching more and more from ballet. When I was 19, I thought I was through with dancing; I wanted to study medicine instead. When my ballet teacher heard, he decided to send out tapes of my solo performances to contemporary dance schools around the world. I was accepted into a few of them and ended up going to the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds, England. I became enthralled in communicating my feelings through dance. It was challenging but I found a true sense of joy in it.
And you went to Istanbul from there?
I moved to London upon graduation but grew tired of it after a few years. I didn’t find myself conforming to the Londoners’ way of living. If you wanted to live a comfortable life, you had to make a lot of money. Dance, too, came down to economics: How many seats you’d sell and how much exposure you’d be getting. I didn’t feel comfortable working under those conditions. I’d lived in Grenada, Spain earlier and often found myself reminiscing about how content I felt while there. Being from Italy, I don’t think I fit in with the Northern mindset so I decided to move to Istanbul.
How did the move influence your work?
I don’t agree with the claim that creativity is born out of struggle. When you struggle, you’re under a lot of pressure, which means you’re far from the circumstances under which you allow yourself to be creative. The move to Istanbul made me more at ease with, and confident in, my work. The environment helped me devote myself to the work, giving something back to the audiences.
What is the perception of contemporary dance in Turkey?
MDTist (Modern Dance Theater Istanbul) has very good potential, both in terms of the quality of the dancers and the mission it pursues. It can really show a different side of Turkey. The dance scene here needs to become more collaborative; that’s the key to evolving. There can be no growth without initiating dialogue and mediation between different cultures of dance.
How do you find that this has changed over the years?
Dance is an essential part of Turkish culture. Every region has its own rhythms and dances, each with their own choreographic patterns—but this is mainly within traditional folk dance. Contemporary dance is perceived as an art form steeped in Western culture, seeing as there is no contemporary dance heritage in Turkey.
The population often finds itself divided, as was seen recently with political changes, but also regarding culture. On the one hand, there’s a modernized part of Turkey that nourishes and craves artistic development and artful exchange. While on the other hand, there’s a traditional group that’s not so sensitized to the often provoking ways in which contemporary art deals with current issues.
Will the role of dance take a new form following the recent political changes in Turkey?
Dance is empowering. It helps us release our emotions and sets us free. We approach it for many different reasons, whether as a means of interacting with music, to have fun or to channel our anger into something tangible. Shedding light on political topics is only one aspect of dance; it connects people and helps us experience emotions that we’re unable to channel otherwise—that’s what makes it so empowering.