Getting to know independent artist Olivia Grassrot

Originally from Belgium, movement artist Olivia Grassot started performing and moving in her family living room aged six. Her parents encouraged her to dance and be creative, and then she studied at  Conservatoire de la danse de Bruxelles. 

Although not seeking a professional career in dance and art then, it was an invitation letter from Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance when she was 18 that made her decide to pack up her bags and move to London; a move she says was the most “intuitive and risky choice I made at the time.”

Since graduating from Rambert, Olivia has developed her experience as a movement artist through performance, rehearsal directing, creative assistant and choreographing. She’s performed works by different artists (Brandon Lagaert, Karolin Stächele, Roberta Ferrara, Lin Wen- Chung, Cheng Yi-wen, Magnus Westwell, Oscar Schlemmer, Jason Mabana) around the UK, Europe and China, and worked with different companies such as Equilibrio Dinamico, Royal Opera House, Matsena Productions and Kennedy Muntanga Dance Theatre. 

Currently she is working on her award-winning live solo performance and visual art project, Hiddentity. We speak to Olivia about her new work and what it feels like making work as an independent artist right now. 

Q: Thanks for speaking with us Olivia! You have moved from a young age and studied at Rambert in London. What other experiences have you had that made you want to work in dance? 

A: Just after graduation, I felt ready to enter the professional world but I didn’t know much why I chose dance. I worked on ArtsCross project as a freelancer, which made me understand what dance really was for me and what it can bring to us.

During my time in China with ArtsCross, dancing felt like a reality, a language of the body, an expression of the heart, a place of sharing ideas and emotions. This intercultural exchange project offered me a place to communicate, to share, to experiment, to laugh and to interrogate myself through the body and between different cultures. Because of the language barrier it was a challenge, although it was a really fun experience. However words weren’t always needed to share our creativity and ideas. Sometimes, it was only necessary to observe the expression, to listen to the surroundings and to feel the energy. It felt human. 

Q: You recently performed your solo Hiddentity, which received two awards. Could you tell us about the solo and how and why you created it?

A: This solo Hiddentity started in 2020, during Covid as a dance movie project for Impermanence Dance Company. It focused on the hidden identity behind the physical form of femininity… Male Gaze, male chases. The hidden identity is beyond the gaze. It can be desired and loved, it can be rejected and feared.

I presented a live performance version in Germany in 2021. In 2023 I came back with the idea of hidden identities after a little time away from creation and research. I just had a feeling of being overloaded by layers of myself, getting stuck in nostalgia. I connected to this character I created back then with Hiddentity. A reconnection with my feminine side, a mass of frustration around it.

I was struggling with my femininity, as in I felt stuck playing a version that was pleasant for others. That resulted in the development of the solo around the erosion of pretension.

‘She feels desired through your eyes. Is this an illusion of validation? She is here for you and her, she is alone. But solitude can be disturbing. But the mass can be invasive. She appears in front of an angry stranger, a repressed self., waiting to shed from her image. And there she stand with misery in front of what seems eternity for herself.’

There I found the opportunity to explore this idea of hidden identity beyond the feminine side I was questioning in me.

This solo received two awards at the Brussels Dance Contest in 2023; Best Performance and the Special Peeping Tom Award. I like to work with writing, so after I noted some thoughts and reflections. I thus came with the heart of the topic: ‘There’s nothing to unpack to discover my true self. It is not my emotions that will make you discover myself, emotions are the real internal chaos in all of us. It is the way I hide them. The way I dupe you into believing I am my emotions. But actually I am my expression. I am the decisions of my expression. I am giving you all the tools to understand who I am. They are just in the present moment. In the contemplation of emotions. In the love of observation. In the touch of communication. You don’t need to be Sherlock to understand me. You wanna know who I am. I am not what I am hiding from you, I am how I present it to you.’

Q: Who or what inspires you to dance? 

A: Back when I was younger, my dance school friend inspired me so much. We were kids, she had the fire, the determination, she had the dream. She was living for it. My teachers from the conservatoire also inspired me: Menia Martinez and her Assistant Benedicto Cieza. We didn’t know Menia’s age, but for sure she was older than 70 and she had more energy than the whole class. It was an intense dance education. She taught us professionalism, character, to go beyond our limits and to stay strong.

I am also inspired by the passionate artists I encounter everyday.

I have an attraction to the world of Charlie Chaplin, especially his body language in his films and for the subjects he touches through lightness and humour to counterbalance the absurdity of humanity. 

This is how I connect to movement. When I dance I feel I am living a moment of plenitude, I am playing with my dreams intertwining with reality, I am moving my consciousness.

Q: What are some processes that you adopt when making work that others would find useful?

A: I believe that artistry consists of opening ourselves to the moment, to be ready to collaborate and to meet the unknown. To question ourselves and what surrounds us to then create authenticity.

I see movement as the channel that translates the complexity of the world into sensations and vulnerability. Collectivity, curiosity, experimentation, emotions and observation are the keys of human exchange and the pleasure of the body language.

As a creator, you get easily influenced online by the impressiveness and the buzz that can revolve around tendencies and technics. When I see that I feel I am challenged to create things more complex and more evolved. Although what is my purpose as a creator? Compete or narrate? I think it is good to remind ourselves to not get lost into influences and to take time to understand what is your purpose with your art. Over-productivity can be one of the biggest enemies for a creator. You need to give time to process your ideas. Sometimes it comes in random moments, in bed, in the tram or in a conversation. Collect those precious moments through memos, and these will flourish with time.

Q: What do you love about the UK dance industry? Conversely, what do you as an independent maker, get frustrated with?

A: The UK offers diversity and differences. There is a great sense of intercultural exchange and the will to reach different audiences. It really shifts in all the directions, we can feel the buzz and the urge of sharing and encountering. You can feel the support of independent artists and collectives working their ways, in parallel of the difficulties we face through grant supports. 

On the other hand, I see the main difficulty I face in the sector is to find support. To encounter and to spend so much time trying to reach and connect with organisations, people, institutions and in exchange you receive no answer and no interest. Which is hard to feel invisible. I understand there is a multitude of great artists around and it is hard to answer to everyone.

As I said previously, seeing independent artists believing and finding their own ways to sustain themself, keeps my beliefs into the importance of arts.

Q: What is next for you? 

A: I am looking to rework my solo, including more collaboration to make it richer, to not only focus on the solo dance part of the performance. I want to keep digging around the topic of hidden identities, finding different meanings depending of the people. 

I am in conversation with psychologist and students/researchers as well to open the conversation around me. I will keep working on different projects this year; personal as well as working with Kaiho Company (BE), DAGADA Dance company (D), B21 company (FR), Elena Sola Puchol (ES), Equilibrio Dinamico (IT).