IN TOUCH - Nothing Is

Choreographer Lucy Marinkovich describes her dance work Nothing Is as " abstract movement interpretation around the ancient Chinese philosophy of qi." In this Q&A, we chat with Lucy about the work, collaborating with artists from overseas and how Covid has impacted her and her practice. Nothing Is is the eighth instalment of the Foundation's 2021 IN TOUCH arts commissions.

Watch Borderline Arts Ensemble's Nothing Is

Can you describe Nothing Is? What is it about?

Lucy: Nothing Is is an experiment. I work as a choreographer for live performance and the opportunity to create a work for film caused something of an existential meltdown for me as an artist.

My realm of dance is an impermanent one and the medium of film, which fixes art in perpetuity, felt somewhat at odds with my creative practice.

My recent live dance pieces Strasbourg 1518 and Thursday, though wildly different in concept and aesthetics, both essentially deal with placing the body in time and space and attempting to create an experience that affects, possibly to the point of overwhelming, the senses of the viewer.

It is an ambitious undertaking but I think as art makers we try to create environments that enable fleeting moments of embodied spectatorship that connect the performer and audience member with each other, as bodies sharing an experience together in time and space.

Lucy Marinkovich dancing

Lucy: "Nothing Is is an endeavour towards capturing the ephemerality of dance while attempting to deal with the realities of an immutable medium: film."

My genuine terror around film as a medium which dissociates performer, spectator, time, and place from each other,  is that the sensuality of fleshy dancing bodies and the ephemerality of dance as a modality would ossify when preserved in film. 

Nothing Is is an endeavour towards capturing the ephemerality of dance while attempting to deal with the realities of an immutable medium: film.

Is there a story behind the name of the work? 

Lucy: The title Nothing Is is borrowed from the album of the visionary jazz artist Sun Ra and from a quote of his: "At first there was nothing then nothing turned itself inside-out and became something". I feel like most, if not all, artists understand this - what it is to create from nothing. 

Nothing Is is an abstract movement interpretation around the ancient Chinese philosophy of qi, also known as ch'i or chi. Qi is described as an energy or life force that binds the universe together. But it's a paradox: qi is both everything and nothing.

As a philosophical construct, qi is both overwhelmingly complex and profoundly simple. The Feng Shui symbol perfectly balances the polarities of qi along a spectrum of opposites: masculine, feminine; dark, light; motion, stillness.

The existence of all things relies on the existence of its opposite and like all dualities, the yin and yang qualities are intimately connected. From a choreographic perspective it is readily imaginable to me to understand qi as a ceaseless, fluid dance. 

Was Nothing Is fully realised in your mind before you began rehearsing or did it develop more organically? 

Lucy: I had actually proposed to make an entirely different artwork for the IN TOUCH commission, but this piece is what emerged instead. 

Nothing Is is a dual representation of both an artistic experiment in minimalism and a movement study for two bodies attempting to embody oppositions.

The most obvious illustration of embodied qi within the piece is in the visual language. I always knew what I wanted as the palette: luminous limbs and a velvety black background.  

The work's constellation of moving limbs from Xin Ji and myself, hypnotic editing by Jeremy Brick, and mesmeric music from Michelle Velvin and Lucien Johnson combine to create the ambient sensation that images and sounds only just begin to form before they slip away again.

As the work builds and the bodies become diaphanous the choreographic connection to the innate dualities of qi as a concept emerges: forms have both corporeality and intangibility, images both are and they aren't, and nothing is. The effect is pleasingly nebulous.

An image of hands and smoke

Lucy: "I always knew what I wanted as the palette: luminous limbs and a velvety black background."

Why do you think it's important for artists to connect with other cultures - through collaborating on works? What do the works gain by crossing cultures?

Lucy: I think it's important for all people, not just artists, to experience the connection, immersion and confrontations that occur when engaging with other cultures. Personally, I've always found collaborating with others to be an illuminating experience.

When trying to quantify the importance of cross-cultural connections within art, an immediate answer that comes to mind would suggest how a confluence of artists collaborating from different cultures, traditions, ideas and values might collide, harmoniously or not, and lead to innovations in form, style or content.

I think a deeper perspective might consider how art making is ultimately an experience in empathy. Opening up spaces for cross-cultural engagement will always enrich our understanding of what it is to be contemporary creators and how we can contribute meaningfully to our local and global communities.

Cultural diversity is a central dimension to the globalised world we live in in 2021, but because of the dominant Anglo-American or Eurocentric focus of New Zealand's culture and media it's often overlooked that we're merely one of many Pacific islands whose closest neighbours, alongside Australia, are Southeast Asian countries. Works that seek to represent this diversity come closer to accurately reflecting the diversity of the world we live in.

Lucy dancing in a studio leading fellow dancers

Lucy taking a workshop with local dancers at Penang Dance Day Festival during her Foundation-sponsored residency in Malaysia

What do you hope a New Zealand audience will take away from viewing Nothing Is?

Lucy: I wouldn't like to presume to understand how anyone else perceives or receives an artwork. Perhaps I'd instead like to invite potential viewers to watch the work in a darkened space with their eyes in a soft focus.

How has Covid impacted you and your work? Has it been a difficult year for performing artists?

Lucy: 2020 was wild. Borderline Arts Ensemble was among the first, if not the first, performing arts company in Aotearoa to have our show Strasbourg 1518 in the New Zealand Festival of the Arts cancelled because of Covid in March 2020.

The rest of the year was a strange time of recalibration for myself and many of the performing artists I knew. So many friends and colleagues were burnt out and took the time to rest, others threw themselves into creating online work. 

I was meant to spend three months in Asia between China, Taiwan and Japan, but that all went up in smoke and my passport stayed with me at home. 

I'm not good at resting and am fairly technologically illiterate so instead I used my time to start conducting research for future projects. What helped get me through? Wine, running, and The Chase.

What are you up to at the moment and what's coming up on the horizon?

Lucy: Currently I'm living in Ōtepoti for six months as I hold two dual residencies: the Caselberg Trust Creative Connections Residency, and the University of Otago Caroline Plummer Fellowship in Community Dance.

For my Creative Connections residency, I am working towards creating a new piece titled Tomorrow Was Another Day, which is inspired by the freedom and grace of the albatross and the fierce independence of early modern dance pioneers Isadora Duncan and Loïe Fuller.

I am also working with local primary students from Broad Bay School on a project where each child is creating their own miniature theatre, combing storytelling, design and science.

My Caroline Plummer Fellowship project is called InMotion: Dancing with Parkinson's and is involves me teaching dance classes to people with Parkinson's Disease. They are all very special projects and I'm very grateful for being welcomed so warmly into these different Dunedin communities.

Nothing Is creative team:

  • Director / Choreographer Lucy Marinkovich
  • Film / Editor Jeremy Brick
  • Lighting Designer Marcus McShane
  • Dance Artists Xin Ji and Lucy Marinkovich
  • Choreographic Assistant Hannah Tasker-Poland
  • Photographer Philip Merry
  • Graphic Designer Ben Emerson
  • Producer Lucien Johnson
  • Harp Michelle Velvin 
  • Composer Lucien Johnson


For more insights from Lucy on this work and her connections to Asia, listen to her podcast episode in the Asia Media Centre's podcast series, 'Asia Insight':

In 2016, the Foundation and Creative New Zealand supported Lucy to undertake two residencies in Asia - firstly at INSTINC Gallery in Singapore, where she developed her performance installation Good Good Fortune, followed by a residency at Rimbun Dahan artists residency, where she choreographed a work for local dancers for the Penang Dance Festival and attended the South East Asian Choreolab in Kuala Lumpur.

In 2017, Lucy undertook a choreographic residency with Dance Nucleus at the Goodman Arts Centre in Singapore, creating the dance work The Shyness of Trees, supported by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Creative New Zealand.

About the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions

Nothing Is is one of ten digital art works to be produced through the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions. The commissions were offered to New Zealand arts practitioners who had previously participated in Foundation programmes to develop new works suitable for digital channels and which draw on the artist’s ongoing connections to Asia.