I have been fortunate enough to spend several weeks in Vienna at the world’s leading dance festival, Impulstanz. The festival is a vast, sprawling entity consisting of workshops, residencies, courses for professionals— and likewise, performances. Lots of performances. Multiple performances each evening, some of which never repeat and last late into unruly hours of the night.
As it was impossible to attend all of these numerous performances, I focused my attention on solos, especially by emerging artists working at the borders between dance and “performance” more broadly construed. Since there were more such performances than I can describe in deep detail, I propose in this post to give my “impressions,” beginning with a few general observations.
1) The Identity Crisis.
First, a little background.
Contemporary dance is in the midst of an identity crisis. This crisis is the natural result of a succeeding series of stylistic developments that started with Pina Bausch, whose use of theatrical conventions increasingly seems to define dance. As is well-known, Bausch’s Tanztheater inspired a second generation of choreographers (Vandekeybus, Stuart, de Keersmaeker, Fabre) during the nineties in a movement whose epicenter was in Belgium. Twenty years later, many of these choreographers are still on the main stages at Impulstanz. Even though their early work remains relevant and important— by all accounts, Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s restaging of Elena’s Aria from 1985 was a festival highlight— they have long since ceased to represent the forefront of artistic innovation. Quite to the contrary, these choreographers have regressed into relatively conservative aesthetic frameworks, as exemplified by Wim Vandekeybus’ recent return to the quintessential dramatic narrative, Oedipus Rex.
It is also a well-established fact that this second wave of Tanztheater-inspired choreography gave way during the last decade to solo artists based in France, whose admirers have dubbed it “conceptual” dance. It is not my intention to describe this movement here. I only want to note that this movement too has peaked and begun to pass, as is evident when looking at the primacy of French dance at Impulstanz several years ago.
With the passing of conceptual dance, choreographers are left with a banal question: what’s next? Judging from this year’s performances, I would say that a solid period of self-reckoning is in order— rather than thinking forward towards the next new thing, dance may be approaching a period of historical reflection and reorganization. I, for one, think that this work is long overdue in numerous artistic fields, which often rely on unexamined precepts inherited from previous artistic periods. Most contemporary theatre and dance returns to problems and ideas initially encountered in post-war performance.
This influence of postwar experimental performance was at least implicitly acknowledged at Impulstanz. Several artists staged artistic encounters with luminaries of performance from the sixties: Eszter Salamon invoked John Cage; Trajal Harrell examined the legacy of Judson Dance; an Austrian-based trio produced a “vegan” version of Viennese Actionism ; and former Forsythe dancer Tony Rizzi cast himself as the “new” Jack Smith. At worst, they are suffering from a concept popularized by Harold Bloom, the anxiety of influence. As I will describe below, this is certainly the case for Tony Rizzi. At best, these performances have the potential to begin a substantial undertaking: examining the influence, limitations and unresolved problems stemming from postwar experimental performance in order to consciously reconstruct the aesthetic foundations for choreographic practice— one which may detach dance from its recent dependence on theatrical and narrative form.
(I have begun elsewhere to discuss aspects of this transition. My previous post alludes to a forthcoming piece on the autobiographical impulse in William Forsythe and Ralph Lemon’s choreography.)
Based on my impressions below, it will be perfectly clear where I feel that certain have artists fallen. But before proceeding, I would like to offer one more observation.
2) The (relative) decline of European dance
As described above, European choreographers have dominated dance for three decades. There are invariably exceptions to this statement, but I have long believed that European work has defined the field. Nevertheless, the 2011 Impulstanz Festival seemed to indicate a shift away from the unrivaled predominance of European dance. Much to my surprise, American choreographers assumed increasing prominence in the festival. In fact, among the admittedly incomplete selection of performances that I saw, the best were by American choreographers: Marie Chouinard and Trajal Harrell.
However, it would be premature— or better yet, inaccurate— to declare the preeminence of American performance. On the contrary, I believe that its resurgence suggests that the transatlantic division between Europe and North America is ceasing to define dance culture. (I would love to call this “global,” but there was an exclusive emphasis on Western dance traditions at the festival.)
Does this matter? Well, yes and no. It could certainly have implications for practitioners. The rise of an autonomous dance scene in the U.S. and Canada with connections to Europe could have a significant impact on the future of emerging choreographers. But what about in theoretical terms? Ultimately, what matters most at this point is the archeological act: like other artistic fields, performance is in a period of transition that will only be solved through active self-examination leading to the informed reconstruction of its fundamental premises and conventions.
In the early seventies, Julia Kristeva wrote a short, but beautifully insightful essay in which she claimed that experimental theatre and dance had become the testing ground for the development of a “new subject” that would no longer defined as a particular and exclusive locus for individual consciousness— a subject criss-crossed by multiplicity, “a multitude of stories (histories) and spaces where totalitarianism cannot extend its grasp.” But while waiting for this space of multiplicity, (which Kristeva refers to as “language,” by the way) to arrive, she reminds her reader that theatre merely offers temporary solution by staving off ideological domination. In order to achieve this new form of subjectivity, theatre must itself undergo a fundamental transformation. In other words, theatre must cease to be theatre. It must also cease to be the framework for dance, which means re-examining the legacy of Bausch’s Tanztheater in terms of earlier questions raised in post-war performance.
If not Kristeva’s “new subject,” I hope to have seen tentative traces of this project at Impulstanz this summer.
Part II: Impressions of Impulstanz7
(Listed according to the order in which I saw them.)
As described on her website (linked above), in this solo she recited John Cage’s 1949 “Lecture on Nothing” while performing a series of repetitious idiosyncratic gestures devoid of dramatic effect. Despite their intentionally uninteresting appearance, these gestures had an elusively appealing stylistic consistency that could be considered in further detail. In short, I liked it. Quite a bit. The absence of dramatic expression and its understated eccentricity reminded me of Rainer’s Trio A, more so than any recent piece I have seen. Like Trio A, dance for nothing was designed to achieve nothing, to go nowhere, and achieve no visible effect. Rainer also had a conflicted relationship with Cage, and Salamon’s recitation could be seen as invoking the ambivalence of their relationship, if not the ambivalence of Cage’s subtle but decisive influence on post-war dance. However, dance for nothing could equally be a demonstration of Salamon’s ambivalence towards this historical lineage— or even her emotional and intellectual detachment from Cage’s influence and innovations. In this regard, it was significant that she treated ”Lecture on Nothing” as an indifferent textual material that constituted a continuously droning background to her choreography. Like Trio A, dance for nothing deliberately avoided virtuosic movement, but it also was likely difficult to perform, especially while delivering the entirety of Cage’s text. The task (a very Judson word) of maintaining this state of split attention— which produced an appearance of distraction— seemed to be one of the principal purposes of the piece. I am tempted to call it a “peripheral relationship” with the audience. At the same time, the act of reciting Cage’s text could also be interpreted as a mindless repetition, which does not necessarily correlate to an internalized state of understanding. (Indeed, English was not Salamon’s first language, and one could only speculate about the possible slippages of meaning between languages and cultural contexts.) Such mindless repetition would be merely mechanical and thus contrary to the premises of performance, which is conventionally held to be “live.” Whether intended or not, the question and challenge to the presumption of liveness in dance for nothing was perhaps its most intriguing aspect for me (and yes, very relevant to my research), a fact that was underscored by Cage’s own words as mediated through Salamon’s performance: “The phonograph is a thing, not a musical instrument.”
Wim Vandekeybus belongs to the vanguard of second-wave Flemish Tanztheater. Oedipus Rex was an excellent example of how some these second-wave artists have regressed into artistic mediocrity. There is not much to say about Oedipus Rex. It featured a live fusion rock band (European art rock at its worst), an overwrought installation on which performers could climb, and a narrative— in fact, the Ur-narrative, the story of Oedipus. Amid these conventional elements of a middling theatrical mise-en-scene, the crude physical boldness of Vandkeybus’ early choreography was an afterthought, an odd anachronism from twenty years hence that had ceased to develop.
In the twenty years that separated these two pieces, Marie Chouinard has emerged from Montréal to become one of the luminaries of contemporary choreography. She was a festival headliner, and with good reason: her work is bold, brilliant, visually dynamic, and scintillatingly virtuosic. There’s nevertheless a strongly essentialist streak in her work, which has been manifest in her striking, but flawed foray into prosthetically-supplemented ballets. The source of this essentialism was evident in Les Trous du Ciel and Mouvements, which drew on two related avant-garde movements, primitivism and surrealism. Les Trous du Ciel was based on Inuit mythology, and Mouvements was a choreographic adaptation of a book (with the same title, Mouvements) of ink drawings and poetry by Henri Michaux.
As an illustration of a text, Mouvements could have easily lent itself to broad and easy audience appeal. At first, it seemed like a mere exercise in fanciful adaptation. Figures flashed on the screen, which a solo dancer sought to recreate in choreographic positions. But set to the background of blaring electronic music by Louis Dufort, the dance quickly evolved into an overlapping series of successive, accelerating patterning by convoluted groups until it reached a catastrophic conclusion, in which the company took turns dancing, nearly nude, in a single spotlight on stage. It was downright Dionysian. And the thematic continuity with Les Trous du Ciel— which was literally about tribes— was impossible to overlook.
There are many interesting observations and connections to be made about the two works, as well as the general direction of Chouinard’s work. She is self-consciously continuing the language of the French avant-garde in way that is faithful to its original aims, intensity, and Dionysian character. (This was a refreshing reminder not to forget the violence inherent in Michaux’s seemingly ephemeral and ludic paintings.) Furthermore, the intensity realized in Chouinard’s work has permitted it to extend the language of avant-garde aesthetics into interrelated areas of inquiry that I believe of currently of great importance— namely, media, movement, and sound.
However, her work does not recognize or challenge any of the problematic tendencies in avant-garde aesthetics, which makes it politically unpalatable for communities excluded from traditional representation, such as women or ethnic minorities, including Native Americans. The pronounced primitivism of Les Trous du Ciel was abandoned in her recent prosthetically- ballets, her breakthrough use of prosthetics has troubling implications for people with disabilities. (One astute student of mine called it “simply offensive.”) Although these prosthetics had (thankfully) vanished in Mouvements, I nevertheless believe that this line of criticism could still be applied to the piece— which was enthralling, by the way.
Before proceeding, I need to make a disclaimer: in November, Trajal will be teaching at my university, Colorado College! Fortunately, I have exceedingly positive impressions of Trajal’s work, but I am loathe to dish out my informal opinions in a public forum that is accessible to students. So it must suffice to share a few basic observations.
1) Trajal’s work is strongly influenced by French conceptual dance.
2) Given the pressure placed on physical movement and genre by conceptual dance, his evocation of Judson is a natural next step.
3) It is very personal and emotionally moving. This was a pleasant surprise. As a result of this, I felt a greater affinity for the smalller, more deliberately intimate pieces than the more boisterously and eclectic queer cabaret in (M)imosa.
4) I am curious to see how the project continues to evolve.
5) There will be a lot to discuss in November.
As a Vienna-based choreographer, Chris Haring attracted large audiences at the festival, even though The Perfect Garden was a weak piece. In its favor, its weaknesses were formally self-consistent and clearly established by its set, which consisted of a number of cheaply handmade devices for producing an effusion of bubbly soap suds. This endless sea of suds was the site for Haring’s ostensibly playful choreography. The choreography and set alike were predicated on a superficial artistic inquiry, which had halted its process at an early stage of development prior to the emergence of an established structure. As such, it remained in a state of pre-structural limbo that precluded the articulation of clear differences. Similar to the womb, this pre-structural state transformed all content into an undifferentiated mass— literally, a mass of child-like soap suds, or the vicious liquid vinyl that was poured onstage at the conclusion of the performance.
There was a lot of work left undone here. A quick look at the other piece he performed at the festival— in which online faces are warped into grotesque, fluid masses— suggests that this is not an isolated incidence in his work, but an unexamined and flawed formal premise.
For someone with Zambrano’s apparent success (see link above), this was an astonishingly inept piece. Instead of an improvisation, it simply seemed unprepared and relied on hackneyed dramatic expression to evoke a vague emotional atmosphere.
I would conclude my observations here, but there is one unfortunate note to add: I was dismayed to see that he will be performing at the Walker Art Center in 2012.
Among the unrestrained stylistic diversity on display at ImpulsTanz, it was surprising to see Christine Gaigg’s surprising conventional choreography in Seven Cuts. In Seven Cuts, two dancers performed a series a seven solos that were staged in successive segments along a thin straight line. It was no surprise that their pattern— (in contrast to say, Salamon’s circuitous repetitions or Chouinard’s demonic drive towards catastrophe)— moved in the same pattern as reading, from left to right. Seven Cuts relied on the most fundamental and conservative framework for choreography, a text.
This text was both verbal and musical. After each “cut,” Gaigg came on stage to read from her journal, in which she recounted her artistic motivations (“to make contemporary dance personal”), physical ailments, and philosophical reflections (a great quotation on ticks from Giorgio Agamben’s The Open). These were the most interesting parts of the performance and related to an increasing interest in autobiographical expression in contemporary dance. However, I was never entirely moved or surprised by these declarations, even though I assumed that they were probably true. In Barthes terms, they lacked a punctum, that moment in which it is possible to perceive the potent proximity of personal experience, its “ça-a-été” or fact of having once been.
But the openness of such personal expression was precluded by the presence of a limiting textual framework, music. The piece was a collaboration with an Austrian composer, Bernhard Gander, and the Klangforum Wien. Although it did not seem that each step had been attached to a particular preexisting note, the music arguably operated as the proverbial voice of dance, a form of expression whose enunciation and notation compensated for dance’s transitory and insubstantial nature.
Which reminds me— there was also choreography. It was clean, precise, swift, and clear. Accomplished and uninteresting, much like the quality of the contemporary musical compositional and the conceptual foundations of Seven Cuts itself.
Cie. Tony Rizzi, An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theatre with Pina Arcade Smith
Isn’t this title reminiscent of another piece of overly self-conscious and derivative (see this nice little piece from the Times Magazine on David Foster Wallace) fiction, Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? Whether or not you agree with that comparison, there’s no question that Rizzi had entirely failed to use his self-referential and self-questioning style to create a coherent piece of theatre.
This style was itself borrowed from William Forsythe’s 2002 performance, Kammer/Kammer, in which Rizzi starred as the former lover of an unnamed rock star (presumably Michael Stipe). As a result of his romantic rejection, Rizzi’s character collapsed into depression and self-doubt, which were expressed through an unusual means: a stylized whine with which he petulantly upbraided his audience. In Kammer/Kammer, this voice was part of a complicated thematic thread that he would subsequently develop in his acclaimed dance, Decreation. However, ten years later in Rizzi’s hands, this stylized depiction of craven, thwarted desire was disconnected from this— or seemingly any— line of inquiry.
I would like to see Rizzi succeed. But the apparent popularity of this performance and its inclusion in the festival, is evidently the product of his affiliation with Forsythe. Rather than Pina Bausch, Penny Arcade, or Jack Smith, it may well be Forsythe’s shadow that colors An Attempt to Fail.
I’m working on a short piece about Ralph Lemon’s latest piece, How can you stay in the house and not go anywhere?. As I’ve just begun writing, I’m loathe to reveal these unrefined thoughts. Let it suffice to say that Lemon is an incredibly thoughtful, accomplished artist, who undoubtedly merits his high stature among American choreographers. Indeed, his choreography is electric, perhaps the most fully formed, fearless dance vocabulary composed by an American that I have seen in recent years. Furthermore, the subject of the piece intersects with two areas of artistic inquiry that I believe are currently emerging in the works of leading choreographers: narrative structure and the legacy of Tanztheater. However, rather than elaborating on these ideas, I would instead prefer to share the diverse materials related to the performance that I have been collecting. This haphazard collection of materials reflects Lemon’s diaristic idiom, which also informs How can you stay? His fondness for the artist’s journal as a form is especially evident on his personal website. (Apropos of the diary as aesthetic paradigm: this topic is decidedly relevant to my more lengthy– i.e. dissertation-based– writing on Chantal Akerman and archival communicability…)
It is January– late January, even– and I have waited far, far too long to post this simple announcement: I am now an Assistant Professor of Performance Studies in the Department of Drama & Dance at Colorado College.
To recite a tired truism of the trade as an excuse and explanation: academic life is an addictive maelstrom, and Colorado College is no exception. Quite to the contrary of potential expectations, life at this far-flung liberal arts institution is anything but sleepy, and its relentless mode of organization has a name: the Block Plan. For the uninitiated, the Block Plan may seem like a strange character note, a sort of institutional tic that might serve identity and branding purposes. Skeptics be warned: the Block Plan is real, and it defines academic life here, whose rigor and ceaseless insistence shocks me on a daily basis– after all, class is held for at least three hours every day during each three and half week class period (i.e., “block”). It permits precious little time for procrastination, doubt, or delay. Each day is entirely new, and its demands begin immediately upon completion of one’s previous tasks.
In short, I am already very much addicted to the intensity of this ceaseless mode of intellectual inquiry, which permits no quarter. Indeed, the Block Plan has a certain affinity with an upcoming article I intend to write on the narrative structure– or anti-narrative structure– of immersive aesthetics. Incidentally or not, it also seems to foster an atmosphere that generates well-above-superior students, as I have witnessed in Jonathan Lee’s superb course on Lacan, and more recently, my own course, Introduction to Performance Studies, which proved to be akin to an introductory graduate seminar.
Pedagogically speaking, what am I up to?
Here are a few upcoming highlights:
1) Locution, Location, & Locomotion: Movement in Modern Drama and Contemporary Performance
As laid out in the current course description below, the unusual historical continuum of artistic materials included in this course– ranging from Georg Büchner and Kurt Jooss to Marie Chouinard, Merce Cunningham, and W.G. Sebald — are derived from a generous elaboration of my dissertation, which predicates the connection between media and performance on movement. In fact, the not-so-secret focus of this course is actually the prosthetic, which indicates the intrusion– and subsequent transformation– of technology in the aesthetic. In this particular history, the transformation of the technological begins with a brief investigation of the function of walking in literary discourse, a mode of movement that ultimately returns in an improbably virtual form of flanerie.
In the future, I anticipate that this course will undergo a few subtle changes in order to foreground the thematic importance of technology, which will likely force an inevitable encounter with current new media tropes, such as cyborgs, cybernetics, and the posthuman. The word “force” is intended to indicate a slight reluctance on my part to embrace these terms, which I believe are easily misconstrued and abused, especially if approached from an overbearingly literal perspective. In particular, the posthuman lends itself to reductive, dogmatic attacks on modernism– indeed, one wonders whether the posthuman will someday soon sound as outdated as “the postmodern.” I deeply appreciated a recent critical skirmish in which a distinguished visiting lecturer was asked to defend their use of “posthuman”…
Anyway, here’s the current course description, now a year old and soon to be subject to changes:
DA 300 Topics: Locution, Location & Locomotion in Modern Drama and Contemporary Performance – Creative activity has presupposed the capacity to freely move and speak. This course traces an artistic counter-tradition that imposes obstacles upon language, movement, and space across multiple disciplines: puppetry, surrealist poetics, novels, experimental theatre, contemporary American plays, performance art, and dance. Contrary to their apparently disruptive purpose, these obstacles aid artistic expression. Recent examples of walking– such as Merce Cunningham’s Biped, novelist W.G. Sebald’s historical strolls, and Terence Davies’ cinematic tour of Manchester– will allow us to study the potential of prosthetics to repair personal and historical trauma, even as they impair speech and mobility. The course may also include works by Büchner, Kleist, Ibsen, Jarry, Beckett, Mabou Mines, Jelinek, Kentridge, Schwitters, Kantor, Beuys, Acconci, Nauman, Bausch, Fornes, Suzan-Lori Parks, Spalding Gray, Tim Etchells, Vera Mantero, and Marie Chouinard. 1 unit – Platt
2) Mourning Representation: The Aesthetics of AIDS
This is a course in current repertoire that I have not taught in several years. It was a big hit at my previous home base, Cornell University. I think that it has recently experienced significant upgrades, surpassing its previous incarnation as a mere survey into a more conceptually well-grounded course that uses queer theory to contrast opposing aesthetic strategies: mourning and melancholia– to use Douglas Crimp’s phrase– versus activism and anger. I have also re-invested in new theoretical developments in the field, as well as a few gems that I had overlooked, such as this top-notch anthology from 1993, Writing AIDS, which includes an essay by Emily Apter on the first work in the course, Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Of course, I haven’t given the works that made this course popular in the first place: the hit musical Rent (if you know me, you may recognize a whisper of irony in that reference) and Tony Kushner’s blockbuster play, Angels in America.
(But wait a second… have I perhaps become old-fashioned in just a few year’s time? Is it possible that Rent and Angels are no longer sufficient as popular draws?)
Artistic representations of AIDS convey undeniably real experiences of personal suffering and loss. In order to fully account for AIDS’ unsettling intimacy in art, this course will consider works from multiple disciplines, including fiction (Guibert), film (Rent, Jarman), drama (Kushner, Abdoh), dance (Jones, Greenberg), and performance art (Miller, Athey). This interdisciplinary approach will permit us to articulate ways in which AIDS and illness metaphorically trouble representational stability, especially as mobilized by the theatrical avant-garde. However, in contrast to other diseases, AIDS bears a specific social stigma: the taint of homosexuality. Accordingly, the course will also use queer theory—drawing on critics such as Michael Warner, David Halperin, Douglas Crimp, and Jose Esteban Muñoz—to address the use of shame, melancholy, and militancy as artistic positions in representations of AIDS.
A Preview of Course Highlights for 2011-12:
(notes and previews pending updates)
1) Contemporary Performance (Block 1)
(Possibly to include a trip to the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s TBA Festival…)
2) Experimental & Expanded Cinema (Block 7)
3) Feminist Performance (Block 8)
As the product of investment in my own personal research and writing, this course promises an unusual approach to the study of “feminist” performance. Above all, it views body art– especially as practiced in the eighties– as an incomplete area of concern for feminist aesthetics. I thus have developed an interdisciplinary network of female artists, whose work introduces alternative artistic strategies, which in turn gestures towards the possibility of another aesthetic paradigm emerging from feminist performance.
Here’s the current version of its description:
Feminist performance since the sixties has used the body’s material presence and erotic force to disrupt masculine regimes of control and meaning. This course will examine how contemporary critics such as Peggy Phelan, Amelia Jones, and Rebecca Schneider have located dramatists (Churchill, Vogel), performance artists (Schneeman, Sprinkle, Rosenthal), and choreographers (Halprin) within this feminist tradition of affirmative resistance. However, the course will also investigate female artists whose autobiographical accounts of social marginalization convey an impression of disappearance or loss. Beginning with Gertrude Stein’s elusive poetic idiom, we will traces this aesthetic of disappearance into the sixties and seventies through novels, plays, and films (Wolf, Surraute, Duras, Ernaux, Akerman), as well as performance artists (Mendieta, Piper, Laurie Anderson) and choreographers (Rainer, Brown, and Monk). In conclusion, the course will investigate three interdisciplinary artists (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Yoko Tawada, and Cecilia Vicuña) whose multi-linguistic texts and performances turn feminist aesthetics towards a global horizon.
Heiner Goebbels is coming to Cornell! He will be an artist-in-residence for ten days, March 7-17. In anticipation of his arrival– and the seminar he will hold during his visit– the departments of German, Music, and Theatre showed a film version of Goebbels’ 1996 performance, Schwarz auf Weiss. Since recordings of Goebbels’ works are rare, this was a special occasion on which I was fortunate to have been invited to provide an introduction. (My recent research residency in Germany and a review of I went to the house but did not enter, which appeared in the 2009 issue of Theatre Journal, have earned me the honor of substantially contributing to Goebbels’ endeavors at Cornell.)
Introduction to Schwarz auf Weiss, Cornell University, February 23, 2010
As an artist, Heiner Goebbels is the quintessential Grenzgänger, an exceptional individual who inhabits the worlds of both contemporary theatre and music. Although Goebbels has occasionally expressed concerns about the critical reception of his hybrid artistic identity, he moves among both disciplines’ most elite, international circles. For instance, he worked with the iconic German playwright Heiner Müller in the late eighties– incidentally, Goebbels credits these collaborations with Müller as his defining breakthrough– French choreographer Mathilde Monnier, and is a habitual headliner at festivals and theatres across the globe. He is also a professor and managing director of The Institute for Applied Theatre Studies at the Justus-Liebig-Universität in Giessen, where he has taught courses on Brecht, the aesthetics of the city, sound art, and a current seminar on French novelist, Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Despite that fact that Goebbels considers himself to be “not in the center… of contemporary music… somebody who’s between the chairs”– he cites interests in heavy metal, Hans Eisler, and the Beach Boys as evidence of this outsider status– his musical resume is equally impressive. Since the early nineties, his work has been recorded in ECM’s venerable New Music Series. He has collaborated with renowned musical groups, including the Ensemble Modern and The Hilliard Ensemble, and has become a regular guest at the Berlin Philharmonic, whose conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, describes him in rhapsodic terms as an irreproducible “one-off.”
Goebbels’ ability to negotiate the realms of theatre and music is more than a virtuosic feat– it has been integral to the development of his singular artistic idiom. However, his fluency in these two disciplines was not an innate ability. He struggled with his first position as the resident composer for a relatively traditional theatre in Frankfurt, where it was necessary to subordinate music to visual mise-en-scene. Dissatisfied with theatre, he preferred his purely musical pursuits in experimental bands, such as the So-Called Leftist Revolutionary Wind Orchestra and his art rock trio Cassiber. Of course, the excess of these raucous sonic displays bore little resemblance to the mysterious, muted melancholy that characterizes his musical theatre.
It is worth noting that even for an experienced spectator of contemporary performance, Goebbels’ work is remarkably odd. In part, its quietly quizzical character can be attributed to fundamental differences with traditional theatre: a Goebbels performance generally lacks spoken dialogue, character development, and plot. As in Black on White, little seems to happen. The stage is apparently uninhabited– and perhaps abandoned– by proper actors. Rather than actors, its occupants are the members of the Ensemble Modern. Having been driven from their seats, they aimlessly roam, unattended and idly entertaining themselves with the only language they know, music.
Even if their apparent lack of purpose seems strange, these musicians at least provide a familiar human presence. In other works, Goebbels aspires to a theatre devoid of human performers. For instance, his 2007 work, Stifter’s Things, replaces actors with mechanical substitutes: a robotic voice reads recorded text and an awkwardly constructed contraption of fragmented pianos serves as an eerily self-aware musical instrument and uncanny puppet assemblage.
Despite the exceptionally odd character of such devices, it would be erroneous not to consider Goebbels’ work as part of a broader context of contemporary performance. Indeed, its opposition to dialogue, character, and plot are established conventions of experimental theatre. In such experimental theatre, instead of presenting coherent characters, performers embody nameless formal forces. In the absence of character-driven events, theatre’s formal framework becomes extrinsic content. In Black on White, a symmetrical grid of empty benches– which reflects the audience’s immobile position and perspective– depicts the stark structural limits of theatre’s literal and narrative space. Goebbels’ stage resembles the ruins of narrative itself, a proverbial prison-house of meaning through which his ensemble wanders. However, whereas most theatre emphasizes the unassailable nature of this structure– and its catastrophic force– Black on White accepts these limits with enigmatic equanimity. Its inhabitants seem unpreoccupied, and even idle, as if indefinitely waiting for something definitive or meaningful to occur.
Given this uneventful quality, it may seem that Goebbels consciously avoids narrative. Nevertheless, Goebbels always embeds a story– literally a literary text– into his theatre. He is a passionate reader with consummate taste for high modernist authors, be it T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, or Franz Kafka. Black on White stages texts by two such exemplary modernists, Edgar Allen Poe and Maurice Blanchot. However, Goebbels presents their writing in a way that fundamentally differs from the traditional dramatic exposition of a narrative and subsequent attempts to resist author and text. Although both stories are present in the first moments of the performance– the scribbling hand you will see is transcribing Blanchot’s 1962 novella Awaiting Oblivion– neither is ever manifest. On the contrary, the richly fantastic events they relate remain irretrievably occluded and foreclosed.
Not only are its events foreclosed, but narrative encloses the voice that enunciates them. This irremediable distance from the speaker is actually the subject of the Poe short story, “Shadow: A Parable.” Its first line addresses the reader from across the grave: “Ye who read are still among the living: but I who write will shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows.” In Black on White, this reference to the narrator’s death is literal: the speaking voice is a recording of Goebbel’s pivotal artistic partner, playwright Heiner Müller, who had recently succumbed to cancer.
Composed in 1996, a year after his death, Black on White was intended as a tribute– and farewell– to Müller. However, despite this very real loss, its tone is not necessarily mournful. Faithful to Müller’s own irrepressible humor, Black on White is surprisingly playful, perhaps because for Goebbels, the mortal division imposed by narrative form is not absolute. Albeit mysterious, Goebbels’ works are not mysteries, which like Poe’s detective stories, are meant to be deciphered and reconstructed. It is possible to appreciate his theatre’s humor and sonorous diversity for its own sake, without recourse to expertise, interpretation, or an introduction. Please enjoy.
As you may note from my last post, (September 2009), I have been on a brief hiatus from my website. However, I am determined to make a substantial return! In anticipation of that approaching day, I am listing a few upcoming events that I am either attending or participating in:
Literary Theorist Cathy Caruth, “After the End: Literature in the Ashes of History,” Cornell 2/4
More to follow…
I’m back from Germany. Especially (but not only) from a performing arts perspective, this pains me everyday. However, there is at least one bright on the otherwise bleak horizon for performing arts north of New York City– RPI’s new centre EMPAC. As the photos display, it’s a beautifully unlikely addition to Albany’s cityscape. If nothing else, it is a splendidly sleek example of world-class architecture.
Despite such architectural grandeur, I must admit that exteriors don’t matter so much to me– I’m as dazzled by the dollar signs that were evidently poured into its construction, regardless of its artistic merit as a building, (which I also feel loathe to evaluate, a fact that leaves me suspicious and wary of lurking ideologies.) Berlin’s best theatre, HAU, is utterly unremarkable, but is the city’s most flexible, innovative performance space. In short, it’s what inside that matters, and given the unfortunate fate of other northern institutions, such as Mass Moca, their schedule will tell all.
And what’s inside at EMPAC? Well, of course, as befits its host institution, RPI, which is best known as an engineering school, it’s technological-based performance. Such work can be a bit trendy, but it undoubtedly exceeds the purview of most conventional theatres. Here’s a more immediate measure of quality: what is on this season, and even, this semester? Outside of experimental bands (Boredoms), and some odd experimental films, what are the main performing arts events en route?
Here’s my wish list:
1) Chunky Move, Glow: Yes, they’re on tour everywhere in the U.S. this fall, but I find their work, at least as seen on the Internet, extremely seductive. I showed this clip very briefly on the first day of my current class:
2) A performance installation by a Belgian new media group called Workspace Unlimited. I’ve never heard of them, (whatever that’s worth,) and this installation, They Watch involves Second Life, of which I’m always skeptical. (Second life is such a facile artistic/academic subject…) However, upon briefly examining their website, I was struck by the– here’s this word again– seductive quality of their immersive spaces.
3) I am intrigued by immersive spaces. It’s not the fact of immersion that interests me, but rather the idea of enclosure, which I discuss in my response to Rudi Laerman’s ” ‘Dance in General’ or Choreographing the Public, Making Assemblages.”
I am developing a new course to be taught next semester that examines the oppositions and intersections of poetry in modern, and espeically 20th century drama– and as I have already explained several times, no, we are definitively not reading a survey of tedious closet dramas.
For some time now, I have also been working on particular, peculiar female artists. One of them, poet Claudia Rankine, has developed a new theatre piece in collaboration with the New York-based company Foundry Theatre. Taking its author’s childhood in the South Bronx as a point of departure, it assumes an unusual form: a bus tour with a prerecorded voice and one live actor. This form, the precorded tour, seems to be in vogue. I last experienced something similar in sound/performance artist duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Ghost Machine , which I suspect is more technically sophisticated, but aesthetically less innovative than the possibilities offered by Rankine’s poetic idiom.
I was particularly interested by a comment that she made in a recent interview regarding the challenges of making her poetic approach meet the demands of a director, whose language is founded in dramatic action:
“I think that the form came to meet me. Initially the expectation from Melanie was a very performative text and I have always lived in a very contemplative text. And so the idea of going from a field of contemplation into an active space was frightening to me. And not something that I naturally know how to do. So, what had to happen was we had to both kind of move towards each other. My notion of character became the character of the play but I don’t think it would have ever initially been Melanie’s idea of character. But I think in the end it is the right choice. I think that the reason she asked me to do this is because there was, I have to believe, I guess, that this is the way that perhaps she actually wanted to go. I think that we both initially were working from where we knew. And so a lot of the process has been coming closer to each other. She has to stand in the meditative moment and I had to move forward in the performative moment.”
This might be one for which to break quarantine in Ithaca…
A video trailer of the tour is available here: