III. PSi 15: “Murmurs, Mispronunciations, and Malentendus: The Medium of Language in Recent Choreography by Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe”

My own contribution to Performance Studies 15 was a traditional paper presentation entitled, “Murmurs, Mispronunciations, and Malentendus: The Medium of Language in Recent Choreography by Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe.”  In the following text, I am including the talk in its entirety.  Readers should be aware that it lacks oral annotations, which I elucidated in person, and a number of hand-written notes that I made en route to the conference.  I can include the most important aspect, my visual and aural examples, around which I sought to build an immediately tangible argument.  It is difficult to convey contextual nuance in a short period of time, but I relied on hard evidence– such as a meteor and contrasting use of drag– to provide sufficient argumentative grounds.  Especially since my discussion surrounds language, which must be heard, this format also lends itself to digital presentation.

Moreover, this digital forum permits me to add a few comments regarding the context of its composition.  For better or worse, I had locked myself into concisely describing performances by three different choreographers, and the bulk of my efforts were necessarily dedicated to developing an adequate framework of descriptive criticism.  As a result, I treated its various areas of conceptual interest with equal– that is, indifferent– emphasis.  Its principle terms, especially “the break,” would have likely benefitted from further levels of differentiation, but unfortunately there was insufficiently time to do more than hint at its theoretical inspirations and ambitions.

For instance, “the break” is derived from Samuel Weber’s “Theatricality as a Medium.”  It is a generalized term for the material inclusion of negated content within representation– the fractious borders of fiction.  At the end of its first chapter, Weber connects the immemorial institution of theatre with the “commerical break,” to which contemporary masses have been conditioned:

“This new situation [global mass media and the commercial break] is determined by a tension betwen anticipation and reflection, storytelling and interruption, that has a long history, reaching back to the emergence of theatre itself.  In the follwing chapter we will discuss a few of these earliest articulations in order to explore how the medium of theatre has, from its inception, responded to the enduring desire to survive the break” (Theatricality 53).

What does the “medium” of theatre mean?  Why does Weber just not write “theatre,” which would be equally effective in the above passage?  In short, Weber’s titular term indicates his desire to do more than merely “to survive the break,” but rather to integrate it into representation in such a way that representation no longer “works”– or for that matter, is an autonomous “work.”

This shifts the discussion into murky, esoteric territory.  Accordingly, Weber turns to Heidegger, perhaps 20th century philosophy’s most enduringly ambivalent figure, as he begins to transform his definition of “the break.”  Considered as a loose translation of Heidegger’s “Riß,” Weber states that the break ” is a tear that does not simply pull apart but in separating joins” (63-4).  Such language appears throughout Weber’s recent writing, most notably in connection with the notion of “imparting,” a translation of Benjamin’s– (this may seem like one to many proper names, but Weber is ultimately a reader and student of Benjamin, so it is inevitable)– “Mitteilung,” which features prominently in his early essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.”  This is the subject of a chapter in Weber’s new book, “Benjamin’s -abilities,” which I picked up shortly before leaving for Zagreb.  To my delight, the title of the chapter was “Impart-ability: Language as Medium.”  Evidently, language and medium are conceptually intertwined, but how exactly?  What is the medium? And what does this have to do with dance?

Given the descriptive labor concerning Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe that I had imposed upon myself, any explication of the medium seemed beyond question.  As regards its relation to dance– I have long since intended to consider Forsythe’s work in relation to such “impart-ability,” and I was surprised and pleased when attending Forsythe’s newest work on June 28, 2009 in Dresden, “The Returns,” to find that its word-play principally involved “art, part, and apart.”

Needless to say, such intersections fell beyond the scope of my talk, as well as other major themes, including translation, concepts of non-unified representation, and a turn in theatrical aesthetics from predominantly visual to aural expression– a way of getting “in touch” with the medium.  Moderator Paul Rae having mentioned translation as possible transition between my talk and the following presentation of a performance-in-progress by Aberystwyth University’s Gareth Evans and Esther Pilkington, “Would You Like to Learn My Language?”, I know that I at least successfully hinted at a few of these themes, and later Rae suggested reading Alphonso Lingis’ writings on corporeal-environmental “feedback loops.”  (This also begins to tread into the terrain of the digital, but that’s a subject best left for later…)

Ultimately, I ended with more questions than I was even able to begin to ask.  Above all, perhaps, is the looming, unfathomable subject of language.  I was a bit nervous about embarking, poorly prepared, upon this path, and indeed I did draw one contentious, albeit possibly reductive question from a Croatian student who felt that Vera Mantero’s work was “pure Derrida.”  But can one face language, an impertuably massive subject, with complete preparation?  Especially when approached through the materials of my discipline, it’s not a task I intend to realize all at once, even though I am intuitively certain that language is the right place to be, as per a quotation from Kristeva I have kept in mind for the last three years, since the advent of my linguistic and gender turn:

For if modern theater does not take (a) place, it is only as of late, as a new subject
and a new society, here and especially in France, are running up against too many
archaic constructs (economic and ideological). This obliges playwrights and actors
either to play complacently with the verisimilitude of an antiquating society’s anti-
quating fantasies (a narcissistic and debilitating accommodatior,), or, in the best
situations, to develop a technical arsenal of “alienation” (the “Ontological Hysteric
Theater” of Richard Foreman), of Brechtian distance, thus keeping the audience’s
lucidity removed from a criticizable discourse or ideology, all the while waiting for the
coming of a “place”: the remaking of language.

Certainly, language is emerging, in dance, as a medium, and the question that remains is not how, but why?

***

“Murmurs, Mispronunciations, and Malentendus: The Medium of Language in Recent Choreography by Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe”

As you can see from my title, I am addressing the emergence of language in dance.  In order to demonstrate that this is not merely an incidental, isolated event, but rather a collective phenomenon– the incipient articulation of some emergent form– I am going to cover three different examples from no later than 2006, and I’m going to have to move quickly.

Just in case you don’t happen to recognize these three proper names– this is a panel on performance and language, after all– it is important to have at least a little context:

At around 40, the Portuguese choreographer Vera Mantero is the youngest of the three.  Since her breakout solos in the nineties, in which she interpreted culturally marginal feminine celebrities, such as Josephine Baker and Manet’s Olympia, she’s used little conventional dance technique, but consistently experimented with language.  As a result, she’s been critically associated with European “conceptual” choreographers.

Deborah Hay was one of the principal members of Judson Dance Theater, whose work during the sixties in New York is an indispensably canonical moment in contemporary dance history.  Hay subsequently retreated into isolation in Texas and the ethereal abstraction of opaquely optimistic Buddhist espousals.  Since 2004 she has consistently returned to New York, where she won a Bessie [(for what that’s worth)] and has received renewed international attention.  [aside: and I saw the piece I’ll discuss in Berlin]

Finally, William Forsythe is one of the widely celebrated practicing choreographers.  He came to prominence in the 80s and 90s for his cerebral, hyper-complex ballets, which use computer technology to push the limits of physically possible form.  It’s important to note that since the city of Frankfurt dissolved his state-financed company in 2004, his idiom has vastly shifted, a fact which has fully reached the U.S. since he resides and primarily works in Frankfurt and Dresden.

Introductions aside, before proceeding into detail, I think it’s necessary to establish a few premises regarding my research and the state of contemporary choreography.

First of all, I contend that this emergence of language does not constitute a generalization of dance.  It is not simply the product of dance belatedly entering the territory of conventional theatre– so-called dancetheatre– and its language is not naturalistic, ordinary, or even autonomous.  On the contrary, this language remains grounded in the history of choreography’s materials and techniques.

Like other disciplines before it, choreography has reached a historical impasse: dance finds itself increasingly unable to maintain a stable representational continuum.  Whether this is the result of external pressures– a response to general cultural acceleration or influences from other artistic practices– or the logical evolution of its own internal form, this instability manifests itself as an immobilizing disjunction.

For instance, Vera Mantero’s choreography, from her earliest solos until her present group work, admirably illustrates this critical condition.

mantero_stage

As I mentioned, her work is often considered “conceptual” insomuch as it uses little movement and thematizes immobility.  This was immediately conveyed by the mise-en-scene of her 2006 work, Until the moment when God is destroyed by the extreme exercise of beauty.  The performers are seated almost the entire performance, restricted to a small strip of the stage, and furthermore– that is a meteor behind them, an enormous, ironically redundant reminder of immobility.  It’s also worth noting that the meteor is a densely compressed substance, which is literally outlandish, much like its garishly attired performers.

mantero_performers1

mantero_performers2

Their stylized seating reflects the audience’s stasis and draws attention to the performer-spectator gap– an ineluctably constitutive limit of theatrical relation.  Confronting this limit is uncomfortable, and Mantero’s guests– that’s how they are billed, “Vera Mantero and Guests”– never seem at home on the stage.  Their nervously eager, absent-minded conduct betrays this discomfort, which is somehow comic and sweetly sympathetic– it is all too easy to recognize their anxiety from the innumerable instances of everyday life in which one is put on trial, tested, or otherwise asked to perform.  These scenarios and their corresponding anxiety are reactions to an underlying aesthetic condition, which one might refer to as the real, but which I prefer to call the break– the fundamental discontinuity to which choreography is presently bound.  Faced by the break, they literally begin to chatter– that is, both to tremble and to profusely and pointlessly talk, even though they cannot seem to recall why or to what end.  This obliviousness pervades their speech, whose syntax proceeds through evasions, ellipses, qualifications, questioning repetitions, irrelevant exclamations, dazed diversion, etc. etc.  In short, they rely on a repertoire of rhetorical detritus, common to ordinary speech, but antithetical to philosophical seriousness and superfluous to meaning.

In case you didn’t catch it, en route to thank you, they passed through “say taste strain straighten stay tray and state.”  Compounded by the performers’ competing confusion, collective uncertainty, and multiple mispronunciations, this scene exemplifies the morphing mutability of overlapping words, which move throughout the performance between pure sonorous value– the hissing “s’s”– and conventional referential function organized around subject statements– I, you, and in this case, “we.”  This roundabout process of expression permits a glimpse into an expanded range of possible articulation, even if merely consisting of quaintly insignificant variations.  It’s a virtuosic feat to make this muddle clear and chaotic at once.  In this regard, their ensemble coordination resembles a dance– in the traditional sense of maintaining an event’s impossible point of ideal unity– and its wobbling, fumbling, bumbling movement back and forth is– in an admittedly superficial way– a kind of weaving dance.  However, this swaying, almost drunken movement– note their party-like costumes and the reference to dionysus– actually reflects the rupture captured by Mantero’s visual contradiction, her meteor, an unmistakably ironic image of immobility.  Since the tension between [immobility and dance] can never be resolved, Mantero’s guests must stay in constant verbal motion.  They cannot stop because their speech compensates for the structural inadequacy that they literally face, but cannot see– that is, the break.  And because they can neither explain nor mend this gap, they endlessly excuse themselves and over-sollicitously thank their audience.

Language also assures structural continuity in Deborah Hay’s 2008 If I Sing To You.  The two pieces share other key characteristics, including constant, instable motion, an evident ethos of distraction, and a bittersweetly comic consolation that harbors desire for an unbroken communal place.  Even more than Mantero’s guests, who are certainly steeped in camp, Hay’s all-female cast situates this desire in queer, specifically lesbian terms.

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There are neither men, a set, nor an apparent conflict (as was grounded in Mantero’s visual structure).  Rather than emphasizing visibility,

mantero_performers2

Hay’s strangely corresponding costumes strive to be no more nor less noticed than members of traditional genders or sexual orientations– to be, in a sense, visible, but indistinguishably blending into the context of ordinary life.  [Judson ordinary?]  Instead of conflict, If I Sing to You radiates an elusive harmony, which as will shortly be seen, corresponds to its titular reference to song– the only recognizable words in the performance.  [future ref to H.G.]  Its predominant language is a diffused– vs. the density of Mantero’s meteor– chorus of murmurs, weird whispers, and incomprehensible muttering.

(video: comes in at “climatic” singing, please ignore shutter sounds, pay attention to language at start)

Quite to the contrary of Mantero, who plays between given meanings and sound, this is evidently a private language, perhaps even a fantasy language, which has no externally determined referential function.  Since she is willing to sacrifice intelligibility for continuity across its visual, aural, and even choreographic elements, Hay’s use of language constitutes a more radical challenge. [elaborate?]  Unfortunately, I don‘t have much footage of her richly intricate choreography, which combines a myriad of minute inflections, partial phrases, and small shifts in balance.  [maybe video: here’s what i’ve got– it’s a bit blurry] Moreover, the dance consistently produces a soft background of shuffling and squeaking.

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[picture: note sneakers– squeaking intentional]

Other choreographers — notably such as William Forsythe– have also experimented with incidental noise in order to convey the body’s irreducibly resistant materiality.  But unlike such attempts, which emphasize the friction between the body and the stage, Hay’s choreographic noise connects to and compliments its strange spoken language.  As such, regardless of whether or not Hay’s quietly revolutionary avenue of inquiry is a sufficient answer to the break, it establishes a fundamental connection between movement and language.

Despite If I Sing to You having premiered at The Forsythe Company’s home in Dresden, this connection between movement and language may be the sole trait common to Hay and Forsythe.  Nevertheless, Forsythe’s language does not evidently complement his choreography.  Since his celebrated, complex ballets, Forsythe’s choreography has tested the limits of technically possible form, and its increasingly elaborate combinations have resulted in a painfully fragmented appearance.

forsythe_twisted1

forsythe_twisted2

Likewise, his use of stage space has become fragmented, making it impossible to see the entirety of events onstage.  Granted, this technique is not his invention: many artists have sought to overwhelm theatre’s visual field in order to induce a euphoric experience of overabundance, as if representation were being burst open– producing the rapture of rupture, if you will.  However, Forsythe’s stagings do not cause such rapture– or rupture– but are perplexing obstacles that intentionally occlude a privileged perspective of the theatrical event– that is, its unity.  [photos. mention Heterotopia, use of two spaces.]  Forsythe has undertaken a contradictory task– he is trying to surpass the structural limitations of the body and theatre, but he remains nevertheless committed to theatre’s spatial particularity– and the embodied discipline of dance.  This contradictory imperative characterizes the title of his 2008 performance, Yes We Can’t.  This title is derived from one of its several language-based solo improvisations, which resemble child-like– but exceedingly sinister– word-games.  Like Mantero, the sound of overlapping, repetitious phrases catalyzes unexpected syntactic shifts, but instead of weaving and wobbling, their tensely wrought, frantically forced tone conveys panic and menacing mania.  For instance, in the title sequence, a male dancer stands before a microphone, repeating variations of:

open the box
yes you can
yes you can’t
the box is open

This sequence occurs as a rapid, unstable succession in which opposing terms collide and nullify one another, leaving only the quixotic resonance of overarticulated consants: “box” and “can’t.”  He is literally thrown back by the force of his words, only to be caught by two performers and hurled back to the microphone. This spastic process of self-negation suggests that “the box” is not open– and that despite his various shifts in tone– threatening, cajoling, pleading– all efforts of self-expression reinforce its mysterious power of containment.  In Yes We Can’t, language is a trap, which contains its speaker and cannot be broken.  Under such conditions, akin to an exhausting interrogation, one would presumably not speak unless necessary– and in fact, following the examples of Mantero and Hay, spoken language is necessary, for it provides compensatory structural continuity.  But unlike Mantero and Hay, Forsythe is not trying to elude or elide its limitations and restricts the continuity supplied by language to a tautly tautological force in order to realize non-unified or fragmentary forms– forms that exceed the limits of the possible.  Such fragments– reminiscent of Mantero’s meteor, but not symbolic– are thus irremediably broken off from intelligibility.  In turn, these fragments– and the tautological utterances to which they give rise– intimate the unintelligible, that which cannot be expressed within the box, or the boundaries of sensible representation.

So, in review, in all of these examples, language provides structural continuity, but only once its choreographic complexity exceeds dance’s formal unity.  Unable to suppress the structural disjunction that has haunted dance, these choreographers must incorporate its discontinuities into a diffused field of constant, insignificant syntactic shifts (Mantero and Hay) or incomprehensibly discrete objects (Forsythe).  As such, the potential which is negated by the break, and which has a priori, no place in representation, is introduced into language.  Indeed, language ceases to be a measure of intentional intelligence, but instead deflates and deflects meaning into inattentive (Mantero and Hay) and ill-intentioned (Forsythe) modes of expression.  For artists and spectators alike, the task of attending to this ambiguous non-sense is neither looking nor understanding, but, perhaps like a translator, listening in near stillness to what is not taking place on stage, what remains behind, obscurely delayed, but also acoustically relayed by choreographically conditioned language.

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