Impulstanz Impressions

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.)

Eszter Salamon, dance for nothing

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, Oedipus Rex/Bête Noire

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.

Marie Chouinard, Les Trous du Ciel and Henri Michaux: Mouvements

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.

Trajal Harrell, Three Versions of Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at Judson Church: (M)imosa, (S), and (XS)


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.

Chris Haring/Liquid Loft, The Perfect Garden

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.

Although this image seems to have been a staged photo shoot (rather than a scene from the performance), it provides an image of the bubble-making machines that dominated its decor and concept.

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.

David Zambrano & Zeena Parkins, Zeta

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.

Christine Gaigg, Seven Cuts

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.

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