Nancy on the Medium in Dance

Si je reviens par ce chemin au bord de la question propre de la danse, je serai porté à dire que le propre de cet art est de produire son sens en retrain de tout médium et par là  d’effacer le plus possible l’effet de signification que produit un médium. Ce dernier, en effet, comme son nom l’indique, opère une médiation, un renvoi vers un autre ordre. La peinture (au sens de pigment ou de pâte), le crayon, l’instrument (fût-il la voix), la pierre, la capture photographique ou cinématographique des événements lumineux, etc., semblent d’abord nous proposer un moyen pur une fin qui serait le dégagement de quelque signification (expression, présentation, comme on voudra).

alliterations

An image from Allitérations. The im-mediate?

Mais lorsque ce moyen est le corps propre de l’artiste […] on est d’emblée porté au moins à soupçonner un autre configuration. Le moyen et la fin se rapprochent, voire se recouvrent. C’est aussi pourquoi la danse est un art que son spectateur ne regarde pas seulement, ni même surtout: son regard se fait geste intérieur, tension discrète de ses propres muscles, mouvement inchoatif. D’où, sans doute, le fait que la vision d’un danseur (d’une danseuse), out d’un(e) acrobate, ait été un exemple fréquent de ce que l’on cherchait à mettre en évidence sous le nom d’empathie. Mais de là, peut-être, aussi […] le fait que le danseur (la danseuse) soit un(e) artist particulièrement “autoréférencié(e),” si je peux le dire ainsi. Je veux dire ni narcissique, ni autistique, ni égocentrique, mais dans un rapport immédiat à soi: im-médiat, sans médiation par un médium et pourtant pas non plus simplement immanent au sens strict du terme (comme l’eau dans l’eau…), mais se prenant comme médium de soi.

Ce qui, d’ailleurs, aussitôt me ramène, sans que je l’aie vu venir, au plus près de l’exercice de la pensée… Du même coup, se lève une question ou un thème décisif: comment l’être en rapport à soi est aussi bien entièrement tourné vers le dehors, car il ne cultive pas un “soi” donné, il interroge un “soi,” une “ipséité” qui précisément n’est jamais donné…

– Jean-Luc Nancy in correspondence with Mathilde Monnier in Alliterations: conversations sur la danse (2005), p. 29-30

Vers Mathilde, Claire Denis (2004)

bare life (eiko) on wall street

Marx called money a “general equivalent.” It is this equivalence that is being discussed here. Not to think about it by itself, but to reflect that the regime of general equivalence henceforth virtually absorbs, well beyond the monetary or financial sphere but thanks to it and with regard to it, all the spheres of human existence, and along with them all things that exist.

Jean-Luc Nancy, After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes

Eiko Otake, A Body on Wall Street on June 20, 2016

(Aside: Eiko and Nancy are not a 100% match, but that’s not the point here.)

Eiko on Wall St 20 June 2016_DSC6922 Photo by Wm Johnston

I like this next shot.

Eiko on Wall St 20 June 2016 No_0196

And the same thing here.

Eiko on Wall St 20 June 2016 No_1228

Eiko teaches here (Colorado) in the fall.

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.

Ralph Lemon: How can you stay in the house all day and not go anywhere?


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…)

 

Blut ist im Schuh: My Pina Tribute, via Heiner

On June 30, 2009, five days after being diagnosed with cancer, Pina Bausch died. A dance colleague– whose structurally spare work has so little to do with Bausch’s metaphor-laden Tanztheater– wrote to tell me what a shock Pina’s death was, how she hadn’t realized that she counted on Pina continuing to pose pleasures and problems, year after year, even when those problems and pleasure themselves seemed like already worn territory.

There are so many unforgettable images from her works– Heiner calls her images a “thorn in the eye.”  This concluding scquence from Nelken has always been one of my favorites.

How to pay tribute to Pina? Having neither time nor inclination for a comprehensive essay– these have already been written– (I am currently using Johannes Birringer’s “Pina Bausch Dancing Across Borders” in my fall course), I have chosen to translate an poetic essay by Heiner Müller on Pina.  It’s a fast and dirty translation, which I do not intend to defend, but which I do hope should bring some measure of pleasure through the unlikely tangency between these two titans of post-war experimental theatre.

I do not think it is an accident that Müller’s text, written in 1981, already read like posthumous appreciation.

BLOOD IS IN THE SHOE OR THE ENIGMA OF FREEDOM
Heiner Müller
For Pina Bausch

1

As children we played hide and seek.
Do you still remember our games.
Face on a tree or a wall
Hand over your eyes until the last
Found their place, and whoever was seen
Had to race with the searcher.
He who first arrives at the tree is free
When he must not remain standing in the spot
As if the knock on the tree or wall
Nailed him to the ground like a grave.
He may not move until the last
Was found. And sometimes the last
Was too well hidden and not found.
Then everyone waits, standing there petrified,
Each his own monument, right up to the last.
And sometimes it happens that one dies
And his hiding place is not found, no
Hunger drives him out from his death
That has found him out of ranks
The dead are not hungry.
Then the resurrection is canceled. The searcher
Has turned over every stone four times.
Now he can only wait, his face
On a tree or wall
His hands over his eyes until the world
has gone by. Note their pace.
Lay your hand over your eyes, brother.
The others that the searcher nailed to
The ground with his knock
On the tree or wall because they didn’t run
Fast enough from their hiding places that weren’t
Safe enough, and now they have
No hand for their eyes because they
May not move and also may
Close their eyes according to the rules.
Like stones in the graveyard they wait
With open eyes up until the last second…

(aus ZEMENT)

2
Time in the theater of Pina Bausch is the time of fairy tales. History transpires as an interruption, like gnats in the summer. Space is threatened by the occupation of one or another grammar, that of ballet or drama, but dance’s flightline holds off both occupations. The territory is virgin soil. An island that just appeared, the product of an unknown (forgotten or coming) catastrophe: perhaps it is happening even now, while the performance is under way. Something of the immediate connection to life, for which Brecht had always envied Elizabethan theater, is made. Film or television are no competition: they can be used. The whole thing is child’s play.

3
The players are survivors. (The spectator will perhaps have a different experience.) They report on the terror of childhood: Hansel and Gretel, fleeing from their stepmother, get lost in the supermarket. The only way into the clear is perhaps a department store fire: it had ultimately begun with fire… The feeling: Little Red Riding Hood meets the Big Bad Wolf at the disco, who wants to buy her love with the dead grandmother’s money. Maybe she will have to learn his language, which is the language of violence, and “with the weapon in hand” expropriate his sex… Of ballet: it appears as curdled history: the body’s order under law. Humanism’s striptease lays bear culture’s bloody root.

4
An instant of time belongs to the survivors. They celebrate on the tightrope between buildings, which are threatened by collapse. The choreography stands in the tradition of dance macarbe. Between the wars another Middle Ages. It was the Germans’ Golden Era: happiness in osmosis with collective death, equality before the hourglass an illusion of justice on Judgment Day. The demonic at the Brecht’s graveyard struggle against Hitler, which Benjamin registered with erudite horror, grows out of the (re)course to this ground, is supplied by this glowing ember.

5
The Middle Ages for Pina Bausch: consumption stands in for the black plague, the youngest rider of the Apocalypse. The law of series is the law of selection, the genocide of the Highest School of Statistics, the way to slaughter [Schlachtbank] leads through the databank, the final truth of consumption can be atomic flash. We’ve bet on the wrong horse, maybe the running has already happened. Before the clearance sale, the theatre dances inventory, performs the cash registers’ ritual collapse. Women’s murderer hope: that which in us desires and hates, loves and rapes. Crime scene investigation in the drafty Kontakthof: the zombies’ parade, advertising’s happy sacrifices. Dignity of the tango versus the free choice of one’s manner of death. Laughter frozen in stereotypes, repetition’s insistence unmasks boredom: pain is its face; beneath the threshold of consciousness, where desires and fears lodge, the hold makes laughter like crying subersive.

6
“In Italy I had a rooster. He always went in other gardens, and my mother had to kill him. On the evening when she had cooked him, she said that he was my rooster, and if I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to eat him. But I wanted to eat it all. I wanted him entirely for myself.” Pina Bausch’s Middle Ages is that of Brecht’s CHILDREN’S CRUSADE, in which the stray dog alone knows the way, since the good Lord had to lay down the mask of the categorical imperative– it burned even his skin– and lost his face before the death camps’ mountains of shoes, hair, and gold teeth. (Perhaps he still had a chance as a woman: icon in men’s magazines, or on the peep show’s alter.) The children are still on the march: the child who didn’t want to wash when the king visited, and the difficult child, whose hand grows from the grave. The young murderer from American cities and gangs of children in Third World metropolises. Mao’s Red Garden and the exterminating angel of the Verlaine reader, Pol Pot.

7
YOU SHALL NOT MAKE GRAVEN IMAGES. The metaphors of violence in BLUEBEARD are not for home use (“this is how one rapes a woman”). Hiding is the first game: the child wants to disappear. Nudity is taboo: before the marriage the groom may not see the bride, and there’s still a nasty wait until the ceremony. In Pina Bausch’s theatre, the image is a thorn in the eye, bodies write a text, which refuses publication, the prison of meaning. Liberation from ballet’s compulsions, in which the stigma of bondage is sedimented– that stigma which the certain lord of a certain creation enjoys like hunting, the other feudal hobby. The democratization of the military review is a transition, liberation of the serfs for the assembly line: in stadiums the mass becomes ornament. The congruency of ornament and trophy becomes painfully visible in the flash of a balletic parody: Bluebeard’s women as hanging decoration in Bluebeard’s castle. After theatre without text–from Zadek’s HAMLET to Stein’s ORESTIE, to name only two golden calves– before which one loses one’s hearing in moments of happiness, a new language of theatre. After Grüber’s great failed attempt with a mediocre period-piece to turn theatre in its north-south axis, in spite of its audience, which does not wish to forego the evening entertainment’s odor of sweat, another theatre of freedom. That a sphinx gazes at us, when we look freedom in the face, should not astonish us.

Heiner Müller
1981

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.