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).


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.

The Most Naive Philosopher

[Foucault] may perhaps have meant that I was the most naive philosopher of our generation. In all of us you find themes like multiplicity, difference, repetition. But I put forward almost raw concepts of these, while others work with more meditations. I’ve never worried about going beyond metaphysics…I’ve never renounced a kind of empiricism…Maybe that’s what Foucault meant: I wasn’t better than others, but more naive, producing a kind of art brut, so to speak, not the most profound but the most innocent. 

(Deleuze, Negotiations 88-90) via Paul Patton via Vibrant Matter, 128

Ornamentality in Post-Minimalist Choreography: A Sketch for a Category

A friend recently returned from NYC brought this performance by Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey to my attention. Our discussion led us to think about the possiblity of thinking about ornamentality as trend in post-minimalist veins of contemporary choreography. Ornamentality would relate to a return to the beautiful, or at least, to trained awkwardness as a reference to the loss of beauty. This position relates to minimalism because minimalist dance traces the disappearance of visual forms, but in doing so paradoxically retains the visual. Installation and gallery-based works might be particularly predisposed to falling into this category, given that they cease to deal with temporal constraints and narrative framing.

Post-mininalist ornamentality? I didn’t see it, so this is all in theory.

Addendum: I’ve been reading a lot of Jean-Luc Nancy. He has a great quote about this issue— disappearance, transcendence, and the beautiful— in his essay, “The Vestige of Art.”

all of modernity that speaks of the invisible or the unrepresentable is always on the verge of renewing this motif… what makes for the beautiful, ever since Plato… for whom, in the access to beauty, it is a question of becoming oneself pure light and vision

At the limit…there remains nothing more than the Idea of art itself, like a pure gesture of presentation folded back on itself. But this residue still functions as Idea, and even as pure Idea of pure sense, or like an ideal visibility wihtou any other content than light itself (89-90)

(Hmm… I think this line of criticism may apply to my banner image from Deborah Hay…)


Annette Peacock: Spacing (not space)

A friend of mine who traffics in esoteric and avant-garde sounds has been dropping off loads of back issues of The Wire at my house. I came across this interesting observation in an article about by Daniel Shea about Annette Peacock:

Peacock’s early pieces often completely dispensed with chordal harmony, focusing instead on intervals between single notes. She had in mind an approach emphasizing slowness and space, partly in response to the frenetic pace and fireworks of free jazz. “Free music was very exciting, very intense, very male and energizing, but as a female I wanted to carve chunks of space out of it… you have to play waves 


Peacock has often described her pieces as environments, a term that… echoes composers such as Morton Feldman… [and his] preoccupation with decay, what he called “this departing landscape,” which “expresses where the sound exists in our hearing, leaving us rather than coming towards us.”


Robin Bernstein on Affect in The Rude Mechs

“Toward the Integration of Theatre History and Affect Studies: Shame and the Rude Mechs’s The Method Gun.” Theatre Journal 64:2 (May 2012): 213-230.




The Rude Mechs’s The Method Gun

I like this essay! In my opinion, it is consummately crafted and clearly frames its argument around a single concept: shame as an affect, as applied to a reading of The Rude Mechs’s The Method Gun. Bernstein’s reading is excellent, although this choice of subject strikes me as a bit improbable as a model for affect in theatre– but more on that later. First, the good stuff, in condensed form:


  • As an affect, shame replaces death

In a sense, death is overrated in theatre. It is, at least, too often assumed to be theatre’s ontological limit, the thing at risk in the foundational performance works of the sixties and seventies. Think Chris Burden. (Who is referenced in the name of the performance’s fictional guru, Stella Burden.) Or Marina. Or for that matter, Bernstein argues, Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked. (There are many other examples too.) As Bernstein points out, there is a lot of potential shame and embarrassment on stage, but “I have never seen anyone, onstage or in audience, die.” As I see it, the continuing perception of theatre and live performance with death is a sign that it depends on symbolic forms representation. Affect, on the other hand, does not conform to symbolic language– a fact that Kathleen Stewart points out repeatedly in the introduction to Ordinary Affects. Crucially, this shift also has consequences for the ontological status of performance, which is typically assumed to be “live.”

Lots to be said here.

  • The Rude Mechs’s Racial Shame

Bernstein deals with a numbers of ways in which The Method Gun consciously stages its anxiety about failing to live up to the example of one’s artistic predecessors, as well as the exacting standards of theatrical realism based on method acting. However, she points out that the performance also displays an unacknowledged source of shame: racial anxiety. Her two major pieces of evidence are compelling.

Firstly, The Method Gun conducts a meta-performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, which includes non-white roles occupied here by the white members of The Rude Mechs, who “play the roles as racially unmarked.” This unacknowledged racial substitution is a way of suppressing difference and the privileges accorded to whiteness. Here’s Bernstein:

“In The Method Gun, Burden’s actors’ self-involvement and self-examination stop abruptly before questions of whiteness; the Rude Mechs are willing to display themselves dancing awkwardly, crying, flubbing lines, or even tethering their genitalia to balloons, but they never acknowledge their cross-racial casting… They never acknowledge themselves as white.”

Convincing stuff.

Does race appear anywhere in the show? Why yes, says Bernstein, albeit unintentionally: in a clown-like figure who appears in the opening of the show– a tiger. Dressed like a mascot, it may not seem that this tiger is linked to racial ideology, but as Bernstein notes, it speaks with a Spanish accent for increased comic effect, even though “tigers are native to no Spanish-speaking part of the world.”

Method Gun

The tiger in The Method Gun.

Bernstein: “Its jaws sealed shut, the tiger performs the role of unmasticated shame– a cold lump of contemporary white shame that sits, unmoving and painful, in the belly of the show.”

What a great insight! Bernstein does an outstanding job in her racial analysis. Given her academic expertise, this reading should perhaps be no surprise. But one might also expect that the author of Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theatre would address the role of gender and sexuality in The Method Gun, especially since her conceptual framework is drawn from the queen of queer studies, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

To my mind, The Method Gun also strongly invokes anxieties about gender and sexuality, especially about white masculinity. Even without closely reviewing the performance, it is possible to see evidence that supports this conclusion. First of all, method acting is a notoriously hypermasculine pursuit associated with the self-destructive urge of star actors, such as Robert de Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Christian Bale. (As seen in early Scorcese films, De Niro particularly epitomizes the hypermasculine display of masculine self-destruction.) Who can live up to the impossible intensity of these male stars? Hence, the ironic gesture towards the “gun”— an obvious phallic symbol— in the performance’s title, which was used by the company’s fictional acting guru, Stella Adler. As it turns out, the gun was always filled with blanks, a sign of metaphorical and literal impotence. Impotence is consistent with Adler’s presence of a female model for method acting. Perhaps the only thing worse than being unable to live up to one’s artistic forefathers is to be at the beck and call of a woman, who of course, turns out to be a fraud, a mere fiction. Little wonder that “she” never appears on stage, even in a photograph.

I suspect that there is other evidence to support this claim about the centrality of male anxiety to The Method Gun. One might, for instance, follow Bernstein’s racial analysis of Streetcar in order to examine how its gender politics affect the staging employed by The Rude Mechs. More pertinently, however, is the question about the absence of queerness. I am not sure if there is a “smoking gun” in this respect, as Bernstein found in her example of the Spanish-accented tiger. Perhaps The Rude Mechs’s anxiety about living up to Stella Adler invokes questions about artistic lineages that could be troubled by turning towards other models of kinship not based on the concept of inheritance and reproduction.

More broadly, what troubles me is the possibility that the performance of masculine anxiety at work in The Method Gun may also be present in work by other young ensemble theatre companies in the U.S.. As an example, the prominent group Elevator Repair Service comes to mind. Are they an all-white company? (Quick image searches suggest that they are, but that’s by no means proof of that fact.) Like The Method Gun, they are also dealing with issues of artistic predecessors in American culture, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald– Gatz famously stages a full reading of The Great Gatsby, a man, it might be noted, who is the first and last of his kind, a fraud, much like The Rude Mechs’s Stella Adler. Oh, and he has some pretty big gender issues to boot.

Gatz Public Theater/Martinson Hall

Elevator Repair Service performing Gatz.

I have also had the pleasure to see ERS at work with my students. Several years ago, they gave an admirable workshop for us, which really energized students into thinking about different strategies for creative work– strategies that notably broke with models based on an internal process of self-expression. Instead of self-expression from within, they encouraged students to design movement sequences drawn from outside sources, taking this video of a performance by cheerleaders from Alcorn State as their model:


In the context of Bernstein’s analysis of the “race-blind casting” in The Method Gun, the artistic appropriation of this dance by ERS follows a similar pattern. Furthermore, it should prompt us to ask about the resulting dance in Gatz: what does it mean for these particular bodies and movements to be cited on stage by white performers? Does it reinforce specific racial anxieties and stereotypes, perhaps such as the powerful black female body, which could potentially overwhelm and overtake white civilized culture? In this sense, is the cheerleader’s dance implicitly likened to a primitive religious ritual? To what degree, if any, does the specter of miscegenation linger here?

In noting these questions, I have drifted from my original subject: the prospect of affect in theatre, especially as it relates to queerness. Following Bernstein’s model, thinking about shame— rather than death— may provide a way to rework anxieties here about death, be it the death of one’s artistic lineage and national identity or the social death imposed on subjects excluded from representation.