Less Is More

Issue #03: Less Is More

Two dances, two choreographers, almost simultaneously, overturned my representation of dance, of the body and of interpretation.

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It’s 1998. I am fascinated by Xavier Le Roy’s solo Self Unfinished. I remember a sort of comic lecture, with table, chair, screen – a set-up that, since Le Roy, has often been used more or less successful in contemporary dance. In Self Unfinished, there is a moment when Le Roy lies down on the floor against the back wall and almost stops moving. He is naked, but we see neither his face nor his genitals. In fact, it is hard to tell what you are really seeing at all: shoulders here, buttocks there – or perhaps it’s the opposite. The dancer loses his status of being human, and becomes animal, vegetable, thing. He places himself as if he were a mass of molecules amongst other molecules, plays with his body as an infinitely transformable object, and lets himself evolve in the mechanism he has set up. He allows himself to be looked at (since Marcel Duchamp we know that it is those who are looking who create the picture). Xavier Le Roy does almost nothing, but it is immensely spectacular.

This dance marks for me, the spectator starved of dance, the beginnings of my crisis. It is a crisis of an ideal of the body, of space, of the set-up and of the spectacular. This piece wilfully distances itself from representation, from the perceptible orthodoxy which informs a certain type of humanity. Xavier Le Roy is a biologist: would this partly explain that? Perhaps. Nevertheless, before and after him, others have done away with the ‘figure’ in order to deconstruct and to escape all transcendence and pre-existing imagery. It could be called “conceptual dance” or “non-dance”, it doesn’t matter. During the 1990s, new imaginary arrangements were designed, new constructions of plural identities developed. The monsters that Self Unfinished breathed into me opened up before me an almost infinite potential to be myself.

In Corps 00:00., 2002, Cindy Van Acker lets her body fall from a table several times, without holding herself back, without breaking her fall. It is a spectacular fall made possible by controlling her reflexes so that her body can organise itself into a mass which absorbs the ground. Here, an exploration of the dialogue between the mental and the physical is very systematic, and as such, poetic. According to this Geneva-based, Belgian choreographer, her dance responds to a necessity: to confront oneself. Hours spent fixing one tiny movement, whole days spent immersed in preparing the evening’s show. Thus, absolute presence.

As Rudolf Laban put it, dance is fundamentally a “poem of effort” through which its own matter is continually reinvented. The denuded bodies and the postures of Cindy Van Acker, Boris Charmatz, Gilles Jobin or Jerôme Bel propagate a mysterious ‘pre-language’, a depth, a flowing, that passes through the body and animates it. And responding to this interior process, is a poetic of the skin, of the slowness of breath, of the muscles and of the nerves: Deleuze’s atmospheric reading that allows us to see how the depths of the body flow to surface. The body becomes a scenic space. It is, Merleau- Ponty tells us, “sentant sensible”, or “sensing sensed”, which implies that it is both a part of the world and that which brings the world into existence. In other words, there are no longer limits between the body and the world: they are intertwined in every sensation. The radicalism and simplicity of Cindy Van Acker’s set up leads to this infinitely complex intertwining.

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Two dances, two choreographers, almost simultaneously, overturned my representation of dance, of the body and of interpretation. Often we ask ourselves thousands of questions about a concert. We try to understand why the writer or the director chose this option or that solution. We dig, we scratch, we give up, we try again. And sometimes, rarely, the show is just there, fluid, imperial, justified from one end to the other, with a quiet determination and powerful sensuality which transport the spectator. And no explanation, no analysis can answer these simple questions: When a dancer such as Cindy van Acker crawls on all fours then rises to her feet in front of the audience, by what miracle does this give me the impression that I am seeing the evolution of man, from primate to civilisation? When Dominique Mercy, a dancer with Pina Bausch, simply opens her arms, why do I have the feeling of revelation that a curtain is drawing aside? How does the Swiss-French Perrine Valli manage to captivate her audience just with the clarity of her arms?

We dig, we scratch, we give up, we try again. And sometimes, rarely, the show is just there, fluid, imperial, justified from one end to the other, with a quiet determination and powerful sensuality which transport the spectator.

I cannot underestimate the strength of “representation”, nor can I avoid thinking about such an aesthetic and ideological mega-structure. The work of gesture – whether it be Nijinski, Le Roy, Béjart or Van Acker – is marked by a politics of representation. It is because Trisha Brown wondered tirelessly about the modes of (re)presentation of the body in movement that she was also able to have this unending curiosity for what movement does to her and inversely, for what it produces. Let us remember here that the movement of a dancer also puts into play, for the person watching, their own experience of the movement. This kinaesthetic experience is immediate (the internal sensation of the movements of one’s own body, described by Hubert Godard et al.), the shifts and intensities of the dancer’s body finding their reply in my own body. This discovery is, I find, mind-blowing, because it explains very simply why it is sometimes idiotically pleasurable to see superb bodies energetically carrying out amazing movements. But let us return to the point: The visible and the kinsesthetic are totally inseparable, and as such the production of sensation during this visual event changes the state of my own body: what I see produces what I feel, and inversely my bodily state develops, without my knowledge, the interpretation of what I see. It’s the ba-ba of perception. Excessive coding, exaggeration, theatricality, gestural and spatial bulimia often prevent me from accessing this perception.

I often like to watch what happens when nothing is happening.

I often like to watch what happens when nothing is happening. Nothing in the sense of a poetic economy, of a ‘theatre for the less’. Getting away from dance, I am thinking of Patrick Bouchain, the architect for the French pavilion at the 2006 Venice Biennale. Following the theme of the Biennale, the METACITE, he constructed the Metavilla (“Mets ta vie la” – “Put your life here”), conceived as place of exchange and convergence of knowledge, evolving and continuously inhabited by artists and others during the Biennale. Result: half the pavilion was encircled by scaffolding containing a hotel for sleeping around forty people, a collective kitchen, a bar, a reading room, a place for working and, on the roof, a sauna, a mini Olympic swimming pool and a garden overlooking the Venetian lagoon. Visitors were invited to live in the pavilion to talk about architecture. Another example is Masanobu Fukuoka, a precursor in the 1960s of an agriculture of “non-agir” – “non-act” – which inspired permaculture and the alternative urban agriculture movements – including the kitchen-gardens which are multiplying in numerous cities in response to the financial crisis. As he explains in his book “The One-Straw Revolution” (1978), his agricultural technique requires no machines or chemicals, and very little weeding. He doesn’t work the soil and doesn’t use pre-prepared compost, but nonetheless the state of his soil improves each year. His method creates no pollution, requires no fossil fuels, needs less work than anywhere else but still the harvests from his orchard and his fields rival the most productive Japanese farms using the most modern scientific techniques.

These are two exploratory processes. In both cases, architect and agriculturalist reappropriate their means of being visible outside of conventional frames. They defy institutionalisation and weave a new relation to the outside world, to the everyday, and to the urban landscape which becomes a material for experimentation. As for the creative gesture, it lies in the setting up of the ‘dispositif’, the mechanism as a matrix.

At this point I must admit that, in spite of this, I have fantasies of the Athenian theatre.

A fantasy of origin is always at work, especially in times of crisis. Theatre audiences en masse, patronage by the rich and subsidies for the poor, compulsory participation in the ‘chorus’ for young people, and competitive emulation amongst authors. I also have flashes of the Situationists, Street Works and the derive: the street art of artists who are focused on social interaction such as Lucy Lippard, Adrian Piper or Vito Acconci. Fortuitous meetings, the creation of paradoxical situations, the mingling of artists and passersby in order to subvert ordinary reality, wanderings and derives – in short, giving oneself up to the solicitations of the terrain, and the encounters of each place, as Debord describes it. At this crossroads between ancient Greece and the situationists, my daily practice is that of a Genevan ‘dance worker’ in a modest venue comparable to Melbourne’s Dancehouse and located in the city centre. It is a State (City and Canton) funded space for using the stage as a medium for engaging civil society. Choreographers are given space and time which they return to the public transformed by art, and specifically by dance. For what? This is the question. For the Athenian tragedy the answer is simple: to keep alive, through theatrical as well as political and juridical assembly, the thought of a city, of a common space, thenceforth democratic and incessantly questioned. For the situtationists we could say: go beyond art to find life and activate a revolution which seemed possible at the beginning of the 1960s.

But what is dance today aiming for?

We cannot give ourselves such ambitious missions. It is impossible to direct a theatre to change the world in this or that monolithic or wilful way, either for a better today (the Athenian tragedy), or for harmonious tomorrows (the situationists). Contemporary works do not have a specific frame of reference, nor do the efforts of the public. There is no longer any relation to mimesis or the norms of beauty, and dance qualifiers (neo-classical, modern, postmodern, conceptual, etc) just like the field of possible stagings, have exploded.

The movements (if they exist) which inscribe the artistic field come from the artists themselves. They are personal impulses, sometimes aborted, sometimes fertile.It is only afterwards that theoreticians read what those impulses have produced. Artists themselves, notably through the Internet, fashion their own discourses and take charge of disseminating their own information, without it passing through the critical filter of dance publications. Foofwa d’Imobilite is one example, in terms of the name he has chosen, the function he attributes to himself (researcher in dance practice and theory) and the name he has given to his company: Neopost Ahrrrt. A joke or a new concept? Dance in the 21st century will perhaps be anchored in a re-invented vocabulary.

My body is not like the objective body of science: it is lived before being known.

Clearly, when one is the director of a venue, one watches, sees and offers to view artists whom one feels to be working a relation – to the body, the audience, the world – in a way which is promising. But what are these anticipated promises? They are both simple and complex as has been, and still are, the works of Xavier Le Roy or Cindy Van Acker. For me, promising works are those which integrate one way or another human reality in the world as a constitutive dimension of the world. Which returns me to Merleau-Ponty. Being there (être-là), that is, being here on this chair, there at the table or on top of that mountain. Yes, there is a point of view, but it does not overshadow and is not detached from things. It is implicated in those same things. My body is not like the objective body of science: it is lived before being known. And it reveals itself to me from out of my original relation to the world. Or when the simple folding of an arm can open for us the fold of the world.

Translated by Frieda Komesaroff.