Contemporary Dance and its Rituals: The Example of a work by Alain Platel

Issue #07: Rituals of Now

The contemporary dance performance belongs to a “romantic” sociality and to the “useless” activities that allow for sensed experience, a lived emotion, an imaginary, a meditation. Furthermore, it can, in general, stage physical and psychological singularities, the everyday, our ordinary gestures, those small nothings whose repetition symbolises the derided and tragic meaninglessness and tragedy of existence.

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In a secularised world, recognising the ritual aspects of our behaviour can be a heuristic tool to reconnect us with an anthropological approach to body culture, as well as giving new meaning to our human experiences, even in their most archaic echoes.

If, following the work of Marcel Mauss, Henri Hubert and Emile Durkheim, it could be said that ritual is a very general instrument of regulation of social relations, involving cohesion and integration, ties and community, it is worth adding that “ritual is a question of individual and collective behaviours which are relatively codified, and have a more or less repetitive bodily support (verbal, gestural, postural) that are heavily symbolic both for the actors, and normally also for the witnesses. Ritual is based on non-conscious mental attachment to values related to important social choices, and whose anticipated effectiveness is not due to a purely empirical logic exhausting itself in the technical instrumentality of cause-effect”(Riviere).

Thus, one possible way of interpreting contemporary dance performance is as a profane ritual where a staging of bodies is rehearsed or of a rite of “passage”, in the sense proposed by Arnold Van Gennep (1909). Between reality and the imaginary, self and other, symbolic sequences which, when the show succeeds, changes you and transports you, puts you into movement – which is the original meaning of “emotion”.

Through these different choreographic productions, the viewer of the dance will confront what Daniel Sibony calls “the event of being”, that is, that magical moment when what is happening on the stage makes you move, displaces you, because it is telling you “body stories”, those stories which belong to your “Other body”, or “possible encounters with the Other’s body…”.

Contemporary dance is certainly a vast field of innovative forces, with blurred contours and multiple, hybrid forms. A sociologist such as Edgar Morin would qualify it as a complex object whose value, amongst others, is to force us to “face uncertainties”, but also to make our knowledges converge or interact.

According to the subjectivity of their creators, contemporary dance works suggest an aesthetic relation with reality (in the Mafessolian sense of the concept of sensed relation), but also a constant breaking with any tendency to create a model of the body. Categories cannot hold here because there is so much emphasis on singularities of creative approach and on savouring present experience and emotion.

Therefore, without claiming any kind of exhaustive interpretation, to develop our argument, we retain three elements of these “new” rituals of body relations in contemporary dance performance: the deconstruction of reality, aesthetics of the ordinary, and the vertigo of Alice’s mirror.

The methodology used here will be ethnographic, based on a participant observation from which is proposed a re-reading of a work that demonstrates the “rituals” cited above: namely, Alain Platel’s Let’s op Bach.

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Our frame of analysis will borrow extensively from Michel Mafessoli’s discourse (1985) and from the challenges that he raises for sociology, by underlining the importance of the everyday, the ordinary, common sense, the banal, behind which the deepest sense of our humanity is hidden. This spotlighting of apparently “secondary” social phenomena links to the micro-sociological pre-occupations of Erving Goffman (1974), but also to work by Jean Duvignaud (1980), in terms of its interest in the “price of priceless things”, and in “aimless” activities: carnivals, parties, day dreams, imagination, to the “sensed forms of social life” of Pierre Sansot (1986). To summarise, one could suggest with Marc Guillaume (1993) that these writers, each in his own way, is arguing for “a poetic approach to the social”, and in proposing to interrogate what Jean-Francois Dortier calls “a re-enchanted daily life”.

The contemporary dance performance belongs to this “romantic” sociality and to the “useless” activities that allow for sensed experience, a lived emotion, an imaginary, a meditation. Furthermore, it can, in general, stage physical and psychological singularities, the everyday, our ordinary gestures, those small nothings whose repetition symbolises the derided and tragic meaninglessness and tragedy of existence.

It is from these elements that one can imagine contemporary dance as a “ritualised” ceremony, through its integration of social, symbolic and psychological dimensions.

In what sense is the ritual of staging the body in contemporary dance a deconstruction?

If for David Le Breton the body disappears in the “presence-absence” of habits, for Daniel Sibony, it emerges from the field of “absolute non-representability”. To seek to inscribe it only within an objective frame or to give of it an efficient, rational, mastered image is only a trap or an exaggerated reduction. Because, if our society legitimises practices of sur-representation (over-representation) of order (an order that it classifies, simplifies, and makes uniform), the other energy (force) working on the understanding of the living body is the force that disorganises, and takes into consideration the irreducible disorder that resides within the body, and activates it.

Along with other artists, contemporary choreographers are trying to put on stage the other side of our bodily “décor”, to deconstruct a too disinfected reality, to allow us to see what makes sense in our being in the world, our richness, but also our bodily sadness due to an often taboo or disavowed, hidden body.

“The place of a non-place is when the dancing body, projects itself/me into a utopian country, a country of happiness, or of grandiose suffering, a country of dreams” (J.M. Lachaud).

The example of an Alain Platel choreography

The work of choreographer Alain Platel is a very explicit case in this regard. In order to best establish the relevance of this case; I will briefly introduce the artist. As part of the contemporary dance environment of the 1980s, Platel created the Belgian Contemporary Ballets (Ballets C de la B) presenting hybrid performances that masterfully orchestrate different pessimistic and joyful atmospheres. Amongst his peers were Maguy Marin, with her “May B” inspired by the theatre of Samuel Beckett, or Joseph Nadj with his 1995 dance-circus performance “The Cry of the Chameleon”; Mathilde Monnier’s choreography “Arretez, Arretons, Arrete” on the issue of the normal and abnormal; and DV8 Physical Theatre with choreographer Lloyd Newson’s provocative violent and tender men’s rituals; Doriane Moretus with her last work “Butterfly blues”; and finally, Philippe Genty, whose oneiric universe mixes puppet theatre and dance.

Platel’s works are reminiscent of the influence of Pina Bausch, perhaps the most important figure of the 80s. Provocative, disrespectful, desperate, she always used dance and theatre forcefully, thus realising the hope of Artaud to liberate theatre from the reign of speech.

Platel’s favourite universe involves conjuring differences and especially placing on stage outsiders, extra-normal characters, mad children or adults, society’s marginal figures. He is thus close to the imagination of film-maker Kusturica in “Black cat, white cat”, to Jerome Savary, Kantor, Brecht in theatre, and to Francis Bacon in painting and to Marcel Duchamp in his presentation of the ready-made. Platel wrote in 1988: “Essentially, all my works have to do with the way that people make-do in their relations.” This gives birth to bizarre images and dance dialogues which together form a chaotic story.

The deconstruction of Reality

In one of his creations Lets op Bach Patel has nine dancers, eight musicians and three singers on stage, dismantling, like many of the artists mentioned above, the partitions between dance, circus, theatre, opera…

On the stage, the décor is a collection of bric-a-brac creating different spaces with specific atmospheres: a no-man’s-land, an attic, a disused factory, the exotic terrace of a house whose glory days are long past; in short, a space that is neither microcosm or macrocosm, “the place of a non-place” to use the expression of another “re-enchanter” of daily life, Henri Lefebvre, cited by Jean-Marc Lachaud. He specifies: “The place of a non-place is when the dancing body, projects itself/me into a utopian country, a country of happiness, or of grandiose suffering, a country of dreams” (J.M. Lachaud). This spatialising is the first step in a ritual of deconstruction of the real, since heterogeneous elements of our daily environment are juxtaposed or are condensed on stage, as in a patchwork.

This creative process has been evoked by Claude Levi-Strauss with regard to Marcel Proust’s “The research”. Levi-Strauss says that Proust is like a tailor who patches an old dress and works with the leftovers. He observes that this technique of assembling and collage makes the work the outcome of a dual articulation, that is, each element is a work participating in a higher work (C. Levi-Strauss).

Through this unsettling regard, this wandering, each spectator can create his/her own coherence, reconstructing a universe or recreating his/her own performance in the sense that there is the possibility for a multitude of readings. Instead of its conventional immobility, the audience borrows the “donkey’s way” of Gilles Lapouge but it is a virtual road, a temporality, a space, a meaning to what is seen, beyond the disparity of spaces and dancing bodies. Besides, doesn’t the paradox of the spectator in contemporary dance reside in his/her apparent immobility, while in fact he is impatient for an emotional transport, “to have been moved” during one of these magic syntonic (being-with) moments between the one who gives and the one who receives?

Another ritual of deconstruction, the one of the bodily relation.

To enter a performance space is to take part in what Erving Goffman calls “an arrangement of ritualised visibility”. Beyond two clearly distinguished and separated territories (that he calls a micro-ecology of interactions), the rule is that the audience has to be still, silent and attentive while onstage, in front of them, bodies are delivered to the collective and focused eyes of the audience. These rites of interaction between spectators and actors are organised according to social conventions and create a metaphor of the social bond, that is, says David Le Breton “the functioning of the social links requires a coherent semiotics and mise-en-scene of the self in its relation with others; a continuous thread of sense or meaning, thus organising social links”. The microsociology of Erving Goffman also emphasizes the function of the gaze, because” of all our sense organs the eye has a unique sociological function”.

In ‘Lets op Bach‘, there is always a multiplicity of actions to watch, actions apparently taking place autonomously and forcing us to have a nomadic view. The eye is forced to choose between “creatures” or characters who behave or are dressed strangely, at the limit of normality (some critics have described them as “going off the rails”). For instance, the eight musicians and the three singers who are on one side of the downstage area, on the “terrace”. They have shorts and sandals and open exotic shirts; thus rather unsettling our expectations of the way we expect that opera singers or classical music musicians should appear on stage. As for the dancers-actors-saltimbanques, these are “personalities” whose bodies contrast the Apollonian, masterful and victorious classical body. Children are on stage, including a beautiful little girl (two or three years old) walking fragile and at risk, between the dancers who change neither their trajectory, nor even the force of their movements. A woman dancer practices one of the variations with a prosthesis on her knee, another dancer with a fake scar on his face transforms into a “rapping machine”. Another unforgettable image is of a duet between a painted transvestite in high heels and a red dress and a “cow-boy” who has lost one of his leather boots. The porters are reminiscent of figures from a classical ballet swerving towards Francis Bacon.

The bodies in the work are often distorted, wasted, mortified, indistinct (they could be man or woman, women or child…), but they are at the same time particularly alive in their capacity to surprise us, to create the unknown out of the known, to make us laugh at our own misery. In this they connect with our contemporary questions: masculinity and femininity, commercialised childhood, the search for the perfect body, the paradoxes and suffering of homosexuality, media scandals, indifference, performance…

Like any work of art, the work of Alain Platel echoes Nietzsche’s discourse (ed. 1977) on the duality of he Apollonian and Dionysian, where the coming and going between order and disorder are expressed paradoxically but are always current. On the same subject, Michael Maffesoli affirms the reappearance of Dionysian values in our contemporary society, disturbing our rational and enlightened minds. He writes: “it seems that the characteristics of Dionysos, in counterbalancing the force of productive and progressivist values, allow for a subterranean equilibrium which supports social continuity. Furthermore they shed light on a whole series of situations, which are currently becoming widespread. […] A new relation to the body as an object of pleasure, dances which are reminiscent of the innumerable phallic dances, a resurgence of orgiastic parties.”

A re-enchanted daily Life

He calls this counter balance between the values of order in our society and Dionysiac values the “baroquisation” of the world. We might say that Platel and other artists put this “esprit baroque” into dance, theatre, painting, that is, into acts. Beyond a taste for an abundance of heteroclite objects and characters, we can say with Philippe Beaussant that “everything that privileges movement, the flightiness of things, metamorphosis, is baroque … as is the mirror”.

As for Deleuze, he affirms that “the operative concept of the Baroque is the Fold…It makes and remakes folds, pushing them to infinity, fold upon fold, fold according to fold…as if infinity had two floors: the folds of matter and the folds in the soul”. Once again, contemporary dance participates in the resurgence of this baroque spirit where folded, unfolded, refolded bodies infinitely symbolise the folds of the spirit.

Aestheticisation of the ordinary

Deconstruction of our spatial co-ordinates, of the possibility of “bodying oneself”, Platel’s performance proposes, however, in an apparent disorder, an imaginary reconstruction of another relation to the other, each body referring to the ordinary but also to the originality of each. This is what I have called the estheticisation of the ordinary in reference to sociological work on sensuous and everyday life. For each of us, Platel’s “tribe” offers a rite of “passage” like a fairground seen through a distorting mirror: knowledge and recognition of the self takes place fleetingly and at the same time, rises up out of other images of the body, from our multiple realities, our shadow zones. This play of reflections allows the fleeting and magical appearance of moments of truth and impressions of life.

The bodies on stage offer a truth that can be described as subversive, since it is not a matter of applauding disciplined bodies, as Michel Foucault would put it, but of recognising what makes sense in/through the flesh of this performance or, according to Joseph Nadj (1997), of making the invisible visible. Thus, Platel’s work dances our ordinary life. It is not a work of art reserved for an elite, but a popular practice of art, where anyone can find a sensous form and recognise themselves in it, no longer being subject to a demand to conform but constructing his/her difference, finding his/her subjectivity again.

Platel’s performance reveals the hidden energies and precise forces of the body, which takes us back to Deleuze’s comments on the deformation of the body in Bacon’s work as the “the result of forces that perhaps constitute the true subject of the work: the painting of forces rather than faces, bodies or appearances”. This is what it is about: dancing the organic forces that traverse us and not the forms that are legitimated, academic, official. Platel’s dance is equally a symbolism in the etymological meaning of the term, and as Daniel Mesguish writes of “ballein: I carry, I support”; in other words that which unites me with the other, with radical alterity and which brings us together beyond our differences. Strangely, it is this “unrepresentable” body which will help me to reconstruct my own image, to find the path to a re-assembled body, provisionally unified outside of the “choreotypes” of academic dance.

This esthetics of the ordinary, that is, this feeling in common that allows feelings and sensations to be shared, makes direct reference to the notion of postmodernity developed by Maffesoli who defines it as “this organic mixture of archaic and other elements that could not be more contemporary…a mixture that obeys a ‘contradictory’ logic that makes no claim to surpass contradiction in a perfect synthesis but on the contrary maintains it as such. Postmodernity is a harmony of contraries”. In this sense, our life in contemporary society and the contemporary dance that makes it visible can be described as postmodern, for as Maffesoli points out “like a patchwork it is made from totally disparate elements between which constant interactions of aggression and amiability, love or hate take place, but which nevertheless form a specific solidarity that we must take into account”.

Platel makes visible this postmodern sociality: by juxtaposing a sound scape from the 18th century borrowed from Bach, piecing together strange connections in our imagination, rehabilitating the Dionysian and/or socially marginal body and questioning the mediatised underpinnings of the everyday (Dutroux, Diana), he makes “a tumultuous marriage between heaven and hell” and from these different rites, reorganises the world in his own way. One might argue that he stages “the social fracture”, that is, the dance is socially engaged along the lines of Beckett and he is the apostle of what Alain Touraine in his last work puts forward as tomorrow’s fundamental cultural transformation: “to be equal and different” (A Touraine, 1999).

Postmodernity is a harmony of contraries

But Platel’s proposition is not limited to a denunciation of the social forces at work in contemporary society. He certainly emphasizes the difficulties of human relations but he does this in order to better show the paradoxical logic of our humanity, that which has to do with the meaning of our togetherness and our essence. This (monstrous) showing is always tinged with irony, joyful derision, humour, and the kind of celebration associated with the tradition of farce and the grotesque.

The vertigo of Alice’s mirror

The final piece in the puzzle of ritualisation in dance performance is the felt, the proof of the sensed, of emotion.

What provokes this emotional tension is both what separates me from exhibited bodies and what links me organically to them. The metaphor “from the bridge and the doorway” used by Georges Simmel (1989:159) is very explicit in relation to this. My position as spectator, and social decorum, requires that I remain at a distance from the stage, that I install a symbolic doorway between the dance and the public. The performance invites me in across this space to build a bridge or better, to jump to the other side of the mirror. It is this sense that I propose to give to the word “vertigo”, it is the felt sense of the jump, of the gyration, the fall, the quest for self: which are so many fundamental movement elements of contemporary dance.

The function of contemporary dance can no longer be simply confused with entertainment because it inscribes in its bodies our fragmentations, our daily struggles, our banal habits. As such, it becomes a mirror revealing and deforming our trivial existences, a space in which to see and review ourselves. As already noted, there is certainly considerable conflictual tension in the relations that Platel puts forward (between men and women, men and men, men and little girls…). The spectator, troubled, confronts him or herself through this troubling, this interior movement which obliges him or her to ask what it is s/he seeks or wants to be – to jump into the mirror. In making the felt visible, the invisible is shadowed by the violence of the gaze upon the self – whether as dancer or spectator. The dizzying work of Platel is also this passage to the other side of the mirror as in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice”. On the other side, it is my double that I find there and the vertigo I experience is that of the plurality of images of myself that contemporary dance proposes, the experience of a real hall of mirrors.

The experience of vertigo is reinforced by glimpses of freedom, of flights and falls, magical transformations, the joy of an embrace or spontaneous posture but also by the laughter that it provokes which even if, as Jean Duvignaud puts it, it is just “a fleeting outburst which, like pleasure, happiness, sensuality serves no purpose, ‘it participates’, like humour, derision, and the grotesque in the same plot, that of overturning the world’s order with a moment, however brief, of hilarity” (J. Duvignaud, 1985). Our laughter accompanies this scandalous dancing body, the object of all desires, always slipping out of our grasp. Its spasmodic echo identifies them in all of their metamorphoses and suggests an irreverent and iconoclastic sociality.

The final element giving the effect of vertigo in Platel’s work is the principle of repeated movement. While the musicians and singers console with Johann Sebastian Bach as a voice of desire and ecstasy, the dancers begin a marathon of falling in which contact with the ground becomes noisier, more abrupt, painful and it seems as though it is the silent exhortations of the spectators to call off this masochistic ritual that marks its cessation.

This work of repetitive complexity is not simple reproduction of the same, since any repetition creates difference as any order creates chaos. Edgar Morin would say that this “dialogue” of repetition-difference creates our sense of our being in the world, and works to elaborate the myths of our contemporary corporealities.

Platel’s choreography, by putting into vibration the repetitiveness of the quotidian, inscribes our ordinary, our everydayness in the work of art. As with some pathologies, the dancing body gives flesh to the repeated gesture and puts it forward as a foundational act or ultimate repetition – the one that plays between life and death, the known and the unknown, the visible and the invisible, the real and the imaginary.

In conclusion: if we can consider that the works of Alain Platel represent a choreographic “renewal” described as “dance theatre”, it is possible that contemporary dance performances are rituals displacing reality towards imagination, a “Dionysiac” reconstruction of sociality, rituals of social interaction, symbolic rituals of polysemic readings. All this can be summarised with Maffesoli by the idea of ritual “where bodies makes themselves into epiphanies”.

But is it really new? Didn’t the fairground and the traditional dances of yore participate in the same rites? Isn’t it the case that, “Festival is by definition the time and space of the extraordinary with all the extraordinary bodies rubbing shoulders, fusing together, and finally giving meaning to their everyday, anchoring it more firmly in toil (F. Loux)? With the great carnivalesque tradition of inverting values having almost disappeared, will the institution allow participation in a cathartic ritual around bodily taboos so that the joy of seeing the underside, the exalting in strangeness and the Rabelasian grotesque, can endure.

Platel’s performance has a lot to do with this resurgence of festive upheaval, at once controlled and excessive. These rites orchestrate our aroused spectatorial sensibilities; and, for the synthesis that it offers, I will cite Jean-Marc Lachaud: “Through the complexity of a meaning (sens) which folds, refolds, unfolds, evades, which is always rebuilding even in meaninglessness, we are invited to a ritual of “mourning without pathos”, to use Jean-Marc Adolphe’s analysis. And yet, for those who accept the cuts that the shattered mirror of delirious bodies inflicts upon them, it is perhaps the beginning of an eventual rescue” (Lachaud).

Translation by Modjtaba Sadria.