The spatial vanishing point of the dancing body

Media Mediations 1 Jan 2003English

item doc

Contextual note
The Dutch version of this article was first published in Etcetera: jg. 19, nr. 75, p. 59, (2001)

All that is necessary has already been said and written about Vanity by Vincent Dunoyer, including the contributions by Pieter T'Jonck and Jeroen Peeters in Etcetera 74. Nonetheless, I would like to add something about this performance, for no other reason than because it demonstrated both a 'choreographic truth' and a 'dance truth' with a simplicity I had never seen before.
Vanity opened with a gong piece performed live by Michael Weilacher. It was an exceedingly simple composition. The tremolo of the gong was recorded, amplified and 'looped' by sound technician Alexandre Fostier, who also sat on the stage. This stacking almost inevitably resulted in a sort of free-floating, far from unpleasant trance-noise. At the end of the performance, the gong player took a bow. The audience applauded, a bit surprised, hesitant, hardly convinced. An understandable reaction: surely the performance could not be finished yet, so why clap? Afterward it appeared that the sceptical applause had also been recorded: the manipulated loop of the clapping hands formed the soundtrack for the second part. In that part, the almost naked Dunoyer - wearing only briefs - did not really dance. Rather, he made contrived movements, first on the floor and then standing up. What was shown did not look like dance, but was more athletic and gymnastic. The movements often resembled stretching exercises: more than once, Dunoyer visibly stretched the muscles of his arm, chest or leg. The connotations were there for the taking: cat, tiger, panther... all connotations that both do and do not do justice to the almost feminine lithesomeness of Dunoyer's body (this repeatedly impressive flexibility was furthermore the hallmark of Dunoyer's work with Rosas).
Dunoyer's movements had a fixed point of orientation, in the form of a small grey box. He placed the box before or beside himself held it in one or both hands, or - in the final scene - rolled it up and down a rail at the edge of the stage. With varying degrees of emphasis, all his movements were literally performed for that small object. As it later turned out, the box was a (simulation of a) miniature hand-held camera. Because Vanity still had a third part in store. In it, the complete dance sequence was shown again on the white back wall of the stage, but seen through the lens of the hand-held camera. However, the projected recording did not reproduce the movements we had first seen from a worms-eye view. The opposite was true: the video recording was fixed; it had been made at a certain point in time and was shown again during the performance. The part that had been danced live anticipated this series of fixed images. It attempted to approach these images as closely as possible, even to imitate them.

In the first place, Vanity can be seen as an extremely effective commentary on the idea of 'choreography', especially on the contemporary relationship between choreography and video recording. A choreographic piece is (like) a written text that is 'read' again during each performance. Usually, however, no authorized interpretation of the text exists, thus neither does any canonized performance. Rather each performance gives shape, with shifting emphasis, to what the group or artistic leader considers to be the 'definitive text'. This has led a number of commentators (myself included) to believe that in (contemporary) dance, it is difficult to speak of something as being original. Every performance, beginning with the first night, varies the original text or score, so that strictly logically speaking, no 'original text' exists either. A choreographed dance performance is simply a copy of a copy, a duplicate without an original in short, a simulacrum, a 'reading of the text' which acts as though a text provided in advance is being recited word for word, thus concealing the fact that each reading varies and interprets the text.
Academically-educated dance critics especially enjoy developing this sort of reasoning. For that matter, criticising the idea of an original text or choreographic identity links up perfectly with the central tenets of Parisian-made poststructuralist (Deleuze, Foucault, etc.) or deconstructivist (Derrida, of course) thinking. However, this reasoning also ignores contemporary choreographic practice, which as a rule does have one or several canonical texts in the form of one or more video recordings. These act as fixed points of orientation when the choreographer or dancers want to know 'how that arm movement went exactly'; they are also the guidelines for each new dancer or cast member rehearsing the choreographic piece. All things considered, it is extremely paradoxical, and yet: the contingency in the execution or performance of a choreographic piece is still generally restrained by the reference, often, to one single performance, usually the one of which - coincidentally or not - a video recording exists. Not given up, but restrained, because of course to give it up is impossible. In any event, the generalised use of the video medium in contemporary dance has created a previously unseen standardisation of what is shown. Every performance of a modern choreographic piece remains a daring interpretation, as well as an interpretive venture. Except that the implied text no longer has a solely intellectual existence inside the heads of the dancers and choreographer: it also exists outside of them, it is fixed. Thanks to the video camera and its recording, the choreographic piece has also truly transformed into a missive - into 'writing'.
Vanity demonstrated all of this in retroaction, literally in retroperspective, because it only became clear in the final part that the live performance we had admired previously had only been a simulation. This obliged us to reinterpret what had been seen: the performance had been a re-enactment and the movements that had been shown were a performance-by-approximation, a collection of imitations of a series of movements that had once been recorded. The small grey box was also immediately given a completely different significance. With it, Dunoyer had indicated that his moving body was oriented towards another body, one that had once belonged to him in the moments that he had found himself before the camera, which had captured the imitated performance. This camera was and was not present during the dance, and it was exactly this 'absent presence' that was staged. Of course the camera was not present, because the canonical recording already existed; at the same time, the camera was indeed present because it was exactly that recording, exactly those movements made during the consecrating recording, that the dancer attempted to re-live. He still made an effort to find the body that had moved for the camera, despite the fact that it may no longer have been his own. Dunoyer made this usually imaginary camera visible, thus revealing the usually unseen 'truth' of the majority of contemporary choreographic pieces.
Yet another reading of Vanity is possible, which deals with the difference between what was visible to the audience and what was shown from the viewpoint of the camera. As is customary, the viewer had a broad view: he oversaw events on the stage like a true general. In short, the spectator as an individual who sees himself as all-powerful and visually in command, as an all-seeing subject: this is yet another familiar poststructuralist notion. But the panoptic gaze of the spectator always misses something too. What we usually do not see in a dance performance is the view of the dancers. Of course I am not literally referring to their view, to what their eyes actually see. The publicly unseen view is rather the simultaneously existent and non-existent eye of the dancing body. This eye continually orients itself by means of points in the (stage) space - it moves the arms first 'here' and then 'there', it steps 'up to this' and then 'up to that'. 'Here', 'there', 'up to this', 'up to that': movements aim themselves at constantly shifting spatial goals, at 'spatial markers'.
As an observer, we usually see the direction of a movement at most, and not the spatial point in view (literally). In Vanity, this shifting target was symbolised by the camera that moved with the dancer (normative video recordings, on the other hand, are as a rule static recordings with a fixed camera perspective; this is probably a non-coincidental reference to the gaze of the ideal spectator: in dance videos, the camera is usually placed halfway up the hall, in the middle of course - talk about a broad view!). With the movement to be performed in mind, Dunoyer placed the camera facing himself head-on, then off to the side, and then held it in one hand while moving. In the recorded images, it was patently obvious that there was no question of arbitrariness. Over and over again, Dunoyer had placed the camera at the point to which his body wanted to go - at the shifting vanishing point of his movements, which the viewer usually misses because his gaze follows movements and not their spatial targets as well.
With an almost touching simplicity, Vanity staged the point d'horizon of the dancing body. In the final part, the small grey box revealed itself to be the fundamental reference point of the production: Dunoyer had worked himself to the bone not for our gaze but for 'that dumb box'. Or rather, he - the movements - had been concentrated upon the box and not on our watching. That box is present in every dance performance, because the moving individual coordinates movements on the basis of a system of changing points within the spatial environment. But we do not usually see this ever-shifting and moving vanishing point. The visual space demarcated by the spectator's gaze simply differs from the danced space - from the changing spatial coordinates with which the watched body orients itself. The video in the third part of Vanity made the space in which the dancing Dunoyer had just been moving still illustrative. You saw what you usually overlook: the mobile point of the stage space that assumes the seen movement to be a proverbial final destination.
One last thought. Imagine you have a well-trained eye and are not the average dance-lover; imagine therefore that you do have art eye for the existence of a changing vanishing point in the movements seen. Well, it is impossible for even this ideal viewer to place himself at the position of that vanishing point. Although he may be able to see it, he cannot also see the movements of the dancer(s) from the point that is always central to them. That, so Vanity showed us, can only be done by a camera that moves with the movements performed because these movements emphatically direct themselves toward it. In this production, the practised viewer could 'after-see' - see after his own seeing - through the movement recorded by the camera's eye, and thus watch from the point that his trained eye could only look at.

All dance theatre is based on voyeurism. Vanity was about this public voyeurism, not about the Vanity of the dancer who throws his body around for all to see with a greater or lesser degree of grace. It showed the limits of this desire to watch, it continually showed on stage the point that is usually not seen while we are enjoying our view. Vanity lasted a good half hour, but I will not easily forget the lessons' taught by this production. This was a truly cardinal work: apparently simple in concept and performance, until you took a moment to think about it- until memory set you thinking.