Self Descriptions

Ballett International Tanz Aktuell 1 Jan 1999English

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'I Said I,' the latest piece by Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, interprets Peter Handke's 'Selbstbezichtigung.'
Just because you say 'I,' doesn't mean you're at one with yourself. With De Keersmaeker, the body, which you say, "is yours," pauses over and over again. 

'I Said I' makes it abundantly clear that the research carried out by De Keersmaeker and Rosas is absolutely not so much about finding new dance steps, as about using the stage as a space for showing, the specific place where individual subjects - to put it crudely-expose themselves to others. In my view at least, that is what De Keersmaeker is looking for in her research as a stage artist. Rosas' productions are therefore sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly marked by the constant, insistent question of how a person can position himself as an 'I' together with others, towards others, using gestures, words or movements. And that is done without degenerating into easy theatricality (the individual as a type, a character or a cliché) on the one hand, and while avoiding that direct emotional or physical expression which is simply obscene (off-scenic) on the other. 

I Said I: this title initially refers to Peter Handke's text 'Selbstbezichtigung' dating from 1966. Handke's monologue, which is divided amongst all the performers and therefore immediately takes on a polyphonic character, looks most like a simple list of an ego's flagrantly contradictory thoughts about itself: an I observes its own life in relation to 'the social.' This sociability takes the form of rules and laws, a language which creates obligations but also allows you to say 'I,' and of course it takes the form of direct others as well. The many self-observations therefore continually roll around a non-defined, primary mental or psychic space. They are also not very complex, since almost every I-thought is no more than a short sentence, a singular statement that usually begins with ‘I’ (such as 'I learned to speak,' 'I learned the difference between good and bad,' 'I spat on the ground where that was not allowed' and so on). During the production the various dancer-actors are therefore constantly underlining the title, 'I Said I'. And yet: who is actually speaking here? Who or what is the I saying 'I?' Due to the constantly changing speaking positions, the spoken Word 'I,' the first person singular as a linguistic form or signifier, is different from the I-speaker being referred to, the grammatical subject is different from the speaking subject. Or, to use Roman Jakobson's terminology, made famous by Jacques Lacan: in 'I Said I' there is a visible, constantly repeated split or division between the sujet de l'énoncé (‘I’ as a linguistic term) and the sujet de l'énonciation (the I speaking the word ‘I’).
As a fully-fledged Lacanian, Handke makes it clear at the beginning of the text that we have language to thank for our subjectivity. We are not subjects but only become subjects as linguistic beings, as users of the signifier 'I.' What is more, language obliges us to say "I" - because without it there would be no possibility for personal speech and no opportunity to speak or hold dialogue in an individual way. Upon entering the linguistic order, every subject is at the same time also permanently divided within itself. The first person singular therefore seems to be a poisoned gift. This anonymous signifier allows each one of us to position ourselves as a distinctive individual ("I am I"), but at the price of losing any possibility of direct self-presence or presentation. This is because the grammatical 'I' only refers to the speaking I, it does index it, but does not really give it any presence or representation. In that sense the possibility of saying ‘I’ paradoxically also causes a radical and irreversable loss of  I. In our literally divided or split subjectivity, language and 'being' fall apart.
Handke makes it more than clear in the rest of the text that each of us as a speaking, reflecting or thinking person never reaches himself, and therefore cannot claim any hard identity in the strict sense of the word. This is done by allowing his I to say very contradictory things. The textual ‘I’ in 'Selbstbezichtigung' has no consistency, does not, therefore, present a pleasantly rounded life-story and just-says-anything. And yet that is not quite true: there is a clear pattern in the whole series of I statements. In fact what remains is that the I or the subject is obsessed, throughout the text, by the obligatory character of every language - what Roland Barthes once called "the fascism of language." Being a linguistic being is certainly also synonymous with rules or standards, which is why Lacan, in his work, has promoted language to the model of the symbolic order or culture. Handke follows this perspective but places particularly strong emphasis on the extremely compulsory nature of linguistic and other conventions.
'I Said I' has been produced by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in close collaboration with her sister Jolente, who is known from tg. STAN. Perhaps it is partly as a result of this that the interpretation of Handke's text is so close to the performance itself, indeed it seems to be constantly commenting on it, so that a strange reflective mirror relationship comes into being between the performance of the text and the text itself, between the speaking of the text and what is said. Here the division or split characterising every subject (fente, dixit Lacan) appears as the absolute distinguishing mark of the actor-performer. When he says 'I,' this fictitious subjectivity does not, by definition, coincide with his own ego. In that sense the actor, the dancer or - more generally - the stage performer symbolises the condition humaine, the impossibility for any subject to achieve anything like 'actuality,' 'authenticity' or 'coherence with oneself.' Anyone who says 'I' is always another, a character in the anonymous text called language.  

The overall production of 'I Said' I takes as its leitmotif the opposition, constantly suggested by Handke's text, between an individuality which is difficult to articulate on the one hand and a vague, essentially compulsory sociability on the other. After the lights in the auditorium go down, the ten performers, with the exception of Japanese Taka Shamoto speak Handke's text in various mother tongues. Sometimes they repeat each other, and sometimes they are interrupted by the Grazzhoppa/Cassol duo. The text is spoken sometimes facing the audience frontally, and sometimes walking around each other or changing places in seeming disorder. The group performs the text in a loose and relaxed way, with the informality now so well-known from Discordia and tg. STAN: arms crossed, brief smiles to each other, a leg forward here and a leaning body there. This carelessness is of course stylised and carefully executed because it is directed, so it is anything but really informal. After a short time the group bunches together on the wooden platform at the back of the stage on the left. More Handke, presented in the same arte povera style, until scene one ends with the collective taking apart of the platform. At that moment Taka Shamoto, who has until then silently tried to make herself invisible, steps forward decisively and simply stands there, to literally demonstrate her physical individuality or particularity: 'I Said I' becomes 'I am I.' This shift is crucial, not least   because throughout the production she thematises the crucial relationship between text and physicality, linguistic subjectivity and physical particularity.
Several times in the other parts of 'I Said I' Shamoto plays the part of the individual, sometimes rejected by the group and sometimes headstrong. There is the counting scene, which develops the overriding theme on a more general level and therefore presents the duality between the individual and the group. Every time Martin Kilvady counts a new number, the performers change their positions on the stage. They do this in a lively and apparently improvised way, as if there are no compulsory agreements, except for the rule that you stay aware of each other and take each other's movements into account. This is a striking presentation of a dialectic which is well-known from everyday social life: delineating your own space in response to the actions of others, hence in interaction. At a given moment Shamoto pretends to be blind: she shuts her eyes. The nine other performers are generally helpful, and they stop the feigned blind woman from walking into props or falling off the stage. But sometimes they are also unkind to her and give Shamoto's body a quarter-turn to divert her from her course. In another scene the same Shamoto, this time playing the part of someone who is asking questions and trying to find something out, is referred from one person to another until she finally bursts into tears. In 'I Said I,' however, the individual Shamoto is not always a weak victim of social malversations. In a scene which is both hilarious and particularly powerful in its simplicity, she affirms her individuality by starting to yell in Japanese while the others are messing around at the back of the stage (or pretending to, of course). From time to time she calls someone to her, with a compelling sharpness that does not tolerate any contradiction. And what are these others for? To hold her two breasts, for example: 'I' cannot manage without the others, even though they reject 'me' time and again.
Perhaps the strongest evocation of the ultimately insoluble relationship of tension between individual and group, is the scene in which a single person is individually pointed out by all the others, pursued with shouts, accused and victimised. This is a clear illustration of the well-known scapegoat mechanism. The main reason why this scene is so powerful is because they alternately point each other out as scapegoats for a long period of time. The suggestion being made here is very clear: the way to get out of the scapegoat position is not to argue against the position as such, but to appoint someone else, a new scapegoat, to occupy it. This seemingly familiar game of inclusion through exclusion, forming a group by leaving someone out, comes to an end in the presentation when Roberto Oliván de la Iglesia, as a recent outcast, immediately becomes contrary, objecting not to the group but to the social position imposed upon him. In measured phrases he furiously asks what law, rule or standard he had broken. The rest of the group stands by looking lost, embarrassed and ashamed, as if someone has realised that the victim's position is assigned on the basis of imaginary, not real reasons, simply because every group needs a scapegoat. And yet even the individual who is putting up resistance is still, despite the courage he shows, bound by the laws of grammar and speech. You can (try to) escape from direct group pressure, but not from linguistic conventions - since without language there is no subjectivity or communication of protest, no I to stand against the others by saying 'I.' The impossibility of throwing off this linguistic yoke is illustrated particularly nicely by the occasional corrections made by Ursula Robb to the furiously protesting Roberto Oliván de la Iglesia. As a formidable police officer for the (English) language, she occasionally corrects the statements made by the fulminating Roberto, who is thus called to order despite all his protests - to a symbolic, linguistic order which is no doubt the unspoken guardian and ultimate guarantor of every social order. 

We are more than three quarters of an hour into 'I Said I' before there are any real consecutive dance movements. Even then the movements do not immediately fit together into styled phrases, steps or arm movements that reinforce each other. Both in the individual solos and in the sequences which are danced as a group, the short phrase, the movement from sentence to sentence, is predominant. Hence we once again encounter a formal homology, a formal similarity between the emphatic sentence-orientation of Handke's text on the one hand and that of the movements on the other. The dance therefore mimes the textuality, the structure and not the content of the text (the dance movements do not at any time take on a symbolic character). Every phrase of movement stands by itself as an I-sentence, and it therefore seems to be a statement by the individual dancer, who always also says 'I' with his or her individual body, and re-presents something of himself or herself in a necessarily momentary and constantly changing way. Just like the cascade of I-thoughts in 'Selbstbezichtigung,' the various phrases of movement do not fall into an imaginary line either. Rather there is discontinuity everywhere: movements are begun, continued for a while and then broken off, after which a new short phrase begins. This impression is further reinforced by the form of the first group dance which is maintained for a longtime, to music composed by dj Grazzhoppa. Marta Coronado, Alix Eynaudi, Fumiyo Ikeda, Oliver Koch, Rosalba Torres remain individual dancers, or even 'I-movers.' They dance above all beside each other, and yet also with each other- for movements are passed on and taken over, individually mimed and re-articulated, with only an occasional unison moment.
The many similarities in the movements, which are almost always shown in a 'broken (down)' way, give rise to the suspicion that a single long phrase formed the point of departure for the performance: all the possible variations were constantly chopped into pieces and ultimately ended up as fragments of a unity which is never shown. This observation does not, of course, say anything about that other meaning of the word choreography, which is being debated on all sides at present: a fixed, pre-defined text, an imperative series of rules governing movement. The relevance of this concept of choreography to 'I Said I' is obvious. That is because the whole performance centres around the relationship between individuality and social norms, subjectivity and the compulsory nature of every language. Against 'the choreographical' in the literal meaning of the word, the idea of 'the improvised' is currently gaining ground (rather than the idea of improvisation as such).
In many respects the difference between improvisation and choreography has defined the history of twentieth century dance history. In 'I Said I' it is radically hybridised and confused, at least from the perspective of the audience, in a way that is comparable to the work of William Forsythe.