Living together on stage (once more)

Tanzheft Nov 2009English
Tanzheft 2, November 2009, pp. 25-28

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We must reappropriate what already made us who ‘we’ are today, here and now, the ‘we’ of a world who no longer struggle to have meaning but to be meaning itself.
Jean-Luc Nancy (1)

In today’s performing arts, the question of living together is omnipresent, and mostly addressed from a political perspective. The keyword is ‘(cultural) difference’, the work more often than not haunted by what is ‘politically correct’. Celebrated under the guise of critique, the ‘political’ risks becoming merely a noble interest: happily embraced as long as the reality under discussion doesn’t come too close. Moreover, a rift is looming between the ‘political’ (as discourse or representation) and ‘politics’ (as actual commitment or action). Of course, art deals with representation, with different ways in which we experience, describe and imagine ourselves and the world we live in. But this doesn’t make the distancing between the political and politics less acute a topic. Discussing the question of living together, it occurs to me that there are similar paradoxes at work when it comes to the social (as subject matter) in relation to processes of artistic collaboration. A creative process is not only a site of collaboration and negotiation, but indeed also shaped by the actual living together of artists in residencies. These personal, economic and social events make people to what they are – so if living together is at issue on stage, then to what extent do artists allow the social aspects of collaboration to affect it?


Are we ready?
We are a group
We mumble and fumble quite often
We need this
We vibrate together
We are theory full of life
We are a group of becoming together
We are happy to be here tonight
Are we facing the right direction?

When I saw Vera Mantero’s Until the moment when God is destroyed by the extreme exercise of beauty (2006), some of my thoughts concerning representations of the social, collaboration and theatre as a pre-eminently social place – with the audience constituting a temporary ‘we’ for the duration of a performance – fell into place. Thinking together is Mantero’s motto when it comes to collaboration, welcoming the multiple backgrounds at work in a group and the sense of possibility they entail. Until the moment… shows a strictly choreographed group of six characters, moving in quasi-unison, discussing what it means to be a group, while being part of a model that functions as a disinterested, otherworldly machine – not unlike a modernist proposal for the organisation of living together. After a few performances, Mantero drastically changed the piece’s dramaturgy, allowing the performers to embrace more play and juice, thus addressing the social by esteeming the performer’s place. The six characters now unleashed a multitude of alter egos, starting with the ‘performer’ (with their private dramaturgy), the ‘artist’ (with their own poetics), and the ‘person’ (with their own life, limitations and desires). The performance highlighted the collaboration that underpins it, and this in a direct confrontation with the audience – who are after all also present as a social group, called on to participate.

My questions became more precise. What happens in the friction between the actual social body of six performers – as performers, artists and people – saying ‘we’ on stage, and the social body that consists of their personae saying ‘we’ on stage? Our lives are made of representations, yet how do people live within a representation? How do people live within a score or a construction? How do performers ‘live’ on stage? I discuss a few performances that depart from a collaborative process and address the question of living together more or less explicitly from a social perspective, unfolding different answers and strategies. (3)


Last summer Christine De Smedt and Eszter Salamon staged a version of Transformers (2009) with a group of sixteen students at the ImPulsTanz festival in Vienna. Through I-pods the performers receive a score with instructions concerning text, voice and movement. What one sees as a spectator is a group of individuals interpreting and appropriating the score in a rather strict way in the course of an hour. Though presented as a full-blown piece, the workshop context remained pertinent: the method was being shared live, on stage. If a game structure provides a model for living together, a score could stand for the symbolical order that we continuously negotiate in our daily lives. But Transformers equally embraced the literal, staging particular ‘exercises in socialisation’ – both an extension and a metaphorical double of the workshop’s learning process: the scored turned the performers into ventriloquists voicing revolutionary speech, or challenged them into scenarios revealing the sexual energies that percolate their bodies in interaction. Moreover, the complex space brought about by the score included existing social connections embedded in that group and thus also inadvertently addressed the direct social context of the performers: they are all dancers that met over several weeks in an international festival, in which social mobility and a sense of belonging to an international arts community are as important as studying technique or something like that.


The assistants don’t do anything, they open, they roam around but provoke no distress, neither do they let themselves be tamed. They create a diversion, they occupy, they support, they throw up a smoke screen. The assistants dive askew, they incorporate, they see, they quite agree. (…) The assistants live together and want their perpetuality to disturb categories. The assistants wonder where lost things go, they ask questions without expecting answers. They don’t follow any method, they settle in corners. They live with a game of resistance and complicity, their relations are divided but made to last and to expand. (…) The assistants produce turds, but also meta-therapies, crossings of totally opposite directions, they produce as long as they are, they produce themselves in front of audiences. (4)

References to Charles Fourier, the situationists and Summerhill School, and especially the utopian languages and iconographies they elaborated for their real and imagined communities, resonate in the background of Les assistantes (2008), a group piece by Jennifer Lacey and Nadia Lauro for an all-female cast. Les assistantes are six women – and several extras, suggesting an almost endless army of assistants – who “produce the moment” on stage and philosophise about it with subtle irony. Both the fantasy of women-among-themselves and secrecy are recurring themes in Lacey/Lauro’s work, but it’s on the formal level of an idiosyncratic choreographic and scenic language that Les assistantes is most challenging. Notions such as utopia, living together, esotericism and femininity are deconstructed and pushed into abstraction, yet do Lacey and Lauro propose an indifferent and hermetic universe, no longer accessible for the spectator?

In claiming an autonomous artistic language, Les assistantes shows the limits of social inclusion because it removes itself from familiar frames of interpretation. If a utopian community can only come into being through the avant-garde gesture of a radically new language – at the risk of placing itself outside of cultural intelligibility – then how to conceive of that in the theatre today? Peculiar to Lacey’s choreographic work, it seems to me, is its ‘idiosyncrasy’, which I’d like to define here as a language that is shared by a small group or ultimately by one person only. It ties the singularity of the performer to the recognition of it as language in a formal sense, while the actual ‘content’ escapes. Moreover, the universe of Les assistantes has rules but defies the possibility that a perpetually becoming community would ever crystallise into an unequivocal representation as its fundament or double. Or: the wayward pairing of language and movement is radically choreographic, which I’d like to read as a critical gesture within the European performing arts, which, in their embrace of the political and of dramaturgy, often take refuge in all too narrow sites for the production of meaning. In that respect, Les assistantes’ claim of choreography over dramaturgy is perhaps not unlike Jean-Luc Nancy’s instruction to acknowledge that ‘we’ not so much have but are meaning.


In a central scene of Superamas’ Empire (Art & Politics) (2008), a motley crowd gathers at a party hosted by the French Ambassador, contemporary and particularly jet set, but not devoid of dissensus. The politicians, diplomatic guests, celebrities, artists – including Superamas themselves – and other self-declared free individuals are all inhabitants of what Peter Sloterdijk calls the ‘crystal palace’. They live in a global, post-historical world, have an unlimited mobility, are able to realise themselves endlessly as consumers and networkers, to involve themselves in the urge for armed democratisation or to cherish the ideal of a multicultural society, and so on. It is an elite of ‘spectators’ on the lookout for adventure, as long as they don’t have to question their welfare system’s perverted logic of exclusion and the comfort they enjoy within it.

Superamas have always worked as a collective and take critical joy in assailing the desire for consensus and the univocal interpretation schemes of a leftist art world and ditto critical theory. Yet striking in Empire is how in the end all the characters are shaped and haunted by the contradictions of their global condition and of their personal lives and desires. All of that is moreover addressed on the level of the casting in an ambiguous way. Superamas have hired professional actors, amateurs and ‘daily life experts’ with different backgrounds and have treated all of them in an equal way. Although Jamal Mataan may very well be a Somali refugee in real life, bringing a fictionalised version of his life story on stage, this background does not appear as such from the show. It actually offers us an unexpected view on the other characters and actors. For instance, American actor Davis Freeman plays an American weapons freak and he seems cut out for the part – is this just métier or does the observation go deeper? An indeterminate zone regularly appears between embodiment, fictionalisation and crude stereotyping, while the accurate casting makes subtle use of the performers’ ‘own’ language to demonstrate how uncannily close the reality of global capitalism actually is – it unexpectedly acts up in the body.


Since Meg Stuart started to emphasise her dancers as individuals in ALIBI (2001), casting has been central for all her group pieces up to Do Animals Cry (2009), aiming to present people rather than just performers on stage. A study of existing ‘social choreographies’ has been an growing interest of hers, which was brought to an extreme and put to the test in All Together Now (2008). Meditation, an esoteric workshop, a group therapy session, fantasies of merging: Stuart didn’t refrain from embracing clichés, new age and kitsch in studying our need for a sense of belonging. Yet, guided by the performers, the spectators where placed inside of these scenarios that epitomise the question of living together. How do people live within a representation? That issue is not only central in All Together Now, it is up to all the audience members to find out for themselves, to remain outside or to step in, to perform their own place within these communal fictions and especially face all the confusion and resistance they provoke. After one hour of these experiments, imagine eighty people in a circle, passing on a chocolate cake with a single spoon…

I’m sorry, it doesn’t work for me… What’s this about? What are you… maybe it’s my fault, maybe I’m just not capable of playing those kinds of games anymore? We were holding hands… they were cold, like dead hands! I mean, give us a break! It might be a big, happy family in your eyes, but it’s… I don’t feel part of it… this is empty… I’m willing to take some silence, some nothingness, but this is too much! I mean… it’s worse than a Hollywood remake! I want something real, I want more than a temporary thrill. I want people, who I can trust, to spend time with, maybe love… And all you offer is chocolate cake! Are you really gonna pass the cake a second time?! (5)


(1) Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, translated by Luca Dosanto and David Webb, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 4
(2) Excerpt of the performance text of Until the moment when God is destroyed by the extreme exercise of beauty by Vera Mantero and guests.
(3) This article is a sequel to ‘Living together on stage’, in which I discuss works by Yvonne Rainer, Xavier Le Roy, Philipp Gehmacher and deufert + plischke, published in herbst. Theorie zur Praxis, Christiane Kühl, Florian Malzacher, Andreas R. Peternell (eds.), Graz, steirischer herbst, 2007, pp. 20-23. Available on line at
(4) Excerpt of the performance text of Les assistantes by Jennifer Lacey and Nadia Lauro
(5) Excerpt performance text of All Together Now by Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods. Trancribed from