Facing empathy’s secret routes

Antonia Baehr with 'For Faces' at the NEXT festival in Eurometropole Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai

Corpus 16 Dec 2010English

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It happens in a flash, a sudden release of energy, right after the final black-out, when the four performers stand up to greet the audience: the performers smile and engage in a mutual address of the spectators, and more striking still, their faces relax and suddenly reveal a whole expressive array that had been inhibited throughout the performance. The four performers (Sabine Ercklentz, Andrea Neumann, Arantxa Martínez and William Wheeler) seem to coincide with themselves again, they win their own face and expression back. In a series of restrained tableaux, the score of For Faces had indeed detached the face from the person, in order to explore the expressive potential of the face as such. That choreographer Antonia Baehr refrains from commenting upon all the paradoxes this experiment entails, makes For Faces all the more ambiguous and uncanny an experience.

Curiously, an aftertalk led by Xavier Le Roy provided mostly a forum for audience members to speak and share their thoughts, as if they also needed to re-appropriate their faces by voicing their confusion. People talked about the physical awkwardness they felt as they observed their own attitude and tics; about their compulsion to sit still; about their attempts to refrain from observing the other spectators seated at the opposite side, as if it were a voyeurist act; about their fear of the performers’ faces coming all too close during the black-outs, like in a nightmare. Had For Faces alienated the spectators from themselves? If the performance promoted empathy in the spectators, then certainly also on the level of self-discipline and the rather violent experience of being ‘subjugated’ to a score – as if the multiple powers that pervade our daily lives became suddenly tangible, creeping up one’s back.


Though it might touch upon the core of Antonia Baehr’s post-humanist body of work and its political aspects, simply saying that a score is an instantiation of the symbolical order, which moreover reveals the paradoxes of expressionism and subjectification, is an all too quick analysis that requires fine-tuning. What does the score of For Faces produce exactly? And taking up the issue of empathy and subjugation: how do people ‘live’ within this score?

When the light goes up, the four performers are seated on four stools with their backs to one another, and with the spectators placed in a large circle around them. The performers are dressed in black, their hands remain still in their laps, all the attention goes to their faces. Nothing much happens: their faces appear to be still for an endless amount of time, as if they were classical paintings, only very slowly turning sideways. Even their eyes are still, not quite looking out, rather suspended in a hazy stare. Now and then, a subtle movement of the mouth’s corner or a precisely choreographed eye ball movement disrupts the image, hardly visible, but enough to provide a sense of the arbitrary rhythm imposed on the faces.

All the while, the audience light remains on, which allows for observation: the restrained faces of the performers seem to amplify the facial expressions of the spectators, or at least to draw attention to them. Not that the performers’ withdrawal invites the spectators in: the overall atmosphere of For Faces is reigned by distance – and by a sense, or perhaps an illusion of control, inadvertently cut short by empathy’s secret routes.

After a black-out, a second tableau follows. This time the performers’ faces have a richly textured, frenzied rhythm, exploring tics and facial movements. Their eyes are scanning the space, as if picking up expressions from the audience – now seated in half-darkness. This creates a mirror effect, or again the illusion of a mirror effect, yet beyond visual control: it’s the firing of mirror-neurons somewhere inside our brain that inspires empathy, outside our grasp.


In the third tableau, the lights are clearly focussed on the performers’ faces, while the audience remains in the dark. The faces now become more gestural, with clear traits and pointed gazes, almost like masks. This time the rhythm is more explicitly a musical one, with sometimes also guttural sounds emerging from somewhere behind those faces. The musical aspect reveals again the gap between face and mask, or between person and expression, though in a more playful way. And with the strict quality of the score and its meticulous execution, a new aspect occurs: two performers have a background in performing arts, the other two are musicians. The contract of committing oneself to a score and finding freedom within that is probably an altogether different one in contemporary dance than in new music – which also sheds a different light on the vexation voiced by some spectators after the performance.

In an interview with Xavier Le Roy on her piece Laugh (2008), Baehr comments on the difference between invention and appropriation: “There can be something subversive about the fact of appropriating what power, the power immanent in society, dictates to us. When I appropriate it, I become the master of my own action. That can be an act of resistance.” And elsewhere: “You take a score, which is therefore something external to you, but which helps you have contact with something external. It is therefore not about self-expression. You have this element which introduces a question, which you try to answer best you can, knowing that you’ll never succeed. The contradiction is that while you know you’ll never manage, you act as if you can.”

The fourth tableau revolves around the performers’ idiosyncrasies in a series of solos that perpetuate the association with masks and the grotesque. But For Faces never goes into portraiture or expressionism: the faces speak for themselves. Or they function like a mirror or amplifier, as they spur on different rounds of laughter and facial expressions in the audience – now again lit – before returning to a situation similar to the first tableau. Afterwards becomes clear what the relaxation of the performers during the applause does to the spectators: the uneasy empathy with the faces, that is with the score or the power structures the performers have embodied during 45 minutes, can now be reattached to the person again, bringing empathy back into the realm of the familiar – though haunted now by a dark shadow.