Poetics André Lepecki

Sarma 1 Jan 2004English

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My coming to writing dance criticism happened in a context of historical break. In post-revolutionary, post-colonial Portugal, the new regime meant the opening up of an extremely closed and underdeveloped society to the world at large. It meant also the coming of age in the 1980s of the first generation of very young artists that had been brought up fully in democracy, and without censorship nor the prospect of colonial war. The country had no dance tradition. Dance boomed in Lisbon with a force that was unstoppable. The New Portuguese dance galvanized a whole set of cross-collaborations across artistic fields between choreographers, musicians, composers, architects, designers. And, with a specific group of artists, the crossing aimed at directions that at the time were not so much explored: between dance and theory, dance and writing, dance and epistemology. When the dance boom was happening, I was mostly outside the fields of the arts -- at least as an active member. I was trying to start a career in cultural anthropology as a young academic, and as an essayist by writing for major national newspapers. I wrote for a science supplement (I had a bi-weekly column on social sciences in Diário de Notícias, driven by the not so modest desire to become the "Portuguese Stephen J. Gould), and for the cultural and literary supplement of a Lisbon daily (I mostly reviewed books in the social sciences, humanities and anthropology) in Público. And I was pretty certain I would eventually do a PhD. on the dynamics of cultural transmission among certain apes. I was also a Junior Fellow at the Center for Sociological Studies at Universidade Nova de LIsboa, with a 3 year grant to conduct research on the sense of smell and its symbolism in eighteenth century Portuguese medical literature.

One day, Francisco Camacho, Portuguese choreographer, invited me to join an ensemble he was forming with also choreographer and dancer Vera Mantero, dancer and designer Carlota Lagido, video-artist Paulo Abreu and choreographer João Fiadeiro. This was 1989. I accepted because I liked them more than I liked dance. We had endless conversations. They asked me questions. Their questions made me realize how anthropology knew nothing about art and even less about the body. So, I got involved. I mopped floors, wrote press releases, video-taped endless hours of rehearsal and watched and watched and watched how dances and pieces and performances and films could be made. Then I would give my opinion. They would take them sometimes. I was not called dramaturg. I was called "researcher." An unbudgetable title as far as arts organizations were concerned.

Because I had gained a certain visibility both inside the dance community and as a writer in the newspapers, one day an invitation came from Blitz (at the time the most read weekly in the country, a pulpy rock'n'roll publication) for me to review dances. I accepted immediately. I knew nothing about dance. But I think I knew how to write, and I certainly have my opinionated opinions about what I saw on the stages. I also knew that if the experimental and avant-garde dance had any chances of survival they had to pass through the test of being properly accounted for in printed form. My dance reviewing has always been very engaged and not at all neutral, documental, nor objective. I had and still have an agenda. At the time, all was coming to Lisbon: Cunningham, Trisha, Rosas, Wim, Meg, La La La, Pina, Monk, DV8, Nadj, Saporta, Valenciano, Linke, Marin, Sankai Juku and so many more. I reviewed most of these people and then the Portuguese. The fact my venue was a rock'n'roll newspaper and that I could write as much as I wanted gave me an unprecedented freedom in style and detail. Those pieces for Blitz remain one of my favorite writings, and coming back to them, I am just amazed by how impossibly gutsy they are. I am also painfully aware of how clearly I camouflaged at the time my ignorance with a fake taste for polemics. Finally, the fact that I had to write dance reviews, gave me a way to start articulating a thinking about performance that was essential to my later work as dramaturg. Dance reviewing is a cynical task. Everyone should do it.