Exercise in Microscopy

Danssolo / solodans 1999English
Hugo Haeghens (ed.), Danssolo - Solodans, CC Maasmechelen, 1999

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Contextual note
This text is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection 'Cairography' (January 2014), which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt), edited by Adham Hafez and Ismail Fayed, and produced by ARC.HIVE with the additional support of Sarma. It was translated from Dutch into English by Martin Nachbar.

If I wanted to pass by and watch a rehearsal? Alexander Baervoets asked this question two years ago, when both of us were in Lisbon for different reasons. I was there to write a report about a workshop that the Belgian actors’ company Tg. STAN gave at the CCBelem. Alexander Baervoets worked within an exchange project, together with a number of other choreographers, in the studios of the Gulbenkian Ballet.

         When I came with a friend too late to the appointment, Alexander was already lying on the floor. It was not clear if he was warming up or already busy dancing. Music by Bach played, while the noises of the busy city trickled in from far away. We sat down in a corner and watched for about twenty minutes how Alexander moved by himself, like being cradled in a soap bubble, often on the floor with curved arms and legs in the air.

         Looking back, it seems that in this summer of 1997 a seed can be traced back of what was later to become Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, an improvised solo on the music of the same title by Bach. The solo has been touring since internationally, for a public, with lighting, to the music played live by pianist Yutaka Oya. But also during the public life of the solo, it seems that Alexander Baervoets wants to hold on to something that happened back then in the Gulbenkian studio, or to find it back, even if in vain. A loneliness, a complete being-alone-on-the-floor, an exercise in silence (silence on the music of Bach), in reduction and diminishing, in simplicity and asceticism. To the point of that irreducible nucleus of ‘(not) being there’.

         ‘When has an improvisation succeeded?’ I asked a visibly exhausted Alexander Baervoets after the twenty minutes. ‘When I have forgotten myself and the world around me, when I can step outside of myself and can be only dance and music.’ No easy task for someone who has a sharp compositional consciousness and a great degree of self-reflection. But nonetheless: ‘Forgetting myself, ascending and vanishing.’ This aspiration seems consonant with Baervoets’ movement essentialism or with his modernist desire to place the work and the work only in the foreground. The dancer is no more than a medium that renders the dance. The aim is to be so transparent, that the dance – and not the dancer – takes the stage.

         And yet, the interesting moments in Das Wohltemperierte Klavier are when this doesn’t work. Let me be more precise. The piece is a tightrope dance on a number of paradoxes. One of them is what sociologists call the ‘observer’s paradox’: how can I behave the same way as when no one watches, whilst in fact I am being watched, attentively so, and I know it. Another is: how can I be alone with two hundred spectators on my tail? Yet another paradox is: how can I lose myself while this is exactly what I intend to do? And last but not least: how can I put the dance entirely in the foreground, while a great deal of the spectator’s pleasure precisely resides in watching how hard a dancer tries to do so?

         Alexander Baervoets is definitely a captivating dancer to watch. He pulls faces. He frowns, tenses the corners of his mouth, with lips turning into a horizontal dash. He heaves, sighs, smacks. Baervoets dances, in fact, a bit like Glenn Gould plays the piano when suddenly a sigh or a moan cuts across the purity of the record. With Gould – it has become a trademark by now – this can point to a kind of abandon, the sort of ‘self-forgetfulness’ that Alexander Baervoets strives for. With Baervoets, it might very well be abandon. But, presumed this is the case, it mixes also with something of a struggle. Rather than giving over, it looks like he is working at it and does not want to give up giving over. He looks immersed in a task more than transcended through trance.

         In this frowning I like to see the utopian project of someone who wants to be authentic in times that have shown authenticity the door to the realm of discarded myths and beliefs (authenticity doesn’t exist, except for in the lie); someone who by all means looks for a deep sincerity and self-realization even if the contours of a public performance, and all the theatricality it brings, thwart such aspiration. Here’s a man who wants to spirit himself away each time in order to be alone and eventually to be no more.


Alexander Baervoets’ striving for soli-tude is remarkable in the light of what I would like to tell now about the solo. It may serve as a softening reminder, a footnote and counter-argument to what follows. That’s why I gave it my attention, and, well, yours too.


For, what is the solo? More than a century ago the solo came to the fore as an autonomous form with some well-reputed soloists such as Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan. Since, it has already taken so many shapes and seen so many conjunctures, that one can hardly define the solo on specific aesthetic grounds. Characterising the solo as a form in which the dancer expresses herself, limits the solo to its expressive function. This may well be the case for the modern dance of the beginning of the 20th century, yet, Cunningham’s solos, created on the base of a formal paradigm, have very little to do with this. The solo as a mould for a dancer’s personality is difficult to reconcile with Judson Dance Theater choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer, who, with her work in the 1960s, counteracted the predecessors’ personality cult. And what to think of solos as display case for virtuosity as with the soloist José Navas, when Baervoets and Duncan wanted to take distance from technical prowess from the start.

         Also formal criteria don’t really help when tracing the solo. In the beginning a solo performance took about four minutes (Toepfer). Today it can take any length, up to Emio Greco’s evening-length performances. In the first half of the 20th century, the solo was chiefly a vehicle for women. Today, remarkably many male solo dancers got active in the genre. Just as for their female predecessors, the solo is a place of emancipation for them, where new imagery around (in this case) the male body can be articulated. While authorship was mostly in the hands of the soloist herself in the past, there is now a variety of relations between maker and dancer possible: solos are self-authored, co-created, commissioned, with all kinds of possible power relations within, just as the New York-based performance artist Claude Wampler underscored with her solo performance Blanket – The Surface of Her.

         Strictly speaking, the solo cannot be restrained to a certain style but is a numeric issue. The soloist is the one who dances alone. But is the solo dancer really alone? What about the musician who accompanies the dance on stage? Wasn’t the light that shone on Fuller’s tissues as important a partner as if it had been another dancer? In his solo Meinwärts Raimund Hoghe, in spite of the piece’s title, enters a dialogue with his alter ego Joseph Schmidt, and via this German singer with the underdogs and outcasts in the society. Hoghe’s path to the self takes a curve; it holds a whole underworld in its detour. On the other hand, in his solo debut Bianco Emio Greco challenges himself to be as long with a public as possible. Greco thematizes the abandonment anxiety of a dancer, whose fear is to cease to exist when he is no longer at the centre of attention. Therefore, the invitation to the public, halfway through the performance, to not watch him and to browse in the evening program or – why not? – to quickly step outside, is a funny conjuration of this fear. Because when the message says ‘you may leave’, the subtext ‘don’t leave me’ sounds all the louder so. Bianco is a solo as much as it is an intimate pas de deux with the public.

         When asked why he dances alone so often and if this isn’t lonely, Steve Paxton, probably the best-known living male solo dancer of our times, answers: ‘Why alone? I am not alone. When I dance, I am continuously talking to many bodies that dwell inside me. With my legs and arms, with my nervous system, my ligaments and organs. It is whole group choreography.’

         Strictly speaking? Strictly speaking, the solo doesn’t exist.


Rather than the embodiment of a numeric essence, the solo is a mode or adjustment, comparable to the lens of a microscope. Just as the microscope isolates an object, the solo is a focus adjustment that allows for a discovery of the multitude in the singular. In this respect the solo is not a zero point. It’s not a nadir but a zenith. Not an absence of relations but an optical device that makes relations visible.

         The history of the solo, as it developed from modern dance onwards through the 20th century, can best be described as a cell division. Directly after the insemination (the emergence of solo dance and the modern dance subject) the small nucleus started to split with ever more fissions and ever bigger internal complexity.

         In classical dance the solo was not a genre but a rank. The soloist, after the étoile the highest ranking dancer, always stood in relation to a hierarchically structured cast. Modern dancers such as Martha Graham and Mary Wigman however extracted the moment of solo dancing, not in order to show a socialised (Helen Thomas) subject but a psychological, affected and affecting being. This gave way to an exploration of the interiorized struggles that are active in the human being itself. In the words of Elizabeth Dempster, the emerging modern body stems from another world vision and growing individualism: it became ‘an arena, where social, psychological, spatial and rhythmic conflicts could be played out against each other and be reconciled again.’ Thus, hardly had the solo gained independence, and what happened: not just a minimal self, to use a phrase of Stuart Hall, but a dual self emerged in its wake. It may come then as no surprise that choreographers named movement dynamics along axes of opposite forces, like contraction and release (Graham), fall and recovery (Doris Humphrey), introversion and extroversion, and so on.

         Also today this classical binary scheme is here or there at work. But just as often this happens with a twist. In Solo M., based on the figure Martha Graham, Annamirl van der Pluijm steps into a downright modern dance language. But her solo is not a reenactment of a historically transmitted idiom. Instead, it is a complex oscillation between an icon of the past and a contemporary dancer, between history and topicality, between visual representations and the appropriation thereof, if not make-over and transformation. Between Van der Pluijm and Graham, there is a spectrum of subject positions; these are distilled to the concentrate that Solo M. offers. Emio Greco and Thomas Hauert, to give two other examples, refer to the dualism between mind and body in their solos. But the dance language they use speaks many other voices all along. Greco’s body manifests itself as a carnal sampling machine, with horses, flamingos, chickens but also the residue of numerous dance techniques dancing simmering in the brew. Hauert uses improvisation in order to steer his body in the opposite direction of the intention that is just about to form. This leads to a fitful dance like a young goat cutting capers. The solo The Pickwick Man created by Jan Fabre with Marc Vanrunxt in the role of the dandy, works like a kaleidoscope wherein a number of dandy-esque figures flare up – from Oscar Wilde to glam rockers such as David Bowie.

         In many ways the solo today reveals a fissure that – even where binary counter forces seem at work – keeps fragmenting. While in modern dance there often used to be a belief in a ‘true self’, a delineative subject, today the ‘true I’ seems to be more understood as emerging from a multiple set of relations and stories. ‘Identity is formed on the instable meeting point between the untellable stories of subjectivity and the stories about history and culture,’ writes Stuart Hall. Rather than the modern dancer’s strive for representing The Woman, The Human Being, The Elementary Powers, or Archetypes, the contemporary dancer places herself preferably on the intersection of a myriad of ‘stories’.

         In place of voicing his ‘true I’, Vincent Dunoyer surrendered his body to three different choreographic writings in the program 3 solos for Vincent Dunoyer. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, his then former employer, wrote a heterogeneous solo, an assemblage of behaviours and movements, wherein ‘male’ and ‘female’ templates are enmeshed. Liz Lecompte and Steve Paxton gave Dunoyer the assignment to copy an existing fragment (respectively a film and an old solo on video). Copying, recycling, it seems as if Dunoyer has found a dancing equivalent for oral history.


All of this leads me to a tricky contradiction. Today, those who are on the look-out for the solo as ‘state of undividedness’, better don’t look for it in the solo. The solo is not primarily to be found in the solo as an autonomous genre but: in the group choreography. There, in distinctive relation to fellow dancers and to the visibly present group, the subject’s identity contours that have become fluid harden again to designated ‘positions’. Mary Wigman was most solo in her group pieces, in which she dances as the visionary leader of a Gemeinschaft. The sacrificed girl that dances herself to death for the continuation of her tribe’s existence in Le Sacre du Printemps by Vaslav Nijinsky, is solo. Nobody has ever been so solitary as the motionless dancer standing like a salt pillar in For MG: The Movie by Trisha Brown. For Merce Cunningham, all dancers of his group choreographies are soloists.

         Cunningham is by the way (together with William Forsythe among others) an exception to the following rule: inversely proportional to the augmenting number of dancers on stage, the tendency is to reduce complexity. With the increase of bodies, comes a decrease: less complexity in the choreography, and oftentimes, more creation of lines (to line up the dancers), more synchronicities, groupings and compressions. Complexity then changes into complicities. Dancers will dance in canon, follow patterns or come together in unison.

         In an interview I once had with him, Alexander Barvoets compared unison dancing in a group with pumping up the volume. ‘If dance does not have a volume button for movement, how can it then produce more decibels?’, he asked rhetorically. ‘Well, by multiplying through unison a movement that would otherwise be still and hardly audible.’ Imagine this; a group becoming one big body with twenty legs and arms. A big solo body.


Maybe, and I hope not to increase the confusion now, we better change the term ‘solo’ for a new notion: ‘the solic’, as a meridian line or point to gage the spectrum that unfolds between a singular undivisability and the multitude. The solic: the middle point from which one may move from unity to multiplicity, or the other way around, from multiplicity to oneness. I have added a drawing in order to illustrate this.


The lines converging in the point (>) symbolize the contraction from the multiple to the singular. The diverging lines (<) show the tendency to have unity proliferate back into multiplicity. This can go endlessly forth and back. Forward, backward.

And Das Wohltemperierte Klavier then? Alexander Baervoets’ ‘alone dance’ is the dowsing rod with which he tries to reach this very one point. This imaginary, maybe not even existing middle point between converging and diverging lines. The atom before it divides. The deafening stillness before the explosion of a fragmentation bomb.