Looking at / Writing about Dance

Through the Back - Jeroen Peeters

Etcetera Jun 2014English

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Contextual note
Written and first published in Etcetera in Dutch, this text was translated into English by Steve Green.

Watching dance often amounts to reading an embodied text. This hermeneutic attitude would seem a natural one to assume: one sees a series of movements and attempts to understand them. However, choreographers who emphasise dance’s medial autonomy see its performance as instead constituting an invitation to look per se. Although in Through the Back: Situating Vision between Moving Bodies Jeroen Peeters endorses the proposition that dance is primarily a visual art form, he gives it a critical twist from the very first page. The ‘pure looking’ praised by modernists such as Cunningham, is a fiction after all. Our looking is perpetually framed by cultural codes and expectations – such as those relating to body forms – and mediated by technical apparatuses such as the camera and the screen or, in the theatre, artificial light. Dance is able to engage with these conditions of possibility and thereby also sensitise the spectator to the distinction between the potentially visible and what we see (or are able to see) within conventional framings.

Disrupting normalised looking, such that our eye is literally opened to those blind spots we generally overlook: Peeters believes that dance which matters is a specific form of genuine visual critique. This angle of approach is accompanied by a critical practice that ensures Through the Back differs considerably from the majority of recent publications on contemporary dance, which are academic in origin, generally resulting in more impersonal and strongly theory-driven writing. Peeters, by contrast, practices dance criticism in the best sense of the word. In line with his general position that contemporary choreographies deconstruct the way we look at dance, the essays collected in Through the Back literally document critical viewing experiences, that is moments of visual confusion which the author seeks to disentangle in the process of writing. Concepts are useful tools in this process, but for Peeters they are always mere resources that at no time threaten to dominate his writing about the performances he has seen.

Through the Back collects the written traces of a particular journey of looking, one that is rhythmically punctuated with performances by choreographers who tend to be omitted from discourses on contemporary dance, which often examine Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy and other ‘conceptuals’. But while Peeters does discuss the oeuvre of Boris Charmatz twice (the second essay also concerns Benoît Lachambre and Meg Stuart), he devotes the majority of his writing to choreographers other than the well-known heroes of the conceptual wave. Most of the essays focus on the likes of Alexander Baervoets, Philipp Gehmacher, deufert & plischke, Jennifer Lacey and Nadia Lauro, and Vera Mantero. All are equally hyper-reflexive dance makers in the work they produce, but they do not occupy comparable positions at the institutional centre. Peeters has also included two essays on the work of Mantero. One of them, ‘Eloquently speechless’, not only activated my still-vivid memories of the estranging 2002 work k’su’porta, but also supplied the framework for which they had always been searching.

The critic attempting to clarify his earlier visual confusion by, as it were, looking back with his writerly eye at his disturbed looking, is obliged to adopt the role of essayist in the fullest sense of the word. No ego tripping here, then, and no quasi-literary turns of phrase; Peeters’ writing is simultaneously pliable and clear, but doesn’t reject ‘difficult words’ where appropriate. ‘To essay’ means ‘to attempt’ and in most of his essays Peeters attempts two things: he seeks initially to reconstruct as accurately as possible the causes of disruptive viewing experiences using selective descriptions of performances; and then he attempts to understand how exactly the visual estrangement was generated, by drawing connections with more general characteristics of looking, of dance and – first and foremost – of looking at dance. In so doing he frequently expounds on broader lines of thought, without ever overly systematising them – or even substantiating them. These descriptions flow over into more abstract ideas that Peeters allows to remain hypothetical and incomplete because he trusts that the former makes the latter plausible. This confers upon the posited reflections the status of associative thoughts (including when they tie in with theoretical insights or concepts): thoughts associated with, following and about experiences of watching. Although for Peeters writing and thinking clearly constitute the two sides of the same coin, the most fundamental basis of his writing practice is the proverbial awareness that to watch a dance performance and to write about it are two entirely different things.

The hallmark of good criticism or essayism is its open character: it should seek neither to persuade nor to seduce, but only to give pause for thought through sentences that at times seem to be written down almost casually. Through the Back contains quite a number of this kind of statement and passage, such as when, in his essay about Baervoets, Peeters repeatedly plays on Jean-François Lyotard’s distinction between the figure and the ground (indeed, the essay’s title is ‘Too much ground for transient figures?’). Dance movements are as ephemeral figures that disappear in the moment that they appear, but their fleeting existence also assumes there is a substratum or fundament. This is, in the final analysis, the dancing body. As Peeters notes along the way, ‘dance revolves first and foremost around dancers. It is dancers who make time visible, their bodies constitute the ground for transient figures.’ This assertion is not subjected to theoretical elaboration. On the contrary: the reader is very much left to work it out for himself. My fundamental experience as a reader of Through the Back is that these thoroughly condensed and honed associative thoughts summon yet other thoughts. Peeters’ dance criticism is synonymous with an approach to essay writing whose concentration on personal viewing experiences may sometimes seems self-contained, but nonetheless issues an invitation to think with and against.

Without ever being unnecessarily verbose about it, in Through the Back Peeters intervenes in a decidedly conspicuous way in the ongoing discourse concerning contemporary dance. The book’s title is likewise the title of both the first and the final chapters. In the opening piece Peeters uses the image of the back primarily to elucidate on his dance poetics, the rear of the body serving here as an allegory for the unseen in all forms of seeing; the ineradicable limitations of each human observation. In the closing section – subtitled ‘Fragments, voices and materials for choreographies to come’ – the focus shifts to dorsal imagery and choreographies by the likes of Trisha Brown in which the back is displayed. Looking at what you cannot see of yourself feels foreign. The human back differs from the face in that it is truly anonymous and generic, and thereby, comparatively also hardly expressive; the dorsum of the human body seems bereft of an interior…

Through the Back opens and closes with linguistic imagery on visual imagery that confronts the act of looking with blind spots. Often, the dissimilitude between ‘the linguistic’ and ‘the visual’ is cast as a dispute. Not so in Peeters’ writing, because in his critical practice he puts all his chips on the interval between looking at dance and writing about dance being a key enabler for thinking about dance. And thinking contemporary dance – or attempting to clarify what is at stake – is entirely distinct from studying it. This is not to deny dance studies’ right to existence, but rather to advocate the autonomy of a dance criticism that allows dialogue between watching dance and writing or thinking about dance, without aspirations for a dialectical reconciliation.


Jeroen Peeters, Through the Back. Situating Vision between Moving Bodies, Helsinki: Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts, 2014