The hurdles of broad thinking
The dance criticism of Jeroen Peeters from 1998 to 2012
This essay discusses the work of Jeroen Peeters as Dutch-language dance critic. He wrote his first critiques in the late 1990s, and formulated a number of theoretical and philosophical frameworks during his studies. Several years later, he wrote his own poetics. In the meantime, as dance critic, he saw from close up how dance had changed, and how his own thinking was continually being challenged. I would like to call some of these challenges “hurdles”, because while he cleared them, he reformulated not only his ideas about dance, but also those about writing itself. What were these hurdles that he cleared since the late 1990s, thinking and writing close to dance? In this text I will briefly sketch these hurdles based on a selection of dance critiques taken from diverse media – including the newspapers Financieel-Economische Tijd and De Morgen, and the periodical Etcetera – one book review and the acceptance speech he gave at the end of 2012 when receiving the Dutch Pierre Bayle Prize for art criticism for his work as dance critic. All texts cited come from the period 1998 to 2012. Occasionally I will also refer to discussions we had at the time.(1) Special attention is paid to several key texts Peeters wrote in Dutch that have not yet been translated into English. Most of these were published in Etcetera, for which Peeters wrote from 2000 until today, and for which he was also a member of the editorial board from 2008 to 2014. Peeters’ writing on Meg Stuart constitutes a separate corpus, so it will not be covered in this text.
A year and a half after the release of his last traditional dance review until today, Through the Back: Situating Vision between Moving Bodies was published.(2) Simultaneously with the book, Sarma published an online anthology of Peeters’ entire oeuvre of dance criticism. This text was written on the occasion of the publication of that anthology. Several of the book’s themes will also be discussed here.(3)
I first discuss the early years when Peeters wrote his first critiques and developed a philosophical-theoretical framework during his studies. These early critiques embody a first hurdle, that of looking itself and the particular memory that looking at dance embodies, certainly when writing.
The early years: dance as memory
Like a snowflake, Chase swirls down from the theatre into the viewer’s world of time and space.(4)
The snowflake is Sarah Chase, whose production Peeters discussed in February of 1999 in the student magazine Veto. The same snowflake returns in the first text Peeters wrote for Etcetera a half year later, as well as in a review that also appeared a half year later in the Financieel-Economische Tijd. At that time, he was already writing for the weekly cultural supplement Tijd Cultuur for the same newspaper, in which incidentally Marc Ruyters gave particularly strong critics more or less free rein. From October 1999, Peeters is given plenty of room and the freedom to set his own agenda and to further develop and reflect his own poetics in his pieces. These are the years in which in Brussels the first generations of P.A.R.T.S. laureates give new impulses to the Brussels and Flemish dance field: Thomas Plischke, Arco Renz, Salva Sanchis, Charlotte Vanden Eynde etc.
Of the three texts on Sarah Chase, the Etcetera piece is the most comprehensive. Its subject is various solos that Sarah Chase had danced until then, in particular Secrets & Stories, a solo she presented in 1997 at the Leuven dance festival Klapstuk as part of Benoît Lachambre’s L’âne et la bouche. Just as the solo itself is about memories, Peeters’ own memories play tricks on him. I remember how he was hesitant concerning the structure of the text. Lamont Earth Observatory, a solo by Sarah Chase from 1999 on the occasion of which he wrote the text, held less fascination for him, so he decided to place the accent on Secrets & Stories (1997), her solo Muzz (1998) and the solo Walden (1999) which she created together with Alexander Baervoets. Thus the point of Secrets & Stories – a performance of and about memories – at the same time also becomes the point of the text itself.
There is a discrepancy between the discussion of the work of Chase, and the theoretical and philosophical frameworks used by Peeters: on the one hand L’histoire de l’œil by Georges Bataille and the notions of transgression, psychosis and trauma are discussed; on the other hand he refers to Jean-François Lyotard’s distinction between presentation and presence, and to his commentaries on the paintings of Valerio Adami. Both frameworks come from his dissertations in art history (Leuven, 1998) and advanced master’s studies in philosophy (Leuven, 1999). The first concerns the formless, or l’informe, in the visual arts, the second the art critical texts of Jean-François Lyotard. In 2000, the latter results in a book on Lyotard’s aesthetics, of which he together with Bart Vandenabeele is editor.(5) In the coming years, the texts that the French philosopher wrote on art criticism will develop into the cornerstone of Peeters’ own poetics. But many of his dance critiques from this period are also steeped in the thinking of Lyotard. In the Etcetera text about Chase, for example, he writes about Walden: ‘Presentation and presence admittedly have a different temporality, but they penetrate one another: in timbre, in dance, in the event of movement, here and now.’(6) And with respect to Muzz, he paraphrases Lyotard’s commentaries on the paintings of Valerio Adami: ‘Memory aims to be open to the anamnesis of the visible: to return via lines to the childhood of the gaze.’
In 2000, the paragraphs that elaborate on the thinking of Bataille and Lyotard still have a somewhat abrupt relationship to the rest of the text. Against the sometimes lyrical wording about Chase and her dance stand sturdy expositions on a strong philosophical framework. Nevertheless, it is precisely this discrepancy that is promising. Peeters is not afraid to take writing seriously, including the context in which he works and thinks as writer. Here he already shows with verve how he simultaneously plays with and thematises the tension between dance and critique. The memory of the dance becomes the focus of the writing itself, and the critique necessarily becomes a reflection at metal-level: it reflects on itself, especially since dance – like no other medium – is fleeting, and any writing about it also takes place in the realm of the imaginary.
However light-hearted these first critiques might sometimes sound, the critic remains with both feet firmly planted in the ground. Again and again there is the difference between the dance and the viewing of it, between the work of the choreographer/dancer and that which takes place in the world of the viewer. Concerning the issue of (re)presentation versus presence, and that of theatricality versus mere presence, dance can play a special role, as evidenced by an implicit reference to Lyotard’s thinking in a critique of the work of Alexander Baervoets from March 2000:
One might say that the dance occupies the pivotal point of presentation and presence, of performance and pure presence, of images and occurrence, of theatricality and transience.(7)
The focus is on something that problematizes perfectly each naive thought on the here and now of the dance, and at the same time makes possible its viewing and places it in the world: the memory of the dance. This memory will soon become an especially interesting hurdle. Several months later, in a review on the production GAP by Salva Sanchis, it concerns a ‘resonance principle’ that he sees in much of his solo work:
In between several movements, a bright house light flashes on and off, leaving a spot of light lingering on the retina. These retinal resonances strikingly grasp the clarity and the closeness of the present, its warm breath, but also its immediate blurring. They are also an ‘image’ for GAP as a whole, in which dance resonates in light and music (remixes! by Thurston Moore), and still more in the mind of the viewer. When an alarm clock sounds at the end, the latter understands fully his share in the piece, understands that he himself contributed to creating the tension by structuring the images in an attempt to locate where dance also fails.
This resonance principle is a meaningful approach that surfaces in much recent solo work (for example, that of Vincent Dunoyer or Johanne Saunier). Dance merging into light and music is well known. However, by as it were borrowing the memory of the viewer as choreographic principle, the solo convincingly extracts itself from the often problematic identity of dancer and choreographer. Before he fully understands his role, the viewer in GAP is called upon to contribute to the search, to mirror the narrow space of dance and choreography on the immeasurable continuing effect of the perception in the memory, and thus to share the blind spot of the now.(8)
Here Peeters takes a step beyond the thinking of Lyotard. Where Lyotard focused on painting, he further sharpens his ideas on looking with special attention for the absence of that which was seen. Peeters does this while thinking and writing in a style that in the first place is critical (and only when the critique requires it, also philosophical). He would continue to write for the Financieel-Economische Tijd until May 2001. Around this time he moves to Vienna, where at the age of 24, he becomes dramaturge for the new Tanzquartier. The challenge proves more difficult than anticipated due to clashes with the artistic director, both artistic and personal. He returns to Brussels at the end of 2001, and in the summer of 2003 again begins to write intensively, this time for De Morgen, where Karl Van den Broeck gives the culture pages new verve and accordingly gives Peeters the opportunity to again announce and discuss dance in a newspaper in the two and a half years that follow.
2003: inactivity and polemic
Where in his early texts Peeters dared to still cultivate the transience of dance, he is also well aware of this danger. Which is why he is also merciless for choreographers or colleague critics who uncritically idealise this transience into the idea of pure dance – an idea that he believes in turn is supported by the idea of ‘completed emancipation’ from the discipline.(9) In 2003, the latter results in a fierce discussion in the Dutch journal Theatermaker (TM). Peeters pulls no punches in taking stock of Dutch dance criticism: ‘Conflict, fracture, blindness and incomprehension, which function perfectly as motor for critical discourse, are not appreciated in the Netherlands.’ Thus, Dutch dance criticism must be alienated from itself, because: ‘Otherwise it is doomed to chase after its own mercurial phantoms, and both new (international) trends in contemporary dance, and the reality it is examining, will pass it by.’(10)
The intense reactions by several Dutch critics in Theatermaker were predictable, and in the end, the polemic proves to be unproductive. However, the discussion concerning the question whether conceptual work, and then in particular the theme of stillness – both for that matter often have less to do with one another than devotees of so-called ‘pure’ dance assume – can be examined and described as dance, proved useful in Flanders. Peeters wrote his first annual review for De Morgen at the end of 2003. Titled ‘A Plea for Stillness’, and supported with a critical analysis of the field, it was not without controversy in Flanders.(11) At that moment, intellectual and artistic Flanders enjoyed an especially adventurous and exciting dance landscape at several levels: education (with some private support, with P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels), policy – art centres were committed to innovation and experiment, albeit often only for the short term, and the idea of studios for artistic research slowly but surely was gaining acceptance – and criticism – the three Flemish newspapers read by the highly educated Dutch-speaking population in Flanders and Brussels each had a critic in house with a pronounced poetics.(12) However, this did not prevent Peeters – who often travelled abroad and regularly reported on productions he saw there – from also including in his top five, productions that were not presented in Flanders or Brussels.
He easily clears the hurdle of conceptual work and the common critique ‘Is this still dance?’ – thus from now on, dance with a minimum of movement is also possible. But other hurdles were yet to be cleared. He is not a philosopher, but a critic who is as agile in his thinking as the objects he hears and sees on stage (even if at first glance there is sometimes little movement to be seen). And thus the hurdles are not obstacles but rewarding challenges in which Peeters continues to avoid each threat of essentialist thinking. If there is one constant in his thinking, it is this: a long struggle against ‘the phantasm of “lost authenticity”, that identifies the body as the last beacon of interiority in our modern world ravaged by media and technology.’ (13) Productions in which this phantasm – frequently with an exceptionally enthusiastic response from the audience as a result – is uncritically played out, can count on particularly fierce criticism. At the end of 2003 for example, Peeters recognises this phantasm in the production Map me by Charlotte Vanden Eynde:
Tension between the image and the actual body is hard to find here. Is there place for looking in this intimacy? Map me in any case is not about inscription and disciplining of the body. The fusion with the images means that the body literally functions as a phantasmatic projection screen: it in fact wants to reveal an intimate reality beyond these images.(14)
Rather than going along with such ‘authenticity phantasms’(15), Peeters continues to search for the paradoxes, which make him wary of each possible naive cultivation of a here and now of the dance. He constantly searches for these paradoxes in the reviews he writes for the newspaper, perhaps to the frustration of those who equate a good newspaper article with a straightforward exposition. Terms and themes such as stillness, the documentary, the theatrical and speech contain a certain stubbornness in thinking and writing about dance, and therefore constantly call into question each possible form of essentialism. He developed several of these terms and themes in longer essays that mainly were published in Etcetera.
A production by Vera Mantero with an impossible title from 2002, for example, moves him to reflections on the role of language – and its reading – in dance. After reading the title appeared to be an impossible task, the production itself appears to consist of gestures and acts, most of which are easy to describe, but that, once combined, ‘as such do not release their meaning, so that the taciturn nature of the piece is simply doubled in words.’(16) Which brings Peeters to his own role as critic:
In that sense, Mantero confronts the critic with an interesting problem, since the status of his description is put at risk: it seems to lead nowhere. What part does the description play anyway, now that we have been aware for a while that language never coincides with reality: why still use such a naive representational method as starting point for art criticism?
Peeters then returns to the dance, and recognises in it an ethical commitment. Via a detour, he examines not only the production, but he also describes a workshop of Mantero in which he participated. This participation as well as the account of it are harbingers of his later career change: in the future, he more often will be involved in creative processes as dramaturge, and sometimes even as maker-performer. The ethical commitment appears to be that of a post-human body. The bodies in Mantero’s production appear to be ‘deprogrammed’ – they no longer use language to make sense of the reality around them – but they ‘nevertheless wrestle with their anchoring in reality’:
A post-human body does not serve itself of language to give meaning to the surrounding reality, but to construct its own reality, whereby language becomes programmer’s language and is no longer referential but a new kind of inscription. Thereby, the post-human body not only cuts the link with reality, but can travel beyond death into an open field of possibility, of possible bodies. The deprogrammed bodies in Mantero’s piece didn’t come any further than halfway though: sucked in by the temptation of unprecedented possibilities, but nevertheless wrestling with their anchoring in reality. That which doesn’t function any longer is their language, for that has also lost its status as it is floating somewhere between two regimes. And, possibly, therein lies their trauma – and their actual post-human character?
Peeters’ interest in the post-human is exceptionally nuanced and multi-layered. Like the philosophers and other thinkers he admires, including Jean-François Lyotard and Peter Sloterdijk, he no longer believes in a humanistic view of the person and the world. In the playing out of this interest, Peeters also presents himself as cultural critic.
In the meantime, he has also written several texts that could be called poetics. In the autumn of 2003, a piece appears in the Dutch periodical Boekman in which Peeters formulates his own poetics.(17) It is clear for him that looking and writing are two different things, and he divides the work of a critic into three moments: description, interpretation and evaluation. He prefers to consider this last moment as ‘an open-end question, that finally belongs to looking’. He also cites Lyotard and his interpretation of Kant’s aesthetic category of the sublime. It is about an openness to limit experiences, something that much art since modernity in any case has been pursuing, he writes. And more: ‘Must we not return looking to the body?’
In May 2004, a publication appears on the occasion of the Stationen project by Thomas Lehmen: a second poetics.(18) This text is partially a repeat of that which is contained in Boekman, but we also hear a different Peeters. It is a text on a role-playing game that is much more complex than the role as critic he formulated for himself in Boekman. In Stationen, the thinker-writer also becomes a maker, and against the critical distance, appears the idea of nearness and the idea of a role-playing game in which the role of the critic can be one of many characters. From time to time he attempts to break open the question of the authorship of his texts by seeing in them a post-structuralist role, he argues, referring to Roland Barthes’ idea of the death of the author:
The meaning of a modern novel does not lie in the psychology of the author but in the text itself, a text in which the author is no more than a character that says ‘I’. Does this also apply to the dance critic who is never himself in all the guises he assumes as spectator and writer, held together by only a deictic signature, a performative ‘I’?
In asking this question, Peeters goes quite far in deconstructing the role of a critic.However, his work as author shows that the possibilities of such role-playing as critic are limited. The role of critic implies restraint. He must after all be recognisable; his judgement may not be vague or confused. While Peeters repeatedly attacks the idea of a modern, autonomous subject, he is unable to do without such a subject when he, in his role as critic, is required to relate to the dance field. As dramaturge and on the stage itself, such role-playing will suit him much better.
Fortunately, Peeters – even as critic – stays close to his interests. Instead of tackling a single subject for years, not only is his eye agile, so is his writing. As art scholar, he continues to focus on the visual arts, and he is a great jazz lover. Reflections on the specificity of jazz also repeatedly traverse his thoughts on the role of improvisation, and the big question that occupies much thinking about art today: where is our view of man going, and what is the status of the emancipatory idea of the actor-maker who invents and practices his art in the here and now? But he could just as well become immensely fascinated by tennis or crocodiles. While in 2003 he mainly needed to focus on these things for himself, two years later he radically broadened his perspective on dance in the direction of a more comprehensive, cultural-critical perspective, albeit one that was also carried by looking at dance. He this does in Etcetera, in an essay titled ‘Ruggelings’ [Through the Back]. The point of the essay is perhaps the most obvious, but also the most neglected limitation of the human point of view, which can be found in the space behind our back. Just as he sees this happen in a quotation by philosopher Bryan Magee and a quotation by Boris Charmatz and Isabelle Launay, he himself bridges cultural critique and the practice of various contemporary choreographers:
Exploring the space behind the back is a physical, choreographic way of dealing with one’s own blind spots, which at the same time also opens up a mental landscape. It should not be surprising that critically oriented choreographers are fascinated by blindness: the tension between physical limitation and mental construction is what blindness, dance and the perception of dance have in common.(19)
Here again we encounter an issue shared by dance and critique: as in cultural critique one stands inside and outside cultural practices, and thus explores the limitations of one’s own thinking, the “through-the-back” exploration of space opens up a mental landscape. He recognises such through-the-back dancing and exploration of this blind space in Blindspot by Jan Ritsema and Sandy Williams, as well as in H2-2005 by Bruno Beltrão and Grupo de Rua de Niterói, and in Alexander Baervoets, Boris Charmatz and Philipp Gehmacher. However, he then leaves dance behind and conceives the essay as an exposition of a collection of working material. First there is the figure of Atlas bearing the globe (taken from de Sloterdijks introduction to his Spheres), and then that of the proud artists bearing boulders in purgatory, in one of Sandro Botticelli’s illuminations of Dante’s Divina Commedia. In this last figure, the thinking of Peeters definitively opens up in the direction of a broad form of cultural critique. Here he summarises the development of his poetics, beginning with the studies he finished five years earlier. Echoes of the critique of visual regimes contained in his study of l’informe or the formless can be heard here. This theme also illustrates the failure of each divine or modern/enlightened perspective. Then follow themes from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, a professor from the story of Bertolt Brecht titled What’s wise about the wise man is his stance (1965), and Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, in which Walter Benjamin would have seen an angel of history in 1940. Peeters in turn recognises in this a ‘choreographic model of critique’: ‘What do we see when we approach the future through the back?’ He finally returns to dance, to Merce Cunningham who dances with a chair tied to his back, and to a drawing of a tramp made by theatre maker Tadeusz Kantor. Kantor designed suits ‘that consist of assemblies of bags and packages, like a parasite on the human body’. Looking at Kantor’s drawing, Peeters concludes the essay as follows: ‘The blind space of the unfamiliar as an absurd suit, lashed and carried as a fat pack on the back, under which the body slowly disappears. It is a fascinating image as a conclusion to these considerations.’
In ‘Ruggelings’, Peeters appropriates the perspective of a cultural critic who has been freed from the rigour of disciplinary thinking. Great examples here are writer/thinkers such as Peter Sloterdijk and Hans Belting (to be joined later by Simon Schama). Finally, he could look back in time without convulsing: the history of his own discipline no longer stood in the way.
Since the mid-2000s, each text about dance by Peeters rests on the premise that meaningful dance criticism is necessarily also cultural critique. Where this premise was implicit in the early years, it has been explicit since 2005. Peeters has seldom if ever looked back in time. Here again the Nietzschean adage applies: first the specificity of contemporary dance must be examined, and those looking at the history of dance see that it has the tendency to become a straitjacket of hidden or explicit beliefs, prescriptions and rules. Therefore, a look at dance should not go too deep into history, say Peeters. In the early years, he certainly cited little history, and little ‘world’. On stage, it is usually first dark, and looking and writing take place from there. While Peeters is open for that which many others dismiss as mere novelties, as critic he almost always starts with the premise that dancing is taking place on stage.
At the moment he began to write, the generation of Flemish theatre makers and choreographers who in the eighties began to work in a sort of wasteland, were the rage on major stages at home and abroad. Today there is perhaps an urgent need for research to historically situate their aura of the new and to critically situate it in an international historical perspective. For someone like Peeters, however, around 2000 is the time to introduce the next generation in newspapers and magazines. More than ever, it appears that the history of one’s own discipline is only one of the many possibilities for meaningfully relating to a cultural context. Furthermore, an official – read consecrated – history, and then especially modernism in dance, has been given a bad name. When Peeters refers to this, he settles accounts, often making use of unambiguous wording. Historical roots usually hold little or no interest for him, unless he is able at the same time to reformulate the point of a contemporary variant. Another blind spot in his writing is a broad, cultural-economic context in which the hierarchy between making and writing changes – think of the emergence of immaterial labour and the flex worker. While these themes have a particularly large impact on the dance landscape, and especially on creative processes, he does not write about them. In this respect, his attitude can be called modern: like the historical approach he eschews, he also does not allow himself as a critic to be fooled by a way of looking borrowed from sociology or political science. For him, the danger is too great that dance becomes a sort of wrapper with its form first and foremost representing content, such that the dance itself is no longer the issue.
In his first text for Etcetera in 2000 on the work of Sarah Chase, Peeters already spoke of ‘striving for identity’. At the time, he linked the issue of identity in dance especially to the game that it plays with memory. In the years that followed, he also links it to the motif of (self-)expression. But only when a number of choreographers who play a crucial role in his trajectory as spectator and critic – Alexander Baervoets, Boris Charmatz and Philipp Gehmacher – over time clearly create work in which contemporary expressionism can be recognised, does he himself use the historically loaded term expressionism.(20) When he does, he gives it a contemporary meaning and he also reorients his own poetics away from the position of the viewer, and in the direction of the social process generally presupposed by the creation of a dance performance.
In the autumn of 2006, an essay appears in Etcetera in which Peeters discusses the work and work processes of Charmatz and Gehmacher. In the piece, titled ‘Verzwijgt de danser dat hij spreekt?’[Does the dancer keep silent that he speaks?]’, Peeters settles accounts in extremely unambiguous wording with the modern dance he knows from the history books. To the expressionism of the first half of the twentieth century he assigns a striving for authenticity that ‘stood for a fulfilled oneness of subject, body and movement’. And to strengthen his argument, he paraphrases Sloterdijk: ‘It also assumed a typically modern subject that could act autonomously and that burned with self-obedience and self-understanding, whether in the Enlightenment tradition of listening to the voice of reason, or taking his feelings seriously in the Romantic sense.’ When a few paragraphs later he sees in the work of Gehmacher an expressionism that ‘stutteringly enters into dialogue with its historical roots’, he does not further explain these roots. He does recognise in this work a contemporary expressionism that is no longer one of a disinhibited, liberal subject. This ‘stuttering’ expressionism is first and foremost aware of an ‘outside’, as evidenced by his citing of Gehmacher himself:
This outside, this counterpart, these people, exist even when no one else is in the room. (…) I am aware of this counterpart; the outside is always present in me, as a constituent part of my being-in-myself. Always. In instantiating my score, I do not lose myself in my body and I am never one with time and space. I do not believe in this, and I have nothing to offer the desire for such dance.(21)
This outside also traverses visual regimes. Not only does looking take place, but the purely visible of the body is also listened to. Music and noise enter. Finally, this outside embodies empty spaces of absence. ‘Using arm gestures, Gehmacher identifies the absence around his body as an act of memory and mourning, as a virtual exercise in socialisation.’ Body cavities are marked, with thereby the body admitting that it is not complete. The theme of melancholy appears.
Together with this reformulation of what expressionism could be, another shift takes place in Peeters’ poetics. This shift is probably driven by his own way of working: he is still a critic but less than before; he is now mainly a dramaturge. This evolution from critic to dramaturge, and in the end also to maker, takes place at personal and discursive level. While the critic typically only writes his pieces, being a dramaturge implies a social role. Analogous to this, he as a critic also pays more attention to the social in dance.
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)(22)
When in December 2005 Peeters leaves the newspaper, he also abandons the model of the critic who looks at and writes about dance from a (solitary) distance. In any case, he finds the model of the critic who immediately heads for home after the performance to prevent his ideas from being defiled by conversations in the bar or in the wings, unproductive, and that’s putting it mildly. He never adopted that model himself, but while as critic he already maintained close contacts with some makers, like many colleague critics, he goes in search of modes of work that are more social: that of a dramaturge, for example, or even that of the dancer. A number of makers who had become friends invited him on stage (Superamas, Martin Nachbar, deufert&plischke), or to make music – Peeters is also a drummer – and to choose costumes (Jack Hauser, Satu Herrala & Sabina Holzer).
Thus, starting in the late 2000s, Peeters writes less. He works more often as dramaturge and at the end of the decade edits Are we here yet?, a book created together with Meg Stuart on her practice, which would be published in 2010.(23)And when he does still write critiques, he also explores in them the theme of coexistence: living and working together. In 2007, he discusses Vera Mantero’s production Until the moment when God is destroyed by the extreme exercise of beauty.(24) In this production, six eccentric characters on stage attempt to speak and move in near unison, with as motto ‘We are a group’. The production inspires Peeters to reflect on this we-form. He opens the discussion with a quote from French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. All speaking implies a ‘we’, and each ‘we’ that is spoken implies a narrative fabric that we call the world or life, says Peeters paraphrasing Nancy. Mantero’s production is a choreographic proposal of such a narrative fabric or ‘social body’, which Peeters himself describes as follows: ‘an endless spectrum of human difference, but also huge chunks of time and space, extending from our present world and imagination to an (im)probable future’. What follows is perhaps one of the most beautiful critiques Peeters wrote in the last one and a half decades. He lists a multitude of themes that are at odds with the modern idea of a here and now of dance: theatricality, speaking and listening (including the birth of the subject, citing Sloterdijk), melancholy... Meanwhile he also reflects increasingly on ecology and sustainability, about which he will regularly write in the years that follow, and which commitment is also felt in this critique.
In the years that follow, the theme of coexistence appears repeatedly in Peeters’ dance critiques. In the spring of 2011, a double critique appeared in Etcetera titled ‘Samenleven op de scène’ [Living together on stage](25) in which he discusses the productions Tanzstück #4: leben wollen, zusammen by Laurent Chétouane and Levée des conflits by Boris Charmatz. In describing the latter production, Peeters refers to Roland Barthes’ lectures on Le neutre from 1977-78, from which Charmatz borrowed the title of his production. 24 dancers on stage, appearing as individuals with their own name and clothes, must together operate a choreographic machine, but are free to interpret the material of which this choreography consists in their own way. From this description and the Barthes lecture, Peeters presents yet another theme that can be related to the issue of coexistence. It is a theme that in fact is not a theme: noise. Peeters recognises in the noise of Levée des conflits a contemporary ‘social contract’, or: ‘a political phantasm that is tested choreographically’:
In the overall form, noise reigns Levée des conflits, yet its structural underpinning remains equally present. (…) Levée des conflits is a hybrid monster, but also a space of happenstance and emergence, with both performers and spectators gathering and connecting striking details, working their way through the chaos. As a space for real time agency on the part of the dancers and spectators, it produces joy and precision, but inevitably also inattention and boredom. Are these by-products of liberty, somewhat pushed to extremes through the performance’s durational character?
In 2008, another theme appears in Peeters’ dance critiques: the idiosyncratic. In a discussion of Les Assistantes by Jennifer Lacey and Nadia Lauro, he clearly pleads for claiming a unique, autonomous artistic language.(26) Six women lounge about, engage in silly, absurd and disparate rituals and other things on stage, and produce nonsense and boredom, with a sense of humour. Peeters discerns little or no dramaturgy in Les Assistantes, which he welcomes as a critical gesture: ‘In light of the excess dramaturgy and production of meaning that regularly threatens to suffocate the European performing arts, Les Assistantes is a breath of fresh air.’
Finally, at the end of 2011, the noise, the non-dramaturgical, the idiosyncratic and coexistence come together in one critique, which is also the last traditional review Peeters has written until now. It is a critique of the production Faire un Four by Sara Manente.(27) A range of difficult themes that often incited Peeters to write, come together here: the (clumsy) gesture, personal histories of the dancers, and the promise of a shared language, without that promise being fulfilled. The critique is an ode to the unruliness that dance can carry within, and that is explored in Faire un Four. A relief according to Peeters, who as dance critic in Flanders and Brussels has had enough for the moment:
Other than the bulk of dance performances today, Sara Manente’s Faire un Four is not an endless stringing together of movement material, it doesn’t last the obligatory 55 minutes, it doesn’t strike a dramaturgical punch line, and the dance isn’t exactly “pure” either. (…) In these loose ends, Sara Manente looks for openings to the world, to the working process, to issues that remain to be investigated, to learning processes and to an indeterminate future. In the small Flemish dance world that appears to be rather uniform and conservative (though it continues to call itself the laboratory of the arts) the intricate recalcitrance of Faire in Four is no less than a joy.
In the end Lyotard himself also appears to have been a hurdle, one, however, which Peeters cleared with gusto. In 2012, a discussion of the art criticism of Jean-François Lyotard appears in the Flemish-Dutch art magazine De Witte Raaf. This collection had been compiled by his former academic supervisor Herman Parret in the series Jean-François Lyotard: Ecrits sur l’art contemporain et les artistes / Writings on Contemporary Art and Artists.(28) Writing the discussion was a somewhat strange task for him, he tells me just after the text was published. At that moment, Lyotard had been pushed to the background of Peeters’ thinking and writing – the ideas of philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Peter Sloterdijk, and a focus on ecology, now resonate more clearly in his poetics. This poetics in the meantime has become one of a dance and cultural critic. Therefore the text he writes in 2012 also functions as a sober review of one of the most important philosophical pillars of his poetics. Where with respect to art, Lyotard in the first place recognises, in a philosophical sense, the possibilities and limitations of writing, Peeters not only testifies to the singularity of a work of art, but he also questions it time after time. Even when in his critiques he also continually unfolds this meta-level of an inability to speak or write the truth, in his writing, he remains first and foremost a critic. Moreover, in De Witte Raaf he also exposes another distinction between his own vocation as critic and that of a philosopher such as Lyotard. About the latter’s writing practice, Peeters writes:
Rather than the creation of analogue texts, this writing process facilitates experimenting with one’s own medium. Indeed Lyotard always adopts different literary strategies, styles and genres in his art writings, devoid of any system: handbook, letter, notes, essay, transcription of a video interview, story, portrait, poetic glosses, review, lecture. This desire to experiment, or performative writing, results in quirky, literary texts that do not immediately clarify the work of the artist: the texts are more a symptom of an unruly philosophical strategy that claims not to care about systematic interpretation and continually looks for escape routes from the theory and the aesthetics.
The experiment that Lyotard sought and found in writing, Peeters finds elsewhere. In his writing practice as dance critic, he generally stuck to the customs belonging to a review or an essay. The resistance to the interpretation and the ‘meaningful’ that Peeters recognised in the late Lyotard already during his studies, is primarily to be found in the content of his critiques and essays. Over the years, he repeatedly recognised this resistance on stage, and lucidly expressed it as well as was possible. He accepts the challenge of the experiment in form elsewhere, right next to the stage as dramaturge, on the stage itself and on a digital platform.
On 4 December 2012 in Rotterdam, Peeters receives the Dutch Pierre Bayle Prize for art criticism.(29) Inspired perhaps by the historical figure of Pierre Bayle, in his acceptance speech he first makes a veiled critique of the ‘superficiality and progressive loss of meaning’ which he discerns in our own time. “The cold increases with the clarity,” he says citing German writer Thomas Bernhard. When Bernhard received the Literaturpreis from the German city of Bremen in 1965, he spoke of a thoroughgoing modernity. Nearly a half century later, Peeters is doing the same, directing his attention to the ‘modern myth of transparency’. First he takes stock of the impact of that myth on art and talk about art. The result is not pretty, and the cultural critical analysis he is doing at the moment is not up to the task of doing something about it. Therefore the themes appear in his argument whose development we have tried to sketch in this text:
The value of critique for me lies in its fragile character: in the looking, thinking and writing, attempting to deal with the idiosyncrasy of specific works of art, with the promise of a language that still stands between perplexity and speaking, still balancing on the edge of not-knowing. Precisely this uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity and polyphony show the potential to resist the familiar frameworks of looking and thinking. They upset the dominant desire for clarity and transparency, and thus provide a contrast to the meanings, images and stories from which a society lives.
When concluding his acceptance speech, Peeters makes a plea for the ‘autonomous position’ and ‘disinterested attitude’ of the critic. Nevertheless he recognises in the arrival of the Internet (whose promise he doubts even if it were to address the problem of a declining public sphere) and the rise of ‘alternative spaces for critical reflection on art’ a need for a more involved approach. Today the task of a critic consists in documenting criticism and critique, as he himself is doing at Sarma, a digital platform he founded ten years ago together with Myriam Van Imschoot. He sees a second task as documenting artistic practices, working methods and the ‘oral culture in the studio’. At the end of 2012 he, the cultural critic whom he has become, accepts that the spaces in which he can formulate his critique are changing fundamentally, and with them also his own role as critic.
(1) All the cited texts can be found at www.sarma.be, where an anthology of Jeroen Peeters’ critical writings is available. All the articles and books referenced in this essay are writtenby Peeters, unless noted otherwise.
(2) Jeroen Peeters, Through the Back. Situating Vision between Moving Bodies, Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, 2014. The ‘last’ dance review concerned Sara Manente’s Faire un Four (2011) and appeared in December 2011 in Etcetera (cfr. infra). Afterwards, Peeters did still publish various thematic essays and translations of reviews that were earlier published in English.
(3) Of two texts from the book the first published versions are discussed here. It concerns two texts on Vera Mantero’s work, titled ‘Eloquent sprakeloos’ [‘Eloquently Speechless’] from 2003 and ‘‘Wij’ zeggen, een extreme oefening’ [‘The extreme exercise of saying “we”’] from 2007. Just like many other essays they were published in Etcetera.
(4) ‘Een stoel, een vlokje. Sarah Chase danst twee solo’s bij Klapstuk’ [‘A chair, a flake. Sarah Chase dances two solos at Klapstuk’], Veto, 15 February 1999. The sentence also appears in: ‘Hoe een huiskamer beweegt’ [‘How a living room moves’], Financieel-Economische Tijd: Financieel-economische Tijd, 8 March 2000.
(5) Jeroen Peeters en Bart Vandenabeele (red.), De passie van de aanraking. Over de esthetica van Jean-François Lyotard, Budel, 2000. [The passion of the touch. On the aesthetics of Jean-François Lyotard]
(6) ‘De anamnese van het dansbare. Hoe Sarah Chase met verhalen de dans wekt’ [‘The anamnesis of dance. How Sarah Chase awakens dance through stories’], Etcetera, vol. 23, no. 71 (March 2000).
(7) ‘Hoe een huiskamer beweegt’, Financieel-Economische Tijd, 8 March 2000. English translation from ‘Too much ground for transient figures? Perception in the work of Alexander Baervoets’, in Hugo Haeghens (ed.), Het geheugen van de blik/The memory of the look, Maasmechelen, 2000, p. 114
(8)’Retinale resonanties’ [‘Retinal resonances], Financieel-Economische Tijd, 10 June 2000.
(9) ‘Een pleidooi voor stilstand. Jaaroverzicht: werd er nog gedanst in 2003?’ [‘A plea for stillness. Annual review: are people still dancing in 2003?’], De Morgen, 8 January 2004 (original author’s version).
(10) ‘Fantomen van de danskritiek’ [‘Phantoms of dance criticism’], Theatermaker (TM), May 2003.
(11) In Flanders Peeters ends up in a small polemic with Guy Cools, then dance presenter at Arts Centre Vooruit in Ghent. The polemic can be read at www.sarma.be.
(12) Elke Van Campenhout, who then reviewed dance for De Standaard, and Pieter T’Jonck of Financieel-Economische Tijd, do have, just like Peeters, a keen interest in experiment and innovation in dance. We are speaking about Flanders, for ‘Belgium’ – save for a few federal institutions in Brussels – does no longer exist in matters of cultural policy.
(13) ‘Het transparante lichaam. Over de tentoonstelling ‘Körperwelten’ en weersprekende figuren van obsceniteit’ [‘The transparent body. On the exhibition Körperwelten and rambunctious figures of obscenity’], Oikos (August 2002).
(14) ‘Of teenkaas lekker is? ‘Map me’ van Charlotte Vanden Eynde in Vooruit’ [‘Whether toe cheese is tasty? Map me by Charlotte Vanden Eynde at Vooruit’], De Morgen, 10 December 2003 (original author’s version).
(15) This notion is used by Peeters in: ‘Verzwijgt de danser dat hij spreekt?’ [Does the dancer keep silent that he speaks?’], Etcetera, vol. 24, no. 103 (September 2006).
(16) ‘Eloquent sprakeloos. Over taal in het recente werk van Vera Mantero’, Etcetera, jg. 21, nr. 85 (Februari 2003). English translation: ‘Eloquently Speechless. On language in recent work of Vera Mantero’, 3T, Tidsskrift for teori og teater, vol. 2, no. 13, 2004, pp. 18-25
(17) ‘Een onmogelijke pas de deux. Over kijken en schrijven in het tijdperk van de visuele cultuur’ [‘An impossible pas de deux. On looking and writing in the era of visual culture’], Boekman, vol. 15, no. 57 (Fall 2003).
(18) ‘Dance Critic: Profession, Role, Personage, Performance?’, Stationen 6, May 2004, pp. 11-18
(19) ‘Ruggelings. Omtrent zware denkbeelden, blinde hoeken en weifelende kritiek’ [‘Through the back. On heavy thought images, blind spots and wavering critique’], Etcetera, vol. 23, no. 99 (December 2005).
(20) In the fall of 2003 he discusses Baervoets’ performance Schäme Dich as an utterance of ‘formal expressionism’ (‘Lichtbreking door het lichaam. Nieuw werk van Alexander Baervoets en Katrien Van Aerschot op Spectra van de dans’ [‘Refraction of light. New work of Alexander Baervoets and Katrien Van Aerschot at Spectra of Dance’], De Morgen, 8 October 2003 (original author’s version)) and in April 2005 he does the same in a review of Incubator by Philipp Gehmacher: ‘Voorbij de aanraking. Philipp Gehmacher met ‘Incubator’ in Berlijnse Hebbel am Ufer’ [‘Beyond touch. Philipp Gehmacher with Incubator at Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin’], De Morgen, 8 April 2005 (original author’s version).
(21) ‘Verzwijgt de danser dat hij spreekt?’, Etcetera, vol. 24, no. 103 (September 2006). The theme of a critical expressionism is developed further by Peeters in, among others, reviews of walk+talk, a series of self-portraits curated by Philipp Gehmacher: ‘Hoe zichzelf een houding geven, hoe zichzelf uitspreken? Notities bij Philipp Gehmachers walk + talk in Tanzquartier Wien’, Etcetera, vol. 26, no. 112 (June 2008) and ‘Waar staat de dans vandaag & waar gaat hij naartoe? Notities bij Philipp Gehmachers walk + talk in de Kaaistudio’s’, Etcetera, vol. 29, no. 125 (June 2011). English translation: ‘Essays and letters on walk+talk’, Oral Site, February 2013, http://sarma.be/oralsite/pages/Materials3/.
(22) Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, Stanford CA, 2000, p. 4. Quoted in: Jeroen Peeters, ‘“Wij” zeggen, een extreme oefening. Over Vera Mantero’s choreografie van het samenleven’ [‘The extreme exercise of saying “we”. On Vera Mantero’s choreography of living together’], Etcetera, vol. 25, no. 109 (December 2007).
(23) Jeroen Peeters (ed.), Are we here yet? Damaged Goods/Meg Stuart, Dijon, 2010.
(24) ‘‘Wij’ zeggen, een extreme oefening. Over Vera Mantero’s choreografie van het samenleven’, Etcetera, vol. 25, no. 109 (December 2007).
(25) ‘Samenleven op de scène. Notities bij recent werk van Laurent Chétouane en Boris Charmatz’ [‘Living together on stage. Notes on recent work by Laurent Chétouane and Boris Charmatz’], Etcetera, vol. 29, no. 124 (March 2011). English translation taken from: ‘A Noisy Political Phantasm. Boris Charmatz presents Levée des conflits at Théâtre de la ville in paris’, corpus, 16 Dec. 2010, www.corpusweb.net
(26) ‘Jennifer Lacey & Nadia Lauro, Les Assistantes’, Etcetera, vol. 26, no. 114 (December 2008).
(27) ‘Sara Manente, Faire un four’, Etcetera, vol. 29, no. 127 (December 2011). English translation: ‘Gesturing history, practice and idiosyncrasy. On Sara Manente’s Faire un Four’, Corpus, 18 Dec. 2011, www.corpusweb.net
(28) Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-François Lyotard: Ecrits sur l’art contemporain et les artistes / Writings on Contemporary Art and Artists, Herman Parret (ed.) & Vlad Ionescu & Peter W. Milne (co-ed.), Leuven, 2012.
(29) ‘“Met de helderheid neemt de kou toe.” Speech bij ontvangst van de Pierre Bayleprijs voor danskritiek 2012’ [‘“The cold increases with the clarity.” Acceptance speech for the Pierre Bayle Prize for dance criticism 2012’], 4 December 2012. Available at www.sarma.be