On Through the Back: Situating Vision between Moving Bodies by Jeroen Peeters

Sarma 22 Jul 2014English

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Contextual note
This text was read by Philipp Gehmacher on July 22, 2014 at the Schauspielhaus in Vienna, on the occasion of the book launch of 'Through the Back' at the ImPulsTanz festival.

To discuss a book that contains a collection of essays on contemporary dance by a writer, dramaturge and performer, whom I have known for 13 years seems to be too challenging an endeavour. I immerse myself however in a reading of his reflections which seem to be actual extensions of the choreographic works discussed. I engage in his discerning readings of choreographic and performative practices that have partly shaped my own practice and thus become aware of the artistic concerns back then, maybe even agendas that have made their way to that (almost) public event of theatre.

Jeroen Peeters’ writings remind me of theatre as a medium as such and on the other hand the theatres we still seem to approach and inhabit to experience something. Witnessing perhaps our embodied beings or just plainly the physical site called body that produces the questions as much as the witnessing of dance. And I come to realise that I engage with a writer and a writing method in and of the theatrical event. I am reminded of my own history and I feel I cannot comment upon this book without throwing myself into thoughts and concerns, emotions and sentiments I partly distrust as I don’t have the distance to the matters in question or the actual contexts that produced them. Maybe the time of writing these essays produces a sense of immediacy within me, maybe like watching Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood (2014), and therefore sometimes equally touching, because you can feel that the author has written some of these essays back then when he was a young man and I was a young man.

But am I reviewing his writing, a writing that seems to equally be a method of world-making through excavating meaning from choreographic events? Or am I reviewing in fact the artists and their artistic works with all their implications? Or is this book more about the actual times, the history those works were produced in, and further the history those works have created? Jeroen Peeters’ words trigger memories and surface interpretations that make some of the works discussed become all lively in my mind again. I relive the moment I sat there myself in Lisbon, witnessing a performance of six characters dressed in washed-out superman costumes, engaging in movements and actions seemingly useless to further any narrative or sequence of events. I remember witnessing a texture of gestures that speak and don’t speak at once and how unsettling yet intriguing some of it was.

Perhaps Peeters’ Through the Back is as much about writing and seeing and writing as a method of world-making, as about the acceptance of one’s complicit, sometimes highly creative and in parts just desire-driven existence to live through and with those choreographic works around us. A living with that world in front and around us when sitting there in the theatre anticipating, expecting or just waiting. Waiting for works that speak as much about life and living life, and further about somewhat choreographed bodies or the body as ultimately still the site that produces the understandings as much as the illusions and fictions that we hold onto and then let go of, formulate and reformulate, to arrive at a texture of experience that could be worth living for and dancing about. I review the attempts of some choreographers to uncover the residual aspects of experience that shape physical existence in order to make the theatre a potential place for witnessing something current, something about the now or just about us. 

And Jeroen Peeters sits quietly and observes, rendering himself again and again aware of the intrinsic parameters of perception and sense-making as a viewer. For him choreographic practices are not difficult to witness and nobody has to entertain him, and the theatre as a potential space for something to take place however long it will take, is welcomed by this patient man.

Alexander Baervoets, Boris Charmatz, Meg Stuart, Benoît Lachambre, Vera Mantero, Philipp Gehmacher, Jennifer Lacey, Nadia Lauro and deufert & plischke, turn away and towards him, extend their time of performance to the infinite without bowing to give recognition to the spectator, they just linger around as washed-out superheroes. The dances Peeters attends to partly disperse all actions in space so his eye has to wander and his mind has to wonder what focus is really about. Bodies are being given the power of mediating entities, filters for what has been or is desired to come, bodies are contextualised yet create contexts and demonstrate in reverse how much contexts are the co-authors of our actions. We read of bodies that are ever so often hinting at the idea of the communal, the social beyond individual and solipsistic existence.

Viewing the moving, performing, dancing and expressing or lingering body from his seat, he is always informed by his history, desires and blind spots. And it is these blind spots that we cannot see and are unaware of, in fact as spectators as much as choreographers, but somehow can learn to perceive as spectators, that are of utmost interest to Jeroen Peeters, having become aware that there’s always more than what meets the eye in contemporary performance.

In Through the Back literary density meets philosophical outlooks, Peter Sloterdijk speaks of the ‘pre-literary text of life’ as shaping existence and occasionally shakes hands with Jean-Luc Nancy, whilst Lisbon holds hands with Brussels and Berlin looks over to Vienna and Vienna looks back up to Brussels again. I wonder what Jennifer Lacey is doing these days and why I don’t know it. I wonder what Vera Mantero is doing these days.

Maybe some parts of the last analogue generation – what does that actually mean? – have been given a portrait with this book. Yet I am aware of the many others that linger next to Jeroen Peeters’ writings and whose history is equally present. I wonder what Jeroen Peeters has to say about William Forsythe, Xavier Le Roy and Jérôme Bel and where Vincent Dunoyer, Jonathan Burrows and La Ribot and so many others are in all of that.

And I think of all the choreographers that have come after them. And how I indebted I am to them. They make me aware or make dance take turns and move on into new directions.

However, on a sidenote, I feel that Jeroen Peeters makes partly present a collection of works and choreographic practices that existed, co-existed, were intertwined or sometimes stepped away from that which was called back then ‘conceptual’. And this brings to the foreground how problematic the term conceptual has always been and in my opinion maybe too readily high-jacked by so many, maybe just borrowed to sense soothing intelligibility that some of the works described in this book could not always deliver.

But this book exists in and should be for the present time and not merely of the past. It makes however the nowness of back then successfully tangible whilst creating the desire to turn towards the possible nowness of now. And that would mean to ask myself where I am at and what I consider worthwhile to put forward and out there right now.


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