Read about It

A response to Jeroen Peeters’s Through the Back: Situating Vision between Moving Bodies

Contact Quarterly Jan 2015English
Contact Quarterly, vol. 40 no. 1, Winter/Spring 2015, pp. 10-12

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Contextual note
Notes for this essay were originally read at the Kaaistudio’s in Brussels, as part of the book launch presented by Sarma and Kaaitheater on May 10, 2014. A recording of this reading is available online at [C.P.]

I started working in Europe in the late ’90s. Going to performances in Brussels I found myself suddenly relieved of the familiarity of the tight-knit social group of the New York Dance scene – I had been living in New York for more than 10 years and would continue living and working there for another 8 or so. I would go to performances in Brussels and literally recognize no one. None of the people onstage, none of the people in the audience. More than allowing me to see more clearly, this allowed me to remain slightly confused. Why were people doing this kind of work? Why were people watching it? The audience was full, the houses were large, the work was experimental and people always brought the performers back for 3 bows. No matter how desultory or enthusiastic the applause, there were always 3 bows.

I loved going to shows in Brussels because I could go see dance and feel it wasn’t about me.

Whether I liked what I was watching or not wasn’t important. It was going on. There was an It.

That’s why I had started dancing: to coordinate myself with an It outside of me but tangible enough to me that I could both move It and be moved by It.

During the time period that Jeroen’s book covers I became more familiar with each of these artists. But at the start, in the late ’90s, I knew Meg Stuart’s work a little from New York. I knew Jennifer Lacey’s better – and her community. I had met Vera Mantero in Lisbon and seen her work and been very impressed. I first saw Benoît Lachambre as a performer in Jennifer Lacey’s work in New York and had also met him in Lisbon. I had never heard of Alexander Baervoets, Philipp Gehmacher, Tino Sehgal, or Thomas Plischke and Kattrin Deufert. Heine Avdal and Yukiko Shinozaki I knew as dancers. I knew of Boris Charmatz because I had a close friend, Joseph Lennon, who had known him as a 19 year old dancer in Régine Chopinot’s work. Trisha Brown was a familiar person to me, although I did not know her work well. I saw all of these people’s work, mostly at the Kaaitheater but also at deSingel in Antwerp, in those first years of visiting Brussels.

Jeroen writes about a curated group of artists with specific aesthetics and some shared influences. As I first started to read Through the Back I experienced a little of the dread I can have in a crowded lobby. It’s not that I’m afraid of any one person. I’m more afraid of the implied regime, the consensus; its weight and effect on my ability to respond directly, to “make my own sense.”

Watching dance puts me in a constant struggle between abstraction and concreteness; between me and you and It. Making sense of dance takes a lot of energy for me. The layers of experience I have are an enchanted forest of voices, entreating me to not get lost or get lost, or notice someone is lost, or let someone go. It’s only interesting for me if I get to hear each of these voices. In order to do that, I have to choose my vantage point carefully. Generally, I choose the perspective of a dancer. I know that by doing this I limit my point of view. Still, although it’s slow, I feel my experience of dance being enriched. So that’s my trick and I’m sticking with it.


Onstage we are people doing things. Sometimes in order to slip the noose of narrative we present ourselves as Things doing things. We have to navigate metaphor carefully. Sometimes I wish there was a warning label, or an encouraging label, to let me know that meanings are free to wander or that this is a metaphor-free zone. Or that I have “permission” to use metaphor, as needed. Postmodern dance, with its foray into the quotidian (mostly human) gesture, launched a neutrality of affect and a relation to the body that insists on the Thingness of the body. Although the artists Jeroen writes about may use metaphor, they are not objectifying themselves or their performers in a violent, display-oriented way nor are they diminishing the realness of a body by allowing it to mean something other than itself. This is possible because their underlying belief is that material itself matters. The body as a tube, or a filter, or a place doesn’t lose agency. The thing-body intra-acts with the thing-space, thing-meaning and thing-audience and creates another Thing; a new body, a new space, a new meaning, a new audience-thing emerges. Oscar Wilde once wrote that metaphor is not an expression of truth, but of desire. (‘On Some Days of The Week,’ Colm Toíbín, London Review of Books 34, no. 9). As a performer, I understand this from within the dancing.

Besides a strong respect for matter, these artists’ work also proposes a non-narrative way of watching. Dance, whether I'm in it as a spectator or a practitioner, has the potential to relieve me of the compulsive search for self-recognition through narrative. I may need narrative to devise and maintain a sense of self, but I don’t need narrative to perceive. This is one of Dance’s peculiar potentials – moving through their own layers of embodied reference dancers can blend and re-place identities. From inside a dance, dancers literally shape-shift and time-travel, but are still present in physical sequence through time and space. Dance is full of fiction, whether or not it uses narrative. Dancers are full of narrative, whether or not it shows. As a dancer, who I am may matter less than what I’m doing, and I may be pretending something invisible, but I still have a story and I know it. My story can be separate from the fiction I can engage with. In the act of dancing, narrative and fiction diffract each other.

This spectral wobble in the relationship between narrative and fiction is a good reason to read and write about a form that doesn’t translate easily into language. Re-imagining and time-traveling through words rather than through images allows a reader to sift through experience less encumbered by tyrannies of the original, authentic, or correct version. The book acts like a score. How I remember the piece Jeroen describes, if I happened to be there (and he always tells you exactly when and where he saw a performance) accompanies my reading. My remembered version is part of what matters to me. A passionate, thorough discussion of something I never saw can still remind me of what matters to me. Even if my relationship to that piece is made up of someone else’s words and my own tangential memories, a fiction emerges, concrete and material.

To find a way to watch, Jeroen calls upon Anamnesis – the process of re-collecting sedimented knowledge and re-experiencing its truth(-iness). “Getting it” as a spectator often involves creating a narrative that fits with my narration of self, a kind of re-collecting of sedimented experience into a recognizable body-buddy who can hang out after the show and “get” my jokes and complaints. “Not getting it” implies slackness, a lack; something has slipped from someone’s grasp. In re-experiencing dances through language the Anamnetic reader narrates through a time-impaired self. A slack-self reaches for what has flown past. Either because I wasn’t actually there, or because I was there and seeing from that moment instead of this newly current moment, a vulnerable, precarious presence emerges. A presence unsure of its currency but a presence for sure.

Reading this book gives me the sense of fiction without narrative in that I am aware of the author’s artistry and clarity of vision but nothing is being proven to me through causality. The collection of light tethers through reference to other times and other artists, thinkers, spectators, writers – the delicate stirring of the sedimented knowledge we watch through – both engage my memory and inspire me to watch again and this time, again, without placing myself at the center of the story. I don’t need to get It, but there is an It and It is not me but It matters to me.


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