Dance without distance

André Lepecki on the collapsing barriers between dancers, choreographers, critics, and other interested parties

Ballettanz 1 Feb 2001English

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The collapse of stable figures in the field of dance making and dance writing that we have been experiencing in the past 25 years, together with an exponential emergence of different types of collaborations and cross disciplinary contaminations can only be welcomed. So far, it has generated an extraordinarily creative impetus. An impetus that not only reconstituted compositional practices of dance, but that reshaped the very ways dance criticism, dance theory, and dance production are understood today. The active effort to tear down disciplinary autonomies and to pursue dance as a field of knowledge rather than a distancing motion reserved to fetishised, silent bodies, is what gives the work of Pina Bausch, William Forsythe, Meg Stuart, Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Vera Mantero, Boris Charmatz their intensity and depth. This shift, first of all, can be characterised by the collapse of labour and aesthetic barriers between dancers, choreographers, producers, promoters, critics, academics, and the audience. In the new landscape, the choreographer claims a theoretical voice, the critic emerges as producer, the agent writes dance reviews, the philosopher tries some steps, the audience is invited to join as both student and practitioner.

What becomes urgent, then, is to investigate what the new "critical distances" should be like, when all seems to move towards a denial of such distancing. The need to consider the problem of distancing is not only crucial for understanding how critical discourse keeps up with the new configurations of the field, but most importantly, it is crucial for an understanding of how this new proximity can generate and maintain a new ethical space and discourse in the dance market. In this search, in which the old epistemological request for distance as central premise for critical thought may be absolutely undermined, it seems to me crucial to understand the genealogy of our current predicament in order to make the best use of it. This essay is then a first step, dealing less with solutions, but more on situating the frame of the problem.

In the concluding chapter of his most recent book 'Critical Moves', dance scholar Randy Martin elegantly deconstructs the many epistemological twists through which the project of modernist aesthetics forces itself as irresistible narrative upon much contemporary visions of "what is dance". According to Martin, the force of such a narrative has had a profound effect of inertia in dance studies (particularly in allowing political readings of dances). This point had previously been explored by Mark Franko, and Susan Manning. What Martin adds to the equation is how such a narrative is predicated upon a forced stabilisation of dance as "pure movement", and how this forced stabilisation shapes market, pedagogical, critical, theoretical, and ultimately the creative forces within the contemporary dance field.

Martin's arguments may be summarised as follows: until recently, the "point of reference" to any identification of dance as an autonomous art-form had been "body movement". But, once "body movement" loses its centrality in the compositional practices of many choreographers of the past 25 years, this definitional basis of dance must endure re-conceptualisation. One of the main consequences of such re-conceptualisation is that in order for the definitional privileging of "dance as pure movement" to operate as an (ideological, critical) absolute, it necessitates the implementation (and continuous critical reinforcement) of the idea of a total divide between dance and "quotidian uses of the body". Once this divide is securely in place, the figure that emerges to bridge the gap between an autonomous dance and this "quotidian bodies" witnessing it, is that of the critic. Thus, by the means of a deeper excavation of the sociological implications brought by the definitional hegemony of aesthetic modernism in the dance field, Martin maps the dynamics by which a neat triangulation fixates dances "being" in a locked epistemological stability. The vertices of such a stable definitional triangle are constituted by the "dance", the "critic" and the "audience". And the epistemological stability comes from the fact that we always know what dance "is"; and we know who will tell us what each dance "means".

What is crucial to understand and to extrapolate from Martin’s analysis, is that such stability has major market, ethical, theoretical, and compositional implications-predicated on a neatly fixed division of labour assigned to the "dance", the "critic", and the "audience". Note how, in this triangular equation of aesthetic modernism, the fourth partner, the producers, drops out, remains unmarked. This is the camouflaging of the producer's major ally, the ultimate propeller of movement within aesthetic modernism: capital. And note how, in this grid, "the corollary of movement purity in dance practice is a presumed autonomy for the aesthetic in the realm of theory, which is-what grounds-the authority of the theorist or critic". This last step in Martin's argument has an extraordinarily relevance for an understanding of current trends in the making and the marketing of contemporary dance (most notably in Europe). For, in the present scene, where critical distance is collapsing what remains unmarked is the force of capital in the forging of new alliances: for these new alliances between choreographer and theorist, programmer and critic, dancer and dramaturge, are what ultimately forges the attribution of values to dance.

Once this "ideal of aesthetic autonomy" is challenged by the collapse of distancing, it is the "whole modernist theory of criticism", with its dynamics of neat labour divisions and epistemological selfcontainment, that is put into question. And since this modernist theory of criticism is predicated upon the epistemological stability of a triangle that cordons off its parts from discursive contaminations (for the sake of an ideal of aesthetic purity), what one now must ask, after Martin is: what are the new dynamics for ethical and critical discourses on dance and dance production within the newly developed paradigmatic shifts in contemporary dance-making?

Randy Martin locates the founding movement of this neatly divided fields in which dance remains self-secluded in its purity as strict movement in John Martin's 1939 statement that "all dance is essentially one in so far as it is the externalisation of the inner, emotional force of some kind in terms of body movement". I like to locate the founding moment for the collapse of the neatly divided dance field when Pina Bausch dared to ask dancers a question. By positioning the dancer in the place of producer of knowledge rather than passive recipient of previously elaborated steps, and by allowing the dancers's expressivity to escape from the self contained realm of "pure movement", Bausch was changing the entire epistemological stability of the dance field. (Other "disturbing" elements in her process of working also contibruted for further dismantling such stability, most notably the intrusion of the dramaturge in the dance studio). The shift proposed by Bausch was not only compositional, aesthetic or dramaturgical. Its maximum impact was primarily epistemological: by asking questions and listening to answers, she transformed the field of dance by redistributing the position of "who detains the knowledge". It is no longer the choreographer, in the studio; no longer, the critic, in the interface between the purity of the dance and its audience. Now, the different dancers, the dramaturge, the designers share with the choreographer the same premise of departing from "not knowing" and using dance as a field of knowledge. From then on, the doors were open to all sorts of collapses. The neat stability of the epistemological triangle under which dance found its purity and that grounded the authority of the critic and the theorist is undermined. We are now in a totally different field.

This where we tread now: we expect the theorist to perform. The choreographer experiments with radical philosophical theorems. The critic is curating a festival that will be reviewed by a manager or a dramaturge. Within these new alliances, much is gained; most importantly the establishments of dance as field for knowledge making, for philosophical experimentation, for corporeal and conceptual contagion between dancers and other "quotidian bodies" of knowledge, disciplines, affiliations. What remains unmarked, however, just as in the previous, aestheticised modernist model of artistic and theoretical distancing, is how in this new circuit for dance and for the theoreticians, for critics and producers one should deal with the issue of capital. For it is here, in this forever dark zone of money and policies and alliances, now sublimated into the real of an alliance with "theory", that is the issue of dance's "value" continues to turn around its old pattern.


Hal Foster, The return of the real, Cambridge 1996

Susan Foster, Textual evidances, in: Bodies of the text, New Brunswick 1995

Mark Franko, Dancing modernism, Performing politics, Bloomington 1995

Susan Manning, Modernist Dogma and Post-modern rhetoric, in: The drama review vol. 34, no. 4 (T120), New York 1978

Randy Martin, Critical moves, Durham 1998