The body in difference

Fama 1 Jan 2000English

item doc

Contextual note
First published in Fama, vol.1, nr 1 (2000), pp. 7-13

The body is not evident

The problems brought to the transcultural performer in contemporaneity gain a specific twist once we consider the body dancing in another culture. Dance has been an art form to which a partial utopian hope of a trans-cultural, trans-ethnic, trans-religious communication by the means of the body’s presence and mobility. A strong discourse still portrays dance as a ”universal” art form, through which we can all, as humans, communicate and share our common experiences. According to such discourse, the guarantors to this transcultural sharing are first, the body, considered the zero degree of culture, and, secondly, the body’s movements, considered the zero degree of communication.

On the contrary, anthropology and cultural theory have been instrumental in demonstrating that the body and its gestures are not so evident. The body lives in a paradox: it is its very “nature” that turns it into the first and most important site of cultural intervention. Therefore the body and its physicality emerge as diverse as any language. In his classical essay Techniques of the Body, first published in 1935, Marcel Mauss has showed how different cultures perform different techniques, how different cultures imply different corporealities. In cultural theory and history, the legacy of Michel Foucault’s project could be summarized as a refined argument how the body is historically inscribed into disciplinary regimes and on how historical processes transform the body into a site of recognition but of mis-recognition and mis-understanding. “Nothing in a man” he wrote, “not even his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men” (Foucault, 1977)

The project of multiculturalism, if we can call it a project, is to take into consideration the complexity of these historical processes and reflect upon the ethnical consequences and political impact provoked into a same space of convergence.

What happens when those bodies, so diverse and unstable in their presence, so hard to recognize in their physicality and expression, start to inhabit other cultures ? And what happens when this habitation becomes not a curious accident of intrusion but the sociological rule of the moment ? To answer these questions is to start to address the problem of bodily transfiguration through cultural displacement. This is a necessary concern for any multicultural approach to perform and one that requires some time to dwell on it, since it is my belief that the economy of dance presentation in Europe today has generally fallen into a problematic mode when trying to address the “problem” of the dancing body in another culture. The simple fact of inviting “others” to perform on Europe’s stage is considered an ethical gesture. The danger of this position is that we run the risk of a morbid hygiene of the gaze , where the stage becomes a safe haven where we can gaze at othered- bodies, but where we can never encounter them. This is a very disturbing state of affairs, given the history of intercultural performance in Europe and its colonialist roots. It is my belief that as dancers, as choreographers, as critics of dances and as presenters of dancers, it’s our obligation to figure out how to make our work (inter)culturally relevant and responsible, and not fall into the traps of celebratory and suspicious clichés of the wonders of multi-culturalism. Which means that the first step to a performance theory in other in other cultures is to understand how the body from another culture becomes the body of the Other.

Recently, anthropologist Richard G. Fox summarized the predicament of contemporaneity by saying that ours is a time defined by the fact that often “the alien inhabits the familiar” (Fox, 1991: 2). Fox’s phrasing of the situation is interesting and deserves some careful examination. The opposition “alien/familiar” regarding a “home” Fox sets up, suggests that the intrusion of the “familiar” by foreign bodies implies more than a simple co-presence of diverse bodies in the same “room” whether this “room” is that of the nation-state, or the room of the local theatre.

The foreigner arrives. Perceived as different, the foreigner’s odd-sounding words, acoustically hovering outside logos, disrupt the self-contained economy of the familiar. By not-being what we might believe proper-Being should be, the foreigner falls into a position of symbolic ambiguity that is isomorphic to what Freud called the “uncanny” or “Unheimlich”, that disquieting feeling un-familiarity, of not feeling quite at home. Similarly, the alien body inhabiting the boundaries of the “familiar” provokes a sense of the utter discomfort for being almost like us … yet not quite. For the alien is from another place; the alien’s body is an/other.

Freud writes that “something must be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny”.(Freud, 1953-’73: 221). What is added to the novelty of the foreigner’s presence is the supplement of the family’s worst fears. The diversity brought by the alien’s presence, as insignificant as that diversity might actually be (a curlier hair, a differently shaped eye, or nose), becomes a site of sensorial fixation for those belonging to the home. In this process, the foreigner’s body goes through a complex re-arrangement, performed by a play between the discursive practice under which he or she is perceived and classified, and the modes of behaviour that further fixes the foreigner’s identity. Under sensorial scrutiny, the displaced body of the foreigner becomes much more than a body from elsewhere : enduring amplification, distortion, fragmentation, fetishization, distortion, it becomes a body marked as irrevocably different. And it will be as different that the foreigner will gain his or her new identity : the legal status of an “alien”, whether within or without the boundaries of legitimacy. Invested with this new, odd identity, the foreigner in another culture lives in a double bind situation : at the same time the foreigner is pushed to occupy a position structurally opposite to the familiar, the foreigner is also accused of occupying that same liminal, often marginal, place in society. From simply different, alien becomes different itself.

To what place is the alien assigned to within the laws of a home, of that familiar that he or she now both disrupts and inhabits ? Marked as liminal, irrevocably pushed into a position of radical alterity, the alien plays a very particular role in the organisation of a home : the body who secures the boundaries of the familiar and of identity by means of its social marking and segregation brought by accusation of being different (Butler,1933). Being from another place suddenly can be used as an accusation, or even as proof of the alien’s different race. Thus difference, from an ideological organization of the senses, becomes reified into “fact”.

Franz Fanon described in his classic essay The fact of blackness the mechanisms under which the bodies become racialized under the scrutiny of the hegemonic gaze (Fanon, 1967). For Fanon, the foreign body is introjected; the subject starts to believe in this alterity, in his un-homely essence that is being attached to him. At the moment one is perceived and marked as being Other, it is very experience of the marked subject’s own body that endures transformation. In a perverse mimetic twist, it is the alien who starts to perceive his own body as uncanny, no longer familiar, even to himself. This is a very important theoretical refinement brought by Fanon to critical theories of the body in through scopic and discriminatory regimes. A theory of the dancing body in another culture must take into consideration this link between the process of creating alterity and the impact such process has upon actual physical experiences, upon the body itself.

Salman Rushdie powerfully illustrated the effects of discursive practices of exclusion upon displaced bodies accused of being different. In The Satanic Verses (which is a book on the metamorphic effects of the politics of displacement and dislocation) he lists these metamorphosis of othering, in a passage where racialized bodies become monstrous under the accusation of difference : “There are businessmen from Nigeria who have grown sturdy tails. There is a group of holidaymakers from Senegal who were doing no more than changing planes when they turned into slippery snakes {…} ‘But how do they do it ?’ Chamka wanted to know. ‘They describe us’, the other whispered solemnly. ‘That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.” (Rushdie, 1992 : 168)

This literary example illustrates the mechanism of a central conceptual tool in a current performance theory, namely the relationship between the performative speech-act and performance in the broadest sense. (1) When the foreigner is accused of being an abject (a ‘dirty nigger’, a ‘ratjew’, a ‘smelly-yellow’), his body is violently pushed into a discursive economy that speech-act theory calls ‘a performative’ (Austen, 1962).

Feminist theorist Judith Butler explains that a “performative is that discursive practice that enacts or produces that which it names” (Butler, 1993 : 13, emphasis added). Jacques Derrida explains the concept of preformative from pure linguistics to demonstrate that the performative not only produces that which it names but it re-produces what it names : the performative always replicates a model, a socially endorsed and accepted law of conduct.

Examples of performative utterances associated with the reproduction of a social code are sentencing a prisoner, declaring matrimony, naming a child. In a performative utterance, the speech-act transforms the status of the body of those which are spoken to. This change of status is enforced through bodily discipline, sensorial modulation, physical education, mimetic representation. The naming will create different corporealities, just as the naming of foreigners as animals in Rushdie’s passages literally transform those human bodies into monsters.

Finally, by showing the performative power of words upon bodies, Rushdie also opens up the possibility of a reversed effect of bodies upon words. This is instrumental once one starts to consider the implication of seeing art-form that rely heavily on the presentation of bodies such as dance, and particularly important once one tries to address and write about intercultural dance performances. For what I believe Rushdie is also trying to say is that the body is not itself evident. To see is an act of blindness and transformation of the object perceived. This is a particularly disturbing statement to make once we have in mind dance and its trust on the “universality” of the body, and its investment on “seeing”.(2) For the body in another culture, dancing body included, always thrives on a risky position regarding its visibility. Perceiver as a body that is not readable, assigned to the place of difference, mystery, alterity, this body becomes opaque and can only exist as an (optic) translation.

To be in another culture is to live a body translated. The alien is translated into something else, but the alien must also translate himself into something else. The latter translation occurs not only in a few muscular configurations the lips must learn to perform, the tongue must learn to dance, but it is the whole body that becomes a site of translation. The alien, inhabiting what others consider the boundaries of their familiar, soon discovers that an adopted posture is not so appropriate as he or she thought it was, and proximity to others provokes discomfort. The alien might discover even that he or she gives away presence by smell never before perceive. Gestures becomes awkward and failing to evoke the expected reciprocation.

The alien’s body dances in void, without partnering or recognition. And there, all our problems, as dancers, dance-critics, and dance presenters of inter-cultural performers start.

Dancing in the Void

All these movement, gestures and discourses that constitute our present choreography of intolerance and that organize and regulate certain bodies as radically different are contemporary to the fact that perhaps never as now have we lived in a time when, on the stages of the industrialised west, we can see so much dance, theatre, music and performance from “the rest of the world”. The western audience is constantly engaged in viewing those bodies as spectacle. On the other hand, the predicament of the contemporary performer is to be globetrotter, and to inhabit other people’s “familiar” : their country, their city, their local theatre. The economic viability of the performer necessities his or her inclusion, precisely and paradoxically, within the logic of the free-circulating commodity. The irony of what otherwise might be seen as the quintessential wonder of our post-modern condition is that, historically, it is precisely as spectacular commodity that the racial, ethnic, religious “other” have achieved some sort of visibility and acceptance in the west. Through the reification of the “fact” of “familiar” was in itself spectacular, , and thus promoted, emphasized, choreographed, masked, just as Rushdie’s travellers.(3)

The survival of the contemporary performer demands not only his or her trans-national circulation, but – and herein lies the perverse effect of this wild economy – it quite often demands that the other performs … Otherness. The other becomes a mirror image of what we expect the Other to be. Thus the alien’s unfamiliar, uncanny, gestures can be safely included in the logic of the exotic, and thus commodified, fetishized, tamed and revered. These gestures, mannerisms, costumes, postures, feathers, glances becomes trademarks, signs of recognition, and are further imposed on the performer of exoticization of the foreigner. Sometimes the only way out from the marginal position.

By now it must be obvious that the continual motion of “other” bodies in the stages of the industrialized west thus implies more than a simple dislocation in our glorifies era of rapid travelling. It is essential that the foreigner’s presence is not at all evident, and uncomplicated. This presence is charged with history, with crossed words, accusations, violence, desire; with the intricate identity politics of contemporaneity. The presence of the performing body in another culture implicates a very complex negotiation of identities, where “the fact of difference” guarantees the reproduction and perpetuation of a certain organization of the gaze. The challenge for the cultural worker, for the performer, for the writer, and for the audience is to figure out how writer, and for the audience is to figure out how the body of the audience is to figure out how the body of the travelling performer, in (yet) another culture, can still emerge with sense and integrity within this ideological and political predicament. The challenge is how to relate to a different corporeality without domesticating it, nor assigning to it an intangible exoticism, voiced often under a discourse of radical difference.

Brutal Facts and Dancing Bodies

It is within this gridlock of difference that contemporary discourses on inter-culturalism, multiculturalism, cultural identity and the politics of cultural encounter, either from the far left to the far right, and all that lies in between, have confined these bodies in a sort of repetitive loop, from which the only variation seems to be the political “charge” attached to the term “difference” and the ontological status implies. What invariably remains to be questioned is the fact of difference itself.

The gridlock of difference creates a complicated, and problematic, theoretical and ethical when trying to address bodies performing outside their cultures, particularly when those performances are dance performances. Consider how the gridlock of difference emerges in the recent and otherwise very cogent essay by dance ethnographer Sally Ann Ness Observing the Evidence Fail (Ness, 1996). In her essay, Ness formulates a critique of dance ethnography as a form of translation of cultural difference. She considers four different cross-cultural approaches and methodologies in dance ethnography. Evans-Pritchard’s model study of Azande dances in the 1920’s, Judith Lynn Hanna’s and Adrianne Kaepler’s semiotic models in the 1970’s, and the contemporary work of dance theorist Avanthi Meduri. Ness shows how for the first three researchers, increasing sophistication in the ethnographic analysis of dances (both in observational tools and skills as well as in ethnography’s own epistemic insights regarding its hermeneutic limits and ethnocentrism), leads nevertheless to an ultimate failure in comprehending and culturally translating a dance-object from one culture to another. This failure, according to Ness, from what she identifies as being the “brute fact of difference” (Ness, 1996 : 246). The factuality and brutality of difference marks, for Ness, the limits of any cross-cultural translation and thus forecloses any optimism regarding a totally successful cross-cultural understanding. This violent differentiation, Ness’s radical perception of the Other as always irretrievable, as always mysterious, leads het to conclude that in any cross-cultural situation, the only hope is to accept the other’s radical difference as such and to try to enact “new forms of tolerance” and of “cross-cultural respect” (Ness, 1996 : 246).

This view of radical differentiation as fact is further emphasized by Ness when, in the conclusion of her essay, she introduces and discusses a model that she sees as the only one that may reduce the insurmountable gab between two cultures. In a moment of theoretical mimesis, Ness presents this alternative model emphasizing its difference with regards to the ones previously criticised. Ness writes : “Despite their differences, Evans-Pritchard, Hanna, and Kaepler all share in their writing a similar cultural predicament. All are self-defined as culturally different from the dance they study. All seek to gain understanding via the observation of dancing bodies also defined as culturally different from their own.” (Ness, 1996 : 261).

For Ness, the way out of gridlock of radical difference is to propose a model where the researcher “includes no object or territory marked as culturally mysterious or familiar” (Ness, 1996 : 262). One must be a “cultural insider” (ib. 262), and Ness proceeds to give paradigmatic example of an insider ethnography : the work of dance theorist Avanthi Meduri. Meduri’s cultural identification with the dance-object she analyses is perceived by Ness as the only way for any observer to perceive as complete, as “performed so as to be observed, but observed so as to be felt” (Ness, 19962 : 263). This approach, that includes an emotional immersion within the culture by the means of the observer’s body as an insider, has a consequence, according to Ness, that “the cultural difference encountered is understood as an objective reality, not the result of a subjective or conceptual mistake” (Ness, 1996 : 265). This is the gridlock of difference taken to its extreme case : even to an “insider” the familiar is reified as “objectively different”. Freud’s nightmare come true : all is uncanny, all is unfamiliar, except the mirror of the self (mirror image of what the self expects the other to look like, to be and behave).

Given this dire predicament of never being able to overcome the “fact of difference”, the question that one must put forth regarding a cross-cultural analysis of dances being performed in/for different cultures is whether what Ness calls the “brutal fact of difference” is less a fact than an epistemic gridlock, in itself embedded in a cultural bias and dubious ethics that operates through the desire of discontinuity and distancing, that insist of collapsing alterity with radical, ungraspable Otherness.

We must proceed carefully here. Ness’s position in emphasizing difference finds its ethical justification on the necessity of the ethnographer to guarantee the cultural identity and integrity of the cultural objects and of the peoples she studies. As I pointed earlier in this text, one of the pernicious clichés on multiculturalism, intercultural performance, and pan-globalism is the desire to universalise the particular. For the desire often erases subaltern positions and identities in a movement towards a humanism that is nothing more than sugared eurocentrism. This argument is clearly expressed by theatre theorist Una Chaudhuri when she writes that interculturalism in performance “has sometimes seemed to collude in another version of cultural imperialism, in which the West helps itself to the forms and images of others without taking the full measure of the cultural fabric from which these torn” (Chaudhuri, 1991 : 193).

A refined ethnographer, Ness’s quest is to look precisely for a non-hegemonic discourse to read or translate dance that falls outside of any colonialist, racist or paternalistic humanism, that have historically characterized so much of the ethnographic and anthropological projects . (4) However by insistently emphasising cultural discontinuity, by setting up an epistemology so invested in the demarcation of boundaries (and concomitantly with demarcation of “insiders and outsiders”), and by refying what she calls the “fact of difference” as insurmountable, Ness ends up falling into an epistemic dead-end. For Ness, once we face the “brutal fact of difference” all we can do is acknowledge the failure of any project of translation (because we are outsiders) and try to “respect” the other and the other’s “dance-object”. Cultural difference as brutal fact becomes a gridlock : it so powerful as to be inescapable. One can never reach the body marked as other for, as she puts it, “cultural difference is not the consequence of a researcher’s failure to be objective in this sort of cross-cultural study. It is a condition generated by circumstances beyond the dancer/researcher’s control, but one which is contingent upon her activities and bodily participation” (Ness, 1996 : 265). What escapes Ness is that those “circumstances” beyond the ethnographer’s control are precisely those that most urgently must be addressed, and not left outside problematization by the means of a logic that sees them as “fact”. Otherwise a gap is all there is. One must them look to the margins of the ethnographic gaze, in order to assess under which constraints do its “facts” of difference, of the brutal gap, of respect for the difference, emerge.

The Margins of Ethnology

Edward Said, in his important book Culture and Imperialism addresses the epistemological and ethical consequences of misusing the concept of the cultural difference and of uncritically accepting its factuality. Following Gramsci, Said writes that it is an “inadmissible contradiction” to construct analyses of different “historical experiences around exclusions” (Said, 1994 : 31). The consequences of this positioning, based on “barriers and sides” are thus explained by Said : “If you know in advance that the African or Iranian or Chinese or Jewish or German experience is fundamentally integral, coherent, separate, and therefore comprehensible only to Africans, Iranians, Chinese, Jews or Germans, you first of all posit as essential something which is historically created and the result of interpretation – namely the existence of Africanness, Jewishness, or Germaness, or for that matter Orientalism and Occidentalism” (Said, 1994 : 31- 32).

What is important in Said’s insight is that he is making a very cogent link between a certain epistemological ethics often evident in current multicultural discourses and trans-cultural studies : the essentialization and reification of difference, and the historical necessity of the west to create its own identity and its own colonial experience by the means of creating and reifying the “fact of difference”. Therefore, what could be perceived as the “objective reality” of cultural difference, as in Ness’s reification and naturalization of difference as a “brutal fact”, emerges, under Said’s critique, as being itself a violent epistemology; one that does not take into account that the construction of racial, ethic, and cultural difference has a history. In this sense, one can say that the construction of difference obeys and propels the very project of modernity and colonial expansion; it is a project that is isomorphic to that of the history of the anthropological project and a history further complicated by colonial fantasies, cultural repression, and the desire of the other.

In the expression of cultural critic Robert Young, the term “culture was invented for difference” (Young, 1995 : 49) Young further classifies the purpose of this invention of the concept of culture as difference, when he writes that “culture has always marked cultural difference by producing the Other” (Young, 1995 : 54). Originally this difference was not one of simple statement of factual dissimilarities between cultures; its violence was that of generating and justifying “polygenists who were concerned to emphasize absolute forms of racial difference” (Young, 1995). According to Young, the demise of polygenism gave place to the modern anthropological view of culture as “distinct identities” rather than that of a radical, insurmountable difference. However, what we are seeing more and more in critical theory, post-colonial studies, and in ethnography is an increasing attachment and return to the “fact of difference”, where identities are less “distinct” than they are radically unbridgeable.

We are thus in the realm of politics, epistemology, modernity, colonialism, and aesthetics collapsing upon bodies (and cultures) that will be constructed as radically different. And if one must be careful with the dangers of universalistic discourses that erase any sort of cultural identity in name of a dubious progressive ideology of sameness (for this “sameness” is basically the imposition of a western cultural model), one must also be careful with discourse that renders the other to a radical mysteriousness, reminiscent of what Edward Said called “orientalism”.

Beyond Ethnography : the Task of the Audience

If Ness’ essay addresses the problem of seeing dance cross-culturally for researchers and ethnographers, what can one do as an uninformed, non-expert spectator of a dance performance from a culture “marked as different”? Is it enough to acknowledge the “fact of difference”, sit back and “respect” the show ? What kind of ethnics is implied in this “respect and in ethnography’s acceptance of a radicalised otherness, in ethnography’s reification of brutal difference, that results in nothing but failure to translate dancing bodies ? And if there is failure in translation, is this failure derived from the “essence” of the object being translated, or from the mode by which translation is being performed ? Finally, is there a way to see dances from other cultures without falling into what I have named the gridlock of difference ?

For Ness, the dancing other is radically so. It is in understanding and accepting the fact of failure and the brutality of difference that Ness sees a hope for “cross-cultural respect” and tolerance and understanding. “Comprehension”, however, remains forever a foreign promise when understanding and respect are the only well intentioned response on the gridlock of difference. This cross-cultural respect institutes a sort of polite distance, within the realms of performance, of the theatre of bodies of spectators and performance. As the contemporary performer and dancer becomes a globetrotter he or she must negotiate the implications of this difference made “brutal” by the aesthetic eye of the west.

What is left for us audience of displaced performances – to “understand” the difference and thrive in its radicalness ? What is for us performers and dancers in cultures that are not our own – to accept that no matter what we do we are to be forever mis-understood, forever relegated to radical opaqueness ? There certainly must be more than that for us to do, for us to dance and for us to perceive.

By now the reader must have spotted the apparent paradox in my argument so far : I started this essay by showing how the body is not obvious and self-evident, that the body is not a basis for recognition and that therefore dance is not the promised universal language of communion. I then described how the body in another culture becomes subject to disciplinary and regimental regimes that cast that body as alien and abject. I proceed to explain how Fanon views this process of sensorial discrimination and accusation of difference as being introjected by the racialized other; this introjection’s leads to a de-familiarization with the subject’s own body. By invoking the work of Sally Ann Ness, I engaged in a critique of the processes of differentiation of bodies marked as “Other”. Ness believes that the Other thrives in the realm of the opaque and the failures of cultural translation are not failures in epistemological techniques but that the failure of epistemology is the consequence of the “brutal fact” that this Other is indeed radically different. However, what I proposed was the other’s difference is constructed and begs problematization, particularly when trying to establish an ethnics of trans-cultural performance. I ended up by stating that it is not enough to accept the fact of difference and simply “respect” the other. I am thus challenging a certain opacity of the body of the other. It is in this final challenge emerges : for if I stated that the body is not evident at the beginning of my argument, how can I then propose something more than “respect” to this body’s opaqueness ?

The clarification of this apparent paradox necessitates two moves : first to point out specific examples in the current dance circuit in Europe where the “construction of difference” is obvious fallacious and ideologically blatant, and secondly to consider then what one might call a “distracted” form of cultural “translation”.

Disfigured Bodies

My examples on this marking of difference and the construction of the body exotic may disappoint some of the readers. I will not talk about Indonesian dance in Berlin, or Khatakali in Paris. My examples are strategically more domestic precisely because I want to emphasize how the construction of difference does not require radical bodily diversity, but it is an ideological construction that betrays the eye and provokes a blindness of site and intellect. I will confine myself to Europe and to the construction of difference within it.

1991 was the year when contemporary Portuguese dance massively entered into the European dance circuit through the door of the Klapstuk Festival in Belgium. At the time, I had been invited by the organisation to participate on a seminar on dance criticism, but I was also working as dramaturgist and set-designer for Portuguese choreographer and dancer Vera Mantero, whose solo Perhaps she could dance first and think afterwards, was to be premiered at the festival. Standing between the artistic side and the critic’s side, I had a privileged position to witness the impact of the presentation of bodies marked as somewhat exotic or different and dancing outside their culture in the capital of Europe.

The tension between the desire to include the Portuguese dancers into position of an exotic Other and the blatant confusion their work provoked in the northern European reviewers and presenters were amusing. The work of Mantero was perceived (and soon marked) as one portraying a “Portuguese housewife”. That Mantero was dancing to Thelonious Monk, referring to a line of Beckett’s in the title of her solo, and had spent the previous year in NYC researching dance, theatre and voice techniques seemed irrelevant to the critics, who eagerly wanted to see in her the embodiment of Mediterranean femininity and passion (whatever that means). After the premiere, I proposed a change in the set, a proposal that encountered resistance by the Belgian producers since it would cut the “Portugueseness” of the work (the change eventually took place). Mantero was lucky however, as her unquestionable talent met the desire of a group of producers from Belgium, France and Holland to support her work. However, in the negotiations for the co-production of her next piece, the anxiety before the other, again that uncanny feeling that Freud so well described as a sense of disorientation brought by the almost (but not quite) familiar overcame the producers : in a moment of telling cultural anxiety a demand was made that if Mantero was to be financed she would have to work with a “dramaturgist from the North” in order for funding to go through.

The “dramaturgist from the North” demand constitutes an incredible moment of cultural anxiety before the other. Obviously a symptom rather than a request, it was soon perceived as an absurd request by the producers and that ominous figure from the North never materialized. But the fact there was a request and the way it was phrased is telling : for this request sets boundaries, it defines fields and it casts bodies with too familiar contours : the southerner is irresponsible, uncontrollable, dangerous in terms of economic investment, while reason, responsibility, and control define the northern part of Europe (whatever that means, geographically). Fortunately, Mantero’s work could continue, undomesticated by any regulations and flourish into one of the most intriguing contemporary dances. This did not happen to another “southerner” whose work was presented at Klapstuk 91, Spanish choreographer Monica Valenciano, whose extraordinary piece was criticized as an old-fashioned work, “from the seventies”. This criticism, that accuses the Other of not being “of the moment” (of being doubly late, culturally and technologically) is a well described phenomenon in cultural theory : it is the predicament of anything that comes from anywhere else that the center of the modern, as if parts of the world were lagging in time, as if synchronicity is something measured by the clocks of the dramaturgists and critics and presenters of the North, as if chronology was a matter of geography.

Recently, again in Lisbon, the dance festival Danças na Cide 96, brought together a series of names that were first introduced to the European audience in that same Klapstuk 91. Vera Mantero, Francisco Camacho, Meg Stuart (the festival itself was first launched and still co-directed by Monica Lapa who also danced in that Klapstuk). As Vera Mantero and Meg Stuart sat next to each other on stage, talking about their experiences in CrashLanding@Leuven, I thought about the Portuguese influence in the work of Stuart. Her trio Disfigure Study, a piece whose reviews highlighted its “newness” and “social relevance” to the times, was created with two younger Portuguese dancers, choreographer Francisco Camacho and Charlota Lagido (Lagido was also costume designer for Stuart’s second piece No longer Readymade). Camacho presented a solo in Klapstuk 91, read as profoundly Portuguese (which, for the critics as cultural translator is never a good thing : it is not “contemporary” enough, and it is not ”exotic” enough .. it is “old”). I thought also how Meg Stuart and I saw together a few days before a choreography by Francisco Camacho, Dom São Sebastião. At the end of the show, both Meg and I went backstage to talk to Camacho. As we were congratulating him for his piece, an American presenter approached us. She was really excited about Francisco’s work, she said, she thought it was a wonderful piece, very well done. Then the “brutal fact” of difference, once again : “But …It’s so …Portuguese”, she said, “how am I going to present it ?”

I thought about feathers at the moment : dress the dancers in feathers, paint their bodies, lock the dancers in a cage, make them sing fado and drink wine, perform whatever expectations they want us to perform, become a monster, change your body, betray your language, go “savage” and “southern” for the sake of cultural translation, for the sake of making sure your difference is marked as factual, real difference, and a difference we can all see and feel happily while not being able to empathize with it … Maybe then your work will gain some respect, some cross-cultural respect, as the last specimen of the lost species is revered and petted in a local zoo. I thought about this spiral of continuous differentiation that generates nothing but an increased indifference and horror to the slightest mark of cultural or historical discrepancy : are we all destined to either become clones of the same model, for the sake of “understanding” ? Are the bodies marked as “non-modern”, as non-western, forever destined to become clones of the same model of whatever the west portray them to be for the sake of keeping their position of alterity within the economy of the familiar ?

The pathology of the European dance viewer today (and by viewers I mean audiences, critics, presenters, producers, but some choreographers too …) is the laziness in his or her seeing, the lack of desire towards any intellectual exercise. In the past couple of years I attended conferences on multiculturalism and the theatre, multiculturalism and dance filled with words and emptied of the presence of this glorified “Other”. I have seen the work of extraordinary choreographers, Sardono Kusumo, Vera Mantero, Lin Hwai-Min, and many other being consistently reduced by marketing agent, dance critics, dance presenters, to whatever they believe their putative ethnicity, national origin or any kind of alterity marker might be. This reduction is a prison, disguised as a liberation and celebratory discourse. It is a prison built out of guilt and an utter lack of imagination. The most dangerous of all lacks : that of not knowing what to do and how to behave before a body from another culture. In a spoken address to the International Conference Why Theatre, held at the University of Toronto in November of 1995, Julia Kristeva made precisely this point : that one of the most worrisome pathologies of today’s society is the lack of knowledge of how to be (behaviourally, ontologically) before the other. It is then a question of identity, but it is also and very much so, a choreographic question of identity : of how I want my body to interact with the body of the other ?

What we are witnessing today is spreading of the repression of the mimetic capacity, propelling discourses on radical cultural difference and brutal cultural incomprehension. The problem, however, is not of the object, the problem lies in the uncritical demands on what this translation means to be a partner of the other’s dancing body, which is the role that the audience must fill.

The simple but fundamental fact that any performance exists in the present and by means of presence (of the performer, of the audience) implies that it is in that ritual contemporaneity that performances finds its ontology and its ethical promise, its strength. In this co-presencing , there will always lie the potential for confrontation, for misunderstanding, for hate, between those who perform and those who are watching. However, there will always also lie the potential for an encounter, at least with our own self. Thus, the question one must pursue is no longer who are those bodies on the stage that confront me. How can I transform that delicate moment of co-habitation that the room of the theatre provokes into a moment of familiarity and of gift? This quest is what gives the stage only its purpose. And what gives life to dance.

(1) See Peggy Phelan (Phelan, 1993), Judith Butler (Butler, 1990; Butler, 1993).
(2) For a critique of dance history, dance theory and dance criticism’s attachment to vision see Franko (1995).
(3) For an extraordinary account of this “other history” of multicultural performance and its implications with colonialism and exoticism of the foreigner as Other-as-spectacle, see Coco Fusco’s “The Other History of Intercultural Performance” (Fusco, 1995).
(4) See Sally Ann Ness’s exemplary ethnography of a Philippine community (Ness, 1992).


Austen, J.L., How To Do Things With Words. Second Edition ed. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1962.
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York : Routledge, 1990.
Butler, Judith, Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York and London : Rout ledge, 1993.
Chaudhuri, Una, The Future of the Hyphen. Interculturalism, Textuality, and the Difference Within. In Interculturalism and Performance, edited by B. Marranca and G. Dasgupta. New York : PAJ Publications, 1991.
Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks. New York : Grove Press, 1967.
Foucault, Michel, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’. In Language, Counter-memory, Practice, edited by D.F. Bouchard. Ithaca, New York : Cornell University Press, 1977.
Fox, Richard G., ed., Recapturing Anthropology. Working in the Present. Edited by D.W. Schwarts, School of American Research, Advanced Seminar Series. Santa Fe, New Mexico : School of American Research, 1991.
Franko, Mark, Dancing Modernism / Performing Politics. Bloomington and Indianapolis : Indiana University Press, 1995.
Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Uncanny’, In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by J. Strachey. London : Hogarth Press, 1953-1973. Fusco, Coco, English is Broken Here. New York : New Press, 1995. Ness, Sally Ann,Body, Movement, Culture. Kinesthetic and visual Symbolism in a Philippine Community. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Ness, Sally Ann, ‘Observing the Evidence Fail. Difference Arising from Objectification in Cross-Cultural Studies of Studies of Dance’. In Moving Words. Re-Writing Dance, edited by G. Morris. New York and London : Routledge, 1996.
Phelan, Peggy, Unmarked. The Politics of the Performance. London and New York : Routledge, 1993.
Rushdie, Salman, The Satanic Verses. Dover, Delaware : The Consortium, Inc., 1992.
Said, Edward W., Culture and Imperialism. New York : Vintage Books, 1994.
Young, Robert J.C., Colonial Desire. Hybridity in theory, culture and race. London and New York : Routledge, 1995.