Klapstuk #11 bis: introduction

Sarma 25 Oct 2004English

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Contextual note
This lecture was presented as the introduction to the debate 'Klapstuk #11bis", organised by Stuk on October 25, 2004, and chaired by Pieter T'Jonck. You can listen to a recording of the lecture in high - low streaming quality.
A reworked Dutch version appeared as 'Dans en paranoia. Aantekeningen bij Klapstuk #11 (en #10) in Etcetera 95 Feb 2005), pp.49-52.
what are we

It is rather unusual to have a debate about a festival that has long since gone, and, as to that, presented a series of works many of which had already been presented earlier in Belgium, be it not in Leuven. This indicates that there is a kind of ‘contentieux’. This festival obviously reveals something about the artistic conceptions of its curator. That is anyhow his mission. Jérôme Bel however did something more than that: as a curator, he took a position which has become fairly common in fine arts, but is rather unusual in dance, i.e. he presents the whole of his choice as a kind of second-degree art-work, an artwork of artworks. You could say that the artist Bel exploded into many artworks, all of which represent an aspect of his own concerns. This results by no means in a very clear picture of these concerns, but rather ends up as a giant question mark. What is however remarkable, is that this move has been understood sometimes in an entirely different way, notably as a political move. After this festival, it was as if, at least in Belgium, the word ‘conceptual dance’ had once and for all become a clear label for a certain type of contemporary dance, implying in that way also that something of the kind really existed. This however needs to be proven. But there was more to it: ‘Conceptual dance’ came to be perceived as a hybrid, a rival definition of contemporary dance that seems to be at odds with the more general practice of contemporary dance. Indeed, it was said that the festival delineated and at once consecrated a certain course of things within contemporary dance that didn’t suit or oblige everybody within the artistic community and/or in the public. To put it bluntly: ‘conceptual’ dance seems to have attained a degree of self-reflexivity which makes it ultimately uninteresting for a broader public, and even seems to betray things that were at stake in contemporary dance in the decades preceding the turn of the century. Even worse: in ‘conceptual’ dance all emotion and pleasure has been replaced by dry intellectualism. The questions asked in these performances ought better be treated in a paper than on stage. A different, and more positive point of view is also possible however: dance has become a means to think about the relation between the imaginary, the spectator and the performer in a way that is highly critical towards the common construction of images of man and his body or even of society. That is the importance of it, though difficult and hard to enjoy it may be, precisely because it undermines a mode of gazing and phrasing that seems all too self-evident.

Identifying Klapstuk #11 with the moment this movement became visible is by and large mythological for several reasons. The first one is obvious: not all of the works presented here would easily fit the rather blurry concept of ‘conceptual dance’. To be precise: only the works of Cuqui Jerez, Grand Magasin and Amaia Urra might fit the bill of intellectualism. That’s about it. But then again, this in fact proves to be a total mistake, but I will come back to that. Others works, such as that of Prue Lang, obviously don’t, or do so only partially. Secondly: at least five or six years before this festival, one could see a major shift in the way young choreographers and dancers were defining contemporary dance for themselves. Instead of developing consistent oeuvres in the way the generations before them did, they were involved in a wide range of experimental works, with different partners, at different places, and very often without a clear signature. These works tended to focus more on the way a message or work of art is constructed than on the message or work of art, as a thing in itself. In the wake, again, of what happened in fine arts, this also led these artists to develop an outspoken critique of the institutional embedding of contemporary dance. A case in point, and perhaps the moment all of this really came into view was the hotel-experiment Tom Plischke organised in the BSB bis in Brussels. There, the institution, with all its implications such as certain ‘formats’, ways of selling artistic products etc. were questioned in a way that was much more radical than the Klapstuk-festival that is under discussion here. One can, by the way, remark that the reproaches made towards ‘conceptual’ dance are very similar to those made towards ‘Conceptual’ art or ‘art in general’ as Thierry de Duve calls it. Reproaches such as: where is the emotion, where is the authenticity, what can be said or done after the work of art is stripped of its aura, etc. etc. There is ample evidence that the labeling of a certain performance praxis as ‘conceptual’ is in fact a very shrewd discursive operation to displace these all too well known suspicions about ‘conceptual’ art to this very performance praxis, without even having to make a point. Therefore, I propose that from now on, just to be able to think clearly about what is at stake here, we stop using this label. Rudi Laermans has made an effort to propose a new label such as ‘spectral dance’, as a result of a sophisticated analysis of the performing of performativity in general. As this would lead us to far, I would propose just to speak of ‘new dance and performance’ as a rather neutral term (if at all possible of course). The fact that this festival took place in Leuven, in a fairly strong tradition of dance-festvals that were always ahead in defining what contemporary dance is, is highly meaningful. The Leuven public consists mainly of students, who come and go quickly and as such never develop the kind of overview that would allow for the notion of a certain historical continuity you would have in another town. It is however also the kind of public that, by its very youth and lack in experience, can be very open to what’s new, and is always eager to accept or believe that they are witnessing the new. What is more, by stressing, from the first edition on, the fact that the performances presented here were the genuinely new and interesting ones, the festival always was a kind of exercise in forgetting and reinventing dance. This, of course is a very contingent operation, in which certain insights and preferences of the curators, financial and practical possibilities etc. etc. are held together by a discursive, or performative operation that gained strength through the years. Nevertheless, looking back you can see that there were absolutely striking differences between the first festivals, which imported several ‘new’ definitions of dance mainly from the USA and Germany, and later versions. This performative operation was always backed by critics as well as the public. In that sense Klapstuk has been crucial to establish contemporary dance as a firm practice in Belgium and to develop new definitions of it. This practice, despite its wide variation in esthetic strategies, has come to be identified in a seemingly self-evident way as an art-form in itself. Despite its fairly limited means, it even got a lot of international response.

Over the years, Klapstuk performances proposed ever new insights about what was at stake in contemporary dance in many different ways. Critics, myself included, corroborated these proposals. As time went by however, you could hardly miss the fact that the continuous reinvention of all this performing and writing led to sometimes radically opposed outcomes. It is for instance rather difficult to make a bridge between Cunninghams esthetic of the bodily movement meaning in and of itself and the tortured identification of dance with an art or knowledge about the body that was ‘en vogue’ ten years later. Neither of them however would stand a very thorough epistemological analysis. Any first order appreciation of the dance work presented at Klapstuk in that sense talked about whether something ‘worked’ or not, a term that doesn't mean anything in itself but points simply to the fact that the artist has devised a construction that is so captivating to the beholder that it touches him. This being touched needs a further clarification to become useful, which leads the spectator to project a certain meaning onto the work, a meaning however that is obviously as much informed by his own mind as by the work of art itself. This of course is valid for almost any work of art, but it has a special relevance in dance. Dance works mostly with time, space and movement, things that can not easily be articulated in language. Also, one cannot shuttle back and forth in a dance-performance, to control what was really going on. It also explains why certain interpretations, after some time, can become ‘hard truths’, backed by a large portion of the critics, the public and dance artists. But, and this is the point I want to make, it is in any case, as well from the side of the performer as from the spectator, a paranoid construction. On both sides, out of an overwhelming mass of material, a certain selection is made and then corroborated into a truth that initially was not there but that we want to see. This can be a tiring operation, and even make you weary about whether there ever was anything such as a meaning to be had there. There are mainly two answers to solve this problem.    

The tenth Klapstuk Festival proposed one of them. Something rather peculiar happened in this festival, curated by Alain Platel. Instead of presenting the new, Platel suddenly proposed a program that was returning to the highlights of former festivals. As he said himself: he felt the need to put things in order. Or stated differently: there was at once a need to make a kind of ‘canon’ and the anxious question if what we saw all these years had not been merely a mirage. The first is a way of convincing yourself that the latter is not true and vice versa. By this, I don't want to say that this was a meaningless operation. It often is worthwhile to look back at a performance, if only to see how much your own gaze has changed in the course of time. But, if it is believed that Bel's festival is a political move within the dance field, you could say the same of Platel's option, though it was and is less conspicuous. ‘Greatest Hits’ is not the kind of selection that arouses the suspicion of a hidden agenda. The debate immediately shifts towards the question if this or that piece ought not to have been included also. But let's try, for a moment, to adopt this suspicious look. Platel himself has established a dance praxis that was highly influential in the eighties and certainly the nineties. What is interesting in the light of the current debate is that his work embodies a certain belief in what a stage can achieve. His work is not involved into a formal esthetic of dance, or in pure dance whatsoever, but is intended as a construction that enables us to show the hidden aspects, or even the hidden beauty of daily life. More often than not he looks for this beauty in places or social milieus where beauty is not supposed to be. In that sense, he rebels clearly against an academic form of beauty. Except on one or two occasions, Platel never turned to theatre to achieve this. I suppose that this choice is inspired by the fact that words never reflect adequately what is really going in in the minds of people. He wants to show emotions and affects before they become civilized, and as such at least partially untrue. As a curator however, Platel showed a very broad interest in what others did, even when they did not seem to share his own preoccupations. You cannot say that the tenth edition of the festival was a propagation of his own ‘esthetic’ or way of working. The opposite is even true. The kind of abstraction present in the early or later works of for instance Meg Stuart is quite alien to his own work.

Still, these performances had one thing in common: they could be seen from a specific angle or point of view that coincided with Platels own. They didn’t go against the assumption that something can be made ‘present’ on stage in a direct way, without a paranoid construction on both sides of the scene. This possibility then becomes the very reason for dance-theatre to exist. It allows us to have a different, less confusing, deeper view on what happens outside the theatre. The presence of real bodies, with undeniable emotions, is the common denominator, the truth-factor of this work. The tenth festival was, in that sense, a very strong case for a certain definition of what contemporary dance is and how it works, while at the same time allowing for a rather surprising diversity in the formal means of this medium. You could say, and this is by no means intended ironically, that Platel proposed a humanistic view on theatre and dance. This means, a kind of theatre that, by the very effort of the choreographer and the dancers, brings out a reality that is always already there, prior to the performance, to the enacting of this reality. The spectator can identify himself with this and in this way get contact with half-forgotten emotions and thoughts that, again, were there before. It is a model in which recognition, not make-believe or artificiality, have a dominant role.  

Whether this point of view is right or wrong is not important in the current debate. What is important is that Alain, in doing so, made in fact a very authoritative move, even if I suppose that he would not think of it that way. That is to say, from my own point of view, it was at that moment an almost bizarre option to look backwards, because  precisely then an extremely powerful wave of ‘new dance’ was at the height of its strength. In strategic terms, the festival thus could be read as a flagrant denial of a new definition of what the stage does. This new definition is the ‘other solution’ to cope with the lack of substantiality that is always threatening the meaning of a dance performance. In the work of many different performers such as Tom Plischke, Boris Charmatz or Vincent Dunoyer, not to forget Jérôme Bel who, however, was present at the festival, an entirely different approach made itself manifest. As opposed to the ‘humanist’ point of view, you could call it a ‘consciously paranoid’ view. (I might say that this is a paradox: in order to undo the paranoia that is essential to the possibility to see meaning in dance, you have to adopt a stance that is so suspicious of everything that is said and done that it looks pretty similar to what is commonly understood as paranoia). It was reflecting upon the history and the means of the medium, in relation to other media, not to get a stronger contact with scenic reality, but to explode the very notion of that reality altogether. To make visible the impossibility of making anything whatsoever visible. ‘Dance’ suddenly wasn’t anymore a matter of recognition, of ‘prise de conscience’, but became an action that actively sought to explore how meaning is constructed somewhere in the space between the dancer and the spectator. This is by no means a new insight: even in the 80’s, many people were debating the active role of the spectator in general as something that is fundamental to the ‘meaning’ of what is there to see. But this theoretical reflection, and the manifold ideological implications it has, didn’t seem to reflect upon the actual theatre. One could suppose that the growing impact of the media in general on everyday life has made this new approach possible and even necessary. It is fairly obvious that media have a devious way of intruding upon the consciousness of the viewer in blurring the borders between a supposedly ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ view of the world. In essence, anything is image, but usually, we tend to forget this in order to be able to act and live, and as such actions always provide a certain stability to the images we have of the world that surround us. When however virtual images acquire an ever more important place in the daily experience of the world, this also means that the way things are presented there could replace a more factual encounter with the world. The result can be, and I think that is a position that is adopted by many dance-makers these days, that any undertaking that presents an event as true in itself, and not subject to codes of expression or belief that precede it, becomes highly suspicious. You cannot ‘be there’ fully anymore. Neither can anyone see something in a direct way. Al tracks are blurred, what is left is a series of strategic moves, that perhaps ‘save’ something by obliterating it. 

So, what are we left with? Obviously, we are confronted with a battle of definitions, which could easily become as well a power game and/or an ethical debate. I think that, at this moment anyway, the power game is not on. In Flanders anyway, we see that both approaches towards dance, the more classic one and the ‘new dance and performance’ coexist, and do so in a quite friendly manner. In no way you could say that the ‘pioneer’-generation is trying to wipe out new approaches towards dance, which is for instance illustrated by the fact that Alain invited Jérôme to participate in the significant Klapstuk #10. But look for instance at what Rosas/PARTS does: it provides ample space and possibilities for young choreographers and dancers that often make work that is dramatically different from everything Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker stands for. However, in the way new dance and performance are described, you can hear an ethical argument. This broadly comes down to the opinion that the work is too intellectual and leaves no place for wonder, for emotion, in short for everything that makes us human. That is what art, however, should really do, without being vulgar. And in this ethical stance, another battle of definitions is resonating. This time, it concerns the definition of the artist. In the one case, the artist is a special breed of the human race, that has a different, deeper outlook on reality. In the other, the artist is someone who is investigating something, but not in a scientific way where clear questions are supposed to lead to clear answers. The investigative artists is someone who detects important fields of meaning or convictions that however seem to escape any clarification, or at least, for which society has no room. This type of artist then would be someone who reveals the cutting edge of these unthought convictions. But he is not mending the wounds made by this cutting edge. The overall effect is not ‘more intellectualism’, but a quite different type of emotionality. No sweeping emotions, no sudden recognitions, but a more often than not rather dumb, uneasy sense of bewilderment. Not a deep scar, with lots of blood, but a hindering, uneasy infection that doesn’t cause death but unsettles you all the time a little bit. 

As true heirs of the XIXth century, we are of course hooked to the sweeping emotion, the deep wound. At least, we can soothe ourselves, someone knows what’s going on in our minds. Which for sure allows us to live at rest a bit longer. On the other hand, new dance and performance can sometimes be very unsatisfying too. I come, for that, back to the performance of Cuqui Jerez, and I have to speak about my own interpretation of that piece. When I saw it the first time, it seemed to be nothing else than a rather cumbersome demonstration of semiotic analysis. As such, it was rather superfluous. Why translate a book into a performance if you could as well read the book at once, and probably get a much better insight in what this all is about. However, a few months later, I had to change my opinion drastically. When I complained to Xavier le Roy about Cuqui’s exercise in semiotics, he immediately said that Cuqui for sure never had read anything that was even resembling a theoretical text. This stunned me completely. So the choreographer had, in her own way and with her own means, developed a theoretical proposition that was already devised by say Michel Foucault thirty years before? That actually was the gist of it. This made me look at the thing in an entirely different, but not less uneasy way. It showed of course that an extraordinary imaginative power could be involved in this kind of new dance and performance, but it meant as well that this piece of art, by sheer lack of knowledge, reiterated things in an unconscious way without adding very much to what was already known or said before. There is not much excuse for that. Maybe this only goes to show that new dance and performance have a very long way to go in defining means, methods and goals. Or maybe they will end up as just another paradigm next to the other classic approaches? Or they will become a practice that informs other dance-work, just as improvisation often informs the work on stage? We’ll see this when perhaps Klapstuk #20 presents a new ‘canon’?