The hegemony of heterogeneity or the personal as apolitical

A new generation of Slovene contemporary dance

Maska 1 Jan 2004English

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The hegemony of heterogeneity

The hegemony of heterogeneity is a term concocted by Simon Sheikh to denominate the basic aspect of artistic production of the ‘nineties (particularly visual arts production) and adopted by Eda Čufer to use as a key term in answering the question What may we say about the theatre and dance of the nineties?[i], which was also the topic of the Young Lions festival conference six years ago. Six years later, the hegemony of heterogeneity and the new artistic freedoms of the ‘nineties are still a rewarding starting-point for considering aesthetic and societal contexts: in this case, the group of the youngest choreographers currently working in the Slovene contemporary dance scene.

And just what are the key properties of this heterogeneity or new artistic freedom? It is liberated from craftsmanship, theory, history, and political responsibility, and brings about a new form of “narcissistic art”, displaying no interest in the formal questions or systems of representation that were the centre of attention of art in the ‘eighties. The artists of the hegemony of heterogeneity are more interested in themselves than in society and general value systems; they’re concerned mainly with themselves, and create from within themselves; they construct themselves; they attend to their role as artists, and it is important that they are artists; they are aware of the importance of their position within society and consider not so much the cultural and political identities of the institutions they represent, but rather the possibilities, rules and strategies of their own individual positioning.[ii]

So when looking for the common property of this youngest group of choreographers in Slovenia, “declarative” heterogeneity seems the most appropriate term with which to describe this generation without any serious consequences on at least some levels of this truly heterogeneous crowd. This is also why it is hard to call them a generation, as the only common denominator of their works is a rather specific individual approach. The individualism and subjectivism implied by the hegemony of heterogeneity are both strategies able to differentiate the individual from other subjects and societal structures and at the same time what appears to be the most common reaction (or effect?) to the incongruity brought about by decades of numerous historical changes and social tensions in which the possibilities of an effective response to the social events are obliterated by the well-oiled mechanism of democracy.

So let us first take a look at how the initially postulated “narcissism” – individualism or subjectivism – works on a wider aesthetic plane.

Dance as a basic articulation of the subject

The group of young dance choreographers and authors that have made a name for themselves on the Slovene dance scene with a recognizable dance-choreography vocabulary and who have created contemporary works out of their own poetics, among them most notably Snježana Premuš, Andreja Rauch, Magdalena Reiter, Mala Kline, Bara Kolenc and Irena Tomažin, cannot really be described as a generation because, although they are all approximately the same age (they were all born between 1973 and 1979), they are not connected to publicly declared common interests or views and therefore do not function on a common content level – as is characteristic for the term of generation – but rather on the level of similar formal characteristics. By this, I refer to the common production model in which they operate, or are predestined to. And yet, this group is defined by a quite definite, specifically individual language and field of research. Primarily in terms of movement, their performances manifest their individualism, articulated in individual choreographic languages. The dancing body is constructed as a vessel for the articulation of personal mythologies, or a subject articulated by original movement. They all exhibit a yearning to build an inventive individual style of movement, while in these optics we are able to recognize a form of modernistic ideology of the dancing body as a true, authentic, autonomous body. Typical of modern dance is a characteristic mythology of its source, inscribed within the “interior” of the body. Alongside the beginnings of contemporary dance, an ideology of the natural body as expression appears, where we are no longer dealing with the romantic ideal of expression as a harmony between body and soul, but rather with expression at the bodily level. The body thereby reveals “corporeal forms in which the body becomes an exclusive bearer of aesthetic strategies, values and signs, and appears therefore as an independent, autonomous body”[iii]. Despite the different fields of research – Snježana Premuš focuses on researching movement in connection with sound; Andreja Rauch is interested in staging movement situations also connected with moving; situation is also the basis for Magdalena Reiter, who has opened the door to varied articulations of the flow of movement; Bara Kolenc articulates the body with dance theatre and narration; Irena Tomažin, producing her own performances for the shortest time among the aforementioned authors, builds the articulation of movement as a lyrical, emotive expression of the subject’s interior, bringing about an above-standard originality to movement material; and Mala Kline stages the body as externalised internal experiences, contextualised within various aesthetic, philosophical and theoretical concepts – the authors are marked by a sort of “faith in dance” as the basic articulation of the body and its potential. Their performances bear witness to the fact that the basic impulse of their creations comes from within themselves, while dance is a field that enables them to articulate most powerfully; here expression as staged by the authors is no longer the hysterical outburst of an uncontrolled feminine field; the body is staged with its own autonomous flow of movement as an extremely liberating and utopian form of autonomy, an independent relationality between the interior and exterior, as unbound expression.

A typical example of such a notion of the body can be found in the performance Hitchcock’s Metamorphoses (2001) by Irena Tomažin, which can also be called a movement essay. The performance is a movement metamorphosis of Hitchcock’s film, represented mainly by the music from his films. Mitja Reichenberg adapted the music of the various composers of Hitchcock’s films, recorded it and then interpreted it live, and this musical incentive prepared the groundwork for a dance improvisation, which, to use Badiou terms, in a suggestive solo, established dance as an “image of thought” and at the same time the flexibility of a body “not inscribed within an external determinator, but rather moving without separating from its own core”[iv]. In a very intense and dynamic choreography, the dancing body exits and enters itself on a path of innovation and articulation of the autonomy of a body representing nothing. The dancing body therefore does not express the interior, but rather is “the interior”.[v]

A similarly clear articulation of the idea that we are the body is inscribed in the performances of Magdalena Reiter (a Polish dancer who has found one of her asylums in the Slovene dance scene): in Forma interrogativa (2003) the choreographer starts with the notion of a question as a key with which to riddle her dance and attempt to build it in a newly conscious field of contemporary dance practices, but then, symptomatically, she does not deconstruct the body in front of the viewer in the search for her own movement material, cleansed of clichés and techniques in which to trigger a certain basic unease, but rather opens up into “a body-thought, a body caught into a certain, spatially distributed thought”.[vi] Along with dancer Mateja Rebolj, she enters the fields of question because of a traumatic triggering event, in which her own dance shoes became too tight, and she is therefore looking for a new form of existence to enter as this newly brought together subject. But in the staged flow of movement, marked by an original inventiveness, the body and movement re-affirm themselves as an expression of something radically contingent with which the subject articulates itself. The body of dance is then staged as the source of movement, an autonomous aesthetic entity, as the bearer of representation and the establisher of a network of signs. But the autonomy of the body is not only a formal criterion of the aesthetic field: through it, a particular existential level appears, in which the body is alive and experienced, in which it is the body-subject (Merleau-Ponty). The virtuoso movement of the body-subject is also at work in the performance Concept of Concept (2004) that Reiter co-authored with Mateja Bučar, which deals mainly with exploring the relationship between body and space. In it, transformations of the dancing body through movement reveal the hidden reaches of the interaction of space and body. The latest performance, Moment (2004), also establishes itself in the field of articulating the subject through original movement that in a “study of arrested time”[vii] introduces a special kind of time, which is actually the very “pre-temporal element” staged in space, about which Badiou speaks when he describes dance as something preceding time, something pre-temporal. If dance is a metaphor for thought and at the same time a metaphor for “the event ‘before’ the name, it cannot be a part of this time”, dance is that which “arrests time in space”[viii]. And it is exactly this point of view that is the focus of Moment, re-establishing dance as an authentic language of the body-subject.

As dancers, most of the choreographers have a technically developed instrumentality, meaning that, as opposed to the generation pioneering contemporary dance at the beginning of the ‘eighties, we are not talking about a dancing body mainly fuelled by pure enthusiasm and (due to circumstances) lacking formal training. Rauch, Premuš and Reiter are “professionally” trained dancers (having acquired a higher-education degree in the field of dance), schooled at home and abroad (London Contemporary Dance School, P.A.R.T.S.), while Mala Kline, Irena Tomažin and Bara Kolenc (otherwise students or graduates of philosophy, Kolenc and Kline also studied comparative literature) acquired basic dance training at either the high school of ballet or at the Intakt dance studio, and honed their skills at numerous workshops or by collaborating on other choreographers’ projects at home and abroad. Most also work as educators at the high school for contemporary dance or at other dance education institutes, with the exception of Irena Tomažin, with the shortest dance experience of the five, as she only began dancing in 1998, but was quick to attract attention as an extremely talented dancer in the performances of other Slovene choreographers.

The curriculum vitae of the authors includes numerous collaborations with various artists (choreographers and directors) with whom they worked as dancers, which is why the paths they walked are mainly marked by experience and acquaintance with different authors’ poetics, in this case signifying a kind of integral basis or backdrop on which to build an original language of choreography and deviations in dance. They all have (despite having worked for a short period) a colourful and impressive curriculum vitae manifesting itself in the form of numerous languages, names and concepts, from which they all try to free and distance themselves in the search for their own articulation in order to be able to dance with their body-subjects again.

As an example, let us consider the dance solo Campo de' Fiori by Mala Kline (2004, her first original), which manifests a wilful departure on the level of content as well as form from the languages of choreography with which she worked as a dancer (Iztok Kovač and Wim Vandekeybus); at the same time, the experience of working with acknowledged artists is visible in the precise and accomplished concept of the whole performance. Numerous theatrical approaches are blended into it, , while the body articulates itself as a landscape and the time for researching the construction of the body-subject. The movement component of the performance reflects an internalised logic, or rather, it constitutes the body as the physically superficial, represented through the open place of the subject articulation as a consequence of the narcissistic economy of regulating a self that is searching for the reflection of the authenticity of the body. By stage presence, toying with various repertoires from speech and song to the suggestive rendition of movement, and in connection to the renaissance and the fate of Giordano Bruno, an almost existentialist requestioning of the position of the subject is established on stage, lending a unique primacy to the body-subject.

Similar, but less obvious, is Andreja Rauch’s departure from the “en knap school” and her other dance engagements (National Youth Dance Company, Yelp Dance Company and Charles Linehan Dance Company). In the three of her dance works, Keys (2001), Rebeka (2002) and Chestnut Brown (2004), dealing  – not unlike the choreographic works of Iztok Kovač (with whom Andreja Rauch has collaborated on three performances) – with the relationship between dance and music, the author has created a unique universe in which the music, musician, dance, dancer and the stage establish “a dance story”. This story, even though derived from an actual stage situation, implicating the dramatic in the very dramaturgy of the performances, does not narrate and represent an actual story, but rather realizes different bodies (both dance and non-dance) into a synergy of music and movement with which a certain spatial volume is created, entangling the various coda (sound and movement) into a very concrete stage situation. So with her dance, becoming a purer and more clearly articulated language of choreography with every performance, Andreja Rauch creates the spatial dimensions of music, at the same time supplementing and complementing them with original movement, and entangling so many theatrical elements in this abstract web with the physical presence of her body writing, that a new spectre of a story opens up on stage. We come to the difference attributed to post-modern dance by Sally Banes, when she says that such works “present the non-dance information (i.e. plot, character, situation) rather than represent it,”[ix] meaning that we’re not dealing with creating detailed, completely structured imaginary worlds – the dictionary of movement rather establishes an elusive emotive content. The dancing body becomes “a place mediating between various languages, images, contexts”[x], reaffirming the possibilities of articulation through the body.

Regardless of how much the individual authors seem to distance themselves from the dance medium, which is perhaps most visible in the work of Snježana Premuš, the choreographers keep opening up the body subject as the prevailing impulse and the basic phantasmatic structure establishing them as artistic subjects.

Snježana Premuš always collaborates in her works with artists from other fields, exposing the body to interaction with a particular medium, usually musical or auditory, especially in the series of works >From Scratch #1–3, even though the relationship between sound and movement is actually an ever-present element (for example also in the performances No tea. No dogs. (Think Outside!) and Zanka/Loop). Thus, the body acquires the dimension of sound and is rendered audible, thereby producing a dialogue with itself at one time and responding to the noise produced by objects fitted with loudspeakers at another time. The body produces sounds and creates its own movement-sound landscape, but it is also “terrorized” by noises and sounds, causing it to move. In Snježana Premuš’s performances the movement presence of the dancing body in interaction with sound establishes a situation completely different from that in Andreja Rauch’s work, as the abstract exploration of dance and movement staged in the latest performance, Loop, acquires meaning with the voices of the dancers and becomes an image of a psychic landscape, in which the ensnared audio and movement markers acquire their signified – the female subject, caught in the trap of emotional questioning.


Aesthetic escapism – the narcissistic subject – social contextualisation

If I try to find a basic trait in the field of new artistic freedom – the youngest group of dance creators in the Slovene contemporary dance scene, I can first affirm Sheikh’s claim that there is a tendency towards narcissistic art, we might even call it aesthetic escapism, for when analysing some of the most articulate and visible original approaches to contemporary dance on the Slovene scene, we cannot escape the impression that subjectivity staged in the analysed dance poetics, even though always directed toward the other, is still always “attempting to re-think itself”[xi]. Narcissism can therefore be understood as endemic to commodity culture of late capitalism, demanding the production of desire and the opening up of the self toward commodities and self-interest.[xii] Fixation on the self “turns [the subject] inside out”[xiii], but in the social immobility caused by the inability of democratic political elites and despite the fact that each individual is a particular system with its own content and form of articulation, this is made in a 'l'art pour l'art' gesture with which differentiation is hard to establish. With its isolationism, the youngest generation therefore keeps shutting societal reality out and withdrawing into their own artistic world – thereby “neglecting”, not committing to, anything in connection with either the circumstances of production or established history. By producing aesthetic escapism in which the dancing body is set as the basic articulation of the subject, the authors, it seems, quite consciously choose to “ignore” history and social context and waive the criticizing of institutional systems. The strategy they offer is an escape into their own artistic laboratory; this is not to be interpreted as a moralistic judgment, but rather as “the grand question” of how to invent a strategy of staging the articulation which would “jut out” from the system in the well-oiled mechanism of democratic procedure.

A new context

If I try to find the answer in the general social context of Slovene contemporary dance, and to begin with delegating some of the key traits of the field in which the new (so-called) generation works, these can be found in the changed circumstances of creative work. The young artists have an already established terrain of contemporary dance, the basic conditions enabling the practical and theoretical education have been met, and the production institutions enable further professional creations. At the institutional level, a high school program for contemporary dance was introduced in 1999 (at Srednja vzgojiteljska šola in gimnazija, Ljubljana), and a school for young professional dancers, Agon, has been open since 2003, while the Intakt dance studio still operates as a society. Rehearsal spaces exist, alongside stages of lesser and greater quality, and other spaces in which performances are staged, as well as a number of institutes and producers ready to guarantee the basic conditions for professional work. The field also has a theoretical framework, which is not a continual, institutionalised profile, but still delivers a fresh stream of relevant information (the magazine Maska, the Seminar of Contemporary Performing Arts). At the same time, a few platforms have been operating in Slovenia for the past few years, among them Dancelab, and the dance laboratory Plesni laboratorij, enabling artists to present and explore ideas, stage structures, and various production methods. The youngest artists are therefore no longer burdened with pioneering a field that was established in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties by their older colleagues, many of them their mentors and teachers. We can say that part of the curriculum of the Slovene dancer has been abandoned and is now built on completely different foundations. And yet, my contemplation is split into two levels at the very beginning: the aesthetic and the wider levels of social context, both logical consequences of historical events and processes, and combining into a closely knit pair. The problem is in that among young artists, their positions and their poetics appear as a symptom of a larger phenomenon of both Slovene circumstances and the “global” contemporary dance world itself.

The heritage of the past

When in the ‘eighties the model of entering the totality of social and political space became important to the creators of contemporary performance arts, when authors and groups took over public space and broke apart its political totality for meta-politcal, aesthetic and individual goals and when, as stressed by Eda Čufer in her article Reform in Stagnation, the alternative seemed a “well-populated idea”, taking over society at the apex of power, the act of political reform of the socialist east and the separation of Slovenia from Yugoslavia, “exhausted the charisma overnight, repopulated a recently settled down idea and recalled the souls of the citizens into the service of legal, pragmatic goals”[xiv]. Due to the lack of interest of the country in the systematic management of relations to non-institutional models of production and also due to unsatisfactory design and consensus among the artists and producers about the model of their own institutionalisation, the ‘nineties saw the rise of a battle for survival that is primarily “unprincipled and thereby without a vision or a clear perspective”[xv], while many artists persist in the unstable status of independence, often bringing about fewer and fewer consistent aesthetic and developmental visions and weaker production standards. But despite the perhaps unfinished reform of the contemporary performance arts field, basic elements were established which enabled the life of contemporary dance. And if I dismiss some of the particularities of this state of affairs, this enables the livelihood of the contemporary dancer, and try to understand them in a broader sense, the reasons for the present situation are sooner found in a broader spiritual context than in the heritage of “Slovene” history.

Narcissism and the cynical subject

In our case, the broader spiritual context is called liberal capitalism. What, then, is the connection between the aesthetic field of contemporary dance and liberal capitalist ideology?

The position of young choreographers and their willing escape into the laboratory of their own creativity can also be viewed in the light of Sloterdijk’s cynical subject with which the German theorist marks the position of the contemporary subject in relation to ideology, and Žižek’s explanation of ideology. The cynical subject is aware of the twisted understanding of reality, yet still believes this illusion, and does not fight it. As Žižek says, Sloterdijk offers a cynical variant of Marx’s ideology formula “They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it”.[xvi] But according to Žižek, we must distinguish between cynicism and Sloterdijk’s term of kynism, which is a form of sarcastic or ironic response to authority, one that ridicules the hypocrisy of ruling institutions. Kynism precisely designates most people’s attitudes towards politics and other state institutions. But, according to Žižek, such kynism is always already taken into account, integrated into the power system. Cynicism is therefore a way of taking kynism into account, as the cynical subject accepts the official version of twisted reality yet still, or despite this, does not dispense with this “skewed” viewpoint. Contemporary subjects thus deludes themselves with this cynical attitude, or rather declare that they do not take reality (and its ideology) seriously, but negate this “successfully” with their actions. Žižek compares the situation to Tibetan prayer wheels, used for praying mechanically. By turning the wheel, it prays instead of the believer, or the believer prays through the medium of the wheel. Regardless of the sincerity of the believer’s prayer, the very act of turning the wheel affirms a certain level of faith. In this way, a situation of “religion before religion”[xvii] is created. This is why Žižek divides his analysis of ideology into three levels: doctrine, belief and ritual. The doctrine of ideology is concerned with the ideas, theories and beliefs of an ideology; the belief of ideology, with material and external manifestations and the apparatuses of its doctrine, while ritual refers to the internalisation of a doctrine, or rather, to the way it is experienced as spontaneous or natural.

We may understand the situation of the young generation of Slovene contemporary dance as the third layer of ideology, a quasi-spiritual ritual in which the young authors quite “naturally” affirm the existing situation. With their cynical outlook they ignore both institutions and history, while at the same time, through aesthetic escapism and narcissism, they only strengthen and consent to the established state of social reality. Contemporary society is therefore marked by the collapse of the authority of the great Other, which creates an illusion of freedom of choice, replacing this authority; while in these circumstances the subject’s reflectivity is really manifested in, among other things, narcissism (in our case, a fixation on staging the self). And if “the narcissism of staging the self [our understanding of self, our performing of self] inevitably connects the self with the other”[xviii], the question remains of where this connection disappeared to in the contemporary dance performances of the Slovene younger generation. Why doesn’t the narcissism or aesthetic escapism of the younger Slovene contemporary dance generation generate the radical effects that Amelia Jones uncovers in narcissism as the attempt to re-think oneself and open intersubjective dynamics, but is rather shown in this sense as a kind of rebellion against the “post-human body”, which – particulated in its integrity – speaks of the loss of the subject?