The Pursuit of Meaningness

Mårten Spångberg as performative phenomenon

1 Sep 2002English

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Contextual note
This piece, written after the Berlin premiere of "i. e. All All Over Over All All et. al." in 2002, has been used as an "unofficial" text since then. It is properly published for the first time on SARMA.

We might soon be confronted with a Mårten Spångberg ubiquity scandal, just as, a few years ago, we had an Umberto Eco ubiquity scandal. For back in the nineties, two or three European journalists had started to do research about the famous Italian author’s time schedule and literary output, about his business and academic presence. As a result of this investigative benchmarking it was stated that, if all the information gathered were correct, Eco would have been giving a lecture at a scientific conference in Melbourne, Australia, whilst at the same time buying medieaval books at an antiquarian’s in Cracow, Poland, and actively promoting his then-new novel “The Pendulum of Foucault”. In other words: There were suspicions that Umberto Eco was in fact a collective, or multiple personality. His output was such that no man alone could possibly account for it. Nobody really followed up on such charges. So Eco keeps on in his authorly splendour, and some say the entire campaign had been launched by Eco himself in order to enhance his post-modern theories about the fragmentary, the sign, and the everywhere.

With Berlin-based, Swedish performance theorist, dance expert, and movement dramaturge Mårten Spångberg, the situation might soon be judged similar. For when today he is seen showing and discussing film excerpts in Berlin, tomorrow he will be curating a dance event in Portugal and yesterday was teaching dance theory at Brussels’ renowned P.A.R.T.S. school (led by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker). Up to now doubts as to the integrity and oneness of his person would be entirely out of place. Even though Spångberg’s activities are scheduled Europe-wide and even though nobody can really follow up physically, we all should agree about the reality factor of Spångberg’s prolific presence throughout the Old World’s not so small dance scene. Which leads the reporting author of theses lines to a problematic point. For there now is evidence against claims that Spångberg do all he is doing for real. And what is worse: such evidence is provided by Spångberg himself, in collaboration with Tor Lindstrand.

Not long ago, they premiered a performance about dance and the act of watching it, “i. e. All All Over Over All All et. al.” at Berlin’s Podewil theatre. The setup of the two-part piece was truly intriguing in that it showed dance only as captured on videotape. And it showed Spångberg sitting on stage facing the back wall and watching the projection screen as attentively as the audience, his head and shoulders appearing in the focus of the video beamer, so that his black silhouette always marked the canvas. We, the spectators, soon realize that this shadow is not actually being cast by the real Spångberg but is part of the recorded video. But, of course, we do not know how real it was at the time of the video recording. And anyway, shadows on walls cast by unseen sources of light always stir up Platonic problems. On the screen we see excerpts of eight different choreographies by Europe’s leading dance artists, Sasha Waltz’s “Body” extroversions and William Forsythe’s grammatical fury among them. Each showing of exactly three minutes’ strictly non-edited duration is preceeded by a projected and hardly readable contract concluded with each choreographer and dealing with the copyright. “I wanted to do a piece were everybody could agree that the dance and choreography shown are ‘good’”, says Spångberg, “so I asked de Keersmaeker and Monnier, Bel and Le Roy. Nobody would doubt that they do ‘good’ choreography.”

But as the first part goes on, we furthermore realize that each video excerpt bears a caption indicating the date of the recording. And soon doubts as to the authenticity of the documentary footage arise. Could one really move from one performance in one European capital to another in less than 24 hours? Or indeed on the same day? Or should we rather think that the shadowy silhouette seen on the screen was another person? Is it but a sign of Spångberg himself or is it sign of a sign of Spångberg? But if it were only a sign of the sign of Spångberg – reenter the Platonic problems – why should the real Spångberg, visible on stage, wear the same clothes, the same large collar, the same sweater, have his hair cut in the same way and imitate the posture and poses, the shifting and coughing the silhouette on the video is performing? Who, in fact, is the originial here, and what are we supposed to watch: the recorded dance, the real body in imitative movement, or the silhouette in its kinetic authority? Who is dancing here, anyway? And how far can you go in choreographing non-dance? Thus, all the neatness of the stage setup has dissolved, leaving behind a husky commentary on the public’s role in dance and the difficult issue of “documentary work”. For Spångberg the performer surely was not inside the screen but rather in the middle between auditorium and flat image. But was he really outside the image? We would not know. Nor does the second part of “i.e. All All Over Over All All et. al.” help us any further. For it does away with authorship altogether. No silhouette, no Spångberg, no dance images.

Instead, the public, invited to enter on stage, is shown yet another video on a screen installed at the place were we usually have the so called fourth wall of so called psychological theatre. And there, on the very screen, we see a dancing image: a digitalised CAD-supported theatre interior, the public space, the very auditorium we were in. Anyone who has understood but a little of Spångberg’s deconstructivist work paved with mystifications of all kinds and uncanny discourse, would immediately suspect some kind of gauge here. But in fact, it is a minute 3D-rendering of the Podewil space (and is rendered anew for each representation in other spaces, with the respective theatres). Which is why yet another caption soon appears, this time bigger. It reads: “Ceci n’est pas un théâtre.” Doubtlessly not, for here, the public is on stage, the actors (or dancers) have long vanished, and all is but a representational gag. But entirely real. So we are witnessing something which is not theatre. Is it life? Or thought? Or meaning?

Then, the inversion of acting/watching is completed with a trick one might call hyperdimensionalism. Elementary forces roam about in the hollow imagery, a blasting fire, a journey through outer space, the mellow flows of water. Music builds up pompously until the stage floor starts to resonate. Artificial as all this may be, it starts to work on us physically. When the virtual camera plunges deep into the space, the public moves along with what they see. Some even shift their weight, as though the very ground was trembling. The credulous eye has urged the obedient body to do things. Everything now seems possible: elation, liberty, oblivion. But nothing need affect us. We just watch. And wait. After all, this is not (a) theatre.

The authorly performer, in any case, will not reappear to bow. It is most likely that already he is on his way to another site of action. (After first night in Berlin, Spångberg was on his way to Frankfurt to do a choreography for William Forsythe’s ballet company, to premiere ten days later). But until some journalist finds out that Mårten Spångberg is multiple, he should be considered unique. At least in his ideas about deconstructing performance.

Spångberg, explaining why he had switched to the stage rather than reporting about it as a journalist (which he formerly did, too), once answered by asking, “Why should I write that which does not want to be written?” For movement analysis (which he did extensively, and scientifically, at Stockholm University hospital during his former life) as well as dance writing, seem utterly paradoxical. (Which does not make them less appealing to contemporary thought …). Maybe not any more paradoxical than talking about dance, or doing choreography without dancers but with video and artificial shadows. In any case the aforementioned question remains, in all appearance, Spångberg’s main point of reference. He poses it constantly, if slightly reformulated (“Why should I see that what does not want to be seen”, etc.), to everybody and everything. And it is exactly the reason why everybody and everything (of the theatre, of the dance) apparently wants to be talked about, or dealt with, by Mårten Spångberg. For all things paradoxical need reiteration. Forever. It is their pursuit of meaningness.