User account

Bojana Cvejić: On the Choreographic Production of Problems
On the Choreographic Production of Problems
(p. 135 – 144)

Politically challenged, aesthetically burdened

Bojana Cvejić

On the Choreographic Production of Problems

PDF, 10 pages

“Dance can often be found humping the leg of other art forms," the performer Chrysa Parkinson writes. An implicitly defensive complaint could turn into a manifest advantage of disciplinary lack, when choreography is allowed to denaturalize the organic regime of body-movement conjunction and reach any-movement-whatever, any procedure-whatever, any-body-whatever (at last!).
Bojana Cvejić argues for a "politique d'auteurs" (Jean-Luc Godard), which explores the capacity of creating problems in choreography today. Posing as inventing problems entails a choice for methodology which applies from struggling for relative autonomy in working conditions (modes of production and distribution, of working and being together etc.) through reconfiguring poetics into tactics (modes of making, concepts and procedures) to exhausting modes of attending in theater today. This paper focuses on a few choreographic works and practices that have been presented or regarded as "difficult" in the last ten years in Europe.

Thanks to Nikolina Pristaš and Ten Days One Unity meeting
between BADco and 6M1L in Zagreb, October 2010)

I would like to begin with a preliminary remark that entangles two notions I associate with the question of “dance doing politics”. In this essay I will propose these notions sketchily at first and as a theoretical task to be elaborated later. My remark takes the position of an undifferentiated “we” (first person plural), as if there was a “we” that shared a common struggle. As soon as we – theorists, dramaturgs, choreographers or performers – deem to engage with the question of the “political” today – we face an aesthetic burden and political challenge. We, in contemporary dance in Europe, ought to concede that we are “politically challenged” in so far as we are “aesthetically burdened.”

Aesthetically burdened, politically challenged

The attribute “aesthetic” is reserved for a specific usage here: with “aesthetic burden” I refer to an inherent aestheticism dating from Western modern dance as the persistence of the modernist quest of choreography and dance to reassert its disciplinary specificity, exclusiveness and autonomy in aesthetic categories. Aestheticism in Western theatrical dance is rooted in the oral and mimetic practice of transmission of movement, the “show and copy” model that rests upon the image and imaginability of movement. Regardless of the operation a work of contemporary dance may entail, it is more often than not presented, received, judged, historically recognized, referenced, or transmitted in the image of the body and movement.1 While in dance it relies on the oral mimetic logic of producing a self-identical aesthetic object by reproduction, the predominance of the visual in framing the sensorial of dance is not unique for dance, but a result of the condition of circulating any work as a commodity. What is specific about the arrest of a dance work in an image is its reductiveness in so far as the imaging gives no access to other parameters that might be more crucial for the work of dance than the description of the body or of the form of movement by way of image. The inquiry into the operation of a choreography – in less imageable matters of context, structure, problems, non-present time – thus is often hampered by aestheticist demands, such as to what kind of body or movement is produced. Works of dance that are not communicable by way of body/movement images are deemed difficult on the grounds that they are hard to see, or they yield nothing recognizable or novel to perceive. They pose problems for reception, and in doing so, shift attention away from the aesthetic object to a problem, and a thought which arises from the difficulty in perceiving or recognizing a moving body as the main focus of the work.

Earlier attempts to qualify the disregard for the centrality of the moving body as “conceptualist” seem equally reductive in the binary argument (concept vs. experience, cognitive vs. affective, etc.).2 I suggest here to approach the dissolution of the body-movement image instead as a way to disencumber the contemporary dance of aestheticism. The articulation of “aesthetic burden” has a peculiar genealogy: it comes from grappling with the failure of accounting for experimental art practices in former Yugoslavia in the aesthetic categories of Western modernity.3 These practices are de-linked from Western art traditions in that they are aesthetically “unburdened”. They neglect formalist, craft-oriented and aestheticizing aspects of a work in favor of context, structure, minor stories, non-presence etc. Interpretation in aesthetic terms misrecognizes them by dismissing them as eclectic, nonspecific, nondescript or old-fashioned, for it doesn’t accept that the aesthetic aspects are secondary, instrumental, not a matter of invention but of use. For instance, the Croatian collective BADco is often interrogated on the account of the kind of dance movement it produces. The comparison of the dance in their performances with an existing style – as in the often pronounced judgment “yes, but this is like Forsythe, and it’s not a reference” – bars any insight into what and how the choreography might operate. The limitation of the aesthetic burden could be considered as a political handicap which calls for various new prostheses, all the discursive production which constitutes contemporary dance beyond the body-movement image. The prostheses are ontologically constitutive for it is the choreographers themselves who invest work in methodological concerns, obsession with procedures, poetic and post-hoc dramaturgies, in a proliferation of books, films, conceptual and technological tools that sometimes even substitute for the performance event. Being “politically challenged” hereby means accepting the handicap of aesthetic burden, the historical hegemonic arrest of dance in an aestheticizing image, which demands discursive efforts to disencumber itself. 4 Questions like “why do you dance?” and “why do you dance this” or “like this” often addressed to BADco. imply that “this” be read as a style, authorial signature, movement idiom on which to hook a meaning or conceptual determination of any kind. I paraphrase Nikolina Pristaš, dancer and choreographer from BADco, who says that her movement adequates an idea. Adequation for her isn’t the same as translate or exemplify: instead, it poses a problem. Such an approach to choreography and dance is instrumental, because it bypasses the self-reflection of the dance medium to use dance on a par with other expressions – text, architecture, or computer software, for instance – in order to pose a problem that wouldn’t be specific to dance, but would implicate dance differently from text, architecture, software etc.

Instrumentalization here presupposes that choreography be dissociated from a certain modernist notion of Western theatrical dance. This dissociation I have argued elsewhere as a disjunction between the body and movement.5 In short, I here mean a rupture with two ideological operations in the Western legacy by which movement has been bound up with the body: self-expression which ontologizes movement with a natural urge to move and the body as a minimal resting place of noncompromisable subjectivity, and objectivation that reduces movement to a physical articulation, or the object of dance whose meaning lies tautologically in itself. Contemporary dance is still often stitched between these two ideological seams: it either persuades by performing the necessity of self-expression or it displays the indifference and self-containment of an object; in deliberately rough schematic terms, it says: “believe in the truth of my body that doesn’t lie” or “observe the task.” Nikolina Pristaš would say it more congenially: why is it that we always see movement falling between gesture and noise?6

In order to instrumentalize choreography beyond dance, should then the self-identity of movement pursued either in self-expression or self-referentiality be undermined? And how will that disturb the harmony of faculties by which a performance should bring spectators together in sensus communis, namely, in recognition and self-actualization? I will observe three choreographies that have earned the reputation of being difficult exactly for posing these problems. Difficulty, as a non-category, similar to barred or unclassified, here implies not only a deficit of public in order for these performances to be shown and seen, but also that they are barely visible, and therefore, aesthetically challenging in a literal sense, hard to watch.

Invisible, indiscernable or opaque

How to construct movement that can be sensed and experienced without seeing how it is being done? The departure of Nvsbl, a choreography by Eszter Salamon made in 2006, is the false dilemma between belief in what is seen and tautological vision, or what I see is what I see. The problem the choreographer poses here is how to disrupt the hierarchical regime of senses in movement’s perception, and shift its perceptibility from vision to kinesthetic and proprioceptive sensibility. The solution was to obscure movement’s visibility by making it excessively slow – an eighty-minute long journey of five and a half meters from periphery to the center stage, where the departure and the end point are just instants like great many other instants between these ends, different and not identical to each other. This wish could have been addressed as a negative, “fascistic” task of eliminating space, form and size of movement, fundamental parameters that measure movement’s fluency as corporal freedom. Instead, the choreographer sought to affirm slowness in a range of qualities, or – in her own words – how to dee-jay the thousand movements and rhythms in the body. To do that, she had to create a “positive project” for the performers and resource a body system that would reorient them towards their own body. The choice of Body-Mind Centering was less new-age than pragmatic. To invoke a sensation from which to initiate a movement in those places in the body the awareness of which we don’t have requires a lengthy labour of imagination. Sensation is thus the product of a will to imagine, engage metaphors in order to construct a relation with the imaginary place in the body. One could say that the dancers are fumbling in the dark, in a form of inadequate knowledge, feigning sensations for voluntary action. They produce an attachment of thought to movement which is scientifically dubious, irrational but empowering, as it helps them to develop a relentless division and partitioning of the body for an ever more precise and specific quality.

This technique breaks the mimetic regime for it shifts focus from the image of the movement-effect to the imaginary cause of it. This striving is what takes time and heterogenizes the duration so as to hinder the image of movement, or everything from being given all at once. The motion expresses itself as a tendency, before being the effect of a cause, and the cause being the process of invoking sensation remains inaccessible for the spectator. Indeed, what happens to the spectator, when her gaze is deprived of the control of the body’s source of movement? Disbelief might have led one to a test of looking away and looking back to verify change. At first, the movement can’t be seen in the course of its production, but can be registered as a change once it has occurred, in retrospect. To attend duration can only be an event of attunement, of making one’s glance co-extensive with the time-image of the duration-bodies, of absorption in the slow perception of change.

The reason why I am dwelling on the process the performers engagement here is because of its inaccessibility. Inaccessibility brings into question the sense of community and communication in gathering. The choreography that gathers bodies here necessarily divides them, not only between the two facing sides of performing and attending, but along a multiplicity of different attachments spectators and performers make amongst each other. Nvsbl might be just an extreme case of differentiating the ideas and temporalities between performing and attending. It strives beyond the subtraction inherent in habitual perception by yielding movement registered as if with a nonhuman eye – at the limit of sensibility. Partitioning sensations in the internal space of the performer’s body adequates the focalization of the spectator’s gaze as a close-up. In both processes nothing is being communicated; the performers and spectators are alone, disentangled and separated from each other; each attunes her own perception apparatus and thus perceives a micromovement by extending it.

If the choreography of Nvsbl partitions sensations, movements and bodies in noncommunication, my next example is about a choreography that gives rise to a community that will override itself. The performance is called Untitled and dates from 2005. At the time, the author deliberately remained anonymous. The decision to not-sign and not-title the piece was an unprecedented intervention into the representational logic of performance. It was meant to disable its major register, that is, judgment in the nominal framework that allows audiences to attribute their reception to an author. Now they were confronted with a void, both a symbolical and a literal one. Although this act of resistance might resemble yet another form of institutional critique, Xavier Le Roy’s refusal to ‘sign’ and title the piece was meant to reinforce the work’s facticity: performance being all there is. A short description will clarify why.

As the spectators entered the auditorium, they were given small battery-powered lamps to find their seats, just as latecomers ushered into a performance or a film that had already begun. However, it soon became clear that the stage itself would remain dark. From their seats, spectators began to inspect the stage, searching for the action. As they adjusted their vision to diminished visibility, they began to see indiscernible objects emerging from obscurity, but they could barely determine whether these shapes were puppets or live (human) bodies disguised as puppets. While the spectators shone their lights onto the void of the stage, a white fog slowly covered the space, reflecting the light rays of the torches. There was little to observe unless the spectator was prepared to search for it, and to try and discern movement from stillness and figures from the background. The act of not-seeing was just as significant as the action that was occurring on stage. The performance dismantled its object into a situation with changing stakes. It was easier for the spectators to see each other than to watch the performers. As a consequence, the power was redirected from the stage to the audience.

All the while, the dancers, disguised in and enmeshed with puppets were busy manipulating puppets by direct contact with their hands, by intermediate contact using the strings of the puppet, and by body-to-puppet contact where the mass of one’s movement would make the other move; or their presence was simply suspected fumbling in the dark. As Le Roy explained to me, his interest was in exploring the prosthetic relationship of the body with an inanimate human-like object, an adjunct that would give the body a different weight, elasticity, and fluency. In terms of a dance experiment, Le Roy observed the interdependency of the environment and the body, whereby the body is regarded as an extension of the environment, or how a body in contact with an object makes another entity with specific ways of moving and being. He worked with eyes closed so that their actions would be done in the dark. What the spectators could see wouldn’t be what the stage illuminated but what the audience themselves illuminated. Hence, the problem of dispensing with the form of movement, which, no matter how unfixed, transformative and evanescent, still enables us to recognize a subject or object, was solved by indiscernibility. Choreography was an instrument for disorientating the sensorium of the event, in which the indiscernibility of bodies, objects and movements interfered with the capacity to feel, understand and judge. In the course of the evening, the behavior of the audience, now louder and more visible than the on-stage action, hijacked the event and became the focus of the spectacle. In the ending part, staged as the talk after the performance in which one of the performers stepped out of his puppet costume, and took on the role of spokesperson talking to the audience, the audience repeatedly protested as if they had been hoaxed. Their outrage about the anonymity and lack of title prevented them to engage with the situation. They refused to attend it.

Comparable to Nvsbl, Untitled makes the performance seem independent of the spectators, not by the as-if clause of the illusionist representation with the fourth wall, but by being inaccessible to the audience, hardly perceivable (Untitled). However, it doesn’t reject the presence of the audience. Instead, it demonstrates that the spectators can’t remain in their role without constructing a conjunction. This entails an activity that I call “wiring”, which means to establish a connection that makes the body or the action of the spectator coterminus with the action of performing. A wired attender doesn’t take over the role of the performer – she doesn’t become an actor in lieu of a missing one. The attender actively assembles herself with the other heterogeneous parts of the assembling – objects, live or phantom bodies, lights and sounds in this case. As if she connects to an electrical circuit that epitomizes the event, her “wiring” is plugging vision and voice into the performance which sensorially shapes the event. This activity is a matter of constructing an encounter that captures heterogeneous forces of expression of this assembling.

My third and last case continues somewhere in between the closure of the visible and the exposure of the invisible. The choreography is called Changes (2006) by Nikolina Pristaš and BADco., and entails a transformation of environments of limited visibility that the audience is part of. Being physically part of the performance environment – like in the homogeneous purple light block, which recalls the UV protective hospital environments – means being physically implicated in the problem that this performance poses: entering a relationship between parasites and environment. According to Michel Serres, for a parasite to seize control, it has to clear the space from other parasites; it needs to eradicate noise for the message to pass through silence. Serres’s “parasite” is a trope for Pristas to pose what looks like a specifically choreographic problem at first, only to transmute it immediately into a political concern. The problem addresses the double articulation of noise and message, or more specifically, to dance, noise and gesture in movement. Dancing in this choreography develops in constant fluctuation between gestures and noise, or those other movements that tend to obscure the channel of communication. As Pristas describes, at one point dance is just humming in the space (the word “noise” in Serbo-Croatian isn’t just the antonym of “sound”, the way Cage puts it, but it also means “humming”). Figures merge with the environment, constituting a shimmering background in magenta light. Dancers spin in pirouettes for 4 minutes, 33 seconds. Movements as noise don’t produce cognitive meaning, but maintain an intensity. They don’t communicate anything but are neither superfluosly decorative. Instead they expire in time, in a kind of work without any purpose.

Parallel to dancing, a voice-over delivers a stream of text, a verbal channel through which various anecdotes and observations spin around the fable about the ant and the grasshopper, labor and leisure, work and laziness. These stories diagrammatically expand as the fable-parasite devours them, one of which is the anti-May 1968 speech by the leader of the French ants (clearly, an allusion to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy). While the voice-over runs as a smooth message, dance physically labors in the space. At a certain moment, a dancer speaks out the following text:

I am not a charismatic person. I am a hard worker, a pragmatic and a good ant. I beat all my competitors with work, love and kindness. My message to my rivals is that they can fight against me only with more work, love and kindness. All those poor fellows cannot knock down what I can build. The ant tried to persuade the cricket: I am the humblest ant in the world. There are not many like that. You show me another one in the ant hill who works as much as I do and who is willing to sacrifice 16 hours a day and 363 days a year like me. I don’t think there are many like that. You tell me if you know one if you are claiming that there is such an ant. Inside me emotions are not dead, I am not crude, pragmatic and a politician, sterile and castrated. I am still an ant.7

Beyond the image of thought

This touching portrait of the dancer as a hardworking ant echoes what Andrew Hewitt warned about in his theory of “social choreography” – the dark side of the ideology of freedom in early modern dance, or how the modern dance subject who experiences her truth in her own body becomes the best workforce always ready for exploitation under the banner of experience.8 But something else, more specific to the conundrum of political handicap and aesthetic labor in contemporary dance, is striking here. What was referred to as “conceptual dance”, accused of being “non-dance” a decade ago, in fact should better be explained by a technical redistribution of labor: a wish to minimize dancing as physical in favor of mental labor, or thought.9 However, in the substitution of the corporal and affective by the intellectual labor, an aesthetic ideal of dance may still subsist – lightness as effortlessness – now transferred from the body to thought. Effortlessness in thought here means the efficiency of conceptual operation, of a message cleared from noise. In a list of misnomers for conceptualizing tendencies in dance in the end of the 1990s was “think-performance” or “think-dance”, which became synonymous with “smart” and eloquent performances delegate themselves to think for the spectators, reducing spectators’ thought to a confirmation of understanding and opinion. This clarifies the difficulty of choreographies such as Nvsbl, Untitled and Changes, which aren’t conceptualist think-performances thinking the thought of the spectator away, but are difficult to perceive and understand, because their movement doesn’t explain anything nor does it express anyone. The strategies of invisibility, indiscernability and opacity in Nvsbl, Untitled and Changes are directed against the aesthetic mimetic logic, and through reaching the limit of sensibility they force thought from its impossibility, or from non-understanding. The disturbance of viewing on the basic level compels the spectators to construct a position in the situation of the performance. Yet these works aren’t based on the withdrawal of the perceptual in favor of a cerebral frame of reception: they begin by problematizing the very perception of movement and change, the agency of movement, the figure and its presence, relationship between the figure and the environment, the meaning and movement. This involves dismantling the aestheticist concerns which envelope form, gesture and expression of the self. By aestheticist I specifically mean a legitimized mimetic repertoire of registers, from the form, style, representational meaning to signature. This implies that the function of choreography shifts from producing an aesthetic object to a problem. The production of a problem doesn’t begin with possibilities – they are a matter of knowledge that we account for as the limits to be pushed. Stating a problem isn’t about uncovering an already existing question or concern, something that was certain to emerge sooner or later. Nor is a problem a rhetorical question that can’t be answered. On the contrary, to raise a problem implies constructing terms in which it will be stated, and conditions it will be solved in. Unburdening from aestheticism in Western dance demands the right of dance to denaturalize. This calls for many points of resistance, resistance to the natural, to the free and creative, to fluency and effortlessness, to entertaining a necessary relation to form, to the self-actualization of the dancer, but also the self-actualization of her community of spectators. All these could perhaps be subsumed under the mimetic logic of image, vision and visibility, as well as clarity, understanding, and judgment. There are many ways of gathering, and choreography can explore conditions for spectators to construct their positions and perspectives in the situation. As little or as much as it may seem, this begins with the conditions of viewing that the three choreographies attempt to produce.

Lastly, choreography could risk the aesthetic autonomy of dance, and admit that the approaches to choreography dissociated from the art of dance, such as the mentioned social choreography – an interpretative model as well as a medium for instilling and rehearsing the social as an aesthetic order – make the politicity of choreographic workings outside the hermetic self-reflexive preoccupations of dance more graspable and powerful. The widespread usage of choreography as a technical term outside the art of dance – in diplomacy and the “art of leadership,” or in the analysis of the movements of molecules and cell processes, or in information technology – designates a complicated but seamless organization of many heterogeneous elements in motion.10 It’s time to test whether choreography can be an instrument for thinking, rather than showing and reflecting thought. This requires that movement be granted a double articulation, as gesture and noise at the same time, as being issued by the body and not necessarily belonging to it. In theater, it involves creating situations in which the hindrance of recognition and understanding of movement would be taken as a productive problem, a positive constraint and difficulty for the spectator from which thought begins.

1 Projects of reconstruction and re-enactment of dance often suffer from the aesthetic burden in the sense that the formal aspects of the choreography are foregrounded in the presentation, while the historical and contextual aspects are insufficiently tackled.

2 Xavier Le Roy/Bojana Cvejic/Gerald Siegmund, “To end with judgment by way of clarification,” in ed. Martina Hochmuth, Krassimira Kruschkova, Georg Schöllhammer, It takes place when it doesn’t: On dance and performance since 1999, (Frankfurt: Revolver, 2006), pp. 49–56

3 Cf. the project of Irwin East Art Map and Marina Gržinic, “Mind the Gap! A Conceptual and Political Map,” ed. M. Gržinic, G. Heeg and V. Darian, Mind the Map! History is not Given (Frankfurt: Revolver, 2006), pp. 18–19.

4 This rhetoric owes some inspiration to Bruno Latour’s take on the crisis of political representation in democracy. Bruno Latour. “From Realpolitic to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public,” ed. B. Latour and P. Weibel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Karlsruhe/Cambridge MA/London: ZKM & The MIT Press, 2005), pp. 14–41.

5 The thesis comes from my doctoral dissertation, “Choreography after Deleuze: Performative as Expressive Concepts in Contemporary Dance,” at Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University.

6 From a conversation with Nikolina Pristaš held during TenDaysOneUnity in Zagreb, October 2010.

7 Quoted from Changes by BADco. demo recording from the performance at Tanz im August, Berlin, 2007.

8 Andrew Hewitt, Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Everyday Movement and Dance. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

9 Cf. Bojana Cvejic and Ana Vujanovic, “Introduction: Exhausting Immaterial Labor in Performance,” TkH – Journal d’Aubervilliers, 2010: p. 4–5.

10 Cf. the recorded mentions of choreography such as The Art of leadership: a choreography of human understanding (by Zach Kelehear, publication from 2006), or “Quantum choreography: making molecules dance to technology’s tune?” (by S. G. Shirmer in Philosophical Transactions. Series A, Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sicences, vol. 364, 2006) or “Patterns: serial and parallel processes for process choreography and workflow” (by IBM International Technical Support Organization, 2004) in Philip M. Parker, ed., Choreography: Webster’s Timeline History 1710–2007 (San Diego Ca.: ICON, 2009).

  • politics
  • choreography
  • dancing
  • visual thinking
  • body

My language

Selected content
English, French

Bojana Cvejić

is a performance maker and theorist, working in contemporary dance and performance also as dramaturge and performer. Her performance work includes directing five experimental opera performances, most recently Mozart’s Don Giovanni (BITEF, Belgrade). Since September 2009, she is teaching contemporary dance and performance at the Utrecht University, M.A. programme Theatre Studies.

Stefan Hölscher (ed.), Gerald Siegmund (ed.): Dance, Politics & Co-Immunity

This volume is dedicated to the question of how dance, both in its historical and in its contemporary manifestations, is intricately linked to conceptualisations of the political. Whereas in this context the term "policy" means the reproduction of hegemonic power relations within already existing institutional structures, politics refers to those practices which question the space of policy as such by inscribing that into its surface which has had no place before. The art of choreography consists in distributing bodies and their relations in space. It is a distribution of parts that within the field of the visible and the sayable allocates positions to specific bodies. Yet in the confrontation between bodies and their relations, a deframing and dislocating of positions may take place. The essays included in this book are aimed at the multiple connections between politics, community, dance, and globalisation from the perspective of e.g. Dance and Theatre Studies, History, Philosophy, and Sociology.


Related titles