In much of contemporary dance discourse, the idea prevails that dance is basically about absence. Dance is never present, as it only ever vanishes. I myself have since long been insisting that dance is essentially the spectacle of its own disappearance.
However, a question remains unanswered which would aim at the reverse side of the eternal vanishing, the absence of the work, the fleeting nature of performance. I am referring to an element of dance’s being which I call “the intention”.
Dance comes into being for many reasons – social circumstance, physical condition, aesthetic trends among them. But there is always something that precedes the actual dancing, something that incites someone to do a dance. It is an intention. Call it a will. A wish. A libido. Anyway it is something that is highly subjective but finds its manifestation, its form because of its inscription in a system and a framework that are before the dance is. While the dance itself may be “lost” once it is danced, the intention lingers.
In fact, the heated debate about archival practices in dance and performance, the documentation on choreographic ways of work – or else, work on choreographic artefacts – and the possibilities to revisit past performance have shown that it is essentially around this feature that realities can emerge. “La sauvegarde d’une intention” is the title of an essay by French archivist Laurent Sebillotte, “safeguarding an intention”. [Archive des Tanzes oder Eine Intention bewahren. In Janine Schulze (ed.) Are 100 objects enough to represent the dance? Zur Archivierbarkeit von Tanz. München: epodium 2010, pp. 84 – 97].
The question is in which ways the famous “traces” of performances can illuminate the work itself – the work which is cohering to its intention. Writing on dance, in this context, might be considered as nothing but making perennial the dance’s intention. And it would allow for transporting intentions to ever new present tenses.
The show on “Danses libres” by Chaignaud / Bengolea et al. is quite speaking in this respect. The work on a dance aesthetic and technique that was developed in the time between the World Wars testifies essentially of two things: that the dance has existed. And that it can still be read today. The contemporariness of the project may be subject of another discussion. As can be the adequacy of the physical appearance and rendering of dance material by bodies not fully permeated by its development (obviously for historic reasons). What remains beyond doubt, however, is that a lineage of intention manifests itself that can be traced back to the very early days of modern dance. We see Isadora Duncan dancing through the ghosts, the spectres of the contemporary dancers indulging – more or less – in material they do not really master. But mastery is not the issue, as it wasn’t in the days of Duncan (or Wigman, for that matter …). What matters is that the intention travels through the diverse conditions that society, discourse, and aesthetics have set up.
The point of interest here is less the continuity, truthfulness or originality of the historic project (not historicising project!); rather, it is the hint towards continuities in intention. As unstable as the actual performance may be, the stability of the available paradigms in which to inscribe this intention have an astonishing stability and perdurance. Let’s not forget that Isadora Duncan herself invoked the “Pathosformel”, a term and phenomenon coined by art historian Aby Warburg. He referred to certain gestures, postures, attitudes, iconographic schemes (such as drapery in statuary and painting, landscape settings, etc.) that transport specific intentions (for instance the representation of emotionality and passion, of somatic states, of life and death …) over centuries, even millennia.
So in fact it might not be of any use to talk about all of the lost matter (or immaterial artifice) involved in dance making in order to mourn once more the eternal loss of performance’s substance. Quite on the contrary, the interesting task is to find evidence, or rather make this evidence obvious, that basically nothing is ever lost in the history of bodies and their potential for representation.
During the CritEnd sessions with Boyan Manchev, one of the points raised was the Bataillean claim for “raw phenomena”, for a reality that would be unfiltered by ideologies, schemes, methods, or experiments. Every phenomenon has its specific duration, thus inscribing itself in a historic reality (how ever short-lived it may seem). Nonetheless it gains a connection to this intentionality that will be representable. (Representation also understood as a critical process, an “alteration” of the “original” state so as to avoid mimetism or sheer repetition.)
The transfer, the translation maybe (a parenthesis on Benjamin’s reversed theory of translation would be necessary here – departing from the assumption that the original never came into existence to be fully translatable, but to be the basis for a new being, an altered state) of that which has preceded a specific dance / work into a discursive formation might not only be something inevitable and lamentably contingent to the work but rather a consubstantial part of its energetic emergence. (“Intention” is a term that deserves more profound analysis; energy would certainly be a key term in such an endeavour.)
Amongst the various performances that I have seen in the three programme axes of ImPulsTanz 2012 (main programme including Wild Walk, CPA*, 8:tensions), several lead up to reflection on the basis of this “intention” that is or is not communicated through the work. “Francis Bacon”, for instance, considered a signature piece of Ismael Ivo’s collaborations with Johann Kresnik, premiered in 1994. It clearly exhales the (historical) expressionist thrust Ivo himself feels strongly connected to. However the piece, seen again after almost 20 years, seems today trapped in its own theatricality, as though the actual intention (it could roughly be called the fusion of expressionistic subjectivity with the historicizing representation of another expressive artist’s work) were captured by dramaturgical device. There is an assigned meaning that prevails the piece, an auctorial frame that bespeaks the choreographer’s way of working but leaves place for the dancer only to interpret something external. It is not about creation, not about immediacy of the performative. The dancerly intention, here, cannot precede the work, it is instrumentalised and thus, denatured. Two colliding regimes, that of the mise en scène and that of the dance itself provoke a standstill of the performative.
Whereas in Philipp Gehmacher’s “Solo with Jack”, the almost classicist modelling of the gestured body seems to hint to the contrasting position. Strictly based on the body’s appearance as a medium of its own intention, we can witness a discursive flow that is formally arrayed with great precision and subtlety at the same time. Quite remote from expressionist formulae, Gehmacher nonetheless inscribes his practice in the possibility of the body objectified through its given shapes. As personal as Gehmacher’s “vocabulary” may be, it at the same time adheres to a poetics of nuance and introversion that allows for a reading, an appreciation of sorts pointing towards an in-between state of representation – loaded with artificiality without sacrificing the “authenticity” and intentionality of the shape.
Another example to examine would be “Insignificant Others (Learning to look sideways)” by An Kaler, Alex Baczynski-Jenkins and Antonija Livingstone. Here, the physicality as event and as basis for representational transformation creates presence and co-presence both for performers and public – a “moment de partage” which at the same time leaves open a sphere of unauthored being. This “unauthored-ness” (horrible neologism …), however, is not linked to naturalism or arbitrariness. Rather, it testifies of the very performativity that is at the outset of any dance intention.
If I were to set up a new, if personal, principle of hermeneutic criticism it would without doubt be around this intricate, long-standing and in some sort anti-essentialist relation between a works preceding intention, the framework of its representation, and the possibilities of alteration – or else subjectivation – within the performance paradigm.