Taken At The Word (2010)

An essay on how dance pieces are announced

The Promise Of Announcements

A few years ago a visitor of a contemporary dance performance in Ireland sued the organiser. The grounds for his action: he claimed that the announcement of the piece didn’t have anything to do with what was shown on stage later. The spectator who wanted his money back took the brochure’s text seriously and thus read it literally. Let’s have a look into the Irish Times from Thursday, July 8, 2004 that extensively lays out the case:

Action against dance festival fails

“A theatre-goer who said he had ‘not been informed adequately’ that nudity, simulated masturbation and urination would be part of a dance performance has lost a case for breach of contract. Judge Joe Mathews said, however, that though the plaintiff, Mr Raymond Whitehead, had not proved his case he was ‘proved to be a man of honesty, high principle and courage’ in taking the case against the Irish International Dance Festival. The case centred on a performance at the Project Arts Centre in May 2002 of Jerome Bel written by French choreographer Jerome Bel. The only information he had before seeing Jerome Bel was gleaned from the festival brochure. […] He said he had been intrigued by the brochure’s reference to ‘returning to the basic principles of dance’. ‘I was curious to see how they interpreted the basic principles of dance’ and had expected ‘something to do with dance’. The brochure did not prepare him for what he saw. The performance opened with three women and a man writing names and numbers on a blackboard. One woman put a lipstick in her mouth and began pulling at her skin, while another held a lightbulb – the only light in the theatre. One woman then leant over the man from behind him and he pulled her hair between his legs. ‘It proceeded like that in that vein for about 45 minutes.’ In the last 10 minutes the man and one of the women urinated on the stage, scooped the urine up and smeared it on the blackboard. ‘At that point I got up and left. I was really disgusted by the experience.’ There was nothing in the performance he would describe as dance, which he defined as ‘people moving rhythmically, jumping up and down, usually to music but not always’ and conveying some emotion. He was refused a refund. […]”

Irish Times, July 4, 2004

What might enter the archive for odd legal questions to be discussed in law class rooms turns out to be a challenging problem for programmers, producers, choreographers: how to announce contemporary shows without scaring off the audience? And of course without getting sued everytime a spectator feels betrayed or cheated, based on grounds like the ones of Mr Whitehead’s: dance is „people moving rhythmically, jumping up and down, usually to music but not always“. In his book Exhausting Dance, André Lepecki presents Mr Whitehead’s case as an example of how modern discourse claims movement to be an indispensable paradigm of dance as such. However, „it should be remembered that the operation of inextricably aligning dance’s being with movement – as commonsensical as such an operation may sound today – is a fairly recent historical development“ , namely a development of modernity.

So Mr. Whitehead could take his case to court and build it on a commonsensical understanding of what dance is about. Even though the programmer wasn’t convicted, others however did learn from this case. Maybe in order not to have to undergo the same public discussion, Sadler’s Well announced the same piece in 2008 like this: „In Jérôme Bel the choreographer transcends typical dance structures. Here, Bel limits himself to the essentials – the bodies are naked and the only lighting is one light bulb. Contains nudity and scenes of an adult nature.“ The last sentence should serve as a complimentary ticket. Yet, the problem is not that the programmer announces nudity (what is meant with adult nature here by the way?), the problem is that the text strips down the piece to its sheer essentials as in „the bodies are naked and the only lighting is one light bulb“. Attention, audience, don’t you dare misunderstand that this piece is not entertaining you if you expect Lord of the Dance. This IS arty. The way how Jerome Bel „transcends typical dance structures“ is left unrevealed however. The irony of this case though is that Jerome Bel himself has a hypothesis about how contemporary art is attracting its audience: „If you want to see what you pay for, you go to Nationaltheatre. And you see Shakespeare or ballet, it’s always the same. But for contemporary arts, it’s a bet. They reserve their tickets without knowing what they will see. That’s why they come and see my performance. This is people who are interested in contemporary arts. They don’t know,“ as Bel puts it in Pinchet Klunchun and Myself. Audience pay for the risk that they see a show they are annoyed by. They pay for the risk of displeasure. They pay their own compensation.

This is the risk a cutting-edge choreographer might be willing to take, yet this is a risk too much for most programmers. They need full theatres, audience seats to be sold. They have to prove their need towards politicians and thus they need prove by access fees: people in our society tend to evaluate the need for art (still) by popularity. And popular is what is known (as Bel states), you get what you expect to see. So the programmer has to change the unhappy situation of the unpopular and translate into the happy one of accessibility: to make the audience see BEFOREHAND what they most likely are not getting at the show itself. As the show itself is unknown most of the times, the announcement is the only source of information a regular theatre-goer consults before s/he buys a ticket.

Actually, we are dealing with a spectator before s/he becomes a spectator, the proposal for the spectator to become one. Selling a show to the audience means to raise interest in it. Thus, the seller has to leave aesthetic discourse and translate it smoothly into announcement, he deals with a double translation: the visible into aesthetics, and the aesthetics into consumption. Welding a mixture of (so-called) aesthetic discourse and marketing new speak, aesthetics fuel and hide at the same time what the show is about. Aesthetics provide with cue words, with rhetoric markers but don’t dive into the discourse itself. Rather, the texts allude to semantic fields that can be harvested, exploited without having to enjoy the apple of recognition itself: they make use of a jargon rather than language. Let’s have a look at the announcements of Impulstanz 2010, published online and in their brochures. It doesn’t matter if one has seen the show or not. It doesn’t matter who made the show. And it doesn’t even matter if the texts were written by the pr department or the artists themselves, since both of them have to deal with the same problem, once the piece has to be transformed into marketable words.

The researcher

„When do we actually really “hear” information? How do we filter information that is available to us anytime? When do we believe someone or something? And how do we act as individuals and as groups when we stand up for something we believe in?“ – „How can two dancing bodies change the space of the stage? What does intimacy and togetherness mean in relation to this, and how can the dancers’ language of movement best be used to convey information?!“

The 90ies have fostered a new movement, the movement of thoughts. Reflection has become the main means to create dances. Taking on the notion of reflection in its literal latin sense of ‚re-flectere’ (meaning ‚bending back’) thinking became the privileged metaphor of how to form and look at the body – and vice versa. The mode, the motion of reflection became à la mode. Yet, what started as scrutiny, as an attempt to unlock different modes of ‚moving thoughts’ (this was a title of a conference in Leipzig in the beginning of the last decade) with the help of ‚thinking moves’ degenerated quickly to a wanna-be mode of showing off intellectuality. Thus, the artist had to start every application with an initial question that could either be answered by Deleuze (poor guy) or any other mind researcher, any one who came in handy. The technique of questioning, introduced into occidental thinking by Platon’s Socratic dialogues, degenerated to a rhetorical gesture to get approval by the peer and founding bodies. Amongst other, the how-to-question turned out to be the most efficient to show that the piece’s author is not only dealing with content, but with the methodology, the procedure of ‚how to’ get to the content; the How-to-mode should reflect on ‚how to make a piece’. The best part of it: a how-to question can be left unanswered because the answer is fairly simple: „How can two dancing bodies change the space of the stage?“ The simple answer: they should take each other’s positions, nothing special about that. What’s the big deal? But of course this question is rather rhetorical, it is meant to remain an open, existential question which HAUNTS the show, as a filter of perception, as an artistic challenge. So this is what these kinds of questions in a brochure aim at: the artist is a researcher who touches metaphysical ground. And the spectator is turned into a witness of the artists sincerity and pathfinding. As in „… the artist searches for a new relationship between dance and music.“  And we the audience, at our best, are seeing in front of our eyes how the ‚new relationship’ gets (in) shape. And who might be able to distinguish between new and old anyway… . If the ‚how-to’ questions appear to be too subtle to make the spectator understand what the free-spirited artist-researcher is looking for, they have to be more precise. The artist-researcher’s hand-book for researching language knows a lot of notions that underline the artistic quest, like questions (!), search, or scrutinize, but number one smash hit is formed by the word examine as in: „… examine the wish to work collectively on solos.“ We are used to examine an object, an animal, even a human being, something with a surface, materiality, a body, but since this is old salad in the rhetorics of avantgarde, sophistication is in need for ‚examination of the wish’. How to examine a wish though on stage if you are not familiar with the praxis of psychotherapists or debts counsellor? As most of us are not, a question that unfortunately might be left unanswered, both by the text and the show itself.

The German linguist Pörksen once called words the original given meaning of which is continously substituted by a vague pragmatical usage plastic words. Plastic words can be used as a rhetoric fill in, to allude to a meaning without having to be precise, as often used by politicians. Everyone knows what is meant by IT without having someone who really said IT. Ranting is a mode of talking by language parasites who don’t want to be nailed down, want to exploit the discourse without fueling it.

The judge

Nailing down takes place in a different sense though, when it comes to statements about the quality of a piece, of an approach, or a procedure. It gives the ranting some seriousness, some weight simply by channeling how people should look at it: „This is not a parody but a serious examination of the question of how the emotions of music and dance may be presented yet again and in a completely different way.“ Just in case the spectators read the piece as a parody, they are proven wrong by the text. It clearly states the way of reading as a contemporary art-work, meaning: there is some sense in it even if you don’t see it at first glance, so you better dig for it. And if the spectator may not come to a conclusion inspite of trying hard, s/he should be too concerned: „The result is a positive yet critical culture of “shouting and moving”.  Whatever the eye of the beholder might behold, s/he can’t hold it against the piece, rather against himself as he clearly doesn’t understand the equation. The ‚=’ is valid, message is clear, why still going to see the show then if the spectator simply has to do the maths? The Golden Mean is balanced by this proportion, announced by a sense that is outside the piece, inside the logic of the statement. Yet, who writes here if not the one who claims the authorial position in his text. The author is not dead, for sure s/he is very alive in the texts that are written on the shows. It’s an author called anonymous who passes rather golden than mean judgement in favour of the piece: „With the tender virtuosity and carefree eroticism typical of her, the artist transfers her dancers to a transitory atmosphere in-between times.“ Who says so? The creator herself? Or did the company make a survey among a test audience after having presented the work and ask them to write down the effect of the performance on themselves? If they had done so, the text might have been turning out a bit more concrete and precise, yet with less plastic words as atmosphere or transfers. The manual of pr writing: If you can’t name it, use the term atmosphere, and if you don’t exactly know how it goes, use transfer. At least, you allude to a nessness of a feeling (atmosphere) and indicate a change (transfers) which can be read as ‚movement’. Adjectives do help though to make abstracta a bit more lively, they grant for colour or sensation or feeling. Like tender or carefree or transitory. They indicate at least emotions by naming them, offer generously body sensations as they should be sensed by the audience whilst watching the show. Tender, carefree, transitory we go home. To get over with it: Why not just using adjectives to categorize the piece in a text, as it would read like, in order of appearance: crazy friendly strange golden oversized thick blonde eerie new star ideal golden irrational tender carefree transitory golden wide smelting surprising. Why after all would we need complete sentences since everything already is alluded to, the colours, the qualities, the mysteries, the excitement of the show? Why not shortcutting discourse to a bundle of sensations a piece wants to provide the audience with? The answer why not: because the anonymous writer of the announcement wants to channel sense and thus control it. S/He would be afraid to lose touch with the reader aka spectator-to-be aka reader of the show. The logic of the phrase is designed to transmit ideology of sense.

The ideologist

Thus we are touching the ideology of the announcement, at first in a kind of literal way, as in announcement of the ideological content of a show, advising to read the piece as a political statement. In linguistic, the ‚how-to-read-mode’ is called injunctive speech act, meaning the text  doesn’t describe facts or processes of what the piece does but rather prescribes what the reader has to do with it. Injunctions are dangerous because unlike performative speech acts they don’t act by speaking, rather they order to act and don’t necessarily come out in the open. They hide within their command structure, being itself invisible. Whereas performative speech acts are political in such a way that they do act, and have a direct effect on communities, injunctive ones are ideological as they embed a condition for acting rather than the acting itself. They make the matrix rule: „The subversive potential of the illusionary trick and the reference to artists like Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramovic underline the intention to ironically but effectively irritate and spectacularly blind the look that consumes the female body.“ It says: this piece is not just about politics, it is political and so is the text. The subversion the text speaks about is embedded in its own logic as it tries to subvert the spectator’s way of looking and to the contrary impregnate it with an ideological order. It does so by intentionally confusing description with prescription in the shape of a locutionary speech act, fueling it with the piece’s ideology, its jargon.

We didn’t get to the type of personalized announcements yet, the most simple, facile and upfront of selling a piece to the spectactor, speaking of the choreographer’s history, impact, heritage, thus speculating on the overwhelming impact this might have on the spectator. It’s  already clear what we are talking about here. What these texts do, if they say it out loud or try to keep it concealed, is depriving the spectator of his/her own gaze. The so-called spectator is turned into a reader who is asked to read pre-conceived ideas out of the pieces (and not into the pieces as hermeneutics would want to). The ‚spectator’ is asked to objectify the logic of the announcement within his/her own way of watching, to access the piece with the eyes of the artist or pr staff member (which might be the same person). This take-over takes place before the spectator-to-be has even taken a seat in the audience. The spectators are told by the artist to know before what they are going to witness later. This is why Mr. Whitehead missed his chance. He was told to read the piece in a way which he couldn’t. This is why he was disappointed by his own expectations to be a docile disciple of the announcement and thus asked his money back. For him, watching a show is about synchronizing the brochure’s announcement with his gaze, synchronizing the concept with his percept. In fact, he wasn’t disappointed about not getting what he saw, but about not getting what he was told to see. Instead, he should have been happy to have escaped the author’s, authoritarian logic of announcement. This could have been his chance to become a spectator, again. To get over with what in most cases announcement could be called: denouncements.

Text was first published in the Swedish Dance History 2010.