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TEACHING THEORY TO CHOREOGRAPHERS by Rita Natalio
28.05.2013

Contemporary cynicism both reflects and brings to an irreversible conclusion the inversion of knowledge and “life”. Imediate familiarity with one or another set of rules and a minimized elaboration of their essencial contents – this is the form taken by cynicism reactive adaptation to the general intellect. (Paolo Virno, The ambivalence  of desinchantment)

 

TEACHING THEORY TO FUTURE CHOREOGRAPHERS 

What is theory? What is the use of theory in dance schools? Is theory an use, a mode of existence or a tool of dance studies? How do theoretical studies and dance studies co-relate? When can theory propels practice and viceversa?

Step 1. Dreaming

I dreamt with a reality where “education” was the gravity center for a multiple approach of practices and ideas altogether. In my dream I visited a center for “life worlds” to grow in dialogue with multiple languages. From abstraction to perception, form biology to poetry, from dance technique to blogging, this center was a mixture of disciplines, coding and decoding the needs and desires from masses of students, masses of singularities, eyes, fingers and mouths in ever-changing contexts to become. After my dream I decided to write something about the use of theory in art schools and specially in dance schools. I understood my urgent need to clarify what  is the use of theory in art, in an epoch where thought is entangled  with consumerism and theory in a discursive branch of society capable of replacing acts and facts.. Legitimation of art = theory. But how should I  start?

 

Maybe like this:

since the 90’s (at least), there is a continuous monologue concerning performing arts. A monologue around the field of “experimental” and “conceptual” work,  even “reality-based” work, constituted by upright theories and self-referential imagery about contemporary choreography. This monologue is normally fed by dance theoreticians, programmers and critics, it consolidates a certain mode of existence in “contemporary dance”, it reclaims a certain ability to decipher aesthetical formats and some precarious thin lines called “currents” or “generations”.

Where art and theory could have led a profound dialogue, there is more of a replacing “trick”, a magical operation: whereas a work of choreography appears to produce a certain theoretical environment, it happens exactly the opposite, because it is the theoretical apparatus that is producing the choreography. So, there is a coincidence between the immediate (the present time where a certain artist produces a work) and the historical status (the contextualization of the work in a certain intellectual function, in a certain place of Dance History). So, a piece represent a pre-defined status or value in the general intellect.

This magic game is operated by the theoretician (maybe someone called dramaturge who writes about the piece before it prémieres), but it can also be operated by the artist himself, who can be at the same time producer of choreography and producer of a certain theoretical  big picture.

Now, the problem is not exactly that someone invents a concept to contextualize a dance or that theory is an expanded mirror of post-modern times .  As Bruno Latour would have put it, our modern culture produces GODS FACTISH, “factish” being a contraction of “fétiche” with “fact” (“fait” in french). We must cultivate these gods, gods os factish. I mean that the problem is not exactly that we create concepts, this is in fact the good part of the magic trick. The problem is that theory is replacing media and dance itself. Thery is a producer of surplus, it gives the work of art a surplus that replaces its own value. So, choreography becomes market-oriented in these two senses: material value and cognitive value. And I guess, that if we look backwards maybe we can see dance schools as a step of this equation. But let’s give a step further.


Step 2. Dance and market: paix-de-deux

We: consumers and producers of symbols

We: producers and consumers of information

We: producers and consumers of sensations, emotions and futures to come.

Art (or “Dance”): a mode of production programmed with the same templates of other contemporary modes of production. Production of symbols, information, sensation, emotions, futures to come.

Work: work is not exactly “work”. Work is speculation, adaptation and flexibility “to work”

Feeling:  pre-programmed for fear and restlessness, from the moment we wake up, enter Google to search for this and that, we prepare our day, we consider our professional projects, or we go to dance school.

Question: Is it too Marxist to say that a dancer is a flexible producer of steps, an adaptable “machine-à-danser”, a restless provider of different aesthetics to come?

Quotation: “What are the principal qualities demanded of wage laborers today? (…)These qualifications are not products of industrial discipline so much as results of a socialization that has its center of gravity outside of the workplace, a socialization punctuated by discontinuous and modular experiences, by fashion, by the interpretation of the media, and by the indecipherable ars combinatoria of the metropolis intertwining itself in sequences of fleeting opportunities“ (PAOLO VIRNO)

 Dance School: a preparation for the we-market, the first place for learning to be aware of “fleeting opportunities”. What is a good dance school, according to the we-market? A school that provides flexible multi-varied techniques, adaptation to different choreographic languages, free speculation on different codes and configuration of techniques, language and knowledge. What is the role of theory in the school of the we-market? A substitute. From anatomy to philosophy and art theory, theoretical studies are used to re-place the value of choreography. The value of the dancer – producer of steps – is re-placed by the sum of connections of each step and element he can produce to pre-established concepts and contexts. The relation between dance and knowledge is then inverted. Here is set the foundation from cynicism, if you take Paolo Virno as an inspiration, that cynicism is produced by the inversion between  knowledge and life.

Step 3. Hearing other voices 


Pavle Heidler is a Croatian dancer and choreographer who graduated from P.A.R.T.S. (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios) on June 24, 2012. Since early 2010 he has  been working on Behind the Sun series that is composed around the concept of practice being the core of an artistic body of work; practice is the main material but also that which articulates the relationship between the artist and the (actual) content of his or hers work.I n the essay The Process of Materialization of Fiction (Oct 2012) he describes the content or structure of the physical practice (that was worked on alongside the vocal and is being the core practice of the work that is currently in production). As a maker he tries to balance the authorship between what he wishes to be as an author of and what he has to be as an author. Some of his work is (looks like) primarily aesthetic, almost exclusively proscenium, stage work – which he then challenges with designs that are stable yet centered around a contingent power structure, almost aura. Other works are stable only in their trained, practiced instinctual presence – staged in exhibition or public spaces, these works deal with the relationship to the external observer by immediate dialogue performed through actions/words. In a broader sphere, his work is centered in consciousness being a shared condition, which allows him to think – and to make work that questions its materiality but is stable in its immaterial that acts in the sphere of your cognitive perception. He likes to think that his work takes place not “on stage” but in imagination.

I talked with Pavle about the use of Theory in PARTS and he gave me this testimony: 

“At the moment I live in Zabreg ,but I’m not based here, I moved to Stockholm. Since I finished Parts in July 2012 I have been doing my own work and working with other people, and writing some articles, journalist writing and essays on dance. The first thing I remarked about the place of theory in PARTS , is that  PARTS is very “concerned“ as a dance school, with the use of the brain. It is concerned with how do we think, whether is thinking choreography, dance as theory, or the body as an instrument. I mean,  you get a lot about anatomy, alignment, functionality of muscle work. You get used to having “to think” as opposed to “just dancing”. It is weird to make this opposition  but in my previous formation, I was taught, how I should look, or how I should feel because I was suppose to “express“ my emotions and for me this was never enough.“

He described me the theoretical seminars in PARTS, the most interesting subjects and provocations he received during his formation:

“In the training cycle, we got a lot of dance history. I realized it is very important to understand our context and even, aesthetically, where do things come from. Specially because in the training cycle in PARTS, we take ballet classes as well as contemporary classes, and it’s important to now how to, historically, position yourself. After that, we had also a class in anatomy, part practical and part theoretical.  Then it got more abstract: we had sociology, philosophy, dance theory (which is very different from dance history because we don’t study choreographers for their achievements but for their methodologies, why certain environments and certain choreographers did certain choices and how these choices  affected dance making today)

We had also a course in gender studies, Rudi Laermans gave us the possibility to decide what we wanted to study and we decided for this class, because I guess nowadays, in performance arts, this subject got very important for all of us. We discussed a lot of Judith Buttler and the ideia of “performativity” of gender.

We had classes with Rudi Laermans and Bojana Cjevic. Also, we had two courses on visual arts , one of them with Cristophe Vavelet. In  fact, we had teachers that weren’t just choreographers, like visual artists, conceptual artists. This takes me back to my previous idea, that the study of different subjects in theory let us organize thinking in another way, to get a taste of multiplicity“


Step 4. Hearing other voices II 
 

 CeciliaLisa Eliceche was born in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. In 2006 she moved to Brussels to attend theTraining and Research Cycles at PARTS. During her studies she also went to NYas a Movement Research ex-change student. Currently she works as a freelance dancer inBrussels. Cecilia collaborates with Eleanor Bauer in her Triology, Claire Croize and Etienne Guilloteau, in NY for Heather Kravas. Cecilia loves dance and works with the endlesspotential of the body and movement. As a choreographer she created Cow’sTheory that won the secondprize in the prix Jardin d’Europe “for its intensephysical investigation of construction dynamics and social relationships”.She is also developing a seriesof 2 week dance-researches called Dance Concerts, focused variably on movement,choreography, politics and process. In a similiar manner she collaborates with Ayelen Parolin for  Mateando. She continues these projects aswell as preparing Unison a new long piece to be premiered in march 2014 in Stuk (Leuven)

Cecilia told me about the mechanics of PARTS, she shared with me another vision on the options and seminars’ program, not so positive as Pavle. Even though, she referred the importance of Rudy Laermens, the way he shacked her habits of thinking.  But, in other hand, she was quite reactive to the use of fashionable theories and fashionable authors in the dance field:

 “I find very important to read authors that have influenced other choreographers, in order to understand their interpretations and views. It’s extremely importantto have historical and contemporary awareness of the work that was and is beingdone. However. for my own work I resist without big efforts those fashionable authors. As a Latin American woman I unavoidably read in them colonialism and chauvinism. In reaction to this I try to only read woman authors, from Hannah Arendt to Rigoberta Menchu, from Chantal Mouffe to Donna Haraway,from   Alejandra Pizarnik to Judith Butler.“ 

To be a Latin American was a way to Cecilia understand certain mechanisms in PARTS connected with western-patterns, and Eurocentric perspectives in dance, theory and history:

“The dance training at PARTS is admirably heterogeneous, teachers are from all over theworld, different genders, sex preference, language etc.. However, in regards totheory classes the school is for me very eurocentric and to my surprise chauvinistic. Apart from Bojana Cjevic, all teachers in PARTS are white heterosexual men! I remember exceptionally reading Peggy Phelan in Dance Theory and in Aron Schuster’s class, we read some Hanna Arendt and Borges, otherwise we only read European men theorists. In my particular generation during the 1stcycle, where theory classes where obligatory, I observed a weird and sad phenomena during class, a real cultural separation between students. It wasn’t rare to see half of the class sleeping in the back of the room because they simply didn’t understand the language. Simultaneously. while I was in PARTS there was a tendency of cataloguing students coming from France, Northern Europe and United States as making “conceptual work“ and Latin American, African, Easter European, Asian as being the “dancers“. The same way men were supported in their pursue as ’makers’ and woman weren’t.“

And she gave me some other examples of her experience: 

“This separation between concept, dance and denial of politics and gender was latent constantly. For instance, at the time of Dokumenta parts organized a ’field trip’ with Steven de Cauter. It was the time when Dokumenta had a strong political stand as theme. We analyzed the art pieces we saw, discussed passionately about them, it was great. Similarly, we had a class about political activism in art. However. during the graduation tour we were showing bothpersonal work as well as Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Drumming. For this occasion we had the opportunity to travel to Kinshasa the Democratic Republic of Congo. The school decided we would do repertoire, the Congolese audience wasn’t ready for the student work (?). We were supposed to be all exited aboutour ’exotic’ trip. We went at the time of the anniversary of Congo’s independence from Belgium, I remember that PARTS’s director saying it was a special occasion since it was the first time the King of Belgium was going to Congo since then. No one mentioned that Patrice Lumumba was the first democratically elected president killed in a joint venture by the Belgium Government and the CIA,and that since then they leave under dictatorship. We had no theoretical classes for this event.“

Step 5. What is the use of theory?

After knowing more about PARTS, I tried to understand what is perspective that Cecilia and Pavle have of their formation and the use they give to studies in theory in their work as dancers.

Cecilia: “ The reason I like contemporary dance and contemporary art is because it is this heterotopic place where we can play with meaning, and resist the fixation of norm . It’s really the place for thinking, and particularly in dance, with the body. For me, theory is very important but not essential. I feel very inspired by what I read. It is important to understand where you come from in terms ofhistory and theories that form Western culture, because we are undeniably formed by it. So, I do work with classical references in theory and movement (ballet).But I am interested in other logics of thinking. And even if I am extremely passionate about a particular author or theoretical movement: marxism,feminism, etc.. it is not my aim to represent any of this ’isms’ in my work. They remain sources of inspiration that contextualize, create discussion and thought however they don’t determine the dance.

Pavle: “The first thing I’m interested is that theory can make me and my art processes slower and to be careful about my choices and subjects. I’m now more avaiable to try different things and to be more specific about what I want to do or say. It helps me to organize my work as well, to dialogue with others that already worked with certain subjects. The way I articulate things changes according with what I know. I am very influenced by Gender Studies, Judith Butler notion of performativity and where does performance comes from, meaning - its social layers. Bt I am also interested in a physical, anatomical, neurological discourse and how does the social influences the biological. And what is the difference between real and fiction. I don’t choose what I want to read, I stumble upon thins. I read philosophy, science and a lot of fiction, novels, even sci-fi novels. I grew up with Harry Porter, I love magic! I’m reading now an essay on Ernst Bloch who wrote about the notion of “utopia” with a Marxist perspective, and a lot of vocabulary I don’t know it, because I never read Marx nor the “Capital“. I know about it but I never studied the texts. So, this is also a way to use theory to open up my brain and challenge my thinking, I try to test how much of theory is fiction, also because sometimes I don’t completely understand it.  So, I try to reflect on organization of information, institutions and social constructions, the way we behave according to a certain knowledge and rules that are sometimes more fictions, or “as” fictional as fiction!“

Step 6: Alternatives

 After hearing Cecilia and Pavle, I try to elaborate a new ground, a school where proliferation of techniques and theory is not directly channeled for inverted equations between theory and practice (cynicism), and power and knowledge (remembering the example of Cecilia on Congo).

Step 7. Dance to the sound of my song


We are anti-cynical and trans-Congolese. Our house is more of a hand-made boat, a snow ball, a tent-school of practical theories and theoretical practices.  Can we think about a relationship that is not dominant,  but producer of an unstable awareness?  Why shouldn’t philosophy be used as a choreographic practice?  Can we improvise in a studio with Bergson’s “Matter and Memory”? Can we produce sounds with Bruno Latour’s book in our hands? Can we replace our “techniques formation” by temporary repetitions and variations? Can we stop looking for The Author, The Status, The Market, The Money, The one? God was dead with Nietzsche, the Author was dead with Post-Structuralism, and Post-Modern Theory – fat greasy theory – must be burned and ecologically transformed. The place of theory can never be an island of backup defenses, or a reason to a certain body and affect to be valuable. Because, as Latour and Isabelle Stengers would have put it, our knowledge and practices are part of our “cosmology”. There are no bricks or stones in concepts that are harder or better than our dances. There is an ecology of practices to think, between dance and theory. Dance needs to exist as a practice and not as a practice filtered by theory. Theory cannot “convert” choreography. Theory can only open our minds to uncanny speculation. No results are necessary. Art is no result. A school in no producer.


RITA NATALIO



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