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Symposium: 'Text/Tans'

Not the Last Word

by Franz Anton Cramer

March 12-14, 2004 -- Kanuti Gildi Saal, Tallinn, Estonia

About Dance and Text

It is a constant concern within the project of modernity to define dance as a means of communicating in a more direct and more natural way. Speech and language, in this perspective, are considered corrupt and insufficient media of exchange. This stance has been prevalent in much of the European performing arts, starting from 1900 until today. The body was/is deemed to be “truer” in its expression than words might ever be.

At the same time, enormous efforts have been undertaken to justify the very speechlessness of dance, discussing the issue at a very high level of thought. This aspect of modernity, namely to conscientiously explain with rhetorical fervour and many a word, why the absence of words would be a ennobling of art and body and an augmentation of sense, is then one of the major and characteristic paradoxes of avante garde art-making. Edward Gordon Craig, Adolphe Appia, German Dance, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Max Reinhardt, Jacques Copeau, Etienne Decroux, Martha Graham, Marcel Marceau, Julian Beck/Judith Malina are but a few of those artists and phenomena that stand in for this paradoxical, if very successful, endeavour.

On the other hand, that same belief in speechlessness has come to stand for, or signify the intellectual and discursive deficiencies of dance. “Those who dance are unable to talk”, such is a widespread opinion among representatives of front row logocentrism. The absence of language to them would equal an absence of sense. Konstantin Stanislavskij, Bertolt Brecht, or Peter Szondi are some of the speakers against the mere insinuation of meaning and for an outspoken, even politicising perspective.

It is against this one hundred year background that the choreographic art within the last decade or so has gained new momentum in order to redefine dance as an intellectual practice, a means of articulating thought, theory, and discursive thrust – not as a reduplication of language and/or its structures; but, as redefinition of its possibilities. Among such newly defined interactions between performance as self-explanatory event and speech as contextualisation of the dancing body are most of the dance makers (big and small) since the 1990s of which I can only give a sense by naming: William Forsythe, Dumb Type, Meg Stuart; Xavier Le Roy, Thomas Lehmen, Jérôme Bel; Christoph Winkler, many Estonian dancer/choreographers (Maart Kangro, Zuga, Katrin Essenson), Hooman Sharifi; not to forget the more senior projects of Pina Bausch and the entire aesthetics of tanztheater.

The individual strategies for such appropriation of language differ enormously, of course. But it does seem clear that dance today has regained the realm of speech and thereby reformulated itself in a strong way, which unfortunately does not mean that the process of self-assertion and of definitive struggle would have come to an end. Rather, the relationship between dance and text needs to be rewritten in great detail with each artistic project, with each individual performance, with each creative act just as language cannot exist unless it is realized over and over again in the act of writing, reading, talking, listening, that is to say: in the act of understanding.

Understanding, then, is the common basis of all dance and of all language – the place where both realms meet after having made the tour of the world (according to Kleist). This brave reconciliation interestingly marks the end of the century whose starting point was the emphatic split between bodily and linguistic expression. Maybe we are reaching a new level of artistic intercourse: that of face to face hermeneutics, or rather: of performative understanding, of an understanding made visible – as dancing.

[Franz Anton Cramer, preliminary draft for a project, June, 2003]

The above quoted text was written in preparation for an event which finally took place from 12 to 14 March, 2004, at Tallinn’s Kanuti Gildi Saal. Headed by Priit Raud, it is the leading centre for choreographic arts and dance activities in Estonia and was host to a small and rather uncommon gathering. The participants -- dance artists, scholars, and students -- were to discuss in various formats just what the relationship between the spoken word, the grammatical language, and the body’s communicational means might be. Of course, there was not and there probably never will be one and only one answer. But it was striking to see how manifold the perspectives on this topic can be, even in a relatively small community as the one gathered in Tallinn.

The programme included an evening show by German performer, Raimund Hoghe, whose two hour work “Lettere amorose” (Love Letters) is deeply impregnated with sadness and longing. The ritualistic rendering typical of Hoghe’s performance work caused some heavy discontent with some participants who felt that dance had “no right” to present itself in such a way. Contrasting to Hoghe’s stylised lamentations was Estonian choreographer Mart Kangro’s solo performance “Mart on stage”. In a mixture of biographic recital, explanation of classical dancing and reflection of the performer’s state of mind, Kangro presented a radical attitude towards the communicative means of dance. Interestingly enough, it so happened that on the very night of Mart’s performance, the Estonian National Ballet Company gave a performance of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” -- in which Mart has once been cast as the priest. In “Mart on stage”, he wears the very costume and explains the rendering of this benevolent role, explaining in great detail the inner reasons and dramaturgical motivations of each gesture.

The mornings were reserved for lectures and discussions, in which this author participated, analyzing just how strong the influence of classical dancing tradition is even in contemporary contexts and what classical technique may stand for beyond its “classicalness”. Pirkko Husemann, from Frankfurt (Germany), presented her current research project on the rather recent phenomenon of “lecture performances”. It is the one “genre” within dance that most intensely ties dance and text, or body and speech, together. The performative aspect of this conceptualisation of dance as well as possible reasons for such newly developed predilection among dance’s intellectual noble-men (and women, of course) are at the centre of Husemann’s endeavour.

The event, whose presentations are to published sometime this summer, did not of course close the debate on the topic of dance and text’s interactions. But it made clear that much discussion and debate is still necessary before dance may fall silent again, or speech be oblivious of its bodily resorts.

Edited for clarity in English by Jeff.

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