Reading: Steven Spier (ed.) — William Forsythe and the Practice of Choreography: It Comes from any Point

I am sitting here, in Berlin, looking across the Uferhallen and south, the Panke canal, through trees not yet budding in an unseasonably early spring, entirely because of William Forsythe. Of course, not entirely, the details and meanderings can be said to be my own, yet the impetus, the first shove, or — to use it knowing also its religious connotations — the revelation, was sitting in a theatre watching The Frankfurt Ballett, having no idea what it was I was seeing, but knowing that was exactly what I wanted to do.

An origin story always gets remade to emphasise the desired narrative over what actually happened, so to tell it like this is knowingly to omit to the point of lying. Nonetheless, it was seeing The Frankfurt Ballett, leaving the theatre thrilled and shaking, seeing and hearing and feeling what was roiled inside of me without recourse to language to make itself conscious; it was this moment that gave clarity and understanding to me. Perhaps even it was the moment itself, that time then, and to see it a few years later or earlier would not have caused this immediate, complete change of direction. Well, yes, perhaps. Perhaps is not so interesting nor knowable. So: I’m sitting here, writing this, because of William Forsythe.

I enjoy writings on Forsythe, The Forsythe Company, Frankfurt Ballet because the work lends itself so easily to serious critical and philosophical thoughts. When Forsythe talks about deconstruction, he really is using the word in a Derridean sense, and not some vacuous, lazy synonym for dismantling. There are conversations you can have with the former that are not possible with the latter not merely because there is neither deconstruction nor dismantling taking place; it is these conversations that interest me, which I think are pertinent, even imperative to dance.

So I come to editor Steven Spier’s William Forsythe and the Practice of Choreography: It Comes from any Point, which I forget where I first saw, published in 2011. It’s a collection of essays, some short, some long, some easy to read and addressing a general dance audience, others assuming at least a familiarity with post-’68 philosophy, music theory, architecture … most of it (approaching half-way in the reading) I find very interesting and stimulating, while a couple of parts I feel a weight of disappointment. More or less typical for an essay collection.

One in particular irritated me, no coincidence I suppose it was the one heavy on Foucault: Gerald Siegmund’s Of Monsters and Puppets. The fixation on the word, ‘monster’, dancers’ bodies as monsters or monstrous, uttered over and over until it became like a nervous tick or fetish, the direct line to Foucault (who turns up more than once in this book), irrespective of the validity of this line of writing (either as a critical interpretation or coming directly from Forsythe’s references to Foucault) is all a bit too easy, predictable. It anticipates as well a queer colonialism wherein Queer claims dancers’ bodies as its own because all that is monstrous is Queer. It’s not. Queer doesn’t get to claim all bodies that fall outside of the normative as queer, nor are these bodies necessarily monstrous.

An opposition to this is Michel Serres writing on bodies that move, bodies that dance. The dancer’s body as the possible, the unknown; the body that thinks and is subject through moving; a body that is not reducible to a duality, separate from mind (or thinking, or consciousness) because of this; a body that resists a ‘holistic’ integration or synthesis of the two by being already somewhere else.

Certainly also it’s not a strict opposition. There is at play here in the monstrous and queer what Baudrillard calls, “an increasingly racist definition of the ‘normal human.’” yet that is not all there is, nor is it necessarily a coherent path of discourse to describe what is categorised as not normal in the language that does this categorisation. If nothing else, it means we agree a priori the designation is correct and we’re just arguing over the details. There’s also something dishonest in naming bodies monstrous and yet not admitting there’s something sexy and cool in such an appellation, perhaps even better than the non-monstrous.

Perhaps all of this is to say, yes, even if Forsythe names Foucault as an influence, it doesn’t follow that all analysis of his work has to be the standard turning of the lights labeled Foucault, Lacan, Marx, and others on it and performing a kind of paint by numbers theorising. Who else is there? Serres, obviously. Judith Butler was and is writing concurrently with Forsythe’s work. Mainly I find it a little uninteresting to remain so narrow and predictable in the choice of philosophers and tropes with which to regard the world.

Besides all that, which was only one or two of the essays I’ve so far read – and even these are well-written whatever I might think of their arguments – this is one of the best collections of essays I’ve read on Forsythe, and it’s a joy to read about dance like this.

the end of dance writing

Around the time I was thinking about i want your dance, I stumbled across this excellent article on ImPulsTanz by Elizabeth Zimmer, the former dance editor at The Village Voice. (As an aside, I spent much of that afternoon reading the entire features archives on ImPulsTanz; I’m such a sucker for well-written essays on dance.)

She dissects her hopelessness with the dance scene in New York that for people living in Australia is gut-wrenchingly familiar. The death of serious, intellectual coverage of the arts in the mainstream media of English speaking countries is almost tedious to watch, better perhaps to put it out of its misery than maintain the pretense.

The legitimacy of an artist’s performance and consequently their reputation however, is inextricable from column inches obtained in the press, a press that will only review work that has received presentation funding from whatever arts organisations, in turn having a not inconsequential influence on gaining subsequent funding. All round, it’s unhealthy for the people making art.

It’s frustrating then that artists here seem so categorically glacial in their adoption of technology that could make this issue more-or-less background noise. As much as I abhor MySpace, it’s really not that arcane to set up, or WordPress, or … yes, as Elizabeth says, PodCasts. The lack of engagement from artists in what they are doing as a consumable entertainment product – yes that sounds dirty, get over it – is baffling. The model ever since I was a student making work was email+jpg flier, print some A6 fliers if you have the money, and word-of-mouth. Little has changed in eight years, and really, when it’s so easy to participate in the endless swirl of new media, a media that primarily is about communication, there’s not much excuse.

And lets not forget blogs. There are some people, like Alison at Theatre Notes, who I think are singularly responsible for my not reading the papers anymore – and check out her Arts Blog Primer. But artists writing about their work, especially in the performing arts, and doubly so in dance – it’s like the map of the world connected to the internet, and while Europe and the first world blazes with light, everywhere else is black.

It was not Elizabeth’s intention to paint a facile death-of-print account, though death-of-dance is something that still looms large. Certainly if more artists here attended to and were responsible for their own appearance in a media that has long ceased to be passive and one-way, I would feel more confident that it wasn’t all a grave-digging exersise.

And someone should be running courses – free courses – for artists to learn how to use this stuff. It’s actually really easy. (I think I just volunteered myself, no?)

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