Bojana Cvejić Writing Attenders in Xavier le Roy’s Untitled
Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in European Contemporary Dance, doctoral dissertation by Bojana Cvejić, Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, London, 2012
Subtractions within the theatrical apparatus
Before the performance of Untitled actually begins, the subtraction of its apparatus of theatrical representation has already begun. The performance is announced without a title, without the name of its author, without notes about its so-called content (“subject matter”) or a statement of intent by the author. In other words, the performance is presented as “untitled”, made by an “anonymous” author, and with no further information except for the names of its producers. This is an unprecedented gesture for dance-not only because historically it has no predecessor-but because the way a work of theater dance is announced plays a substantial role in its presentation. The centrality of the play in the Western theater tradition provided the title of the play as a self-evident frame of aboutness, and with the deconstruction of drama in post dramatic theater, the title as an instance of verbal language promises that it will thematically fulfill the vacant function of a staged literary work. In the tradition of theater dance, the title is even more charged with the function of providing meaning to a silent play of bodies in movement. This, of course, applies to the modernist tradition of ballet and dance, which established its specific medium in renouncing the spoken word on stage. After modern dance ousted musical work, whose regulatory function of the score is comparable to the script in dramatic theater, the significance of the title and the text that verbally describes the upcoming event increased, gaining the function of guaranteeing sense, even as a vague, often metaphoric conduit of aboutness, As Susan Leigh Foster confers in her book Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary Dance (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006), the title together with the program notes belong to one of five categories of “choreographic conventions” –frame- “the way dance sets itself apart as a unique event” (Foster 2006, 59). I will refer to it as the “nominal frame” made of the title, the signature of the author and the brief program outline to be read before the event the frame which represents a choreography and inscribes it into the world dance.
The nominal frame in Untitled is intentionally voided but isn’t and can’t be fully removed. If the performance is to partake in the institutional context of contemporary dance and performance, it has to abide by at least a minimum of its conventions. To counteract the nominal frame, the author subtracts its content, leaving it as an empty, vacant function. Since there is neither an author to refer back to, nor a title to associate with a definite subject or theme, the audience is confronted with a void, an emptiness. This intervention into the apparatus of theatrical representation weakens one of its elements-the nominal framework-which, as we will see, provokes a violent response from the audience (…)
The operations of subtraction in Untitled described above raise the questions of nature. Are they aiming to extinguish and negate performance? Or do they subtract those elements of theater that hinder another kind of creation, actualizing themselves elsewhere by other than traditionally theatrical means and needing new and precise apparatuses to do so? (…)
“De-figurement” of the stage
(…) A seemingly conventional set-up of theater divided between the physical spaces of the stage and auditorium is the point of departure for Untitled. The process of subtraction here extends from the nominal frame to the actual theatrical event of the performance. For the most part, Untitled is dark, and the figures on stage, their presence and movement, are barely discernible, vague, or sometimes even invisible. The light and sound are, at the outset and in long intervals later on, subtracted, which produces an environment of intensive sensory deprivation. The audience are confronted with a black void in lieu of the stage.
As with the name and the title, the stage isn’t entirely removed, but rather concealed. The characteristic operation of the theater-the play of hiding and showing – is reinstated to an extreme. There are no stage lights to illuminate the stage. The audience are given flashlights at the entrance into the performance space so that they can find their seats, like latecomers in a cinema. In these first miniatures, nothing appears visible on the stage. The spectators are adjusting to the situation, to darkness, and are fidgeting with the flashlights. It seems that the performance hasn’t begun yet.
Amidst the audience’s casual preparation for the show begins music. The second movement of Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Allegro is heard, which bears a tone of mystery and comedy characteristic of some neoclassical modern music. This very fragment appears in the film Being John Malkovich (1999), when the famous actor, John Malkovich, playing himself in the film, performs a fantasy virtuoso dance as a puppet whose members move against human anatomy. Although this reference has a semiotic import, it may pass unnoticed in the performance. The music sufficiently sounds like film music, supposed to raise cinematic suspense in a generic manner. The music indicates the actual beginning of the performance, after which, however, no change on the stage is apparent. The spectators understand that they can use their flashlights to illuminate the stage. What follows is their search for action, or, more precisely, for figures in action. The concentration of many feeble lights forming vague zones of visibility on the stage dose reveal the presence of two, and then perhaps three puppets clad in dark grey, almost black, costumes that cover the whole body and face of the figures. The postures of sitting or lying on top of each other, and later the physical contact between them, the nature of their movements and displacements, are unclear. Many factors in the perception of the situation remain obscured: how many figures there are and whether they are identical or somewhat different; whether these figures are only puppets or whether there are also humans among the puppets, disguised as human-like puppets; when the puppets move alone or are (and in what ways) manipulated by the humans. As this analysis will prove further, uncertainty overshadows almost all perceptions; and although these perceptions are distinct, they remain unclear. Ambiguity and illusion [are] necessarily part and parcel.
Though the stage is obscured, it isn’t completely devoid of activity. Something seems to be happening on the stage, just enough to maintain the curiosity of the spectators. They continue to inspect the stage, but what they find is stillness and slowness, not inactivity. Two puppets are lying on each other motionlessly. A third identical one moves his head slowly. Then he appears to be sitting with uplifted torso, and moves rapidly from left to right. But it isn’t clear whether he is moving by himself, or if his displacement is manipulated. He might as well be feigning a manipulated displacement while actually being a human moving by himself. The fact that we are in a theater increases the suspicion of illusion. This is all that appears to happen on the stage in the first quarter of an hour. The time is long enough for the spectators either to attune to the low level of sensory stimulus or to grow impatient, producing a general atmosphere of approval or discontent. However, the prevalence of one attitude over another in an audience that is most likely comprised of individuals with divided views doesn’t color the nature of subtraction here. How the audience reacts doesn’t determine whether the subtraction is negative – an extinction or death of the stage – or it derails the performance in order to affirm it off stage.
Subtraction here entails diminishing, shrinking action on the stage, The lack of light and of the figures’ discernability, their inanimate presence or motion, weakens the sense of address from the stage. The stage remains indifferent to the auditorium. It does nothing to address the spectators; it neither demands their gaze nor responds to it. It acts as if it were blind, deaf and faceless toward the audience. Not being addressed by a performance that shows it is made for them, the spectators find themselves in a strange disequilibrium – an inversion of the theatrical contract of address-response. When the stage issues no address that would ask for a response from the audience, the expectations of the spectators turn into the wishes and demands that they will address back to the stage. Thus, the asymmetry in the division between the stage and the auditorium is enhanced by reversal.
The instance of the stage refusing to fulfill the demands of the audience occurs three more times. In the end of the first third of the performance a fog gushes onto the stage, covering it in white. It acts like a white curtain, not just separating the stage and the auditorium but slowly diffusing into the whole space. The fog immediately reveals many lamps projecting onto it nervously in all directions as if it were a curtain that now separates the stage from the viewers. Now only the movements of the flashlights are visible, while absolutely nothing is visible on the stage. Unlike the darkness that absorbed them until then, the white curtain now reflects back the flashlights. The same fog reappears in the end of what could be described as the silent, non-speaking part of the performance. The third time the stage is completely erased is when the music of Bartók is resumed and white stage spotlights from above the stage point into the eyes of the audience in full light.
The shock is all the greater due to a long exposure to darkness, and the effect blinds the audience for a moment. All three moments cut the course of a slow, silent, dark, and seemingly uneventful performance with aggressive gestures that point to, and thus address, the spectators. What they address the spectators with is an explicit non-response. However, these gestures also reassert theatricality, for the audience is aware of the practical function the “white-outs” could have in concealing changes on the stage that the performance doesn’t want them to see.
What can be concluded from these accounts is that although the stage remains in this performance, a strong frame of representation is subtracted from it. The stage doesn’t provide a scene, a tableau, in which the appearance of the figure would grant the possibility of mirroring a world in the I/Eye of the spectator. The stage and the auditorium are mutually detached, thus presenting two distinct realities that are, to a large extent, ignorant of one another. Contrary to the belief of those spectators who project the cause of their impressions on the intentions of the (missing) author, thus turning causation into accusation, the performers operating the puppets on the stage are also uncertain about what is perceivable, what the stage looks like, what the audience can see, and how they respond to it. Le Roy states that the decision to work with eyes closed in the preparation of the performance was important in order to construct the situation in which he could never see what the spectators saw. As I will elaborate in the next section, the performers in Untitled constructed their own blindness as well. As a result, the stage is de-figured, because it isn’t conceived as a tableau that cuts out an image unified by the figure whose meaning transcends its presence. I intentionally use “de-figure” correct English equivalent of the French “defigure”: “disfigure”. While “disfigure” emphasizes damage to the surface, shape, appearance or attractiveness of something, “de-figure” indicates the removal of figure and figurability, and depersonalization. The puppets in Untitled are faceless, impersonal. They are like phantoms who have evacuated the function of figure. The figure is subtracted from the apparatus of theatrical representation, but this doesn’t amount tout court to a negation. Instead, the situation between the spectators, the flashlights they manipulate, and the performers and the puppets they manipulate configures another theater apparatus.
Assemblings of bodies and things
Untitled constructs a new apparatus by connecting four terms: the puppet in the human body, the human body of performer disguised in the human- like puppet, the spectators, and the flashlights. The situation is more complex than the binary opposition between the stage and the auditorium, or one single mirroring bond between two sides. More than the two-way relation of address and response, it involves four different relations constituting a heterogeneous network. The perspective I am suggesting here is revealed in the duration of the performance, when the phantom puppets on the stage, as well as how their own looking, extended by the flashlight, contributes to the situation. What distinguishes their gaze from the disembodied vision in theater is that it inserts itself in the environment. Looking isn’t just inspecting the stage to find its object of vision. It creates a hole of vision for other lookings of other spectators (and performers), so it interferes in the situation. Looking, rather than the gaze that hints at objectification, is also an actor- as are the puppets-which contributes to the network of relations. The above reference to actor-network theory- the approach in social science which posits the agency of nonhumans within networks as a model of heterogeneous relations – partly comes from my insight into the research Le Roy undertook prior to the creation of Untitled. He was interested in exploring the interdependency of the environment and the body, whereby the environment is regarded as an extension of the body and the body an extension of the environment. In terms of dance experiment, Le Roy observed how a body contact witch an object makes another body, or another entity with specific ways of moving and being:
A person walking with a heavy bag elicits the observation that “the bag seems to be heavy” more often than that “the person seems to make a bigger step with her right than with her left foot” or „what a tense right side.” Maybe these remarks could extend as much to the performer as to the spectator. (Cvejić, Second Interview with Xavier Le Roy, held March 30, 2009. Unpublished.)
From these observations, Le Roy began to investigate the material effects that objects of weight, fluidity, elasticity and rigidity have on the body. The objects were the things left over in the studio during an earlier performance project with a large collective: plastic bags, tubes, balls, boxes and foam. He reports that he spent hours lying around in the middle of these things, observing how he can move them and how they can move him. He soon decided to try the same with a human-like object that he would construct by stuffing clothes with different kinds of material, where various qualities would materially affect the movement as a connection between the body and the human-like object. From there on, three types of manipulation of the puppets arose: by direct contact with hands, by intermediate contact using strings of the puppet, and by body-to-puppet contact where the mass of one’s movement would make the other move. While the first and the second kind of manipulation can mostly be recognized, for instance, when a puppet is using his hands to move the head of another puppet or puppet is standing and holding strings by which he makes another puppet dance, the third of the silent part of the performance, a puppet is sitting and bending his upper body over another puppet lying underneath it. Who is manipulating whom is ambiguous – whether the puppet on top is a human or the puppet underneath is a human moving by himself, or whether even a third combination is possible, namely that both are humans. The problem of agency is at stake here: the action blurs the source of movement, the distinction between a subject whose movement is perceived as the cause for the movement, the distinction between a subject whose movement is perceived as the inanimate material thing appears reversible, at least during the moment that this situation allows us to perceive. What the human and the nonhuman puppet produce is a heterogeneous mixture, a hybrid between neither a subject nor an object. The assembling of the human and the nonhuman redirects the attention to their relation, the gray middle zone across their bodies that appears as a continuum, although it is a constructed conjunction. Le Roy mentions that the concept of the quasi- object that Latour develops in We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993) influenced his procedure here. The nonhuman puppet in Latour’s terms would be seen as a quasi-object: a hybrid between a nonhuman real thing and a human construction that is transmitted, punctuated and reified through a heterogeneous network of material thing and concepts. (…)
The apparatus of Untitled reconsiders its contract of address-response with the spectators. The outcome of the operation in audience reception doesn’t always meet the choreographer’s authorial intention. (…) Let’s turn now examine how the spectator is wired there.
The second instance of fog in Untitled in the end of the silent part acts like the closing curtain. The end is only temporary, since the curtain serves to hide an action. A performer slips out of the puppet costume and invites the audience to take a break while the fog clears and thereafter come back for a discussion. He leaves the stage and returns after ten minutes to introduce his name and function: “My name is Geoffrey Garrison an I’m here to represent this untitled work.” All subsequent quotes are from the recording of the performance presented at Tanz im August, Berlin held in August 2005. Viewed on another occasion, in Espace Pasolini, Valenciennes, France, in 2005, Garrison’s dialogue with the audience was similar, though it didn’t exactly use the same words. What follows is a talk between the audience and the representative, supposed to fulfill the conventional format of the artist’s talk after the show. The talk expressly acts out that which the performance avoided until then: a face- to- face confrontation between (one of) the performers on the stage and the spectators in the auditorium. Now the dramatic, agonistic aspect of theater emerges in its most conventional from of dialogue. The “authorless” performance acquires a face, albeit not of the still anonymous author and the effects of the performance are judged by the spectators. That the talk turns into a “trail” seems unplanned by the anonymous author, since his\her representative is disturbed by the audience’s reactions. The spectators’ questions aim to interrogate the representative about what happened and why, as if the performance they attended was a criminal deed for which responsibility should be determined. The representative proceeds by explicating the performance from the perspective of the author and his collaborators. He describes it in terms of connections between the puppets and the human performers, underlining the reciprocity of the relationship between them. The action can be divided between the “puppets which the actors are affecting” and the puppets that are “affecting the actors.” Although most of this is choreographed and cued, “a lot of it has to change according to how the objects- puppet is going to roll on a right moment” (Garrison’s words). In addition, the performers, he reports, cannot see much, which sometimes makes them end up going in the wrong direction. He explain that the movements of neither the human performers nor the puppets are completely independent, “free and his own. It’s the connection, just like they way my relationship to you is a connection”. The audience members also admit that the performance implicates them, however their part in the connection whit the representative.
According to what I witnessed in three instances (two live performances and the recording of the discussion) and what was then confirmed by Le Roy, the audience started in the talk that they felt provoked but didn’t understand how they were supposed to react to this provocation. When the representative asks them to explain what they were provoked by, no reason is given, as if it were self- evident that the subtraction of (visible) action on stage requires action on the part of the auditorium than on the stage, as this was the tradition of the festival (Tanz im August, Berlin) in which the performance was presented. Another found that the hissing, laughter, singing, tapping of the feet and dancing of the audience was celebratory rather than aggressive, and that the audience could have been more active. To his statement, “Have you ever thought that it would be better if the audience would be able to move around? It’ s just a little bit that the audience has flashlights, etc. We experienced tonight that the audience wanted to move, and look around,” the representative answered laconically, “Why didn’t you?”
The representative nevertheless refutes provocation as the motive of the performance. Instead, he explains that the wish of the makers, in plural “we”, was for the audience to “come along with it”:
It’s really about coming into this slowness, in this moment where there is nothing really happening. There’s something there that I can really see. It’s really not about trying to make you angry or feel cheated. You go to a Hollywood film, and the action goes boom-boom-boom-boom, and you go to a Tharkovsky film and the action is really slow. And I think, I’m so bored, and it’s been three hours and nothing’s happening; this guy’s looked into the horizon. And then five days later that film sticks with me. It is about not being spectacle in the most heavy-handed sense.
Only a few voices confirmed that they appreciated Untitled as a “meditation”, and that “if you have to get angry to get into that state, then it takes longer for audience to realize what is wanted from them.” In sum, the audience received the performance with a mixture of contrasting feelings. The unease about the lack of address from the stage in the beginning caused excitement about the possibility to act together, which shortly afterwards turned into an embarrassment regarding the silly spontaneous expressions of the crowd. The spectators who allowed themselves to explore the situation of multiple connections between their flashlight and the puppets in silence, stillness and darkness were an overruled silent minority. The majority of the audience members behaved as if the performance was stolen from them, and they had expected with a clear representation of the stage that would allow them to be looking and nothing more, as well as with the name and face of the author, the performers, and the subject matter or theme reflected in the title. Confronted with an experience of a dance performance that didn’t have an objective that they could recognize as a distinctive form or an expression of her body-they pronounced a judgment of refusal and negation. In short, the experience for many spectators, as witnessed in the aftertalk, didn’t have sense, and hence, the many sensations it was composed of couldn’t justify the event. (…)
(…) However, this apparatus doesn’t reject the presence of the audience. Instead, it demonstrates that the spectators can’t perform their own role without constructing a conjunction. This entails a mode of activity that I have here called “wiring”, which means to establish a connection that the action of performing. A wired attender doesn’t take over the role of the performer- she doesn’t become an actor in lieu of a missing one. The attender actively assembles herself with the order heterogeneous parts of the assembling: objects, live or phantom bodies, lights and sounds. As if she connects to an electrical circuit that epitomizes the performance event, her “wring” amounts to plugging vision and voice into the performance that sensorially shapes the event. This activity is matter of expression of this assembling.