For An End To Extremes
I took my first steps as a dancer in the East German countryside with local break-dance crews and amateur dance groups. When people there talked or wrote about dance, they usually said that the crew had “clean” moves or someone did a “great” polka. Occasionally, someone would dance “gracefully” or a group would “sweep”, the audience along. This was not always the most eloquent language, but at least the description focused on the actual dancing.
Years later, after I had become part of the theatre establishment, I noticed that people talked about dance and theatre in a completely different way. Suddenly, there was the extreme performer, the exceptional choreographer, the provocateur, the smasher of conventions or the berserker. Star dancers and prodigies appeared on the scene, even magicians and princes. Such characters reminded me more of the cast of a burlesque freak show than of people working in a place where society seeks to come to an understanding about itself.
In his novel The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil uses the expression “a genius racehorse” as an opportunity to make ironic remarks about the zeitgeist of his age. However, he could not have foreseen that a hundred years later, traits of genius would almost exclusively be found in theatre. Superlatives, surrounded by the aura of radicalism, simply do not want to disappear and it seems that art and the theatre are a good place for them.
As a student, I often encountered people who had internalised this discourse. The audience was basically always the “enemy”. At the very least, they had to be challenged, or even overwhelmed. It was best to test limitations or to transcend them. Expectations were negative in principle and had to be undermined, and if that did not succeed, it was imperative to at least draw a “line in the sand”. Of course, this never worked or people resorted to the most banal effects such as nudity and fake blood and were happy when a few older folks actually left the auditorium. When I was still studying choreography, a well-known German berserker-choreographer bullied us into constantly climbing onto the heads of our duet partners, because we had to “go to extremes to achieve an effect on the audience”. But I didn’t want to have to climb on anyone’s head to achieve an effect; instead, I asked myself where this thinking came from and why discourse around theatre is so marked by exaggerations and confrontational argumentation. It is not as if I wish to principally question the acts of transgressing and violating boundaries as artistic means. From Marquis de Sade and Arland to Body Art, there have always been artists whose work has shifted the boundaries of what is considered permissible to portrayal and they have thus contributed to creating a more open society. These works have often been disruptive, as they set dynamics in motion that essentially determined what “we” consider to be art. However, I would argue that over the last three decades such strategies have become increasingly profane and thus, today, appear rather problematic.
Now, probably everyone would agree that in a world where you can watch people fly planes into skyscrapers or cut other people’s throats, the word “extreme” seems inappropriate in the context of theatrical performances. Indeed, that the connection between radicalism and art can in principle no longer be made in a meaningful way. That shifting the boundaries of a representation of extremes, as evident in societies shaped by mass media, cannot exactly be considered a “success”. The fact that people today film themselves killing other people is clearly not thanks to extreme Western artistic performers having thrown cows out of helicopters and performed dances drenched in chicken blood. Perhaps both share a common ground, have their origins in something deeper, and that itself should be much more of a cause for unease. Stockhausen’s comment about 9/11 being the “greatest work of art that ever existed” was unfortunately taken completely out of context, but points in exactly this direction. How do we deal with the fact that the slogan “Kill Helmut Kohl” was immediately followed by “Hang Angela Merkel”? Or what does it say about art that the Reichstag was first stormed by theatre makers and then by an angry mob of Wutburger (enraged citizens)? Can we always explain things by referencing their differing intentions?
Actually, there is already some consensus about specific artistic means that are considered inappropriate. When, for example, gasping fish are thrown into the air or blackfacing is used to discriminate against minorities, it seems quite clear that even well-meant intentions cannot hide the fact that these activities are basically only a repetition of violence. Now, this may seem relatively clear in the examples just mentioned, but it remains less clear in many performances. Irony and context often do an amazing job.
On the other hand, there is a very strong longing, especially among many young artists, for a different kind of relationship to the audience or to the “communities” and, in my opinion, this also feeds on a distrust of previous artistic practices.
Just so as not to be misunderstood, I am not interested in excluding works along boundary lines from the larger artistic context, but it is important to understand that transgression is inscribed as an element into Western art in such a way that it unleashes a powerful dynamic on the one hand, while also creating ambivalences on the other. These tendencies merge with the remnants of a cultish veneration of genius that is deeply rooted in patriarchy and which generates narratives of being specially chosen or an over-exaltation of artistic practices.
After, for example, the media exposed the disastrous conditions at the Viennese and Berlin ballet schools (one need only remember that the police virtually stormed an institution of artistic education), they simply stated: ballet is the hardest training in the world and not suitable for everyone. Clearly, art is here the result of hardship and only a select few can do it justice. But even the concept of the “artist as an agent of change” reflects an elitist narrative: artistic practices as a model approach to the ultimate way of life for all of society, you can’t get more Obermensch than that. Things are thrust upon art that it may not always be able to solve. This not only creates discomfort for artists, but it also provides a setting for comparative structures.
That this aspect of art is far from universal, but rather typically Western, becomes clear when working with artists from other cultures.
During a discussion with a group of Black colleagues about a performance for an audience of animals, one of them just shrugged and said: “White people”. There was a certain degree of astonishment in this, but the statement also makes it clear that there is an outside view of Western art and its narratives. For me, giving space to the outside view is one of the opportunities that lie in decolonising theatre, because it means questioning one’s own premises.
In closing, I would like to briefly give two examples of this: The first deals with our relationship to authorship. Nigerian•director and choreographer Segun Adefila told me how amazed he is that Western festivals insist on using his name as author of his pieces. Although the dance steps that he uses are hundreds of years old. Of course, he changes them and adds his own variations, but it would never occur to him to call himself their author. This reveals a completely different understanding of artistic work. The emphasis lies more on the work that has already been done before by others and what it establishes is a connection to tradition. In this way, a long series of equivalent artists is put in relation to each other. We, on the other hand, tend to read art history as a succession of exceptional talents and neglect the continuity of every artistic development. Among other things, this sets in motion a dynamic of formal reinvention, which in dance, for example, leads to the search for one’s “own” movements. In other words, you take a few movements out of the set of all movements potentially possible to humankind and try to connect them to your own name. In the real world of contemporary dance, this leads to an almost ludicrous amount of styles and body techniques, which usually emphasise one or two aspects of movement and thus lead to a dynamic that functions via exclusion.
The second example concerns a piece by the young choreographer Jahra Wasasala from Fiji, which she performed in the Sophiensxle as part of the Witch Dance Project in 2016. Part of her performance was the act of symbolically drinking from the kava, a wooden bowl that is central to the kava ritual. In Tongan culture, this act is reserved for men only, while an unmarried young woman serves them. Drinking from the kava bowl during the performance therefore constituted a transgression.
Now this was done in a way that showed great respect for the ritual nature of the event and was embedded in a performance that moved elegantly back and forth between different dance cultures, while overall demonstrating great sensitivity for its material. The choreographer explained that the transgression was never meant as a provocation, but always had the goal of uniting the community of “Ocean People”. This aspect, that transgression is also capable of uniting communities instead of only focusing on disruption, perhaps indicates how transgressions can alternatively be dealt with. For the Western audience, the gesture was, from a formal standpoint, much too small. This thus sparked comments, such as: “We’ve already gone much further here”, and this very statement precisely formulates the problem that I have tried to present here: further with what?
Translated from the German by Elena Polzer