The Contemporary Art of Choreography Part 2

published 15 February 2018
Making histories theatre to gallery

Following on from Part 1 this article continues to addresses choreography as a contemporary interdisciplinary art form, distinguishing this from theatrical dance performance.  It acknowledges the alignment of this strand of choreography with concerns and practices in visual arts. This shift within choreography from theatrical dance to contemporary art brings with it different kinds of relationships with audiences as well as different contexts for making and different spaces for presenting choreographic works. Although not a primary focus in this text, many contemporary choreographers continue to perform work in the theatre space, using that space to question and challenge representational modes of presentation – such as French choreographer Jerome Bel, who has been written about extensively elsewhere. This text focusses on the move from theatre to non-theatre spaces for presentations of choreographic work while also reflecting on history-making and documentation.

A shift from theatre to visual art spaces for dance performance, and an attendant shift in spectatorial perspectives, can be traced from the New York Judson artists of the 1960s and 70s. Works by Simone Forte and Steve Paxton are offered here as examples. Simone Forte’s Dance Constructions (1960) includes Sea-Saw in which two performers balance on either side of a large plank which is balanced on a saw horse. The performers’ movements create a see-sawing action. There is ongoing negotiating and responsive movement on the part of the two performers in the task of maintaining balance. Audience look on from a perspective of their choosing. Steve Paxton’s Satisfying Lovers (1967) employs walking, standing, sitting and pausing in the choreography of a large group of people as they enter, cross and leave a designated performance area. Working with pedestrian actions and all kinds of bodies Paxton creates a frame for the commonplace and everyday to be witnessed by audience as art and – within that – for any body to be a performer. In both works task-based ‘ordinary’ actions  are presented, actions that  expose the actuality of human endeavour. In these works choreography is presented in an object-like way, movement is freed from association with representation, life and art are combined and audience are witness to this ‘actuality’.

More recent choreographic works often draw audiences more directly into the art object – such as William Forsythe’s Choreographic object – Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time No2 (2013) and Tino Sehgal’s These Associations (2012).  Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time No2 was presented at the old municipal market place in Brighton in 2014. It is an installation comprising hundreds of small silver pendulums. Suspended from the metal rafters of the market place, they hang and swing resonating with the materials and the expansiveness of the space. Visitors are invited to move through the pendulums. There is a necessary attentiveness to the movements of the pendulums in the negotiation of their movements through the space. These visitors simultaneously become performers for other visitors who are witness to their negotiating, their attentiveness, their movements.

William Forsythe’s Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time No2

Tino Sehgal’s These Associations (2012), involving up to seventy performers in a durational performance situation, was a Turner Hall commission at Tate Modern London. In the movement of the seventy or so performers through the space of Tate Turbine Hall, it was often, if fleetingly, indecipherable who was performer and who was visitor. This created a perception of the work being quite seamlessly part of the public space of the gallery; it generated a subtle yet perceptible sense in the visitor of already being part of what was happening in/with the work. This was an immensely popular work with that popularity often being associated with the way partially scripted and affecting dialogues were – with ease – set in motion between performers and gallery visitors (see for example Adrian Searle’s review here)  – an ease that seemed to come with that seamless sense of the visitor ‘already’ being part of the work as noted above.

My access to, and ways of understanding, the different works written about so far in Parts 1 and 2 of this article have arisen through direct experience – in the case of These Associations, Granby Workshop Showroom and Retrospective – through conversations and documents – in the case of Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time No2 and Dancing with Strangers From Calais to England – and exclusively through documentation – in the case of the much earlier works See-Saw and Satisfying Lovers. Documentation of that earlier period of the New York independent dance scene is wide-ranging – and importantly it is accessible, in print and online. It includes photos, performance scores, films, writings by the artists themselves, by dance scholars such as Sally Banes and extensive reviews by cultural critic Jill Johnstone in The Village Voice, who wrote enthusiastically, descriptively and informatively. Documents create histories. They offer means to gain entry to the works – both current and historical works. Their existence enables histories to be written – and to be revised. They enable works to be re-created and genealogies to be articulated. They enable new generations of artists to acknowledge and to form opinions about what went before. Documentation by the artists – and importantly by the wider sector – has facilitated Judson’s place in the history of dance and visual art.

And what about British dance? The 70s was the period in which the independent dance artist/choreographer emerged in the UK. The British New Dance movement of that period was motivated by a range of political drives: feminism, group politics and body politics. It challenged the conventions of theatre dance, involved dance in galleries and it has an almost forgotten history. In the article Dance and Visual Art I discuss New Dance Magazine – which included articles, interviews and reviews – as well as the series of seminars in 2012, Remembering British New Dance, co-curated by Jonathan Burrows and Ramsay Burt. At the time of writing, New Dance Magazine is still not accessible online (though I anticipate it will be at some point …? ). Neither is there documentation available of the seminar series (overview of the content of the seminar series is available here). A fuller history of British New Dance, its connections to earlier and more recent developments in western choreography as well as to current developments in UK dance/choreography is yet to be written.

Continental European choreographers have, since the 1990s, brought discourse into the frame of their art-making with lectures, conversations, their own writings and writing by scholars and dramaturges working alongside the artists all contributing to the generations of a set of discourse around the cultural significance of their work. (See Ramsay Burt’s Judson Dance Theatre: Performative Traces (2006) for more on Judson, visual art and links to European conceptual dance.) Key in their approach has been the proximity of the dramaturg and scholar to the processes of making. There is a proliferation of books, articles and other documents operating alongside the works themselves. An example from Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective, which is discussed in Part 1 of this article, is the book ‘Retrospective’ by Xavier Le Roy edited by performance theorist Bojana Cvejic. It includes essays and responses to the exhibition from curators, dramaturges, philosophers, theorists, artists, and performers, as well as interviews by Cvejic with Le Roy. It gives insights into the processes of making the work as well as a range of commentaries regarding its wider cultural significance. This is an approach that asserts a place in art history – and arguably on the artist’s terms.

In 2018 with digital and online media there is a proliferation of documents – in written, video and audio form – of choreographic works publicly available through artist websites, online magazines, and blogs – including in the UK – suggesting that the current wave in contemporary UK choreography may not suffer the forgotten-ness that has befallen British New Dance. There is also a surge in discourse, that also produces documents, in relation to contemporary choreography. Some of this is facilitated by organisations such as Siobhan Davies Dance, Independent Dance, Dance4 and more recently Tramway who variously programme artist talks, conversations across disciplines – many of which are recorded and made available online – and book publications. Examples include: Independent Dance’s Crossing Borders talks; Dance4’s programming of public debates e.g. in Nottdance 2017; Siobhan Davies Dance publication of conversations with choreographers, curators and directors around dance in galleries (edited by Sara Wookey)

The organisations mentioned above are the same organisations that are programming contemporary interdisciplinary choreography – which returns me to the talk I gave in relation to The Turner Prize in January 2016 (introduced in Part 1). In that talk I gave a few examples of UK choreographers working in ways that concur with ‘new developments’ in contemporary (visual) art – works that can be understood as part of a continuity that extends from Simone Forte’s Dance Constructions that were presented in galleries in the 1960s:

Assembly by Nicola Conibere. Photo by Christian Kipp

Nicola Conibere’s Assembly (2013) – a durational piece with audience number limited to the number of performers – around twenty-five. Presented in gallery spaces. As an audience member enters, so too does a performer. The two become ‘paired’; there is the feeling, as spectator, that this performer is maintaining her attention on you – often gently gazing towards you. Performers carry out a series of simple actions.  Audience members leaving and entering are temporal markers within each particular performance; when an audience member leaves so too does the ‘paired’ performer. The work generates a strange sense of tension and expectation in the dual perception in the spectator of watching and being watched, of being somehow unwittingly implicated into the work.

Florence Peak’s Lay Me Down (2015) – a roving work for public spaces, performed in city streets. It involves groups of performers and a large silver mat that they place in different public sites, and then lie down upon. Others act as attendants, looking out for those who are lying and also interacting with curious public. The work is a vulnerable and oddly humorous sculptural intervention in the cityscape that quietly invites interaction and concern.

Lucy Suggates’ Swarm Sculptures (2015) – a movement installation presented in gallery or studio spaces. Influenced by swarm intelligence as a choreographic process, ‘Swarm Sculptures’ involves a group of about ten performers moving and gathering, peeling away and gathering again, in a choreography of sculptural forms generated by a collective body. In this work audiences are invited directly into the space, freely moving through and around if they wish. In this proximity, the ‘intelligence’ of the swam is perceptible.

These three examples are part of a much fuller drive in UK choreography which is written about throughout Figures Series. There are many more artists working in this vein than I have been able to address in this project. Choreography as a contemporary interdisciplinary art form is gaining traction. Figures Series began as a response to choreographer Rosemary Butcher’s concern that dance in the UK risked being lost to the visual arts (discussed here). Together, parts 1&2 of this article have sought to illuminate some of the shared concerns and practices of contemporary visual art and contemporary choreography and to highlight the particular dancerly sensibilities – or capacities – that choreographers work with – sensibilities that can be traced in the three examples given and which include: a bodily sensitivity to space, to the operations of time, to objects and other bodies (including audiences) and to movement. For Rosemary Butcher, the ‘risk’ she identified was due to the lack of writing and available documentation about contemporary choreography. There is a growing proliferation of writing and documents at this time. The issue may now be, given the dispersed nature of online content, how might associated bodies of writings and documentation be gathered – not to create a canon of works or hierarchy of knowledge – but to draw a field, of indistinct borders, that operates through particular intelligences of sensing bodies and their capacities in the world.

Some links and resources article by Hamish MacPherson referencing British New Dance
For an overview of the content of the seminars in 2012, Remembering British New Dance, co-curated by Jonathan Burrows and Ramsay Burt see
Judson Dance Theatre: Performative Traces by Ramsay Burt (2006)

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