The Contemporary Art of Choreography Part 1

published 9 February 2018
Reflections on new developments

“Interdisciplinary art […] is central to contemporary practice” writes Gwyneth Shanks in June 2017 introducing a series of articles that address Walker Arts Centre, New York’s concerns: with defining the term ‘interdisciplinary’; with curating and with archiving interdisciplinary works. (Walker Arts Centre website)

“Expanded choreography […] is innately interdisciplinary” is stated in the article Dance and Visual Art of Figures Series

This article considers choreography as a contemporary – and interdisciplinary – art form. It draws from a talk I gave at Tramway Glasgow in January 2016 while Tramway was hosting The Turner Prize 2015 exhibition – the annual UK visual art prize that “aims to promote public debate around new developments in contemporary British art” (Tate website). This article reflects on “new developments” in contemporary visual art and in contemporary choreography through a discussion of the work that won The Turner Prize 2015 – “Granby Workshop Showroom” by Assemble – and by considering how characteristics of that work concur with developments in the field of choreography.

Assemble is a London-based collective who “work across the fields of art, design and architecture to create projects in tandem with the communities who use and inhabit them” (Tate website). Assemble’s work “Granby Workshop Showroom” has its origins in the social activism of a group of Liverpool Toxteth residents who set up a community land trust (a form of community-led housing) as a means of preserving, and regenerating, on their own terms, houses that were marked for demolition. Assemble became involved through listening to the residents and by working with them. The Showroom contains objects designed by the collective and made by residents using recycled materials from the site: objects such as fireplaces and light switches. These objects are used within the refurbished houses, creating a kind of material embedding of memory. The Showroom includes written information describing the beginning of the project, prior to Assemble’s involvement. It lets the visitor know that the objects are available for purchase. The project operates through multiple temporalities: the community led initiative in the period of trying to save houses from demolition, the current ongoing work of the Granby Street Workshop creating ‘products’ using recycled materials from the site, the placements of those products in what would become regenerated homes of the site, and the future use by others of those products in different homes. The information indicates the lack of a single authorial voice in the project. A sense of the social resonates throughout. In the generative capacity of the project the individual subject is quietened and yet affirmed as one-with-others in an encompassing endeavour.

[See Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty article How one community beat the system, and rebuilt their shattered streets about the political force of the residents’ action in Granby]

I’ve read into Assemble’s work a concern with: listening, working with the people who are part of a site or situation, the social, lack of a single authorial voice, the individual subject quietened – as well as embedding of memory and multiple temporalities.

These kinds of concerns can be found in a range of 21st century choreographic works. In Assemble’s Granby Workshop Showroom the concerns relate to a particular site of urban regeneration and the residents of that site. In choreographic works they relate to the particular place or context and the spectators or associated publics. In highlighting choreographic operations that resonate with those of the 2015 Turner prize winner, I’m asserting choreography’s participation in “new developments” in contemporary art. The choreographic examples that I will give are each distinct works, different from each other and different from Assemble’s piece, but with aspects in common. However a key aspect that differentiates them from Assemble is that they operate through the experiential aspect of performance.

In developing Dancing with Strangers: From Calais to England (2016) Rita Marcalo travelled to the Jungle refugee camp in Calais spending time with groups of refugees. She listened to their stories, offered dance workshops and eventually worked with four individual refugees with each developing a short dance that would be shared with a stranger in England. In a city street Marcalo stands with arms open wearing a T-shirt that declares ‘Dance With Me.’ Those who respond to this invitation chose which refugee they will dance with, sit opposite Marcalo and put on a set of head phones. They hear the voice of the refugee, their story, their hopes, their invitation to dance. Through the intermediary of Marcalo’s body the refugee’s dance is shared; the stranger in England, hearing the strains of the music chosen by the refugee, picks up that person’s movements and joins with them. There is an evident social activism driving the work: a commitment to listening to others and working with them; a quietening of the individual voice of Marcalo – replaced with a concern with “giving voice” to others. There is the operation of multiple temporalities: the refugees earlier life present in their story; that story brought from Calais along with the refugees’ dances; those stories and dances shared in each present and future ‘performance’ of Dancing with Strangers: From Calais to England. There is an embedding of memory (viscerally) for each audience/participant in the act of listening and dancing the movements of each refugee. You can read more about Dancing with Strangers: From Calais to England and link to the voices of the refugees in Figures Series here

Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective

A very different example is French choreographer Xavier Le Roy’s retrospective of his solo performance works presented in the form of an exhibition in a gallery set up at Antonia Tapas Foundation in Barcelona. For Retrospective (2012) Le Roy taught sections of six of his solo works to groups of younger dancers. In the exhibition the excerpts are presented chronologically – in a spatial sense – and simultaneously – in a time sense. Gallery visitors move through the space encountering these different ‘objects’ of the retrospective. A performer approaches the visitors engaging them in conversation, sharing personal experiences of first encountering the works and later learning and performing them. At regular intervals the performers change roles, and the works rotate in the space. Le Roy’s Retrospective becomes a living exhibit that plays with multiple temporalities and memory: the chronologies of the six works; the performers’ memories; the visitors’ memories (perhaps) of having seen Le Roy perform the works and seeing them now differently; the simultaneous re-creations of the works in a present time; and the present conversations with performers – all constructed within a regulated time frame. While the artist Le Roy is in many ways very much present – all the works are choreographed by him – the visitor is brought into contact more directly with the person of each performer who is re-performing the work(s) and who is also talking about that experience. It is these people who ‘are’ the exhibits. While affirming Le Roy’s voice as author, his individual presence is quietened; the Retrospective is filled in the flesh by the bodies, voices, experiences and memories of these others.

Asserting choreography as contemporary art form is to set it apart from choreographed dance as a form of (representational) theatre; it distinguishes the ‘dance’ of contemporary choreography from representational or mimetic forms.

Works that I have offered here include movement that may be recognised as dance, but the works are not simply ‘about’ the dance. Just as painting is not synonymous with visual art, dance is not synonymous with choreography. And yet choreographers have generally trained in dance; choreographic work tends to be inflected with a dancer’s sensibility that includes a bodily sensitivity to space, to the operations of time, to objects and other bodies and to movement – aspects that give choreographic works their distinct potency.

Part 2 of The Contemporary Art of Choreography continues to look at contemporary western choreography’s alignment with visual arts contexts – particularly in the UK – while also reflecting on history making and documentation.

Links and notes referred to in text
William Forsythe article quoted in text:
Turner Prize Thursdays: Introducing The Visitor Audience – a panel discussion with Siobhan Davies, Roanne Dodds, Rosanna Irvine, Tim Nunn, Saffy Setohy – was at Tramway Glasgow 7 January 2016
Dancing with Strangers: From Calais to England  website

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