What/Where is the choreography: citing expanded practices in choreography

 

Let me begin by way of a personal anecdote, describing a recent work that I consider as pivotal in how I position myself against the aspirations I aspire for as a choreographer negotiating what, Walter Benjamin in his essay The Author as Producer, describes as the attitude and position to the relations of production of one’s time. A question that “directly concern the function of work within the literary relations of production.” In short how do I position myself as a choreographer negotiating the exigencies of remaining afloat within an art economy that does not necessarily yield the means by which one can remain afloat as a non-choreographer, or a 32-year old mother of two with rent, monthly utilities, healthcare, clothing, and daily costs of living to attend to. Which brings to the table our favorite question, how do we as artists involved in the thing we do as artists survive when obviously the thing we do as artists does not guarantee access to the means of having a “good and comfortable life” that any adult aspires for.

The work I am pertaining to, entitled The Audience Watching the Audience from 8:00pm to 8:40 pm, was a work produced while and through a residency granted by the Campbelltown Arts Centre’s International Dance Residency Program where I together with Filipino poet-critic Angelo V. Suarez collaborated with Australian dance artists to investigate the complicit network of interdependency involved and necessary for artists and cultural workers who “flit in and out of art-related institutions.”

The Audience Watching the Audience from 8:00pm to 8:40 pm is a work in choreography and administration, developed between myself and Suarez together with Australian dance artists Sam Chester, Matthew Day, Alexandra Harrison, Nikki Heywood, and Dean Walsh under the curatorial and administrative assistance of dance artists Julie Anne-Long and Emma Saunders. Allow me to quote from the notes to work which was distributed to the audience members during the performance:

“This is a work of choreography. Which is to say, this is a work of literature. The Audience Watching the Audience from 8:00 P.M. to 8:40 P.M. is an investigation into inscription—that is, how relations within a theatrical context are inscribed as well as how these relations are administered. This is a work of administration. Which is to say, this is a work of choreography.

As cultural workers who flit in and out of art-related institutions, the 7 artists have come up with a choreographic work in and out of the process of which they could also flit, as per administrative procedure: For 3 weeks prior to the show, The Audience Watching the Audience from 8:00 P.M. to 8:40 P.M. was conceptually and physically assembled according to a pre-set schedule that marked when each collaborator would be present—a means of allowing the work to carry on even when some of those who worked on it were absent. One could even say that part of what constructed the work—the process of construction being “a careful symphony of comings and goings,” as Harrison described it—was one’s conscious and occasional absence from it. How telling that the 7 artists have agreed to not join the audience, further administrating and inscribing themselves into the performance thru their absence.”

I am referring back to this work particularly due to the online discussions that have ensued between myself and Suarez, and curator Tang Fu Kuen. The bone of contention was a line in the notes saying: “The discussions are also framed within the economy of an international exchange, a type of economy that either enables artists to become mobile and productive, or disables artists to be forced into mobility when they do not choose to be mobile and into productivity where they produce works they do not necessarily choose to produce.” Whether it was a misunderstood as cynical distrust in the economy of international dance exchanges, typifying the current mode of cultural production in contemporary economy, or an ungrateful spite against the necessity of “being mobile” is as far as I am concerned, didn’t matter as much. For isn’t it the very character of the art economy that allows, to quote Suarez, “feed the mouth that bites its hand…[even allow[ing] this economy to flourish as in the case of the cottage industry known as institutional critique]?” Furthermore the work, put in the context of international exchange, the platform by which most of my work, if not all of my work is allowed to exist, actually elicits this kind of self-reflexivity to thrive. The statement thus was nothing more than putting into historical context circumstances by which the work was being produced.

But why I am really citing this work is to illustrate how we – the artists, particularly Suarez, and myself who flew to Australia together with our then 7-month old child to do a residency – articulated our relation to the forces of production by exposing the administrative procedures and personal circumstances which are ordinarily considered as external to an aesthetic or choreographic work known to the public. In fact it was this very administration of the bodies in performance, bodies that included the audience who were precisely the instrumental accomplices of the work that we wanted to articulate as the choreographic work.

Immediately, the question “But (where) is the dance here?” comes to mind. My answer is that “there is none.” This was a work in choreography and not a work in dance. And as you’ve seen there is not a trace of anything in the work that may even remotely resemble dancing. The only thing that may account for this work to be of a work in dance or a work in the field of dance is that it has been conceived, produced, presented and distributed within an institution of dance by a group of people entrenched in the field of dance. Save, for Suarez and Nikki Heywood, who is an actor and dramaturge, all the collaborators had a distinct dance background and context to speak of.

What The Audience watching the Audience… is proposing is a notion of the choreographic divorced from dance. Encompassing the once stable relationship of choreography with the body and movement. Here, choreography is articulated and understood as an activity of organization. An organization of bodies in space and time, recording and organizing movement and gestures into a sensible whole to constitute a community — choreography as a social activity that not only connects bodies to form a community but also organizes the relations in which these bodies exist to interact. In short it is a work of administration, wherein what is administered is not only the bodies of all that are present in the performance but the very relations and power constellation by which each one present in the space is inscribed in.

German dance critic Gerald Siegmund proposes “the birth of choreography as a result of a moment of crisis, a moment of loss, of disappearance, of death both of the dance and its dancer.” Choreography is thus an action that keeps things, things that are immediately disappearing from finally disappearing. Is this not what we experience when we set movement material down into their “final choreographic” mode? Setting material in order to preserve the germination and materialization of an idea, concept, feeling and/or affect into a gesture? Siegmund then adds that it is this very instability – instability of the dancer’s feeling, fear of falling, crashing and dancing out-of-step – that is at the center of choreography. And hence, a community-forming moment that is aroused by the fear of impermanence. For dance is not only immediate and ephemeral but also always absent. In a sense that once it is realized and embodied it immediately ceases to materially exist. Choreography then aspires to prevent this abolition from taking place by putting into a code, into a score, and writes into language the body that is absent or at the threat of absence.

Allow me to momentarily digress and cite Andre Lepecki’s book Exhausting Dance in which he makes reference to the works of Jerome Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Vera Mantero, and Juan Dominguez among others whose works in the 90s introduce a stilling of movement as a response to dance’s identity of being-in-flow and it’s historical trajectory towards motility or continuous motion. This stilling dismantles the notion of dance as that associated with movement, constant agitation, flow and continuum of movement. And thus creating a crack in which thinking the choreographic in terms other than movement is made plausible, where “new possibilities for thinking relationships between bodies, subjectivities, politics and movement” is addressed.

This historical moment in recent contemporary dance history changed the landscape by which a dance performance is experienced, read, produced and consumed. If then, one could easily talk about dance performance in terms of what kind of object ‘dance’ a performance is, as in what is the dancing matter, the technique-style and subject matter being communicated through metaphor are being presented in the 90s these questions were no longer sufficient. Instead what emerged is another approach that was not solely if at all concerned with “what object a dance performance is” but “what kind of concept of dance” is being proposed and performed (B.Cvejic 2006). In this framework, a work of dance or choreography may be considered as a kind of proposition that issues a comment on dance. Through which the materiality of dance and the experience of the spectator are laid bare and challenged by way of self-reflexive critical questioning of one’s own position in the production and redistribution of experience and knowledge of dance.

At this point I would like to show another work probing the notion of choreography as an act of administering. Administering not just bodies and relations of these bodies with each other and in space but also the conditions within which these bodies move. The next work is an excerpt from a solo work Anything less is less than a reckless act. This solo, a lecture-performance, calls attention to the decision-making process constitutive of the aesthetic experience itself. It attempts to illustrate how audience members or spectators of a dance performance are implicated in the way they choose to experience a performance. And how in by administrating the means for them to watch and take a position as I wish to expose how the audience are participates in the construction of the work.

PETA Theater Center, June 2010

The initial impetus of this work was to isolate myself as a choreographer from the dance object by way of creating a structure by which I could still frame the work as a solo without necessarily being as “physically dancerly” involved in the dance object.

How does one, whose career track as a choreographer was primarily determined within the bounds of a solo dance practice, accomplish the task of distinguishing the dance from the choreography when one’s work as a choreographer within a solo dance practice is immediately complicated by the subjectivity and mandatory charisma expected of a solo dance performer? How does one, whose career track as a choreographer being primarily determined within the bounds of a solo dance practice and complicated by the subjectivity and mandatory charisma conforming of a solo dance performer, become a choreographer capable of critical distance from one’s own productive labor? How does one, whose career track as a choreographer being primarily determined within the bounds of a solo dance practice and complicated by the subjectivity and mandatory charisma conforming of a solo dance performer negotiating a critical choreographic distance from the one’s own productive labor, distinguish between activities called dance and choreography?

I am guessing that like some of my peers in dance, my career as choreographer in the Philippines has been catapulted by means of a solo – a solo I have “choreographed” and performed in 2004 by way of an invitation to participate in Jay Cruz’s Dancing Wounded Contemporary Dance Commune’s (now Transitopia Contemporary Dance Commune) entitled “Truth about beauty, truth about dance.” Now whether that solo was choreographically worthy or performer or, should I say ‘dancerly’ worthy still remains unclear to me – though I suspect the former, that is I knew then as performer with substantial stage experience that I must have possessed both the skill and charisma of carrying out a solo that warranted the public attention and recognition I have received as a dance artist.  In retrospect, I will say that in the context of how the so-called independent dance and the rise of independent dance artists in the Philippines has evolved there was an apparent indiscriminate tendency to synonymously interchange the terms solo dance artist with choreographer. As well as the sweeping affiliation of the contemporary with independent (dance), and/or solo dance artist. It was as if being a solo dance artist was no different from being a choreographer. And hence, I was interested in determining, whether I could be, being a choreographer whose career track has been initially established by solo dance works, a choreographer or that if I could choreograph expressing my bodily subject position. In this work, I tried as much as possible to disassociate myself bodily by not demonstrating the movement to the two dancers but by simply giving out verbal instructions that the dancers themselves had to interpret according to their experience and baggage as cultural beings.

The opportunity to clarify what is being a dancer and what entails being a choreographer has never cropped up until recently, which perhaps account for what may seem as a turning against dance, in favor of choreography, choreography that is beyond dance. Not that being one and the other at the same time is not possible but just that from where I am – where, being the place in which one works as administrator and administratee, sometimes separately but often simultaneously, in fields that may have to do with dance but often also fields that are outside of dance – the contrast needs to be clarified in order to properly situate one’s relation to artistic and cultural production. And hence elicit and receive the necessary support and infrastructure that will allow me to work as an artist and produce work that is considered art or aesthetic.

Back then, before there was WiFi or Contemporary Dance Map, or Facebook, or what we now know of as independent dance has even existed, all we – and when I say we, I mean us dancers who were informally bound together by a common: dancing outside what were considered as radars of dance namely, the CCP particularly Ballet Philippines, Philippine Ballet Theater, even of UP Dance Company – were concerned of nothing else but to find, and in our case, activate, by way of self-organization, performing spaces for outsiders and autodidacts like ourselves who were/are not part or belonging to formal institutions in dance. So, at that time, while we were in the process of becoming choreographers by way of our dancing activity; being publicly recognized as “dance artists” we were also becoming administrators, cultural managers in the service of ourselves as artists – self-organizing, self-governing and self-administrating mechanisms that will render our abstract work as dancers to be legible to the public, even to our own selves. Or in Marxist terms, we were producing capital, while also distributing capital for the consumption of the market. Or in what I am proposing as the expanding notion of choreography, we were becoming choreographers. Hence, one can say that we needed to become choreographers in order for us to be choreographers.

How far and to what extent can we choreograph the dance. That is to say to include the circumstances and political constellations that make it possible to frame a particular work as dance? Is it possible to account for those otherwise considered external to the dance — the material coordinates, micro-political arrangements, relations and economic decisions surrounding the production of any work in dance — and declare them as part of the aesthetic work?

I say yes. It’s been done and is being done. Jacques Ranciere provides us with a theoretical framework to back up such assertions when he defines aesthetic “as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and stakes of politics as a form of experience.” He further elucidates that aesthetic practices are those that “disclose artistic practices, the place they occupy, what they ‘do’ or ‘make’ from the standpoint of what is common to the community.” Artistic practices being the “ways of ‘doing’ and ‘making’ that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility.” By proposing aesthetic practices as those that “disclose artistic practice” Ranciere suggest a more encompassing definition of the ‘aesthetic’ as something that does not merely involve the making of art but the more so the activities that distribute art or allow art to be distributed, experienced, produced and presented. In other words, the politics ordinarily conceived as extraneous if not “just contextual” to art.

If the aesthetic then encompasses what we ordinarily perceive as art, including even those that are otherwise just circumstances allowing one to participate in the institution of art, my proposal of the choreographic is hence to call attention to all the ‘other things’ that allows one to choreograph or to administrative endeavors that render the expressed to be sensed by a public, even by the artist himself. Let me then close this by citing a current work entitled Daily cost of living 01.05.2012 – 01.05.2013. Daily cost of living… is nothing but a tedious documentation my daily expenses incurred by way of collecting the receipts of all my expenses from food, daily necessities to books, eating out, clothing, rent, cost of daycare and reaction. These receipts will be published as a book after one year and called out as a choreography – a choreography of daily life, a daily life of a choreographer who negotiates life as a choreographer and non-choreographer aspiring to be a choreographer.

 

REFERENCES:

Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer” in Reflections, edited by Peter Demetz, New York,  Schocken Books, 1986, pp 220-238.

Cvejic, Bojana. “To end with judgement” www.mobileacademy           -berlin.com/englisch/2006/texte/cvejic03.html

Lepecki, Andre. “Introduction: the political ontology of movement” in Exhausting Dance,                       New York, Routledge, 2006.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics, translated by Gabriel Rockhill, London, Continuum, 2009.

Siegmund, Gerald. “Five Theses on the Function of Choreography” in Scores No. O, Autumn 2010.

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Taking Sides


Our arbitrary associations to history and its relative authority in the pursuit of predictability can sometimes leave behind a bitter aftertaste of disgust, even discontent and anxiety similar to bouts of insecurity that visit any creative process. The consequences of which are rarely documented, nor reconsidered until much later when hindsight is already mute and inconsequential–the moment when history is already written with or without objections. The consequences of which are often overlooked in favor of the magnanimous reputation of artistic genius. Or not, such as the case of the ‘alternatives’ who have haphazardly earned a place among the emergent by the sheer claim of marginality; conveniently manipulating its very charm and political correctness. One that, frankly speaking, borders on nothing else but excessive self-aggrandizement even on indulgent un/necessary confessionals that the public secretly clamors for and hesitantly rejects. Only now, unlike then, confessions can no longer rely on a foolproof idiot’s checklist of transgressions so neatly categorized according to an accurate nomenclature.

Not that things are more complex, nowadays, nor are they any simpler, but the numbing tolerance for plurality bestowed upon us has itself given us the precious impotent capacity to take sides. Free will is freely sold at a cheap price, if not practically free, like those consumer-friendly promo stints that make us believe in the auspicious timing of cash flow.

But there is of course nothing more gratifying and daunting than freedom. And pleasurable than indulging its possibility, (despite) knowing its impossibility. More so now, with the timely change of what many deem as a respectable government laden with the empty hope for a better if not at least, a nearly decent future. Still, what is it that really transpires when one is given the freedom to choose freely? How much of this freedom do we actually exercise or are allowed to exercise? To pose this question is almost cheeky, nostalgic, irreverent and surely irrelevant; leading to either irrational emotional arguments or a sober dead-end. So are we really free or free only insofar as the options made available to us?

The freedom to choose must have been the most beaten theme in human history and artistic actions co-opted either by propagandist claims or crass commercial liberalism. Yet it is easy to miss that any artistic process whether created in the isolation, as in the typical image of an artist-idiot savant locked in his studio or when appropriated by more relevant social agendas involve the same process of weighing—of making decisions and foreclosing other “creative options.” The theater is about making decisions; beforehand during the production of the work or in the production itself, re-enacted every minute exactly the way it was.

This was exactly the crucial point of Anything Less is Less Than A Reckless Act; to strip down the spectacle of a dance or theater performance into one of the most basic elements of creation – making and enacting choices. While it may immediately seem that continuing to ponder on theater and performance, and its machinery may be a tad to dull, stubbornly solipsistic or even a bit out-dated, watching and enjoying contemporary performances require a level of understanding how the operations and procedures are communicated to the audience and even the artists themselves, rather than further mystified.

But perhaps before proceeding, a haphazard but diplomatic estimation of performance and performance-making strategies current in Manila is in order, even if only provisionally, and even at the risk of oversimplifying overlaps in stylistic tendencies and historical agendas.  Generally speaking there are two orientations that exist in the Manila performing arts landscape. The first one, which is the dominant stream of performance practice, is quite easy to recognize, not only are they more common, easily accessible and visible, but they do not demand much from the audience. It is enough to sit and be entertained. It’s quite simple: the choreographer or dancer gets an idea or inspiration, tinkers around with it “creatively,” translate it into some aesthetic/artsy dance or movement sequence with a few acrobatics (of course) typically accompanied by music done by a local composer or as in more often the case, by an easily comprehensible piece of music either a drum-and-bass or electronica-inspired,21st century hit classical music or indie-alternative pop songs. The former is almost always the default preference, as is the easy one too, simply because no further textual and contextual work is necessary as the lyrics are conveniently weaved into the choreographic work. Fancy lighting design is also added in to complete the aesthetic experience.

The other orientation, which lies along the margin, seems to veer toward the more didactic and pedagogic, and often misconstrued as alienating, boring, “we can do that too” non-sense. Here the performance space is immediately seen as loaded with political, ideological and historical contexts that need to taken apart and examined. In such performances, the power relationship between the audience and artists are challenged, investigated if not amplified. Most of the time there is not much spectacular action happening (though not often the case). In some situations, there is only silence or minimal music, some talking, and direct confrontation and communication with the audience. These performances problematize how the distribution of significations and meaning is distributed between the viewers and doers. Here the magic of the theater is stripped bare to its possible minimum. Not much costumes, no acrobatics, simple clean lighting if ever at all. A single idea is persistently explored and often the procedures of artistic production are exposed to the audience and demystified.

Now, surely both kinds of performances offer specific experiences that should not be compared with each other. And even not all artists are self-conscious to make deliberate steps towards aesthetic orientations. But sometimes during the process one has to learn to pick a side, pick a direction and pursue it full stop because the integrity of any artistic and creative process lies in the capacity to make decisions and persistently commit to it until the end, even if the end may seem to be a failure, even if one already thinks they know what will happen.

Moreover, there is no way to say whether a right or wrong decision has been made because perhaps there are no right or wrong decisions which the audience in our last show Anything Less Is Less Than a Reckless Act*, soon had to realize. Even they had to concede to the possibility that there are no right and wrong decisions, only corresponding consequences and risks. And that decision-making is not a matter of choosing what is right or wrong but deciding which risks we want to take; which ones we could stand to live with at the present moment while foregoing the anticipation of the future. The moment of performance after all takes place not on the stage, neither inside the hall where the lecture unfolds but in the irreducible gaps of perception, in the actuality of the event, and in the possibility of experiencing different kind of connection and disconnection. The real performance is not the ‘product’ that we see in front of us but in, what I shall borrow from choreographer Xavier Le Roy’s work, ‘product of circumstances.’

Anything is less than a reckless act is a solo lecture-performance project produced by The Lovegangsters and presented in cooperation with the French Embassy in Manila at PETA Theater Center, 15 June 2010.

 


The most obvious thing in dance is the dance

photo credit: Sam Kiyoumarsi

 

Wearing the pants or wearing the role is no guarantee that the obvious has clearly been stated. This is because observations of the obvious are too easily dismissed as useless, for the very reason of banality, or being too easy. Even the act of mimicry accedes to certain ideological and historical baggage, that are often overlooked precisely because of their anomalous absence onstage, too deeply imprinted to become unnoticeable. But no naiveté is naïve enough to discount the probability of reason behind, or reasonfor and reason underneath. Almost always, an ontological admission occurs to enact procedure, even if it were unconsciously made. Even self-reflexivity or transparency, almost near absent from the impassioned local performances we see occasionally, is not exempt of agenda, whether it is obvious, self-reflexive or implicit. Sometimes the agenda is disclosure itself. Even if the mirror in the dance studio, the first encounter of approval, guarantees the strict visual adherence to form.

The most obvious in dance is nothing but the dance. So there you go, any attempt at appreciating dance from the lens of even the metaphysical has to concede to its object (and subject). A teacher once said that dance will always be abstract and probably she is right. No matter how much reference to cultural history, popular culture, fragmentation of social order, the mobility of the body, the transience of time, the eloquence of nature, the strength of the female, the frustration of love, post-colonial diaspora, the need for change, anxiety of displacement, the battle of good over evil, the frailty of ambivalence, the fusion of tradition and contemporary, the loss of innocence, nostalgia for the ancient, hope for the disillusioned, the struggle of the poor and disenfranchised, and the search for identity and authenticity is made they will just all have to take a back seat. One can take any kind of dance/ing, or set of intricate movement patterns and situate it in any of the varied contextual readymade options, place some appropriate title and you have a piece — a work that masks form for content and meaning. Or in Barthes speak, the death of the referent, what survives is not the dance, but the signifying relevance we put into dance. Has the dance, or movement then become merely an excuse, subsumed by the bigger agenda of meaning or process?

This can happen of course. And is this not a mark of contemporary, reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade or even of Damien Hirstwhere title frames the work, much more important than the actual object? The latest offerings of Airdance and Ballet Philippines for example, or even the last Pasinaya Open House Festival at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, featured a wide array of dances that almost all looked the same, felt the same, sounded the same, moved the same only varying in title, costume, music, and casting. Where difference is a matter of short-circuit tactic pointing out the minimal as if.

So where do we start? How do we appreciate dance? The answer to the first is provisional; there is no satisfying answer to what dance is, neither is there a satisfactory answer to what art is. There are observable aspects of dance that choreographers like Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe, Hooman Sharifi, Anne Therese de Keersmaeker and many others, even scholars like Rudolf Laban have tried to break down: time, space, inertia, energy, momentum, lines, point, shape, volume, density, and rhythm. How do we know if it’s good or bad? We never do. It’s not even important because watching is less an exercise in judgment than reading. How do we appreciate it? We don’t, we just read.