MEMORY IN DANCE
Through time, the advent of new aesthetics in dance has altered the way it is talked about, and has also transformed the approach to documentation and archiving. We have witnessed radical changes in the paradigms of the human sciences, thanks to strategies that emerged during the 1970s, regarding performance techniques in the broadest sense. In Poland, discussion of performance techniques developed a little later than in Western Europe or the USA, but is now well established, both in the academic field and in artistic practice.
I have watched these changes with great interest. As part of my conservation project, “Archives of the Body” at the Zamek Cultural Centre in Poznan in 2013, I took it on myself to study the different ways of looking at dance archives and of communicating with the past (1). Above all, I was interested in new ways of turning classical works from the past into contemporary artistic expression, as well as looking for strategies to find performance “mines” which today serve as original models of works as part of a cultural heritage, then presenting them anew so as to preserve them as living works for today’s audiences. With this goal in mind, I looked at the alternative ways of reproducing an original in a new form or, in some cases, tried to recreate the initial model by reconstructing it or intentionally grafting meaning from it on to another cultural, historical, social or political context, resulting in a new work derived from an old one.
In dance there are numerous ways of communicating with the past, from intertextuality by reconstruction to re-writing (recycling) classics, and also – as in the case of “archaeological” Polish dance, seeking one’s roots and identity in cultural heritage. A year later, in 2014, during the Metamorphoses project supported by the European Commission as part of the Kultura programme, Anna Hryniewiecka, director of the Zamek Cultural Centre, suggested looking further into new meanings of memory in dance, and setting up a discussion platform on this subject (2). The choreographers and performers Olga de Soto and Martin Nachbar became involved, as well as Małgorzata Jabłonska, a theatre specialist connected with the Jagiellonian University, who introduced us to The Archive and the Repertoire, a book by Diane Taylor. These artists had previously been invited to participate in the “Archives of the Body” programme.
Urheben/Aufheben by Martin Nachbar and An Introduction by Olga de Soto look in various ways into the originals of cultural dance texts – Affectos Humanos by Dore Hoyer and The Green Table by Kurt Jooss. In his choreographies, Martin Nachbar refers to discussions of memory and ways of reconstructing choreographies from the archives and transposing them into the repertoire, or rather a new repertoire. Olga de Soto, on the other hand, in An Introduction, starts by studying and gathering all traces of the première of The Green Table by Kurt Jooss. She talks to people who knew him and builds up her own archive of photos, conversations, souvenirs, notes and documentation, reviving the memory of this important work in the international history of dance. In this way, not only does she bring together material on the long life of The Green Table in the repertoire of theatres throughout the world – from the outset to recent years, long after the deaths of the choreographer and the initial performers – but in her lecture performance she also shows, like Nachbar, that archives can be performed and therefore have life. She includes photos in her work and, unusually, invites audiences to look at them together. She also revives the atmosphere of the past and associated events. The way she works, step by step, can be compared to the research process of a historian or even an archaeologist, if we accept Michel Foucault’s definition, according to which the archaeologist does not attempt to recreate the intentions of those had ideas about the world, their thoughts and values, but rather aims for a systematic description of their discussions (3). Thus, Olga de Soto, talking about her research work and gradually producing successive “material proof”, has given birth to a discussion process regarding the legendary Green Table. Martin Nachbar’s performing lectures is closer to the idea of embodied memory, in other words a repertoire using memories found in archived documents, photos and recordings. He does not aim for an ideal reconstruction of Dore Hoyer’s cycle, but instead to reconstruct his choreography and create a new performance containing a choreographic fragment of Affectos Humanos transposed to a male body.
Thus, in 2013, we suggested that the Zamek Cultural Centre should put on a “performatic” debate on memory in dance, based on the body, with a more traditional meeting a year later to discuss this theme. Before analysing the role of memory in dance more thoroughly, I want to point out the fundamental change that has taken place in the discussion of memory within the human sciences as well as in the context of dance. In the early 20th century, Rudolf von Laban, a philosopher bringing together theory and practice, considered that the essence of dance was to be found in the way movements unfold – the move from one position to another, how figures are made, in other words the dance experience. Dance is inextricably linked to activity, to dynamics, and cannot exist without these values. Seen in this way, dance cannot be subjected to description, analysis or documentation. Any attempt to capture it is doomed since it would destroy its diversity, its defining features. It does not reveal its essence, as if the essence of dance was something volatile, ephemeral, a unique experience that can only be had “in the here and now”. Any attempt to preserve it for later generations would be a mere echo, a reflection of the event witnessed. Until the early 20th century, the history of European dance was based mainly on technique and virtuosity, in line with the idea of dance as an art form based on defined body movements – dance techniques.
Some traces remain, in the form of scores, photos, critiques and links. These probably do not reveal the essence of the event, but leave traces of the creative process and context. At the beginning of the 20th century, dance underwent several redefinitions, one of which broadened understanding of the meaning of the body, from the abstract dancing body to the construction of a social, cultural body of a defined kind. This development also took place in conjunction with the practice of performance, starting worldwide in the 1970s. This change in how dance was perceived led to a real revolution. Dance was no longer limited to a series of movements, since the body has meaning and tells a story even when motionless. The context in which the body of a dancer or performer finds itself has also played a considerably more important role.
Regarding ideas about memory, it is important to note that the body has at last been recognised as a bearer of cultural memory. It is a repository of certain traditions, custom and cultural norms. The two discussions referred to at the beginning of this article now gradually converge – discussion of memory and discussion of dance. Cultural memory is where the two come together. This term, which has renewed the discussion of memory, emerged in the 1980s. It was coined by Egyptologists Jan and Aleida Assmann. Although their concept cannot be directly transposed to dance, there is some common ground. The concept is about ways of preserving collective consciousness and traces of past cultures in memory. Writing and the spoken word are of course central, but the body appears as one of the bearers of memory, and more specifically the behaviour, attitudes and body models embodying the social situation. They are therefore a portrayal of customs and traditions. They can also be the first trace serving to reconstitute structures and social relations. In this case, it is not only a place where discussion of memory and of dance come together, but also anthropology, for which the body and everyday behaviour are an excellent source of information on human ways and habits. Thus, taking social structure into account, dance could turn out to be one of the key elements and instruments of cultural memory. The body, considered as the repository of behaviour and the past, is now very close to the notion of archives, traditionally seen as the place – most often an institution – where traces, documents, objects and archaeological finds are carefully stored, allowing us to reconstruct and preserve the past.
The term “performative archives” is being used more and more, and refers to the tradition of body practices memorialising certain procedures, not on paper, papyrus or other materials, but via behaviour and actions. Performative archives are also those in which the assembled documents mutually explain each other or can bear influence on a new reconstruction of past events. The above-mentioned Assmanns are in agreement with the author of the new historical research, Hayden White, and with the theory of Michel Foucault. Foucault sees archives and artefacts – fragments of cultural memory – as a social construct (like historic narrative itself) created, sorted and organised by experts who manage the contents.
Can dance be archived? For years dance has been seen by the general public and academics as unfit for memorisation or archiving without deterioration of its image and quality – in line with the principle that it is an art form without artefacts and which exists only in the “here and now”, during its creation and performance.
Archiving is considered unnecessary and a contradictory concept. Reality proves the contrary, given that centres exist where photos, dance scores, costumes, recordings, notes, biographies, critiques and various other documentation are stored, appealing to the imagination and filling gaps in our memory. Thanks to the assembled material, missing parts can be reconstituted using fragments available and cultural vestiges. In fact, archives preserve knowledge of the past and – as so often pointed out by philosophers and sociologists and in opposition to conventional wisdom – they are not institutions with a neutral role, but are often involved in discourse of power. This is probably why most discussion and debate concerns the past, cultural heritage and tradition, and questions of identity. Tracing roots must lead to discoveries strengthening the cultural links of a given society.
The question of identity does not feature in performances by Olga de Soto and Martin Nachbar. Among the performances during “Archives of the Body”, the works of Polish choreographers Mikołaj Mikołajczyk, (taught by Tomaszewski, the master of pantomime) in Projekt: Tomaszewski and Kai Kołodziejczyk in Brith Out, seem to focus on research in the tradition of aspects of identity. But this aspect was found more in the commentaries of curators than in the artists’ intentions. Mikołajczyk referred to his master Henryk Tomaszewski, the creator of collective mime and founder of the Pantomime Theatre, in the context of his own creative career.
It is interesting to note that Mikołajczyk’s life and experience could serve as an example of broader, little known, practice in Polish dance. For many years, research on Polish dance has remained in the shadows since, as a principle, dance was not a subject of discussion. It is only now that attempts are being made to discuss and reconstruct the history of contemporary Polish dance. One aspect to be explored is that of the influence of pantomime, as well as ballet and folk dancing, in the development of modern dance in Poland.
On the subject of folk dancing, Kai Kołodziejczyk’s Brith Out also referred to an attempt to reconstruct the legendary choreography, Krzesanego by Conrad Drzewiecki, founder of the Polish contemporary dance troupe, Polski Teatr Tanca (1973) which still performs today.
The première of Krzesanego took place in 1977, and the choreography mixed aspects of modern dance, ballet and folk dance from the mountains. Kołodziejczyk worked on scores for Krzesanego in the archives. One of the steps during this work was to reconstruct them, and then deconstruct them. Kołodziejczyk, like Nachbar, created a new form, using and recycling Drzewiecki’s historical material. The result is an installation in a sterile white space, “white cube” style, in which five dispersed characters dance. Kołodziejczyk, unlike Martin Nachbar and Olga de Soto, avoids verbal narrative and relies entirely on the scenario, to such an extent that some of the meaning of Krzesanego is lost in this transformed version, which becomes no more than an entirely transparent construction, hardly recognisable for the average spectator. Here, Kołodziejczyk raises the question of the reality of the reconstruction as well as the relationship between pop culture and folklore.
Also of interest on the theme of reconstruction is the work of Janez Janša, a Slovene choreographer. His work Fake it, which was not part of the “Archives of the Body” project, presents fragments from four choreographies – cult works and creative milestones in the history of dance – by Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, Tatsumi Hijikata and Steve Paxton. Janša’s dancers reconstruct instantly recognisable scenarios. Their titles are accompanied by the comment: “fake”. The choreographer avoids discussing how the choreographic fragments were assembled and prepared. During the performance, the dancers teach interested spectators short dance movements which are then integrated into the presentation. Here, questions arise regarding the value of this reconstruction as compared with the aura of the original, and the personalities of the performers. Is the fragment from Café Müller danced by a spectator actually the same Café Müller as that by Pina Bausch? Janša makes an ironic comment on the market forces affecting dance, and points out the importance of the framework we place contemporary dance in, since the context determines the meaning.
The examples referred to here do not exhaust the theme of memory in dance, which is developing with the help of disciplines such as neurobiology, anatomy, memory of movement, body memory, cultural and philosophical discourse, as well as ideas regarding the nature of memory and methods of describing and documenting dance. This article is intended rather as an introduction and food for thought regarding changing perceptions of dance in the face of memory and possible performance techniques in the context of archives, the repertoire and dance reconstruction.
Anna Królica, Memory in Dance, Alternatives Théâtrales Hors Série #16 — Métamorphoses (PL, BE, FR), Sept 2014
Translation: Originally translated from Polish to French by Marie-Thérèse Vido-Rzewuska.
(3) Michel Foucault, Archeologia wiedzy, Warszawa, 1977.