Valérie Da Costa

Olga de Soto becomes an explorer to get inside The Green Table by German choreographer Kurt Jooss. From this immersion comes Débords. Réflexions sur La Table verte, in which she narrates the memory of this show while offering her own interpretation. Around the year 2000 Olga de Soto began a consideration of the accompanied solo, through which she explored a work on body memory. This research overlapped with another study linked to perceptive memory that is now at the heart of her work as a choreographer.

During the rise of Nazism, in the difficult inter-war period, the German choreographer Kurt Jooss (1901–1979) created The Green Table in 1932. This ostensibly macabre dance made of eight tableaux for 16 dancers was perceived, with hindsight, as a work predicting the dawn of the Third Reich and World War II. The first “political ballet”, The Green Table denounced the absurdity of war, but also what follows: the division of Europe and the diplomatic gambles that underlie it. A year after this creation, Kurt Jooss decided suddenly to leave Nazi Germany, refusing to remove Jewish dancers from his company. Settled in Dartington Hall in Great Britain, he shared with certain of his artistic brethren (Otto Freundlich, Wols, Kurt Schwitters) the constraints of exile. His destiny however was less tragic than that of Schwitters, who died in England in 1948, or that of Freundlich, deported to Drancy before dying in the camp at Majdanek (Poland) in 1943, since Kurt Jooss was able to return to his country in 1947 and re-open the dance department at Essen’s Folkwangschule, which he had co-founded in 1927. He thus transmitted, among other things and over many years, the choreographic language of The Green Table, his major creation, danced, notably, by Pina Bausch, one of his students.

It is on this piece, on its material and its memory, that the choreographer Olga de Soto chose to work over the years. A process that we could describe as an historian’s, the choreographer has done so much of the researcher’s job of immersing herself in the documents; consultant for many years at the Jooss archives kept at the Cologne Tanzarchiv, establishing lists of performers, brining together over sixty hours of interviews with dancers who took part in this adventure over the decades. A first part (An Introduction) that the choreographer presented at the Pompidou Centre in 2011 had the quality of explaining in the form of a conference, punctuated by a series of interviews, her work as an investigator notably by distributing to the public photos of the company taken on their arrival in England. Passing these photos from hand to hand with Olga de Soto’s commentary gave an intense proximity to the subject, and brought it to the present moment.

The second part of the project, which is perhaps not definitive (Débords. Réflexions sur La Table Verte), and which was presented the following year, kept only the sequence of interviews, which had become more numerous, and the central issue of staging. In fact, it is through images and above all words that the memory of The Green Table is delivered to us. A contemporary image of earlier dancers whose faces or, in some cases, bodies sketch for us a few movements to transmit the experience of the piece. This image is unusual in that it is fragmented and exploded in the scenic space. It appears and disappears thanks to a multiplicity of screens of different sizes that other dancers (1), evolving on the stage, move, carry, and manipulate. They are not here to “re-dance” the piece, but become the traffickers and vectors of the work, which now exists in the form of narration, not of choreography. Olga de Soto’s proposal, inscribed in a heavily constructed scenic device, confers upon the screens used a mobility that re-enacts that of the different tableaux in The Green Table; screens which have become not only carriers for the transcription of movement but also receptacles of images. For the choreographer, the stage is undoubtedly a place of action, but also a place to invest with the objects that come to occupy it. Débords. Réflexions sur La Table verte is above all dramaturgy fulfilling all the staging conventions of a live performance (stage, darkness, temporality), but it could just as easily, in the way that it occupies space, be placed in the realm of the visual arts.

By mixing the language of installation with that of performance, Olga de Soto feeds on the porousness of these disciplines. Herself the author of such performances as Sous-clé (2010), denouncing the contemporary slavery of Asian women immigrating to the West or the Arab peninsula, her choreographic language is above all anti-dramatic. It is made of simple gestures and movements accompanied by objects to be manipulated, as can be found at the heart of her earlier offerings, notably the collection of solos that make up the show INCORPORER ce qui reste ici au dans mon coeur (2004–2009).

Where other choreographers insist on dancing yet again a work from the past to immortalise its form in a new interpretation, Olga de Soto demonstrates the power of testimony, thereby insisting that the impact of what has been experienced says more about the work than any contemporary updating. If re-enacting a work of choreography is accepted and understood (think, for example, of the versions of Parades and Changes by Anna Halprin) because the transmission of gesture forms a part of the memory of dance – more visual than written – the question is asked in other terms for a performance which makes re-enactment one of its central issues and concerns. Because video, photography, and objects, these “dead things” that museums keep as traces of actions that may or may not be renewed, are part of the memory of performance.

A major figure in re-enactment, Marina Abramovic proposed to re-enact or to have re-enacted on different occasions some of her performances from the 1970s or those of other protagonists of the adventure of physical art (Seven Easy Pieces, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2005). Re-enacting performance was also at the centre of the work of Fabio Mauri (1926–2009), a major political performance artist in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s. By deciding after several years that other performers should repeat some of his actions commenting on the political context of the Second World War (Che cosa è il fascismo created in 1971 and performed until 1997; Che cosa è la filosofia. Heidegger e la questione tedesca. Concerto da tavolo (between 1989 and 1994)), Mauri foresaw a work on memory starting from documentary sources that would become the material for dramaturgy. This thinking guided all his work, which was the subject of a conference with a programmatic title: Ricostruzione della memoria a percezione spenta (Reproduction of memory in perception extinguished, 1988).

To tell what we remember, what we have experienced, with our forgettings, our moments of hesitation, that is what is at the heart of Débords. Réflexions sur La Table Verte. The title Olga de Soto has chosen confirms this overflowing of sources, of archives, and all those moments in which, in the collected testimony, personal history and collective history, what Christian Boltanski elsewhere has called small memory and large memory, meet.

histoire(s), the first archival work undertaken in 2004 on Le Jeune homme et la Mort (The Young Man and Death), the mythic ballet by Roland Petit, danced by Jean Babilée and Nathalie Philippart in 1946, established the methodology which the choreographer would again employ in her rereading of The Green Table: the desire to find expression through narration, however personal and changeable that might be, the memory of a show, and to offer an interpretation. For histoire(s), this required finding, not without difficulty, members of the audience who saw the show’s 25 June 1946 Parisian premiere and asking them to talk about this ballet 60 years after the fact. The intensity of the narrative deployment was marked by the evocation by each interviewed audience member of his own history; a situation in which memory, according to Bergson, becomes “the survival of past images, these images [which] must constantly mingle with our perception of the present, and may even take its place.”(2) Also, memory of the ballet finds itself constantly revisited and interwoven with the personal history of each narrator. A way of saying that it is impossible to decontextualise any work of memory, as when the troubling words of a woman tell us: “Having sufficient experience in this through the death of [my] mother and of a small child, I think that at that moment, the memory of what we had experienced, that evening of 25 June 1946, was, perhaps, somewhat helpful to me.”

In the same historical context, that of the Second World War, Jacques Rancière analyses issues of testimony, underlining: “And, certainly, any mimetic image will fall short of what words offer. But the aesthetic has long known that the image, contrary to what the information machine would have you believe, always shows less effectively than words all immeasurable grandeur: horror, glory, sublimity, ecstasy. Then as well it is not a matter of imaging horror but to show precisely that which has no ‘natural’ image, the inhumanity, the process of the negation of humanity. This is where images can ‘help’ words, make heard, in the present, the present and timeless sense of what they say, construct the visibility of the space where it can be heard."

Won’t any dramaturgic re-enactment fall short of what these witnesses can tell? If in the case of histoire(s) and Débords. Réflexions sur La Table verte, words displace images which would be those of the dance, Olga de Soto nevertheless creates a work of choreography when she prefers to let words more than gestures dance before our eyes, the way Chris Marker was a director when he chose to show, instead of images of carnage from the war in the former Yugoslavia, the testimony of a French “blue beret” recounting “his” experience of the war (Casque bleu, 1995). histoire(s) and Débords. Réflexions sur La Table Verte are not only milestones in the constitution of the memory of dance and an alternative to the way in which we might write the “history of dance”; these two works also have the quality and the capacity not just to be placed within history, but to face history, which is to say, to become necessary witnesses to the past.

Valérie da Costa, Overflowing the Archives, Mouvement #69 (FR), Apr. 26, 2013

(1) Fabian Barba, Alessandro Bernardeschi, Edith Christoph, Hanna Hedman, Mauro Paccagnella, Enora Rivière, and Olga de Soto.
(2) Henri Bergson, Matière et mémoire, PUF, 1997, p. 68 (1st édition 1939).
(3) Jacques Rancière, Figures de l’histoire, PUF, 2012, p. 48.