Anti-Museum, Super-Museum, Heterotopia

IN BORIS CHARMATZ’S “20 DANCERS FOR THE XX CENTURY”

By Mark Franko

I witnessed Boris Charmatz’s 20 Dancers for the XX Century at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2013. It was more recently performed at the Tate Modern, in London, but also in the lobby and environs of the Paris Opéra (Salle Garnier) and in Treptower Park, a war memorial outside Berlin. As an example of Charmatz’s conception of a dance museum, and an evocation of twentieth-century dance history through the figure of the dancer, it is becoming increasingly evident from the diversity of sites of display chosen for this work to be performed in over the last few years that the notion of the museum itself, or the problem of the entry of dance into the museum, is not a primary concern of Charmatz in this work. That is to say, the recent phenomenon of interest of museums in dance, itself partly responsible for Charmatz’s work at MoMA, is not at issue in 20 Dancers.

 

First, it has been performed in non-museum sites. But, more importantly, it is clear from reading Charmatz’s Manifesto for a National Choreographic Centre that the dance museum as such is for him a utopian project. “The strength of a museum of dance consists to a large extent in the fact that it does not yet exist.” [1] The dance museum itself may never come into being – exist properly speaking – because its mode of appearance, as befits any danced event, is to “take place” and, in so doing, only to temporarily take (a) place. [2] Yet, by the same token, any space according to Charmatz’s poetic, can be a dancing museum. The dancing museum envisaged by Chamatz is an “immediate museum”: “It exists as soon as the first gesture has been performed.” [3] But, what I want to argue in this essay is that Charmatz is using the encounter of dance and the museum in 20 Dancers in order to say something about history in general, and dance history in particular.

 

This essay asks after Chamatz’s conception of history. In my view, 20 Dancers for the XX Century must be read alongside the Manifesto because the two are so closely intertwined. In the Manifesto the idea of the museum is both critiqued and transformed and when I discuss dance and the museum in this article I am not discussing dance and the contemporary museum in general: I am discussing what Charmatz means or wants to see happen between the idea of dance and the idea of the museum. “We are at a time in history,” he writes, “where a museum can be alive and inhabited as much as a theatre…” [4] Why has he called his dance center in Rennes a dancing museum? The answer to this question should also be revealing of his position(s) on history per se.

 

Musée de la danse / Boris Charmatz: “Flip Book”, 2013                                                                                   Photo: Musée de la danse, Rennes

 

The premise, as described in MoMA’s brochure, is the presentation in the museum space by dancers of “a living archive”: “Twenty performers from different generations perform, recall, appropriate, and transmit solo works of the last century (some acclaimed, some forgotten) . . . Each performer presents his or her own museum, where the body is the ultimate space for the dance museum. [5] This statement indicates at the outset that 20 Dancers will in no way be a representation of the canon of dance history or even a redrawing of the lines of the canon of western theatrical dance in the twentieth century. The idea of the living archive suggests, instead, reenactment, a phenomenon in contemporary dance that also engages with history in the context of the primacy of the dancer’s own doing over the showing of choreography. The idea of the living archive evoked by Charmatz in the program notes suggests a larger context in which the performer encounters the past work and re-embodies it from a certain critical remove. Although none of the solos are given the space and time to truly engage with a theatrical setup that would allow for the sort of dramaturgy that characterizes contemporary reenactment, the basic gesture of reenactment -- not to reconstruct the work, but to reenact its performance in the present -- is nonetheless operative throughout 20 Dancers.

 

Suddenly, everyone dispersed

 

In the program I quote from there is no enumeration of what is being performed or where in the museum to find it. Only the names of the performers are listed. The first performer I came upon in entering the vast open area of the Atrium was a young woman who I thought introduced herself as Naomi (though I see no Naomi in the program) and demonstrated voguing. She talked her way through a break down and combination of the vocabulary elements of voguing, which made me recall the Jenny Livingston film Paris is Burning. Her performance was quick, vivid and articulate, and it made me consider whether those particular moves – one of which involved a perilous split to the (very hard) floor -- should be immortalized in the halls of a dance museum. Most certainly, I would say, yes. Suddenly, everyone dispersed, the dancer walked away, and I looked about: where next? A few minutes later, at the top of a staircase to the second floor, I came upon Mani Mungai demonstrating a Kenyan Massai dance. As the MoMA brochure notes: “[T]here is neither a stage nor a demarcation of performance space.” His dancing lasted only a few minutes. He danced beautifully and spiritedly, and his very personable explanation of what we had seen was endearing. Taking place at the top of a staircase where throngs of people passed was the only drawback. I wished I could have given it the attention it might have garnered if performed in a gallery space. As such, it would have taken its place in my own imaginary museum of dance as had the example of voguing.

 

But, this, I suppose, was not the point. Dances were infiltrating the museum, crawling into its crevices and forgotten spaces, occupying the museum. I sought out Richard Move but never found him. None of the museum staff knew particulars and I was not lucky enough to be on the right floor at the right time. I started to become frustrated. At one point, I exited into the garden and came upon Gus Solomon’s Jr. performing a solo of his own dedicated to John Cage. I drew up a chair and watched Gus in this marvelous and tranquil setting. This was, for me, the most successful event of what I had seen although I realize that this judgment is likely old-fashioned and irrelevant. The solo seemed to fit the tranquil setting as it was performed to silence and was in itself a contemplation of minimalist movement. Gus had plenty of space around him and passers-by did not cut through it: his work absorbed me, made me think of the sixties, of Gus in relation to the sixties, and about what a marvelous performer he is: age does not matter; the dancer is eternal. I could not have similar thoughts while standing in a crowd at the top of a staircase. But, why should I sit down and contemplate dance? Would this not be too close to contemplating a museum exhibition? The point must surely be elsewhere.

 

What is that elsewhere? I would like to argue that it points in two different directions, and, in this sense, is over determined in the Freudian sense. Freud understood over determination as “a chain of associations with a twofold determination.” [6] In one direction, everything points to the anti-museum: dance only exists by virtue of the living body of the dancer. When that body performs “historical” works it asserts at the same time the importance of a history of dance lurking behind its happening as event. Charmatz seems to be begging the question of historicity – can a dance be past if a dancer performs it in the present? As Mario Perniola has written:

“The anti-museum dissolves, or rather deconstructs, the work of art into the creative activity that produced it and seeks to set in motion once again the original, authentic creative process that culminated in the work. . . This anti-aesthetics goes hand in hand with a humanism that regards every man as a potential artist.” [7]

Something analogous is quite clearly stated in Charmatz’s Manifesto for a National Choreographic Centre: “What makes a dance should go well beyond the restricted circle of those who structure it in everyday life, and open itself up to an anthropological dimension that joyfully explodes the limits induced by the strictly choreographic field.” [8] Not only is a traditional notion of the canon under attack in the anti-museum, but also the notion of the primacy of the dance work itself. Although many works were evoked and “quoted” very few solos were integrally performed. This is, in part, because they are also subject to the conceit of being transmitted, a conceit through which the dancer is able to become their own explanatory label beside the artwork, as it were. The dancers not only show their solos, they also discuss them with the public assembled around them, and occasionally even teach the dances to the public, in which case the space transforms into a makeshift studio for a dance lesson. In reality, of course, they are not transmitted to anyone, but instead displayed as if they were being taught. The point is made, however, that dance is alive, vulnerable and tenuous, but also that it can be talked about after or even while it is being done. Its performance is not sacrosanct.

 

Conflation of reenactment (anti-museum) and display (super-museum)

 

The dances themselves challenge us to rethink the (imaginary) archive as a living body; the placement of dance in the halls and corridors of the museum challenge the preconception that culture is in stasis as always already created. This gesture is reminiscent in more than one way of André Malraux’s Museum Without Walls. This challenge to history as imaginary (historical) and symbolic (institutional) at one and the same time is thus in itself also over determined. The reenacting body asserts its prerogative as archive even as the deployment of many such bodies in institutional space makes us reconsider the possibility of the archival as such. The dancing museum is thus also a super-museum able to house and re-invoke at will the impulses behind any movement that ever qualified as dance in the history of culture. And by the same token, the museum is a super-museum in that it can collect all these gestures and display them. As Perniola argues, the anti-museum and the super-museum are not antithetical: Both traffic in the “public image that art manages to provide of itself.” (82). Both conspire to make art into a collection of things: “The work of art stands exposed as just one particular kind of cultural artifact.” (83). The energy of the antithesis between dance and the archive or dance and the museum is resolved in the synthesis of dance as collection. In this way, what at first appears to be a critique of the canon and/or an expansion of the canon is in reality an ambition to corral any and every movement, an imperial ambition to appropriate movement and display it.

 

What we have here, I would suggest, is a conflation of two operative tropes: reenactment (anti-museum) and display or exhibition (super-museum). Because the reenactment takes place in a museum and positions itself self-consciously with respect to the museum (this is certainly evident throughout Charmatz’s Manifesto) the trope of display or exhibition collides with the liveness of performance, as if slowing it down through an imaginary framing of the dance as object, attributing to the dance the paradoxical quality of an artifact reanimated by virtue of the place in which it is performed. To the idea of reenacting is added that of collecting and conserving, even if there is no effective reality behind this motif.

 

In the case of the MoMA performances, the dancer’s activity is over determined by virtue of being displaced from the stage to the museum. The dancer interferes with the museum and is also interfered with by/in the museum. The dancer becomes herself a super-museum, a self-exhibiting body of kinaesthetic knowledge and historical memory. So, dance in the museum, in this instantiation, contradicts the museum three times over: First, because it is a living art it has no object to display; second, by turning out to have works to display after all we learn that only their live performance enables them to be displayed. Doing is showing and showing is doing. In this way, we can see that the claims about transmission in 20 Dancers are actually a device with which to bridge the tension between doing and showing by dressing them as performative and pedagogical impulses. Finally, it is not the works themselves that are displayed but the ability to perform them, the impulse without which they would not exist, and hence an energetic act above and beyond the choreographic object. The conditions of the museum are contradicted by an over-determined gesture that asserts life over art while also asserting the ability to display any and every gesture.

 

An alternative reality for the museum

 

In the end, there is perhaps no need to resolve this tension, which is the very tension of the Manifesto itself. What I would like to suggest in conclusion, however, is that – despite the utopian aspects of Chamatz’s project in the Manifesto – what 20 Dancers effectively sets before us is not utopia, but heterotopia. Michel Foucault introduced this notion as an alternative to utopia and explained through a spatial lens. “We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.” [9] It is as if the willful contradictions of the Manifesto and the over-determinations of 20 Dancers are so many examples of space understood as “relations among sites.” [10] These sites are “irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.” [11] Like Charmatz’s construal of the museum as dancing, the site he creates in 20 Dancers is both unreal and physically present.

 

In this sense, 20 Dancers – as an event – is a mirror of dance history that “neutralizes or inverts” that which it purports, at another level, to represent. It is in this way that the spaces of the museum (this particular museum which is MoMA) and the spaces of dance history evoked in 20 Dancers as the remnants of movements transmitted by living bodies converge to constitute a real space of the unreal. Yet, this is also where the Manifesto and 20 Dancers part company in one specific way. The import of the Manifesto is utopic in that it foresees a new reality on the horizon and is intentionally scrambling the meanings of established terms such as museum and choreography; 20 Dancers, on the other hand, is heterotopic in that the program of privileging the dancer over the work  -- however justifiable as a point of view on dance from the dancer’s perspective – places the person of the dancer in exhibition mode under less than ideal circumstances for the demands of dancing on the body. It also creates an alternative reality for the museum – again I am limiting myself here to the case of the performances at MoMA -- one that is both real and unreal.

 

Another way to ask whether this is an impasse or a productive tension is to interrogate Chamatz’s overlapping of the question of the body-archive with respect to dance history with the institutional space of art history that surrounds it. Without wishing to belabor the binary of action-stasis, the world of visual art is founded on unique cultural objects that hold a distinct place in history. Collocating these two gestures – the dance historical and the art historical -- in real space and time places two sensibilities of art in friction. Is this friction productive? Or, is it nihilistic? The redefinition of dance as “having” a past to manage, an archive to perform, and hence the release of contemporary dance from the phantasm of originality, is a salubrious effect of reenactment. [12]

 

But once set down in a museum where the dancer’s energy interferes with the notion of cultural artifact and transforms the space of contemplation into a space of live exchange and interaction, is the re-enactive gesture we value in this project reinforced or undermined? Put differently, the re-enactive dancer is tampering with the non-existent museum of dance’s past, whereas the creator of the dancing museum is castigating the stasis of the past object in the name of dance as movement. Can this simply be about the work of art as object versus the work of art as a practice of life, which is by now a classic avant-garde gesture? Inasmuch as 20 Dancers puts the status of dance history itself into question both through the dichotomy dancer/choreography and through the dancer’s energy as work of art, the heterotopic quality of 20 Dancers is not easily reconciled with the utopic quality of the Manifesto. But, I suspect that the persistence of the binary described above in the Manifesto needs perhaps to be superceeded.

 

The fact that dance should transpire in the museum presupposes something historical about dance, even if this presupposition is in no way actualized by the performance. The problematic of dance as work is thus clearly over determined by this conjuncture -- the intertwinement of reenactment and museality -- in that here body and space are convoked to suggest a vast reordering of prerogatives: those according to which a dance originates in a unique body, and those according to which such uniqueness is ultimately enshrined in an institutional space consecrating it as cultural history. [13] Hence there is a double level at which uniqueness (understood as stasis on the one hand and origin or impulse on the other) cancel one another out. This is, when all is said and done, an aporia we must still contend with in 20 Dancers.

Notes:

  1. ^ Boris Charmatz, Manifesto for a Choreographic Centre. In: Dance Research Journal 46/3 (December 2014), 47.
  2. ^ “. . . [A] museum can take place every Saturday.” Ibidem.
  3. ^ Charmatz, Manifesto, p. 48.
  4. ^ Charmatz, Manifesto, p. 47.
  5. ^ MoMA brochure: Musée de la danse. Three Collective Gestures (October 18-November 1, 2013).
  6. ^ Sigmund Freud, “Dreams and Telepathy (1922)” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud translated and edited by James Strachey and Anna Freud (London: the Hogarth Press, 1964), vol. 18, p. 216.
  7. ^ Mario Perniola, Enigmas. The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art, translated by Christopher Woodall (London & New York: Verso, 1995), 81.
  8. ^ Charmatz, Manifesto, 46.
  9. ^ Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 22.
  10. ^ Ibid. 23.
  11. ^ Ibidem.
  12. ^ See Mark Franko (editor), Handbook of Danced Reenactment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  13. ^ And, this confluence raises the question what sort of object is the dance as art? How can it be displayed once its creation has been realized as an act?

 

Additional Information:

Le Musée de la danse au MoMA: Three Collective Gestures
20 danseurs pour le XXe siècle vendredi 18, samedi 19, dimanche 20 oct. 2013
Levée des conflits extended vendredi 25, samedi 26, dimanche 27 oct. 2013
Flip Book vendredi 1er, samedi 2, dimanche 3 nov. 2013

 

7.4.2017