Tangente Blog 2: Stripped Down Body Talk

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Body BlogFrom GOING ON A TANGENTE.
(Photo: © Aurore B. Pictures, Raphaël Ouellet, 2014)

When did all of this talk about the “body-as-concept” infiltrate the dance world? It has come to the point where many choreographers will begin an explanation of their work by saying to me, “Well, you know, I am still very interested in movement, but…” When did all of this talk about the “body-as-concept” infiltrate the dance world? It has come to the point where many choreographers will begin an explanation of their work by saying to me, “Well, you know, I am still very interested in movement, but…” 

A more quantitative proof of the body’s predominance in our thinking: While creating an index for Fields in Motion, the 500-page book I recently edited with 28 international authors about artistic dance and ethnography, it soon became clear that by far the largest section, with over 30 entries, would be “body” and not “choreography” or even… “dance”!

Discussion about the flesh-and-bones body has, of course, always been richly present in dance training techniques, analysis and criticism, and somatic practices. And it is no surprise that the relatively young discipline of dance philosophy keeps the notion of the body, along with its expressive movements, at the centre of its attention. For dancers themselves, however cerebral, there is no escaping the experiential, exuberant body-in-motion, one that sweats, luxuriates, and suffers in its own physicality. “Working it out” is our daily rite. It is as if we seek a sense of authenticity in the very presence and sensation of our bodies (I do).

But lately it seems, under the continued influence of the 1960s postmodern art movement, as well as a recent wave of neo-conceptual idea-based art coming from Europe (significantly shaped by visual artists) this corporeal conversation has taken a curious turn from subjective to objective. Much of this kind of body talk is coming from the (figurative) body of philosophers and performance artists who have become devoted to this idea of body-as-metaphor, that is, as a “site” or “location” in which they elaborate their intricate ideas about the postcolonial world. This new body theorizing has not been without its detractors among dance scholars: Iro Tembeck wrote about “the dense and impenetrable thickets of discourse”; Roger Copeland complained about “this postmodern blowtorch that was scorching the delicate skin of the dancer”; and Kent de Spain declared that he “could not find his body” in the erudite analyses of André Lepecki.

This may have led certain choreographers to stripping down their dancers onstage. I am thinking here about how Karine Denault, dancing at Tangente in one of her early solos, deftly slipped off her dress to appear almost naked in the midst of a rather formal choreography about time and space. When asked during an audience talk why she did it, she replied simply and candidly (something like), since the body was part of the proposition at hand, she thought it opportune to reveal “it”. (As she spoke then, I was suddenly reminded of my first art class modeling experience, and that strange moment when I first stepped with trepidation onto the podium only to have the students fix their gaze intently and objectively at my body, and not particularly at my breasts, for instance, but at minutia like the creases and shadows at my armpits and ankles.) Denault’s performance was later followed by the nude exploits of dancers in works by Daniel Léveillé and Dave St-Pierre, among others, in which their naked bodies lived, for us, their experiences of vulnerability, arousal, extreme effort, exhaustion, longing, and more. In the new tradition of postmodern genre mash-ups, expressionism here meets conceptualism. In other words, emotionally charged choreography embodies complex ideas about humanity and society.

Recently at Tangente, it was Andréane Leclerc, the phenomenologist-contortionist, who brought to mind body-as-object philosophy, albeit in the most visceral of movement compositions. She actually penned a master’s thesis about this work Cherepaka, a kind of manifesto for reconsidering and de-stereotyping contortion as a form of bodily expression. Of course, under the influence of phenomenology (the philosophy of awareness of the present moment) she moved ever so slowly, giving us all ample time for imaginative rumination (“is that her own foot nestled beside her face?”), all the while exuding the effort of manoeuvring her remarkable hyperflexions and extensions. We are at once engaged by both the contortionist’s conundrum and her body.

This brings me to the obvious: the image of Benjamin Kamino on the current cover of Tangente’s season flyer, hovering mid-air in a spiralling leap with hair flying behind him and covered only with tattoos. Although this is the product of a staged studio photoshoot, from my experience of his solo work, this is an iconic picture of the dancer-choreographer in action. However dynamic his movement, it is inevitably his body that stirs my thoughts. I am thinking that this is a far cry from the flamboyant 1960s in which public nakedness was characterized as transgressive, sexually charged, counter-cultural, and knowingly illegal. Now no longer offensive (to most), this nude dancer Benjamin appears to embody freedom and abandon, and intends, as he writes in his artistic statement inside the pamphlet, “much love to everyone.”

So then, fifty years after the sixties, what is the meaning of this renewed interest in stripped down and idea-laden performances? Let me venture a proposal: that the dancing (and even the non-dancing) body has become a many-layered medium that can simultaneously convey the world of ideas, the cries of humanity, and the mysteries of its inner workings. Choreography as embodiment.

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