Memories, Engagement and Promises

Essay: Andrej Mircev

The 30th anniversary of Tanz im August takes places within a complex historical constellation: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx and 50 years since the riots by French students and workers in 1968. Invited by Tanz im August to take part in the festival as a moderator, I was encouraged by the given historical context and the possibility of reflecting it in relation to projects programmed for the festival. Departing from the tension between different regimes of temporality immanent in choreography (on the one hand) and history (on the other), it is worth identifying their points of intersection, with the intention to articulate the discoursive potentiality of that encounter. In other words, with the On the Sofa discussions “What remains? On Archives and Dance” and “1968 – Promise of Collectivity”, the idea is to stimulate a dialogue about the social and political framings of dance being understood as a corporeal reflection of the complicated dialectics of the turbulent decades and the unimagined future, which at the moment does not seem at all promising. 

Archive and dance are by no means in opposition to one other, but rather exist in a state of dynamic and delicate interrelation.

Against the (mis)belief that dance performance resists any kind of archiving and exists only as a temporality of accumulation, exhaustion and absences, the panel on archives intends to shed a different light on the subject. Addressing the idea of the archive not merely as the ‘house arrest’ of lifeless files and documents, the proposition is to rethink the (false) dichotomy presence/absence and life/mediated, and to reconsider both the performative qualities of the archive and the immanent archival impulses of dance. At the same time, insisting that dance does not disappear, but is constituted through different somatic and conceptual traces, implies the possibility of inscription, knowledge and writing. Thus archive and dance are by no means in opposition to one other, but rather exist in a state of dynamic and delicate interrelation. Forgetting dance – it might be said – equals the forgetting of our power to move freely, generating with movements the unthought utopia of togetherness.

While the panel on archives discusses the fleeting materiality of dance, and concentrates on questions of how dance can be saved, restored and taken care of, the panel “1968 – Promise of collectivity” maps out memories of the ‘social choreography’ of the ‘68 revolution. Bringing together different perspectives and examples, and juxtaposing trans-generational experiences, the talk aims to reflect the notion of collectivity and the ways it has been thwarted and eroded due to the retrograde socio-political developments over the past 50 years, which fostered narcissistic individualism instead of collective action. On the other hand, this dialogue tries to open the question of whether the revolutionary legacy is still somehow resonating in the politics of moving bodies today? How are we to imagine the choreography of a revolution yet to come? Could its shape be that of a movement through space unrestrained by fear and hopelessness?

Although it might at first glance seem that the two subjects (archives and the 1968 revolution) do not have many things in common and do not overlap, the events of ‘68 signalled a change in the way memory and history have been understood, reconstructed and approached. This can particularly be true given the political and cultural climate in post-war Germany, divided between the West and the East and loaded with a heavy burden of guilt with regard to Nazi attrocities. As Oskar Negt, one of the key figures of the leftist intelligentsia in Germany, observes in his publication dedicated to ‘68, “The year 1968 [...] is neither a revolution nor a festering wound, a crime; it is a time of unresolved problems.” Situating some aspects of the problem in the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, Negt maintains that one of the positive outcomes of ‘68 was the enhanced “struggle for historical legitimation”, which breaks with the patriotic notion of history and foregrounds the fragile memory of subaltern groups that had been suppressed in favour of the historical remembrance of (conservative) state ideologies. The fragile archive of dance is one such counter-memory of invisible and precarious subjecivities.

The new aesthetic direction of theatre and dance in West Germany since the 1960s brought to the fore an idea of engaged art, understood as a tool for confronting society with the phantoms of its unresolved past and the nihilism of neoliberal progress. Hans Kresnik’s claim in 1970 that “Ballet can fight” signified the potentiality of choreographic practices to critically intervene in existing social and political structures, and to confront the authoritarian apparatus of the state with an undisciplined, anarchic, joyful and sensual body. At this point it became clear that dance theatre, which was developing in close dialogue with other arts (visual arts, text, film and so on), had the power to pose awkward questions and provoke the status quo. 50 years later, dance still continues to challenge dominant social schemes, offering alternative rhythms, races, genders and (corpo)realities of freedom. However, the utopia of an unrestricted, emancipated society grounded on solidarity and equality – as envisaged by the ‘68 generation – seems to be further away then ever. 

50 years later, dance still continues to challenge dominant social schemes, offering alternative rhythms, races, genders and (corpo)realities of freedom.

Aus der neuen ästhetischen Ausrichtung von Theater und Tanz in Westdeutschland seit den 1960er Jahren entstand die Idee der engagierten Kunst, die als Werkzeug galt, um die Gesellschaft mit dem Phantom der ungelösten Vergangenheit und mit dem Nihilismus des neoliberalen Fortschritts zu konfrontieren. Hans Kresniks Aussage von 1970, "Ballett kann kämpfen", betonte das Potential der choreografischen Praxis, kritisch in existierende soziale und politische Strukturen zu intervenieren, und den autoritären Staatsapparat mit einem undisziplinierten, anarchistischen, genussvollen und sinnlichen Körper zu konfrontieren. Hierbei wurde klar, dass das Tanztheater, das sich im engen Dialog mit anderen Künsten entwickelte (Bildende Kunst, Text, Film usw.), in der Lage war, unbequeme Fragen zu stellen und den Status Quo zu hinterfragen. Fünfzig Jahre später fordert der Tanz weiterhin dominante soziale Schemata heraus, bietet alternative Rhythmen, Herkünfte, Gender und (Körper)Realitäten der Freiheit. Die Utopie einer ungezähmten, emanzipierten Gesellschaft, die auf Solidarität und Gleichberechtigung beruht – wie sie von den 68ern imaginiert wurde – scheint jedoch ferner denn je.

On the Sofa

11.8., 16:00 What remains? On Archives and Dance | Guests: Claudia Henne, Leisa Shelton, Patrick Primavesi | Moderation: Andrej Mircev | Englisch
11.8., 18:30 Moving (the) Image: Encounters with Visual Arts | Guests: Ola Maciejewska & Special Guest | Moderation: Andrej Mircev | Englisch
19.8., 17:00 Ein Countdown für den Modernen Tanz | Guests: Hellmut Gottschild, Irene Sieben | Moderation: Heike Albrecht | In cooperation with Tanzfabrik Berlin. | Deutsch
1.9., 15:00 1968 – Promise of Collectivity | Guests: Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Michiel Vandevelde | Moderation: Andrej Mircev | Englisch
Bibliothek im August 

Recalling in one interview the connection between the theatre and revolution, Julian Beck, the leading figure of the theatre collective the Living Theatre, said: “As students of Piscator, we have learned that one has to be engaged, has to be a partisan. I think that his idea of the political theatre became fully realised during the students’ occupation of Théâtre de l´Odéon during the May ‘68 revolution.” Explicitly relating the revolutionary moment to the student movement and the theatrical ‘dispositif’, Beck targets two crucial points of society, which can be envisaged as sites of (past and future) resistance: education and culture. As a direct example of a performative strategy which seeks to break out of the safe zone of bourgeois aesthetics and challenges some of the basic anthropological constraints and prohibitions in contemporary societies, the Living Theatre’s performance “Paradise Now” offered the model for a choreography (of revolution) that even today might have the ability to disturb the social order.

Just like jubilees and anniversaries, archives are never only occasions for an examination of the past, but should provide an opportunity to imagine and prefigure the future. Possibly the most precise formulation following this line of thought is that of Jacques Derrida in his essay Archive Fever: “The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know in times to come. Perhaps. Not tomorrow but in the times to come, later or perhaps never. A spectral messianicity is at work in the concept of the archive and ties it, like religion, like history, like science to the very singular experience of the promise.” 

As already mentioned, to argue against the impossibility archiving dance implies a discoursive move that will insist on the futurity of choreographic traces, their potentiality to displace normative bodies. To be more precise: leftovers of performance can never be reduced to a finished historical event, but persist and exist in a permanent state of becoming, which challenges the very stability (and objectivity) of the archive. Without the memory/archive inscribed in the dancing body, however, there can be no presence. Finally, giving up the memory (of dance) severs us from a promise: the promise of dancing collectively against the ‘failed kinetics of history’. Against the apolitical amnesia and anaesthesia of consumption. And for the forgotten ‘utopia of togetherness’.