Dance of Differences

Text by Andre Lepecki


Dance has been an art form to which a partial utopian hope has always always been attached, the hope of a trans-cultural, trans-ethnic, trans-religious communication brought by the body's presence and mobility. A strong discourse still portrays dance as a "universal" art form, through which we can all express and share our common experiences. According to such discourse, the guarantors to this trans-cultural sharing are the body, considered as the degree zero of culture, and the body's movements, considered the degree zero of communication.

On the contrary, anthropology and cultural theory have been instrumental throughout this century in demonstrating that the body and its gestures are not so evident. In his classical essay "Techniques Of The Body," first published in 1934, Marcel Mauss showed how different cultures perform different body techniques, how different cultures imply different corporealities. The legacy of Mauss is the insight that the body being the first and most important site of cultural production and intervention emerge as diverse as any language.

Another important contribution for critique of the body as degree zero of trans-cultural communication is that of Michel Foucault, whose body of work is a refined argument on how the body gets to be historically inscribed into disciplinary regimes and on how historical process transforms the body into a site not of recognition but of mis-recognition and misunderstanding. "Nothing in man," he wrote, "not even his body - is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men."

It is then within this tension between a certain utopianism and a certain pessimism regarding the body as a site of human understanding, of human communication that the project of multi-cultural critique has a contribution to give to the question of dancing in another culture• The project of multi-culturalism is to take into consideration the complexity of historical and cultural processes as forms of incorporation, of disciplining bodies in contemporaneity. Its second task is to reflect upon the ethical consequences and the political impact brought by the co-presence into a same socio-geographic space of convergence of discrepant bodily and historical experiences.

Given these premises, the problem we must face while addressing the politics of presenting other(ed) bodies on European stages is that the simple fact of inviting "others" to dance on Europe's stages is considered satisfactory by producers. This satisfaction is a very disturbing state of affairs, given the history of multi-cultural performance in Europe and its colonialist roots, with the display of the foreigner as freak, as curiosity, or as exotic.

However, we can also not forget that perhaps never as now have we lived in a time when, on the stages of the industrialised west, we can see so much dance, music and performance from "the rest of the world." The western audience is constantly engaged in viewing foreign bodies as spectacle. On the other hand, the predicament of the contemporary performer is to be a globetrotter, and to inhabit other people's "familiar:" their country, city, local theatre. The irony of what otherwise might be seen as the quintessential wonder of our post-modern condition that, historically, it is precisely as spectacular commodity that the racial, ethnic, religious "other" has achieved some sort of visibility and acceptance in the west. Through the reification of the "fact" of their difference, their pure presence in the "familiar" was marked as being in itself spectacular, and nothing but spectacular, a sort of scandal of the body was thus promoted, emphasised, choreographed, masked. And masked into Otherness. Which ready leads us to a statement - that "Otherness" is not an ontological status but performative, an accusation, - and to a question: what might that Otherness be like, today? An Other.

Anthropologist Richard G. Fox summarised contemporaneity by saying that ours is a time when often "the alien inhabits the familiar." Fox's phrasing of the situation is interesting and deserves some careful examination. The opposition "alien/familiar" regarding the inhabitation of a "home" suggests that the intrusion of the "familiar" by foreign bodies implies much more than a simple co-presence of diverse bodies in the same room - whether the "room" is a metaphor for the nation-state for a household, or for the local theatre

Under sensorial scrutiny, the displaced body of the foreigner becomes much more than a body from elsewhere: enduring amplification, distortion, fragmentation, fetishisation; it becomes a body marked as irrevocably different. To complexify matters more: in perverse dialectic mimesis, often the survival of the contemporary performer demands not only his or her trans-national circulation, but - and here lies the perverse effect of this circulation, of this wild economy - it quite often demands that the other performs: Otherness. In a dialectical dynamic described by Michael Taussig as "colonial mirror" the foreigner becomes a mirror image of what we expect the Other to be. In this dynamic, the alien's unfamiliar, uncanny, gestures can be safely included in the Iogic of the exotic, and thus commodified, fetishised, tamed and revered. The Other's gestures, mannerisms, costumes, postures, glances become trade marks, signs of recognition, and are further imposed on the performer as the expected bodily signature of its alterity. This is the process of exoticisation of the foreigner into Other. Sometimes the only way out from the marginal position.

Contemporary discourses on inter-culturalism, multi-culturalism, cultural identity and the politics of cultural encounter, from the far left to the far right, have confined these bodies marked as different in a sort of repetitive loop, from which the only variation seems to be the political "charge" attached to the term "difference" and the ontological status this term implies. (For right- wing extremists "difference" = "abjection;" to left-wingers "difference" = "sublime").What invariably remains to be questioned is the fact of difference itself.

Let us consider an example of how cultural difference, culture as difference, becomes a gridlock when ethnography addresses the problem of translating dance from other cultures. Sally Ann Ness's recent essay "Observing The Evidence Fail" (1996) is an attempt to critique the concept of cultural translation by the means of dance ethnography. Ness shows how the ever increasing sophistication in ethnographic analysis of dances, leads nevertheless to an ultimate failure in comprehending and culturally translating the dance-object. This failure, according to Ness, is nothing more than the manifestation of what she identifies as being the "brute fact of difference." The factuality and the brutality of difference that Ness identifies would limit, for this ethnographer, the possibility for cross- cultural translation of dances and thus foreclose any hope regarding cross-cultural understanding. This violent differentiation, Ness's radical perception of the dancing Other as always irretrievable, as always mysterious, leads her to conclude that in any cross-cultural situation, all we can hope for is to accept the other's radical difference as such and, when we see this other dancing try to enact "new forms of tolerance" and of "cross-cultural respect." Ness sees only one way out of the gridlock of radical difference - she proposes an observational model where the researcher "includes no object or territory marked as culturally mysterious or unfamiliar." In other words, one must be a "cultural insider" if we are to understand and feel dances.

It is only here - with Ness's inclusion of feeling (of the other) in her model for bypassing radical alterity - that we find the ideological crux of the matter: her marking of cultural difference by the failure of translating the dance derives from optical distancing. The Other is the object of the ethnographer's gaze; the ethnographer is not the Other, therefore its gaze fails to understand the Other's dance. In this failure all that is left to the ethnographer is to try to respect that distanced other. If there is, however, to be feeling, empathy, total translatability, then the ethnographer must participate of the same ontology of the observed subject. In other words: what Ness is theorising is that one can only feel one's conatives, one's own cultural clones. Her epistemology of "cultural difference" necessitates that the Other is forever outside the grasp of empathic emotion. One can only empathise, or supplement the gaze with feeling when one is of the same culture. Alterity is an optical spectacle for our distant respectful stance as observers whose mimetic powers have been repressed by an ideology of "respect."

What kind of hygiene of the gaze lies in this respectful distancing? For Ness, once we face the "brutal fact of difference" all we can do is acknowledge the failure of any project of translation (because we are outsiders) and try to "respect" the other and the other's "dance-object." Cultural difference as brutal fact becomes a gridlock: it is so powerful as to be inescapable. One can never reach the body marked as Other; even less understand it.

What Ness does not take into account is that the concept of cultural difference is complicated by the fact that the concept of culture itself was created in order to invent difference. Which means that by simply using the term culture, we are already invoking the ghost of differentiation. This epistemic loop creates a crisis within anthropological and ethnographic theories, precisely those disciplines that are most invested in creating a theory of translation and of difference.

Given this dire predicament of never being able to overcome the "fact of difference," the question that one must put forth regarding a cross-cultural analysis of dances being performed in/for different cultures is whether what Ness calls the "brutal fact of difference" is less a fact than an epistemic gridlock, in itself embedded in a cultural bias and a dubious ethics that operates through the desire of discontinuity and distancing, that insists of collapsing alterity with a radical, ungraspable Otherness. And if one must be careful with the dangers of universalistic discourses that erase any sort of cultural identity in the name of a dubious progressive ideology of sameness (for this "sameness" is basically the imposition of a western cultural model) one must also be careful with that render the other to a radical mysteriousness, reminiscent of what Edward Said called "orientalism." Beyond ethnography the task of the audience Ness's essay adresses the problem of seeing dance cross-culturally for researchers and ethnographers. The question now is: what can one do as uninformed, non-expert spectators of dances from cultures "marked as different?" Is it enough for this audience to acknowledge the "fact of difference," sit back and "respect" the show? What ethics is implied in this "respect" and the acceptance of a radicalised otherness, in the reification of brutal difference, that results in nothing but a failure to moreover a failure to translate dancing bodies? And if there is failure in the translation, is this failure derived from the "essence" of the object being translated, or from the mode by which translation is being performed? Finally, is there a way to see dances from other cultures without falling into what I have named the gridlock of difference? What is left for us audiences of displaced performances? - certainly much more than to "understand" the difference and thrive in its radicalness. What is left for us performers and dancers in cultures that are not our own? - certainly much more than to meekly accept that no matter what we do we are to be forever mis-understood, forever relegated to a radical alterity. There certainly must be more for us all to do, for us all to dance, for us all to perceive, and for us all to feel while encountering the other body dancing in the same toom we're in. An example from a Southern Elsewhere.

Picture an international dance festival on the fringes of Europe, packed with producers from Northern and Central industrialised Europe as well as from the United States. Picture one of the most important choreographers of that Elsewhere country presenting his latest creation, an extraordinary piece of dance-theatre. The country's name is unimportant here, as it is the name of the choreographer: it is enough to know that the country is decentred, surely underdeveloped, perhaps even exotic to some of the producers from the Industrial Centres. I want to emphasise my choice in keeping both country and choreographer anonymous: they are everywhere.

So, about a year ago I was in this European Elsewhere, attending the Festival packed with producers. At the end of the performance of the choreographer from the European elsewhere I went backstage to compliment him for his amazing work. As we were congratulating him among a crowd of natives of this European Elsewhere, an American presenter approached us. She was really excited with the choreographer's work, she said, she thought it was a wonderful piece, very well done. Her enthusiasm was physically visible; it was clear from her intonation, her smile, her body posture that she had profoundly felt the piece despite all the cultural differences, despite the language barrier. Despite alterity, there had been translation. But then ... then the "brutal fact" of difference crept in by the means of economic and of translating her experience into her job: "But ... how am I going to present it? It is so ... so ... elsewherish!"

Hers is an incredible remark, but whose I hear over and over and over again throughout backdoors of dance festivals... So Greek, or so Spanish, or so Portuguese ... of so something that is not quite right. I confess I thought about feathers at the moment. I felt like suggesting to the choreographer: dress the dancers in feathers, paint their bodies, lock the dancers in a cage, make them sing folksy songs and drink wine, perform whatever expectations you want them to perform, become a monster, change your body, betray your language, go "savage" and "southerner" for the sake of cultural translation, for the sake of making sure your difference is well marked as factual, as real difference, and a difference we can all see and feel happy by that seeing and by not needing to do much more than to respect it at a safe critical and politically correct distance. Maybe then your work will gain some "cross-cultural respect," as the last specimen of a lost species is revered and petted and gazed safely at a distance in a local zoo. I thought about this spiral of continuous differentiation that generates nothing but an increased indifference and horror to the slightest mark of cultural discrepancy: are we all destined to either become clones of the same model, for the sake of "understanding?" Julia Kristeva made precisely this point: that one of the most worrisome pathologies of today's society is its lack of knowledge of how to be (behaviorally, ontologically) before the other. This lack of knowing how to be before the other is but another symptom of the spreading of the repression of the mimetic capacity, propelling discourses on radical cultural difference and incomprehension. The pathology of the European dance viewer today derives from the laziness in his or her seeing that such mimetic repression enforces. The fundamental fact that any performance exists in the present implies that it is in that ritual contemporaneity that performance finds its ontotogy and its ethical promise, its strength, in this co-presencing, there will always lie the potential for confrontation, for misunderstanding, for hate between those who perform and those who are watching. However, there will always lie too the potential for encountering, at least with our own self. Thus, the question is no longer who are those bodies on stage that confront me with their presence but: how can my body partner those bodies dancing for me. How can I transform that moment of co-habitation that the room of the theatre provokes into a moment of familiarity and of gift? This quest is what gives the stage all its purpose. And what gives living all its dance.

Contextual Note:
First published in: Ballet-Tanz , July 1998, pp. 38-41