Performing the Other / Eastern Body

Dear friends,
I post here one text from Bojana Kunst taken from her website (http://www.kunstbody.org) that i strongly recommend you to read. It's from a Bojana Kunst's lecture on the framework of the International Conference of The Bulgarian Theatre Association: Cultural Bridges - The Theatre in Conflicting Regions / Situations, 4 - 5. June, Varna, Bolgaria, and Lecture at the Festival Tanztendenzen, June 12 2002, Greifswald, Germany.

Once more i send you a big kiss and hug to all of you...

text by Bojana Kunst

In my presentation I will try to disclose some problems concerning the dancing body. Especially I would like to focused on the problem how the body of other - in this case body of the east is performed. First I would like to make a short theoretical introduction and latter connect it with the concrete problem from the contemporary dance and to the evening tonight.

There are basically two ways on which we are speaking today about the body, which I think both should be challenged and stressed to really reach the problems deeply inherent in the contemporary presentation of the body. Therefore I would like to stress on one side the concept of the universality of the body, which is still very popular when we are talking about dance. It is present by example in the believing in dance as a 'universal art form, trough which we could all as humans communicate and share our common experiences'. According to such notions the main guarantee of such transcultural sharing is the body - which is also the main common denominator of believing (in some theories) in dance as a universal globalisation force.

On the another side I would also like to stress another position on the body which is very significant for contemporary popularized multicultural and etnographic approaches. This is the conviction that there is always an unbridgeable difference concerning the way different bodies may be understood - cultural difference is so powerful as to be inescapable. When confronted with the other body we are somehow never being able to escape this difference, what is finally left for us is always recognition of a distance and a constant effort to respect the difference. This position was strongly criticized by a famous postcolonial critic Edward Said, when he in his well-known book Orientalism, showed the link between essencialisation and reification of difference and colonasing west establishing its identity exactly with creating the fact of difference. So when we are speaking about the inescepability of difference we should firstly ask ourselves how such difference is produced at the first place - how those cultural notions of 'blackness, easterness, orientalism etc.' are created and whose identity is really invested in this creation of such borders and concepts. The creation of difference has therefore its history and could be find in the very concept of modernity, in the very concept of 'colonising and advanced west'. Even more we could say that the concepts of universality and difference are somehow both manifestations of the same history of 'western humanism' and could be find especially in utopian hegemonistic humanistic notion of sameness and today's 'globalistic' and 'liberal' notions of otherness (or its multicultural version of respecting the otherness).

What is particularly interesting for us here is by my opinion to disclose how both the concepts of universality / sameness and difference / otherness had the same roots. These roots could be successfully disclosed if we are observing what is the place of the body in this concepts. For us it is especially interesting that in both approaches (in the universalistic as in differentiating approach) the body is similarly understood and represented: the body here is understood as self-evident and self-sufficient, as a given fact. What does this mean exactly? We could help ourselves at this point with the words of Andre Lepecki (former dramaturg of Vera Mantero and dance theoretician), who in the context of the depicted approaches describes the body as the zero degree of culture and zero degree of communication. What is interesting is that in this bodily zero degree universality and difference are both implemented, fused even. The so called 'nature' of the body as the zero degree of culture is the source for implementing cultural universality on one side (we are all sharing the same nature) and cultural difference on the other (the differences between bodies are unbridgeable and should be respected). The so called 'movement' of the body as the zero degree of communication is the main source of sharing the sameness (possibility of understanding) as recognizing the urgent distance of otherness (recognition of misunderstanding). The body is we could say at the same time source of universality and difference. How is this possible?

This fusion of the basic concepts of perceiving the body is disclosing to us that universality and difference are nothing more than concepts, that they are ideological, historical and philosophical constructions, which are coming from the complex history of creating the western identity, its relationship to its own hegemony and to the perceiving of the identity of the other. What I think is especially important here is that we recognize the need for the essencialization and reification of those concepts. This essencialization would not be possible if the body would not (in the western history) be understood as given, empty, disclosed, self-evident. The body is through the western history perceived mainly as the 'zero degree' fact, with its nature always on the other side of culture. But exactly this production of the body as the zero degree is the main source of its universalising and differentiation with the help of the various medical, philosophical, scientific, ethnic, political regulations through which West is establishing its own identity and relationship to the other. The zero degree of the body is a construction par excellence and it is always an excellent source and inspiration for various ideological, political even rasistic interventions.

That's why different understanding and thinking on the body became so important in the twentieth century, by example with the philosophy of Foucault, Deleuze and poststructuralist approaches. Especially important here are by my opinion feminist philosophies and postcolonial studies which deeply stressed the nature / culture division which through the history guided the western concepts of universality and difference. So French philosopher Jean Luc Nancy said that there is no such thing as the body, Elizabeth Grozs speaks about the body as volatile, as a weak potentiality, which is always produced and present through the complex process of embodiments, performative practices and translations. The body is somehow we could say always performed, or as H. T. Lehmann said once: "The body is thus already both stage and scenery, is it in itself theatre." It is performed as a universality or as difference. What is important here is to see how this performance is constructed, where is the stage and where is the spectator, who build the scenery and who is here an authoritarian director. In this 'theatre' the body from the other culture (from elswhere) is becoming the body of Other: it is equipped with the meaning, fetishized, staged, distorted, performed. If we would be careful and look at the body as the theatre, than maybe we could step out from this gridlocks of zero degree and open up the body in-between with all its different possibilities: volatile, impossible, energetic, translatable, vague, uncomprehesible, attractive, magnetic, inappropriate, alluring, disgusting, crazy, etc. This possibilites are exactly possibilites researched in the body of contemporary dance and it is no coincidence that the development of contemporary dance goes along with different concepts and understanding the body.


So now comes the right time that after this short introduction I present to you a concrete problem where we could observe how those theoretical notions could be implemented. This is also my connection with the evening tonight. I would not present the performances which you'll see tonight, this could be a little bit pretentious of me to act as a pretext and building the context to presented artistic projects. What I would like to do is rather to open up some questions and disperse the context of the performances presented here, maybe just to open up the possibility to see in-between, but of course to reach this field in-between each of us has to have its own way. (That's also one of the basic characteristics when we are talking about in-between: the particularity of approaches is far away of perceiving the difference which has always something to do with totality).

The example of contemporary dance from the east, or if we are more precise, dancing body from the east is of particular interest here. We namely don't need to go very far away to observe how the body of the other is performed and represented and what are the paradoxes and problems in observing the difference on one side or claiming for the universality on the other. After the political changes in the beginning of the ninethies there was suddenly in the middle of Europe a huge area to discover, with (at the first sight) blurred and unrecognizable history of contemporary art at general, where contemporary dance, too was left with no recognisable history of professionalism. As we all know - mostly in all communist states - contemporary dance was expelled into the territory of amateurism, with no continuity in the development, limited to the various individual attemps. We could say that the authonomous body of the contemporary dance was somehow always perceived as the basic threat to the one and only disciplined and regulated body of the communism. And because of this continuios bodily threat (authonomy, liberation, freedom of representational models etc.) was dancing body on the east really expelled to the pure zero degree: with all its 'amateur nature' not at all recognizable as culture. The multiple potentiality of the body, the ways of representing the body in-between (volatile, impossible, energetic, translatable, vague, uncomprehensible, attractive, magnetic, inappropriate, allurig, disgusting) were not the legitimate representational modes on the east. We could say: if you dance, you will not be part of our revolution – the revolution, of course, that only admits one, collective body. Where the original democratic impulse has been silenced at its very beginning, where there was no possibility to discover another, hidden history, where every body was subjected to carrying the weight of the official history, contemporary dance could not develop, or – as in some isolated cases – it looks as it remained within the history by the necessity of survival. Similarly, it was not possible or allowed to introduce articulations other than those established or prescribed for decades; any different history, any attempt of autonomy, any different manner of representation were made marginal and excluded.

But how was this difference really articulated on the begining of the ninethies? To describe the situation on the begining of the ninethies, we could say that the difference between different manners of the articulations of an autonomous body was seen primarily in the institutional status contemporary dance has in the West and in the East. On one hand, it has been acknowledged by institutions and history for quite a few decades, thus developing its own institutional, pedagogical and production network; it is becoming a part of urban life, it develops parallely to the rest of contemporary art, its theory and critique. On the other hand, it has been marginal for decades, condemned to non-existence or fighting for survival, without a basic structure that would assure its development, outside the dialogue with institutions, critique, trying only in the last decade more or less with the rise and fighting for basic infrastructure. I would say that these institutional differences are also the source of the very important ideological backgrounds which are disclosing to us different possibilites to understand the complexity of the situation of east / west reunion. Just at the first sight the situation of eastern / western dancing body meeting seams clear and simple: on one side developed and institutionalised artistic field of western contemporary dance with a developed educational, proffesional and institutional network, on the another side vast area of amaterism, with no institutional recognition, mosty expelled to the field of invisibility, with a dispersed history of isolated and individual attempts. Just on the first sight the opening of the east to west and vice versa could be understood as the somehow natural need for proffesionalization and institutionalisation, the exchange of models and knowledge, the urgent need of overcrosing the difference. What is interesting here is to observe how this institutional difference disclose the privilege of the western contemporary dance. The contemporary dance in its institutionalised forms somehow paradoxically become the token of conteporariness, urbanity, modernity, freedom, democracy, globalisation etc. By means of pedagogical and other more or less developed infrastructural production networks, the Western body is trained and exploited to the maximum, with a number of techniques at its disposal. What is even more significant for this western institutionalisation of contemporary dance is an almost representative and exclusive relation to the present. Therefore there is no coincidence that contemporary dance in the 60thies and 70thies, as wrote Norma Prevost in her excellent book, became important ideological export of the western 'free' culture. This could especially be observed in the American cultural export in the 60thies and 70thies, careffully planed by NEA and american goverment, especially with American export of action painting and contemporary dance in Russia. Here contemporary dance was presented as the democratic, liberating and cultural body of other, a symbol of democracy, developed western culture and contemporariness.

But could we really describe this est / west relationship like this? Was this difference really difference between the western dancing body completely equipped for the present on one side, and on the another eastern unarticulated body with the dark, closed and uncomprehensible attraction to the past, which whenever articulated cannot communicate with the western gaze without having a strong political meaning?

We could say that the development of the Western contemporary dance has turned the potentiality and autonomy of the body, this discovering of the body in-between into a specific and exclusive privilege. The problem is that due to the ruthless dictation from the present, the position of which is almost monumental in contemporary dance, we feel uncomfortable whenever we are faced with something different, with the so called past, and we are incapable of finding a language to describe that which is different. Western gaze is therefore still hesitant when it comes to attributing autonomy and potentiality of the body to the Eastern practices, and it rather perceived it not just as simply different or close, but as un-articulated, 'still not there', confused, somehow clumsy, too bodily, to romantic, narative, not really present, a try etc., always reduced to a special context (political, traditional, etnical) etc. Western contemporary dance somehow institutionalised the exclusive right on the contemporariness, urbanity, democratic authonomy, and what is even more important the right for universality. Contemporary dance from the east was not recognised as the same legitimate and original searching for the modes in-between, for the potentiality and presence of the body, with its own relationship to the contemporariness and universality. It was instead perceived differently as a fact and therefore reduced in this difference into the past, other, otherness. In the middle of western world suddenly there existed something which was 'not being of the moment', which was somehow 'doubtly late', culturally, technologically, aesthetically etc. The west was behaving as Lepecki said, as the sinchronicity is here the exclusive matter of western dramaturgy and cronology matter of geography. The west somehow perversely observed in the east its own begginings and articulations; it was reducing the other into its own begginings. But let's ask ourselves - who has the privilege to be present? We have to forced ourselves to think outside this models and try to understood the different models of contemporareness, that's really an important task.

We could see in this example how the difference could be institutionalised and turned into the question of the privilege. This institutionalisation of difference has also another important cause, which I will mention only briefly here. It is namely very important that we are not speaking about this meeting and reunion without the considerning the important general cultural context which is defining today the representation of other bodies. We all know that as never as now we have been lived in a time, when, on the stages of the industrialised west we can see so much dance, thteatre and music from the 'rest of the world'. Andre Lepecki said that the western audience is constanty engaged in viewing these bodies as spectacle. We all know also that the predicament of the contemporary performer is to be a globetrotter too. So Lepecki said, that the biggest irony of today is that the radical, ethnic, religous or other in general, is entering the western stage exactly as a spectacular commoditiy. Beside this, exactly as a spectacular commoditiy it is achieving some sort of visibility and acceptance. It is quite normal that in this logic of spectacular commoditiy there are demands that the other performs othernness, and that the other is also representing itself as the other, selling the context we could say. The contemporary dance from the east entered the western production market as a spectacular commoditiy, it was expected somehow to produced othernes: it has to stay somehow exotic and different, with no right to the universality and exclusivity of contemporariness. The dance from the east was of course playing its game back - i know quite a few expamples of the slovenian gorups who were using and very succesfully selling the Balcan context, even if at home they were coming complitely from different backgrounds.


So at the end, let's ask ourselves how can we as a public - because tonight we are the public and we are with great pleasure expecting some very nice events after this tiresome speaking - build a relationship to a difference? How can we observe the body which is performing for us, how can we enter in this so called bodily theatre? Is it enough to seat down and respect the difference? Is it enough to seat down and establish with relief that there is much more universality as we expected? What if this game of difference and universality is a game of laziness, a game of our incapability to be shocked, enthusiastic, thrilled, disgust, against or for, a game of our own fear to be opened, hurt, happy. The ethics of respect is a very tricky one, and it is basicaly reductionist ethics, respect yes - but leave my territory untouched. So what is so fascinating to be a spectator even today in this complex word of spectacular commodities is exactly this possibility to maybe open up our own territory; but not for experience of difference, but for experience of our own connection. This experience is not an experience of a privilege but a strong will to jump into the field of in-between, to left ourselves be touched with the weak potentiality of the body: with its energy, allure, disgust, magnetism, words, eyes, vagueness, inappropriatenes, isolation, abstraction, meat. We could be lost, or find, it doesn't matter as long as we are prepared to be a part of the demanding but also a very joyful process of translation.