Reference and re-enactment in contemporary dance and performance 
published on 19.07.2014 by Mira Hirtz

In visual arts, also in performance coming from visual arts, re-production and re-enactment are known methods. Often they provide ways to find distance to the past, a distance that enables a critical reflection of the own derivation and its impact on the present state. Furthermore, any kind of repetition always hints at the ideas of origin and genius – concepts that have been highly questioned e.g. by appropriation art.1 The usage and examination of references to history of art are still very present in the arts – how are they functioning today and why? As the development of the term reciprocal turn points out, there are different ways to do so.2   

The question I want to pose here is placed in the field of contemporary dance: How are references, especially to the past, history and heritage functioning today in dance? It seems that there are more and more projects coming along that take archive and history into account within the field of dance and performance. Right now, the Tanz.fond-erbe project is taking place in Berlin, which is a “funding to promote an artistic approach to dance heritage of the 20. Century […] a Kulturstiftung des Bundes […]”3; there are re-enactments and re-stagings in a lot of pieces; Boris Charmatz is performing at the festival “Foreign Affairs” in Berlin within the frame of his “muse de la dance” etc. How is past understood in these projects? As a consciousness about historicity, about the coming about of an artistic action – or as a canon of artists and artworks that are opined to be somehow relevant? What is driving the need to contain and remember?  

It might accrue from certain characteristics of dance and performance, as Andre Lepecki pointed, here summarized by the publishers website: “Dance’s ephemerality suggests the possibility of an escape from the regimes of commodification and fetishization in the arts. Its corporeality can embody critiques of representation inscribed in bodies and subjects. Its precariousness underlines the fragility of contemporary states of being. Scoring links it with conceptual art, as language becomes the articulator for possible as well as impossible modes of action. Finally, because dance always establishes a contract, or promise, between its choreographic planning and its actualization in movement, it reveals an essential performativity in its aesthetic project – a central concern for both art and critical thought in our time.”4   

But in re-enactment, who is the subject, who are the bodies in the performances? What is the role of the so sacred present moment in the performance? To quote the introduction of “Theater als Zeitmaschine” – though it is rather addressing the field of theatre that I didn’t yet touch – by Jens Roselt and Ulf Otto:  

„Das Theater ist eine Zeitmaschine, durch die Gegenwart und Vergangenheit miteinander in Beziehung treten. Seit der Jahrtausendwende jedoch ist in den Künsten immer häufiger eine performative Praxis anzutreffen, die das Theater als Zeitmaschine neu verortet: Reenactments stellen Geschichte nach, statt sie darzustellen. Sie reanimieren das Vergangene, statt es zu aktualisieren – und machen aus der Performance, was sie nie sein wollte: Theater.“5 I translate: „Theater is a time machine by which present and past can relate to each other. Since the turn of the millennium, however, there is a performative practice increasingly common in the arts that locates theater as a time machine: Re-enactments imitate history instead of representing/performing it. They reanimate the past, rather than updating it - and turn the performance into something that it never wanted to be: theater.”  

Another way to put it: What is the goal of using references? Performing memory and reference deals with knowledge of the individual and the common, deals with communication and also education. Who is addressed and how? The pieces I saw recently in Berlin all used several media besides the live performance, from talks to publication and video exhibition.  

I have been talking with some academics, performers, choreographers and friends about the topic of reference and re-enactment in contemporary dance and performance. Mulling over several topics the phenomenon of the reciprocal turn stayed with me – because, isn’t there a trap of meaningful terms? When we hear about a piece that uses referencing and appropriating, we always expect and are most of the times confronted with themes of actualization, homage and respect, the use of several medias, a high conscious about context etc.  – these are almost slogans, catchphrases to calm us and both show us that there is an effort on an intellectual level. Is there a danger of only performing these slogans, without a real consideration of their functions and their possibilities? Is there a tendency to consider the reference to history as an achievement by itself, as a stamp of relevance, maybe also as a burden you should be thankful somebody is carrying, just like “social” and “collective” art became quality marks6?       

  • 1. see article by J.Z.: “On Appropriation”
  • 2. still, to state it once more, the term does not only describe references that relate to the past
  • 3.
  • 4.… , on “Dance. Documents on Contemporary Art”, edited by André Lepecki, published by Whitechapel Gallery and Sadler’s Wells, London in September 2013
  • 5. „Theater als Zeitmaschine: Zur performativen Praxis des Reenactments. Theater- und kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven”, edited by Jens Roselt and Ulf Otto, published by transcript Theater, August 2012
  • 6. see: Claire Bishop: „Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship“, Verso, New York 2012