Where porn is banal, insipid, mind-numbingly repetitive and unimaginative, the work of the Swiss-German artist, choreographer and dancer is astonishing, multifaceted and revelatory. Alexandra Bachzetsis's dance performaces, which often are presented in exhibition spaces. are playfully and provocative, but never obscene.
The audience enters a darkened theatre space, the walls lit only by the reflections of a disco ball. Men in tuxedos usher the people in and serve champagne. Tables are arranged at the back of the space, where one can stand behind the seated audience. Music starts and a perfect bright circle of light appears on the stage. A girl in a black dress and black heels comes on and starts to dance, her back to the audience. She rotates her hips slowly while twisting down and back up, sometimes turning her head to the side as if to look at her viewers. After a couple of minutes she leaves the stage before the song fades and ends. Another girl walks on stage as the bond theme Goldfinger starts up. She wears black pants, a black top and heels. She too starts to dance, but differently. Her movements are more theatrical, more in keeping with the music. She concentrates on her arms, very white against all the black. Two minutes later the scenario repeats: a third girl enters and the music changes again, this time to jazz. She wears a dress and heels, has short hair, and starts to shake her behind, getting down low, playful, energetic. And so it goes on. Fourteen girls in total present themselves in turn, each proudly demonstrating their moves and turns to their individual theme tunes. At one point they hold the stage together, vying for our attention, only to scatter again, individuals once more.
With performances such as Show Dance, described here, Gold, Handwerk, Act, and now Mainstream, Alexandra Bachzetsis (Zurich, 1974) has taunted her audience with oiled skin and a golden bikini, pole dancing, a striptease and a love affair. With a background chiefly in the field of dance and choreography, Bachzetsis has more recently –since her education at DAS Arts in Amsterdam– entered the visual art arena, quickly becoming a darling of more daring curatorial practise. At the invitation of curators and gallerists, she expands her theatrical expertise to that of the exhibition, though without conceding her dramaturgical authorship. At the risk of supporting conservative undertones: it is precisely her capability and specificity of craft which ensures the delight of the, albeit amateur spectator. She’s not afraid, and the audience always know it. She is in total control, knows what she’s doing and like a dominatrix, she dominates.
MAXINE KOPSA: What instructions did the girls in Show Dance receive?
ALEXANDRA BACHZETSIS: They were told to “make a solo dance for an audience that is drinking champagne. And do it as though you were doing it to your favourite music in your own living room.” First I worked with them individually in my own living room. I gave them all the same high heels and asked them to come in their own ‘black chic’. I put on music and told them to dance. I knew them, how some of them dance, had seen them at a party or a club, so I was also in a position to be able to ask them to do specific things, things I knew were typical for them.
MK: Were you looking for a rhythm in a whole?
AB: Yes. I was setting up a dramaturgical line and casting is a large part of that. Choreography and casting are the same thing, or act as one – at least for me. So I select types, or ages, different sensibilities. People are specific types.
I wanted to make an anti climax show, where every act is a climax. With every girl you get this feeling of her being the one and only, and all are kind of fantastic. But in the end everyone is subjective in their choice and loves someone else.
MK: How does it start? With a move? A concept? A narrative?
AB: With Mainstream it started with my fascination with the intimacy of mainstream movies. I was interested in how they provoke sentiment and force the audience to identify with the characters. This kind of manipulation is what the viewer asks for: he goes to see a mainstream film with exactly these expectations. In theatre the audience is not implicated with the same intensity, it watches with more emotional distance. So I wanted to see if it was possible to transport this mainstream system to a stage to induce similar emotions in an audience that’s watching a live performance.
MK: You mentioned recently that you’re work is better received in an art context? Why is that?
AB: I don’t exactly know why. People look at it from another perspective I think. In an art context, they don’t expect ‘dance’ as such. So they allow themselves to see the references and their relation to other factors outside of dance. I think the problem within more strictly dance or theatre contexts is that the work is simply not ‘dance-y’ or ‘theatre-y’ enough – it’s missing certain kinds of conventions applied to these fields. I do work with the language of dance but not necessarily with its form.
MK: What do you mean by language as opposed to form?
AB: ‘Language’ relates to specific genres of dance…like the pole dance, which uses a certain type of physical language. I take a specific style and place it in another context – in Gold I took hip hop and moved it to another context, thus reformulating its language. With Musical, it was similar. A musical usually takes place on stage, so I composed my musical for a stage. But in the end, whether it’s pole dancing, hip hop or a musical, these genres all appear deconstructed and re-composed. So basically, I’m commenting on a specific kind of existing language though without reproducing the same kind of form.
MK: For Musical you had a group of 12 suitably attired dancers not only doing jazzy routines to big band tune from the 30s to the 90s, but also solos, and even karaoke. The whole was introduced and otherwise ‘hosted’ by two female comperes, overly charming and dressed in tuxedos. The 60 minutes of Musical felt at once like a high quality, tongue-in-cheek takeoff of the quintessential 20th century musical and at the same time it was a serious ‘musical’ in its own right, cut from its predecessors and re-pasted. Does all your work as you say ‘deconstruct and recompose’?
AB: Most, yes. I like to look to active codes and reflect on them. I’m fascinated by social conventions and just how really present they are in society. Clichés are of course related to conventions or to social codes and so I try to look more closely at them in order to abuse them, really. At the same time I re-create them. It’s very much a love-hate relationship with me working inside out. I don’t just take something, I reconstruct it in terms of the content and the form.
MK: Handwerk comprises a live performance, a set of how-to drawings, a legal contract and a theoretical text, in short, about feminism and dance. The performance, a pole dance routine, is on sale – in other words the body: its literal commodification mimics that of the art object’s. What would happen if you did Handwerk in a night club?
AB: That wouldn’t make any sense. It was really created for a commercial gallery so I’m relating to that. It’s about how to sell your body if you’re working with dance, because dance uses the body. Art doesn’t, not necessarily. I wouldn’t do Handwerk on stage either. It only makes sense as an art piece. It deals with questions like why should an artist produce art that sells and, from the other side, how can one buy a live performance?
MK: And what about critique?
AB: The criticism is in the choice of cliché.
MK: So what’s your stance on pole dancing?
AB: In a way it’s a cheap way of dealing with dance or the selling of the body. But what’s fascinating about it is that it’s a boom industry, a craze: every housewife wants her own pole at home. In our oversexed and under-fucked society its presence is new. Or maybe the fact that we’re oversexed and under-fucked is…in any case, there’s an overload of the burlesque in lingerie and even regular clothing, in advertising, in the media at large. It’s all very suggestive – cities are teeming with teenagers who won’t have sex anymore but walk around as mini-prostitutes because they’re scared of catching some STD. I have nieces who are 18 and 19 who dress like sex goddesses but are simply not doing it.
MK: Do you do specific research for a project?
AB: I’m fascinated by femininity and its representation in the media. But this is an on-going research. I don’t stop to focus in on any one aspect; I’m constantly feeding off of what I see and come across.
MK: And your own personal experience?
AB: I’ve been reduced to what my body represents: curls, tit and ass and a bit exotic because of I’m mixed Greek and Swiss-German. Before you’re established as an individual with an explicit language or style, you’re only part of these external codes. People like to place things into categories and what they already know through general things like schools, academies, physical appearance, where someone is from. But not all my work is about the female. I have made works that deal explicitly with this topic like Gold or Act but by and large what drives me is the question of the model, the archetypal, or in terms of genres, the classic, like in Secret Instructions. There I looked at what makes a classic a classic by taking 6 ‘classical’ plays and using only the visual, stage directions to create a new play. Why makes an archetype an archetype is a something I always ask myself. I want to strip down the cliché and find the basis of the classic within the cliché. When does it move to a cliché and where does it become a classic? In Mainstream I’m really looking at behaviour, at representation, between couples, female and male. And this via the mainstream idea of movies.
MK: In Musical you used video projection as a backdrop, these were shots of the same people on stage generally doing what they were doing live on stage; Is this something you want to explore further?
AB: I couldn’t care less. It was good for that moment. I need the freedom to choose per work, that’s important. I don’t need to always dance or to become a video artist or work in a specific category.
MK: Was this the first time you used film in a performance?
AB: No, it wasn’t. Murder Mysteries and Gold both incorporate video, but differently. And, speaking not so much of the medium but more of influence, I’m often using film, and narrative. Mainstream, for example, is based on Syd Field’s Screenwriting. This is about how a story is composed and structured for mainstream movies. It’s very funny and boring. I’m looking into how a story needs to be such and such in order to be a success, in other words, to provoke emotions. It’s like a movie on stage without filming, with the strategies of how mainstream films are constructed. I’m working closely with the archetypes which are embedded in theses standard ideas. In strategies of entertainment, of media.
MK: You performed in China, in Beijing in 2006 I even found it listed on the ‘Weekly Guide to Beijing’s Best Entertainment!’ Gold - and this holds for other works as well - is quite cultural-specific; can everything be translated to every audience, or was your Beijing experience a ‘major shift’?
AB: China was fascinating and it was a major cultural shift. In China nipples cannot be shown through material, you can’t be naked on stage, R&B is forbidden – where this is everyday culture in our environment, it’s pornography there. I found myself in an environment that doesn’t really know this hip hop culture. They understand but at the same don’t. There was a woman in the audience who I spoke with afterwards and she thanked me over and over again and was very excited because a performance like Gold is liberating to her. As she explained, working within such a politically closed context means that people are forced to work on an abstract level. They cannot have a conceptual discussion like this. It would be dangerous …Doing Gold in Singapore was similar.
MK: Are you worried of ever going too far, of being too entertaining?
AB: It’s on the edge. Some might not understand it is critical and fulfilling aim, but I like that. I enjoy myself. I’m not interested in just criticising and working from a distance. Or adding to more entertainment. I like to flirt with the danger.
Mediamatic, Amsterdam, 6 May.
Centre Culturel Suisse, Paris, 14-16 May
De Brakke Grond, Amsterdam, 4-5 May, Theater Gessnerallee, Zürich, 10-16 May
Mainstream (creation and performance: Alexandra Bachzetsis, Yan Duyvendak; will first be performed May 2007)
Murder Mysteries (creation and performance: Alexandra Bachzetsis, Danai Anesiadou; first performed May 2004)
Secret Instructions (concept and directing: Alexandra Bachzetsis, Julia Born; first performed February 2005)
Act (creation and performance: Alexandra Bachzetsis, Lies Vanborm, Tina Bleuler; first performed November 2006)