According to some, dance is the space in which social possiblities are tried out. Based on the art of Katarzyna Kobro, Paulina Olowska, Silke Otto-Knapp and others, Jan Verwoert demonstrates how this social choreography should not be taken too literally.
Metaphors are useful. They make you see things. Take ‘The world is a stage’ for example. It’s just a picture. But it allows you to observe the ‘roles’ we play when we engage in social life. Another useful tool for cultural criticism has been the metaphor, in use since the 1970s, that you could ‘read society as a text’. You can, because role-play, body language and fashion are coded. Yet, again it’s only a picture. Neither is the world theatre, nor social life words on a page.
Still, it seems, we cannot do without such pictures when we seek to understand things. So criticism develops by inventing new ones. One such new metaphor is the notion of ‘social choreography’. It’s a powerful concept because it blends the dynamic aspects of picturing the world as a stage with the analytic edge of reading social life as coded: As dancers on the social stage we move in synchronicity with groups or break away to perform solos and, relying on the gestures we have rehearsed, we structure the space and time of everyday life through the specific choreographies of our motions.
In his brilliant study of the politics of choreography since the 18th century, Social Choreography. Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement, Andrew Hewitt goes as far as to suggest that the connection between the logic of dance and the structures that shape modern society is not merely metaphoric, but in fact intrinsic. He argues that dance is the ‘space in which social possibilities are both rehearsed and performed’ and that the choreographies of certain dance styles therefore constitute a ‘structuring blueprint for thinking and effecting modern social organization’.
Accordingly, Hewitt shows how a change in dance routines at the turn of the 19th century parallels the shift in the ideological patterns of social organization that marks the transition to modernity. It’s a shift from the concept of dance as play to that of dance as work. The formal, yet playful choreographies of 18th century ballroom dance, according to Hewitt, rehearsed the principles of a social order based on manners and tact. Modern forms of dancing, however, focus on how the body generates the force that drives the system of production in modern society: pure physical energy. Ideologically then, modernity is haunted by one obsession: ‘to locate the origin of labour power’.
Modern dance and ballet does just this, it locates the source of labour power in a body that energizes itself through its own motion. The stomping of the foot replaces the formal gestures of ballroom dance as the paradigmatic move that electrifies the modern body. In this light, the scandalously visceral ballet choreographies of Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950) can be seen to inhabit the same ideological space as the modern (global) American culture: the expressive dance of Isadora Duncan (1878–1927) as well as popular forms like ragtime or chorus line revue dancing. It is a social space defined through the immanent capacity of a body to produce the forces that power material culture by ‘working out’.
Like most forms of art-friendly Marxist analysis, Hewitt’s approach has ambivalent implications: By portraying aesthetical phenomena as forces that shape social reality, he attributes a genuine political relevance to questions of artistic form. At the same time, however, art, even in its most radical articulations can, in this perspective, never be more than a manifestation of a larger social process, a motivating force, yes, but one that, like a syndrome, exerts influence only in tandem with a general change of cultural conditions – and not because an individual artist affected something specific through a particular work.
The disappearance of metaphor in Hewitt’s assumption that choreography intrinsically is the logic of society, effectively deprives individual works of the power to make a difference. The possibility of individual artistic agency, it seems, can only be reclaimed if metaphor is brought back into play. Accordingly, you could argue that the relation between art and social reality is notoriously ambiguous precisely because it is always metaphorical. In the same sense in which the world is a stage but theatre still remains theatre, art can manifest the principles of the social and, at the very same time, be just art. A choreographic metaphor would then be a bridge to the social that an artist proactively builds (or burns).
It is also because of this constitutive ambiguity that one of the strongest examples of an avant-gardist artist’s approach to social choreography, the work of Katarzyna Kobro (1898–1951), is so fascinating. Her sculptures are metaphors for forms of social organization, which are at the same time more specific and more abstract than the work of many of her contemporaries of the Bauhaus school. The majority of her sculptures (most of which were destroyed during or after the war and exist only as reconstructions) are composed of basic geometrical shapes, rendered not as solid volumes but as flat or curved planes.
The series of works entitled Spatial Composition, on which Kobro worked from 1925 to 1933, for instance, are assembled out of thin painted wooden parts in much the same way in which architects build models using cardboard pieces. Also in their size they resemble architecture models, big enough to convey a sense of proportion but small enough to fit on a table or plinth. In her programmatical writing, Kobro stated that her work was to be understood as a research into the patterns that govern the work and movements of people in modern everyday life. The aim of her sculptures was therefore to propose ideal choreographies – she calls them ‘spatial-temporal rhythms’ – for the way in which people shift from one set of motions to the next.
Her sculptures are algorithms for sequencing social patterns of movement. Kobro writes in 1937: ‘The spatial composition is a laboratory experiment that will define the architecture of future cities. The spatial composition, in becoming architecture, organizes the rhythm of human movement in space. The rhythm of a work of art then becomes the rhythm of the movement of crowds and individuals. The spatial composition creates emotions deriving from the triumph of the human intellect over the current state of irrationality and chaos.’
Ideologically then, Kobro’s ideas seem to be completely compatible with Hewitt’s general theory that in the 20th century, ‘dance came to figure the idealized harmony of bodies at work’. She explicitly writes that her rhythms are based on functional pattern provided by the “scientific organization of work”. In this sense, the power and the limitations of Kobro’s work would seem to lie in the fact that what she wrote and created is a crystal-clear manifestation of the ideology of the social choreography of her day.
This is true. But untrue, too. Kobro was in fact radically at odds with the art espoused by the political establishment at the time: monumentalist sculpture that she derides as ‘Warsaw academic official-bureaucratic art’. Instead of channelling the prevailing ideology, she openly opposed it. The force of her work lies not in its alignment with the general social condition, but in her insistence to speak from the margins of society about the future of that society through sculptural metaphors. Her work is neither artefact nor architecture: Kobro’s sculptures in fact inhabit the gap in between the social reality they powerfully claim to prefigure and their material reality as powerless structures made from small slates of painted wood. It is this irresolvable ambiguity of the metaphor that makes them so strong and beautiful.
Whether Kobro herself acknowledged the ambiguities of her work or whether she forcefully believed in the ideology she promoted in her programmatical writing, is hard to tell. The lack of authoritarian gravity in her work at least seems to indicate a sense of humour. One of her contemporaries who explored the space of the metaphor of social choreography with a pronounced sense of humour, is Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Like Kobro a member of the artists’ movement Abstraction-Création, she was initially trained as a dancer by Rudolf von Laban from 1915 to 1918 and around the same time performed in Dada events in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.
In 1918 she wrote the play König Hirsch/King Stag, a mockery of psychoanalysis performed by marionettes that she designed to look like cubist figures of fable characters. Calling the king a stag opens up the space of metaphor, in which Taeuber-Arp performs a joyful mockery of the choreography of gender role-play, while simultaneously constructing her own world of characters, costumes and gestures. Her space of metaphor then lies between dada and constructivism, between the travesty of and belief in modern society and its choreographies.
Social and Abstract
It is maybe from a similarly ambivalent position that different artists today approach choreography: evoking its social implications, they equally also treat it as a rhetoric of abstract form. Pablo Bronstein (b. Buenos Aires, 1977), for instance, uses dance as a metaphor in his work to confront the ideology of postmodern architecture. His fascination lies with the concept of the ‘plaza’, arguably the most blatant lie of postmodern corporate architecture. Adorned with neoclassist ornaments, the lobbies and courtyards of inner city office towers were masked as plazas and piazzas to trick the public into believing that their urban space had not been privatized.
In meticulous drawings, Bronstein copies motives from classicist piazza architecture and presents them in vintage frames as exquisite fetishes of bad faith. In his performance works, he stages dance in such piazzas. Bronstein marks the site with white demarcation lines along which he instructs professional dancers to walk and intermittently perform figures from their repertoire. In Plaza Minuet (2007), for instance, dancers schooled in Baroque courtly dance performed in four corporate lobbies in downtown Manhattan. In the light of Hewitt’s historical account, this could be understood as a gesture that, in a spirit of a defiant nostalgia, evokes a premodern social order based on tact and manners, not work and productivity. Yet, it can also be read as a cynical demonstration of the vacuity of an architectural rhetoric through the empty abstract rhetoric of an obsolete dance form. Whether or not Bronstein invests any belief in thechoreographies he stages is left purposefully unclear.
A similar sensitivity for the rhetorical function of dance could also be seen at play in Paulina Olowska’s dance performance Alphabet (2005), yet, with the significant difference that her stakes in the matter were very clear. The performance built on previous work, like Bauhaus Yoga (2001), a series of exercises befitting the title, and Pioneer Alphabet A–Z (2002) in which Olowska, in modernist attire, successively assumed poses resembling all letters of the alphabet. Riffing on the logic of eurhythmics and the constructivists’ fascination with the power or typography, Olowska created her own system of gestures. In collaboration with dancer Daniel Yamada, she then used this system to translate three poems written by Josef Strau, Frances Stark and Paulus Mazur into the choreography for Alphabet. Illuminated by coloured stage lights and wearing purple tracksuits, Joanna Zielinska, Yamada and Olowska herself performed on the roof of the gallery Meerettich, a pavilion outside Berlin’s Volksbühne. As Strau was reading out the poems, the performers spelled out selected words from the lyrics with their bodies.
By staging dancers in sportswear who perform a highly formalized choreography to illustrate very personal poems, Olowska made the rhetoric of dance as ‘work-out’ clash with the rhetoric of dance as literary metaphor. Hewitt writes that American expressive dance broke with the European tradition precisely through the rejection of literary metaphors, citing critic James Martin with the words that in American dance “there is no alphabet of movement, no set of symbols passed on by convention of authorities.”
Performing the American work out, Olowska still returns to the alphabet of movement, only that its symbols are hers. Like Bronstein, Olowska revises contemporary culture through a nostalgia for an obsolete historical language of form. Yet, in her work this does not result in a display of empty rhetoric but in a series of metaphorical substitutions in which the historical forms are translated by performing bodies into poetry.
In the recent paintings of Silke Otto-Knapp, this metaphorical drift seems in one sense suspended, as she refrains from substituting motives and instead focuses closely on studying, in detail, the form of selected choreographies from the history of modern ballet and contemporary dance. Mostly rendered in monochrome watercolours, Otto-Knapp’s paintings give you a heightened sense of the tensions inherent in a single pose or in the relations between bodies of dancers in groups; she uses the space of the canvas to emphasize the spatial rhythm of dance moves, at times almost squashing a single dancer into a frame in one compressed picture and pose, as in Turning Shadow (blue) (2007), at other times mapping out complex constellations of figures and backdrops in spacious compositions, as in La Chatte (2007). While in one sense, then, the depicted choreography is represented as it is, in another sense it is fundamentally displaced because it is no longer dance but painting. Otto-Knapp does not substitute motives but media. In the process of the metaphoric displacement of dance into painting, choreographies become pictures that talk about group dynamics.
In Group (Les Noces) (2007), for instance, Otto-Knapp portrays a group scene from the ballet Les Noces, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, premiered by the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1923. Les Noces truly epitomizes what Hewitt describes as the aim of modern ballet to show the energy of bodies at work. A village community prepares a couple for marriage, the story goes. What you actually see is two visions of communitarian labour merged, a nostalgic idea of energetic peasant culture and a futurist concept of a socialist people moving in synch like an elegant machine. They work like one body and it is into the rites of this collective body that bride and groom are initiated. Yet, through the metaphoric displacement from ballet into painting, the gestures are freed from their plot so that, for a moment, it seems less clear what their collective energy stands for in the first place. Unframed from their ideology, the gestures of the group in fact seem, if not entirely undirected, then at least somehow divergent in their sheer multiplicity.
In a way you could understand this act of ideological unframing as a paradigmatic example for the potentials that open up when art uses choreography as a metaphor for forms of social organization: The political implications of the overall form of a dance as well as the specific relation between the individual performer and collective of dancers can be analysed and amplified (if need be to the point of mockery, as Taeuber-Arp shows). At the same time, the displacement of social choreographies into art makes it possible to un- and rework their logic – to the effect that, in the ambiguity of metaphor, strange new social formations may take shape, communities without fixed identities that may exuberantly celebrate an energy that no longer means work but leads to an exchange of gestures that, without an ulterior end, communicate the potentials and impossibilities of communication.
- Andrew Hewitt, Social Choreography. Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement, Duke University Press, Durham/London 2005, p. 4 and p. 14.
- Ibid., p. 42.
- Katarzyna Kobro: Rzezba stanowi... (A sculpture is...), Glos Plastukow No. 1–7/1937, p. 42–43, in Katarzyna Kobro 1898–1951, exhibit. cat., Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 1999, p. 169.
- Hewitt, op.cit., p. 47.
- Kobro, op.cit., p. 165.
- Kobro, op.cit., p. 169.
- Hewitt, op.cit., p. 130.