The idea of life and afterlife in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity.—Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator” (Benjamin 1996, 254)
Will to Archive/Will to Re-Enact
Laurence Louppe once advanced the intriguing notion that the dancer is “the veritable avatar of Orpheus: he has no right to turn back on his course, lest he be denied the object of his quest” (Louppe 1994, 32). However, looking across the contemporary dance scene in Europe and the United States, one cannot escape the fact that dancers—contrary to Orpheus, contrary to Louppe’s assertion—are increasingly turning back on their and dance history’s tracks in order to find the “object of their quest.” Indeed, contemporary dancers and choreographers in the United States and Europe have in recent years been actively engaged in creating re-enactments of sometimes well-known, sometimes obscure, dance works of the twentieth century. Examples abound: we can think of Fabian Barba’s Schwingende Landschaft (2008), an evening-length piece where the Ecuadorian choreographer returns to Mary Wigman’s seven solo pieces created in 1929 and performed during Wigman’s first U.S. tour in 1930; of Elliot Mercer returning in 2009 and 2010 to several of [End Page 28] Simone Forti’s Construction Pieces (1961/62), performing them at Washington Square Park in New York City; or Anne Collod’s 2008 return to Anna Halprin’s Parades and Changes (1965), among many other examples. We can name as well conferences and symposia in Europe (“re.act.feminism,” Berlin, 2009; “Archive/Practice,” Dance Archive Leipzig, 2009) or in the United States (“Re-constructions and Re-imaginations,” Performance Space 122, New York, 2009) dedicated to the theme of re-enactment in contemporary dance and performance, as well as a whole festival at Kaai Theater Brussels in February of 2010, entitled Re:Move, dedicated to re-enacting and archiving in contemporary dance. And, we can think of the three choreographers I will be addressing in this essay: Julie Tolentino’s intensely corporeal archival project The Sky Remains the Same (an ongoing project initiated in 2008); Martin Nachbar’s Urheben Aufheben (2008), in which the German choreographer dances Dore Hoyer’s Affectos Humanos (1962/64); and Richard Move’s many returns since the early 1990s to several of Martha Graham’s dance works (as well as to Graham’s body).
Thus, turning and returning to all those tracks and steps and bodies and gestures and sweat and images and words and sounds performed by past dancers paradoxically becomes one of the most significant marks of contemporary experimental choreography. With this question of returning as experimentation—of choreographically experimenting whether by turning back or in turning back dance may nevertheless still escape Orpheus’s curse of being frozen in time. While the recent interest in re-enacting in dance parallels a similar one in recent performance art, and while in the visual arts the term “archival impulse”—of which re-enacting participates—was coined by Hal Foster to describe what he identified as “a pervasive” concern1 (Foster 2004, 3), I propose that in order to probe re-enactments in dance as a mark of experimentation that defines contemporaneity,2 a concept must be introduced: a specifically choreographic “will to archive.”
“Will to archive” echoes, yet differs from, Hal Foster’s notion of “archival impulse” in contemporary art. Indeed, I would suggest that Foster’s concept remains problematic for several reasons. Referring to an artist’s “will ‘to connect what cannot be connected,’” equivalent to “a will to relate” and “to probe a misplaced past” (Foster 2004, 21; emphasis added), Foster defines “archival impulse” as directly resulting from a current “failure in cultural memory” produced by our “society of control” (2004, 21–22, 22n60; emphasis added). Ramsay Burt, writing on “recent dance performances that have used, cited, or re-appropriated historical material for new purposes” (Burt 2003, 34), similarly invoked, one year prior to the publication of Foster’s essay, this double articulation between cultural memory lapses and current shifts from discipline societies to societies of control...