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  • Skin, Body, and Presence in Contemporary European Choreography
  • André Lepecki


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Figure 1.

Reduction serves as dramaturgic device in Jérôme Bel, 1995. (Photo courtesy of Jérôme Bel)

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Figure 2.

History falls silently in the crevices of the body. Claire Haenni in Jérôme Bel, 1995. (Photo courtesy of Jérôme Bel)

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Figure 3.

History falls silently in the crevices of the body. Frédéric Seguette in Jérôme Bel, 1995. (Photo courtesy of Jérôme Bel)

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Figure 4.

Shifting the grounds of historical representation: Vera Mantero undermines primitivism in her 1996 solo a mysterious Thing said e.e. cummings. (Photo by Jorge Gonçalves)

The contemporary European dance scene can be qualified by one term: “reduction”—of expansiveness, of the spectacular, of the unessential. Accompanying this reduction in dance is a stripping of the dancing body itself. Naked bodies are ever more present on European stages. Examples abound, as in Portuguese choreographer, dancer, and performer Vera Mantero’s extraordinary solo uma misteriosa Coisa disse o e.e. cummings (a mysterious Thing said e.e. cummings, 1996); as in the group work by two gifted young French choreographers: Boris Charmatz’s 1996 trio Aatt...enen...tionon, and in his 1997 herses (une lente introduction) (herses [a slow introduction]), and in Jérôme Bel’s autographic masterpiece Jérôme Bel (1995); and as in Spanish choreographer La Ribot’s solo Mas Distinguidas 97 (Most Distinguished 97, 1997).

What can be inferred from this increasing display of the bare body in contemporary dance, of this eruption of the body as matter, the body in its epidermal strength, in its massive presence? Caution is necessary here, for the artworks in question have various national origins and different political concerns; they are created by artists coming from different cultures and countries, with sometimes conflicting aesthetic agendas, antagonistic stances in body politics, or simply divergent choreographic styles. Despite differences, one affirmation emerges as self-evident: that the simultaneous reduction of “theatrics” and the emergence of the body’s naked presence in contemporary European avantgarde dance complicates what has been, until recently, unproblematically called “dance.”

In the 1980s European avantgarde dance reinvented itself by means of the theatre. The groundbreaking works of Flemish choreographers Ann Teresa de Keersmaeker, Win Vandekeybus, and Jan Fabre; the monumental choreography of French Jean-Claude Gallotta, and the epic work of another French choreographer, Caterine Divérrès; and the physical-theatre of British group DV-8, are a few who have explored and subverted the paths opened by tanztheater pioneers Johann Kresnick and Pina Bausch. At the end of the 1990s European dance audiences are witnessing the emergence of a new generation of choreographers whose work denies theatrics and brings them formally closer [End Page 129] to performance art, moreover, to a certain tradition in performance art associated with representation of what Rebecca Schneider (1997) calls “the explicit body” onstage.

Influence on dance by performance art is not unprecedented. Recent historical examples of such an influence can be found in the early postmodern experiments of the 1960s by dance innovators such as Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, and Yvonne Rainer. In comparison, the insistence on presence and on the body in contemporary European choreography, for which the most common formal aspect is nakedness, has little to do with the proposals of the postmoderns of the 1960s—which Susan Manning (1988) astutely identified in American avantgarde dance as a late eruption of truly modernist concerns. The choreographic work currently being created in Europe marks a rupture with those experiments of the 1960s, as much as it inaugurates a problematics of presence in dance that is ontologically unprecedented in this art form. This dance insists on choreographing a “maniacally charged present” (Phelan 1993:148), by creating a dancing body as a historically dense body (Foucault 1977). In other words, these choreographers are rehearsing a subjectivity for dance that typifies what Peggy Phelan (1993) calls the “ontology of performance” as that which implicates the present by...

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