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  • Staging the Ethnographic of Dance History:Contemporary Dance and Its Play with Tradition
  • Yvonne Hardt (bio)

Reconstructing and citing historical dance pieces as well as making the dance stage a site for archiving dance performatively have become major trends in contemporary dance (as this issue of DRJ demonstrates). 1 Contemporary choreographers have left behind the incessant striving to create new movements and instead are engaging in dialogue with the past. While the "avant-garde" in Western stage dance was once perceived as embodying the "new" and was believed to be different from dance forms considered marked by tradition, these demarcations are now being challenged by both dance historians and artists (Franko and Richards 2000; Burt 2003). 2 What's more, reenactments increasingly destabilize distinctions between the artistic and academic fields as they highlight the performative nature of "doing history" and present modes of research that involve lectures, texts, and documentation in a stage setting. As such, the past is a playground for the present—a notion of history that is also encouraged academically by a critical historiography that reflects on the narrative structures implicit in doing dance history (White 1990; Bal, Crewe, and Spitzer 1999). History as well as the act of memory are now considered a process that "constitutes, stages, re-stages, and constantly modifies its object while simultaneously creating new models and media of commemorating" (Fischer-Lichte and Lehnert 2000, 14; my translation).

From such an understanding of history and commemoration in motion, I would like to expand my previous reflections on choreographic strategies for evoking the past in dance [End Page 27] by concentrating on issues of narrational strategy and the staging of cultural and artistic identity as part and purpose of historic appropriation. 3 Specifically, I will discuss two contemporary performances: Eszter Salamon's Magyar Tancok (Hungarian Dances, 2006) and Jérôme Bel's Pichet Klunchun and Myself (2004), which in the European contemporary dance context strike me as still exceptional in their acts of historical appropriation and reflection for the way they venture into genres and cultural contexts marked as "outside" of Western artistic dance. While hybrid forms of dance drawing from different dance traditions are proliferating, most of the current dance pieces that evoke and reflect dance's historicity in conceptually driven dance in Europe primarily make reference to the Western artistic dance tradition or popular Western culture. This focus is paralleled, to a great extent, by dance theoretical discourses that are concerned with historical appropriation (Burt 2003; Thurner and Wehren 2010). With a few exceptions (see Foster 2009), when scholars look at this group of conceptually driven dance artists, they do not focus their questions on globalization and postcolonial debates. Thus, despite an expanding literature on the performance of dance history on stage, the problems of working with an ethnographic perspective are hardly ever tackled. These two pieces allow for such a discussion.

Salamon works with Hungarian folk dances and Bel creates—with his Thai collaborator, Pinchet Klunchun who is a specialist of classical Thai Khon dance as well as a contemporary artist in Thailand—a situation in which the representational codes of contemporary dance as well as of Khon dance are exposed. Despite the internationalization of the dance market, neither of these dance forms have made it into the contemporary dance festival circuit or onto the stages considered to be sites of aesthetic innovation. 4 Salamon and Bel are well-established European artists associated with conceptually driven dance, 5 and both have played with historical references in earlier pieces. For instance, in collaboration with Xavier le Roy, Salamon created Gizelle (2001), a piece based solely on citations of movements drawing mostly from very recognizable steps from the Western dance tradition and from popular culture. Bel used a similar format of creating performances by questioning and staging the history of specific dancers in Véronique Doisneau. 6 In the productions considered here, both choreographers perform a reflective appropriation of other dance forms, and I shall argue that these collaborative situations evoke an ethnographic viewpoint toward contemporary European dance and reveal both the potentials and problems of such endeavors. They do so by integrating dance styles that are explicitly considered "local" and by...


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