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  • Reenacting Modernity:Fabian Barba's A Mary Wigman Dance Evening (2009)
  • Christel Stalpaert (bio)

To reenact nine solos Mary Wigman performed during her first U.S. tour (1930-31), Fabian Barba establishes a contract with the audience based on representational codes of modernist dance in the early twentieth century. As one enters the theater, a little program is found on one's seat with the intended course of the evening. The program mentions the place and date of the reenactment—in German, with an English translation, as it might have been during the American tours—but not the year. Reading it, we learn that six solos, Aus dem Tanzcyklus "Schwingende Landschaft" (From the Dance Cycle "Shifting Landscape"), dated 1929, will be performed. There will be an eight-minute intermission after which three other solos are to follow: two from Visions and one from Celebration. The program is printed in the typography of those days and the contractual agreement of the dance concert—written in small letters as is usually the case with contracts—is indicated at the bottom: "The audience is kindly asked not to leave the room during the intermission. At the end of the recital and upon demand from the public, two dances can be shown again as 'encores.'"

One might think that the carefully reconstructed reenactment would make for an untroubled viewing experience, a seamless perception of the Wigman idiom. Already after the first solo, however—and this is the choreographer's intention—the spectator is somewhat taken aback by the historical distance s/he encounters in the performance. Apparently, the spectator is not acquainted with the modernist representational codes. After the first solo, Barba/Wigman performs a bowing gesture in order to receive applause, but the audience hesitates for a few seconds. We realize that we are not used to applauding after only two minutes of dancing (some of the solos are quite short). The spectators gradually grow into their role of an audience of the 1930s, however, and after two or three solos, they clap enthusiastically at the right time. But after four or five solos, confusion crops up again. Some start to clap enthusiastically right after the solo, that is, before the lights have come up for Barba/Wigman to bow. When Barba/Wigman does bow, as a signal to receive the applause, the audience realizes it has been scrambling the codes again, lost as it was in the irrelevant conventions of contemporary spectatorship.

During the musical intermezzi—another convention of the period, which allows for the dancer to change costumes—piano music is played. The recorded sound is muffled, so that some members of the audience are tempted to talk or chat before the next solo starts. Others see this intermezzo as part of the performance, however, and express their disapproval. The audience is split during the musical intermezzi into several camps: those who comment on each other's behavior by shushing, or commenting under their breath, and others who remain silent and return to their program in the hope of finding clues to proper behavior. What Barba does here, in fact, is to extract new percepts and affects from what are normally habitual procedures—unconscious habits of perception, memory, recognition, [End Page 90] and agreement—and make the spectator see, feel, and think in unforeseen ways, as far as perceiving reenacted dance material is concerned. From this ambivalent perception, this split encounter with the quoted historical dance material, the spectator emerges refreshed as if endowed with a sharpened optic or nervous system; s/he has become aware of the contemporary lens through which reenactments are being perceived.

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Figure 1.

Program of Fabian Barba's A Mary Wigman Dance Evening at Festspielhaus Hellerau (Germany), December 11, 2009.

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Figure 2.

Program of Fabian Barba's A Mary Wigman Dance Evening at Kaaitheater, Brussels (Belgium), February 5, 2010.

Barba's reenactment of the Wigman idiom highlights the corporeal gap with the archival material. In relocating the Wigman archive in/onto his own body, in transferring the extant visual sources into an embodied presentation, the corporeal memory of the performer is not...