Dancers and Animals Possibilities for new interspecies encounters

Antonia Baehr „Abecedarium Bestiarium“ (2013), © Anja Weber, score by Steffi Weismann
Antonia Baehr „Abecedarium Bestiarium“ (2013) | Photo (detail): © Anja Weber, score by Steffi Weismann

Choreographers make fruitful use of the relationship of people and animals in their artistic work. In so doing, fundamental questions are raised about the dominant position of human beings and their world view.

Diversity is one of the signs of our time. The white, heterosexual man as the measure of things and the world is critically called into question. Many stage productions can be interpreted as artistic attempts to drive this anthropocentric world view to its limits. Antonia Baehr’s recent work, for example, stages animals as humans’ co-inhabitants on the Earth. In her sonic lecture-performance My Dog is my piano (2012), she humorously analyses the cohabitation of her mother and Tocki, the dog, its everyday influence on human and canine language and habits. And in Abecedarium Bestiarium (2013), the choreographer and performer transforms herself into various extinct animals. She asked her friends to write a musical score for her metaphorically describing their affinity with an extinct animal.

Extinct animals as a metaphor

The results could not be more diverse. Using costumes, Baehr slips into the role of animals, or holds lectures on them using tape recorders or overhead projectors. Most died out in the wake of colonisation. There are only a few drawings and eye-witness accounts of them, so they are now ultimately beyond our reach. For the theatre, that is fruitful. The imaginary playfully occupies the gap, and half-human, half-animal hybrids appear before one’s physical eyes and in one’s mind’s eye. Baehr’s face is very versatile, and there is a creaturely diversity in her voice that is closer to human beings than they might like. At some point the question of what distinguishes human beings from animals vanishes, unnoticed. The familiar dichotomy between humans and animals, subject and object, is deconstructed. Their kindred connection comes into focus. In the modern age, this has become a power relationship, and the question of what relationship the different species have and could have today is raised in a diversity of ways.

Wild galloping and ballet-like piaffes

In thinking about the bodies of animals, the limits of the human body, too, are removed, which is what happens in Baehr’s works. Her performers’ identity is almost dissolved in the scores. As interest in the animal grows, the performer’s position is also renegotiated and new sources of movement are found, for example through imitation. In Martin Nachbar’s Animal Dances (2013), five dancers imitate precisely animals’ movements and modes of perception. What is immediately striking is that while humans primarily make use of sight, the dancers engaging in the mimesis of animals concentrate more strongly on hearing and spatial perception, their gaze becomes more inward-looking and their presence changes. In the animal dances, they become cats that decorously place their paws one on top of the other, strutting birds and a herd of wild horses galloping spiritedly in a circle. Finally, they portray a number of dressage horses going through their piaffes and passages, reminiscent in turn of ballet dancers.

Tracing discourses

The choreographers are not alone with their interest in the complex and diverse relationship between human beings and animals. In the 1990s, a new field of research became established in the English-speaking world, Animal Studies, which has been gaining significance in German-speaking countries since 2000. The Live Art Festival held at the Kampnagel theatre in Hamburg in June 2013 explored the relationship of animals and human beings in an event entitled ZOO 3000: OCCUPY SPECIES, which put power relations between classes, ethnicity, gender and habitats on the agenda. The aim was not to remove the human influence on animals, that is to say, it was not about a complete reversal of the current situation, but rather about taking animals seriously as historical and cultural protagonists, as living beings, and really giving them a place – something also called for by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the director of documenta 13 in Kassel. The artistic sphere provides special scope for a change of perspective and questions of this kind, something highlighted not only by the performances of Antonia Baehr and Martin Nachbar. In low pieces (2009-2011), Xavier Le Roy and his co-performers invent figures on the border between animal, human and plant. They lie down naked like cows chewing the cud, intertwine their limbs like sea grass and also create a non-human temporality. Thus, the dancing body becomes a place of encounter between the human and the animal. Its skin, joints and bones call into question the assertion of the modern age that animals are devoid of intelligence and feelings, and formulate possibilities for new interspecies encounters.