Means of mobilization
The Participatory Politics of Dance

„Experience#1“ by Isabelle Schad; © Kalai Chen
„Experience#1“ by Isabelle Schad | Photo (detail): © Kalai Chen

Dance today is deeply related to the current political need to develop means of mobilization: at the centre of many performances is exactly the interrelated, mediated and social aspect of movement. Through dance, we can challenge the ways in which bodies assemble and participate, since dance takes place precisely through the becoming of an assembly: it happens through the becoming of the many and not as a representation of the many.

Historically, the communal and participatory identity of society has often been represented through dance, especially with the help of the choreographic arrangement of bodies. Bodies danced together mainly to disclose the harmonic relation between the individual and the collective, through which the specific political formation of society was affirmed. Very often this was explained as dance imitating aesthetically the political and social order. As the theoretician of social choreography Andrew Hewitt claims, however, this can also be seen differently: social order is produced at the level of the everyday body and in this way ideology already operates through the ways in which bodies walk, move and relate. This means that dance does not so much imitate society as it is the opening up of the continuity between everyday bodies and their aesthetic articulation, showing how social order derives its ideal from the aesthetic realm.

It is in this sense that we can interpret the famous description in a letter of Friedrich Schiller, who wrote that he knew “of no more fitting image of the ideal of beautiful social intercourse than a well-danced English dance consisting of many complicated figures”. Dance does not imitate society, but rather through dancing a social order is installed directly at the level of the body. Bodies behave socially in a specific way because they move in that way. Such a reading enables us to understand dance in another way: not only as an aesthetic imitation, but also as an active and generative force of establishing embodied social and political arrangements, protocols and procedures of movement, which at the same time are also entangled in ideological operations. In this sense choreography opens itself into the social and political field, not because its operations reflect the ways in which society is constructed, but because it is deeply embedded in the social and political articulation of bodies in general.

Dance and mobilization

This observation is especially pertinent at the present time, which is characterized by the strong desire to create new political forms and the search for different forms of political mobilizations. This desire can be described as the response to the overall feeling of exhaustion with our current political forms and contests the governance of our bodies originating in the interests of financial capital and the flow of economic power. It is also related to the current crisis of democracy, which in conjunction with capitalism transforms itself into the procedural arrangement of political interests and bureaucratic management of participation, without taking into account a constitutive dissent at the core of every democratic enterprise. Differently put, the attentiveness to the forces of mobilization that sets bodies in motion could disclose a great deal about the political dimension of society and the time in which we live.

Not that dance alone can bring about a change in the social arena; this of course would be too hasty a conclusion. In his influential book about the relation between politics and dance, Randy Martin states that dance itself has the possibility, especially when it is performed and watched, of making reflexively available the means through which mobilization is accomplished. Dance then is seen not only as a rehearsal and establishment of ideological relations between bodies, but also as an opening of the tangible, precarious and emerging political forces of mobilization. Through dance we can challenge the ways in which bodies assemble and participate, since dance takes place precisely through the becoming of an assembly: it happens through the becoming of the many and not as a representation of the many. In that sense “what is situated in the world, what people contest in many forms can also be found in dance”. (Randy Martin)

The public and the common

Today many with political movements very often want to contest a paralysis of political activity. They want to affirm the need for political mobilization that would open alternative possibilities of living together and invent another understanding of the public and the common. This search for new means of political mobilization often results in the demand for more situated embodied experiences, for an organization of bodies and assemblies that would challenge the current fetishization of flexibility and continuous movement, and at the same time develop the corporeal practices of political participation and solidarity. This is then not so much a search for new political community or the arrangement of the new identity as the search for multiple forms of political, cultural and social mobilization, through which democracy can be put into practice in a challenging way. Many of the explorations in recent choreographic practice, which focus on participation and collaborative experiences, could be related to this renewed interest in the force of mobilization in general: especially the explorations of how these forces are intertwined with choreographic arrangement of bodies and the formation of assemblies. The recent interest in more collaborative modes of working and participatory modes of attention could then be closely connected to the new search for inventive modes of political mobilization. Collaborative modes of working are challenging the hierarchical ways in which dance is performed and so replacing the traditional division of labour in performance.

There is, however, something additional at work in the interest in more collaborative forms. This is not only the interest in diminishing power and authorial gesture, but also in the exploration of the means through which collaboration is mobilized and how these collaborative means and ways enable new sets of arrangements, interrelations and relations between the those that are variously implemented in performance (in creating or watching it). The performance can arise from the sum of invitations, or can take place as an assembly of various authorial interventions or negotiations, or it can happen as a collection of approaches and traces of what it could yet become. In this way, performances explore how assemblies are constituted and how they open up the new broader apprehension of choreography. We can say that dance in this case is deeply related to the current political need to develop means of mobilization: at the centre of many performances is exactly the interrelated, mediated and social aspect of movement. At the same time, choreographic practice discloses itself not as a practice of ordering and arranging of bodies, or as a repetitive rehearsal of social behaviors of the body, but rather as a laboratory of possible means and ways of emerging, as a disclosure of the ways in which arrangements can influence actions.

Democracy in choreography

If choreography can be read as an active force supporting social and political arrangements, as proposed at the beginning of this essay, then a different approach to the issue of participation is needed. The need to mobilize participation is closely related to the fact that democracy happens because there is no common ground, which is also why democracy has to be continually negotiated. This understanding of democracy is especially important today when participation has become a celebrated notion in art, but often with very different political goals different from those put forth here and problematic aesthetic outcomes. Choreographic approaches to participation today can actually show us that participation is not an individualistic responsibility of everyone for harmonious togetherness and so does not have much to do with the participatory totality of procedures. Participation primarily arises from an antagonistic activity of the many and contests in this way the administrative and procedural expansion of inclusion, which produces no change in the ways in which power relations are created and maintained. Rather than staging communities, choreography produces communities in the making, disclosing manifold and contradictory mobilizations of bodies and aesthetic experiences, and so challenging our current democratic and political practice.

This article was produced in cooperation with the German Dance Platform 2014, it is published simultaneously in the booklet of the Dance Platform.

German Dance Platform 2014
27.02.–02.03.2014, Kampnagel, Hamburg