Dance Heritage
Between Knowing and Not Knowing, Appropriation and Change

Martin Nachbar „Urheben Aufheben“; © Renate Chueire
Martin Nachbar „Urheben Aufheben“ | Photo (detail): © Renate Chueire

Debating the issues of dance heritage is en mode, both in artistic and academic circles. The proximity of contemporary dance to history indicates that society has undergone radical change.

Foray into the past

When in 1998 French choreographer Jérôme Bel included the first seven minutes of Susanne Linke’s solo Wandlung (Transformation) of 1977 in his piece Le dernier spectacle (The Last Performance), there was great surprise and indignation. One female and three male dancers dressed in white, including Bel himself, danced Linke’s transformations four times, one after another, to music by Schubert. Looking back, the piece was something like the big bang of the free dance scene’s preoccupation with passing on traditions and modern dance heritage. Whereas its aim had long been to be (continually) “different” and “new”, Bel suddenly questioned the originality of movement and his own position as the author of a dance piece. Classical ballet had far fewer problems with the heritage of classical dance on account of its institutionalisation at opera houses, a long tradition of teachers passing on the repertoire orally to their students and various notational practices. For “free dance”, however, which was continually reinventing itself, Bel’s foray into the past was an unheard-of innovation. Bel not only appropriated a heritage foreign to him as a Frenchman – German dance theatre - but also asked what that heritage is if it changes during the dance with each embodiment by a dancer on account of the fact that no two bodies are identical. Bel’s repetitions created visible differences each time.

Since then, preoccupation with dance heritage itself has almost become institutionalised. In 2000, a symbolic year, curator Hortensia Völckers invited a large number of choreographers who explicitly address issues relating to positions on dance history in their pieces to come to the festival in Vienna, a cooperation between the Vienna Festwochen and ImPulsTanz, the Vienna International Dance Festival. In her current function as artistic director of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, Völckers has directed state support to the exploration of dance heritage by artists and theatres through the Dance Heritage Fund. There are two approaches to dance heritage. One underlines the central role of dance for culture and society at cultural policy level, forging identity. The other develops artistic-aesthetic perspectives on a heritage that seeks to dissolve identity, as in Jérôme Bel’s game with cultural and physical differences. What both assume, however, is that dance is a fleeting art form that has difficulty creating lasting works and values on account of its temporal character. Dance is only alive when it is actually danced. Otherwise it degenerates into lifeless archive material that can only preserve traces of a long-gone dance experience.

Dance and archives

Yet the radical presence of dance and the archive in which its heritage is preserved are not opposites, but invariably go hand in hand. It is precisely because dance is conceptualised both in public and academic discourse as a fleeting and transient art form that it inevitably depends on archives to collect its traces and pass them on to posterity. Thus, questions arise in connection with archives as to which body is responsible for collecting archive material and the criteria according to which that collection is made. Archives are a form of institutionalised knowledge and are thus always also a powerful entity. They are themselves an intentional construction, and far from being a neutral place where documents and objects are merely preserved. In its archived form, dance is part of our cultural memory. According to Egyptologist Jan Assmann, a cultural memory is administered by specialists and serves to construct identity. Because experts consider the works of certain dance artists to be important and ground-breaking, they contribute to the identity of a cultural nation such as Germany.

In addition, every archive also has a performative dimension, giving preserved material an ever-new and contemporary form, thus changing it. Archives are not static, but living. The objects and documents they preserve thrive on the connections they make with other objects and documents in the same or another archive. They live through their proximity to a chamber of wonders that permits new possibilities for interpretation. Thus, archives inevitably reveal history to the present. After all, history lives from its use in the present - contemporary questions, interests and objectives. From what perspectives do artists and scholars approach the archived materials? What does one look for, and what does one reconstruct? Experiences and moods, body images or steps? The function of the cultural, preserving memory gives way here to the communicative memory, featuring lively interaction with the past in the here and now. Thus, the central question to which this leads might be whether contemporary dance has succumbed to history. If lively communication with this heritage, institutionally and financially supported and secured in discourse, can now almost be taken for granted, what are the social conditions that allow this unimagined proximity to the past today?

Heritage and the art of not knowing

Many artistic projects, the best-known of which are no doubt Martin Nachbar’s repeated appropriation of Dore Hoyer’s dance cycle Affectos Humanos and Olga de Soto’s treatment of Kurt Jooss’ Expressionist classic Der grüne Tisch (The Green Table), make a point of not emphasising the identity-forging aspect of cultural heritage. In any case, it does not appear the only goal of the artistic as opposed to the cultural-policy debate on heritage to allow an art form that has been neglected by official cultural discourse and “forgotten” artists to experience historic justice, i.e. to give it a memory. Rather, the artists highlight the fractures and irreconcilabilities in perceptions of heritage, jeopardising its status yet again. That goes hand in hand with questions about their own knowledge and dancing ability, which are suspended in the appropriation of heritage. When they explore issues of heritage, dancers and choreographers are thus confronted with their own lack of knowledge. In this context, the enthusiasm for our dance heritage, for generating and playing with archive material, for re- and pre-enactments currently shared by academics and performers alike, is less an indication of a new historicism than a way “of checking connections”, as sociologist Dirk Baecker put it. When digital media and the Internet hold on to the past in an eternal present, one starts to consider what we can still use today and with regard to what aspects it can be used. How can we deal with the information surplus produced by the digital media? Which heritage and which of its aspects still communicate with us today? And on the other hand, which aspects are no longer relevant and can therefore be safely forgotten?

Our preoccupation with heritage is thus also a manifestation of a current crisis and a revaluation of what knowledge itself is. Every artist who confronts himself with his own lack of knowledge in actively addressing history does so in at least two different ways: firstly, he does not know what the piece he wants to revise was really like, and secondly, he also inevitably sets out on a quest for his own standpoint and his own position, which today, in the wake of the pluralisation of artistic styles, techniques and concepts, is no longer by any means self-evident. Heritage is the expression of a lack of orientation; it offers no security, but an open structure consisting of traces. In getting to grips with that, one can work out one’s own position. Addressing the subject of heritage is one feature of contemporary upheaval. The cultural and communicative memories of dance are out of joint with one another.

What remains?

Today, the question of heritage presents itself in a very direct way to many of the most renowned and best-known choreographers. What happens to their oeuvre when they are old or even, as in the case of Pina Bausch, after their death? Unlike American choreographer Merce Cunningham, who also died in 2009, whose last will was that his company would be dissolved two years after his death, the Tanztheater Wuppertal ensemble continues to exist. It performs Bausch’s repertoire to an international audience and rehearses old pieces in a new way to keep the choreographer’s legacy alive. That will succeed as long as there is an audience that continues to regard the importance of the pieces, their themes and the experiences they articulate as vibrant for their communication. It is easier for William Forsythe, coming as he does from the neo-classical ballet tradition. His repertoire from the days of the Frankfurt Ballet, which his own company can no longer dance itself on account of technical and dance-related changes, is studied by other ballet companies around the world and has thus become part of an international ballet repertoire. What also makes Forsythe’s “legacy” outstanding is that, in contrast to Pina Bausch, he himself processed and systematised it long ago. Forsythe’s CD ROM Improvisation Technologies is not only an introduction to his principles of movement, but also a set of instructions for using them as tools for one’s own production. Thus, it has been factored into the calculation that the starting material will be changed and developed. Projects such as Motion Bank systematise artists’ choreographic procedures, giving the younger generation tools that will inspire them in their own work. Heritage is an ongoing task. Passing it on in educational contexts, whether from teachers to students, or in combination with that, using recording media as a form of communicative memory as described by Claudia Jeschke, has meanwhile become an outstanding aspect of Jérôme Bel’s works - The Show must Go On has become an integral part of dance students’ training at the P.A.R.T.S. school in Brussels.

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