A Letter to Dance, by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
What a strange feeling it is, to address you in such an official and detached way. We spend so many days together, from morning until evening, and I rarely feel the need to spell out our relationship in explicit terms. Why write a letter to someone one lives with, who is a constant companion? Usually this is done in extreme cases, when the person in question is moving away from you, or when a couple is on the brink of a break up. That’s when letters are written. The other option is that people are too far away from each other, and that distance invites letter writing: the physicality of a text is supposed to close the physical gap itself. But that is not my feeling either, since I’ve never felt so close to you. So why this letter?
Perhaps this letter stems from something else – namely, the question of whether I really ‘do’ know who you are. This is a question that lovers ask themselves all the time, of course, and is fodder for many romantic novels. But my wonderment stems from something different.
The other day I was thinking about the word ‘choreography’. Consider the etymology of that word. The word choreography is a fusion of two Greek concepts – ‘chore’ and ‘grafein’. The one signifies ‘choir’ or ‘troupe’, the other ‘to write’. At first sight this a perfectly natural combination. What choreographers do, in this definition, is ‘draft movements’ – it is a form of writing.
Things get more fascinating, however, when we look at the word ‘chore’ and what its original meaning was in Ancient contexts. The ‘choir’ was not only a spectator to a tragedy. Most importantly, it was a commentator, someone who judged from an objective, third-person standpoint on the troubles of the protagonists. The choir thus has a deeply critical function: it manages to see through the illusions of the great heroes. It is no surprise that the choir also has a popular feel to it: we here witness the people commenting on their superiors. ‘Choreography’, in this sense, is a mode of politics insofar as it includes the question how to organize a multitude. Choreography is about writing the ‘people’.
Maybe we can also think of choreography in a more conventional way. Choreography is always an attempt at ‘incarnating’ an abstraction, embodying an idea. Yet even here, there always is a latent politics to dancing. By insisting that people undertake movements together, that they organize their time and space together, choreographers are already posing acts that are potentially political.
But perhaps there is a more interesting analogy. Choreography, like politics, is always a matter of agency, and how one might go about imagining a form of agency that is collective but not unconscious. People in a crowd waiting for a bus certainly share a sense of collectivity. But they do not necessarily share a sense of agency. In the same way a crowd moving through a metro station on a busy morning might be said to exhibit traits of a ‘choreography’ – given the architecture of the space, they tend to move in a certain direction and generate specific patterns of movement.
But they don’t necessarily have any sense of the conscious moves they undertake within their environment. It is only when this group of people decide to go beyond this passive activity that one can truly speak of ‘dance’. When ‘intention’ and ‘agency’ enter into the picture, choreography as an art form makes its appearance. People treading through a train station on Sunday morning are not necessarily dancing; people treading through a train station singing ‘Singing in the Rain’ might be said to ‘dance’ in a more convincing way.
Above all, choreography is about negotiation. It is about balancing the tension between the concrete and the abstract – the concrete, physical texture of a body and the abstract products of a mind, and how a body has to change itself to conform to this mind’s mental map. This jump from the concrete to the abstract, where the concrete has to correspond to the abstract, is always a question of labour – human interaction with nature. Choreography is a form of labour not only in a legal sense (dancers are paid and remunerated for their services) but also in a more existential sense. It is so by its insistence that the body go beyond its set limits, its attempt to test the body’s capacity for adaptation.
If there always is a form of politics to choreography – or, that choreography always tells us something about politics and politics will tell us something about choreography – what would a ‘political’ form of choreography look like?
I’m not entirely sure I can answer this question here. There are certainly ways of moving choreography closer to politics. This would mean insisting that choreographers start with material that is not only artistically but also socially political. No matter how important these choices are, however, I always feel myself drawn back to the idea that this is secondary to the ‘basic’ politics of choreography; namely, its capacity to abstract. If dance gives up on this ambition to incarnate abstraction, to go beyond the move from ‘movement’ into ‘dance’, then I feel that the question of how to ‘politicize’ choreography is simply premature.
This might make me vulnerable to all kinds of objections. Mainly about what counts as ‘craftsmanship’ and ‘expertise’, and what it means to be a ‘good’ dancer and choreographer today. But I think we can leave those questions for a later time. Instead, we can insist that the act of turning ‘movement’ into ‘dance ‘already offers enough food for thought.
We all know that the modern era is one of constant movement. People move around all the time, from factory to office to restaurant to train to plane. Often, however, they do so unconsciously. It is our capacity to render this movement conscious and thereby offer tools for reflection (our political movements, overall) and what kind of movement we want to undertake as a society together, that is the first political pay-off of choreography.
I’m afraid I have to leave it there. We will see each other tomorrow, of course, at work and afterwards, and long after.
P.S.: Do atoms dance? Do flowers dance? Do birds dance? Do clouds dance? Do stars dance? We might be able to attribute the semblance of ‘dancing’ to them, but this is a human projection. Maybe our refusal to claim ‘dancing’ for these entities is due to the fact that they lack something humans are uniquely capable of: politics.