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on Philipp Gehmacher (2004)

Franz Anton Craemer

(…) The relationship between corporeality, that is concreteness, and conceptuality, that is abstraction, consequently appears more complicated than the milieus of critics, dancers, and choreographers have occasionally wanted to present. Evidently, the spheres of mere reality and of that, which can be said about this reality in terms of dance, are not that clearly divided after all. Of course, whether these categories are at all appropriate to the object – the world, the dance – is another question. Luce Irigaray rejects them in her book “The Way of Love” (2001/2002). She energetically challenges the division of the world in perception and its target, in subject and object, which is customary in philosophical thinking. According to her, this form of philosophy only tends to make everything the same, to assimilate the objective to the subjective, and thus deny all relation of difference.”Our rational tradition has been much concerned with ‘speaking about’ but has reduced ‘speaking with’ to a speaking together about the same things. Which supposes a common universe and conversations about a third without real exchange between ourselves. … But it is not yet then a matter of an exchange between subjects, even if diversity supplies them with an object about which to begin to dialogue.” (p. 7 f.)


Irigary pleads for a new, an other form of language and speech, in order to reach equivalence in a consciously known, acknowledged, and experienced difference.

“For there to be an exchange, it is essential that the other touch us, particularly through words. But we do not yet know this touching with words, except in a mode that reduces proximity to confusion, to fusion.” (p. 18)


And here the long introductory by-pass finally leads to the vicinity of its target area. Namely, however crudely one might paint the cognitive background of the problem: a debate about what the dance could achieve in life and functioning of the society, which potentials it awakens, and which areas it challenges, that is, an examination of the essence of dance, will necessarily deal with such attitudes that take the bodily as their basis; a basis, of course, that can accomplish nothing by itself, but needs a specific form of shaping in order to tell others, to exchange with them, something about itself.


In the light of this, dance could claim the rank of a fundamental practice, it could reclaim validity far beyond logocentrism, it could be an exercise in difference.

“Where has man tried to approach the other through speech without this already being bound in a same that nullifies their differences and produces their exchange to a tautology, an already programmed scenography, a monologue in two voices? … It seems that man in the unfolding of culture, of History, has not ceased moving away from himself.” (p. 46f)


The aim of Irigaray is by no means to cast doubt upon the logical constitution of erkenntnis, of perception in itself. But in her argumentation one might, complementary to this logical form, find the formulation of a way of the kinetic – an invitation to a dance… a dance of turning-towards instead of taking-aback, a dance of individuation.


I have clues for this presupposition. As a matter of fact, the impetus for this text comes from Philipp Gehmacher. In his piece “mountains are mountains” (2003), he quoted some sentences from Luce Irigaray’s “La voie de l’amour” (the original was published in French). Just as decisive was the encounter with Gehmacher’s shaped form of the movement’s aspect, with which and in which a new type of kinetic communication has affirmed itself. Perhaps it is that form of respect for vicinity (of choreographic exchange) and difference (of the basic incompatibility of bodies), that Irigaray denounces and that the constitution of culture, as the common way of being of individuals in their specific contacts, had developed long ago. In any case, as a question of dealing with concrete instead of abstract relations of power, discursivity, or desire, it concerns the foundations of our society.


Thus, this texts aims at accounting for the effect, theimpression that Gehmacher’s choreographic procedure has made upon me. It is to show what kind of offer, what potential is contained in this choreographic material and why I believe that I can draw such far-reaching conclusions from the accentuated difference of Gehmacher’s choreographies to a traditional understanding of dance – although the danger of discursive assimilation, of a failed exchange as a result of such hermeneutic desire, certainly remains high. But this can only be decided at the end of the text and perhaps even much later than that.


I have seen Philipp Gehmacher’s “mountains are mountains” a number of times. My considerations about this choreography for five performers have been shaped in the course of viewing it and reflecting on what I have seen. My confrontation with it therefore took place in several steps – consequently, in a sort of movement. Thus, the first time I saw above all the happenings. I saw the decisions of composition. I saw an enormous choreographic awareness. I could also say: liquefied unshakeability. If I had to find an image for it, I would say: I saw a rather cold mountain creek rush into the valley, broaden over several dam levels into a lake and then flow on, disappearing out of vision. But I had better leave the gravel fields of lyrical circumscriptions and try to reach a firmer ground, that is, to be clearer in concepts and more accurate in description.

I saw “mountains are mountains” for the first time in the Akademietheater of Utrecht, as a part of the Springdance programme of 2003, on 18 April, at 7.00 p.m. Sioned Huws was already waiting as we came into the hall, leaning on the wall. The light stayed on for a long time. The others – one by one, serious, stone-faced – stepped into the corner, joining her. All wore pastel grey clothes. For long periods of time there was stillness; single arms were opening up in small movements. The looks of the five dancers were mostly fixed on the floor, empty, expressionless. To bow the head, to arch the chest, to displace a foot – that was all. But it turned into a great number of moving events. Suddenly, one could notice moments of distress over the dancer’s own self-movement: Gehmacher pressed both hands on his chest, over his heart, and imitated pulsation two or three times. It seemed to be a shock, even in this gazing intensity directed towards oneself, and it was followed by careful listening. Thus it went on for a long time, bordering on standstill. Each stir had an echo, but it was rigid. And mute anyway. Even if many figures, sentences, and phrases were repeated, sometimes stubbornly, mostly casually, one hardly took notice.

They were still stuffed in their corner, all of them. There was a microphone on the back wall. When would they speak? Where was the communication hidden? Instead of giving an answer, Gehmacher fell down heavily. Nobody reacted or took notice. The “covering for the inner being” was not lifted. The five persons were absorbed in an inaccessible world – the unstirrable mountains that, however, did move from the spot after all. Gradually, one could perceive subdued, rhythmical, and also formal approximation, unison, accordance, forwarded as continued pulsation, neural impulses – momentary, intensive, evasive.

In such fine-toned shaping, there appeared, still vague, a sort of negative Neoclassicism, an anti-Laokoon: the four dancers were closely pressed against each other, and in some way they were embraced by the same idea. But they did not break up in expression or screams, in any sort of utterance. They just existed. There was no image of pain, of rapture, or liberation; it was at most being taken aback, glued in a reduced form. Whereas Lessing was searching for a “fertile moment” (the actual core concern of Neoclassicism, in which abstraction and intuition flare up into an idea), Gehmacher’s dynamic immobility seems to be an answer to an inner overpowering, to an unspoken urgency, an existential concern. But the moment of communication is not given as solidification but, so to speak, homoeopathically rarefied into kinetic endlessness. What remains is foreboding and insinuation, not expression.

And then – peace. But this peace is radical, compact. One hears EVERYTHING. One hears life leaking out, just as you would hear breathing next to you by night. You cannot catch up with it. You cannot stop it. But it is also comforting. An experience of closeness. Incorporated in this thematic texture, in this kinetic scrutiny, there are elements of language. From the huge loudspeaker, unusual sounds are coming out, which prove to be an anxious, undertoned Swedish monologue. Later, one can hear distanced calls of human voices and then, first uttered in the microphone, that is, against the wall, and then twisted as a recombined assortment, there come aphoristic observations on closeness and distance relationships.

It is only through the explanations after the performance that the whole conclusiveness of the text choice is demonstrated. In Ingmar Bergmann’s “Persona”, Liv Ullmann plays an actress who has lost her speech and whose sentences are spoken out by another voice – that of her nurse. This shift of the ability of communication – from the actual to the expressed, from the subjective to the transmitted, from the mute to the audible, from one to another – pervades also “mountains are mountains”, a piece about the interactive ability of choreographed (i.e. directed from outside, guided, exposed to gazes) dancers/bodies.

For such work on the establishing moment of dance (which is, after all, only future), Luce Irigaray’s sentences from “The Way of Love” are appropriate (or: obliged). Sioned Huws tells them at first in a pure form, for the microphone and only for it (later, one can hear a sampled collage from the tape). She speaks with her back towards the audience. She actually murmurs rather than speaks. Speaking against the wall, that is, without a direct dialogue partner – given the fact that one of the universalities of language is precisely the alterity, i.e. language is directed TOWARDS THE OTHER – thus implies, in its own representation, primarily an act of negation; it is a performative fall into silence.

Under the sign of such hermeneutic frugality, “mountains are mountains” meets me again in Berlin, at the “Körperstimmen Nr. 8” in Podewil, performance on 5 May 2003, 8.00 p.m. At the beginning, there is NOTHING – disturbing emptiness. But then – a self-dis-covering dramaturgy of interweaving, or better: interwovenness. The slight and slightest movements, their coordination, distress over oneself, they all imply the preoccupation of a specific form – namely, of the dance as kinetic happening – with its former, own, and hypersubjective rules and guidelines. In this way, they reflect a process of argumentation and communication with themselves, as well as with the situation of performance and with those who witness the situation, the spectators (who actually create the situation of performance – thus, it is a double self-communication).

Someone ventures along the wall, away from the others, carefully feeling the way. The five dancers, who formed the original “herd”, distribute themselves throughout the space, some lying, some walking, some twisted and marked by orientating, puzzling eye movements. After a short while, one completely loses the overview. But therefore the trickling articulation becomes clearer and more exposed, the question-answer game, the interlocking, like in an instrumental composition, of movements, gestures, dynamic shifts. The compositional aspect seems perhaps more supple, or at least more clearly outlined and more pressing than at the first seeing. The whole turns into interplay, a process, in which everyone, in every single moment, finds the way to oneself in movement and at the same time pays full attention to the doings of others. Then one of them stands apart, vibrating. The others begin with fast, tapping sequels of steps. Suddenly, one feels some sort of verve. But it can never be entirely distinguished from disruption.

Dance in “mountains are mountains” no longer embodies the wholeness of the self and the body, that is to say, of the self that relinquishes itself in the body. Dance is something that has come into existence as defying the stillstand, even suffocation. And again and again dissolves itself into its particular elements. Swing and dynamics, gesture and pose, they are no longer an expression of a uniform state of (self) perception or controlled shaping of meaning. They are assertions, in the same measure in which they irrevocably develop forms.

In the same way, the hard, paratactic coincidences of eruption and stiffness, of power and inactivity, point to another dramaturgy, to some sort of thematic self-concealment in choreographed exposure. It is precisely this work on dynamic isolation, on unrelated, but subtly coordinated, premeditated, and calculated positions, that creates the vortex effect in this performance. Despite all fragmentariness, it is pervaded by connective dynamics, a “current” – even if one with a great many beds and branches. There is always a utopian moment briefly flashing up (a nugget of gold in the gravelled bed of a current that flows through the plain and over the horizon), insofar as the impossibility of closeness does not necessarily imply total isolation or absolute exclusion from the world. There are others in the same position. In an attempt to liquefy the solid, to move the unstirrable, and to shape this movement into a common expression, an artistic standpoint and a basis for communication – in this act, I see the core of Gehmacher’s dance, in which the resolute attitude of kinetic humanism is formulated.

But the sentences of Luce Irigaray, repeatedly quoted in the piece, retain their validity all the way through. In the rush of the first performance, I noted down the following: “No one can say the whole without risking that communication is made impossible.” In fact, the sentence goes this way: “No one can say the whole without making exchange impossible”. The exchange anyway remains limited and is always endangered; perhaps precisely then, when it takes place in its best, communal sense. That is the topic of “mountains are mountains” and it makes painful sense at the end, when Brynjar Bandlien and Michikatzu Matsune stand there facing each other and touching with their toes and noses. After all that was seen before, it has the value of a real shock. And it is a relief when they part again. For there is too strong a suspicion, even clear evidence, that this closeness has been “forced”.

“How do I deal with the fact that I am not independent, that I am influenced by the doings of other people. … Maybe I am dependent. … A dependence that helps one in life and enables him to connect with the one he is facing”, writes Gehmacher in a note to the piece. To walk along this narrow ridge, from which one can easily fall into tedious repetition or into hollow pathos (of which this text is by no means free); to explore how far one can go with reduction, with the abolition of closeness as human practice, without betraying or at least challenging the human dimension; to find choreographic, i.e. specifically kinetic and communicational answers to Irigaray’s concern with “how to let the other come into presence, even lead them there, without claiming to be their foundation” – that makes brilliant artistic practice: it starts from circumstances, it speaks about the reality, but it transports them through its own, transmitted, self-made, and expected rules into a specificum, a unique specimen, in which itpresents perception. In short, this practice creates a particular space of shaped communication, “a place where the intimate is possible with measure thanks to the respect for the one or for the other”.

The possibility to make bodies so relevant, precisely defined, and intelligible in their appearance, without taking away their original impermeability; thus, the possibility of dance as an attempt to find the way to oneself in the movement, in any moment, and at the same time pay full attention to the doings of others, has perhaps been nowhere so clearly presented as in Philipp Gehmacher’s art of choreography. For it links essentiality, intuition, and shape in a way that neither “betrays” a “substance” for the sake of reality, nor includes the living in a concept. But persists in the concrete moment of respectful encounter with the uncatchable in the ever-changing.

Posted by fac at 10/25/2010 02:48:00 PM 0 comments
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