Bojana Cvejić

Dance War

Posted By on March 23, 2015 in TEXTS & TALKS | 0 comments

In 1954, when US president Dwight D. Eisenhower spelled out his “domino” theory that the exit of France from Indochina and the communist insurgency in Vietnam would cause the entire region to “fall” to communism, the American National Theater Academy (ANTA) sent the Martha Graham Dance Company on a tour of Southeast Asia. The ANTA was assigned to recruit dance in a diplomatic mission by the State Department. The initiative was in concert with the Emergency Fund for International Affairs that Eisenhower set up that same year, in order to get Congress to assign more funds for the arts, including dance, for the purpose of “counteracting the impression of life in America as shown in the motion pictures”, or, as a Jakarta-based newspaper eloquently put it in 1955, to dispel “the prevalent notion that Americans live in a cultural wasteland peopled only with gadgets and frankfurters and atom bombs” (Prevots 1998, 50). And Martha Graham’s mission was indeed successful: even communist-oriented and anti-American media and officials in India, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, etc. praised her dance for its cultural-diplomacy efforts with much enthusiasm. “Artistes like Miss Graham can very effectively contribute towards international goodwill and therefore they are a potent force for peace”, Burma’s Prime Minister U Nu stated. The Hindustani Standard likewise commented that “in introducing us to this other face of her great country, Miss Graham is visibly raising Indo-U.S. relations to a higher level” (Prevots 1998, 50‒51). Key to winning the “battle for the hearts and minds” of America’s ideological adversaries in this Cold War affair wasn’t the patriotic narrative of an epic dance spectacle (as in some other pieces by Graham, such as American Document or Appalachian Spring), but those characteristics of American modern dance that epitomised “freedom”, a quality meant to distinguish American from Soviet culture by emphasising the “individual” and the “real”, reified in bodies expressing emotion in movement. Local critics grappled with words to describe the vehement approval of Graham’s audiences: “calmness to motion, motion to serenity… those two and a half hours gave whole audience deep emotion” in a choreography that “celebrates the beauty and reality of the human body, even as it claws deep into the human heart” (Japanese and Malaysian critics, quoted in Prevots 1998, 48‒49).


“Dance-war”, an Oxymoron… Not “War-dance”

This story about a deployment of American modern dance as an instrument of ideological propaganda, ostensibly for peace-making purposes, but in fact merely as another form of the struggle for hegemony and influence in a world divided by the Cold War, is the starting point of my enquiry. What terms and relations does the conjunction of dance and war, as it were, throughout the 20th century invoke? And, in order to specify the field and motivation of such an enquiry, can we ask: which dance, which war? In what sense should one consider those terms and how might they reciprocally determine each other? The story of Graham’s tour of Southeast Asia is the apogee of the Western, Euro-American tradition of theatre dance, in which “dance-war” seems, at first sight, like an oxymoron, where two terms denote contradictory notions joined in opposition. Since its “birth”, exclaimed by Isadora Duncan in “I See America Dancing!”, modern dance has been associated with the emancipation of the individual in the framework of liberal democracy. The core of the argument that justified modern dance’s critical departure from ballet, and that still informs contemporary dance as the legacy of early modern dance, may be summarised as follows: dance embodies freedom as the universal and inherent human capacity for self-expression, best manifested in the kinetic flow, or, as André Lepecki calls it, in “being-toward-movement”. Several founding notions of modern dance can link its genealogy with the expansion of liberal democracy and free-enterprise market capitalism: individual mobility as a propensity for movement/change/flow/flight as well as a condition for autonomy; the emotional nature of movement, expressing the inner life of an individual; dance as an abstracting machine that reduces form to essence and signification to metaphors; the obsession with the real in the physicality of the body-movement bind and in a fleeting moment of the present. The philosophical underpinnings of these notions are incontrovertibly vitalist, for they celebrate the intense experience of one’s own subjectivity in a living image, or, in the celebratory title of a recent exhibition on dance, danser sa vie.[1] Vitalism here comprises both 19th-century metaphysics, as in Henri Bergson’s élan vital, and the later Deleuzian notions of intensity and becoming, as well as a commonsense register of dance that views itself as a practice equally inspired by and extolling and inspiring life, energy, love, enthusiasm, readiness, and other positive, humanistic affects. Obviously, such affects are at odds with the manifest notions of war: conflict, violence, destruction, and death. But there is yet another element to the seeming opposition between the Western art of dance and war, which further problematises their conjunction, making it seem less categorically an oxymoron.

Prior to the emergence of individual mobility in 20th-century modern dance, Western theatre dance followed the tradition of courtly dance from the 16th century onward, which later spawned ballroom dancing as a bourgeois counterfeit of the aristocracy’s participation in (or observing of) dance as a public spectacle of both social etiquette and the divine order of the monarchy. From ballet de cour to waltz, this line of Western dance entertains the aesthetic ideals of harmony and grace in the order of community. Sir John Davies, an English poet from the 16th century, put it in verse:

Concord’s true picture shineth in this art

Where diverse men and women ranked be

And everyone does dance a several part,

Yet all as one in measure do agree,

Observing perfect uniformity.

All turn together, all together trace

And all together honour and embrace. (Davies 1972)

Around 1789, dance’s aesthetic image of harmony and grace mutated into a harmonious social arrangement between an individual and the community, conforming to the rise of the bourgeoisie as a new political class. According to Andrew Hewitt’s archaeology of the discourse whereby dance or physical movement embodied and rehearsed the social order, it was Friedrich Schiller who articulated the conflation of the social and aesthetic orders, in a letter from 1793:

I can think of no more fitting image for the ideal of social conduct than an English dance, composed of many complicated figures and perfectly executed. A spectator in the gallery sees innumerable movements intersecting in the most chaotic fashion, changing direction swiftly and without rhyme or reason, yet never colliding. Everything is so ordered that the one has already yielded his place when the other arises; it is all so skillfully, and yet so artlessly, integrated into a form, that each seems only to be following his own inclination, yet without ever getting in the way of anybody else. It is the most perfectly appropriate symbol of the assertion of one’s own freedom and regard for the freedom of others. (Hewitt 2005, 2)

The social choreography that Schiller describes above seems to reassert a pacifying sense of harmony, virtuosic, yet conflict-free cooperation. At the same time, the harmony of dancing, in its early, courtly forms, had its counterpart in military marches and manoeuvres, equally prominent courtly rituals. William McNeill has noted that Louis XIV deliberately reordered military routines and courtly dances and levées to “make the aristocracy more peaceful at home and far more obedient to the royal will” (McNeill 1995, 134). So, if we, for a moment, peek into military history and observe forms of movement exercised from earliest times, from the ancient citizen-soldiers of Sparta, or, earlier still, from those of China and Mesopotamia, to the close-order drills of today’s professional armies, the form and meaning of the conjunction are finally inverted and we may speak of the role of war-dances in warfare. The sense of community in times of peace radicalises and militarises harmony and cooperation into group solidarity in times of war. “Keeping together in time” is a laconic phrase for unison conforming to the beat – in harmony, but without necessarily grace – comprising marching, dancing, and singing together of soldiers and, later, in modern European armies, the military drills of marching, manoeuvring, and formal handling of arms performed at close intervals.

Hence, a converse set of ideas and affects is sustained in war-dances, a “muscular bonding” that consolidates a euphoric “fellow-feeling among the fighters” and heightens excitement as it stimulates and regulates emotion and motivation. At first, this might not seem like anything new or provocative, but, indeed, quite in line with the role of sports, gymnastics, and stadium mass movement in preparation for war. But McNeill goes on to suggest that it isn’t the negative aspect of fear of punishment in a disciplinary structure such as an army that fuels warfare, but conversely, the “positive force” lurking in the “primitive solidarity of muscular bonding”.[2] Recently, his thesis has been revisited by cognitive science, which, in tandem with a post-Deleuzean political theory of affects, investigates the relationship between visceral and emotional sensations, hormonal and other neural activities and states of “action-readiness” in sundry social environments (Protevi 2009). The emphasis is on deciphering the bio-social agencement, whereby rage is triggered in order to promote a method of analysis that would rest neither on social constructivism (whereby context produces behaviour) nor in genetic determinism (or essentialist reductionism, whereby behaviour depends only on a common genetic make-up), but on their developmental systemic interaction. However, both positions regarding the effects of the role of movement in keeping together in time – the harmonious pacifying self-regulation of a community or, conversely, the training of belligerence – attribute dance the power of persuasive expression. Embodiment reifies both movement and emotion into an ideologeme, which may be deployed as an instrument of divergent policies.


Situations with History

First, I will reconsider the epistemological framework within which one may draw relations between war and dance as two distinct domains of knowledge. It proves insufficient to attribute a stable meaning and effect to any aesthetic form of dancing without reference to its original context. Thus not every public manifestation of unison movement en masse suggests totalitarian Gleichschaltung. A general semiotic technology wouldn’t help in the analysis of any particular situation, as it couldn’t discern or discriminate this particularity, which might afford more knowledge than a confirmation of the general principle of signification. And, in turn, dissimilar contexts might produce isomorphic movement practices, which would question the determining structural instance of context, but wouldn’t equate the status, function, or meanings of these movement practices due to their formal resemblances. Instead, a different analytical dynamic is required, one that will not operate upon the relationship between the object, context, and interpretative perspective, categories extracted from the situation in question. By contrast, such a dynamic would try to account for the situation, whose heterogeneous components, historical, political, aesthetic, and technological, comprise different partial relations in lieu of a unilateral determination of cause and effect.

By taking “situation” here as the central comprehensive concept, I am referring to Isabelle Stengers’s epistemology of practice, or what she calls “an ecology of practices”. It is also the standpoint of one of the works discussed below, Franck Leibovici’s messages to bricklane (parade ground), to which I owe this particular methodology. Here, “situation” implies a network or a milieu of divergent practices and bodies of knowledge, activities and tools, materials and signs, things and concepts, as well as divergent relations with other networks and milieus outside this situation. Stengers defines an ecology of practice as a “tool for thinking through” or “in the middle [milieu] of what is happening” (using milieu as a pun to denote both “middle” and “environment”). She asserts that “a tool is never neutral” and is therefore not a general means that one may deploy in any situation, but is transformed by the hand that uses it (Stengers 2005, 185). A tool is a technology that addresses and actualises the power of the situation, that is, describes the force whereby a situation develops and a practice sustains itself through empowering and experimenting together with other practices. The epistemic advantage of this method is that it fosters thought as experiment, a speculation that orients the researcher in the present toward the future, with an obligation to accept the uncertainty and risk of what the situation, or its actors, might become. However, what remains unaccounted for in this methodology, is an obligation, to use Stengers’s own term, to history, or to knowing to what history the researcher belongs or what history affects her, and what histories embed, or vie for, grasping an observed situation. The imperative to historicise, or produce a narrative that might not be in a major but in a minor key, might seem incompatible with the ecology of practice method, as it implies a critical approach to the past, the usefulness or inventiveness of which is too little for Stengers. But if war and dance pose a problem that makes us think, this problem also includes the respective histories of war and dance, which play a role in identifying and describing the situations in which they relate to each other. Historicisation, rather than becoming, here also implies a discontinuity in transformations of warfare and the concept and discursive culture of war. It also includes the historicisation of dance and its own technologies.

In sum, choreography and dance I will test as tools that describe the situations in which war or warfare is emergent or prominent. If choreography and dance offer a technology for accounting for war and warfare, the practices of dance and choreography must in turn allow war and warfare to recompose them as technologies of military strategy, military history, political history, as well as juridical and other practices that cohabit and interact in the milieu of dance-war. The latter implies taking into account the resistance inherent in the legacy of post-war modern dance – which I described above as the liberal, humanist, and vitalist heritage of dance. In the cases examined below, this resistance isn’t deliberate, a matter of a politics of aesthetics, but more of indifference, silence, or refusal to position these dance practices in relation to war as an immediate political circumstance of their habitat. Therefore, I will probe the thesis that war figures as the political unconscious of these dance practices. The concept was proposed by Fredric Jameson who coined it as a method of Marxist literary analysis.

Jameson’s theory of the political unconscious is a revision of Althusser’s version of the base-superstructure model of Marxism. Its main claim is that the hierarchical two-level model that Althusser retained from Marx (albeit by weakening its economic determinism) should be expanded into a horizontal structure of mutual relationships, whereby the economic and technological mode of production would immediately relate to culture, ideology, the juridical, and the political, thus undoing the unilateral causal determination of the superstructure by the economic base. In his poststructuralist reconfiguration of Althusser’s model, Jameson views history as an absent cause in lieu of structure,

inaccessible to us except in textual form, and […] our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious. (Jameson 1981, 20)

In Jameson, the political unconscious of a text is a contradiction that the text seeks to compensate, displace, or repress. This is why he advocates the historical contextual analysis, where history as an absent cause is a produced narrative which explains the relationships that give rise to its political unconscious.

Just like thinking with Stengers, thinking with Jameson here will entail a methodological adjustment or modification, which might be viewed as a disappointing betrayal of hard, orthodox onto-political standpoints. What should be retained from Jameson’s theory, though it won’t suffice for my approach, is his assumption that ideology exists and acts through dance by the power of persuasive expression, as discussed above. But in order to understand how dance expression rhetorically conveys ideas, meanings, and values that relate to a given political reality without any explicit significance or attempting to act upon it, Jameson’s structure must be seen as a situation with a milieu, where no component or actor has causal priority, or the function of an absent cause whose narrativisation might prove enlightening. What might be gained from hybridising these two seemingly incompatible epistemologies – Stengers’s ecology of practice and Jameson’s ideology critique of the political unconscious – is a more varied account of the situation, producing thinking tools rather than disclosing blind spots. Simply, what I am suggesting here is that observing the interaction between the respective practices of dance and war from a critical standpoint might teach us about how they relate materially in particular historical situations. As a result, dance and war could be mutually re-cut (recoupement), re-assembled (re-agencé). Although its coinage seems indebted to the tradition of reading Marx alongside Freud, the political unconscious I am mobilising here isn’t a psychological or ideological term, but an aesthetic figure. It doesn’t mean to say that either dance or dancers are politically unconscious of war, but that dance has developed its own proper ways of embodying or articulating its inability to address war. What dance couldn’t do politically, it could displace, compensate, repress, or reconfigure in an aesthetic form that bears on the contradiction between aesthetic expression and its immediate political context. Unpacking the contradiction will entail producing both technologies and historical narratives that will demonstrate what an aesthetic object couldn’t resolve by itself.



The Milieu of an Exhibition qua Research

The conjunction of dance and war arose from a commission to curate an exhibition that I received from Boris Charmatz, choreographer and director of the National Choreographic Centre of Rennes and Brittany, also known as the Musée de la danse, after an eponymous project by Charmatz. Impressed by Eyal Weizman’s sophisticated intertwining of architecture and other disciplines in his study of Israel’s occupation of Palestine (Charmatz 2013) and curious about “putting the body” back into the complex rhizomatic spatial strategies of contemporary warfare, demonstrated in Weizman’s research, Charmatz initiated an exhibition project related to those topics at the Choreographic Centre in Rennes. He asked Romanian curator Cosmin Costinaş and myself to research, curate, and realise an exhibition under the title of “Danse-guerre”. This text is a result of the work I conducted both within and beyond the scope of the exhibition, as my preoccupations were not only curatorial, but also theoretical and artistic. The resulting exhibition involves new works I commissioned from a number of choreographers, artists, video artists, filmmakers and theorists, including Shir Hacham and Ido Feder (Hacham and Feder 2013), Franck Leibovici, Marta Popivoda and Ana Vujanović,[3] Noé Soulier,[4] and Lennart Laberenz, with whom I collaborated on two videos. Their works make up the exhibition as a choreographic agencement of documents, texts, drawings, scores, video clips, interviews, and films, as well as other objects, such as props and tools (see the images above/below). Hence, it is conceived as a machine and medium for assembling diverse insights, concepts, and technologies in a milieu that itself asks to be inhabited and tried. The exhibition’s starting point and composition rest along a double axis: one, what were the historical moments and aesthetic figures in post-WWII dance where war surfaced as the political unconscious of dance?, and two, what instruments do dance, as an art discipline, and warfare “afford” for their own mutual description and analysis? Here, “afford” points to the notion of affordance, a quality of an object or environment that allows it to perform an action; the term originates from James Gibson’s theory of affordances as “action possibilities” latent in a given environment (Gibson 1977).


We Play a Representation of War[5]

When an occasion permits the illusion of beginning “from scratch”, research can make broad sweeps into available material by delimiting a particular field of enquiry from its adjunct fields. One such adjunct field I recognise and leave aside is the role of dancing in prehistoric, ancient, medieval, non-European and contemporary tribal practices of warfare, which concerns anthropology and history (Clastres 1994). I am more interested in scanning the history of dance for works that feature war as a theme or subject matter. The history of ballet and classical dance has thematised war in a synchronic representative regime of narration, by celebrating victories in festivities that included dancing (e.g. Ballet de la prospérité des Armes de France, performed only once in 1641),[6] by using classical and medieval myths and legends as allegories (e.g. Jeanne d’Arc, choreographed by Salvatore Viganò in 1821; Tancrède, “ballet héroico-historique en cinq actes”, choreographed by Charles Le Picq in 1799), and by using dance as a metaphor for duels and combat (e.g. George Balanchine’s Agon from 1957), comparable with tableaux in classical painting and opera.

Thematising war in the representative manner potentially entertains a political and aesthetic relation to war, beyond a programmatic engagement with the topic. Several works by Serge Lifar, ballet master of the Paris Opera from 1930 to 1944 and from 1947 to 1958, were neoclassical undertakings of heroic narratives from Antiquity (e.g. Alexandre le Grand from 1937). As neoclassicism culminated on the eve of WWII and maintained a classical disinterest in and distance from politics during the war, the heroic themes of Lifar’s neoclassical ballet were lofty abstractions that kept dance away from engaging with everyday political reality, thereby participating in the retour à l’ordre that sought to repress the chaos of war. What remains as a relic of l’art en guerre, as in the title of a recent monumental exhibition of WWII art, is a theatrical ritual that originated at the time, Serge Lifar’s Grand défilé.[7] Still performed today, not only at the 19th-century Palais Garnier, but also on tour, this spectacle “remains one of the ballet world’s most handsome and vivifying sights”, inspiring awe, as a promotional text describes it. The parade of dancers from the company and school of the Opéra displays the disciplinary apparatus of classical ballet, which remains untouched in the neoclassical aesthetics of Lifar’s Paris Opera Ballet. Row after row ‒ the pupils first, then the artists of the troupe, in a sophisticated hierarchy of étoiles, soloists, sujets, corps de ballet, etc. solemnly march to the music of Berlioz’s March of the Trojans. Their marching configuration mirrors that of an army parade: infantry first, then cavalry, individual commanders, etc. (see the image above/below). While it might be astonishing that the Paris Opera has perpetuated this ritual for almost a century now, it makes one wonder just what aspects of the neoclassical retour à l’ordre still matter today. Not only a refuge of high art, the Grand défilé is also a mastodon-like guardian of a number of isomorphic parallels between classical dance and classical warfare à la Clausewitz and Jomini. Soulier’s installation explores how geometry becomes, on the one hand, a focal point of the disciplinary training of ballet dancers and soldiers and, on the other hand, of organising movement in space, in dance floor patterns and battle plans alike (see Soulier’s drawings).

The third and last area associated with the thematisation of war in dance concerns the relationship between German expressionist dance (Ausdruckstanz) and the expansion of the National Socialist regime until 1936, when Joseph Goebbels dismissed dancing from public political manifestations in favour of marching. A substantial body of dance scholarship has been debating the political significance and position of Mary Wigman, Gret Palucca, and other choreographers and pedagogues who remained in Germany after 1936 and continued their work, deemed politically “neutral” (Preston-Dunlop 1989; Manning 1989; Kew 1999; Toepfer 1997). However, this neutrality seems dubious when compared to the explicit anti-war statements of Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, made one year before Hitler came to power, and, moreover, in light of Jooss’s decision to flee Germany when he refused to dismiss Jews from his dance company. Expressionist topics, such as death and mourning, pervaded German expressionist dance in the 1930s, regardless of its political positions – complicity, neutrality, or pacificism. Such disparate cases as Jenny Geertz, Otto Zimmermann, Martin Gleisner, Harald Kreutzberg, Mary Wigman, Gret Palucca, as well as the notorious opening dance of the 1936 Olympics, Vom Tauwind und der Neuen Freude (Of the Spring Wind and the New Joy; see Cvejić and Vujanović, 67‒68), demonstrate how metaphor, symbol, and archetype offered ideologically charged but politically indeterminate, or at least ambiguous, figures of signification. What these cases also show is that thematising war in dances that were made in times of war, especially those of Goebbels’s “total war”, invites judgement on the political involvement of the choreographers, which might impede a more sophisticated analysis of how and why those dances mattered and what kind of message they tried to impart.

A rare, if not the only, choreography recorded in the history of dance in the West that explicitly foregrounds “war” in its title and in all capital letters, is Yvonne Rainer’s WAR from 1970. Performed only twice, as a “side event” accompanying a performance by the Grand Union, the work largely went unnoticed by the critics, while Rainer herself never even saw it in performance. However, its various materials – the score and notes, texts, photographs, and drawings – were meticulously collected and published in Rainer’s Work 1961‒73. In Rainer’s own words, WAR was

[a] huge sprawling non-competitive game-like piece for 31 people […] an ass-backwards war, with people willingly relinquishing the flags and opting for capture and death. Physical metaphors for war without motivation. (Rainer 1974, 161)

This prompted me to investigate this work, of which the author herself, forty years on, apparently didn’t think much. In my unearthing of Rainer’s WAR, I focused on the ways in which this choreography treats war and relates to concrete political events of the Vietnam War in 1970. All further observations result from the interviews Lennart Laberenz and I conducted in June and August 2013 with Rainer and Pat Catterson, a dancer who took part in creating and performing WAR in 1970. We interviewed Rainer and Catterson for the purposes of two video films we made, Yvonne Rainer’s WAR and Judson Flag Show.

The composition of the 31 performers of WAR reveals its context: it was a group comprising mostly artists and filmmakers and a few dancers, who all took Rainer’s improvisation class in her loft, “people interested in having physical experience and I don’t think they knew what they were getting into” (Catterson). Catterson couldn’t recall if Rainer had ever explicitly said that it was going to be about war, when she invited the participants of her class to make a piece and perform it side by side with the Grand Union’s improvisations at Rutgers University, New Jersey, on 6 November 1970. “I think she said she was going to use language from war, war maneuvers, and create movement that would come out of this language” (Catterson), but she didn’t mention that the performance would also include reading texts about war. According to Catterson, there were no reactions to or deliberate discussions of the topic of war in the creation process, as they were working on “similar material [as] in class”, that is, games involving group improvisation, and because “it was just a given that everybody there was against the war”. Earlier that year, Rainer took part in a week of protests against the Cambodian Incursion, using the famous walk of workers from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as a choreographic image for a protest walk in SoHo with a group of performers (see the image above/below). After WAR, Rainer was also invited to protest against censorship concerning the use of the American flag in the People’s Flag Show event, where she and another five dancers performed Trio A in the nude, wearing only flags tied around their necks (9 November1970, Judson Memorial Church).

When I asked Rainer about her sources on military manoeuvres, she restated her claim from Work 1961‒73 that she had read descriptions of war in the Iliad and the Peloponnesian War, but did not refer to any literature in particular or any other sources. The score contains references to war that are either deliberately generic and arbitrary – lists of military terms such as “encirclement” and “accelerated pacification” and verbs with “an aggressive cast” (Rainer) such as “kill and split”, “search and destroy” – or specific quotations from various historical accounts of war, the two longest among them conveying critical commentary on US operations in Vietnam. But the main objective of Rainer’s quest there is revealed in the indeterminate

structure of the piece [which] overall was a game structure. The two groups had rules: if this happened, then that happened. If you initiated these maneuvers, others had to join in or you could, like, be a scout or a spy, or go to the others… You could be captured. There were a lot of contingencies based on a big list of possibilities. (Rainer)

The two groups were generic, too, bearing no particular signs of being two opposing parties at war, while the only function of the leaders was to shout commands, such as “infiltrate”, or names of group manoeuvres, such as the “Mary Wigman clump”, which were effectively equivalent to dance tasks. For instance, one of the war manoeuvres was based on ballroom dancing, where a couple had a pillow between them and each “had in mind a different ballroom step”, so “they were at odds”. As Rainer told me: “It was a conflict, right? Neither could follow the other. They were all strung out like twenty couples”. Rainer used dissonance or clumsy dancing in couples as a literal, physical metaphor of war. In line with her style of matter-of-fact, neutral performance, this was done “in all seriousness” but “low-key… where you don’t do a hard sell, you go about your own business” because “the maneuvers speak for themselves” (Rainer).

The audience’s impression of a large group of people playing war was confirmed by both Rainer and Catterson. Rainer referred to it as a “faux contest”, where one could choose to be captured and there was no dramatic interpretation of roles. In retrospect, her reservations about the political meanings of her politics of aesthetics – or the politics of form as the regime that governs WAR and her other pieces alike – still seems to suggest that she counted on a political impact of the open form, imbued with the aesthetic of indifference. She explained this in the interview:

Games have a benign competitiveness. This was like a simulation of antagonism. There was a certain amount of competitiveness but it wasn’t antagonistic. Maybe not even related to sport, because there was no winner or no loser involved.

Catterson explains that the games were played without objectives, often in long manoeuvres that took time to develop, but which

was kind of fitting to how the war felt at that time… It was just an ongoing play of these possibilities that just persisted. It was just like the… war… They take this city, and that one. It just goes on and on, nothing changes, nothing gets resolved.

The only element that provided a provocative edge to the limits of representing war in the US was the use of the American flag. The performance at Rutgers University was going to be cancelled on suspicion of desecrating the flag, which is why Rainer introduced an artificial grass mat and an overcoat to put under the flag so it wouldn’t touch the ground. But the American flag wasn’t the only prop that could be used in “capture-the-flag”, a game Rainer told me she played as a child on the streets of San Francisco. There was also Jasper Johns’s green and orange replica, which, when juxtaposed with the red, blue, and white stars and stripes, had the effect of relativising and neutralising the “garish symbol of warmongers” (Catterson).

Asked if she was aware of the political significance of Rainer’s operation in WAR, Catterson reflected and stammered in front of the camera:

What was Yvonne’s intention with this? What did she want? That wasn’t really conveyed to us. We were just doing what we were asked to do, just like in class. For me, what I heard – texts performed by Norma … ‒ they were … from different kinds of battles that Yvonne had collected… It wasn’t lost on me, this juxtaposition of these young people – in…. – playing the war against this very real voice. What was it saying, you could interpret for yourself.

And, as though answering Catterson’s question, Rainer told us: “Well, in a war the motivation is patriotism and belief that you have a righteous cause… There was no such backstory here. It was simply a matter of representing the effects, you know, pictorially”.


Here, Rainer’s WAR provides an occasion to make another few points about the concern and capacity of choreography and experimental art in the US to engage with the issue of war in the 1970s. For most middleclass artists who were able to avoid the draft due to their marital or student status, the Vietnam War was going on in a remote elsewhere. Furthermore, “bringing the war home”, as Martha Rosler indicated in her eponymous work, entailed denouncing the US government for lying to its citizens. Testimonies of disillusioned Vietnam veterans could do it better than art practices whose main objective was to wage war against representation.[8] In the aesthetic realm of investigating the Judson Dance Theater’s any-movement-whatever and any-method-whatever, focusing particularly on the everyday, military tactics could be yet another source of material for choreographic exploration. Perhaps Rainer was confident that her formalist juxtapositions of generic war manoeuvres and verbal references with a confused mixture of concrete war events, including the Vietnam War, could have the political impact of emasculating all but self-referential meaning. After all, the American flag was the main symbol and means of the warmongering, which contextually amplified the effect of just using the flag, beyond the perception of outsiders in the context of the 1970s US. By running war manoeuvres through her techniques of rule-game improvisation, Rainer tied a sense of being-in-tune with daily politics to a modernist quest for affirming choreography and performance, whose structures no material could perturb. The political unconscious of this operation lies in the resulting imagery as a contradiction in Rainer’s politics of aesthetics, because, despite its void formalism, Rainer’s WAR represents war as a game. An important difference between WAR and the tradition of war games ‒ for instance, the 18th-century Kriegsspiel, which served in the strategic training of the Prussian army,[9] or its more recent descendents, such as Guy Debord’s jeu de la guerre, which resembles chess in its attempt to rehearse “the dialectics of all conflicts” (Debord and Becker-Ho 1977) ‒ is the sense of demotivation, indifference, and even “fun” in Rainer’s piece, a playfulness akin to “kids playing” (Catterson) that underscores Rainer’s choreographic gaming (with) war.




To Study Fighting Is Something We Can’t Be Afraid to Do

The emergence of Contact Improvisation (CI) coincided with the demise of the antiwar movement in the mid 1970s. Forty years on, CI is a movement practice and training technique that in the eyes of its advocates still conveys its original motives as a social movement (egalitarian, emancipatory, explorative, non-discriminative, claiming the political meaning of spontaneous immediate physical action, as opposed to deliberative thinking, etc.). But according to those who do not share the “contacters”’s enthusiasm, the early criticism that some of its practitioners raised inside the movement has been vindicated. While it aspired to become a grassroots “folk art”, it was recognised early on as serving the needs of white, liberal, middleclass, college-educated, young people (“Contact makes ourselves whole: it balances us”, a dancer told me). Over time, it has developed a virtuosic technique of a duet form, with the emphasis on contact outweighing the risks of jumping, falling, and colliding in midair. The CI community gathers around a holistic conception of the self, which, according to Mark Pritchard, an ex-contacter, promotes a “passive perspective on life”, “relaxation” as more natural than tension, going “with the flow of natural events, rather than attempting to shape those events on one’s own” (Pritchard 1997, 197).

Before it came to be criticised as a New Age shuffleboard, “a post-hippie suburb of the soul”, CI was an art-sport that emerged from Steve Paxton’s training in aikido and athletics, which coincided with his explicit action-pieces against the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration (e.g. Collaboration with Wintersoldier, 1971 and Air, 1973). The question that prompted me to re-examine the genealogy of CI was aikido: what this martial art, known for redirecting attacks and blending with the attacker­­, did for Contact Improvisation in relation to war and engagement in physical struggle. What happened to the more robust athletic qualities of the early attempts, such as those of Magnesium (1972), the inaugural piece of CI that Paxton developed with a class of young men, not dancers but athletes at Oberlin College? As Paxton told me, the first ten minutes of this performance comprised “roughly colliding in the air and falling on a wrestling mat”. Was there any deliberate or latent connection between the roughness of CI as an art-sport in the 1970s and post-war political attitudes, moods, and positions? In …in a non-wimpy way, a film I co-authored with Lennart Laberenz, Paxton addresses these questions.

In stark contrast to many dance idioms that emphasise verticality (e.g. ballet and the Cunningham technique) or walking (pedestrian attitudes and styles), CI introduces falling as its central notion. Nancy Stark Smith, a notable dancer from the first generation of contacters, describes her experience of learning how to fall:

When I first started falling by choice, I noticed a blind spot. Somewhere after the beginning and before the end of the fall, there was darkness. And then the floor. Luckily, there were mats at first. Soon I learned that the end of the fall was the beginning of another move, usually a roll. That gave me somewhere to go. So I rolled. At the end of that roll was another roll, and at the end of that, another. Then, I noticed another blind spot. Somewhere after the beginning and before the end of the roll, there was darkness. In that darkness, however, I noticed a body moving, a body that knew just where to go. (Stark Smith and Nelson 1997, 50)

Paxton associates it with the aikido roll, which gave him “the idea that you could just jump off the planet and not worry about how you were coming down”. The aikido roll is “a brilliant demonstration of the physics of falling”, but even more importantly, it is a way to save oneself from injury:

Because if you’re going into the fall, if you’re projecting into the fall, then you have just that little fraction of control of the fall and you can change the direction of the accident into one that’s favorable to your body and its situation.

In falling and other situations that he later developed in CI, Paxton detected a perception he wanted to use to work from within it: the body is highly adrenalised, “something is happening to you that you don’t quite understand, that you think might be dangerous”, or it can also be dizziness or disorientation. But the apprehension arises from not being aware of danger, which, he maintains, is something one can adapt to. What attracted him to aikido was the movement alone, which he found “beautiful” and only later realised that his interest in aikido had to do with its counter-technique of fighting:

It was a profound shift from dancing to go into aikido movement and suddenly not have art be the reason you were moving the way you were, but you were moving the way you were for survival [emphasis mine]… You were responding with harmony to the violent – unbelievable! The preservation of all concerned, you know, is just a very broad sweep of thinking there.

The myth of aikido’s birth follows the revelations of its founder and guru, Morihei Ueshiba. The third spiritual awakening occurred to Ueshiba during his service in WWII, when he had the following vision:

The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Peace, the power of love. (Hyodo 2010, 76)

Apart from the utopian function of showing another way of fighting, one that dissolves bipolar conflict by protecting the attacker from injury, Paxton views aikido as engaging in struggle, which, he contends, one can’t be afraid to do. The aim of studying this movement is to liberate one from potentially falling victim to an attack. If you don’t take a “self-inflicted position relative to aggression”, or, in a word, if you don’t “wimp out” in a fight, you are not an easy target: “it’s much more complex for people to attack you because you’re not presenting yourself as a victim” (Paxton). This prompted me to ask, perhaps tendentiously, if contacters could be regarded as a special kind of warriors, equipped with a technique for the preservation of themselves and others? Paxton disagreed:

Even though I was training the dancers with martial arts and with challenges to their perceptions and their orientation and their actual strength, and all of that, the point of it was that they aren’t warriors. The point of it is, that whatever they’re doing, because it’s an improvisation and because it’s one which is defined in almost the most general terms of, you know, Newtonian physics, there isn’t a person described in the proposal. What’s absent is psychology, emotions, intellect ‒ lots of the stuff that we know we are and have.

His definition of the type of subjectivity engaged in CI is adamantly negative: it denies all meaning and content to categories that are necessary for constituting any kind of position. Another part of Paxton’s CI training since the 1970s is his “Small Dance”, comprising the final five minutes of Magnesium and featuring men just standing still. Paxton explains it as a method of “detraining”: “getting rid of the masks that we have, the social and formal masks, until the physical events occur as they will”. For Paxton, detraining means peeling off the social, historical, stylistic, formalist skin-layers of the body, in order to reach the “masses, bones, nerves, and sensations”:

I stress that the dancers are people not in the social sense but in the animal sense in this kind of dancing, that they should not smile, should not make eye contact, should not talk, that they should just be there as animals, as bundles of nerves, as masses and bones . . . touching the other bundle and letting that be the work. (Paxton 2004)

The negative definition of subjectivity produced in and by CI should be taken in the broader perspective of the Mad Brook Farm, situated in the beautiful scenery of northeast Vermont (the “Northeast Kingdom”), where Paxton and several other comrades from the post-Woodstock, post-1969 generation famously retreated, and where our conversation took place. This community, once a hippie-style colony merging life and work and now a place to work, grow one’s own organic food, and grow old, far from the cities and suburbs of the US, seems quite withdrawn from society.[10] Seclusion rests on negation, an internal mechanism of protection that could be explained by way of Roberto Esposito’s understanding of immunisation. Immunity is a defensive apparatus that has both biological and juridical registers: vaccination protects the body from a given virus by infecting it with that same virus, so that the body produce an army of antibodies in defence; in law, immunity means being exempt from prosecution. In a political register, immunity means exempting the subject from his/her obligations and responsibilities that would apply under normal circumstances and bind him/her to others. It intertwines life and power through a negative form that protects and preserves life. Esposito contends that immunisation

saves, insures, and preserves the organism, either individual or collective, but it doesn’t do so directly or immediately; on the contrary it subjects the organism to a condition that simultaneously negates or reduces its power to expand. (Esposito 2006, 24)

This is why the negation of power is also to an extent a negation of life, but is necessary in order to preserve it. Therefore, CI, in Paxton’s account, implies a perfectly cogent contradiction. If for most of those who practise CI to have a much healthier spine than other people, training means reducing oneself to a physical being, negating all that might be considered an obstacle in this process (one’s intellect, political ideas, passions, etc.), then the gain in such a training regimen is the private spineless life of a subject who is immune, indifferent, or powerless in the face of politics outside of her/his own immunised community ‒ in a non-wimpy way, perhaps, but still a wimp.


Choreography: An Instrument for Voiding Ideology

Examining CI in the aftermath of the Vietnam War demonstrates the persuasive expression of dance, seeking to immunise itself from war and aggression, which it attempts to do both physically and conceptually. But its image of war is one of body-to-body fighting, where aggression is manifested in bodily terms. War, erstwhile fixated in the imagination as a classical, symmetrical struggle and direct confrontation on the battlefield, or “theatre of operations”, was declared dead in the late 1970s (Paul Virilio), when it gave way to the “nuclear faith” in an ultimate weapon, meant to deter the enemy and impose total peace. Paul Virilio sees this peace as a continuation of war with other means ‒ with the art of deterrence, which perpetuates a “pure”, logistical war through infinite preparation without execution (Virilio and Lotringer 1997). Since the 1990s and especially after 9/11, the “nature” of war has appeared to be more “impure” and asymmetrical, as the fragmentation of terrorist civil wars has fused with the international warfare of expedient military, “humanitarian” interventions. Hand-to-hand fighting between two or more warring sides in an officially declared war, has been replaced by low-intensity conflicts, protracted struggles involving state and non-state actors, often in asymmetrical guerrilla warfare, with civilian casualties that at first seem low but over time amount to the sort of numbers familiar to us from classical warfare.

Franck Leibovici has been investigating low-intensity conflicts through various materials circulating in the public domain (propaganda films, magazines, manuals, songs, etc.), treating them as objects that “afford” functions, movements, and idiorhythms that may teach us about various registers of these situations. He has pursued his research in a series of mini-operas for non-musicians, where opera stands for a variable configuration of heterogeneous elements. In messages to bricklane (parade ground), a non-choreography for non-dancers, he re-describes a video found on the Internet, which shows a political group undergoing military training in an improvised camp. Their props – tyres, tubes, barbed wire, sandbags – evoke the spirit of guerrilla improvisation, as a promotional magazine advertises it, how to get in shape without weights. According to the ethos of guerrilla warfare, exercise can happen anywhere, like a prayer, without mediation. But in the video, the group’s training looks like dancing, composed of movements that would be useless in actual fighting. Thus one must wonder about their usefulness today, when wars are increasingly waged remotely and automatically, with drones, hijacks, suicide bombs, snipers, etc. Leibovici remarks: the training mat and the battlefield can hardly coincide. Additionally, in this video we see an audience sitting around the camp, and the training session seems more like an ostentatious parade for family and friends.

Leibovici uses choreographic tools to record and analyse the group’s movements. Two experts transcribe it by means of Labanotation. They also notate it orally, by means of running commentary. The resulting text is then given to a group of non-dancers, who are asked to derive gestures on the basis of the transcription. In a series of re-descriptions, the training movements gradually lose specificity and grow increasingly heterogeneous and generic, unrecognisable, floating context-free. What this choreographic re-description uncovers, Leibovici writes, is that:

exercise shapes bodies as well as spirits. and only the public, audiences and collectives produced by those trainings could distinguish between movements that are formally identical. if not, how could we explain that the same props can be found in military training camps, in kindergarten, in health walks, in dance shows? an exercise cannot be read but through its consequences. and only this kind of understanding will allow to grasp that although they might use similar gestures, robert morris’ bodymotionspacesthings or william forsythe’s fact of matter, are nonetheless attached to different worlds, whose publics are distinct. no artistic practices exist, only distinct ecologies. (Leibovici 2013)

Although a sample of social choreography, of utilising movement that resembles the genre of war-dance, whose purpose is to bond people muscularly, socially, and ideologically in preparation for war, the military training dance in this video is only a parade, a self-referential internal-network propaganda image that says little about how, why, when and where, in what sense, and for whom these warriors will fight. It preaches to the converted, like Rainer’s WAR did. By contrast to Rainer’s work, where the aim was to probe a choreography based on military tactics, here, Leibovici uses choreography to inspect a situation, rewrite documents with poietic means. Perhaps the political effect of Leibovici’s “poetic documents”[11] is that they banalise and “bring home” a weak image of war, in contrast to the fear that underlines images of weapons of mass destruction and fanatical terrorists. This document poétique is an assembly of choreographic tools that invites the spectator to use them performatively – for instance, to execute movements with props and timings provided. And, perhaps, one’s performative experience decelerates reason, which forms opinions or strong passions about events and actors who are far removed from the spectator, who isn’t entangled in them. Here, social choreography is not an instance of aesthetic ideology, but an instrument that slows down ideological judgement.


Works Cited:

Charmatz, Boris. “Invitation à Cosmin Costinaş et Bojana Cvejić”, in Danse-guerre, exhibition catalogue, Rennes, France: Musée de la dance, 2013, pp.1-2

Clastres, Pierre. Archeoogy of Violence, New York: Semiotext(e), 1994

Cvejić, Bojana and Ana Vujanović. Public Sphere by Performance, Berlin: b_books, 2012

Davies, Sir John. “Orchestra, or a Poem on Dancing”, in Gerald Bullett (ed.), Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century, New York, Dutton, 1972, p. 52

Debord, Guy and Alice Becker-Ho. Jeu de la guerre (Paris: Champ libre, 1977)

Esposito, Roberto. “The Immunization Paradigm”. diacritics 36/2, 2006, pp. 23‒48

Gibson, James. “Theory of Affordances”, in Robert Shaw and John Bransford (eds.), Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing: Toward an Ecological Psychology, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1977, pp. 69-81.

Hacham, Shir and Ido Feder. “A Dancing Body Offers Legitimacy to the State”. TkH 21  , 2013, pp. ??‒??

Hewitt, Andrew. Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005

Hyodo, Roger. Adjusting Throught Reflex: Romancing Zen, Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981

Kew, Carole. “From Weimar Movement Choir to Nazi Community Dance: The Rise and Fall of Rudolf Laban’s Festkultur”. Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 17/2, 1999, pp. 73‒96

Leibovici, Franck. messages to bricklane IV, installation score, 2013

Manning, Susan. “Ideology and Performance between Weimar and the Third Reich: The Case of Totenmal”. Theatre Journal 41/2, 1989, pp. 211‒223

McNeill, William Hardy. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995

Paxton, Steve. “In the Midst of Standing Still Something Else Is Occurring and the Name for That Is The Small Dance”, interview, 2004, (February 2011)

Preston-Dunlop, Valerie. “Laban and the Nazis: Towards an Understanding of Rudolf Laban and the Third Reich”. Dance Theatre Journal 6/2, 1988.

Prevots, Naima. Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War, Middletown, CT; Wesleyan University Press ‒ Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998

Pritchard, Mark. “My Rise & Fall in Contact Improv”, in Nancy Stark Smith and Lisa Nelson (eds.), Contact Improvisation Sourcebook: Collected Writings and Graphics from Contact Quarterly Dance Journal 1975‒1992 (Northampton, MA: Contact Editions, 1997), pp. 196-197.

Protevi, John. “Rhythm and Cadence, Frenzy and March: Music and the Geo-bio-techno-affective Assemblages of Ancient Warfare”,, 2009 (18 October 2013)

Rainer, Yvonne. Work 1961‒73, Halifax, NS: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design ‒ New York: New York University Press, 1974

Stark Smith, Nancy and Lisa Nelson (eds.). Contact Improvisation Sourcebook: Collected Writings and Graphics from Contact Quarterly Dance Journal 1975‒1992 (Northampton, MA: Contact Editions, 1997)

Stengers, Isabelle. “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices”. Cultural Studies Review 11/1, 2005, pp. 183‒196

Toepfer, Karl Eric. Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910‒1935, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997

Virilio, Paul and Sylvère Lotringer. Pure War, New York: Semiotext(e), 1997

[1] Danser sa vie is the title of an exhibition dedicated to 20th-century dance and visual art held at the Centre Pompidou in 2012.

[2] Beneath the goals and glories that explained and justified European wars, lurked the primitive solidarity of muscular bonding. Fear of punishment, though real enough in Old Regime armies, was a pale second to the positive force of the shared emotional identity that routinely, naturally, inevitably prevailed among well-drilled troops. (McNeill 1995, 132)

[3] Watch out for gorillas in your midst ! (Faites attention aux gorilles parmi vous !), video installation by Marta Popivoda and Ana Vujanović.

[4] Corps formés, installation with drawings, text, and video by Noé Soulier.

[5] “Ludimus effigiem belli” or “We play a representation of war” is the opening verse of the poem “Scaccia ludus” (“The Game of Chess”) by Marco Girolamo Vida or Marcus Hiernymous Vida (?1485‒1566), written in 1527.

[6] “Ballet de cour en 5 parties et 36 entrées, musique par F. de Chancy, livret attribué à Desmaret de Saint Solin, donné les 7 et 14 févr. 1641 au Palais-Cardinal à Paris, par les gentilhommes de la cour et quelques danseurs professionels.”

[7] Lifar’s creation was preceded by Le Défilé, a 1926 ballet by the Opéra ballet master Léo Staat.

[8] For instance, this would include the Winter Soldier Investigation, a media event sponsored by Vietnam Veterans against War (VVAW), an organisation of Vietnam veterans who decided to speak in public about atrocities committed by the US in Vietnam, as well as the misrepresentation of the Vietnam War in the media. As Steve Paxton told me, he decided to devote a performance of his to a screening of Winter Soldier, a 1971 documentary about the Investigation, in order to give more publicity to what wasn’t getting enough attention in cinema. The resulting performance was called Collaboration with Wintersoldier (1971).

[9] Kriegsspiel was devised by Lieutenant Georg Leopold von Reiswitz and his son Georg Heinrich Rudolf von Reiswitz of the Prussian Army.

[10] Half the nation is overweight, what does that mean? What does that mean in terms of our food production, our food preparation, our lives, I mean, I’m depressed, you know, I think it’s a trap, I didn’t possibly think it could happen this fast, I thought it took centuries for empires to decline, not a generation. Didn’t know you could just kind of fall off your throne, you know, and flail helplessly, trying, you know, that used to be – I used to be up there but now I – I somehow can’t seem to get up, you know. That – I – something like that seems to be happening, whether we will fall off entirely and not be able to get up, I don’t know. (Steve Paxton in …in a non-wimpy way)

[11] Document poétique is Leibovici’s term for those works where he uses the techniques of an art discipline (music, dance, poetry, etc.) to analyse a manifold situation and produce it into a poetical document.

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