Two: On Archives and Scenarios

In contrast to Peggy Phelan’s (1993, esp. 146) influential dictum that performance’s only life is in the present, Diana Taylor (2003) and Rebecca Schneider (2001, 2011) have both emphasised the staying power of performance. Reading their work as a historian, their postcolonialist critique warns against narrativizing inscription of truth about the past that is still lamentably too common. Taylor calls this ‘the archive’, opposing it with the ‘repertoire’ of performance. She associates the former with historians and memory institutions like museums, the requirement to turn ephemeral performances into archival objects and ignore the changes in corporeal practice of art and in the bodies practicing that art.

In contrast to Taylor, I would claim that performance has the potential to be equally ‘archival’. In other words, the qualia Taylor discusses as ontological are, in fact, simply qualia that are common to particular kinds of political and historical contexts of performance, broadly understood. In the specific context of art, the staying power of performance is not only a re-evocation of what Taylor (2003, 13, 28–33) calls a scenario but also always-already bound to the fundamentally narrative function of the canon. Art (dance) has its own hegemonic lists of past masterpieces and geniuses any artist ought to know, since it is through this canon that new work is evaluated and contextualised. Even today, this prescriptive list is overwhelmingly Eurocentric, white, male, and middle-class, just as Taylor’s archive predicts. Its pervasiveness in local variants, including what is understood as ‘contemporary dance’, exemplifies how art as an institution is intimately bound with European modernity and its twin, colonialism (e.g. Nochlin 1995; Enwezor 2003; DeFrantz 2007).

In dance, new performances are related to (often imagined) earlier works, and re-performances do more than reiterate an object of aesthetic contemplation. Art exists only in relation to other art: to other takes on ‘the same’ work, theme, or set of intertextual references; to aesthetic categories like tradition and form; to broader contemporary cultural contexts (including political significance); and to what the makers of this iteration have themselves done. In the operation of power, particular works and traditions are elevated as more significant, as ‘classics’ worthy of being reiterated time and again, and of relevance despite changing political or social conditions (on the invention of ‘classical’ in music, see e.g. Weber 1992, esp. vii-viii; Blanning 2008, 111–114; in dance, Genné 2000; Banerji 2017; in theatre, Levine 1988, 33–81).

In an art form where works are not primarily defined through notation or script (such as most dance or performance art), the past few decades have seen a proliferation of reconstructions and reperformances with the archival function of preserving ‘masterpieces’. With Nijinsky, the 1913 choreographer of Jeux, reconstructions have been made of all the four works he created for the Ballets Russes company – his entire choreographic œuvre. Three quarters of these are due to one person, Millicent Hodson, whose PhD has bolstered her status as an expert in creating performances that effectively fix the past work into a marketable product but does not bear closer critical scrutiny (e.g. Acocella 1991). This creation of a genius (white male) choreographer through reconstruction has made me particularly leery at any practical reiteration claiming access to ‘knowledge’ about Nijinsky’s works. Fortunately, Liisa not only understood this concern but shared it. She asked can dancers recall a dance no-one alive has seen, through the practices and histories in their bodies? My question became: can we actually dance history? Can we dance the critical process of historiography, missing from most reperformances and reconstructions?

Although critical performance practitioners have used recalling a past dance through practice to question what these afterlives of dances might be (as in Martin Nachbar’s Urheben/Aufheben 2008), Mark Franko’s (1989) criticism of how performances erase the historian’s process of selective inclusion is still too true. Moreover, through selective recall of some performances but not others and some histories but not all, what is represented (or staged) effectively prescribes a particular set of parameters for what qualifies as ‘the masterpiece’. Both past performances created from documents and documentations that bypass any kind of person-to-person transmission of practice (‘reconstruction’) and works performed in repertory with a purportedly continuous transmission from generation to generation (‘restaging’) effectively reinforce a particular understanding of those works as ‘classics’ that is, as critical researchers have repeatedly argued, archival in the sense Taylor uses the term (e.g. Borggren & Gade 2013; Järvinen 2013b; Elswit 2014).

The interest in re-performing the past, especially in its most conservative manifestations of claiming to restage “the original”, reveals a fundamental sense of insecurity: can aesthetic expressions that do not rely on text really qualify as art? Since our Eurocentric understanding of art relies upon ideas of novelty defined through comparison with what has already been done – the canon and the masterpieces of the past – these past works are a requirement for having a history through which evaluation of new works takes place. Since the 1990s, a discourse around performance practices that draw from past works has become quite critical, in both senses of the word. Performance and dance have been legitimated through both the museum and the academic study of art in ways that emphasise being present in performance and intimate with the author-figures (e.g. Kobialka 2002; Jones & Heathfield 2013; Giersdorf 2017; Franko 2018).

In the absence of a script, this impetus to archive dance and performance art has led to lexical differentiation between various degrees of change to whichever is considered the “authentic” iteration of the “original” work: re-staging, re-making, reconstruction, and so on (e.g. Guest 2000). Given that the discourse is academic in all senses of the word in my native Finnish – a non-Indo-European language where no critical discussion on these lexical sets really exists, and where histories claiming to representing the past of these non-scriptual arts are still predominantly oral histories – I am tempted to treat these lexical differentiations as the fictions that they are. Any re-turn that claims to access a past performance is assumes power over that past, and partakes, to greater or lesser degree, in the creating of a canon. The stronger the claim to incorporate earlier performances ‘as they really were’, the farther removed the result from any truly historical, nuanced understanding of corporeality and artistic practice (Järvinen 2013b).

At this point it should perhaps be noted that as a historian, I see no essential, ontological ephemerality in performance – be it performance art, popular dance, a political march, or anything that could be looked at as ‘performance’ in this sense. Anything temporal, time-based, corporeal, dying is always at the point of becoming past. Conversely, the significance of the past, that which is no longer present, always has to be narrated, turned into a story, through practices of history – not necessarily written, but also, I would argue, performed history. The repetition of a scenario, to use another term from Taylor, can thus have the same stabilizing political function as a written narrative. The hegemonic can and does transmit itself in and through performances precisely because the manner in which some scenarios are repeated, their particular versions, particular performed genealogies are established as more valid than others. Some performances matter more: they not only reproduce important scenarios but have an afterlife that reinforces these scenarios as hegemonic in a manner that reflects geographies of power, assumptions about validity, truth, and importance. To notice this tension – far more insidious than the much-emphasised tension between text and dance or between performance and its documentation – is crucial for thinking of not only archive and repertoire but the pedagogy of dance history and historical performance practices as well as our choices in what we cite as academics. Which performances do we deem worthy of writing about or reiterating through and in these discourses of art and research? Whose history are we reinforcing?