Four: Re-Imagining Jeux

The corporeal practice of one’s own body emphasizes the present: the imitation of images or invention of movement is conditioned by what this body can do right now. In this emphasis on what signifies in the present, the mimicry exercise is similar to how the significance of history is only in the present, even if it purports to represent the past. To elaborate on Franko’s (1989) point, much of the reconstructive practice of dance is interesting for the participants in the studio precisely because the practice brings to fore the required need to interpret what remains of past dance in the archive in a process of corporeal understanding. For a historian, this kind of trying out all too often leads to untenable claims about knowing the experience or intention of past practitioners through corporeal immediacy. People of the past weren’t just like us except wearing funny clothes. The contexts in which their bodies functioned are too different to ours in terms of values, sensibilities, techniques of the body, or processes of signification for us to know their corporeality through how we experience ours. We can at best make educated guesses as to how they might have understood movement or dance. Cultural codes, local differences, and change over time all influence what we can think of as possible, and these are so self-evident they leave barely discernable traces in historical materials. Yet, past dance practice was as conditioned by them as our dance is conditioned by what is available for us in our own time, which is why we can never really know how dancers danced in 1913.

In addition, as Franko notes, of this interpretation in the studio, of the choices made in the process of creating the reconstruction, little is usually apparent on stage. Even with critical reconstructions like Brun’s take on Jeux, the audience not only has no access to the nuances of corporeal processes that went into its creation, but what is staged deliberately effaces choices made in interpreting the epistemological issues with past corporeality outlined above. The reconstructor assumes the halo of the genius through a claim to knowing that genius. (On genius as an author function and the necessary recognition of the genius by the connoisseur, see Järvinen 2014, 34–35, 83–91.)

As Ramsay Burt (2003, 41) notes, even critical reconstructions may “unwittingly reinforce dominant power relations” if they assume aesthetics and experience – and I would add, physical and material aspects of performance – are somehow universal and unchanging. Exposing what is not known, what is made up and imagined, what is left out and discarded is very rarely included in either programme notes of reconstructions or their research outcomes. Moreover, the preference of the written programme notes over the performed exposition reveals trust in the archive in Taylor’s sense of the term, or rather, the archival quality of these conservative projects of power: the programme notes and the reconstructors’ words are more important than the physical and material performance when it comes to attesting the validity of what is shown as that which once was, now again on stage. Epistemology is relegated to text, which excuses the performance – the usual relationship of performance to other performances is subverted by the authority of the new author, the stand-in for the past genius. 

Admittedly, it may sound strange that as a historian, my pedagogical imperative is the reverse: to emphasise how history is never fixed or stable but always a process of reinterpreting the past in the present for the future. Of any past event, there are only fragmentary and incomplete materials in the sense that a cultural historian like me would understand ‘materials’ – usually narrated, opiniated, and thus partial and conflicting. My practical question to Liisa was how could we make visible the gaps, absences, and disagreement that any historian would be familiar with in the materials they use for writing history? How to do performative history, or a history informed by the archive that speaks of performance in its own terms – including the elusive, subversive, parodic, and excessive that Taylor deems critical to performance that questions the hegemonic power of the archive? A history not singular but rather indefinite, performed rather than written, and yet critical in its attitude also to the conventions of the art form – is that possible?

In other words, what was required of Jeux: re-imagined in performance was some form of concrete distancing from the most common ideas regarding performed history. Both reconstruction, which uses sources to create something that passes for the same as the original (however that is defined: see e.g. Burt 1998), and even the kind of critical remaking of a past performance that exposes and explores differences between what is staged now to what remains of the then assume a fixed relationship to the past work. The validity of both rests on imagined similarity to an absent “original”, and as such they reinforce the idea that a work is a stable and fixed entity, existing outside of time and change. What fascinates me, however, is what that absence produces: what the significance of imagining a past dance could be for contemporary practitioners, today.

Instead of implying that dance can be recreated from its documentation, I wanted to move towards re-imagining, in which the archive is like a framework upon which to build the creative practice and understanding of the past of the art form. When dealing with something no-one alive has seen or practiced, the emphasis, I felt, had to be on what is not known and what will always remain beyond the pencilled note in the manuscript score or the silver-gelatine print of the photograph. In history, the ability to imagine outside of the presumed, prescribed narrative of an event, is a skill exercised within certain limits of plausibility. Historians of re-enactment (e.g. Cook 2004; Agnew 2007) have pointed to the importance of mimesis and affective insight for historical understanding even for professional historians, although in scholarly representation, this insight is usually downplayed in the name of professional objectivity. Objectivity, then again, is understood as ability to consider opposing narratives of the same events as plausible, to search for the likely – often least interesting – explanation to why particular events took place. It is this hiding of the operations of power in historiography that Taylor justly criticises when she calls history archival: the Eurocentric bias for grand narratives that has tilted what is considered ‘important’ research. But what would happen if dance were to show those options, reveal its own construction?

Re-imagining is always fictional, and eschews the power relationship in which a historical individual – a dancer or a choreographer – is subservient to the present-day researcher’s or reconstructor’s agenda. Re-imagining is performative also in the sense that it does not operate in the axis of true/untrue: there is simply no incorrect way to reimagine. In a sense, there would have been potential, unrealized in Jeux: re-imagined, of inviting audiences to also reimagine by doing. Having said that, what made collaboration with Liisa, Maija, Anna, and Jouni so fruitful was precisely that as artists, they were far more comfortable with being in the state of not knowing than I ever had been. Not knowing, as Leena Rouhiainen (2015) has pointed out, is fundamental to not only artistic processes but to artistic research, as “uncertainty allows space for radical contingency and creativity as well as unsuspected research solutions to spring forth.” For the archive to subvert the canon in art, the researcher’s attitude has to be one of not-knowing in this inquisitive sense. Else, the research process will be too conditioned by presumed hegemonic interpretations for the archive to have effect on research or any radical outcomes to emerge from the encounter with the materials that remain. Most research on hegemonic, canonical figures reproduces the already-known precisely because the researcher has assumed to already know what they should find (Järvinen 2014, 1–17).