Practice Based Dance

“It’s more complex than that, really much more complex.” Isn’t that a horrible sentence and you, or at least I, hear it not so rarely. Because what does it really mean? Initially it points out that what I proposed was naïve or simply stupid, which I can live with, but more over it silences the person who made the proposal, and in a pacifying, deflating kind of way. Perhaps one could say in the style of Bartleby – I prefer not to – as the person probably is right but doesn’t need to answer to what, how, why, more complex? As if that wasn’t enough, in fact I believe the sentence is a smokescreen disguising a liberal opportunistic voice that simply chickens out from any real position. Or translated into neoliberal jargon, the murmur of a resilient subject that practice rather than states.

Practice has over the last few years emerged as the new cool in dance and performing arts, but as much as this move might be interesting one can perhaps also question if it’s not a shift that in more than a few respects rehearse neoliberal strategies and approaches towards subjectivity, production, distribution of power etc.?

An insurance company in Sweden no longer give their fresh recruits any introduction or tasks but simply propose, “This is your desk. In six months we expect a self-evaluation”. In other words, make yourself useful, we won’t tell you what useful but expect you to provide the company with a reason to keep you.

Performance as we know it, with a few exceptions, function as a statement. It is an utterance and a manifestation of a position, and hence something that can be subject to critique, discussion, disagreement and so on. It also means that a performance is never more complex than that but exactly that is also what gives it leverage, reason and justifies its existence.

Performance – theatre and dance certainly but also extended into performance performance – operate through what one could call transcendent capacities. We play Ibsen’s “Enemy of The People” but the drama transcends the local situation. However lousy it was done it’s still a great play. The director’s position of power transcends the individual, and we kind of know that it’s part of his or her job description to be an asshole. Similarly, the performers ability transcends the person, as it is some more or less discernible technique that is applied or as long as the dancer does what the choreographer proposes his or her personality, background, social skills, imagination, ability to collaborate etc. might be used but is secondary to executing instructions.

This is a modus operandi that evidently establish, live and thrive through power, hierarchy, exclusion, punishment, homogenisation etc. But as much as it is full of horrors it is also pretty much transparent and obvious. It’s a clear cut disciplinary complex, which means that it is fairly easy to navigate or simply avoid.

This is the template that is used by most conventional directors and choreographers although not rarely with blurred edges where the performers are being milked of ideas serving choreographers that have run dry, or use them as raw material inserting them in frames through which they are exposed as the off spring of a brilliant mind. Here discipline and control is mixed up into a rather nasty concoction that more than too often produce deeply toxic environments.

Practice, as in practice based dance, shifts things around, favouring more lateral forms of exchange, sharing, conversation, heterogeneity etc. in front of centralised transcendent power that gives itself the right to punish. Often this means inviting people more or less without preference to participate and share one or several practices, e.g. dancing in respect of a set of open instructions. Instructions that the individual participant interpret and give form and expression. After the practices it’s common that one shares experiences and observations which might be inserted into the instructions or form that base for a new set of instructions. In practice based dance instead of transcendent capacities what is emphasised is what is immanent to the situation, the initiator, participants etc. The practice can for sure be proposed in different context but what occurs in one situation cannot be compared one to one with another situation. The individual or group proposing the practice neither transcends the situation or themselves but are as individuals or group immanent to the situation. Similarly, the participants are not utilised in respect of identifiable sets of skill but instead of who, what and how they are – through what is immanent to them.

This on the one hand can be understood as an opportunity to realise oneself, to explore abilities, inner spaces, spiritual connections, or to practice different relations to one’s body, self-image etc. but one can also consider that, in fact, the initiator is “using” the participants themselves. It is not the participants’ skillset that is taken into account but instead what the person is, which is exactly what contemporary capitalism is largely about. Namely, the financialization of life itself.

If centralised or top-down power is disagreeable and leans towards asymmetry and possibly abuse, it seems like an emphasize on practice where the initiator rather than decides proposes is less prone to create toxic environments. If conventional methods of production claim the performers time it appears that practice instead allow the participant to invest in him- or herself. This is certainly agreeable but again, to what extent is this a matter of disguising power or of creating environments where the initiator through a minimal amount of information (decision) rely on the investment and creativity of the participant in ways that perhaps aren’t so far away from the insurance company.

Instead of practice based dance being understood as a form of resistance to contemporary phenomena in society, perhaps we have to consider that it might also coincide with neoliberal strategies and forms of governance. Strategies that we are all subject to concerning resilience, gig-economy, precariousness, affordance, identity and so on.

Evidently the art a society generates correlates to general modes of distribution of power, resources, production etc. Both artistic work benevolent to a system and an art that resist, protest or distance itself reverberate of its context. So perhaps practice based dance is just a child of its time, which certainly can be interpreted both as a small disaster – oh no what happened to our leftism – or perhaps as a indication and something we can learn from and hence transform or propose alternatives.

What however complicates the story is when practice based dance steps out of the “studio” and onto the stage. Because indeed the stage is a context that operates prominently through and with transcendent capacities, not least concerning how we look and how representation consolidates. Is it so that the promise of practice and its reliance and allowance of immanence collapse when it enters the dispositive of the theatre, deflates as it has little or no compatibility with “theatrical” representation, and end up exposing the illusion of freedom, the creativity of the individual or something similar? Is it perhaps the destiny of practice based dance to remain in the studio or in the park and as long as it does it is something rather beautiful and caring? The fact of the matter remains, when practice goes on stage it simply isn’t practice anymore and at that moment it loses its intricacy and end up in “it’s more complex than that, really much more complex” but to whose benefit or happiness?

We all know that there is no possible withdrawal from representation, for some thing to be something it’s necessarily entangled in complexes of representation. Practices are equally entangled but when on stage in what ways does its representational dynamics change? Or said differently how does its performativity shift, when it’s not just a practice but represents itself as practice? Practice turned demonstration?

Now, this is not an attempt to bash practice based dance but instead an attempt to shift perspectives. What we have seen over the last bunch of years is a departure away from performance to practice, from transcendence towards immanence, from showing to sharing and situations where the relations between transmitter and receiver are blurred. Process has been emphasized and results secondary, which one can also understand as an interest in avoiding experiences that can be assessed in respect of measurability in favour of individual or even affective experiences.

Is it possible to consider that in certain cases that practice is twofold or operate on different levels at the same time, so that when we practice a set of instructions for how to move in or occupy space that we are also practicing the possibility for alternative ethics, of cohabitating space, caring for each other or whatever it might be? One question is what dynamics those ethics etc. operate in respect of (probabilistic, contingent or something in between) and even more importantly vis-à-vis what ideology or political positions? Because, evidently, nothing says that because “it’s practice based” doesn’t mean its politics automatically is hunky-dory?

It’s common to understand the encounter with art as a confrontation or engagement with potentiality. Potentiality outlined as an intensity that operates on the individual spectator expanding or compressing the individual’s opportunities to act in the world. It is an intensity, a vibrant capacity without direction, contrary to a force or power that without exception are directional. A force cannot not know it’s destination, it’s imbued with causality and can therefore only generate possible (and impossible) thoughts, experiences or sensations, whereas intensity, being void of causality can generate a thought, experience or sensation that is emerging from a realm beyond the possible (and impossible), namely potentiality. Using a different vocabulary force links to effect and measurability while intensity associate with indetermination and affect (as defined by Delueze).

With this in mind it becomes interesting to consider “where” this capacity is located? Is it in the art work itself, thus taking on a sense of anonymity, reaching a zone of impersonal indifference or perhaps better acquiring a form of publicness. Or is it in the artist, emanating through the “performance” and the creative and conceptual activity of the artist, rending the “work” a token of the artist’s genius.

Evidently aesthetic production and appreciation is never clear cut but it is never the less compelling to consider towards what direction practice based dance lean, and what consequences this suggests in respect of, on the one hand responsibility and accountability and on the other spectatorship and aesthetic appreciation.

It appears that practice based dance ends up in a somewhat awkward space, privatising the experiencing or even producing a proprietary environment that rejects the spectator, who finds herself being degraded to the position of admirer.

But what happens if we turn it all around and instead of departing from the stage and practice, instead make or generate dance in respect of a transcendental framework, creating performances but performances that when on stage practice, so to say with the audience or the entire “theatre”, which is to say destabilise the dispositive theatre with its coagulated strategies concerning looking, representation, elaboration of time and space, social code, strong boundaries between transmitter and receiver etc.

In other words make performances that create the illusion of submitting to the dispositive of the theatre at the same time as it engages the audience in practicing the possibility for alternative ethics, of cohabitating space, caring for each other and so on. In other engage in the possibility of different social ecologies.

Although a too simple diagram but for clarities sake. Instead of moving away from transcendent models of making and seeing performance in favour of practicing “all together” in the studio, and when this situation in brought on stage nothing remains (exaggerated), what if we use a transcendent model or awareness when making performance but in favour of generating a moment of practice or practicing together in the theatre, which would mean to blur the dispositive of the theatre just enough so that conventional modes of appreciation, judging etc. is dissolving so that we as audience, simultaneously, as individuals and a group, have to build or construct modes of seeing, understanding, sharing and being, in favour of the situation at hand. That is to generate a shift from transcendence towards immanence, where immanence is not already co-opted by process of financialization but instead gains traction as potentiality (in the Deleuzian sense of the word), a move that would also satisfy Jacques Rancière’s emancipated spectator.

To practice being an audience in an open-ended way does not mean to enter the stage and start dancing, singing or in other ways participating but exactly to practice being an audience otherwise or differently. To undo crystalized modes of seeing, interpreting, co-habiting space, experiencing, lose control and allow for other behaviour and habits to emerge. For this to occur it is however necessary to locate potentiality in the work of art, and this can only be done through insisting on transcendent capacities and reaching for a zone of impersonal indifference. The price to pay is of course identity, belonging and confirmation but what is gained are forms of complexity that dissolve power and ownership, through which the individual spectator can gain experience of themselves and constitute themselves as forms of life.


A special thanks to Georg Döcker on whose genuine knowledge and research on practice based dance and performance this text relies.

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