Monday, March 10, 2008
The Work of Dance in the Age of Sacred Lives
We still don’t know what a body can do.
Christina, queen of Sweden, was about to celebrate her 23 birthday when René Descartes, the 53 years old father of modern philosophy, joined her court in Stockholm. As is only fitting her young age and stature as the most powerful person in Europe, she insisted right away that Descartes will dance in her upcoming spectacular court ballet. When the philosopher boldly refused, she demanded instead that he will write the libretto for the performance. These are the circumstances that led to the composition of Descartes’ last text, The Birth of Peace, a rather strange addition to his oeuvre, constituting his only venture into poetry and politics.
Although the authorship of this text was contested very recently and for the first time by Richard A. Watson, it is difficult not to be struck by the poem itself. In essence, it is nothing less than a condensed reenactment of Hobbes’ Leviathan in verse and dance. The ballet begins with a war of all against all, which reaches its end only after the middle of the ballet, as Pallas, the sovereign - a role danced by Queen Christina herself - enters the stage. The libretto thus praises:
"Thank her for her clemency,
The good designs she has conceived,
And as for the wrongs you have received,
Suffer them patiently,
Because she has power from destiny,
Soon to end the infamy."
Other gods who play secondary roles in the dance are presented as having certain well-known dispositions. For example, Mars loves war while Earth hates it. If these gods acted in opposition to their inclinations - if, all of a sudden, Mars will seek peace while Earth will reject it - they would rightfully be blamed for abandoning their destiny. Nonetheless, Pallas, or Christina, is said to lack such a consistent, or constrictive, nature:
"Pallas alone is one and the same,
Whether in peace, whether in war.
Therefore, none of us should dare,
To check or control her judgment."
This absolute sovereign power is reiterated in the last lines of the poem, where Christina is presented as superior even to the well-grounded checks and balances exercised by the god of Peace and the god of Justice:
"By Pallas, we meant eternal wisdom; to be plain,
Pallas here rules.
Justice and Peace reign with her,
But we have only one Queen and one God."
Probably the most striking moment in the whole spectacle takes place in the penultimate act, performed by the cavaliers, danced by the corpse de ballet. Here is their own song of praise to Pallas:
"It is enough for us to live in a body,
Of which we are the arms. You are the divine flame,
Alone commands all, and we call you the soul.
It is enough for the arms to be only supple and strong."
What image arises from these lines? Nothing other than the frontispiece of the Leviathan: this great monarch whose body is composed from the multitude of the people. This commonwealth now opens its collective mouth and sings together about the glory of the head of state. But here also lies the deconstructive moment of this dance: the corpse de ballet is clearly a representation of the people, which are merely bodies (corpse), like supple and strong arms with no mind of their own. But Pallas, the sovereign, is neither the choreographer nor the spectator, but another dancer, a very physical and present body rather than an ephemeral soul; it is the flesh and bones of Christina herself, jumping and twirling for the enjoyment of all.
Whether the story about Descartes’ refusal to dance is true or false, and whether he was indeed the author of the libretto for this subversive baroque performance or not, the fact of the matter is that two months after the show he was found dead, and that four years after his death Christina willfully abdicated her throne, and spent the rest of her life in exile from Sweden.
The idea that one can speak about dance, that the movement of the dancing body should or could be captured in systematic language, originates in Italy of the 15th century. Beforehand the lexicons show very little evidence of words that are meant to describe specific dance moves. Then, during the Renaissance, you have at least three distinct treatises by three different authors dedicated to the subject, the first by Domenico da Piacenza, and the others by his students, Guglielmo Ebreo and Antonio Cornazano. The humanists held that an eloquent mind is incomplete without an eloquent body. Graceful movement was perceived as a manifestation of great intelligence. As a consequence, they did not see the dancing body as separated from thought, but, like language, indistinguishable from it. Dance was conceived for the first time as an art, a techne, which was an important element in the great art of living. Along with painting, architecture, poetry and science, dance became an integral part in the edifice of man.
As the ethos of the Renaissance traveled in the 16th century together with Catherine de’ Medici across the Alps, it was all but lost in a violent translation. When important foreigners came to Versailles, the lack of common language was compensated by the lavish dances that Catherine, the wife of Henry II, orchestrated. These ballets could probably be considered as the first modern spectacles, but they could also be seen as the earliest exemplars of statist propaganda, explicitly aiming at the glorification of the power of France. In fact, the entrance of the modern state and the entrance of “classical” ballet to the stage of European history are in complete unison of space and time. This is not merely a case of synchrony, but of simple causality: though people always danced and will always dance, ballet is the lawful child of modern politics. There is no other form of art that functions as such a vital organ of the Western state apparatus. (Even today, European dance is heavily funded by the state, while in the US it is not. Though most American dancers and choreographers lament their impoverished situation, they should not forget that in this way they overcome this Mephistophelian pact that continues to plague the most respected companies in the Occident and elsewhere. Bat-Sheva, the celebrated Israeli company, is exemplary in this very problematic respect.)
That the most powerful sovereigns, from Luis XIV to Christina, were the principle dancers in their court ballets demands our special attention. Domenico proclaims in his dance treaty that the agreement between the dancer and the music is the most important element for a successful ballet. Two centuries later, the French court not only abandoned the Italian musical style, but also placed the king’s own dance moves as the paradigm which all the other dancers had to correspond to and comply with. The dance floor was therefore a unique zone in which the very physical moves of the sovereign, rather than his verbal decisions, became the measure of all things. It was not the king or the queens’ words that became law, but their mere bodies.
And so the ideal of “the art of living,” which informed the Renaissance discourse on dance, changed from the 17th to the 20th centuries into a discourse about the techniques of discipline of bodies and their governance on the stage. Eloquence transformed into control. Even today, the training of the classical ballerina is one of the best examples of the ways by which power and knowledge can be inscribed into a human body. Walking, probably the most basic gesture of homo sapiens, is violently altered in two ways: first, the legs turn out rather than forward, and second, the balance between the heal and the toes is rejected in favor of the predominance of the pointe. Ballet schools in the 18th and the 19th centuries actually used special machines in order to achieve these contortion of the dancers’ feet.
Accordingly, three main and rather expected metaphors of the dancer spread throughout those centuries: The first is of the dancer as an animal. As early as the 17th century, Charles-Louis Beauchamps could claim that his choreographic ideas for the new Paris Opera were inspired by observing pigeons as they scurried after the corn he threw for them. The second metaphor for the dancer is the machine. As late as the twentieth century, the dance critic André Levinson could write the following: “You may ask whether I am suggesting that the dancer is a machine? But most certainly! -a machine for manufacturing beauty - if it is in any way possible to conceive a machine that in itself is living, breathing thing.” But even more importantly, the ballet dancer was conceived as the secret symbol of the body politic. From the notion of the corpse de ballet mentioned above, to the iconic moment when the male dancer, standing behind the ballerina, lifts and presents her body to the sovereign eye of the spectator, the ballet is the best biopolitical theater that one can imagine. The pure grace of the ballerina should therefore not deceive you: her sacred body is in fact accursed, and the lightness of her innocent pirouettes is burdened with guilt.
The dance community is only now beginning to come to terms with the pact its founding fathers made with their sovereigns. For instance, it is far from being common knowledge that Rudolf von Laban, one of the most important figures in modern dance, who invented a revolutionary system of dance notation, and is the founder of the Laban School in London, was an enthusiastic Nazi. As the dance director of the State Opera in Berlin, he ordered the removal of all Jewish pupils from the children's’ classes. This happened in 1933, according to Laban’s own initiative, while only in 1938 non-Aryan children were expelled from the German school-system. In 1934, he was promoted to the position of the head of the dance operations in The Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, headed by Goebbels. “Hitler’s Dancers,” a monograph published in 2003, reveals for the first time documents from the period that Laban’s biographers tried to suppress for years. During his time as a Nazi official, he headed a project that aimed at the institution of a new German “total dance.” The capstone of this project was a spectacle Laban choreographed for the opening of the Berlin Olympics. Goebbels, who attended one of the rehearsals, decided to nix the dance, claiming that it was “too intellectual.” Laban realized then that the Nazis no longer supported him, and decided to leave Germany, presenting himself to the world ever since as a dissident expatriate.
I think that it is well worth investigating whether the link between Laban and Nazism is more than coincidental. The Laban technique is heavily influenced by geometry. It is a sort of an incarnation of the Cartesian system of coordinates for moving human bodies. Here you can see the reduction of dance into bodies moving in space, which could then be monitored by and inscribed into language, this is to say, Laban’s complex system of dance notation. An important component in the Nazi machine was its ability to have total control over every human living being in the Lebensraum (an ability that today is so much more developed, and therefore so much more dangerous than it was during the Third Reich). It is also interesting to note that Laban’s ideal of a “total dance” is the source for the myth that a dancer must be completely and without reserve dedicated to the dance. The dancer needs to basically sacrifice his or her life to dance. His autobiography, published in 1935, thus bears a title that perfectly expresses this sacrificial myth: “Ein Leben für den Tanz,” “A Life for Dance.”
The definitive threshold between “classical” ballet and “modern” dance, where you can hardly tell the difference between the two, is the Ballet Russes. Despite the name, this company was based in France under the direction of Serge Diaghilev, who was deeply immersed in the artistic big-bang that took place in Paris during the first decades of the 20th century. Leaving behind them the state-operated ballet schools of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Diaghilev and his pupils distanced themselves for the first time from all institutional political powers (which is not to say that they were a-political). Their star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, began his career at age 10, as he entered the Russian Imperial School of Dance. Like the other children, he was separated from his biological parents and was essentially adopted by the Tsar. The groundbreaking productions of the Ballet Russes were the ones choreographed by Nijinsky. Among his four creations, it was the third one, The Rite of Spring, that is our obvious paradigm case.
Even though no complete documentation of the original choreography of The Rite of Spring survived, we can safely say the following: Instead of classical ballet’s turn-out rotation of the legs, Nijinsky’s dancers were asked to turn their legs in. Instead of standing on their tip-toes in an attempt to touch the sky, they were stumping their feet violently into the ground. The dance tells the story of a human sacrifice during the celebration of the spring, as an offering for a new beginning. The principle dancer, the one who dances unto death, was not Nijinsky, who wanted to maintain the charged symbol of the female ballerina, that perfect sacrificial offering. Dance, which was a sacred religious ritual for centuries before the invention of ballet, confronts here both its danger and its saving word.
The Rite of Spring, premiered in 1913, on the eve of the First World War, was received by the audience in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Together with Stravinsky’s original composition, Nijinsky’s dancers were like extraterrestrials even to the savvy Parisian audience. The uproar that broke loose is by now the stuff for legends. People were shouting at the stage so loudly that the dancers could not hear the music from the orchestra pit. Even though the police was summoned, the performance somehow reached its end, as Nijinsky, standing on a chair in the wings, counted the steps for the confused dancers. Those who claim that modernity was born at this precise moment are far from overstating the case.
Nijinsky stopped dancing and choreographing when he was 28. He began his last recital, at the end of the First World War, by sitting on a chair for half an hour without moving. Then he declared that he “is going to dance the war, the war that everyone are responsible for because they did not stop it,” after which he performed a ferociously improvised solo. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the remaining 30 years of his life in various sanatoriums. Most notably he was treated by Ludwig Binswanger, to whom he once complained that his body is not his, that someone else moves his body. He was controlled by his imposing wife Romola, who published the diary and drawings he produced during his downfall, casting his image as a mad genius. His main statement in these diaries - that he is God or a sort of a Christ figure - was always considered as a characteristic manifestation of his illness. His last words, which he uttered when he was basically an invalid, never even crossed the radar of all those who are so fascinated by his story. Every time someone tried to approach him during the last years of his life, he said, very clearly and coherently, “Ne me touchez pas,” “Don’t touch me.” This, of course, is what the Resurrected said to Maria Magdalene. I am the untouchable, because my body, which was sacrificed so that others could live, is not simply a physical body, but a body of glory, as the body of the dancer on the stage is never merely a naked life, but an exemplary form of life. This new dancing body can no longer be harmed. The dancer is dead. Long live the dancer.
During a visit to London, years after he stopped performing, Nijinsky was asked to dance one last time. After a long moment of silence and stillness, to the surprise of all, he suddenly jumped into the air and hovered there with his arms and palms stretched while a photographer snapped a picture. This arrest of movement, this thought, is the icon of a new Christ without a cross, of a dancer that can no longer be sacrificed.
Mallarmé famously claimed that a dance is a sort of a new form of writing, that the body of a dancer writes “a poem free of all writing apparatuses.” Hence the concept choreo-graphy, or dance-writing. Giorgio Agamben begins a little-known essay about dance, entitled “The Body to Come,” by going against this widespread metaphor:
"Dance is not presented here as a writing, but as a reading. Nonetheless, the text that is read is missing, or is, instead, illegible. According to Hofmannsthal’s beautiful image, the dancer 'reads what was never written.'"
The community of modern dance that has been thriving for the past century since Nijinsky’s rise to fame is a living testament to the possibility of reading what was never written in the book our political life, as it learns to cope with the traumatic history of classical ballet. If you bear in mind the strong linkage between ballet and politics that I was trying to sketch above, then you could see why anyone who partakes in the most fascinating and urgent intellectual project of our day, the project of imagining the politics to come, should look for modern dance as a paradigm case. The modern dancer could then function as an exemplar for what Agamben calls the “whatever singularity” of the coming being. Alternatively, dance could be conceived as the manifestation of pure means, or means without end, which Agamben sees as the true political sphere. The fact that ballet is still performed today in stuffy halls, and that even modern dancers still take ballet class from time to time, could mean the following: the sovereign state is not going to disappear, but to remain as an anachronistic institution that some will still attend to (as some still attend to the Roman Church), though it will eventually lose its menacing power that is leading us today toward a global civil war.