Watching, one learns how to watch

(published in Reverse engineering education, ed. Melzwig, Spangberg, Thielicke, 2007)

Every performance defines how a performance can be done.

Every particular dance is at the same time a general proposal of what dance can be.

Any choreography proposes simultaneously a definition of what choreography is, for the time of the performance. A definition of dance, of choreography, includes its form and its way of producing sense. Form will then be structure, style, duration, spacing, amount of people, rhythm, the possible inclusion of other media such as text or music, physical investment, etc. Choreography's formal possibilities are redefined with the appearance of each new proposal: "this is dance". When Steve Paxton created Satisfying Lover in 1967 with non-dancers of all ages and styles walking across the stage, he proposed daily walking as dance.

Form, however, always produces meaning, in reference to its original context and within its actual context. When Petipa choreographed Swan Lake in 1876, ballet for him was a vocabulary, a code used to represent situations and to produce an image of physical beauty in accordance to the standards of his times. When in 1982, in Pina Bausch's Nelken, Dominique Mercy defies the audience with "do you want a tour en l'air? There you go!", ballet movements exemplify bourgeois expectations of show-off virtuosity.

A piece always exists with choreographic tradition and history in the background, as well as the broader culture of representation, body image, theatricality, emotional expression, etc. There is thus a meta-language within which each new approach is intelligible, a set of conventions on form, style, topics, relation between these elements, meanings created by combinations of these elements, etc. Watching Giszelle (2001) by Xavier Le Roy/Eszther Salamon, we recognise movements from dance culture, cinema, pop music and so on, and the dancer passes through these until stopping in-between standard forms. One realises that any movement is inscribed in convention and thus reads as a sign, even when emphasis is put on seemingly "unreadable" moments of transition.

Performances produce sense through the relation between their form and the discourse they develop. Or one could rather say that each work has it's own mode of signification that is to be entered by the audience and allows a discourse to develop. This mode of signification is to be understood as the effect or experience a performance provides for an audience.

In L'entretien infini, Blanchot explains how language's existence (practice) serves as platform for the possibility of further language; « it talks », allows for more talking to take place. In the same way one could say « it choreographs », is a point from which one can do choreography. Choreography is invented from what one knows about it, and the movement between what one already knew and what is proposed is the discursive place of a proposal. Of course the point is not novelty here, as the decision of doing one particular old thing again can be as meaningful as doing something unknown; the point is rather the importance of choices that are made for a specific project.

By making sense, every performance defines how performance can make sense.

Because any topic, let it be the most intimate or the most public, when addressed through performance, enters representation, a distance is created between that object and the audience.

Modes of representation, or rather modes of performance, in its active sense of performative event, become the centre of the work. Thomas Lehmen's Distanzlos (1999) aims for a non mediated relation to the dancer's activity whilst going through the media of dance performance, and the piece becomes most interesting in the means used for the attempt: modes of representation that try to escape their mediating nature.

The spectator of a piece is confronted with an ensemble of signs (style, references, topic, relations between the performers, relations between them and the audience, physicality, theatricality, costumes, music, set, lights, text, program text, etc.) that are read separately whilst experienced simultaneously. The effect produced by a show is not the sum of its parts.

The spectator, on the one hand recognises what the topic is, on the other hand recognises how it is being dealt with. This difference has been called the difference between the about and the aboutness. The particular arrangement of these two produces the discursivity of a performance. Watching Nature by Fame International (1999), one is confronted with symbolic movements and reads through representations of, among others, diverse animals as commonly done by children. The relation between the topic (: nature) and its expression (an obviously cultural set of conventions, i.e. language) unfolds discourse on the intangibility of nature due to the necessity of using language to address it. The audience experiences the very feeling of connection to something "natural" and eternal although the feeling is obviously produced by the exact opposite.

The activity of reading, directly dependant on the aboutness, is organised differently by different pieces; a performance produces an experience for the audience, playing with their knowledge, culture, expectations, sharing of conventions, capacity of shifting perspective and so on. Watching Juan Dominguez's The Application (2005), the spectator's convictions about dramaturgy and good taste are constantly challenged as the recognition of "bad" strategies such as foolish jokes or excessive duration intermix with the effective realisation of promises such as the transformation of time experience and the production of empathy.

Every performance is specific and thus produces a specific way of spectating.

The experience is then the piece: if one says the work is in the eye of the spectator, the making of a performance is the preparation of an experience.

Watching a performance, one might learn about something, but one will mainly learn about how this object was addressed. So more than anything else, one learns about how to watch.