Article by Sarah Messerschmidt // Sept. 03, 2019
Preserving material culture is an essential strategy for art historians. Museums, of course, are the greatest testament to this fact, dealing almost entirely with relics of the past as a means of measuring in objects where we’ve come from, with the possibility of predicting where we will go. Yet the task of conservation becomes infinitely more complicated when what is to be preserved does not exist as tangible material. How does one modify into two dimensions that which is inherently three dimensional, and how can the immaterial be fixed neatly into the archives of art history? These are the principal questions of ‘What the Body Remembers. Dance Heritage Today’, a month-long series of discussions, performances and exhibitions hosted by the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, with an adjunct exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof. The programme is focused on the heritage of dance in the last century as well as the resonance of its legacy in the present day.
My encounter with ‘What the Body Remembers’ began with the exhibition ‘The Century of Dance’ at AdK’s Hanseatenweg campus. With only 75 items from various dance archives around Germany—including everything from photographs, performance footage, costumes, stage props, personal diaries, playbills and ticket stubs—the exhibition showcased enormous moments of 20th-century performance: Mary Wigman’s formidable, and appropriative, ‘Hexantanz’ (1926), Valeska Gert as she sinks her thumb into her mouth like a baby in ‘Der Tod’ (1969), and Merce Cunningham’s visionary ‘Rainforest’ (1975) were among the notable performances included. Yet, considering the incredible development of dance and the performing arts over the last hundred years, the exhibition was modest, organised simply into three categories: photographs, video clips, and various objects behind glass. Simplicity in this case was an ideal curatorial move. By condensing a century of performance into one room, the exhibition acknowledges the limitations of too many glances backward, admitting that every curatorial choice is an act of exclusion, and underscoring the significance of the moving body as a site for dance histories (there’s a reason why live performance features so heavily in this programme). As if to emphasise this, at the centre of the gallery is an x-ray photograph of Dore Hoyer’s knee, injured in 1954, which anchors the surrounding display to the reality that, despite the material evidence of history, dance is, first and foremost, a corporeal medium.
At Hamburger Bahnhof, Xavier Le Roy addresses questions of his own history with ‘Retrospective’, an exhibition that regenerates his 25-year career as a dancer. Originally conceived for the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in 2012, the show undermines the conventions of what a retrospective should be by re-staging several of Le Roy’s earlier solo performances in new performative circumstances, and with a changeable roster of dancers. As one continuous performance, ‘Retrospective’ employs in the gallery the three types of temporalities Le Roy observes: the circular (loop), the static (sculpture), and the linear (narrative), all of which are synthesised to convey his artistic development, beginning with a change of disciplines from microbiologist to contemporary dancer. At any given time, a group of four performers sprint, hop, crawl and moonwalk through the gallery, incrementally performing excerpts from Le Roy’s works, reciting dates, giving small monologues on various important moments in his career. Behind the blank wall of the designated performing area is a small media station with three computers and a handful of books and printed journal articles—an archive of sorts—giving context to the ongoing performance. True to the structure of the larger programme, this material is only meant to supplement, not distract, from the main performative event, though for anyone not well versed in Le Roy’s career, it’s a welcome addition to the otherwise abstract goings-on.
Back in the Hanseatenweg studio, Mary Wigman was brought to life in a series of nine solo performances, ‘A Mary Wigman Dance Evening,’ by Ecuadorian dancer Fabián Barba. Having recreated Wigman’s solo vignettes from fragmented archival material, mostly choreographic notes and photographs, Barba’s embodiment of the Expressionist dancer was eerily accurate, right down to the crimped 1930s bob. Under the direct beam of a single stage light, and flanked by two chandeliers, Barba drifted elegantly around a bare stage, swathed in luxurious fabrics and evoking the peculiar tone of German Expressionism. Each dance was punctuated with an elaborate bow, Barba’s face contoured in the impassioned expression one might expect from Wigman herself before floating offstage to change costumes. Though the evening was certainly an homage to Wigman, without cohesive original performances to mimic it was implicit that Barba would incorporate some of his own flair, giving the performances new life and carrying them forward into the modern era. What was missing, however, was a 21st century recognition of the Expressionist tendency toward cultural appropriation. Barba’s performances repeated old tropes without giving them context, and though ‘What the Body Remembers’ emphasises re-performance as a means of archiving dance history, perhaps in cases like these reproduction is not an effective way to move toward the future.