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Dorota Sosnowska - Fake it!: Re-Enactment, Documentation and Dance

As famously formulated by Peggy Phelan: “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so it becomes something other than performance. […] Performance […] becomes itself through disappearance” (Phelan 1993, 146). How come then that – employing more and more sophisticated technologies – artists and institutions alike do carefully document new premieres and performances? Whence the growing archives of performance art? If its recording is impossible, then what is stored on the discs, shelves and in the drawers of libraries and institutes? What is the documentation of a performance event, in particular of an art so ephemeral (as it is not linked to a text or any particular body, rather born somewhere between the imagination of the choreographer and a replaceable body of the dancer) as dance is?

Archive and Peripheries

            In November of 2007 Janez Janša directed Fake it!. At the time he had only just officially changed his first and last name. Only a few months back his name had been Emil Hrvatin. In the summer of 2007, together with two friends of his and artists, too, Davide Grassi and Žiga Kariž, they had changed their names to Janez Janša. This assumed identity is the first and last name of the right-wing prime minister of Slovenia who, during his second term in office in 2013, would stand accused of corruption and be dismissed. At the same time Janša (the director) had already successfully reconstructed the famous performance Pupilija, Papa Pupilo and the Pupilecks of 1969 which was a key event in the history of Slovenian theatre. In Pupilija there appeared such threads as interpretation of the history, differences between the East and the West, censorship, or commonality. It is no wonder, then, that Fake it! was interpreted as an attempt at exposing the liberal mechanisms ruling the arts, an irreverent picture of the attachment to copyright, and a bitter reflection on art as a product. It seems to me, however, that from a different perspective Fake it! is an essay on documentation, a deep theoretical reflection on the relation between action and document, memory and history, body and archive. No less important is the fact that for Janša the starting point is the specific geopolitical situation. As indicated in its opening words, the performance was primarily informed by absence: Slovenia, a small post-communist country on the mental margin of Europe, had never been visited by the great founders of modern dance. Ljubljana had never been the venue of performances by Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, Tatsumi Hijikata, Steve Paxton, or William Forsythe. Hence, would it not be good to dance their famous choreographies on our own? Reconstruct what forms the artistic identity of Western Europe and include it in our own peripheral archive? And so, on a bare stage (just a few chairs in the middle, a screen and three monitors at the back, several microphones) in turns appear the dancers. Characteristic movements, recognisable music. Copies of the great choreographies are not performed so simply. The dancers comment on what is shown behind them: fragments of the recordings, photos, and descriptions – the entire available documentation. It is the documentation that becomes the hero of the show, from it born is the dance, movement, and body. If Janša spoke of Pupilija that it was “staging the copy”, then Fake it! can be called “staging the documentation”. However, what does this mean?

            In her brilliant essay Performance Remains Rebecca Schneider reverses Phelan’s definition of performance. She suspiciously asks: “ […] if we consider performance as “of” disappearance, if we think of the ephemeral as that which “vanishes”, and if we think of performance as the antithesis of “saving”, do we limit ourselves to an understanding of performance predetermined by cultural habituation to the patrilineal, west-identified (arguably white-cultural) logic of the Archive?” (Schneider 2013, 138) Assuming a different point of view – non-Western, marginalised, peripheral – we can discover that there is nothing ephemeral in performance. Like its ancestor – ritual – performance is a medium of memory that transfers and actualize in the body what the official and institutionalised archives reject. The memory that exists outside a text, document, or tangible trace, finds its residue in the body, action, dance. Movements, steps, body-to-body gestures are some of the most important media of history, a way to keep identity. “To read “history", then, as a set of sedimented acts that are not the historical acts themselves but the act of securing any incident backward - the repeated act of securing memory - is to rethink the site of history in ritual repetition. This is not to say that we have reached the “end of history”, neither is it to say that to access the past is impossible. It is rather to resituate the site of any knowing of history as body-to-body transmission” (Schneider 2013, 145). In the wake of those Schneider’s findings, in her book The Archive and the Repertoire… Diana Tylor formulates the concept of enlarging the field of performance studies so as to incorporate history studies and researches rooted in history. However, it is her understanding that the medium of history and memory cannot be reduced to an archive alone – a collection of tangible relicts enabling reconstruction of the past. Another legitimate source of such studies should be the repertoire – bodily practices and behaviours transmitted over time and carrying with them the embodied history. Tylor writes: “The repertoire, on the other hand, enacts embodied memory: performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing – in short, all those acts usually thought as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge” (Tylor 2003, 20). What is important, Tylor does not define the archive and repertoire as polar categories. She underscores their permanent reciprocal permeation and overlapping. Concurrently, however, she expressly identifies the archive with Western culture that is colonising and oppressive, and the repertoire with peripheral culture that is colonised and marginalised. From this perspective, dance – an art par excellance based on body-to-body transmissions – turns out to be history – an emancipating, liberating, and identity-forming force. An exceptional performance, where the body being the memory and archive, resists the oppression of the discourse. The exclusion from what is formative for modern dance (and performance in general), as according to Janša is the case with Slovenia (and with it practically the entire Eastern Europe), is not a banal issue. The pretext for the reconstruction, as stated by the director, is a serious identity issue. This is so because it turns out that here – on the peripheries – not infrequently we only have access to the archive and, based on that archive, by phantasising and saturating our imagination with what we only know from documents and stories, we create our own performance, our own identity. Interestingly, it is this process that, somehow inadvertently, became one of the themes of the project RE//MIX delivered by Komuna Warszawa (Warsaw Commune) between 2010-2013. The artists invited to join the project: performers, dancers, visual and theatre artists were to “remix” the work of someone who had influenced or formed themselves. And in many cases those were the works they had never seen live. The works whose legend and documentation stimulated their creative imagination and formed them as artists. Involved them in a near-perverse game with their artist-idol. Wojtek Ziemilski writes about his work on the remix of Laurie Anderson: “I listen to Laurie Anderson. Watch her videos, concert recordings. Look through her visual designs. Discover her first works. What used to be but curiosity turns into fascination. Anderson is too good, capable of perfectly remixing herself. A dream dreams something very concrete, but that something dreams something, too. I listen, let myself be carried away and gradually assume a position that is miserably submissive, punkish and paralysing” (Ziemilski 2014, 131). From the perspective of the peripheries it is not only the body that escapes the rule of the archive, but the archive, too, escapes into the body, loses its stability and boundaries – transforms into a seizing performance. 

Body, Instruction, Documentation

            The chairs, present on the stage from the very start of the show, are obviously necessary to help reconstruct the famous scene from CaféMüller by Pina Bausch. At a moment the action “falters”. A pair of dancers repeat a single sequence and commentate their own movements: “I hug you, I faint”, “I catch you”, “We hug” – and so on and so forth, almost endlessly. In the meantime the other dancers invite the spectators to come on the stage. In pairs they exercise the same sequence. Dance becomes a set of instructions, the body is subject to a specific drill. On the other hand, however, the body appropriates the instruction and choreography. When repeated, it becomes a set of movements – the meanings attributed to them begin to flash. It is no longer certain whether the instruction precedes the movement, or the movement forces the commentary. What comes first: the movement or the word? The act or its description? Dance or documentation? Does the choreographer’s instruction instantly document the movement? How can performance be separated from its recording?

            A very interesting answer to this question is formulated by Philip Auslander in his text The Performativity of Performance Documentation. He divides performance documentation into two categories: that which is to confirm the actual event, and the other which becomes a work of performance art, even though the event itself never took place. The two model examples of his choosing include a photograph documenting Chris Burden’s performance Shoot of 1971, in which the artist’s friend purposely shot him in the arm, and Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void of 1960, where in the picture you can see the artist jumping out of the window. He poses a provocative question: “What difference does the fact that the image of Chris Burden documents something that really happened and the image of Yves Klein does not make to our understanding of these images in relation to the concept of performance documentation? My answer: […] it makes no difference at all”. He goes on to say “[…] the act of documenting an event as a performance is what constitutes it as such. Documentation does not simply generate images/statements that describe an autonomous performance and state that it occurred: it produces an event as a performance and, as Frazer Ward suggests, the performer as an “artist”” (Auslander 2006). According to the author the use of camera is tantamount to taking the responsibility for the work in relation to the public; also, it is a tool for autoanalysis and development – it changes pure action into art for providing the relevant framework and context. Following on from this it can be said that documentation understood as performance suspends the question about the source and originality. This is so because it not only becomes an element of action that can no longer be referred to as the right moment of art in progress, but itself becomes the source for subsequent repetitions and re-enactments (even if in writing or in another medium) that can guarantee the given performance a place in the history of art. These findings by Auslander become exceptionally interesting, if we think of choreography which, preceding the performance as it does, can only become autonomous when recorded. Being an instruction, it lives in the documentation. From this perspective the same thing is true of dance and performance alike – documentation is an integral part of action that transforms movement into dance. As stated by André Lepecki, this relationship between dance and document, no matter how paradoxical, has become one of the major issues founding modern experimental dance: “Thus, turning and returning to all those tracks and steps and bodies and gestures and sweat and images and words and sounds performed by past dancers paradoxically becomes one of the most significant marks of contemporary experimental choreography. With this question of returning as experimentation—of choreographically experimenting whether by turning back or in turning back dance may nevertheless still escape Orpheus's curse of being frozen in time. While the recent interest in re-enacting in dance parallels a similar one in recent performance art, and while in the visual arts the term "archival impulse"—of which re-enacting participates—was coined by Hal Foster to describe what he identified as "a pervasive" concern, I propose that in order to probe re-enactments in dance as a mark of experimentation that defines contemporaneity, a concept must be introduced: a specifically choreographic "will to archive"”. Lepecki goes on to say: “Because of these pressures toward embodied actualizations, every will to archive in dance must lead to a will to re-enact dances. Such an indissociable link means that each "will" acts upon the other to re-define what is understood by "archiving" and what is understood by "re-enacting."This redefining action is carried out through a common articulator: The dancer's body. As we will see […] in dance re-enactments there will be no distinctions left between archive and body. The body is archive and archive a body” (Lepecki 2010). If in dance the difference between the body and archive fades away, this means that in dance the body always already is the medium. It does not demonstrate itself on (even if symbolic) stage in its pure presence, but reveals its mediating nature. Hence, not only is it not ephemeral and elusive, but it is not present in real. What we deal with in dance is the body-medium that creates its meanings from history, memory, archive.

Performance becomes itself through disappearance

            Janša’s Fake it! ends with  a twenty-minute scene in which spectators come on the stage. They can approach any dancer of their own choosing and ask to be taught any of the earlier presented choreographies. The show’s framework fades away, as the show transforms into an absurd dance lesson. To those who stay seated in the armchairs everything looks funny, hilarious. The refined movements carefully reconstructed on the basis of the available documentation now become common property. Repeated – presumably ineptly – by the spectators they strictly become part of their bodies. The reception of the performance is no longer an intellectual game and becomes a body experience. The situation created by Janša is not so naive, though. It is not about building a common experience, some little catharsis. It is not about true presence and experience of one’s own bodily presence. On the contrary. The technique of body-to-body transmission makes the body an element of a long chain of history. Simultaneously, the media images of movement present at all times on the stage (the basis for reconstruction) make you not think of the source. Movement is a pure, nearly mechanical repetition. It has no beginning (because the documentation is already a repetition) and no end, either. It persistently returns into the body that processes it like a medium – transmits it into another body. In Janša’s show performance realises itself through repetition and return. Through mechanical re-enactment, reconstruction. Which is why the role of documentation is so important here. It constitutes the field of performativity which, constantly hidden and distanced for contravening  the essence of performance, still works at the same time.

            Reverting to the question posed at the beginning: why document dance? it can be answered as follows: so as to oppose the understanding of dance as an elusive, ephemeral art that is reduced to performance and disappears together with the final step of the dancer. Documentation reveals the deeply performative nature of dance that is not limited to the stage, dancer, and spectator, that does not exhaust itself in pure live presence. Dance survives in its reception, document, memory. Dance is history. Whether the dancers and choreographers have ever visited Ljubljana or not, they are part of its cultural heritage anyway. It suffices that someone has found an interest and inspiration in their creative work. Rebecca Schneider approaches this process in terms of a ricochet[1]. Just as dance “reflects” off the memory (body) of spectators, bodies of actors, conversations, documents, attempts to record and describe it, legends and anecdotes passed down the generations, individual memories and collective affections, by the same token, being in constant movement between the past,  present and future, it “reflects” off the documentation. The latter is not an intended to replace the event, only to confirm that the event did occur; nor is it something external in relation to dance, or necessary for dance to survive and be preserved. Dance, an art of endless repetitions, reminiscences, reconstructions, and re-enactments finds in documentation its another echo, another way not to be recorded.

In Place of Ending

            Finally, it feels necessary to make a confession. I have seen Pina Bausch’s dancers live, but I have never seen Janša’s show. I only know its recording and a story. The show was presented in Warsaw as part of the Ciało/Umysł (Body/Mind) festival in 2011. Shortly before the show it turned out that the woman dancer doing the part of Tatsumi Hijikata could not perform – I do not remember why. Then, Hana Umeda, a butoh dancer from Warsaw, was asked for help. She had to learn the choreography in just a few days. It goes without saying that she learned it from video recordings. By no means, however, did she learn it from the “original” dance, but from that “copied” in Janša’s show. These mediations have no end. So, after all, what is there in Fake it!? What is the fake, untrue, fraudulent element of that show? Documentation? Dance? The situation directed by the artist? Following my own experience I would like, perhaps riskily, to put things otherwise. One fake thing is the reception, where dance is to be something true, original, of source, and ephemeral. The only fraud is the expectation of an experience in the theatre. The only scam is the assumption that what we are participating in live is unique, unrepeatable, and communal. Obviously, at times it does appear to be so. But this is not where the essence of performance lies, this is not what dance is about. Repetition, mediation, reconstruction are what characterises a dancing body. In permanent relationship with history, archive and document, dance becomes a specific medium. The most archaic and, perhaps, conditioning all other medialities. Therefore, reception of dance in documentation is impossible. On the contrary: to a certain extent documentation enlarges the field of dance by bringing out its characteristics of a medium. Dance and performance become themselves through documentation, because within it emerges their mediating and repetitive nature.

Auslander, Philip, 2006. “The Performativity of Performance Documentation”, Performing Arts Journal 84 (2006).

Lepecki, André, 2011.“The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dances”, Dance Research Journal 42/2.

Phelan, Peggy, 1993. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, New York.

Schneider, Rebecca, 2013. “Performance Remains”, Perform, Repeat, Record. Live Art in History, Bristol/Chicago.

Tylor, Diana, 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in Americas, Durham.

Ziemilski, Wojtek, 2014. “Jak powstawał remiks Laurie Anderson” (“How Laurie Anderson’s Remix Was Made”), Re//mix. Performans i dokumentacja (Performance and Documentation), Warszawa.


[1] Sformułowanie Rebeki Schneider z wykładu Performance and Documentation. Acting in Ruins and the Question of Duration, 25.04.2014, Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie.

(translated by: Maciej Kurzawiński)