Below is a small piece of writing which addresses my time in late-2016 with Peter Pleyer and co. in his “Moving the Mirror” project, which nine of us performed in Poland at the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw and during the In Between Festival in Wroclaw. There was of course much more going on for us during our period together beyond what I focus on in this text. It was a complex time and this is just a sample.
When Peter asked what we were busy with as dancers, I said, a little sheepishly, I just like dancing, I wasn’t yet concerned with ‘how’. It simply felt right to return to dance, that way of being, that behaviour, after a 2016 with very little opportunity to do so. So, can we dance together without a need for further reason? Can we have permission to be that simple? Dance is that simple. We like it, we do it.
Yet, in Poland right now, with the country’s complex and developing political situation at the front of our minds, the ‘how’ had to enter the fray. Approaching this question of ‘how’ was not a matter of narrowing frames of reference, or subscribing ourselves outright to a neat set of practices or simplifying our collective and individual action into easily comprehensible patterns. We wanted instead to have multiple priorities existing simultaneously, both within our bodies and between them, where our subjectivities and [dance] histories are welcomed in their complexity and given space to encounter one another on even ground.
We were motivated by a swiftly growing love and respect for each other. Contingent on our needs at any moment, we cared, trusted and respected one another. We played too. We used play both as a strategy of activation and enjoyment. Over the two weeks the nine of us were together – dancing, eating, talking, listening and caring – we developed, more or less intuitively, a vocabulary of approaches, instincts, performative possibilities and perceptions to draw from during our improvised compositions. Basically, a history of shared experience. Yet the unknown and unpredictable remained strong and important mainstays.
Crucially, our improvisations, innovations, our creation of novelty and originality are not strokes of random and sudden genius (or otherwise!) but come from a sustained being together, of the collaborative practices of figuring out, mis/understanding, persistent negotiation, creating shared experience. Community.
It was then important to extend the bounds of our community to embrace our audiences. This was not a matter of denying the particularities of our two roles, audience and performer, or overly permeating any ‘fourth wall’ between us, but of insisting on a performative ease and not treating our role as sacred or precious.
Practically speaking we did this through greeting, informing, addressing, using names, telling stories and quietly shifting our performative gaze and presence outwards in order to situate our activity very solidly within the immediate context, of dancers and audience. This undermined the expectation of hierarchy between the two. We simply acknowledged that we were together in one space at a certain moment in time.
In so doing, we highlighted one of theatre’s greatest potentials and power; the committed bringing-together of people into a single space and moment in time, the formation of community. We worked with the idea that to perform for an audience can be an act of sharing and exchange rather than just showing and knowing.
The result was a relaxed mode of performing that we collectively agreed to be a significant particularity of this work, expressive of the politics of our working.
In a political system in which ideas are dangerous, outside the liberal situation within non-fascist Europe, art can be powerful, sometimes dangerously powerful. In our own liberal democracies, art strips itself of transgressive potential. In a fascist system this subtle transgressive power remains, and, therefore, not everything is acceptable under fascism. To dance the way we want just won’t do.
So, unexpectedly, our dancing becomes oddly provocative. To dance together in the way we want should not be an overtly political statement. However, a dramatic change in political context, as here in Poland, shifts the significance of what we choose to do on a public stage. In this way, in a politically altered Poland, the ‘how’ of our dance becomes a pertinent question, in a way that it wasn’t just one year ago. It takes a politician to demonstrate how political an artist’s work is. A politician with little artistic awareness can be more sensitive to the political weight of an artistic practice than the artist him-/herself.
However, the present environment in Poland, and Europe as a whole, demonstrate that it is vital for artists to sensitise themselves to the political impact of our artistic work, lest we forgo the chance to effectively respond to the political and social issues within our societies. ‘Moving the Mirror’ – Peter Pleyer, Michel Keuper, Anna Nowizca, Pawel Sakowicz, Marysha Stoklosa, Aleksandra Borys, Ivan Ekemark, Caroline Alexander, myself and our audiences – worked to counter an official tendency towards the standardising and homogenising effects of contrived nationalist identities present within Poland, and burgeoning across Europe. We simply danced, but in so doing, we took charge of our histories, embraced uncertainty and multiplicity, we were queer and feminist, cared and trusted, and accommodated divergent desires and necessities. Thus, we were offensive to the autocratic sensibility in power in Poland, and a power relentlessly edging closer across Europe.
We can dance (up) against something of course, we always have been, but concurrently we must dance into something else. This lurch towards fascism is indicative of a genuine and seriously valid frustration at the hegemonic status quo which has plundered and impoverished swathes of European societies, not to mention elsewhere in the world, for the last 40 years. That’s no place to go back to, so where do we dance towards?