“Performance’s only life is in the present. 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” – Peggy Phelan
As far as dance scholarship goes, this quote is one of the biggies. If you want to talk about dance, or a dance, you have to deal with the super-smart lady who laid out why that was a problem. Essentially her point is that you can’t save a performance in any way that allows it to stay a performance – once the dancers leave the stage they stop dancing, and anything else that follows is just not the same any more.
“Great, but why does this matter?!” I hear you cry. Well, because dancers do things on stages (and off them) that are smart, and culturally relevant, and useful to the project of being better in the world. They dance their own selves, they dance history, they dance community. Not to mention they make some of the most incredible art out there. And one of the ways we value those contributions and get them recognised in the world is to transmit them, otherwise we end up with people and groups like Wells Fargo telling us that dance is just a phase you go through on the way to a more productive career. Ahem.
There are some pretty well-established ways of documenting dance: you can write a description of it. You can score it like a piece of music. You can film it with a camera. Phelan isn’t ignoring these, by the way, she’s just saying that none of them actually save the bit of the dance we call performance, although we’re all still somewhat shakey on what that bit actually is, and whether we’re not always performing something the whole time. But, for example, how do you record the magic of meeting someone one the social floor for the first time and having a dance that connects just right? The feeling of “I have 25 seconds to do a 45 second run around the back of the theater in time for my next entrance ohgodohgodohgod run run RUN!” or the precise way you start to cramp and lift up out of your body when you’ve been strapped to a frame for 30 minutes pretending to be frozen mid-fall?* Do these things matter?
Well… yes! Because having those experiences taught me things, and changed the way I was dancing. There is a massive difference between waltzing onto a stage from standstill and trying to recover your calm after a breakneck dash around the house – and most choreographers I know are smart enough to make you do that for a reason, even if the audience can’t see it.
But in all these cases, I’m going to try and persuade you, there is a document. Me. My memory, the growth of my muscles to accommodate the work, the tricks I learned to make my body do – the things I take forward into dancing and living thereafter. If I am a document, here are some of the things you can read:
- Life gets better when we know how to massage each other.
- When you’re exhausted, try relaxing, or working somewhere else.
- It’s fun to go fast… right up until the point where you knock someone down.
And these seem like little things maybe, but I draw them out because these are lessons I learned dancing that I perform in my day to day life, and circulate among those I care about.
What am I trying to say?
Firstly, that there are living documents of performance (including those who watched the performance), and that it is worth trying to grapple with how those documents of memory can be transmitted, because they are valuable. It is worth looking at the creator behind the dance, and the document, and trying to figure out how they came to save particular things the way they did.
Secondly, allowing for the transmission of those documents is going to mean trusting what people say about their bodies and themselves. Which sounds like a small thing but really isn’t, as anyone who’s been frustrated at a doctors appointment can attest. We have a cultural mindset that tends to treat bodily experience as fallible in comparison to observed or statistical data, which is not always a bad attitude, but which sucks if you’ve never learned how to do the other thing. In dance, where the performing memory-documents tend to be women, we can get a lot out of trusting how those bodies learn to move in the world.
I know that I’ve somewhat moved away from Phelan, who I don’t think ever intended her words to be read in the way I’ve read them. Quite honestly, I’m jumping off her words because they are important, and using them to go somewhere important to me. I am stopping this post at the point where ethics start, but I invite you to go further that I have in thinking about what life has taught your body, and whether those were lessons you really wanted to learn. How can we talk about them and change them? What’s that dance?
* In Just the Blink of an Eye, by Xu Zhen, part of the exhibit Art of Change: New Directions from China. Photograph above by Lie Chen.