When art historians eventually look back on the aughts, I think it will be said that the predominant art form of this decade was the reenactment, works that “replay” or “redo” previous works of art or cultural texts. RoseLee Golberg’s Performa biennial, which began in 2005 and in 2009 seems largely established (if not fully armed) as a cultural institution, has been a major force in establishing the reenactment as one of today’s most relevant and important art forms.
While the reenactment can have many uses, one of the primary ways it’s been used is to revivify events that would seem lost to the present, and to root these events firmly in materials from the past—documents, artifacts, relics, and the memories of surviving artists and participants. Attending choreographer Anne Collod’s replay of Anna Halprin’s 1965 collaboration with Morton Subotnick, Parades and Changes, I was aware of a work from the past being reconstructed for our present.
Collod researched her interpretation of Halprin’s masterpiece by visiting with Halprin at the choreographer’s studio in California, and compiling footage and notes from original performances of the legendary dance work. The historical value of Collod’s work cannot be overestimated. If her intention was to introduce new audiences to Halprin’s legacy—as the choreographer who gave us “task” oriented dance and who was one of the major progenitors of postmodern dance—then she has surely accomplished this.
Given this context, I could not help thinking about ways that Halprin’s original work felt dated, and ways that it remained fresh for a current audience. When the production begins, the dancers are sitting among the audience. They speak in French and English, recounting experiences from the 60s—the beatnik bars and cafes around San Francisco—the countercultural moment we are all fairly familiar with, but which is nevertheless needed to place Halprin’s work within its proper historical-cultural milieu. Was this preface part of his and Halprin’s original composition? Or was it for the sake of an audience over 40 years removed from the work’s original context?
Anyone acquainted with Parades and Changes knows more or less what happens after this. The dancers remove their clothes and put them back on—repeatedly. It’s visually compelling because the undressing and dressing is so deliberately paced, and the pacing differs somewhat from performer to performer. Task-oriented dance, in this case, is about duration (how long an action takes to occur), and the uniqueness of a performer’s bodily kinesthetic (their quality of movement) versus others. The dancers were dressed in the same clothes—formal business attire. The uniformity of their dress in contrast to the uniqueness of their naked bodies was striking. As the performance continued, the dancers grew further and further away from this initial reference to social conformity.
With each new task the performers relate to each other differently, at first through their singularity (they are on stage together and yet seemingly unaware of each others’ presence), then through self-awareness (they seem to each be dressing themselves before a mirror), then through amorous encounters between couples, and finally through embraces and erotic interactions among the group. This movement seemed to embody the 60s inasmuch as it tells of the individual abandoning egotism and narcissism for social participation, multiplicity, and openness to exploration and experimentation.
During another score, the dancers are given sheets of paper by a stagehand and begin tearing and throwing the paper in the air. The sound of the tearing is pleasant, even calming. It is a sound I could listen to indefinitely. The lighting—which had turned from cold white-blue to a warm, orangish yellow—made the moment that much more pleasurable and inviting.
Other scores followed, and with all of them came sensuousness and suspense: the dancers stomping-out rhythms on stage together, coming in and out of synch like a Steve Reich tape piece, the dancers eventually strutting up and down the stage as though in a Warhol Factory photo shoot. Bogged down by clothing and props, two performers exit the theater. Video cameras track them in the street interacting with passersby. Drawing dance outside the physical confines and confining customs of the theater seems like a final tribute to the challenges 60s artists and audiences presented to dominant models of social participation.
These challenges have not outgrown their use, and Collod’s production reminds us that we still need them today in order to activate and organize bodies within kinesthetic public space.
The reenactment, as its very best, can transport us back to the historical origins of events, or, rather, it can stamp those origins upon the present thus bringing them to life. And that’s exactly what Collod’s performance does. The extent to which task-oriented works such as Parades and Changes have become absorbed into a world of art and entertainment driven by market forces is a question which Collod’s “replay” necessarily begs, and a point of departure for considering the ways that seminal works of live art from the 60s, 70s, and 80s are being both reactivated and co-opted in our present cultural moment.
THOM DONOVAN edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog, and co-edits ON: Contemporary Practice, a journal committed to writings about one's contemporaries. His poetry, criticism, and scholarship have been published variously.