Self, Unending

Xavier Le Roy’s Self Unfinished, which I viewed in a packed audience at the Museum of Modern Art in early February, is among a series of works by Le Roy exploring the limits of what, recalling Baruch Spinoza, a “body can do.” Given Le Roy’s background in biology (he holds a Ph.D. in that field), one cannot help but think about the influence of the “hard sciences” on his choreography. This is especially true in Self Unfinished, where one encounters a body that evolves from a robotic state to a post-human one. This dramatic evolution attempts to imagine the choreographic body as radically “other”—destabilized by certain uses of costume, movements, blocking, and props.

Xavier Le Roy (French, born 1963), "Self Unfinished" (1998). Performance 15: On Line/Xavier Le Roy at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Yi-Chun Wu/The Museum of Modern Ar

Le Roy begins sitting at a table. The table, and chair upon which he sits, could not be more generic (or Platonic?). To the amusement of the audience, Le Roy starts to make a series of machine-like movements (imagine Kraftwork or “The Robot”), accompanied by an appropriate oral soundtrack. He does this for a while, walking towards a boom box which he appears to turn on (though no sound issues forth).

In the second part of the work, Le Roy walks backwards, as though in slow motion, deconstructing the action even as he makes it. Subtle movements in his hands and chest give the sense that one is watching a film of someone walking backwards—a heave of the chest to indicate forward momentum; a bend of the hand signaling sway. These movements are not unlike the early efforts of Muybridge and Marey in this regard, since they intend to show how a mechanics of locomotion works. Le Roy gives us slow-motion cinematography, in real time.

He then begins to remove his clothing (shirt, Converse All Stars, and pants) so as to reveal a long black dress, which he pulls over his head so that only his torso shows. Bending down to the ground, he begins to walk with his feet and palms, so that it appears as though two figures are walking together, one short and petite, the other taller and more robust. Seeing this figure in motion produces a kind of optical illusion, what Ludwig Wittgenstein identified as “aspect blindness” through his well-known figure of the “duck-rabbit” (where one can alternate seeing the duck or the rabbit in the same picture). This ambivalent figure circles the room, crawling backwards under the table until it is at a wall at the back of the gallery space. Here the legs hoist in the air and lean against the wall, so that now they appear like antennae. The androgynous figure has transformed into an insect-like being.

This gives way to the final and most dramatic movement of the performance, in which Le Roy’s body is almost completely de-anthropomorphized. One sees him, now naked, from the back, his butt appearing more like shoulders without a head, his arms like little legs, his legs like giant arms. The musculature of the back becomes not unlike a face: formally expressive. (One watches this figure, fascinated; it reminded me of various paintings by Francis Bacon.) Eventually, it laboriously drags its hunk-like body back to the table and chair, launching the tabletop into the air using its hand/antenna-like feet.

So much of this work, while it is clearly athletic, depending on untypical contortions of the body, also relies heavily on optics, and a sense specifically that the choreographer knows precisely how the audience is perceiving his body in “real” space and time. Such an elaborate visual trick is in the interest of denaturalizing the human form, and showing it to be—like all natural forms—transient and plastic. In this sense, I think that Le Roy’s precedents come as much from a tradition of body sculpture in visual art, Duchamp to present, as they do from dance. The body itself becomes a kind of material for experimentation á la post-Spinozan philosophy, to invoke an overcoming of human-organic life. A kind of post-human condition that all human beings are now arguably living through. Contradicting Le Roy’s embrace of a post-human condition, or perhaps simply existing in tension with it, are the moments when he lies down on his side besides a wall as though admitting defeat, or resting before his next move. This sense of tension returns when Le Roy turns on the boom box at the end, and one is pleasantly surprised to hear Diana Ross’s Disco classic, “Upside Down,” puncture the formerly cerebral mood of the performance. By these dramatic gestures does Le Roy mean to critique the post-human/machinic that he has evoked with such virtuosity throughout the course of his work? Or merely suggest that the human, represented by Ross’s hit in particular, is a kind of return—to our senses? 


Thom Donovan

THOM DONOVAN edits the weblog Wild Horses of Fire ( and writes widely about performance, visual art, new media, and poetry.