Block Universe and the Meaning of ‘Post-Dance’

London’s annual performance-art festival probed the unsteady relationship between dance theory and practice, and the uneasy split between mind and body

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Reviews | 07 JUN 19

Over the past five years, London’s annual performance-art festival, Block Universe, has built up a loyal audience by staging new commissions and events across the city, in venues ranging from the British Museum’s Parthenon Galleries to a 19th-century operating theatre. This year, it inaugurated an expanded European programme with performances at the Venice Biennale and will conclude in September as part of Berlin Art Week. Running from 18 May to 2 June, Block Universe’s London phase invited audiences to experience and reflect on the current state of performance. The festival included conferences hosted by Goldsmiths and Tate Modern; an afternoon of artist readings at the Whitechapel Gallery; a new commission, Sènsa (2019), by artist Paul Maheke and musician Nkisi at Hoxton Hall; and a delightfully absurdist finale with The View From Behind the Futuristic Rose Trellis (2018), an opera by trio Ravioli Me Away at The Albany in Deptford.

Arguably one of the festival’s more hermeneutic offerings, Portnoy (Born 1936) Improvises (2018) saw artist Michael Portnoy team up with art historian Claire Bishop, who introduced the ‘real’ Portnoy as someone who, having masqueraded as a much younger man for decades, was finally about to reveal his true self in all its octogenarian glory. From his early work with Fluxus to the time he ‘picked bits of fish and meat out of the floorboards at Judson Church’ after a performance of Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy in 1964, Portnoy had been an important if unrecognized player in numerous art-world scenes. It was only the recent trend in rediscovering artists ‘decades after menopause’ that had inspired him to ‘come out’, Bishop said. Her talk was funny – stand-up comedy for at an art-world intelligentsia who would recognize such factoids as poppycock – but it was also sobering, corrosive of art-world myths and revealing of the ungracious relationship contemporary art can maintain with its past, from artists mining the work of precursors without acknowledging their indebtedness to dealers biding their time until an elderly artist’s oeuvre is transubstantiated into a lucrative estate. 

Paul Maheke, Sènsa, 2019. Courtesy: Block Universe; photograph: Manuela Barczewski

Finally, Portnoy arrived, encased in a full prosthetic head and dressed in a maroon suit and Vetements T-shirt (in case anyone still had doubts over his real demographic). While demonstrating a repertoire of deeply intended and awkward moves, he issued a disquisition on topics ranging from his granddaughter’s views about Instagram (‘something doesn’t exist if it is not on it’) to the ambiguous merits of contemporary dance (‘it’s a fool’s game, which is why it’s so compelling’). Gleefully eviscerating the very thing he was performing, Portnoy admitted that he liked ‘ruining people’s joy’. It must have been very hot inside that prosthetic head because, at one point, while moving in front of me, he spilled a gush of liquid through his mask’s mouth hole. Yes, I thought, here is the body of the performer. Why stop at tying yourself in knots over theory when you can also dance, sweat and salivate on people at the same time?

The scuffle between the performing body and the straightjacket of theory broke out again at Tate Modern during the ‘Post-Dance Conference’ – an event Louise O’Kelly, Block Universe’s founder, introduced as an opportunity to reflect on the needs of the local performance-art community, and to consider work that doesn’t easily slot into commercial or institutional contexts. But what, exactly, is ‘post-dance’? Danjel Andersson, director of MDT theatre in Stockholm, where an earlier Post-Dance conference took place in 2015, warned that he was not going to define the phrase for us, but that we could consider it in opposition to other ‘terms that don’t make sense, such as “dancy dance”’. It seemed that the term enthused those with a more academic leaning – Norwegian writer Amanda Øiestad Nilsen positioned herself as a ‘post-dance activist’ – while leaving many of the performers in the room rather nonplussed. 

Claire Bishop introducing Michael Portnoy, Portnoy (Born 1936) Improvises (2018), 2019. Courtesy: Block Universe; photograph: Manuela Barczewski  

A panel discussion chaired by Nottingham Contemporary curator Cédric Fauq ranged wide but repeatedly brought up the unsteady relationship between dance theory and practice, which tended to be articulated in terms of an uneasy split between mind and body. Maheke, who acknowledged his lack of formal dance training, posited the dancer’s body as an archive for physical memory and a site for resilience. For Malik Nashad Sharpe, the body’s wisdom was a counterpart to cerebral knowledge, and they described dancing as ‘knowing what I’m going to do even if my body is making choices on the spot’. Florence Peake pointed out the limitations of professional dance, which often won’t accommodate the ‘mess’ she makes when working with clay and paint, while Eve Stainton explained how she seeks to avoid fixed interpretation by establishing a conversation with audiences through which ‘meanings can be pulled apart over time’. Peake and Stainton’s ongoing collaboration, ‘Slug Horizons’, for example, sees them improvise fantasy and erotic scenarios in which they shift between multiple genders, species, timeframes and environments.

While a ‘Slug Horizons’ video was being screened, Peake and Stainton stood up, stepped into the audience and clambered across the maroon velvet seats of Tate’s Starr Auditorium, gently insinuating themselves onto people’s laps and draping themselves around their shoulders. In a matter of seconds, their actions transformed an arm’s-length consideration of performance into a situation of moving, touching and looking bodies. What they were doing didn’t seem to be dance, or even post-dance, whatever that may be. It was altogether stranger, unexpected and tentative – something that might suffer from an attempt at capturing in a name.

Main image: Michael Portnoy, Portnoy (Born 1936) Improvises, 2018. Courtesy: Block Universe 2019; photograph: Manuela Barczewski 

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.