Dance and philosophy have long been viewed as mutually exclusive disciplines. But this couldn’t be less true today. Contemporary dance has become the muse for contemporary philosophy and one of the darlings of the cultural sciences. Reciprocally, the original art of movement responds to this devotion by seeming almost completely at a loss to manage without philosophy and theory. This presents a problem. As performance studies scholar Krassimira Kruschkova put it in the October issue of Theater der Zeit: ‘It would be wrong to think that theory can be applied to dance. But performance art and philosophy have something in common in that they are both often beset with an Achilles’ heel […] And it’s thrilling to see how both fields frequently expose their respective counterpart’s blind spot.’ All things considered, this quote might just as well explain Kruschkova’s own position.
Kruschkova occupies a post that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world: she is director of the theory department at Tanzquartier Wien (TQW), a municipally supported centre for dance, performance and theory that is the envy of many. In most countries, contemporary dance subsists in the independent scene, with only a few exceptions, the French Centres chorégraphiques, for example, or – despite its largely commercial orientation – the London theatre Sadler’s Wells. That Walter Heun – TQW’s artistic director, and one of the most important German dance networkers and structural drivers – found in Vienna what he fought for unsuccessfully in Munich represents an irony of German cultural politics.
Sandra Noeth, TQW’s head dramaturge, can tell a similar story. Until she moved to Vienna, she had one foot in academia while working in the visual arts as a curator. Since her time in Paris, during the pioneering phase of the Institute for Dance Studies at the suburban Paris VIII university, she has held fast to one principle: ‘You can work interdisciplinarily, you can work out of varying disciplines between theory and art, but you have to know those disciplines, take them seriously and know what you’re doing.’
This idea explains the existence of the theory and drama department at TQW, along with its publication series, SCORES, and its varied lecture programme including talks from philosophers as well as by performers and performance studies scholars. This Viennese agora of dance has existed for 12 years now – in a country that employs an utterly dirigiste funding policy, but that also accommodates one of the largest and oldest festivals on the dance scene, ImPulsTanz.
TQW’s facilities were incorporated at the last minute into the plans for the gigantic Museumsquartier, a veritable neighbourhood allocated entirely to the arts, located in Vienna’s seventh district and opened in 2001. This hastiness shows, with the tiny office wing for the current staff of 25 and the mediathèque squashed in the attic. As consolation, however, the three dance studios and two large performance halls are amply spacious.
These spaces are all abustle. Alex Deutinger is currently researching the principles behind Roman fountain design to use in a chocolate fountain for his new production. Most recently, Deutinger appeared in the award-winning piece Your Majesties (2010), developed in collaboration with his artistic partner, Marta Navaridas. In this performance he recites Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech verbatim while Navaridas, elevated behind the audience, performs an entirely different text using body language, like a teleprompter. From this coupling, a new, sentimental, laughable text arises somewhere between expected political gestures and everyday movements. The connections between spoken text and movement is one of Deutinger and Navaridas’ long-running research topics; this also holds true for the team’s new piece, which is scheduled to premiere at TQW in November.
In addition to such residencies, TQW also hosts shorter formats that function like colloquia centred on a particular working premise. In this context, performers can invite interesting colleagues from diverse disciplines, an opportunity French historian and choreographer Sandra Iché will use this December for a two-week-long experimental set up for her new piece. Together with four other guests she will work on an adaptation of the magazine format as a metaphor for the stage. The concept of a magazine clearly enthralls her, as she put it: ‘it allows one to place orderings of different statements side by side; it lets differing canons of the perception of the world embrace one another within the same object.’ Similarly, her piece Wagons Libres (2012) was based on the milieu surrounding the Beirut-based magazine L’Orient Express – which in the mid 1990s was devoted to rethinking war-weary Lebanese society within a Pan-Arabic context – and after which Iché joined with friends to found the magazine Rodéo.
Although there are no permanently associated artists at TQW, Iché nevertheless exemplifies a regular feature in the programme: she is a dancer who doesn’t always dance – a position still capable of eliciting bouts of frustration from her audiences. Generally speaking, and at first surprising, TQW makes no distinction between performance rooted in the repertoire of dance or from the realm of visual arts. The most widely accepted concept of choreography, coined by William Forsythe, denotes ‘the ordering of movements and signs in space’. A definition so open that it amounts to nothing less than the potential for Gesamtkunstwerk. The layering and juxtaposition of such various elements – music and voice, theory, movements and light – pose a permanent challenge, not to mention occasions of overload for artists and audiences alike. To this end, TQW tries to adopt a position, in keeping with the times, based on its maxim of dialogue and unconditional hospitality. Seeing eye to eye isn’t the point; it’s about giving space to each individual perspective: supporting points of view even without agreeing. Here, choreography is thought of as a medium for composing the social and creating togetherness. Not only does this put TQW within contagious proximity of contemporary French philosophy; it also demonstrates that TQW is an extraordinarily rare cultural establishment. One where interest in exploring the conditions of production outweighs that of idealizing the product.
Translated by William Wheeler