Dr. Ramsay Burt,
Dept of Performing Arts,
De Montfort University,
Leicester, UK.

Electronic mail: ramsay@dial.pipex.com
Telephone: +44 (0)116 257.7570 Fax: +44 (0)116 257.7574

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Theatricality, Time And Presence In Postmodern Performance.

Dr. Ramsay Burt

De Montfort University.


Theatrical performances of plays or ballets create for the spectator the magical illusion of virtual space and virtual time, and these spaces and times generally conform to scientific and mathematical world- views that are socially and historically specific. Since the late nineteenth century mathematicians and physicists have been exploring aspects of time and space which radically depart from the classic theoretical models proposed by Euclid and Newton. In the early part of the twentieth century modernist artists generally ascribed a changed apprehension of space to technology rather than to science, and the resulting images generally conformed to the Euclidian and Newtonian cosmos (see Henderson 1983). It is this classic world-view that underlies the virtual times and spaces represented in much contemporary visual and performing art in Europe and North America.

This paper is concerned with the ways in which some recent postmodern dance deconstructs the conventions and traditions of naturalistic theatre to create new types of virtual time. It looks in particular at two pieces which have taken as their theme late twentieth century ideas about time and scientific culture. As I do not claim to have much understanding of space-time, non-Euclidian geometry or multi- dimensionality, I have focused, in discussing these works, on ways in which the spectator is presented with modalities of virtual time that cannot be apprehended within a rational Newtonian world-view. My aim is to draw some conclusions about the social and cultural contexts within which these new representations are meaningful. As some delegates may not be familiar with the type of performance work that I am discussing, before laying out my argument in more detail, I shall begin with two examples.

One of the many extraordinary images that the Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara presents in his piece dah-dah-sko-dah-dah (1991) juxtaposes six dancers with industrial grinders. One after the other, the dancers step cautiously in a stooped stance across a darkened stage from left to right with large steel sheets and heavy mechanical grinders strapped to their backs. The grinders are in operation and large arcs of sparks shoot perilously out into the space behind the performers. The risk and violence exemplified in this sequence is presented in a detached way, and comes sandwiched between sections of minimalist, high energy dancing that is almost reminiscent of a rave. Other sections of the piece present objects in a similarly detached way for the theatrical effect their presence gives. During the first half of the programme several large brass instruments that are never played sit along one side of the front of the stage like rocks or giant sea shells on a sea shore. Two wooden chairs, whose ten foot high backs are reminiscent of chairs by Mackintosh or from the Vienna Werkstatte from the early 1900s, are on stage at the start of the second half of the piece, are sat on briefly, then turned so that the audience see them from a different angle before being taken off. This is typical of the construction of the piece as a whole - economical, cool, ironic. Its onomatopoeic title dah-dah-sko-dah-dah comes from a poem by the early modern Japanese writer/poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933). The poet contrasts the sound of the traditional Japanese `taiko' festival drum with images of industrialisation - factories, dynamos, locomotives, arc lamps. While Miyazawa thus contrasts the traditional with the white heat of modernity, for Teshigawara and contemporary audiences both have an equally nostalgic appeal in the silicon-saturated, post-industrial 1990s. Teshigawara, who studied sculpture before embarking on a high profile, international career as a choreographer, states in a programme note that in the piece `dancers, props (object) and lighting undergo mathematical transformation where space inclusive of the body is recomposed'. By making objects speak theatrically in as complicated and allusive a manner as dancers, dah-dah-sko-dah-dah exemplifies the new relation to reality that individuals experience through the prosthetic intervention of electronic technology.

Clearly the roles of composers, musicians, designers and visual artists as well as those of directors, choreographers and performers are changing in this type of postmodern performance. Probably the most extreme example of the blurring of roles was that taken up until his death by the stage designer Rolf Borzik in the tanztheater piece Café Müller (1978) devised by Pina Bausch. For this piece Borzik defined his role as one of trying to reconcile two almost completely conflicting and incompatible needs: first, to provide a realistic set on stage which represented a café interior (and was thus filled with tables and chairs); second, to provide an open, free space in which the dancers would be able to perform powerful, expansive and highly expressive movement sequences with their eyes closed without injuring themselves. His solution was to be on stage throughout the performance, jumping forwards and hastily but noisily pulling aside chairs and tables whenever these threatened to get in the dancers' way, but putting them back in place as unobtrusively as possible so as to maintain for both performers and audience the illusion that the stage is a café interior.

The screaming immediacy of actual, live, theatrical presence in works like dah-dah-sko-dah-dah and Café Müller is the one crucial quality that distinguishes the experience of watching a live performance from that of watching performance work recorded on film or video (like those I am using as illustrations). In this paper I am going to discuss some of the new sorts of theatrical presences that can be projected through time in recent postmodern theatre and dance. The two works already discussed exhibit qualities of theatrical presence that derive from new, sometimes permeable, sometimes discontinuous and disjunctive relationships between visual, aural, textual, choreographed and other elements that make up postmodern performance work. My concern is with the relation between theatrical presence, new theatrical structures, and new ways of dealing with time in performance work. I shall proceed as follows. First, a discussion of the theoretical context of new, more open ways of combining material and art forms in performance is extended into consideration of how these new structures effect the projection of theatrical presence through time. The implications of this are then explored through a discussion of dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs' long solo in the 1976 `opera' Einstein on the Beach (devised and directed by Robert Wilson and composed by Philip Glass).

One characteristic of the process of making these types of postmodern performance pieces is the shift from structures which privilege the traditional, hierarchical role of the choreographer or author towards methods of making work that are less authoritarian and more open ended. The starting point of the traditional model is the `text' produced by the artist. Within this model the interpretation of the text by performers and the designing of costumes and sets for a production are all subordinated to the initial `text'. In contrast to this, postmodern practice deconstructs such hierarchical privileging of the author through the use of improvisation, of workshop devising processes or of collaborations between artists that frequently cut across or blur the boundaries between disciplines. Whereas the traditional, hierarchical model situates the spectator in the role of detached observer, it has become a commonplace to acknowledge that avant-garde or experimental work engages the spectator in a more active way which constitutes a challenge to create her or his own reading of a work. In doing so, such work challenges and disrupts the detached, disinterested subject position from which, according to Eighteenth philosophy, the spectator makes aesthetic judgements. The rational, autonomous subject of the Enlightenment was positioned in time and space in ways that defined distinctions between public and private, and between self and other. Postmodern theorists have developed accounts of the dissolution and fragmentation of the autonomous subject and the collapse of distinctions of class, race and privacy through which the autonomous subject was maintained. The `death of the subject' is seen in these accounts to be a result of the social experiences of postmodernity, and in particular the impact of new forms of media and information technology that change the individual's lived experience of temporal reality.

In Eighteenth century philosophy, the beholder of a work of art or spectator of a performance exercises her or his judgement from a detached, objective position. The detached position from which this `enlightened' subject makes her or his rational judgements is one that is located in relation to a rational geometrical construction. The spectator is positioned at the apex of a cone of vision in relation to a spectacle arranged according to the laws of perspective within the proscenium arch or picture frame. It is the ability to freely exercise rational judgement that is characteristic of the Enlightenment. It is generally recognised that what distinguishes this eighteenth-century view of a citizen's involvement in the public sphere from the Greek model of democracy is the modern concept of the citizen as autonomous reasoning subject (see Forrester 1987). It is this reasoning subject, in Kant's view that makes judgements. In his Critique of Judgement, Kant proposed that the spectator judges works of art with a disinterested disposition - i.e. from a detached, value-free, common sense point of view. Common sense, in this view, is what every rational subject agrees upon. It is this notion that the subject is autonomous and rational, and that common sense is an unproblematic norm that has been challenged and undermined increasingly during the twentieth century. It is in this context that the ways in which postmodern theatre and dance pieces address the spectator and allow her or himself to position themselves as subjects in relation to theatrical discourses should be seen.

In seeking to free themselves from old, outmoded rules and conventions, many of today's performers are finding new, conceptually rigorous ways of allowing less structured ways of structuring the multiplicity of facts and events in their performance work. These new structures are very different from the classic montage of images in earlier twentieth century art. This earlier, modernist notion of montage finds one of its clearest articulations in Eisenstein's writings on film theory. Eisenstein suggested that two distinct and separate images when juxtaposed or montaged together become fused so that a third meaning is created. By the late twentieth century, however, western viewers have become habituated to incoherent juxtapositions of images. As Victor Burgin has observed: One of the phenomenological effects of the public applications of new electronic technologies is to cause space to be apprehended as `folding back' upon itself. Spaces once conceived of as separated, segregated, now overlap: live pictures from Voyager II, as it passes through the rings of Saturn may appear on television sandwiched between equally `live' pictures of internal organs, transmitted by surgical probes, and footage from Soweto. (Burgin 1990: 108) In the works discussed in this paper, material and imagery are presented together that generally refuse to resolve themselves into some easily grasped synthesis. This refusal is in part a refusal of naturalistic narrativity. The resulting problematic can sometimes be used by performance artists to disrupt traditional types of spectatorship and allow the spectator a multiplicity of new ways into the appreciation of performance work.

The theatre has always been persuasive, convincing the spectator to suspend her or his misbelief and accept the existence of the magical, illusory world on stage. Many since Plato and Aristotle have been suspicious of those who `deceive' us in the name of art. There are certainly similarities between the way actors and politicians move the public by their presence - their psycho-physical attractiveness and charisma. The Greeks and Romans codified the techniques through which declamatory actors and political orators could move their audiences. Contemporary politicians have taken advantage of new media and technology as they seek to persuade the public of their sincerity and integrity. Philip Auslander (1987) has argued that some performance artists have been engaged in a critical deconstruction of presence in order to develop a postmodern political theatre of resistance. My argument is slightly different from Auslander's. I am proposing that, by deconstructing and problematising the way an impression of naturalistic authenticity and sincerity is conveyed through conventional theatrical presence - i.e. by emphasising its constructedness - some postmodern theatre works make space for points of view that are frequently marginalised or left unarticulated within mainstream work. I am arguing that this is achieved through the new ways in which objects, acting, movement and modalities of time are combined in postmodern theatre. Therefore, I am not primarily concerned with ideological criticism of representations, but with a postmodern critique of the formal and structural conventions of theatre. dah-dah-sko-dah-dah and Einstein on the Beach both exemplify new, inclusive or disjunctive relationships and interdisciplinary alignments between forms, conventions and disciplines. In both pieces the radically disjunctive juxtaposition of material alternately collapses time or wraps and folds one timescale within another.

Lucinda Childs' celebrated thirty minute dance Solo: Character on Three Diagonals comes in Act 1 scene 1 of the five hour long Einstein on the Beach. The principal image in this act is a life- size two dimensional cut-out of an old American steam locomotive which moves across the back of the stage from left to right. Its progress is so slow that the spectator probably doesn't see it actually moving, but is only aware that its position has changed. The different timescales presented by the motion of different objects and by the different paces of the performers' actions exemplify the flux of physical and temporal relations described in Einstein's theoretical writings. Childs' solo is one of several activities that take place during this scene, some of these happening simultaneously. While she is dancing, a boy, who is standing twenty feet above the stage at the top of a gantry ladder, slowly drops single pieces of paper that float softly down to the floor below. Wilson's work has been described as a theatre of images. The boy on the gantry, the slow train, Childs' solo and Glass' music remain distinct and separate components that butt up against one another and remain awkwardly disjunctive. They do not resolve themselves into some easily grasped synthesis.

Childs recalls that, when she was making her solo, Wilson explained to her about the different geometric planes through which the train was projected onto the stage and the three different musical motifs used during this act. Her solo is choreographed around three barely distinguishable diagonal paths. It is structured according to minimalist rules whereby the gestural material she performs gradually accumulates in a rigorously incremental way. The sparse, simple phrase with which it starts is repeated cyclically: at the end of each cycle the phrase is augmented with a small addition so that it gradually becomes increasingly complex. Towards the end of its thirty minute duration it has become so complicated that it appears chaotic. Childs' solo contradicts the conventions of mainstream European narrative theatre dance (that for example underlie a ballet like Giselle). Sally Banes observes that although the gestures that make up Childs' accumulative sequence bear a resemblance to mimetic gestures sometimes found in narrative ballets and modern dance pieces, there is no sense of naturalistic character representation (Banes 1980: 140). The impersonal, minimalist quality of the solo's development is the antithesis of traditional musical phrasing and development. The gestures build up to the point where, as Childs puts it, the woman dancing appears incoherent. The impersonal structural development and the deranged persona signified through the gestural material performed at the end of the solo contradict notions of the individual subject as autonomous and rational. By undermining a traditional, naturalistic type of theatrical presence Child's performance effectively closes off the spectator's expectations of traditional narrative time. This then allows the spectator to become aware of the simultaneous presentation of a diversity of different time-scales and modalities - the almost monumental time that it takes the train to cross the stage, the short, temporal trajectory of the paper dropped by the boy, and the seemingly endless cycles created in both Glass's music and Child's dancing. According to Einstein's theories, such different space-times might appear like this when seen from a reference point that is travelling close to the speed of light, which in real life no spectator could ever actually experience. Whether or not the spectator in the theatre `understands' what is being shown, she or he can at least perceive the possibilities of other modalities of time.

One reason why naturalistic narrativity is deconstructed in such work is because naturalistic characterisation implies memory and memory implies time. In the sci-fi film Bladerunner, it is the lack of real memories that renders the otherwise invincible replicants vulnerable. Memory is not just a property of subjective identity but also of cultural and national identities. The early modern Japanese writer/poet Kenji Miyazawa, in contrasting the sound of the Japanese festival drum with the sounds of modern industrial technology all over the world, was identifying a historical moment when the space-time of Japanese national identity was disappearing into a new, international world order. It has already been noted that, for the early modernists, the impact of mechanical technologies was used to symbolise a changed apprehension of space. With the image of dancers carrying low-tech, heavy industrial grinders, Teshigawara does two things. First, he shows up the failure of such modernist images to signify new modalities of space and time. Second, by collapsing the different times of festival drum and old fashioned technology, he ironically comments upon the nationalistic political meaning the poet Miyazawa implied through juxtaposing them - the third term in this early modernist montage.

Both dah-dah-sko-dah-dah and Einstein on the Beach therefore, through their evocation of non- linear modalities of time, denaturalise the power structures that underlie political discussion in the public sphere. Einstein on the Beach, by emphasising the artificial construction of the charisma projected through naturalistic characterisation, denaturalises the charismatic appeal projected not only by theatrical performers but also by public figures in public debate. dah-dah-sko-dah-dah also denaturalises the terms in which political debates are represented by collapsing the boundaries between politically charged cultural identities. Each presents the spectator with elements that are not distinguished from one another in importance and do not resolve themselves into some easily grasped synthesis. In discussing these pieces, I have repeatedly described the way the material is presented as cool and detached, despite the fact that the material itself generally is of an extremely expressive or emotive nature. Choreographers and directors are not leading audiences to come to a particular conclusion about the material presented but trusting them to work things out for themselves. They are therefore not presuming that everyone will come to the same type of `common sense' conclusion that Kant believed was axiomatic to the exercise of critical judgement. Postmodern works that deconstruct the conventions of traditional theatrical presence and of narrative development through time are not just allowing spectators to appreciate new types of theatrical presence; they are also allowing individuals to situate themselves in new subject positions in relation to theatrical discourses.


Auslander, Philip (1987) `Towards a concept of the political in postmodern theatre' Theatre Journal 39(1): 20-34.

Banes, Sally (1980) Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Burgin, Victor (1990) `Geometry and abjection' in Fletcher, John & Benjamin, Andrew (eds.) (1990)

Abjection, Melancholia and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva London: Routledge. pp 104-23.

Forrester, John. (1987) `A brief history of the subject' in ICA Documents 7: pp13-16

Henderson, L, D. (1983) The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidian Geometry in Modern Art

Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press.

Servos, Norbert (1984) Pina Bausch Wuppertal Dance Theatre: or the Art of Training a Goldfish,

Excursions in Dance Cologne: Ballett-Bühnen Verlag.

Theatrical performances of plays or ballets create for the spectator the magical illusion of virtual space and virtual time, and these spaces and times generally conform to scientific and mathematical world-views that are socially and historically specific. Since the late nineteenth century mathematicians and physicists have been exploring aspects of time and space which radically depart from the classic theoretical models proposed by Euclid and Newton. In the early part of the twentieth century modernist artists generally ascribed a changed apprehension of space to technology rather than to science, and the resulting images generally conformed to the Euclidian and Newtonian cosmos (see Henderson 1983). It is this classic world-view that underlies the virtual times and spaces represented in much contemporary visual and performing art in Europe and North America.



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