moving ideologies 2: rhetorical body

In the past years I’ve often gone to a dance performance and ended up feeling as if I were watching television, sitting there having someone tell me something, a message I should be getting. Unfortunately then aside from the mental work I don’t have much to do.

These days it seems as if almost everyone in art has a message, framed as some kind of issue. And generally the mode of communication, whether spoken or projected, verbal or visual, is the word – often lots of them. It sometimes seems as if words are busy taking over the arts – even those art forms that may have traditionally been non-verbal, like the visual arts or dance. The role of the audience in contemporary art nowadays seems to be to understand, to try and get the message. They don’t have much more to do than agree or disagree really, or maybe nod their heads and think, “That’s a nice way to put it.”

Despite all this message making, many artworks today ironically don’t seem to be able to stand for themselves, to be self-explanatory in their own terms. Perhaps this reflects an understandable desire for relevancy on the part of contemporary artists, but they seem to be relying pretty heavily on one message mode. If I went to a concert of instrumental music I could get so involved that I might even be moved to tears, but I’m not required or maybe even able to put it into words.

As for dance, the problem for performers and choreographers is that once we let the word onstage – spoken, recorded or projected – then everything else we do gets reduced to accompaniment. The audience starts relating the movement they see to what’s been said – not the other way around. The word is like a dictator of meaning onstage. If we are dancing and we suddenly say ‘Chicago’ everyone can’t help but start trying to make connections to the Windy City.

So while this may be a handy tool to convey meaning, it does limit the role of the audience. They are restricted to the level of trying to understand, and then to interpret. This creates a distance between viewer and performer that seems to be contrary to the immediacy of the live event.

Interestingly, this verbal message mode, a form of persuasion classically known as rhetoric, influences movement and action onstage even without the use of words. For example, in watching theater, dance or any kind of performance I often see the performer at some point standing directly full-frontal facing the viewer. This is usually meant to be a code for ‘open, honest, revealing.’

But this seems like a misunderstanding of what’s being communicated to the audience. This face-front position onstage primarily means the performer, either verbally or non-verbally, wants to say something. It’s a kind of rhetorical stance. Sort of like Potemkin’s villages or the storefront architecture in the Wild West – we are only supposed to see the front, the statement. The first message we get is that the performer wants to persuade us.

This rhetorical stance can severely reduce the scope of the theatrical experience. The viewer is placed in the passive role of having to respond to an argument, and can’t take a role of observer, of ‘voyeur’. When looking at someone so frontal, we cannot create a world from what we see but have to respond to an address or an argument. We can become uncomfortable in this passive role, suspicious, perhaps even embarrassed. We remain to be convinced.

This rhetorical face-front position is of course perfectly suitable for political theater because it first begs attention and then delivers its message straightforwardly. There’s something in this tactic that seems to attract contemporary choreographers. They feel, as the saying goes, totally up front. In the past, the classical theater upright stance was slightly oblique, the actor stood in a diagonal position in order to be seen clearly from all sides: a more revealing volumetric figure. The full-frontal rhetorical stance in contrast is a strategy that does not want to be seen so much as be heard, even if nothing is literally spoken.

In a way, a corollary rhetorical placement of the body is full-profile to the audience. This is a kind of ‘demonstration’ position. It also begs to be read, but in this case the performer is not making an argument, he is demonstrating an argument – taking the position of model. It’s also a message of persuasion, but the tactic is different. Marcel Marceau was a big fan of this full-profile position. One man walking against the wind = every man walking against the wind.

Performers and dancers who take these full-frontal and full-profile positions onstage might want to be aware of the their restrictive nature: they could limit the audience’s capacity for responding and reduce the performance to an argument – a form of rhetoric.

I recently went to see a Deborah Hay performance she made for students here in Amsterdam. There were thirty performers. There were no words. No one stood face front or in profile. The dancing and the positioning were deceptively simple and casual. It was great to be able to create our own meanings from what we saw, to use what was given us – structure, position, tempo, motion and movement – to construct a world that could stand on its own. It was carefully crafted, thoughtful dance, all by itself.

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