Performing the other body

Bojana Kunst in this article looks at conceptualisations of the dancing body, by focusing on the problem of how the body of the Other is performed and how physicality can be understood as a way of performing. The physical, she concludes, is deeply connected with the question of representation.

There are basically two ways in which we speak about the body today, both of which I think should be challenged and stressed to really reach the problems that are deeply inherent in the contemporary presentation of the body. Therefore I would like to stress, on the one hand, the concept of the universality of the body, which is still very popular when we speak about dance. It is present by example in the belief in dance as a “universal art form, through which as humans we could all communicate and share our common experiences”. In line with such notions, the main guarantee of such trans-cultural sharing is the body – which is also the main common denominator of the belief (in some theories) in dance as a universal globalisation force.

On the other hand, I would also like to stress another position on the body that is very significant for contemporary popularised multicultural and ethnographic approaches. This is the conviction that there is always an unbridgeable difference concerning the way different bodies may be understood – a cultural difference so powerful as to be inescapable. When confronted with the body of the “other”, we are somehow never able to escape this difference, and what is finally left for us is always the recognition of a distance and a constant effort to respect the difference. This position was strongly criticized by the famous postcolonial critic Edward Said, when, in his well-known book Orientalism, he demonstrated the link between essentialism and the reification of difference, and the colonising West establishing its identity precisely through the creation of the fact of difference. So when we speak about the inescapability of difference we should ask ourselves how such difference is produced in the first place – how those cultural notions of “blackness, Easterness, Orientalism, etc.” are created and whose identity is really invested in this creation of such borders and concepts. The creation of difference therefore has its history and could be found in the very concept of modernity, in the very concept of the “colonising and advanced West”. Even more, we could say that the concepts of universality and difference are somehow both manifestations of the same history of “Western humanism” and could especially be found in the hegemonic humanistic notion of sameness and today’s “globalist” and “liberal” notions of otherness (or its multicultural version of respecting the Other).

What is particularly interesting for us here is, in my opinion, disclosing how both the concepts of universality / sameness and difference / otherness have the same roots. These roots can be successfully disclosed if we observe the place of the body in these concepts. For us it is especially interesting that in both approaches the body is similarly understood and represented: the body here is understood as self-evident and self – sufficient, as a given fact. – What exactly does this mean? We could assist ourselves at this point with the words of Andre Lepecki (the former dramaturge for Vera Mantero and a dance theoretician), who in the context of these approaches, describes the body as the zero degree of culture and zero degree of communication.1 What is interesting for us is that, in this bodily zero degree, universality and difference are both implemented, and even fused. The so-called “nature” of the body as the zero degree of culture is the source for implementing cultural universality on the one hand (we are share the same nature) and cultural difference on the other (the differences between bodies are unbridgeable and should be respected). The so called “movement” of the body as the zero degree of communication is the main source of sharing sameness (the possibility of understanding) and recognizing the urgent distance of otherness (the recognition of misunderstanding). We could say that the body is simultaneously the source of universality and difference. How is this possible?

This fusion of the basic concepts of representing the body discloses to us that universality and difference are nothing more than concepts; that they are ideological, historical and philosophical constructions that, derive from the complex history of creating Western identity, its relationship to its own hegemony and to the perception of the identity of the Other. What I think is especially important here is that we recognize the need for the essentialisation of those concepts. This essentialisation would not be possible if the body were not understood as given, empty, disclosed and, self-evident. Throughout Western history, the body has been perceived mainly as the “zero degree” fact, with its nature always opposite culture. But it is exactly this production of the body as the zero degree that is the main source of its universalising and differentiation through the help of the various medical, philosophical, scientific, ethnic, political, aesthetic regulations through which the West is establishing its own identity and relationship to the Other. The zero degree of the body is a construction par excellence and it is always an excellent source and inspiration for various ideological, political and even racist interventions.

That is why different understandings of – and thinking about the body became so important in the twentieth century. Especially important here are feminist philosophies and postcolonial studies, which stressed the nature versus/ culture division that throughout history has guided the Western concepts of universality and difference. Accordingly, Jean Luc Nancy said that there is no such thing as the body, and Elizabeth Grosz speaks about the body as volatile, as a weak potentiality, which is always produced and present through the complex process of embodiment, performative practices and translations.


What I would like to do now is to present a concrete example in which we could clearly observe how the question of physicality is not an easy one and how it is always connected with the ways of performing the body. The example is from contemporary dance, more precisely from the “reunion” of Western and “Eastern” dance that occurred after the fall of communism (but could also be generally connected to performing the bodies of the Other in today’s world of spectacular commodities).

As we know, in almost all communist states contemporary dance was relegated to the territory of amateurism, with no continuity in its development and, limited to various individual attempts. We could say that, in the East, the dancing body was really expelled to the pure zero degree: with its amateur nature not at all recognizable as culture. But how was this difference really articulated at the beginning of the nineties? At first glance, the difference was seen primarily in the institutional status contemporary dance has in the West and in the East. On the one hand, it has been acknowledged by institutions and history for quite a few decades, thus developing its own institutional, pedagogical and production network. On the other hand, it has been marginal for decades, condemned to non-existence or fighting for survival, without a basic structure that would assure its development, outside its dialogue with institutions, and a critique, attempting this only in more-or-less the last decade with the rise and struggle for a basic infrastructure. But it is only at first glance that the opening of the East to West and vice-versa could be understood as the somehow natural need for professionalisation and institutionalisation, the exchange of models and knowledge, and the urgent need to bridge the difference. What is interesting here is to observe how this institutional difference discloses the privilege of Western contemporary dance. Contemporary dance in its institutionalised form somehow paradoxically became the token of contemporariness, urbanity, modernity, freedom, democracy, globalisation and so on. By means of pedagogical and other more-or-less developed infrastructural production networks, the Western body is trained and exploited to the maximum, with a number of techniques at its disposal, always disclosing to us its own physicality, which is somehow “in-time” and, present. What is very significant for this Western institutionalisation of contemporary dance is an almost representative and exclusive relation to the present.2 The way the body of the West-East reunion was represented somehow paradoxically disclosed different physicalities to us. On the one hand, the Western dancing body was completely equipped for the present. On the other hand, the Eastern unarticulated body – with its dark, closed and incomprehensible attraction to the past -, cannot communicate with the Western gaze without having a strong political -, or, better yet, local – meaning whenever it is articulated. We could say that the development of Western contemporary dance has somehow turned the potentiality and autonomy of the body -,this discovering of the body in-between – into a specific and exclusive privilege.

The problem here is that due to the ruthless dictate from the present, the position of which is almost monumental in contemporary dance, we feel uncomfortable whenever we are faced with a difference, with the “physicality of the Other” To put it differently, the Western gaze therefore remains hesitant when it comes to attributing autonomy and potentiality of the body to the Other, and it rather perceives it as un-articulated, “still not there”, confused, somehow clumsy, too bodily, too romantic, narrative, not really present, an attempt, and a delayed physicality that, is always reduced to a special context (political, traditional, ethnic, local, etc.). Western contemporary dance somehow institutionalised an exclusive right to contemporariness, urbanity, autonomy, and – what is even more important – the right to universality. Contemporary dance that is not part of the Western institutionalisation of “physicality”, is not recognised as the same legitimate and original searching for the modes in-between, for the potentiality and presence of the body, with its own privileged relationship to contemporariness and universality. It is instead perceived differently as a fact, reduced in this difference into the past, the Other and, otherness. It is understood as something that is “not being of the moment”, which is somehow “doubly late”, culturally, technologically, aesthetically and so on.3 The West was behaving, as Lepecki said, as though synchronicity-here is the exclusive subject of Western dramaturgy, and chronology a matter of geography.4 We could even say that the West somehow perversely observed in the Other its own beginnings and articulations of physicality.


In this example we could see how even “physicality” itself could be turned into an exclusive privilege, how it could become a token of specific understanding of autonomy and presence. For this reason, it is so important that we understand physicality as at way of performing the body, as a way of disclosing to us its endless possibilities and potentialities. We could say that the body is somehow always performed, or, as H. T. Lehmann said: “The body is thus already both stage and scenery, is it in itself theatre.”5 It is performed as a universality or as a difference. What is important here is to see how this physical and bodily performance is constructed, “where the stage is and where the spectator is, who built the scenery and who is an authoritarian director here”. In this “theatre” we could see, for example, how the body of other is equipped with meaning, fetishized, staged, distorted and, performed. If we understood the body as a theatre, than maybe we could step out from this gridlock of zero degree and open up the body in-between with all its different possibilities: physical, volatile, impossible, energetic, translatable, vague, incomprehensible, attractive, magnetic, inappropriate, alluring, disgusting, crazy, and so on. It is exactly this production of the body, its weak potentiality that is always the result of complex process of embodiment, that is also in the focus of contemporary theatre and dance using physicality as its main theatrical strategy.

So, in the end, let us’ ask ourselves how we as a public can build a relationship to the different and numerous physicalities of bodies. How can we observe the body that is performing for us, and how can we enter into this so-called bodily theatre? Is it enough to sit down and respect the difference? Is it enough to sit down and establish with relief that there is much more universality than we expected? What if this game of difference and universality is a game of laziness, a game of our incapacity to be shocked, enthusiastic, thrilled, disgusted, for or against, a game of our own fear to be opened, hurt or, happy? The ethics of respect is a very tricky issue, and it basically amounts to reductionist ethics: respect, yes – but leave my territory untouched. Consequently, what is so fascinating about being a spectator even today in this complex word of spectacular commodities is exactly this possibility to perhaps open up our own territory – not for the experience of difference, but for the experience of our own connection. This experience is not an experience of a privilege, but a strong will to jump into the field of in-between, to left ourselves be touched by the weak potentiality of the body: by its energy, allure, disgust, magnetism, words, eyes, vagueness, inappropriateness, isolation, abstraction and flesh. We could be lost, or find that, it does not matter as long as we are prepared to be a part of the demanding but also very joyful process of translation. And translation is at the end everything that the physical is about.

The creation of difference therefore has its history and could be found in the very concept of modernity, in the very concept of the “colonising and advanced West”. Even more, we could say that the concepts of universality and difference are somehow both manifestations of the same history of “Western humanism” and could especially be found in the hegemonic humanistic notion of sameness and today’s “globalist” and “liberal” notions of otherness (or its multicultural version of respecting otherness).

Andre Lepecki: "The Body in Difference", Body / Difference, FAMA, Frakcija and Maska Joint Edition, no.1, vol 1, 2000, pages 6 - 13.

Naima Prevost: Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War, Studies in Dance History, WU Press, Hanover & London 1998.

Andre Lepecki: "The Body in Difference", Body / Difference, FAMA, Frakcija and Maska Joint Edition, no.1, vol 1, 2000, pages 6 - 13.

Andre Lepecki: "The Body in Difference", Body / Difference, FAMA, Frakcija and Maska Joint Edition, no.1, vol 1, 2000, pages 6 - 13.

Hans-Thies Lehmann: "Virtual Theatre Bodies", Body / Difference, FAMA, Frakcija and Maska Joint Edition, no.1, vol.1, 2000, pages 14 - 19.

Published 20 March 2003
Original in English

Contributed by Balcanis © Balcanis Eurozine


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