Anti-Orpheus: Returning to Tino Sehgal’s “This Variation”

Beyond my recent interest in contemporary ‘conceptual’ dance as a reaction to my back/hip trouble (in that ‘holy’ place!), I have undertaken these investigations for another reason: to place the work of Tino Sehgal in some kind of broader, critical context. (Something similar happened to me several years ago when I wanted to understand Cy Twombly’s Classicism by researching the criticisms of his work by contemporaries, especially Donald Judd who collected Twombly’s work, but dubbed his Nine Discourses on Commodus exhibition as a ‘fiasco’). In these recent researches, I had admired the lucid writing of André Lepecki, especially his recent book Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance (2016).

Lepecki doesn’t devote much space to a discussion of Sehgal’s work, but when he does, it is illuminating. For example, in his chapter about works that unfold in darkness, ‘In the dark’, he frames Sehgal’s This Variation (2013) with works by David Weber-Krebs’ Preview (2007), Xavier Le Roy’s Low Pieces (2009-11), Marcelo Evelin’s Suddenly everywhere is black with people, Mette Ingvarsten’s Untitled (2005/2014) and, finally, Mette Edvardsen’s Not Title (2014) – which I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s post. In the chapter ‘The body as archive: Will to reenact and the afterlives of dances’, Lepecki discusses what he calls ‘an ever increasing self-criticality in relationship to the reenacting act’ and mentions Sehgal’s 20 minutes for the 20th century (1999) at the same time as Boris Charmatz’s 20 dancers for the 20th century (2012). These works and others are referenced by Lepecki amid a general reaction to a statement by the French dance theorist and historian Laurence Louppe, who describes the dancer as:

the veritable avatar of Orpheus: he has no right to turn back on his course, lest he be denied the object of his quest.

Lepecki responds by stating:

However, looking across the contemporary dance scene in Europe and the United States, one cannot escape the fact that dancers – contrary to Orpheus, contrary to Louppe’s assertion – are increasingly turning their back, on their and dance’s history’s tracks in order to find the “object of their quest.”

As an example of this ‘turn’, Lepecki refers to the German choreographer Martin Nachbar’s Urheben Aufheben (2008) – sorry but I am not going to attempt to translate this intensely odd title!

Sharing the stage with a blackboard, Nachbar turns to face the audience and says ‘Step one: Entering the Archive’ and then proceeds to run in circles backwards! Lepecki describes this action as follows:

Nachbar enters the archive by re-turning, like an anti-Orpheus.

But where is Tino Sehgal in all of this? Well, Lepecki has given me a context not only for Sehgal’s work in terms of contemporary dance, but also for my own desire to keep re-turning to it. I first read about This Variation in the repeated descriptions of the work in Enrique Vila-Matas’ novel The Ilogic of Kassel and experienced it multiple times in the recent exhibition Carte Blanche at the Palais de Tokyo. In spite of these experience, I keep finding myself wanting to retrace my steps back to both my own experience and Vila-Mata’s description of his experience of that darkened room with the dancers’ shadowy movements and their pulsating beat-box. I have never wanted to own a work of art so much, just so I can have it to return to. I often fantasize about recreating a pirate version of this work in some minor, amateurish way, with friends one chilly night, in  my house, here in Ohio. But I keep thinking about Orpheus and Sehgal’s work as my Eurydice. While I appreciate Lepecki’s framing and the anti-Orphic tenancies of contemporary dance, what happens if I try to re-turn, to look back and then I lose This Variation forever? So, to be safe, I will keep re-reading Vila-Matas and stare longingly at this rough sketch of Carte Blanche that I scrawled on an AirFrance sick-bag on the flight home from Paris.

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