The Rite of Spring
“Now I will dance you the war”
When the Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky uttered these words in 1919, the audience gathered for a Red Cross gala were aghast.
Exactly like in 1913, with The Rite of Spring, when he highlighted the tumult which was troubling mankind by questioning the anatomy and the distribution of the body as it had been conceived by the theoreticians of the “belle danse”, and of classical ballet. He reinvented movement as if he was taking the pulse of a history as fragmented as his art, and paved the way for the pioneers of modern dance, who wanted to express the world they were living in, a world which, in the twentieth century, was profoundly marked by conflicts with repercussions which were global and therefore universal.
The body, a new intellectual space in defeated Germany
The expressionist dances of Mary Wigman, Valeska Gert and Kurt Jooss express in their own way the hope and despair being felt during this period of European history.
Valeska Gert did not portray characters that abounded in humanity but characters who were grotesque, marginalized, depraved, prostitutes in a decaying bourgeois world. Her solo Canaille (1930) toured throughout Europe until it incurred the anti-Communist and anti-Jewish wrath of the Nazis in 1933. In 1937, photos of her solos were displayed as “Degenerate Art” in the Munich exhibition “The Eternal Jew”. In 1938, she headed off for New York.
Kurt Jooss owed his celebrity to The Green Table (Der Grüne Tisch – La Table verte), the first piece of dance choreography to deal openly with a political theme. The Green Table is an indictment of the absurdity of wars and their recurrence. Jooss squarely addressed the world’s current events and realistically denounced troublemakers who put the world at risk. He was forced to leave Nazi Germany because he allowed Jewish dancers in his company.
Rising from the ashes in post-Hiroshima Japan
In 1945, Germany and Japan experienced a defeat which cost the lives of more than sixty million people.
Who then better than these artists for engaging in an autopsy of the collective body?
Tatsumi Hijikata played the role of the “Man” in the work Kinjiki in 1959 and butoh, the dance of darkness, was born and caused an immediate scandal. The body of the dancer is like that of a medium.
The collapse of a nation and the resulting loss for a whole community, are obviously crucial in the discovery of a new form of exploration of the body which is also full of the cult of the new Japanese identity.
Ushio Amagatsu and his group, Sankaï Juku opted for refined aesthetics and his work is a far cry from Hijikata’s. However, his works still deal with life and death and this dance theatre is a ghostly conflict, which profoundly leaves its mark in the minds of the audience.
The rebellious body of postmodernity
America, standard bearer for liberty, progress and modernity in the West, was carrying a time bomb which soon began to be known as a “counterculture”. While protests were growing and, on the streets of American cities, young activists and the non-violent movement of Martin Luther King were proclaiming their anger, the members of the Judson Church Theater, a collective of artists based in New York, refined the concept of “happening” in public spaces. Dance was clearly colliding with reality. And, it would not let go for quite some time.
Anna Halprin was a pioneer in this field and considered that all movement is dance and calls upon “democratic bodies”, simple bodies which break loose from virtuosity and appear to be there, simply there, unconditionally engaged in the movement, as seen in Parades and Changes, created in 1965, in which a startling passage reveals naked men and women, almost perfectly indistinguishable in terms of gender.
With her Early works, the choreographer Trisha Brown followed her predecessor's, Anna Halprin’s lead.
To innovate with the body, she took over urban architecture (streets, building facades and roofs, etc.), alternative spaces (lofts, galleries, etc.), nature and its elements (forest, trees, water, air) and invented other forms and relationships between body and space.
The challenge for Trisha Brown, for Anna Halprin and for the members of the Judson, lay in being together, in reinventing the basic components of a “common” body.
Political body, conflictive body
In the Middle East, which was engaged in conflicts since the creation of Israel in 1948, another way of being together has flourished, especially since the First Gulf War in 1990.
Ohad Naharin was appointed director of the Batsheva Dance Company exactly in 1990. The troupe, founded in 1964, took on a unique identity: as Naharin himself said, he lived and used his talents in a country permanently disrupted by conflicts.
His dance and the sense of togetherness that is his raison d'être are in complete contradiction with the Israel of today. However, it is not harmony which he produces for us, quite on the contrary, what he presents is the animal that we are and the understanding that we must acquire. The result is enthralling.
Hofesh Shechter, one of Ohad Naharin’s numerous disciples and now established in London, lets his performers roam about on a usually bare stage, in search of the unifying movement, the spark which brings harmony. Uprising is a kind of choreographic raid. Shechter choreographs the contradictory pleasure that bodies discover while first at play and then at war, because, as he says himself, “it's really exciting to be part of a war".
In her dance theatre, Robyn Orlin explores the traces of racism, the clear conscience and hypocritical compromises between communities. She caused a scandal very early on by including black people from the townships in the workshops she directed, something which was even more unusual because she was part of the white Afrikaner minority.
She affirms, like many choreographers before her, that the body is the place in which conflicts are resolved, that it can endure them, escape them or sublimate them and that, it tells the story of the world, our world, its tensions and its possible achievements.