“When experience is the artwork; the end of the performance?” – an article from the WM call

By: Venke Marie Sortland

Late in the evening the spectators who have gathered outside the theatre entrance are fetched by a black-clad figure, and guided a couple of blocks downtown to an old industrial building. In the artist-managed gallery on the first floor they are met by a large table, abound with cakes, fruits and other goodies. What should have been an invitation to gluttony rather awakens a sickening, slightly nauseating feeling, as the room is bathed in light presenting everything in it, including the spectators, in nuances of black and yellowish white. Further the spectators are led into a back room, also bathed in the same yellowish light. Here they are asked to find their places, close by one another, around the open field of the floor where 15 black-clad bodies lie spread. The spectators see the bodies on the floor, and each other’s yellowish white faces, they can hear each other breathing in each other’s ears and feel the heat from each other. Among them in the room two musicians have also found their places, and the spectators are suddenly aware that the mood of the gallery has been coloured by a subtle layer of sound. Slowly music starts unfolding. Eventually the dance does the same; the black-clad bodies very slowly start moving, first a few, later all of them. The movements are so minimal it is almost impossible to determine if they are taking place at all. Besides, the performers are presented as creatures rather than persons, their faces have been hidden in the depths of black hooded sweaters. In the span of approximately 40 minutes the movements, followed by the music, slowly pick up speed when rhythmic shaking eventually break up the slow flow. The performers end in a shaking mass in the middle of the floor, for a moment inseparable. Finally the mass is still, before it dissolves, and the spectators are invited to continue the party, eating cake and dancing to the heavy bass rhythms now filling the facilities.

The description is of the Norwegian choreographer Ingri Fiksdal’s “Urskog”, performed at Dansens Hus in Oslo in September 2013 (note 1 and 2). The performance is an example of an interesting tendency that has developed within experimental dance art these past few years, that is, an emphasis on experience, understood as the aesthetic (sensory) experience dance as an expression may create in the spectator.

Isn’t dance always about the aesthetic experience created in the spectator? Even though the emphasis on experience is not new within dance art, it seems as if this has become the main artistic project for many dance artists of today. Examining movement as form, the achievement of the performer and the way a plot or a theme is conveyed, factors often considered as criteria for successful dance art, are regarded as secondary to the experience aspect. The tendency clearly also exists in performing arts in general, in visual arts and music. But more than being a thematic or form-related tendency, the emphasis on the experience in dance art challenges us to pose fundamental questions about what dance as an expression is, and how dance can best be conveyed.


The aesthetics of the performative as a model for understanding
How can we best understand productions such as “Urskog”, in which the traditional criteria for evaluating dance, such as the achievement of the performers, examining of form and conveyance of meaning, fall short? The performers who lie spread across the gallery floor barely moves during the hour of the performance, which makes it, mildly put, difficult to talk about their performance or examining movement as form. To interpret the performance from a predominant theme doesn’t seem to cover what happens this evening either, as the situation makes many different journeys possible. In her book “The Transformative Power of Performance” (note 3) the German professor in theatre studies Erika Fischer-Lichte argues that what she calls performative expressions can’t be fully understood within the traditional aesthetic discourse of theatre theory. We need an additional term about the aesthetics of the performative, first of all because performative expressions break down the traditional relationship between performer and spectator. The performance becomes an event, put in motion and defined by all who are present, in which neither theatre conventions nor the norms of daily life can tell the spectators how to act and react. Secondly, performative expressions differ from how we usually create meaning through a theatre performance, because the acts within it can’t be interpreted as signs of anything but the situation they take place in. The experience in the spectators there and then is the “meaning” of the expression.

Within Fischer-Lichte’s term “the aesthetics of the performative”, the spectators are regarded as co-creators in the situation. The professor is interested in how these expressions transform the spectators from passive to active. Most of her examples are based on performative expressions in which the spectator is literally transformed from a passive onlooker to an active participant in the situation. But what she considers transformation is first and foremost the emotional reaction awoken in the spectator – in the next round possibly leading to action or reflection. In other words, the aim of the transformation is not necessarily audience interaction. It is in the effect, the experience, the “meaning” of the expression is.

Further we have to open to that the spectators’ co-creation may be utterly subtle. The point is not necessarily that the spectators do so much, but that the recognition that they are present with their physical, breathing bodies, their focused or floating attention, and their more or less visible emotional reactions, makes a difference to all of the involved.

To understand Fiksdal’s performance such theoretical approach is essential. If one, first of all, acknowledges that the spectators are co-creators, it becomes easier and more meaningful to acknowledge one’s own and others’ presence in the situation, and to make use of the room for action. Further the thought that the aim of the performance is the exact experience in itself invites one to acknowledge and open for what is actually happening, instead of interpreting what happens in a search for the project’s thematic core. Fiksdal’s production gives the spectators the opportunity to experience movement, not as an achievement or a sign pointing beyond itself, nor as formal experimentation, but as tangible, physical movement. The dancers move slowly, they shake, they sway – and that is exactly what it looks like. They don’t try to make it become anything else than it actually is. Thus the spectators are allowed a play not first and foremost about association, but about kinetic response to what they see – the very slow may suddenly be experienced as fast and the shaking makes the bodies fade out into one another.


Experience as a pedagogic aim
The emphasis on experience may also be observed in workshops, in which including the participants’ aesthetic experiences seem to have become more important to many than to convey techniques and working methods. My first experience with this kind of workshop took place during Impulstanz in 2007, when I joined a workshop with Milli Bitterli (AT). What I had believed to be an experimental entry to technical training was probably to a larger degree about creating aesthetic experiences in one’s own body. More than searching for a particular form we examined how it could feel to kick our legs high into the air, do cartwheels, roll across the floor or jump. Other workshops take the aspect of experience even further. Among those who have made the strongest impressions on me are American Keith Hennessy, who among other things work with inspiration from Shamanism, in which choir singing and long sequences of repetitive movements are included, and Robert Steijn (AT), who among other things performs different types of death rituals during his workshops.

The emphasis on experience pulls the performance and the workshop as forms of conveying dance art closer to one another. Another point Fischer-Lichte accentuates in her theoretic discussion of the aesthetics of the performative is exactly that when we regard the performance as an event, in which the spectators and the performers are together in creating what happens, the traditional divide between production, work and reception is broken down. The performance can’t be seen as a product existing independently of the spectators who are present there and then. I will argue that this is just the case in the experience-based expressions, and that the divide between performance and workshop is reduced by this.


Participant-based understanding of dance art?
Can the tendency towards the experience-based be interpreted as a wish to get back to a more participant-based understanding of dance art, in which the divide between spectator and performer is no longer very important? If one understands dance as an expression originally more about the individual’s practice in interaction with other performers, rather than as performed for an audience, one may claim that some of dance’s essence got lost when dance became a stage expression. Very many experience dance first and foremost through their own bodies in different kinds of dance education, currently a strong cultural form. Still dance is only acknowledged as art through being staged, or more specifically, professionally performed.

This intersects with issues connected to the divide between art and pedagogics, between conveyance and work, between the artist and pedagogue. But first of all it intersects with issues connected to how dance as an artistic expression may best be experienced and conveyed. It will be interesting to see how closely the workshop and the performance can (or will) get to one another in further development of the experience-based expressions. If I allow myself to sketch on Fiksdal’s “Urskog” I can easily imagine that the spectators are invited to move slowly and shake their bodies with the performers.

Is it interesting to maintain the strong divide between workshop and performance, between pedagogics and art? Can experience-based expressions be a driving force for consideration on how dance can best be conveyed? Is the performance outdated as an expression?


When does dance art work?
Posing questions how dance can best be conveyed demands the courage to emphasise how different expressions actually work. An aesthetic experience of movement may just as well surprise you when skiing as at a dance performance. An interesting dance performance may just as well produce cognitive reflection as an aesthetic experience.

Because of this, the emphasis on effect potentially challenges how dance art is produced, because it demands that the artists are not just interested in their own process, but also in their audience. To understand the effect of an expression one has to have the courage to meet one’s audience at an early stage in the process, and one has to pay interest to how different spectators, based on different backgrounds, experience things differently. When the divide between production, work and reception is broken down, there will also, as we have seen, open a space in which the process of production and the performance may slide into one another. A work that is truly open for its meeting with the audience can never be completed. Instead of looking at this as a threat against artistic integrity and personal character, this grey zone between process and work should rather be regarded as a fruitful space for exploration. Could looking at the dance artist as a facilitator for artistic dance experiences with the audience, rather than as a creative and performing dance artist, be keywords for opening?



1: “Urskog” (2013) by Ingrid Fiksdal took place in Galleri 0047, and was presented as one of several performances during the mini festival “Vi forlot den stille skogen”, initiated by Janne Camilla Lyster at Dramatikkens hus in Oslo in September 2013.

2: Other artists it will be interesting to mention within this context include Diego Gil (AR), Irina Müller (CH/DE) and Trajal Harrell (US), among others. Yet the same I have chosen Fiksdal’s production, because I think that it contains many of the elements I find interesting in this context, and because I have had the opportunity to follow Fiksdal closely the past few years, as a spectator, an extra and a performer. Still, I find it important to specify that the text represents my interpretation of Fiksdal’s works.

3: Erika Fischer-Lichte: “The Transformative Power of Performance”, 2008, Routledge

Building on the Norwegian choreographer Ingri Fiksdal’s production “Urskog” this text seeks to arouse attention to and understanding of a tendency within contemporary experimental dance art of today: The emphasis on experience, that is, the aesthetic (sensory) experience dance may create in the spectator. The writer suggests using the German professor of theatre studies Erika Fischer-Lichte’s term “the aesthetics of the performative” as assistance in understanding these expressions. Further she points out that the tendency to emphasise the aspect of experience has also become a guiding principle within workshops. Rather than regarding the emphasis on experience as a thematic or form-related tendency, the writer seeks to point out that the tendency may challenge us to ask fundamental questions about what dance as an expression is, and how dance can best be conveyed.


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