Philipp Gehmacher and Alexander Schellow on space

Philipp Gehmacher on utterance

Jeroen Peeters on walk+talk

Sarma’s anthology walk+talk

Jeroen Peeters - Essays and letters on walk+talk

How to hold oneself, how to pronounce oneself?
Notes on walk+talk Vienna
, written March 2008

Still moving is the title of the project curated by the choreographer Philipp Gehmacher on the invitation of Tanzquartier Wien (14–21 March 2008). Contemporary dance encompasses a wide spectrum of aesthetic, poetical and ideological positions, in which differences matter and require acknowledgement and elucidation. And yet, as a choreographer Gehmacher is interested in a particular niche, as the programme notes makes clear: “The bodies of the invited choreographers have since long incorporated stillness as movement, yet they want to be able to understand movement as their subject matter, time and again, perhaps as the recurring yearning for finding presence in movement.” In Europe’s current dance world, which finds itself so often torn between the extremes of traditionalist or modernist autonomous dance and conceptualist approaches that harbour dance as a taboo or at most embrace it as a readymade, Gehmacher’s Still moving can be read as a statement: Gehmacher wants to draw attention to what one could call a renewed, critical expressionism.

Apart from performances by Sioned Huws, Antonia Baehr/Henry Wilt, and Rémy Héritier, the core of Still moving consisted of the newly conceptualized and produced series called walk + talk, for which Gehmacher invited nine colleagues to demonstrate their movement language and speak about it at the same time. It concerned illustrious predecessors of Gehmacher (Meg Stuart, Boris Charmatz), choreographers who’ve danced in his work (Sioned Huws, Rémy Héritier), fellow travellers from Vienna (Oleg Soulimenko, Milli Bitterli, Anne Juren) or Berlin (Antonia Baehr, Jeremy Wade). The theatre space of the Halle G was stripped bare by Gehmacher and visual artist Alexander Schellow; the choreographers found themselves alone on stage without music, set or props. This resulted in ten quite different proposals, wavering between performance, lecture-demonstration and improvisation, but always putting the artist on the spot and yielding a strong focus on movement language as the basis for choreographic thinking.

With the format walk + talk, Gehmacher places talking, and especially the language of making, in opposition to a view that celebrates dance as beautiful, autonomous and devoid of language. He thereby surpasses and deconstructs modernism’s epistemological stability – a fiction upon which modernist ‘authorized’ critical and theoretical discourses thrive.(1) This doesn’t mean that he fully identifies himself with dance as a medium for knowledge production in a narrow sense, nor with the scientific associations of the lecture-demonstration, which has become an often used format in dance since Xavier Le Roy’s work. Walking has a freer form, which doesn’t straight away venture into the world, but it does embrace an alternative quest for authenticity, like the ‘bare’ theatre space already indicates. Expressionism indeed: not only their work is put at stake, the makers also expose themselves, or at least play with that imaginary horizon. To express oneself runs the risk of making a slip or being misunderstood. Gehmacher: “walk marks the time that passes, the time needed by movement to unfurl itself. talk stands for the assertion, announcement or speaking out, as well as for the complexity of voicing the truths that constitutes one, that one embodies, truths that both gain and lose meaning in their being expressed.” In that vein, the language of making refers to the question of who one is, to the narrativity of life.

Next to an introduction in the work and method of ten makers, a series of portraits and an exploration of a contemporary expressionism, as a whole walk + talk is in the end also a portrait of Philipp Gehmacher, by himself and ten others. Not only because the format, the space and the themes reflect his world and interests, but also because walk + talk concerns ten detours to touch upon what remains undiscussed in Gehmacher’s own work. The limits of the format are telling in that respect: you see the choreographer as dancer, but models of collaboration are left aside in this author’s fiction. Yet there are also the possibilities: as a spectator, you can glimpse behind the scenes and gain insight in the practical language of making and exploring. In an attempt to unfold some of these issues, I will journey criss cross through the walk + talk series.

The hand is a score

How can one at once experience and observe, embody and express? Keeping that paradox alive seems to be part of a contemporary expressionism, which begins with the hand. In her walk + talk, Antonia Baehr introduced her interest in working with scores, first proposing a tautological reading of the task ‘walk and talk’, then re-enacting existing scores, sometimes reading out loud the task as to share its intricacy and source material, eventually responding to pre-recorded voices, all the while piling up new layers of reflection on the delivery of movement, gesture and posture, on authorship, identity and gender. In between she would stand still for a while, remove her sleeve and ‘contemplate’ her left arm. What initially seemed to be just a memory list written on her hand transformed into something else; the gesture made a central trope in walk + talk clear: ‘The hand is a score’. The hands are customarily linked to gestures that accompany speech, gestures with an informal yet familiar quality. Yet once regarded as a score, they contain the gist of a movement vocabulary and a conflicting universe.

The hand provokes observation, it is the place where looking at one’s own body starts. Meg Stuart looked at her hand, driven by a fascination for taking a closer look and discovering details. To observe means to take distance from oneself, which entails an experience of dissociation. A limb severed from the body and let loose: that is choreographer Meg Stuart’s model for an outside view upon oneself, for a body pulled around by the world and foreign energies, for traveling through strange bodies and spaces, for the question whose body is actually at work, under whose gaze, authorship and ownership. The detached hand is also a model for the choreographer’s schizophrenia, negotiating embodiment and reflection while dancing.

The hand is a model for the stage, exposed to the spectators’ gazes. In Gehmacher’s words: “How to negotiate between abstract gestures and gestures that kick into representation straight away, which is hard to avoid?” While that question leads in his body of work to complex reflections on the dominant cultural ideals that shape the visible body, his walk + walk gave an answer on a smaller scale through discussing his movement language. How to give oneself an attitude in response to all those gazes? One of Gehmacher’s strategies to create movement that carries an awareness of this multiple gaze, is an exploration of the difference between narrative and symbolical gestures — think of¨the crossed arms in das überkreuzen beyder hände, which shield the body from all too greedy and explanation-seeking gazes. Boris Charmatz employs the reverse strategy: he seeks to mentally exhaust all the possibilities before he carries out a movement. In walk + talk he demonstrated myriad possible interpretations of a single arm gesture, by briefly marking a consecutive gesture, hoping to find an unexpected alternative. This method of exhaustion seeks to render unequivocal representations impossible by embracing contradiction: “Once a révérence can express both the king’s and the servant’s gesture you embody contradiction, get started and can move anyplace.”

The hand leads into space. For Gehmacher, that literally begins with the question of how one can stand upright on stage, while gravity and the world pull at the body from all sides. “Moving your arms about is a way to take your kinesphere with you.” In a long exploration of that motif, Gehmacher made clear which decisions he takes while dancing, including how technical concerns nurture one’s poetics. The arms do mark one’s kinesphere, yet to move about, Gehmacher first puts his chest forward and thereby nearly automatically launches into his characteristic stumbling walk, which is slowed down and brought to a halt by a quarter turn of his torso. That took him years of research, to then find out one day that he could also just stand still and point in many directions “to be in contact with the world without moving around all the time.” That world is obviously the theatre, which entails yet another large question: is it possible to imagine an outside in the theatre?

The hand leads to the other. Tracing and caressing an imaginary person on stage, Anne Juren showed an aspect of her sculptural thinking that revolves around moulds and negative space. It is Gehmacher who discussed at length the problem of dealing with another person on stage, departing from the horizontally extended arm that reaches out to measure, touch or violate the other. He stretched out both arms into the surrounding space: “The end of my arms, in my fingers, I suppose that is where I end and the world begins.” Me, the world, the other, but never quite outside: it is the recurring conflicting triangle in the work of a choreographer that time and again runs into himself on stage, enmeshed in his own movement language. A deep melancholy lingers in Gehmacher’s hand, as a dark mirror that turns into a familiar score all too easily. That he is himself aware of that, in spite of continuously pushing the borders of his choreographic phraseology when addressing the question of how to give oneself an attitude on stage, he exposed at the end of his walk + talk with the phrase rich with overtones: “Maybe the only thing I want in the end is to hold myself.” Is taking up a curator’s position with the walk + talk series perhaps another escape route?

It was impossible not to be reminded at that moment of Oleg Soulimenko, who opened the walk + talk series with a reflection on memory and a sense of possibility on stage with the question how a dancer takes decisions in that mirror palace. He quoted movements and gestures from films (“You cannot steal movement, you just use it”), such as an upright posture with two horizontally extended arms, which Gehmacher would call two days later the very core of his movement language. It thus was already announced by Soulimenko, who referred to the moment in City of Angels when Nicholas Cage prepares himself to fall into that foreign, human world, pursuing the desire for a corporeal reality, prerequisite for communication. The mirror palace and the outside: eventually Soulimenko returned to his initial position at the edge of the stage, shadowboxing.

Heterogeneous vocabularies

The dance studio is a space foreign to most spectators of contemporary dance – including critics, theoreticians and curators. What language is actually spoken in there? In newspapers artists are interviewed about their world-view, in the weekend editions about their lives, and in specialised journals about their artistic intentions and poetics. Yet seldom are they addressed as makers, which renders the language of making inaccessible and inexistent even for interested audiences. During walk + talk, banal incidents appeared to conceal profound issues, such as a problem with a microphone and a producer’s complaint about audibility. Or was it a problem of comprehension? And of what exactly: that peculiar continental English used by dance makers all over Europe? Or perhaps rather of that foreign language which seldom leaves the dance studio? When Milli Bitterli adopts the language of the dance class, it reaches out toward the spectator. When Boris Charmatz speaks two lines in French, provincialist Vienna is confused. When Oleg Soulimenko speaks English while dancing in Russian, nobody bothers or even notices. When Meg Stuart moves from talking to mumbling to lip-syncing inaudible words, it is welcomed as imaginative. When Philipp Gehmacher talks about his “shoulder as a mediator that allows to throw your organs into a limb” – are we then suddenly too far from home? In what language does one actually speak about one’s work as a choreographer?

Referring to this ‘dance talk,’ the French dance theoretician Laurence Louppe thinks that not only the discursive stratum of dance performances demands attention, but also conversations among makers. She writes: “These conversations equally nurture a ground of shared references and contribute to the sharing of a memory and a culture. That ‘culture,’ in the anthropological sense of the word, nourishes itself with a History (of dance, of art), memories of performers, dance experiences, and the intimate rapport with the body. It is the ‘dance talk’ (…), often incomprehensible to those who don’t belong to the choreographic microcosm. This speech of dance will step by step, as I hope, be able to make itself heard through infiltration in the dominant cultural discourse.” (2) In walk + talk something similar happened by creating a public space for this language to exist, which was an important step towards alternative ways of discussing dance. Not that these new insights lead to transparency: the language of making remains fundamentally heterogeneous and foreign.

What goes on in the head of the dancer? Often, that private dramaturgy is too singular to be exchanged even among makers. Yet sometimes it is geared toward communication and transmission. Milli Bitterli adopted a teacher’s persona when discussing technique as a way to understand the body, its memory and training, and as a way to explore shapes – rather than reproduce images. She explained how she thinks in opposites while dancing (“embrace the desire to get up when on the floor, think of a new start when about to break up, think of love when in pain”), includes emotion and enjoys to slightly overdo it, like dressing oneself with movement and then also overdressing oneself. After all, the seemingly unequivocal speech of teaching appeared to be a vehicle to generate a complex movement language in which also new forms, contradictions, emotions and irony can find a place. How to move faster than one’s thoughts? Throw gestures without thinking first, pollute your mind with images until something else appears in this cluster of thoughts, considerations and tasks. This whirlpool in the dancer’s head, as a private dramaturgy aiming at self-acceleration and complexity, was aptly expressed in Rémy Héritier’s loud and overpowering soundtrack, overlayering his own voice several times. A multitude of voices provoking an obstinate dance desiring to derail itself and move anyplace, beyond one’s habits and acquired movement language.

For Boris Charmatz, dance is eminently discursive, always brimming with language, whether outspoken or residing silently in the moving body. In his walk + talk, he evoked how rich the language used in the series actually is: it includes tasks, vocabularies of anatomy and dance techniques, explanations, narrative and anecdotes, etc. When dancers speak, they are today still confronted with the strong expectation that dance should be a silent art form. Which doesn’t mean that talking on stage makes dance automatically a political act, as Charmatz pointed out with an intriguing anecdote. In 2002 he performed the political speech J’ai failli, taking the position of the socialist Lionel Jospin, who had lost the presidential elections already in the first round. This was not only speaking on stage, but speaking out, moving from a noble artistic interest in ‘the political’ to embracing politics. After the performance, a woman, for whom dance is a strong art form precisely because it doesn’t need language, addressed Charmatz in confusion and disagreement, saying his speech was a problem. Charmatz added: “I still don’t know whether it was a problem for me, for her, or for dance.” If dancers have to speak and to speak out on stage, because no one else does, might dance’s specific place in society then eventually get lost?

Skilled vulnerability

All ten choreographers had a deliberate entrance and exit, as a way to address the audience, appropriate the space, launch themselves into their walk + talk. Milli Bitterli for instance quickly marked and pointed out a series of entrances she had previously done in other pieces. “But today I will enter from there.” Once behind the backdrop, waiting to make her entrance, she continued to talk about her anxiety of going on stage, adding a little emotion in her voice to it, but also well knowing that “it is fake, because this moment actually happened five minutes ago behind that other door.” That is her freedom on stage: the possibility to lie. In an aftertalk, she mentioned another element of security pertinent to walk + talk: that the allegedly ‘bare’ space of Halle G was actually a construction by Philipp Gehmacher and Alexander Schellow, an intervention that made her feel safe in her exposure.

The spatial set-up for walk + talk was as crucial as it was invisible or barely discussed. Gehmacher and Schellow had taken the backdrop, wings, portal frame and other curtains out of the space, flooded the stage with light that extended into the auditorium, scattered several pick-up microphones across the space to create a peculiar acoustic double, and added small details here and there, like a narrower stretch of dance floor, or a loudspeaker sitting on stage. For each walk + talk, details would change, like the size and position of the speaker, or a microphone in an alternative position. For spectators following the whole walk + talk series, these changes brought the history of the space to attention. Though the myriad possibilities of the set-up were hardly used by the performing artists, partly due to a lack of rehearsal time and generating not more than indifference, that could also appear as a gesture of resistance. After all, Gehmacher had invited nine people to expose themselves and their work in a space that was very much composed after his ideas – so they had to move in someone else’s world. In a discussion, Schellow also called the intricate sound design a world beyond their control.

What appears to be an empty space, is already designed, marked by other performances, charged with the memories and projections of artists and spectators, brimming with unknown energies and potential places. Sioned Huws’ walk + talk specifically addressed that space, challenging it by adding a layer of impossibility. She entered through the back door, danced all the way up to the front according to a strict swivelling pattern, and continued to map out the whole perimeter of the stage – without including the backstage or audience areas. She ended up in front of the dance floor, close to the audience, dropped her concentration and started to talk casually, stating that she had failed to accomplish the task of walk + talk, that she ended up stringing movement together as if making a performance, that it was quite off the mark and that she had decided at 4 pm to not present that. “So, you can relax. What you are going to see is not a performance.” The genuine character of her confession, the thwarting of expectations, the energy drop, the sudden silence, the confusion that ensued – it would never leave the space.

Rather than discussing her failure of 4 pm, Huws had it hover in that large empty space, or perhaps even passed it on to the audience as a hot potato. In a tone as heavy as informal, she entered into dialogue with the audience, inviting to look at the space. To her, it didn’t speak, it was just a large empty space. And indeed, without a dancer in it to pull the spectators’ imagination about and fuel theatre’s economy of desire, the space didn’t speak, it stayed curiously mute. Later on, Huws proposed to trade places with the audience – eventually discussing this exchange as her idea of choreography that espouses the utopia of real people in real time on stage. That most spectators eagerly jumped on stage was actually not only propelled by their lingering curiosity and desire to perform, but perhaps also a step to overcome the unsettling stage fright of an imagination that rests speechless in front of what was a large, empty stage.

Critical expressionism

walk + talk did not only provide a glimpse of the dance studio, but attempted to show and discuss aspects of making in an alternative way on stage. Something new came into being, because the language of making, with all the knowledge and experience that comes with it, became public and thus explicitly referred to the larger question of how we represent ourselves and the world. That transformation sheds light onto the ‘critical expressionism’ of the ten makers, which despite the many differences seems to revolve around the following fiction: choreography as a vehicle to treat in a poignant way the human condition, specifically by questioning the limits of representation.

Sioned Huws’ walk + talk pointed at one of the main paradoxes in contemporary dance: to address human failure, vulnerability or exposure, one needs highly trained dancers in order to use the body as a richly textured metaphor for inability. Vulnerability on stage is always skilled vulnerability. When performers would ‘really’ fail (whatever that is), it doesn’t speak anymore, as one drops out of intelligibility’s realm, or as one is exposed in an embarrassing way. An example of the latter is an inexperienced dancer that is lost in an improvisation, unable to cope with the situation and lift the awkwardness to a metaphorical level. The challenge for the participants of walk + talk was precisely this: how to explain one’s strategies and show at the same time vulnerability as an artist? That paradoxical quest for authenticity was permanently tangible in Alexander Schellow’s ‘bare’ yet highly contrived theatre setting, in which the lighting connected stage and house in order to highlight the intersubjective reality in the theatre.

Exposure is one of Meg Stuart’s main themes, and recurring in her walk + talk on several levels, from demonstrating impossible tasks such as ‘getting off the floor’ or ‘being your own shelter’, over persistently breaking up her phrases and lines of thought while moving through her back pile of tasks, memories, experiences, bits and pieces of old performances, to addressing the audience (“What are you looking at? Take a closer look.”) and improvising herself in a muddle and then out of it again. All of it were familiar strategies, but Gehmacher’s format provided an interesting framing: without supporting dramaturgy, music and set design, Stuart was ultimately confronted with the question of her own movement language, without the usual packaging.

Both Boris Charmatz and Jeremy Wade, who presented their walk + talks in one evening, have an obsession with the real in their work. Showing and explaining excerpts of pieces, Wade stated with a certain bluntness his documentary strategy as a choreographer. To address failure, he incorporates movement material as he witnessed it in drug addicts at rave parties, in an asylum as a social worker, etc. For Charmatz, the real is connected to the subject’s insecure place in the symbolical order, and to the collapse of intricate representational systems. He alternated choreographic strategies such as exhaustion and absorption with throwing fits, toying with his dark desire to destroy things and the unconscious as imaginary. But the limits unsettling Charmatz’ work were to be found elsewhere, when he suggested the futility of his radical manoeuvres in a coded way by performing two dances by Isadora Duncan: rocking and burying a dead child (art overtaken by ‘life’), and a worker’s dance (art overtaken by the ‘world’, that is by a political reality).

In her walk + talk that closed the series, Anne Juren went in a very different direction than her predecessors, placing the project in an unexpected perspective. She didn’t address the audience directly, didn’t adhere to the lecture-demonstration format, proposed a series of scenes but didn’t exactly explain her work. Juren hinted at the biographical by stating her age in connection with scenes, moving back into the past (“29”, “27”), travelling through experiences that have been important for her artistic development. Deliberately performing a certain distance and inwardness in connection with the biographical, Juren resisted some overtones at work in walk + talk: is the expectation that artists genuinely expose themselves on stage after all that different from human interest in newspapers, magazines and television shows?

Juren actually began by telling a story about being invited to a dinner party where you don’t know anybody, don’t quite understand the context, don’t even understand the language spoken there, and find yourself in the position of a spectator trying to avoid embarrassment. In a way, Juren deconstructed the idea cherished in walk + talk that an artist can actually explain one’s work and reintroduced mystery or secret as a central notion in art-making. Even when guided into new languages in ten or a thousand walk + talks, as an audience member you’ll always have to work to enter other people’s world.

Letters by Philipp Gehmacher and Jeroen Peeters

Vienna, 17 April 2008

Dear Jeroen,

I read again through your notes, as you describe them, just now. I think they are all very valuable and of interest and I’m happy the walk+talk series is written intelligently about. What is interisting to me is that speaking out has its paradoxical consequences as well. The attempt to express brings confusion as much as clarity but maybe that’s the fertile ground we’re treading on. I would say that ‘ how to hold yourself’ is, for me, about stance/’haltung’ and reading through your text, I find, and I don’t know whether I’m corrrect, the idea of holding myself, physically literally maybe, which all together leads to a different kind of holding, or being held up by oneself. I guess the hand, out of its mundane context, is always searching for the graspable, to put it even more mysteriously. Anyway, I like the ‘the hand is core’ chapter and think that there could be a whole essay written about this subject matter.

The other big issue that comes up in me whilst re-reading your thoughts are the ideas around space, the theatre space, my spatial set up in theatres. Maybe there’s simply no empty space, or maybe difference, or the subject, can more easily come to the foreground on an intentionally given ground. I think we, I leisurely include here the many for the sake of my argument, haven’t gone far enough in understanding space, ‘this designed space’ or maybe all designed spaces. I can’t really say more about it now as I feel the term space just brings up so many simplified notions and question. Maybe we need to use the term setting or just understand that space is the work. It’s actually all of it.

Anyway, more thoughts. (…)

All the best,


Brussels, 23 April 2008

Dear Philipp,

Thanks for your comments.

What you write about “The attempt to express brings confusion as much as clarity but maybe that’s the fertile ground we’re treading on.” is interesting to me: if the ten choreographers that contributed to walk + talk are in their own work busy with some kind of ‘critical expressionism’ (which I believe), then that goes right to the core of the project. Speaking out or exposure means that you recognize the intersubjective reality of the theatre or the public sphere and hence take the risk to be understood differently or even be misunderstood. I am with you when it comes to the complexity that lingers in “how to hold oneself”, but I admit that I deliberately wanted to reinforce some of its overtones, as I think that’s exactly where you expose the limits of your current work - and possibly create openings as well. Rereading your thoughts on the hand in the incubator book (the hand as a symbol for both the ‘Aussen’ and the ‘Gegenüber’), I was reminded of Rilke’s famous 8th elegy of Duino: “Dieses heisst Schicksal: gegenüber sein / und nichts als das und immer gegenüber.”

Space needs further discussion indeed, especially when you think it in relation to the subject, it would lead to an interesting debate of what the public space is for and should be like. “Maybe there’s simply no empty space, or maybe difference, or the subject, can more easily come to the foreground on an intentionally given ground”. I agree, that’s why I don’t endorse the liberal notion of a ‘neutral’ public space, as it doesn’t allow for difference to exist publicly, that is in a different way than it can exist privately. To state the issue philosophically: How to symbolize one’s proper difference and invisibility to oneself in the public sphere? To recognize the symbolical nature of speaking out or showing oneself (in contrast to just making visible what already exists in the private sphere, which is an expressivist rather than a ‘monumental’ symbolical relation) needs a particular design of the space, whether it be the public area or the theatre. But how one translates that is again another thing. The space designed for walk + talk contained in any case some important elements: a resistant acoustic space that recognize a heteronomous subject notion; a lighting design that addresses the audience as part of theatre’s intersubjective reality; interventions that state “this is a theatre” (and not a studio for instance).

Maybe this conflict between two incompatible notions of public space, reveal a paradox in walk + talk that I can’t bring home yet. Though in their work most (if not all) of the invited artists would deal with notions such as difference and subjectivation in a non-expressivist way in their work, the invitation that they address their work in walk + talk entailed perhaps an expectation for a certain transparency and self-explication that is expressivist, and not only runs against the grain of their work’s subject notion, but actually largely overpowered actual questions of subjectivation and the space it requires. Yet, in the end, I think that the ‘language of making’, though it was largely focussed on movement and vocabulary (and for instance not on issues such as collaboration), remained in the end profoundly heterogeneous and strange, and in that respect exuded difference (cf. the whole discussion about ‘understanding’).

So much for now.

All the best, Jeroen

Where is dance now and where will it go?
Notes on walk+talk Brussels
, written April 2011

Exactly three years after a first project at Tanzquartier Wien, the Austrian choreographer Philipp Gehmacher organized a new series walk + talk at the Kaaistudio’s in Brussels (15-19 March 2011). Driven by the question where one’s “own” movement language comes from, he invited himself and nine colleagues to walk and talk on stage, that is to show their movement language and simultaneously speak about the inspirational sources, intuitions, practices and processes of decision-making that afford it. Choreographers who are equally dancers of their own work, reflected from an internal perspective on their practice and this in form familiar to them, namely a short solo performance – be it in a “stripped” space, without décor, music or props as hold or “bag of tricks”. Gehmacher writes in the programme sheet: “I am still interested in artists who manage to put their bodies into their ideas of movement, and create movement, knowing that this is based on an understanding, not just of time and space, but also of concepts of and about physical human (and maybe non-human) existence. My understanding of what movement is should be visible in the way I decide to be when I dance. And then it is about this shaping, about articulation, the formalising, yielding content. Among many other things.”

During five consecutive nights, each time two makers presented their work, with an intermission in between. Some choreographers had already participated three years ago and created in Brussels a new walk + talk (Philipp Gehmacher, Rémy Héritier, Anne Juren, Meg Stuart). Then there were a younger generation from Brussels (Pieter Ampe, Eleanor Bauer, Daniel Linehan), as well as more experienced makers in whose practice a paradigm of research and collaboration plays a central role (Mette Ingvartsen, Martin Nachbar, Chrysa Parkinson). Artists who take the word, the language of making, the paradox of skilled vulnerability, the self-portrait: all these themes were at stake, yet as a whole this second series walk + talk removed itself somewhat from Gehmacher’s critical expressionism. The urgency of speaking out and the intimacy of a look behind the scenes was placed in line with a broader quest for authenticity upon which dance’s imaginary realm thrives and the possible forms and meanings it can take on today – with embodiment and embeddedness as keywords. In walk + talk Gehmacher and co were in a sense taking stock guided by the following question: “Where will dance go and where is it now? What is choreographed physicality at the present time, and what will it be in the near future?”


With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, and everything conceals something else.
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Together with visual artist Alexander Schellow, Philipp Gehmacher had reorganized the whole of the Kaaistudio’s in a drastic yet subtle scenography. In the bar, superfluous objects had been removed and the usual black tables yielded to white ones; in the adjoining concert studio stood a white wall and the lighting had been changed – all of this in view of an open sense of space. Next to video documentation of the first walk + talk series, hidden in corner stood a monitor which transmitted in real time the activity on stage – rehearsals as well as performances. Another view of the theatre was possible through the windows in the corridor or via two live video projections in the courtyard, yet another mediated, fragmented gaze guided by two cameras placed on stage – these different viewing options were separated carefully via a nontransparent film, glued onto the veranda’s window pane. As a spectator, one didn’t enter the theatre via the usual door, but through this “prepared” space and over the empty stage to the risers, where for the occasion grey cushions were placed on a bare wooden floor, as an extension of the wooden dance floor in which the physical traces of myriad performances are tangible.

For Schellow a space is never just an empty container, but a landscape in which people move and which they also shape through their actions, observations and memories: “Space is not a construction, but an event. Space takes place, in relation to the people who make use of it.” This also holds for the theatre, including the black box, which is often regarded as a generic space. The scenography of walk + talk honed the spectator’s attention and highlighted the relational character of the space, which would accumulate many more inscriptions and connections throughout the week. At the start of the performances the window blinds were lowered, as if to underscore once more the subtle yet binding contract with the viewer. It then shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two choreographers on the opening night, Pieter Ampe and Martin Nachbar, in their walk + talk immediately brought up the question how they could let the world enter this closed universe.

While everyone entered and took their seats, Pieter Ampe was already on stage, waiting, charged with the inconvenient task of having to make the first gesture. He put on a costume for the performance and placed his other clothes like a body on the stage, to which would be added later on another paper body, as a memory aid and score. With voice and body Ampe evoked the “dance” of a beggar succumbing to gravity somewhere in the streets of Barcelona, a dance he had documented while watching from a terrace. Or he dragged props in and got himself stuck in a series of clumsy preparations to a grand gesture that didn’t come, while the fresh air entered the space through the open door to the storage room. Thus accumulated the first gestures and traces, and Ampe’s walk + talk unfolded itself via fragments, abrupt changes and unexpected openings. A story about getting lost in the metro led him across the stage, made him get off twice in the wrong station to eventually end up in front of the camera that projected his adventures to the courtyard of the Kaaistudio’s – all this according to the principle of “roaming”, a ramble embracing theatre and world outside, mental spaces and movement material in one diffuse gesture.

At the end of the first evening, Martin Nachbar added a postscript to his walk + talk, in which he had attempted to unfold a dance for the future through reflection on his way of working – questions and openings, first and foremost for himself. Yet, how could he, in light of the events in Japan, place his performance back in the world? He re-enacted a catastrophe scene from his Verdeckte Ermittlung (2004), urged the spectators to be silent so he could better listen to the voices coming from outside trying to sound the catastrophe’s extent, and eventually witnessed a cloud of soot and dust settle in the theatre: “Now the stage is covered with a thin layer of questions.”


Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past. (…) Nowadays it is easy enough to invent new words – they spring to the lips whenever we see a new sight or feel a new sensation – but we cannot use them because the English language is old. (…) How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?
– Virginia Woolf, Words fail me

Accompanied by a peculiar sign language, Rémy Héritier lent his voice to a radio broadcast of Virginia Woolf from 1937. It was one of the many “documents” that entangled themselves with his movements and turned his dance into a hybrid “site”, creating a specific geography on stage: “Sites where we can stand in, or even take position, concretely and poetically.” In that dialectical vibration, Héritier embodied furthermore memories of dances by Gehmacher, Nachbar and himself; a snatch of a speech by Margaret Thatcher penetrated coincidentally the rehearsal space and hence the choreography; and he compared the theatre space with a photograph of the university of Moscow. Moving blindly through the space or turning his back on the stage while standing in a corner, Héritier discussed this way of working: “Gathering data, geographies, personal and collective memories that make possible new associations, connections, distinctions, which set new conditions for being present, for being able to witness a possible event to be. Being present is located in the space, in a volume in between what I want to get and what I really get, between the project and the other.”

Dance may very well be a transient form of art, some memories and traces piling up in the body are resistant. As a choreographer, Martin Nachbar is known for his re-enactments of Dore Hoyer’s Affectos Humanos (1962), a series of expressionist dances of which he is the living archive and official treasurer. In his walk + talk he distanced himself from an unequivocal identification – imposed on him by an army of dance scholars – with this patch of dance history and made clear that many more dances and histories inhabit his body. Perhaps historical research consists for a good deal of mapping out his personal history and blind spots. In working on Repeater – dance piece with father (2007), Nachbar discovered a line of tension that connects his thumbs via the shoulders, a habit inherited from his father: “which makes my body the archive of my father’s habits.” How this habit has inscribed itself still eludes him.

Precisely in embracing blindness as well as historical consciousness resides a critical component in the expressionism of the choreographers who participated in walk + talk. Their bodies don’t host a universal or organic truth and exactly therefore contain also the promise of transformation and a future. Anne Juren evoked her re-enactment of Marina Abramovic’ performance Freeing the body (1976), in which the latter danced for eight hours until she collapsed. After fifteen minutes it became obvious to Juren that she needed a strategy to sustain it during several hours; approaching the body literally as a construct in which she could focus her attention on steady transformation turned out to be an apt one. In this seemingly technical detail, the generation gap with Abramovic shows itself: for Juren emancipation consists in acknowledging and actively exploring the body’s discursive materiality.

The authenticity of a movement language depends on the singularity of the person, of the dancer as a living archive. Near the end of his walk + talk, Philipp Gehmacher staged himself as a melancholy old man, who realizes he is still occupied with the same questions – how to say “I” on stage and at once reaching beyond this? The arbitrary choreographic contract and the idiosyncratic gesture are for Gehmacher a perpetual negotiation with the familiar pathways of culture, a context without which one can actually not arrive at speaking or meaning. Yet how can a body shed an excess of history and superficial meanings? With closed eyes, Gehmacher posed extendedly like a Christ figure close to the audience, to “make himself available for the spectator, for being looked at.” In the small space of the Kaaistudio’s this gesture reverberated all too loudly, it became nearly unbearable in its pathos. Gehmacher does like extremes, but he also keeps searching for the possibility of abstraction in a symbolic or totem-like movement language. Wouldn’t it after all be possible to simply regard the body as a set of lines and circles, “something like a modernist game”?

In turn, Meg Stuart sought the border to abstraction in the erasure of emotions (“ghosting”) and the steady repetition and transformation of personal gestures – “When does transformation become a ritual?” She is interested in people and how they move – in walk + talk her source material was her own body, which made Stuart hark back to the many private sessions in front of the mirror since her adolescence, realizing time and again: “This is it.” Informally yet with utmost precision, Stuart balanced on the thin line between her own tics and habits and the beginning of a dance, moved through the myriad energies and memories present in the space, and in between smuggled some anecdotes aboard, like the one about great jazz musicians who never discuss but are able to “just play”.

A vulnerable game this, which in its informal character reminded of the origin of expression “walk and talk”, which refers to the specific studio practice of dancers who “mark” their material, quickly going through the motions without fully embodying it and sometimes saying the cues aloud. Elsewhere Stuart said about this: “I became fascinated by ‘marking’, not the aesthetics of it, but the state it produced. When dancers are asked to mark they pass through a sequence of learned movement but keep the intensity or performance punch out of it, to save their energy for the real thing. This reduced physicality – dancers half-heartedly going through the motions – made me curious. How is it possible to detach oneself so easily from one’s dancing?”(3)


By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for. I needed to separate myself from myself, to step back and carve out some space between myself and my subject (which was myself).
– Paul Auster, Invisible

After a long opening dance in silence and with closed eyes, Martin Nachbar stated: “A gesture is an event between movement and language.” And after a short break he pointed out a conflict concerning his walk + talk: “The thing is: I decided to not speak on stage any longer. Using language seemed to be such an easy way out of, you know… choreographic problems, dance questions.” For Nachbar the lecture-demonstration is a familiar format, the use of language in his performances evident and by now also an obstacle, because unambiguity sits regularly in the way. Shortly before, Pieter Ampe had addressed the uncomplicated desire to dance, after having suspended it during his education and “having only explored the world of slapstick” in his first performances. Eleanor Bauer claimed at the outset that for her to dancing or speaking never stuck a taboo, but then later on she also had to admit to not quite know how ideas and material exactly sit together in her work.

Now that developing one’s own movement language is hardly of interest anymore to young choreographers, it becomes clear what this generation of post-conceptual dance makers struggles with: how to embody discourse and ideas in a complex way? That is moreover a problem of our times: the superficial consumption of knowledge in our information society is at odds with the slow development of an artistic body of work, as well as with embodiment and situatedness as central aspects in dance’s production of meaning. And what to think in this connection of the fashionable term “artistic research”?

“This is it.” In Eleanor Bauer’s version it concerned a self-portrait of a maker who embraces “ADD as method”, has a hundred and one ideas and surfs through them hell-bent and frivolously (“You can do whatever!”), and on the way sneaked in a sketch, following natural talent Michael Jackson during the rehearsals for “This is it!” – an illustration of “research versus born ready”. As if to underscore the disposable identity she staged and propagated – because she also partially embodies it, despite herself – in her walk + talk, Bauer crumbled and threw aside one by one the papers on which she had written statements and themes after having treated them. Sometimes Bauer feels misunderstood: notwithstanding her easy-going manner of performing and her sense of humour, she stated solemnly to mean everything she does and says, without a hint of irony. And yet this one question persisted: are there still ideas and experiences that really matter?

For Chrysa Parkinson irony is a fundamental strategy (familiar for Americans, often misunderstood in Europe), related to the question how one can move through the foreign world of someone else and appropriate a place for oneself in it. As a dancer she is indeed co-creator of movement material, but that is being developed and performed within a frame set by a choreographer. She discussed among other things her recent experiences as a dancer with the shared body language and improvisational methods in Thomas Hauert’s Accords, or the collaboration with Jonathan Burrows on Dog Heart, liberating for its focus on composition and formal complexity – so far away from the obsessions with philosophy, dramaturgy and identity that govern the field of dance nowadays. Yet how could she relate in En atendant with that compulsive “femininity” which haunts the work of Rosas? Here, irony turned out to be a weapon and a tolerated margin for experimentation, upon which Parkinson demonstrated “the ironic part – it’s actually quite trashy.”

Next to research questions, all the participants to walk + talk implicitly shared their understanding of composition, the organisation of time and space, the distribution of attention. Turning one single idea inside out and neatly exhibiting it in an efficient form is nowadays a common way of working among a younger generation of dance makers, and something similar did Mette Ingvartsen by showing and explaining her part in the score of her group piece Giant City. Demonstrating eight different ways to relate to space, she mentioned in passing Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Apart from its content, the form of this book may shed an interesting light on Ingvartsen’s approach, which can possibly be discussed in relation to a particular strand of modernism: wasn’t Calvino after all a central figure of the Oulipo, the “workplace for potential literature” that sought innovation through self-imposed formal constraints?

By confronting the efficient management of ideas with an abundance of structure and intricate rules, Daniel Linehan seeks via an arbitrary contract and overwrought virtuosity room for failure and vulnerability, as well as for striking detail and poetry. Via choreography he stretches our relation to the screen, the computer and multitasking, thus placing his work in our times. But also a literary imagination resonated along in the walk + talk of Linehan, who as youngest participant concluded the series. At the end he invited the spectators to take place on stage for a reflection on the question of beginnings and endings, of how to make such a gesture, with which bodily attitude and gaze. After several attempts he asked everyone to suspend their applause and imagine themselves the performance were an experience “like reading a novel.”

A voluptuous vibration constantly stirs Chloe, the most chaste of cities. If men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a person with whom to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

(1) Cf. André Lepecki, ‘Dance without distance’, Ballett International, Febr. 2001, pp. 29–31
(2) Laurence Louppe in Poétique d’une danse contemporaine – la suite, Brussels 2007, p. 64
(3) In Jeroen Peeters (ed.), Are we here yet? Damaged Goods / Meg Stuart, Dijon, 2010, p. 20