Thinking through dance

This past March, 30 of us (contemporary dancers) gathered in Studio Feryal to read a script compiled by Icelandic researcher and dancer Rósa Ómarsdóttir and Hakon Palsson during their stay in Cairo about the history, future, and present of the contemporary dance scene in Egypt. The invitation went out to anyone in the dance scene or linked to it by association, enthusiasm or support. This script is part of Rosa’s bigger project “Second Hand Knowledge,” a project that aims to capture the state of different dance scenes around the world. The script is created through several interviews between Rosa and different dance artists. Dancers and choreographers are asked about their influences, their work, their aspirations, their limitations and finally, their utopic dance scene. The answers are compiled into an anonymous script, which is read communally. 

In this circle, most frustrations and limitations were centered around the lack of funding, the lack of rehearsal space, the lack of performance spaces and advanced dance classes. Two months later, these frustrations are further solidified. Considering the limitations dancers were up against before COVID-19, not much has changed. But some questions became more crystalized. 

In a time that is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, new questions emerge. What is the ontology of dance? What does it mean to dance in the time we are in? Where is dance located? Who are we dancing for? Who are we dancing with? How will we define dance?  How will we define live performance? And most importantly how will we choose to perform and present our performances? 

With the surge of COVID-19, our bodies are being challenged globally to isolate and to distance. We are residing in our homes, and when frequenting the street we do it purposefully and swiftly. When going to the supermarket — a previously mundane task — we are asked to abide by new rules. Our bodies are asked to be attentive to distance, to calculate risk, not to touch. We are asked to use our hands less, to disinfect them as much as possible. The choreography of our bodies is changing and it is doing so rapidly, by policing ourselves and, if possible, everyone around us. 

As dancers, we are trained to be sensitive to space. We are trained to navigate space differently than non-dancers. In the classroom, we learn how to share space with other bodies without bumping into them, even if we are in the midst of a complex choreography. We also learn how to merge with different bodies, while maintaining control over our limbs. A dancer is always asked to keep his/her/their antennas alert. We speak of keeping an openness to space. We speak of our bodies as porous vessels, as information receivers, which we need to rely on and trust during choreographed or improvised work. Dancers are trained improvisers, we learn how to occupy space, how to blend with space, how to assert space, and most importantly, how to listen to the space’s demands whether the space is filled with other bodies or empty. We learn that an empty space is actually never empty, that vibrations are constantly in conversation. So in a time where distance is being demanded, an attunement to this new choreography is felt by dancers physically and emotionally. 

Presently, our bodies are occupying space alone. The porousness and pliability of the body we have so diligently learned is now a pliability that is grappling with the logic of confinement and social distancing. We are relearning new patterns of behavior, and perhaps for the first time extremely aware of the process of self-policing. Behavior previously permitted has been uprooted overnight. The developing interplay between bodies, whether solitary or in small groups, can recapture the definition of dance. If we were to take a step back and view dance as a conceptual standpoint, highlighting the interplay of different bodies in space and time, we would quickly realize that we are creating a new dance, new movement patterns. Dancing, we learn, is not divorced from biopolitics, it is, a means to choreograph the body in the society it resides in. To dictate onto a body the desired set of movements or sequences goes beyond the dance studio and into everyday life. Bodies are conditioned, trained entities that reiterate or defy the movement that is expected of them. Dance theorist and scholar Andre Lepecki speaks of choreopolitcs and choreopolicing. Choreopolitics can be regarded as the dancer’s ability to improvise, change and recreate what movement is permissible and in which context. One can argue then that movement is the root of subject formation and reinvention. However, when that ability for reinvention is upheld and governed both externally and internally, then it is choreopoliced. One never dances alone, one dances with the space their body occupies, with the frequencies inhabiting this space, with the sounds these bodies reserve. These frequencies or vibratory connections are best described as affect.  For dancers it is a common understanding that dance is movement in space and time. The interplay of all aspects form what is perceived as choreography. Any encounter between animate or inanimate bodies, lead to affective transmissions, which in return alter choreographic spatial and physical compositions. 

How can we rethink affect in the virtual realm of dance? How will we engage the virtual audience? What is the etiquette for watching a performance on the internet? What are the new codes of behavior? 

The internet as a medium of transmission for dance has been present in performance for years, but by choice. In recent years, dance began occupying museums and art galleries in the form of film, perhaps in order to engage in a more monetized platform, perhaps seeking intersectionality or new waters. Dance has always been viewed as the bottom of the performing arts food chain. Attempts to enter the museum and the gallery became a source not only of validation but of integration. That is not to say that dance performances did not occupy the visual art sphere in real-time. They did. However, it is interesting here to think of dance as solely transmitted through a screen. Dance has always taken pride in its ephemerality offscreen. Suddenly we find ourselves rethinking the principles that have helped us define our art form. Of course, the ephemerality of a virtual, live performance will not seize — it will however resonate differently. It will most likely glitch, lag and possibly be skimmed through by its audience. Its audience might be presented through an algorithm. What happens when dance goes viral? Will dance begin redesigning itself to capture the attention of its audience members differently? 

Some of these questions reveal a potential shift in the root understanding of what a performance is. Peggy Phelan describes the ontology of performance in its ephemerality. 

Phelan wrote this before the surge of video dance appeared. Can performance exist within a screen? Definitely. Can it have a different effect on you every time you see it? Most definitely. Can it recall similar emotions? In 2014, I was an intern at Movement Research in New York City. During one of the classes, a duo interested in video dance presented the video dance work “Watermotor”(1978)’ choreographed and danced by Trisha Brown and filmed by Babette Mangolte as one of the first video dance pieces in contemporary dance. I remember being so deeply moved by the spontaneity, fluidity and control Brown so tactfully mastered in this video. Brown had been one of my favorite dancers and choreographers, yet seeing her dance in this studio, what was for me my second home in NYC, solidified the feeling even further.



In 2017, while visiting Barcelona, I visited the MACBA only to find the same video being screened as part of the Museum’s collection.  A mere glimpse of the video darted me back to the Movement Research Studio, Eden’s Expressway on Broadway. I was glued to the screen once again revisiting the past me three years ago, as well as the new performance. The affective connection was so present, I spent the rest of my visit in front of the video dance piece. While the piece was created for film as a medium, it’s interesting to observe the work as an ephemeral object within a frame. It is also then interesting to denote the difference between creating a performance for a live audience and creating a performance for an audience through a screen? What happens to the process of creation when its first encounter is with a 2D surface?

A performance comes to life through its death. One cannot grasp a performance, frame it or save it for repetition, it always comes back to you differently influenced by prior experiences, be it of the work or you as a whole. No single performance can be repeated as time is constantly fleeting. Of course, performances are recorded and replayed, however every time a performance is captured, it is played differently. Gilles Deleuze speaks of repetition with a difference, not one single action can be enacted without a difference, be it in perception, context, affect or skill. It seems fitting to ask, do we need to begin rethinking the ontology of performance for our near future? Already dance festivals have been canceled both locally and globally, dancers are out of work with no space to perform. Live performances are no longer accessible to an audience or in a theatre. It is most likely that soon dance will begin to circulate as video more than before, both live and prerecorded. What happens when we begin to record performances for dissemination? How then will we perceive dance? How will dance be curated to fit in a twofold frame, firstly that of the lense, secondly the screen it is captured for? Suddenly the ephemerality of dance will be lost in dissemination, or at least the ephemerality of witnessing a dance piece in flesh. The live dance will be witnessed through internet streaming, literally revealing a new stream of consciousness, that is organized and curated through the virtual feed.

In the last two months, many dancers and dance teachers globally have taken to their Instagram accounts, to continue to dance and train. Countless dance classes are circulating virtually, in hopes of keeping one’s livelihood afloat. For someone like me, constantly on the periphery of the contemporary dance scene and thus constantly craving a bigger variety of dance classes, I should be thrilled. Instead, I find myself reluctant to enter the virtual dance classroom, overwhelmed by the options and my lack of willpower to sign up. Ironically, I find myself teaching Barre classes three times a week on Zoom, in efforts to maintain self-employment. In dance, however, the lack of the classroom is so present, the lack of interaction, sharing space, or more sophistically put, the affective interlacings that we dancers have become so accustomed to is so present. Training aside, we have yet to comprehend how this pandemic will alter the nature of our practice and jobs as performers and choreographers. 


Over this same period of time, my dance partner Noura Seif Hassanein and I have been discussing the feasibility of meeting in our studio space to rehearse and create. We keep postponing the decision, waiting out the storm and focusing on managerial tasks such as grant writing for performances that might not take place. While we have been working on a new piece for the past months, we suddenly do not know how to resume our rehearsals. Will we change the choreography to fit the screen? Do we want to produce for the online realm? In 2016, we had built the whole premise of our collective nasa4nasa, as an online collective. Our bio states: “nasa4nasa seeks to foreshadow alternative spaces as occupied stages. nasa4nasa is housed in social media, to actively interact with and sometimes interject with daily virtual mass consumption. nasa4nasa does not seek to find meaning in everything it does.” Finally, ”nasa4nasa fucks with dance.” Still, we find ourselves at a crossroad now, trying to once again understand how we want to present our work online. What dance will look like for us, if we would like to produce in a time like this? Do we want to consume other performances? And how do we want to position ourselves productively and creatively? We find ourselves factoring in the limitations a third world country’s internet can impose on performance. The dialogue is no longer about what we would like to create, but also how feasible it is to do so. We question what movements will be effective, not only through a screen, but more accurately through a glitchy rendering of a screen. Like previous live performance curation, a sensitivity to how we want to fit into the pandemic rhetoric is in question. With the hyper online production this pandemic has brought about, do we want to be part of it artistically?

In an interview titled “The Power of Co- in Contemporary Dance”, Lepecki speaks of “co-imagination” as the potentiality of contemporary dance. As dancers, choreographers and audience members, perhaps co-imagining the futurity of dance might help integrate its absence. It might also make dance a nostalgic performative act, one that we yearn to recreate. As soon as one begins to create a piece, he/she/they enter into a dialogue with the audience, perhaps a phantom audience to start with, but in creating and in performing, the audience is always present. The verb to perform implies performing for someone. To perform is to communicate with time and space. 

So, how do we want to engage with the events unfolding day after day? Do we want to engage at all? And where will this engagement be located spatially? What happens if we think through this further? What does performance do if it is not experienced in a shared space? What does it call for? Will we then begin to create differently? How big of a role will our virtual audience occupy? How will this dance then be witnessed? And will the screen we are watching through become a third party in this dance? Will dance become more malleable, more apparent, or will it perhaps disappear? To disappear is not a passive act of indifference, it may be, but it is also a way of highlighting the lack, the absence of dance’s ontology. So, if lived performances disappear, perhaps a new dance will appear, one that highlights what has been. Moreover, what has always been lurking in the unseen, the unspoken, the unmoved, yet never dared to appear.  

Salma Abdel Salam 

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