As an experimental art form, dance is concerned with exploring and expanding the limits and the potentialities of its two main constitutive elements: movement and the body. In relationship to the former, contemporary experimental dance is deeply indebted to the pioneering work of the Judson choreographers, who, in the early 1960’s, and literally just one block west from NYU’s Skirball Center, redefined what kinds of new movements dance could include in its repertoire. Those new, unexpected, non-balletic, or non-modern dance movements, ranged from embracing stillness (as in Steve Paxton’s Proxy, 1961), to choreographing a smooth distribution of gestures and steps so as to create one sole kinetic line (Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, 1966), or to simply have non-dancers walk across a stage (Steve Paxton Satisfying Lover 1967). The expansion of dance’s movement vocabulary from mere walking to stillness was instrumental in reshaping European experimental dance in the mid-1990’s – as seen in the important works of Jérôme Bel or La Ribot.
But what about that other crucial element for dance, what about dance’s relation to “the body,” in its many capacities, limits, potentialities? Over the past decade, Mette Ingvartsen’s work has offered some important clues on how dance may attend to the body in all its non-kinetic aspects — as a political, sexual, desiring, linguistic, historical, racialized, gendered, and agential flesh matter. Tellingly, since her early pieces, at the beginning of the 2000s, the Danish choreographer, today based in Brussels, has explicitly acknowledged a deep relation with the 1960s’ New York experimental scene. In 2004, Ingvartsen published her “Yes Manifesto” (2004) – a direct reference to Yvonne Rainer’s famous “No Manifesto” (1965). The “Yes Manifesto” is not quite a rebuttal of Rainer’s manifesto, but rather an affirmation of another set of priorities for dance’s experimental drive four decades later. It states, at a certain point: “Yes to materiality and body practice,” and it concludes with: “Yes to multiplicity, difference and co-existence.” The affirmation of how the materiality of body practices (including sexual practices) are deeply linked to “multiplicity, difference and co-existence,” has characterized Ingvartsen’s entire choreographic work ever since. Her desire to expand what is a body for dance and what sorts of other bodies can do with dance has lead her to create, in the late 2000’s, pieces for objects and things: choreographies where human dancers are literally replaced by foam, vapor, colored lights, melting ice, and sparkling metal confetti; or where human dancers fuse with these matters as to become almost one with them (see the five works composing The Artificial Nature Series, 2009-2012).
Lately, Ingvartsen’s investment on the question of the body’s “materiality” has lead her to research one particular element: sexuality. Once again, the experimental New York performance scene of the 1960s becomes crucial source of inspiration. Yet, significantly, Ingvartsen will not look at the Judson choreographers as interlocutors for her approach to sex, sexuality, desire, even pornography, in dance. Instead, she initiates her series of works on sexuality (of which 7 pleasures is one installment) by writing a letter to the American performance artist Carolee Schneemann asking permission to restage Schneemann’s 1964 performance Meat Joy. Schneemann politely declined, and the result of their epistolary exchange became the origin of Ingvartsen’s masterpiece, the solo 69 positions (2014), which New Yorkers had a chance to see last year at MoMA PS1. In that “guided tour” to experimental performance of the 1960s (and whose other major reference has a direct link to NYU, Richard Schechner’s iconic Dionysus in 69 (1969), parts of which Ingvartsen reenacts), Ingvartsen explicitly looks at how sexuality and sex operate as major forces of political resistance; how they drive perception, taste, language, behavior, politics, desire, and the attribution of value in our consumerist societies of pornographic control.
Now, with 7 Pleasures (2015), Ingvartsen pushes even further her research on the intricate relations between sex, pornography, power, pleasure, and political resistance initiated with 69 positions. This powerful, visceral, and deeply poetic piece is a moving statement on the fleshed precarity and uncanny beauty of that which we still insist to call “the human body” specifically through out the opening twenty minutes of 7 pleasures. Ingvartsen’s courageous experimental gesture is to address what dance, as an art form, but also society at large, have still so much trouble to tackle openly: the sexual drive of the human multitude, which, disturbingly, as 7 pleasure’s long opening scene reminds us, may lead both to joyful collective assemblages of liberated enfleshment of pleasures, as well as to poisonous recurrence of fascism’s ultimate violations. It is a matter of deciding which dance, and which bodies, really matters.
André Lepecki, Ph.D. is the Chairman of Performance Studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. A scholar at the intersection of critical dance studies, curatorial practice, performance theory, contemporary dance and visual arts performance, his writings include “Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement” and “Singularities: Dance and Visual Arts in the Age of Performance.”