by Claire August
An essay comtemplating Choreographies On Waiting
An essay comtemplating Choreographies On Waiting
In the past, when I have tried to take one specific bus route that goes to my apartment, I can never find the station at the intersection Nauener Platz. I spend time running from corner to corner looking for the stop—which is notable because it is a relatively small intersection; there’s a kebab stand, a bakery, and a small park. There is also an agency advertising cost-effective travel to locations in the Balkans and a water filtration service with wood paneling and American flags hanging in the window.
It’s difficult to find the bus stop because the station appears in the wrong place on my mapping app. The bus is almost always late, so late that it could be just the next bus arriving early. The issue of timeliness here makes it harder to catch the bus, along with the mapping glitch. I came to this place again today purely as an observer, wondering if anyone else would be in the same predicament I had been, as if I had located some Bermuda Triangle of technology-induced public transport disaster. When I saw no one else I felt freshly confused. Of course, this was humbling. It started to rain. A friend who quit smoking tells me the only time she misses it is when she’s waiting for the bus, has nothing to do with her hands.
When the map glitches, it’s like a failed choreography of existing somewhere physically but also in a different, nonphysical plane. As dance choreography coordinates the movement of bodies, so too does the virtual map provide an abstract imposed onto the physical. The bus-stop-map disconnect was a glitch in not only the virtual space of the map but also in my physical orientation. This is a choreography where the body does not speak for itself but is dictated and, for that matter, dictated incorrectly.
In the meantime, the women waiting at the bus stop discuss if it will arrive or not. I wonder if this conversation is meant substantially or more as small talk. Are they just filling the time, or do they actually have faith in the arrival of the bus? I’m not sure.
Images from Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea (Marina).
Opera-performance at Biennale Arte 2019, Venice. Photo: Andrej Vasilenko. © Courtesy of the artists
When the failed coup in the Soviet Union in August 1991 was underway, TV and radio stations throughout the bloc broadcasted the music of Swan Lake on repeat. The journalists—in lieu of official news to report—were unable to announce any information about the political situation, as the event was unfolding in real time. The songs played on loop, giving the coup a musical backdrop well-remembered by documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa.
In his film The Event, short clips from various cameras around St. Petersburg document the eve of the failed coup. The camera garners the stares of the gathered masses, and figures part with one another in a gentle movement akin to water: the clearing of the crowd to make way for the camera. There to document a major historical event, the camera and the crowds have a confrontational relationship. Frozen in this aesthetic jelly, the milling crowds stare back at the viewers of the film. It’s a knowing look, one that says you come from the future, you know what happens better than any of us. Loznitsa inverts spectatorship, an effect that is mirrored by the choreographies of the crowds; rather than us watching them, they watch us. And, more relevantly, rather than serving as actors in a film performing for us, from the vantage point of the camera, we are an audience that physically moves through the crowd. The stagnant throng become aesthetic, immobile objects, and the spectators are instead mobile, stuck in a state of incomprehension.
The score of Swan Lake is pushed through the spaceless void, possibly intended to mollify an anxious public, sitting in front of their radios or TVs. There is not yet a concrete event to convey, so instead there is music, but the kind of music that brings to mind dance. Another way to say it: in the absence of news, there is music without dance. Loznitsa removes a modality (dance) and in doing so heightens its unseen presence. The choreography to be read here is one of awaiting political alterity – represented through an absent metaphor: the missing dance. A woman holds up a sign that says, “My long-suffering people, do not let them deceive you.”
The film turns the public square into a disorienting stage, the repeated track of Swan Lake conjuring an Imperial Russian past and a strong sense of national identity. A musical track associated with refinement or elegance, at odds with the sense of unease that these people wear on their faces. Ballet's refined, choreographed motions inevitably open the idea that there exists a standard of movement that can never be met. The obsessive repetition of a plié suggests the movement has yet to be perfected. Revolution might have the very same pitfall.
There’sa quote often attributed to Emma Goldman, though it’s typically abbreviated and misquoted into something like, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” The abridged, popular line comes from a slightly longer passage from her autobiography:
At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown in my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to behave as a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. ‘I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things.’
For Goldman, here’s something liberatory about dance. She explains that being instructed not to dance is like “a denial of life and joy.” Her sentiment is broader, though, than a one-to-one connection between dance and liberation. It’s driven by time, how dance fills time while waiting for a cause and is simultaneously an integral part of the end cause. Also, she underscores collectivity. Many have purported the individually liberating properties of dance without a discussion of “everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”
And, crucially, Emma Goldman was a woman of action. Phrases like “I was tired of…” and “I insisted that…” turn our attention towards the critical impatience of Goldman. She was not waiting around for the deliverance of the Cause, rather dedicated to bringing it about, an act connected to dance, manifesting collective possibilities. Goldman connects a place for waiting (waiting for the fulfillment of the Cause) with a collective, joyful space (the space of dance). She sees this form of celebration not as a way of wasting time, something set aside or heterogeneous from the Cause, rather as an imperative pause. And more than pause – revival, as well.
In May Day IV (2000), Andreas Gursky photographs a bacchanal scene where a crowd of people, appearing to dance, lift their hands in disjointed festivity. In Gursky’s image, the beat never drops. Instead of the relief of bodies in movement, the crowd appears to be in numb, undeviating suspension. The figures are orderly, each distinct from the others, at odds with the presumed sloppiness or chaos of the setting – more like a Renaissance court scene than a rave. Their synchronous gestures verge on the religious, the fascist, or other collective iterations of synchronized. Individuality diminishes, collective anticipation accelerates.
I think back to The Event: describing a series of bodies in space, dance-like. While Gursky denies us of that oh-so-crucial aspect to dance and performance, movement, Loznitsa denies us other modalities (in other words, music without dance). Public stages shift through different aesthetic lenses. The public stage looks different not only through the addition of material to the public stage but also through deprivation and subtraction.
The image is arresting; Gursky portrays people who are stuck in movement with irony. That photography can freeze a scene gives it stillness, almost taxonomical or scientific in its classification. At the center of this stillness seems to lie a question: Is there a difference between waiting and being stuck? Between waiting and acquiescence? There is some pleasure to be found here if waiting is also the anticipation of movement.
In the winter a few years ago, I attended a dance-theater show at the Volksbühne. It was a slow-paced production, consisting of abstract musings on digitization and the future. Around half the audience had left by the end of the show – the audience does a lot of uneasy waiting.
At some point, a woman in one of the rows stood up and began to yell. “How can you watch something so stupid like this! So boring. And it’s almost Christmas! Is anyone even enjoying this?” Initially, I wondered if she was an actor in the play but subsequently she was apprehended by security. From this interaction I assumed that she was not in fact part of the play.
She cried out in this vein for a while before charging at the stage (I think the charging, more so than the yelling, was what resulted in the security presence). I had never seen someone with such a passionate, violent reaction to a work of art, specifically to that enigmatic, heavily state-funded art in Berlin, laden with shock factors yet generally demanding a polite complacency of its audience. During the performance, we had watched figures move languidly across the stage, repeating sentiments about a technologically induced doomsday. Now, the performance was spliced by a moment of absolute rage at the way this performance intended to upset its audience. To run with her sentiment would be to assume disappointment that there was not something more joyful playing at that time of year. I think you could also say that her desire was not just in the name and spirit of Christmas, but in context of this time and place more broadly. She did not want to wait any longer, of this I was certain.
Waiting is the opposite of dancing. Where waiting creates an illusion of stopped time, dance is the illusion of organic movement through time. And I think this woman’s frustration with the slowness or durational aspect of the performance on stage also had to do with being tired of waiting. It’s an expectation that dance or performance should deliver us from a confining state of waiting, and when it does not accomplish this aim it draws even more attention to the predicament of waiting. It’s a static, tense place, a place both still and also frenetic.
I think that sitting in a theater seat watching nothing happen is a good metaphor for it all. Then I wonder if charging a theater stage in frustration that nothing is happening is an even better metaphor for it all. I hear people mention often that we live in notably tenuous, interesting times but I don’t think that’s true. It becomes a reflex for explaining a sense of unease, like that things are especially crazy these days. I actually think these might be notably uninteresting times. If anything, it feels like more waiting than doing.
As a child, I remember my dad speaking to a neighbor across a length of vivid green, overwatered lawn. The neighbor, who had a pregnant wife at the time, asked about fatherhood: “Is there anything I should know?”. My dad told him to always keep a full tank of gas in the car in case the moment the baby arrived was unexpected.
This essay was written in response to an essay workshop that focused on “touch, energy & healing,” and included a conversation and chi exercise with San Francisco-based choreographer Sara Shelton Mann.