XAVIER LE ROY: THE DISSENTING CHOREOGRAPHY OF ONE FRENCHMAN LESS
Xavier Le Roy has conceived and presented his work as ‘contemporary dance’ signed by a French choreographer, as opposed to disseminating it under the banner of French dance per se. As a contemporary French artist, Le Roy has an inclination towards the themes and methods of French theory, such as, for instance, its critique of spectacle, exploration of alternative forms of spectatorship, and interest in how the body is represented. But in his attitude towards the material conditions of dance and its modes of production (both in terms of institution and dissemination), he has consciously sought to distance himself from the authorship model of choreography that dominates the French dance scene. More often that not, this positions the choreographer as the director of a given dance company, and also places her/him at the head of a Centre Chorégraphique Nationale . Le Roy’s work has remained steadfastly independent and internationally orientated, and his attempt to experiment with alternative ways of working has, by implication, real aesthetic and political significance. This fact is critical because it determines the specific form of Le Roy’s dissentfrom the majority of French nouvelle danse practitioners like Maguy Marin, Régine Chopinot, Angélin Preljocaj or Mathilde Monnier. In this mode of production, the existence of a stable company and well-funded infrastructure subsidised by the French State has resulted in a distinctive choreographic style and ‘signature’, perpetuated from one choreography to another.
Le Roy’s work is also dissensual within the larger, international framework of contemporary dance. His performances choreograph bodies and movements, as well as inviting heterogeneous forms of spectatorial attention, that usually have no ‘part’ in contemporary dance. My use of the word ‘part’ is intentional—it refers to Jacques Rancière’s notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ which could be understood as the disciplinary management of actions, movements, gestures, bodies and patterns of perception by the established order (2006:12). By drawing on Rancière’s ideas, I want to show in this essay how Le Roy dissents from dominant conceptions of choreography and performance in France and elsewhere.
In dance criticism, Le Roy’s background in molecular biology has provided a convenient rationale for understanding his research-oriented work. Since he had to produce his biography in a programme note for the first time in 1994, Le Roy has been designated as a ‘scientist cum dancer’. This moniker has meant that, Le Roy, like his friend and fellow French choreographer Jérôme Bel, has often been criticised (sometimes quite violently) by some dance scholars for his supposedly ‘conceptualist’ approach to dance.[i] Here the word ‘conceptualist’ is synonymous with a critical form of choreography that draws, in Le Roy’s case, on the thinking of philosophers such as (amongst others) Gilles Deleuze, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour and Jacques Rancière. However if Le Roy’s performances, and the writings that accompany them, are examined in greater detail, a conceptual or theoretical orientation does certainly emerge, but only as a technique for sharpening thought, which operates in and through the performance event itself.[ii] Ultimately, it is not theory that supplies Le Roy with ideas to choreograph on the stage; his ideas stem from a concern with issues that are specific to the representation of human and non-human bodies in movement, and to the types of spectatorship that these engage.
A more accurate way of approaching Le Roy’s choreography is to see it in terms of the famous politique des auteursthat emerged in French cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. Le Roy’s ‘politics of authorship’ lie in the way that he purposefully attempts to rupture the Modernist view of dance as the continuous flow of motion in and through body, and which necessarily takes place within a specific medium[iii]. Instead, his work proposes a radically heteronomous view of choreography as the organization of any movement whatever.[iv] The focus of his research does not target the medium of dance itself, but rather aims at a much wider dispositifthat one might refer to, in broad terms, as ‘theatrical performance’. In line with Michel Foucault’s articulation of the concept, the word dispositif, as I use it, is more than a spatial or architectural arrangement of stage space; it is an apparatus that ideologically shapes spectatorial attention in organizing its modes of perception.
Le Roy’s preoccupation with the theatrical dispositifresides in his twofold critique of representation. The first concerns the notion of spectatorship and deals with questions of perception, recognition and identity. The second tackles the issue of authorship, a problem that Le Roy explicitly critiqued when he exchanged authorial positions with Jérôme Bel in the performance, Xavier Le Roy(1999). Whereas Bel signed the performance as its author, Le Roy ‘realized’ it. In a 2003 interview, Le Roy explained:
I was trying to affirm a certain kind of movement, a ‘language’ or signature as the first step usually needed to develop a career as a choreographer. If this is accepted the next step is to extend and transmit this ‘language’ to others in order to make group choreography, like some kind of clone of yourself that allows your signature to establish itself and gain recognition. Having accomplished that, you then have access to larger means of production (from solo to company director in a Stadttheater for example). (Le Roy, 2003)
For Le Roy, ‘signature’ epitomizes the distinctive aesthetic traits of an individual dance style that is translated from one work to another in order to represent the choreographer in the entirety of her/his œuvre. Aesthetic continuity of this sort is politically conservative, since it tends to ignore, if not wilfully repress, the questions that a more singular working practice might uncover. For Le Roy, by contrast, to choreograph is ostensibly to pose a series of specific problems that can only be solved by adopting a strikingly different dispositiffor each new performance. In the following analytical accounts of his three major works—Self-Unfinished, UntitledandLe Sacre du printemps—I shall describe how Le Roy disrupts the dominant western tradition of choreography.
The format of the performance solo in the piece Self-Unfinished(1998) marked a conscious effort, on Le Roy’s part, to break with the protocol of ‘signature’. The objective was not only to perform on the stage alone, but to take responsibility for every aspect of the work in a test of artistic self-reliance. Le Roy was concerned to explore what happens in a situation where to ask anythingfrom anybodyis untenable. This experiment was conducive with his on-going interest in fragmenting, dismembering and disfiguring the body in and through movement. However, unlike his earlier work, such as Narcisse Flip(1996), which had brought to mind the image of a schizophrenic body by separating and isolating body parts, Self-Unfinishedwas driven by an attempt to prevent audiences from reading metaphors into his choreography. Le Roy wanted to short-circuit the process of ‘recognition’, and his performance was conditioned by the following question: if metaphor is the product of recognition, is recognition the dominant, if not the only, mode of spectatorial reception?
Self-Unfinishedopens with Le Roy sitting at a table, observing the audience entering the space. The moment the performance begins, he looks away. During the course of the performance, he hides his head in various ‘headless’ bodily configurations deviating as far as possible from any recognisably human figure. After a loop of slow walks in which endless combinations of movements on stage are exhausted to the point of disorientation, Le Roy turns his shirt inside-out, while still walking. He flips his costume and bends, splitting his body in two. The result is that two pairs of ‘legs’ seem to appear—one masculine; the other feminine—even though the audience is always aware that these ‘legs’ are, in actual fact, two arms and two legs belonging to the same male body. The ‘legs’ are entangled and move in parallel, yet always face opposite directions. Once ‘undressed’ and mangled up in this way, the body appears to proliferate as a multiplicity of beings or monsters that exist on a borderline between male/ female and human/nonhuman. Beyond its conventional meaning as a terrifying creature, monstrosity here takes on its more archaic etymology of ‘demonstrating’, ‘exhibiting’ and ‘pointing to’ what normally remains hidden. If Le Roy’s performance were to be captured in a series of snapshots, the multiple photographs would surely ‘exhibit’—or ‘show’— a body in transition, on its way to becoming other, that is to say, non-human.
In Self-Unfinished,Le Roy’s strategy for avoiding metaphor was to create a game of choices for the spectator. Faced with a series of paradoxes, the spectator was challenged to see a non-human body in a human one. However, since no shape or configuration established itself long enough to become a recognizable image, recognition was inevitably frustrated. As such, the spectator was constantly invited to think about what the monstrous body in front of it was supposed to be representing, while being forced to accept that no answer was forthcoming. Le Roy notes à proposof Self-Unfinished:
I wasn’t interested in producing the question, ‘who is that?’, even though I knew the question was a plausible one. As far as possible, I wanted the question to be ‘what is that?’, and so invite the audience to ponder the meaning of these things placed in front of it. And I thought that the richness of the performance was found in the way that the spectator could attribute different meanings to the same object (or same movement), and that each individual spectator would regularly remind himself/herself that the body s/he was gazing at was both human and inhuman at the same time. As if s/he were to say to himself/herself ‘that’s just a person there’ and then straight afterwards ‘but no, it’s not possible, it can’t be…’. (in Cvejic, 2009)
ENCOUNTER WITH INDISCERNABILITY: UNTITLED
In Untitled(2005), Le Roy continued his attempt to break with the dispositifassociated with the ‘theatre of representation’. The performance was both nameless (hence, the title of the piece) and authorless (at the time of the performance, the authorship of Untitledcould only be speculated about).[v] This conceptual intervention weakened the logic of representational theatre in what is arguably its major register – the nominal framework that allows audiences to attribute their judgement of artworks to an author. Since there was neither an author to refer back to, nor a title to associate with a definite subject or theme, the audience was confronted with a void, an emptiness. Yet, for all the politics involved in Le Roy’s act of resistance, his decision was guided by much more than a desire to partake in a simple form of institutional critique; his refusal to ‘sign’ and title the piece was meant to reinforce the work’s facticity.[vi] A short description will clarify why.
As they entered the auditorium, spectators were given small battery-powered torches to find their seats, just as if they were being ushered into the cinema. However, it soon became clear that the stage itself would remain dark. From their seats, spectators began to inspect the stage, searching for the action. As they adjusted their vision to the space, they began to see indiscernible objects emerging from the obscurity, but they could barely determine whether these shapes were puppets or live (human) bodies. While the spectators shone their lights on the void of the stage, a white fog slowly covered the space, reflecting the light rays of the lamps. Vision as a faculty of perception was not denied as such; it was simply that its objects were missing.
In the performance, there was little to observe unless the spectator was prepared to search for it, and to try and discern movement from stillness and figure from background. It was often easier for the spectators to see each other than to watch the performers. As a consequence, the power of the spectacle was redirected from the stage to the audience. In so doing,Untitledclearly marked the dissipation of the object of performance as something that is gazed at by spectators. Rather, the performance was governed by the audience, that is to say, by their reactions to what they could and could not perceive. InUntitledthe act of not-seeing was just as significant as the action that was occurring on stage.
But why the puppets? Le Roy admits that this investigation was inspired by Michel Serres’s notion of the‘quasi-object’ that he encountered in Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern(1991). In Untitled, Le Roy was specifically interested in exploring how everyday objects, such as clothes and furniture, modify the ergonomics and behaviour of the body, giving it a different weight, elasticity, and fluidity. Puppets attracted him because they involve human beings in a prosthetic relationship with and to an inanimate object. To move a puppet either indirectly by manipulating strings, or by engaging with it physically, also requires the human body to move. For Le Roy, the idea of using ‘real’ puppets and mixing them with human performers disguised as puppets was triggered by the following question: how can one dispense with those forms of movement, which, no matter how unfixed, transformative and evanescent, still enable us to recognize a subject or object, even if this recognition is only fleeting?[vii] The strategy of undecidability that Le Roy had used in Self-Unfinishedwas unable to answer this specific question, and so his focus turned accordingly in Untitledto the notion and experience of indiscernability. In the latter piece, Le Roy’s choreography of dissent is characterized by a heterogeneous encounter between spectators who are forced to act because they are unable to see, and a ‘blind’ stage that cannot look back.
RECASTING LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS
In his solo Le sacre du printemps(2007)a man comes on stage, and turns his back on an audience bathed in brilliant light. On the downbeat of his first move (which seems to resemble the gesture made by a musical conductor), the opening bars of Stravinsky’sLe sacre du printempsemerge from under the spectators’ seats. A few minutes later, the man turns to face the audience directly and starts to ‘conduct’ them, calling on individual spectators to ‘play’ their ‘instruments’ as and when the music requires it. Things are immediately complicated, however, because the movements that would normally produce sound are instigated, in advance, by the music itself. The impression is of a mechanical karaoke. If the man were to leave the stage, it appears that the music would simply continue by itself.
The ‘conductor’ in this strange concert is, of course, Le Roy who is performing in front of, and cruciallywith, an audience. The latter is seated in a conventional theatre auditorium that ‘mimics’ the spatial design of a symphonic orchestra in a concert hall, with each place corresponding to a given instrument, which then sounds from the speaker situated under the seat. But Le Roy, of course, is neither a conductor nor musician. Rather, choreography serves him in Le Sacre du printempsas a heuristic device: by learning the movements of conducting, he begins to listen to the music as a musician or conductor might do. Le Roy’s venture into conducting can be seen as an exercise in emancipation, the pedagogical principle that Rancière developed in his seminal parable of 1987, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. In that text, Rancière opposes ‘emancipation’ to ‘instruction’ (1991:17). Whereas instruction implies an unequal and stultifying relationship rooted in the knowledge/authority of the teacher, emancipation takes place in a learning environment where both master and student are equally ignorant. Here, learning rests on the assumption of what Rancière calls the ‘equality of intelligences’, as well as on the existence of a third or mediating term that both connects and disconnects master and student (ibid: 38). In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, this link is embodied by the book (the text) that verifies the acts of learning and teaching (see, ibid: 20-5). In Le Roy’s performance, Stravinsky’s music takes the place of the book and works as an emancipatory device joining the ignorant ‘conductor’ to his equally ignorant ‘orchestra-audience’.
Le Roy’s conducting gestures are encoded in a particular way that some might recognize as belonging to those of the conductor Simon Rattle. They seem like hieroglyphs whose function is to signify and announce the music to come. Like Rattle, Le Roy, ‘the dancing conductor’, mimes how the music is supposed to feel, or more precisely, he represents the emotion that the musicians will subsequently interpret musically. But in doing this, Le Roy sometimes stumbles, falls behind, and fails to master his task; and at other times, he deliberately lets the music continue so that he can dance ‘on’ it. The performance appears untimely.Deprived of their capacity to synchronize, perfectly, sound and image, spectators sometimes laugh at this performance. They laugh at a lapse of control on the part of the the conductor, and furthermore, experience that laughter as a relief from the uneasiness they feel at being asked to do what they are ordinarily not capable of: playing music.
Yet beyond the comedy, there is a serious intention behind Le Roy’s’s venture. His aim is to encourage the audience to join him in a performative task of which they are both ignorant. All they have in common is Stravinsky’s musicas a link to emancipate them from their respective roles. By sharing in the illusion of co-creating Le Sacre du printempswith the dancing conductor in front of them, the spectators are potentially endowed with a new capacity: the ability to listen to and perceive music as musicians. Le Roy rejects a pedagogical choreography. Instead of showing the spectators what the music could mean choreographically, he asks them to pretend to create it. In this way, Le Roy configures Le Sacre du printempsas yet another dissensual form that redistributes the competences and roles of those who are performing, in addition to those who are watching and listening. The spectators are emancipated in the extent to which they are invited to reinvent their own roles. As Rancière explains: ‘The collective power shared by spectators does not stem from the fact that they are members of a collective body or from some specific form of interactivity. It is the power each of them has to translate what she perceives in her own way […]. It is in this power of associating and dissociating that the emancipation of the spectator occurs’ (2009: 19).
CHOREOGRAPHIES OF DISSENT
With Le Sacre du printemps, both the focus and function of Le Roy’s choreography has undergone a major, if imperceptible, shift. In Self-Unfinished, the object, for Le Roy, was still the body, the construction of which was intended to reconfigure the perspective of the audience by encouraging it to reconsider what could be seen, heard, felt and thought. In that work, Le Roy looked for forms of movement that would make the body unrecognisable and so dissociate it from conventional tropes related to gender and even accepted notions of what constitutes a human figure. According to Le Roy, the open-ended nature of the work invited the audience to use their imagination: ‘There is a process for each spectator. It’s your imagination creating this... I don’t decide what is to be seen. There are a few proposals and then things appear and disappear in a va-et-vient. It’s about oscillating between contrary perceptions’ (2003)
Whereas Self-Unfinisheddirected the spectator’s gaze away from the object of performance, Untitledused choreography to reconfigure the entirety of the theatrical spectacle. The indiscernability of bodies, objects and movements reversed the habitual focus of attention. Not only was the audience suddenly made aware of itself as hand-held torches picked out faces and body parts of fellow spectators in the darkness, but it no longer knew what to look at and/or how to respond to the objects and shapes that it could barely see on the stage. The disorientating sensoriumof the event, caused by diminished visibility, interfered with the traditional parameters of audience reception—the capacity to feel, understand, and judge. In the process, the behaviour of the audience, which was now louder and more visible than the on- stage action, hijacked the event and became the spectacle.
At first glance, choreography in Le Sacre du printempsseems to be less aggressively dissensual than the two performances mentioned above. Its function is no longer to disrupt a regime of spectatorship, but rather to translate musical performance into a contemporary dance event. Yet despite this, Le Roy poses a fundamental question that is related once again to the notion of emancipation: how can a dancer become a conductor? By identifying performing with movement and thus suggesting that everything is choreography, Le Roy transposes the act of conducting into a form of dance, and deploys choreography as a tool for autonomous, self-directed learning. The same principle of learning without instruction allows spectators to enter a musical work as ifthey were creating it themselves. From being used primarily as a critical device, choreography inLe Sacre du printempsfigures as a tool for an experiment in emancipation, both for the dancer becoming a conductor, and for the audience becoming an ‘orchestra’. Arguably, the most significant aspect of the performance is found in the way that spectators are provided with the possibility of undergoing a process of what Rancière calls ‘subjectification’. As Rancière explains it, subjectification occurs when through ‘a series of actions of a body’, ‘a capacity for enunciation not previously identifiable within a given field of experience’ is produced. Identifying this capacity is, Rancière argues, intimately connected with ‘the reconfiguration of the field of experience’ (1999: 35). For, it allows subjects to disidentify with the places they are meant to occupy and the people they are supposed to be.
Having selected three performances for discussion, I have left a significant part of Le Roy’s work out of consideration.[viii] This includes projects such as E.X.T.E.N.S.I.O.N.S. (1999) and 6M1L(Six Months One Location) (2008). In these project-platforms, Le Roy’s attention is focused specifically on organizing the conditions of research and collaboration for freelance artists outside of the institutional structures currently existing in Europe. Experimentation lies in drastically changing the economic and political conditions of free-lance project-based work. For instance, during 6M1L a group of choreographers temporarily left the network of venues and festivals that have rendered their work nomadic, intermittent and spectacle-oriented, and instead gathered to share their projects and collaborate together while working continuously in one place over a long period of time. This reconfiguration of the French and European dance landscape tests whether these conditions will engender other research methods, performance formats and ways of working and being together than the ones currently practiced in the field. By seeking yet another politique des auteurs in self-organized structures today, Le Roy’s work begins to grow and multiply with that of other auteurs. It remains to be seen how this politics will aesthetically play out, and where; and, of course, if at all in new performances.