Playing Politics: Versatile Operations in Site-Adaptive Performance

Melanie Kloetzel
University of Calgary

Playing Place; Playing Roles; Playing Politics; Playing (the) Public

When I was commissioned in 2015 to create the dance theatre work It began with watching, I had no intention of moving outside of a theatre setting. The large group work was heavily scripted, precisely choreographed, neatly conceived for a basic light plot and a perfect black box. It had little in the way of improvisation or obvious audience interactivity; there seemed plenty to focus on without all that.

My thematic focus for It began with watching was, and continues to be, the inevitable warping of democracy that occurs as corporate entities, with increasing surveillance capability, gain increased hold over both consumers’ and governmental bodies. In particular, the work focuses on the absurd ease with which a ‘behind-the-scenes’ figure can start to pull the strings of the ‘people’s representatives’, bending them slowly but surely to their will. I intended the work to act as a commentary on the contemporary moment, drawing attention to the mounting precarity of the majority who are caught in the crossfires of ‘the few’ that are attempting to bolster neoliberal hegemony, wealth disparity, and environmental injustice.

IT BEGAN WITH WATCHING (press release)

Marrying the genres of dance theatre and political satire, It began with watching explores the transformation of democracy as governments, concentrated wealth, and surveillance technology join forces. In recent years, Western cultures have witnessed increased efforts by both corporate entities and governmental bodies to gain access to and share public (and private) information collected through technological means. It began with watching examines how such information, concentrated in the hands of the few, alters the balance of power in a democratic state. With blunt text and blunter physicality, the work juxtaposes a solo monologist against a cadre of ‘talking heads’ (read ‘MEN’) who enable the lopsided power structure and curtail basic rights in the name of ‘national interests’.1

In the work, the monologist (inspired, in 2015, by conservative politicians/consultants like Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and John Sununu, or influential historical figures such as Joseph Goebbels and Cardinal Richelieu) manipulates with greater and greater ease a collection of interchangeable political leaders. These leaders, played by 5-6 performers that mainly function as a homogenous ensemble, suggest a likeness (again, at the time) to the figures of Stephen Harper and George W. Bush, with some dictatorial figures from the past – Adolph Hitler, Louis XIII, and the like – thrown in for comparison. Overall, the main monologue explicates – along with progressively absurd choreographic/improvisational actions – how readily behind-the scenes personae can control various figureheads. Spelling out, almost as a primer might, the methods of suggestion and surveillance needed to enact such control, the monologist demonstrates her increasing boredom (and sociopathic instability) as this task grows ever more effortless due to the upsurge of online consumer activity, social media, and digital surveillance technology.

But this was in 2015. Trump’s election victory (coup?) had not been finalized; Brexit was considered by many an improbable delusion. Amongst the thick satire, It began with watching still had unaffected humour; audiences laughed from the belly at physical, verbal, and aural elements that seemed utterly farfetched or even outrageous.

Leaving the Stage – A Provocative Thesis

Fast forward two, three, four years.

In truth, I can never get away from the impacts and enticements of non-theatre spaces. The theatre always seems a bit false to me, a bit too easy, a bit too arrogant or even authoritarian in its physical or presentational restrictions, rigid audience placement, and (too often) glib assumptions of the space as a blank slate. There is, largely, minimal juicy dialogue between the work and the site, little to no talking back from audiences, and, consequently, fewer surprises that require immediate response. On stage, it seems that you can do or say anything – with a kind of delicious impunity, maybe – but also with less immediately palpable effects. Inside those four walls, where shocks are perhaps no longer shocking but rather expected, it sometimes feels impossible to incite anything at all.

So, go to the place that encourages a dialogue. Find a site where the work and theme interrelate, and then let that site speak for itself. Let it shake up perspectives, let it ground or unfound the work’s assumptions. And, most importantly, let a multitude of performer-place exchanges offer a new terrain and topography to inform the continually developing work.

These exchanges are, of course, the bases of site work. For creators of site-specific performance, for example, such performer-place exchanges at a singular site serve to define a work as the creators immerse themselves in the history, community, aesthetic and sensory output of a particular place.2 For those experimenting in the site-adaptive realm, such exchanges will occur at a series of sites, altering, but still informing, thematic and dialogic elements of the performance.3

It began with watching in Edmonton City Hall, Edmonton, Canada in June 2017. kloetzel&co. members Meghann Michalsky and Sarah Murray. Photo by Kevin Leiver. Courtesy of kloetzel&co.

In my CTR article ‘Performing Versatility in a Neoliberal Age: Site-Adaptive Dance’ that accompanies this article, I begin to unpack current creation strategies in the site-adaptive performance genre, focusing in particular on what I call the site-versatile approach. I observe that within this approach, which involves creating a performance work for a series of disparate and variable (i.e. not highly analogous) sites, the ‘distilled task’ stands out as particularly widespread in its usage. In sum, distilled tasks are those in which a choreographer devises a set of simplified – and, critically, adaptable – rules for performers to follow, so that the tasks can be performed in varied sites and situations. With distilled tasks in hand, a director then travels from city to city, working with local performers in, typically, a week (or less) to develop and enact a version of the work.4 From an economic perspective (significant for those in the ‘creative industries’ that are enmeshed in the financial realities of the neoliberal marketplace), the act of distillation cuts down on travel fees for a standing company, allowing for the ‘efficient’ development of a touring site-based work that can be neatly packaged for that neoliberal staple – the festival circuit. However, from my standpoint as a creator, which I will clarify here, the site-versatile approach may not only or merely act to reinforce or bow to the demands of a neoliberal economic order. Rather, it may also highlight the flexible, rather than fixed, possibilities of site performance and, if employed effectually, offer a means for critiquing present political and socioeconomic circumstances of precarity for both artists and a larger populace.

From Stage to Site – An Adaptive Trajectory

In 2017, It began with watching had the opportunity to move from the stage and onto a particular site for an evening-length performance at Edmonton City Hall in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) via a commission from The Works Art & Design Festival. Here, ensconced in the halls of politicians (and lobbyists), It began with watching dove into a provocative performance-place exchange that fundamentally altered the trajectory of the work.

As such, It began with watching now offers a different palette – choreographically, thematically, and dialogically. While it does at times traverse theatre spaces, often due to funder’s or presenter’s expectations and norms, the work has found new purchase. It has gained a new lease on life that encourages continued transformation of both the work and the performers via exchanges with multiple and varied spaces.

To be frank, such a transformation has also developed in part due to the embarrassingly (and, I might add, presciently) true-to-life nature of the work. With our everyday realities now brazenly populated by increasingly authoritarian figures and figureheads who exacerbate growing disparities and injustices – for instance, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsonaro buoyed by their fleet of puppeteers (Stephen Bannon, Robert Mercer, the Koch brothers and the like) – the work’s forthright depiction of the political landscape no longer prompts belly-laughter in the manner of previous iterations. Instead, the work has become almost imperative to perform; I feel I must compel audiences to snort or snicker with increasing discomfort at the preposterous, but candid, portrayal of current circumstances. And I sense a clamoring need, almost produced by the work itself, to take this exchange outside the theatre and more directly engage with the public – to goad reaction, provoke dialogue, question, and maybe even mourn via a dark parody of a disturbing present.

But how does a scripted, tightly choreographed work made for a theatre space move onto a site effectively or ‘authentically’? How can this work, which I now term ‘site-adaptive’, be anything of the sort if it did not start out with that specific intention? Isn’t that just another lie for a post-truth era that can be touted on social media with no material reality?

To tell ‘the truth’, such a transformation is still in process. Certainly, the time in Edmonton City Hall offered a major springboard in this direction. But the process is ongoing. While each day, we get closer to living a deeper sense of adaptability within the work, it is a slow endeavor. Creator’s insights come in fits and starts; authorial surrender is sometimes challenging for all involved; performers’ bodyminds take time to learn and apply new ideas or adapt to responsive approaches. Yet, progress is evident. Adaptation has begun in earnest. Performances – guerilla and otherwise – have now occurred in a variety of sites. Some of these have been for ‘purposes of filming’, others not; in either situation, interactions with different places and pedestrians have now become the mainstay of the work, offering a way to investigate the concept of adaptability as a performance tool.5 We have experimented in malls, pedestrian thoroughfares, government spaces, markets, and corporate towers. We have moved both indoors and out, offering antics for formal receptions, surprises for busy shoppers, and uneasiness for employers on their own turf.

Scores for Anywhere?

At first, I was uncomfortable with this glib and, what I saw as, unfaithful ‘use’ of multiple, disparate spaces. How could we just appear anywhere and claim that we were involved in an actual exchange with a site? Initially, as I considered making this a site-adaptive work, I wanted an obvious ‘type’ of place; in short, I envisioned employing a site-generic approach, a more well-known approach in the site-adaptive performance genre in which performances occur in a series of similar or analogous spaces. For It began with watching, I saw an explicit connection to corporate and government spaces – boardrooms, marble foyers, and council chambers. It was these spaces – and only these types of spaces – where (I surmised) the substance and meaning of the work surfaced most clearly, and where the work’s impact would be most significant.

However, as other potential engagements emerged, I was forced to re-examine (and re-craft) the work. I began to see the versatility in terms of both topic and developing scores. I started to be enticed by the potential of the site-versatile approach as one that could mesh well with the parody of neoliberal leadership that was developing in the work.

Really, this should not be a surprise. Why wouldn’t such a parody be ripe for a vast array of spaces in contemporary society, for that endless list of sites where we encounter the strictures of the surveillance state and its voracious appetite for the information we provide? Giant (and miniature) screens are everywhere now, talking to us, observing us, touting the latest news, or devouring our smallest consumer inclinations. The digitized politico-corporate complex rejoices at our incessant revelations, and the feedback loop created between seemingly willing citizens and this power-hungry complex serves to instantiate the material realities of neoliberal hegemony in every public space and at every waking moment.

A ‘celebratory’ guerrilla version of It began with watching in the Calgary Skyway in
December 2018. kloetzel&co. members Jocelyn H. Leiver, Samantha Ketsa, Margarita
Kozhevnikova, Meghann Michalsky, Sylvie Moquin, and Taylor Ritchie. Photo courtesy of
kloetzel&co.

Thus, the MEN are now everywhere. Communing with people, prancing past dimly-lit bars or coffee shops, crafting exceedingly awkward poses in lobbies or shopping centres, debating around public sculptures. And, naturally, they are frequently captured on surveillance cameras, and, sometimes, asked to move on.

And the scores continue to adapt.

We now have seven main scores, distilled from the work’s ‘scenes’, including prancing, greeting, pinwheel, conduct, gaslighting, voting, and battle; but others emerge as comfort, familiarity and distillation grow apparent.6 Some scores have achieved a full conversion, one that allows the score to be wholly responsive to the moment and adaptable to the place; in other words, though circumscribed via a set of meticulous rules (developed by director, performers, or, more often, director and performers together), the score’s on-site improvisational manifestation is determined by the performers alone in response to the site and the public, and is therefore beyond the ‘control’ of the director/choreographer. Pinwheel, for example, has made such a full conversion, with the soloist’s claps instigating in the MEN instantaneous switches from one awkward shape to the next (chosen by the performers). These shapes, in which two body parts are drawn together in seemingly impossible ways (and with facial reactions appropriate to such shapes), must be held in total stillness unless the soloist (played by Jocelyn Leiver) either claps for the MEN as a whole or chooses to employ one of an array of increasingly invasive directives (forehead taps, cheek caresses, or other hand gestures) to individual MEN, causing them to scurry after her, speak in gibberish (with an unmoving and oddly positioned face), enact pirouettes while retaining the awkward shape, or squeal and tremble in terror.

It began with watching at the containR site in downtown Calgary, Canada in
September 2017. kloetzel&co. members Jocelyn H. Leiver, Brenna G. Heer, Margarita
Kozhevnikova, Meghann Michalsky, Sylvie Moquin, and Taylor Ritchie. Photo courtesy of
kloetzel&co.

New Trajectories for the Site-Versatile Approach

The description of the site-versatile approach that I presented here initially offers a model for assessment: a single director gallivants around the globe with distilled task in hand and producers and curators swoon at the degree of spectacle achieved through – and cost-efficiency of – such site-versatile work.

But what happens if distillation in site-versatile work runs in another direction – towards complex elaboration rather than efficient simplicity? What happens if it arises from performers’ lengthy and studied familiarity with a work (and, perhaps, a single persona/character), rather than from a brief encounter?

Unlike others experimenting with the site-versatile approach, who must transmit a distilled task to a new cast at each successive site, for It began with watching I have worked with the same core group of dancers over a four-year period. Through this situation – i.e. intensively working with a consistent group for protracted periods to explore distilled tasks at variable sites – we have made a number of realizations to enhance our understanding of the site-versatile approach.

It began with watching in downtown Calgary, Canada in May 2019. kloetzel&co.
members Jennifer DeWolf, Brenna G. Heer, Meghann Michalsky, Sylvie Moquin, Taylor Ritchie,
and Janelle Schiffner. Photo by Kevin Leiver. Courtesy of kloetzel&co.

First, we have uncovered an impressive degree of complexity within the improvisational scoring. In short, rather than distilling down to aim for quick and easy transmission to a series of changeable performers, this version of distillation has signaled an opening up of the density and range that performers can enact when inhabiting the highly structured scores over extended periods. Further possibilities, and almost byzantine (but somehow still manageable) rules, have developed in the scores, partly from director/choreographer interest, but mainly due to expanding performer dexterity, attentiveness, curiosity and experimentation over time.  For example, in the pinwheel score, while the original score involved only rapid shifts between positions in response to Jocelyn’s claps, a second rendition of it added the speaking in gibberish (in response to forehead taps) and traveling across the space (when beckoned); later renditions have then expanded the range of these earlier steps while also adding the potential of carrying an object in awkward positions, pirouetting (in response to a finger dribble on top of the head), and squealing and trembling in terror (when caressed on the cheek).

The second and third developments are distinctly intertwined and relate to living the part. Each of the performers in It began with watching occupy a particular well-developed role, but not one clearly delineated by the authorial script. Instead, each role – adorned with a name spontaneously and unsystematically chosen by the group – has matured over time and relates only in part to the work itself. The performance personas mature based on the individual dancers’ own personalities and vice versa, and, in particular, as the performers have come to enjoy, learn from, and evolve their ‘alter-egos’. Indeed, as the four years have passed, the performers now embody their roles on a semi-permanent basis whenever they are together, whether in rehearsal, touring, performance or even social settings.

What’s more, as these personas have developed, challenging our understanding of the divisions between the individual and the ‘role’, our exchanges with sites have also grown more fluid. Thus, ‘Stan’ (played by Meghann Michalsky) will not only be Stan in government sites, where the connection and parody is inherently clear, but the more fluid Stan/Meghann now finds ‘themself’ living this adaptable persona as ‘they’ prance, debate, pose, or loiter on downtown pedestrian walkways, in university food courts or on urban transit.7 In short, the versatility of sites has prompted a versatility and a strengthening of character, with now a gamut of possibilities for who Stan/Meghann can be in any given moment or in any public setting (indeed, Stan/Meghann has recently added a new embodiment, an Australian politico named Calvin, which now totals three potential characters to choose from and to intermingle).

Further use of scoring in June 2019 for It began with watching in downtown Calgary,
Canada. kloetzel&co. members Jennifer DeWolf, Meghann Michalsky, Sylvie Moquin, and
Janelle Schiffner. Photo by Jocelyn H. Leiver. Courtesy of kloetzel&co.

So, what can be gleaned from this versatility, this site-adaptive play in the public sphere? Potential ramifications are many. First, while versatility can be a watchword of the neoliberal order, spawning spectacle-oriented artworks that neatly coincide with and support the efficiency mandate of the festival circuit, there necessarily exists another side to this mutable approach. In other words, while distillation via adaptive scoring may involve negotiating the material realities of neoliberalism (i.e. in the context of funding cuts, short-term venue use due to exorbitant rents, demand for bread-and-circus fare, and the like), it may also mean discovering how to slip between the cracks. It may mean finding stealthy ways to approach multiple public bodies and multiple public spaces without the fanfare or confines of festivalization. It may mean uncovering techniques for developing and/or inhabiting multiple roles or genders to ironize or satirize celebrity culture. It may suggest ways of trying on more-than-human attributes to consider the knowledge base of various species, or it may involve developing ‘underground’ methods of performance that question cultural production and its relationship to current socioeconomic and political systems.

In an era of unfailing surveillance and panoptic power, where increasing privatization of public space offers less and less means to assemble, deliberate, exchange or protest, perhaps versatility in performance – both as a concept and a methodology – will not be merely another neoliberalist yoke, but rather a meandering and slippery path to alternative futures.

Melanie Kloetzel is the artistic director of kloetzel&co., a dance theatre company founded in New York and now based in Canada. Since 1997, kloetzel&co. has presented theatre works, site-specific performances, and dance films across three continents. Kloetzel is an associate professor of dance at the University of Calgary.  www.kloetzelandco.com

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Notes:

  1. It began with watching (2016-present), which was commissioned by CrossCurrents (Calgary), has also been presented on stage by the 2017 Fluid Festival (Calgary), the 2018 Brian Webb Dance Company season (Edmonton), and the 2019 Stream of Dance Festival (Regina). ‘Presented’ site versions of the work have occurred between 2016-18 at the University of Calgary’s 50th Anniversary reception for funders, The Works Art & Design Festival (Edmonton), containR at EVJunction (Calgary), and the 2017 Canadian Dance Assembly’s national conference opening reception (Calgary). All other site performances of the work have occurred via ‘guerrilla’ means (i.e. not presented through official organizations and, typically, transpiring without specific public space use permits).
  2. Clearly, the history and theory of site performance is too great to summarize here. Performances by Wright & Sites, Mike Pearson, Meredith Monk, Ann Carlson, Knowhere Productions, Zaccho Dance Theatre, Rosemary Lee, and so many more have developed the genre in a plethora of directions. For more on the practice and theories of site performance, please refer to publications by Mike Pearson, Fiona Wilkie, Victoria Hunter, and Melanie Kloetzel, among others.
  3. In a recent article I describe the nuances of site-adaptive performance historically, setting the stage for a larger discussion of the genre. See Melanie Kloetzel, ‘Site and Re-Site: Early Efforts to Serialize Site-Specific Dance’, Dance Research Journal, 49:2 (April 2017), 6-23.
  4. In my accompanying CTR article, I examine two such works, Willi Dorner’s Bodies in Urban Spaces (2007-present) and Brandy Leary’s Glaciology (2013-15) as examples of such work.
  5. It began with watching has now resulted in the film short, Dance of the Puppets, seen in the vimeo link and now the working title of the piece as it is now appearing in various corporate or social sites; the work is also currently involved in a second film production process through which we are ‘mockumenting’ the ongoing project.
  6. Some of these ‘scenes’ involved a certain degree of improvisation even in the original presentation in 2016, but, at the time, these improvisational elements were quite rigidly prescribed, particularly in terms of spatial arrangement, when manifested on stage.
  7. Clearly, the ‘they’ terminology is also appropriate as the gendering of the performers’ bodies exists ever more readily between the ‘she’ pronoun that all performers claim in daily life and the masculinized politico roles in which they now spend (with greater ease and willingness) significant time.

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