OR GLOBALIZE HIMBEEREIS
By Katherina Zakravsky
1. Welcome on Planet Workshop
We are living in a peculiar age: we are obsessed with lifelong learning, but very sceptical about the authority of the teacher; we are permanently eager to gain new knowledge about new practices but not willing to invest a lot of time in practicing those practices; we are wide open for all sorts of cultural resources of various ethnical, historical and social origins but want to have it broken down to an easily digestible, rather technical block of information.
All those paradoxes come together to form something I want to call the workshop paradigm.
The new workshop culture means teaching without strict authority, transfer of knowledge without years of practice, multicultural curiosity on the basis of quite standardized and technical modes of communication.
Workshop culture takes the traditions, practices, cultures of the world and redistributes them in a neutralized setting. It is a hub. It is a globalized and multicultural airport of practices and information.
Each summer, the ImPulsTanz Festival in Vienna is shaping into a very vivid example of planet workshop. The subject matter in this case is not only dance, but the "body" in a wide sense of the word. The "body" being the centre of a particular workshop universe is not a random fact. The "body", as we know it today, is the paradigmatic site of workshop culture. One could even claim that "the body" was born on planet workshop. To state that everyone has one sounds like a blatant triviality; but it is more. The "body" is that seemingly white sheet of paper, the tabula rasa workshop culture can inscribe itself on. It is the "body that matters" (Judith Butler), the subject matter that oscillates between extreme presence and utter insignificance. Within these extremes, both, professional dancers trained to make their bodies noticed and "ordinary people" who see a chance to get their suppressed, ignored, neglected bodies some new attention, flood the workshops of ImPulsTanz.
In the outside world, the structural semiotics of utter visibility and invisibility marking "the body" as a recent cultural construction is socially recoded as a medical, or rather biopolitical imperative: you should do more for your body. "The body" seems to be this diva thing, this capricious lady that never gets enough attention. Even if all those employees tragically trapped in seated job spent their whole spare time jogging, walking and lifting weights (and quite a lot of them do), it would never be enough.
Even though the lay people, worried about not doing enough for their body, clearly form one fraction of the target group for the workshops, the overall "ideology" - if there is one - does not simply fulfil the social imperative of more fitness, health care and training; but it also does not resist it. I would say: it has a tangential, sometimes ironical relation to this hidden agenda society might assign workshop culture to. The approach to pay attention to "the body" is rather fun-oriented and light; still, the Impuls workshop culture does make use of a variety of physical traditions, traditional and ethnic body techniques, modern medically oriented body practices such as Feldenkrais or Gyrokinesis and dance techniques proper to blend them into a mix for every level and every taste. This mix creates a situation of a great freedom of choice, but also the insecurity of a surprise package. To quote Forrest Gump: planet workshop is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you get.
And as there is no canon of discipline and no cultural consensus to create a new one, the workshop nomad is very much dependent on the "personality" factor of the teacher. This is a very "light" and "easy" concept at first glance; it has a lot of problematic ideological implications though. If "personality" is the only common denominator between workshop givers and takers, a non-explicit idea of authority is entering again, but through the back door; after all, the classical name for "personality" is "charisma" - a term loaded with political and magical meanings. The teacher of "personality", taking his/her personality as licence to offer his/her own personal mix of body techniques may serve his/her knowledge with ease and humour. He/she does, however, not offer any common ground the workshop consumer could appeal to. There are no grounds of negotiation, no standards to be agreed on. Thus, anarchy ironically can turn authoritarian at any moment. This is, of course, only a potential danger; and as the contract of workshop culture is notoriously short-termed, the consequences are hardly dramatic. Yet, the sustainability of the knowledge gained in this short encounter with a personality as teacher remains at least dubious.
It would pay off to confront this very "informal" model of teaching through personality with a traditional concept in pedagogy that makes a difference between the teacher and the master. Whereas the teacher has the function to transfer knowledge from one person to another, making them a vessel of information that does not need to be its source, the master "embodies" a specific form of spiritual, artistic or practical knowledge he/she shares with the student through a complex and often long-termed game of communication. Whereas the teacher can rely on a standardized and abstract system of knowledge he/she shares with his/her students, a master is needed if a particular form of knowledge is very difficult to codify; and even more so if this form of knowledge has to be acquired through a process of osmosis leading to a singular symbiosis between the student and the knowledge; a master plants seeds of knowledge into a person while, at the same time, communicating that each person has to process this information differently, according to the talents, instincts and desires of each particular person.
The realm of "the body" being educated in the workshop universe represents a complex terrain asking for both figures, the teacher and the master; body-related knowledge needs to be embodied, it cannot only be transferred in a generalized fashion; this holds even more truth, as quite a lot of workshops make references to various spiritual and non-European traditional cultures. However, the limited time frame and the setting of large groups of participants staying in a rather anonymous relation to the "master" allows for nothing but teaching. This deficiency passes unnoticed, because knowledge that can be taught and knowledge that asks for a "master" blur in the zone of contemporary lifestyle technologies, able to break down any complex psycho-physical practice to a small set of rules.
Let's have a look at three concrete examples to see the paradoxes of planet workshop at work.
2.1 Gravity generates choreography
Under the promising title "Gravity happens", Kerstin Kussmaul is giving a workshop involving massage techniques and exercises in body awareness and movement. It is the forth day; the group is rather small, the atmosphere relaxed and intimate.
Here and elsewhere, the metaphor is the magic tool to bridge the abyss between teacher and master under conditions of lack of time. "Imagine your skin is covered in white paint and rub it off on the floor", Kussmaul says, giving instructions for a rolling exercise on the floor. As each participant slowly builds himself up from the lying to the standing position, they can experience the basic truth that gravity is a bitch. The familiar trajectory from a horizontal to a vertical position, so popular both in workshop exercises and contemporary choreography, always seems like an allegorical re-enactment of evolution to me.
Yet finally, after some gentle exercises inspiring each participant to listen into their own bodies, discovering their unique powers and needs, the little group is confronted with the task everything else seemed to have led to: to perform a very complex and "dancey" sequence of movements, a piece of choreography they apparently had worked on the days before. Kussmaul takes on the attitude of the "master", as she retreats from her previous mode of giving gentle instructions; she asks the participants to reconstruct the sequence without her help, in an act of collective physical memory.
This could have been a smart move, yet it took me by surprise that the very practice that would clearly ask for a teacher - the collective performance of a defined and synchronized sequence of movements - would bring out the master in her. So the workshop began to resemble a small social laboratory with the dance-experienced young participants and the ordinary people reacting differently to the task; in the end, it was one of the very few men, middle-aged and apparently not from the dance field, who took on the authority of the choreographer for a moment, instructing the others how to perform.
2.2 The limits of my world are the limits of my rhythm
No matter if it's modern ethnic or Jazz or a contemporary mix of release and athletics, synchronous movement to a specific beat seems to be the workshop consensus still. This army of professional and hobby dancers on their difficult march to synchronicity is the equivalent to frontal education and obviously the most conservative concept of body work. It seems to be the most efficient method to pump a lot of physical knowledge into an anonymous group; it has to, however, rely on a generalized basis that unites all those bodies chance and interest had brought to the room. Watching Ismael Ivo giving a basic rhythm by moving his hips into the four directions of geography while the utterly diverse army behind him could never keep his beat convinced me of the opposite. Whatever knowledge he and his participants might share on the definition of "modern ethnic", - it does not suffice to swing in a collective rhythm.
David Zambrano's group seems to be even larger, even more unable to perform an extremely exhausting sequence of movements alternating between floor and standing in unison. The group is far more homogenous, consisting of young and well-trained people. Still, they fight with the task. Zambrano turns to singing his commands, thus giving his own beat: "Gathering, standing", some other participants sing along, giving the impression of co-instructors. The group struggles, pumps, rolls around on the floor, very eager to please the master but light years from any formation of a collective body.
Finally, I accidentally pass by a workshop given by the group Via Katlehong Dance, so far unknown to me. It fits the category of "modern ethnic", but in an utterly contemporary sense. The dance style "Pantsula" refers to the gang culture of the South African metropolis and mixes disco, jazzy, hip hop and "ethnic" movements in an unashamed fashion. Movements are not complex, but very dynamic and performed to a contemporary "housey" electronic beat. The small group of 13 is young and athletic, ethnically utterly diverse: people of African and Asian descent, and more men than usual. The teacher talks very little; he can apparently rely on the information he gave the days before. As the group splits into two confronting each other across the diagonal, miming the highly ritualised practice of insults known from African youth culture, I can see the miracle happening: they move in perfect synchronicity, each one pumping the beat to gather their very own little spark of rage, until one remains to perform a little "lick my ass" solo.
To me, they could have toured the show any moment. The lesson is: give them a world to identify with and they will keep the beat.
2.3 Global Sunset in Bollywood
"Modern ethnic" promises the spice of other cultures, while in fact anticipating a hybrid global culture, in which every world is as alien, or in fact familiar as any other, and all of them mix in a big orgy of individual tastes and commercial trends. This new global culture is as much the effect of imported exotisms of the Western imagination (Edward Said) as it is the result of non-Western cultures becoming part of a globalized market and media system that simply is no longer "the West".
India is one of the paradigmatic countries to pass over from non-Western to global; Akram Khan, as steady guest of the festival, and the opening concert with The Manganiyar Seduction, who turned Museumsquartier into an all male red-light district, are proof to the fact that ImPulsTanz likes India too.
"Bollywood" is one paradigmatic and charming orchid in the poisonous garden of a new global cultural industry. To call it "ethnic" would be as appropriate as calling the changing aesthetics of the Broadway musical "modern North American ethnic". The comparison is chosen with care, as the dance aspect of Bollywood, integrated into a highly standardized generic system of feature films, rather resembles older forms of variety than the Californian movie industry its name is modelled on. Thus, "Bollywood" dance can apparently be taught - Hollywood dance as a generic category can't.
The first day: The Bollywood workshop is being held by Terence Lewis aka Shiva, a young teacher from Mumbai, who is the epitome of androgynous grace. He teaches a simplified mix of submissive and romantically infatuated femininity to a large group of older and younger women, and one young male dancer who clearly defines himself as gay. It comes as no surprise that the flexibility of the wrist is of high importance to Indian dance; the connection to traditional dance practices is being invoked to add some dignity to this school of variety, dancing to Asian disco beats. Lewis is a good master, as he gives one the impression that there might be a lot more hidden under the shiny surface. We are not familiar enough with traditional Indian dance, but with contemporary hybrid India to judge if he is just polishing the surface or indicating that there is something more beneath it. He serves his mix with obvious routine and a good piece of mundane irony. As he passes through some gestures of heartbreak and longing, hand to the chest, hand to the forehead, he says: "In Bollywood Dance, there is no ambivalence, no space for misunderstandings; everything means exactly what it looks like." And he adds: "Don't forget to look up, the man is always taller than the woman."
Yes, all these hand postures have names, but you will need only a few of them. And along comes metaphor once again, now bridging the continents. "Just imagine a pony", he says. There we have the basic step. On the fifth and last day, Terence Lewis has turned into a teacher entirely. He just goes through the moves in front of the group, checking himself and them in the mirror. The group is familiar with some basic steps. The language of the hands has been simplified further to get them through longer sequences, slaves to the Asian rhythm. Like highly motivated ponies, they are riding themselves into the sunset of the new globalized entertainment culture.
Finally, young and old, thin and full-bodied women are stuffed into a variety of glittering variety costumes looking like a fifties vision of a harem. The teacher stays in his loose Asian pants and white shirt with an Arabic sign and a wide v-neck collar emphasizing his feminine traits. As he shows the sequence once again, he proves that he will always be the most graceful lady in the room, thus teaching us the lesson that metro-, if not poly-sexuality will be a big piece of practical carnal knowledge to be acquired for the global culture ahead of us.
Kerstin Kussmaul: Gravity Happens: Principles of Movement (4. Tag)
Ismael Ivo: Modern Ethnic Dance (5. Tag)
David Zambrano: Flying Low (5. Tag)
Via Katlehong Dance: Pantsula (5. Tag)
Terence Lewis aka Shiva: Bollywood Dance (1. Tag; 5. Tag)
Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1979)
Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993)
(July 31, 2008)