Patterns of the Unfinished

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Patterns of the Unfinished

Grotesque Bodies in Contemporary Dance1

A text by Susanne Foellmer

In dance, the interrogation of the body as an incomplete, workable material that does not end at the skin as a border has become a common practice and topos of contemporary aesthetics, for which theories of the grotesque, as formulated by Mikhail M. Bakhtin and Wolfgang Kayser, can serve as models of reference and come to be reformulated. This brief article outlines the artistic emergence of such tendencies and frames them theoretically with the grotesque as a model of analysis for these types of manifestations.

The Incomplete as a Model in Contemporary Dance

Xavier Le Roy's work Self unfinished (1998) can veritably be described as an artistic 'blueprint' for phenomena of the incomplete. In this solo, in which the dancer and choreographer Le Roy goes through various stages of metamorphosis, the body is investigated and put up for disposition as a mobile and moving working material. Similar to an experimental arrangement2, Le Roy moves from a standing position to crawling, crouching and lying down, peeling his body out of its clothing in the course of the piece and transforming it in torsions and vexed inversions, so that at times it creates oscillating effects in relation to the 'belonging' and proportionality of limbs, making it – at certain moments – difficult to discern where front and back, above or below are located (fig. 1 and 2).

Then, the reception of the piece was essentially determined by attributes of the intangible and indescribable. To capture the incomprehensibility, some reviewers resorted to using images from the realm of the amphibious or the animalistically uncanny, drawing comparisons to frogs, spiders or, even more profane, a roast chicken.3 Sometimes, what was seen was described as "grotesque" – apparently as an expression for that which defies possible interpretive frames. During and especially since this time, however, dancers and choreographers have increasingly worked on interrogating the body and its boundaries: one example for this would be the questioning of the body’s contours in Meg Stuart's No Longer Readymade (1993). Numerous pieces emerged that subjected the body to transformative processes of dissecting, fragmenting, disassembling, and reassembling, also in an attempt to subvert representations on the stage. In this respect, it is now possible to speak of actual patterns – patterns of movement and an imagery of the metamorphic, which establish its own style in contemporary dance.4 Dance scholar Krassimira Kruschkova compares Le Roy's defigurations of the body, among other things, to anagrammatic methods and, in the context of his now famous solo, speaks of an "example that has already become a 'classic'".5 Contributing to this are the artistic and scholarly discourses that contour and define these refusals of representation or that impart them iconographic relevance –particularly sculptured images from Le Roy's transformations have almost become an emblem of bodily dance experiments, as images in exhibitions or, pictogrammatically condensed, as contemporary dance logos on festival websites.6

But how can one approach a dance aesthetic that, on the one hand, emphasizes the surprising, seemingly unformed, and, on the other hand, becomes a blueprint for subsequent dance productions? With the topos of the grotesque, I propose an analytical mode of approaching these phenomena, accepting their initial evasions in regard to aesthetic categorization, describing their surprising potentials, and at the same time grasping how they are incorporated into artistic registers. In the following, I will give a brief theoretical outline of the grotesque.

The Grotesque as a Theoretical Figure of Analysis

When it comes to the theorization of the grotesque, there are two protagonists in particular that take center stage – their contributions canonized in the fields of literary studies and art history: Mikhail M. Bakhtin and Wolfgang Kayser. Their writings Rabelais and His World (1965) and Das Groteske. Seine Gestaltung in Malerei und Dichtung (1957; eng. The Grotesque in Art and Literature, 1963) are mostly read antipodally: the former theorizing the grotesque as a form of cultural and social subversion qua laughter, the latter interpreting grotesque sensations as aesthetic sensations of the uncanny and alienating. In a nutshell, a production-aesthetic perspective versus a reception-aesthetic perspective. For the perception and analysis of phenomena of the grotesque in dance, however, it is sensible to combine these two theoretical approaches.

Bakhtin’s reading of Rabelais's novel Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1552) emphasizes the phenomenon of unbounded, carnivalesque bodies. The two titular giants grasp the world in an all-devouring mode by literally incorporating it into themselves. Thus, entire forests and cities 'live' in Pantagruel's mouth,7 and in a carnivalesque inversion of Genesis, Gargantua creates rivers, that even ships sail on, by urinating for months.8 Pronounced emphasis on body parts and sexual organs such as the nose or phallus9 or (even linguistic) degradations and (hierarchical) reversals10 are the hallmarks of a grotesque art form that Bakhtin places into opposition with the classical canon of the arts (from the 19th century)11 that was based on individuation. The following Bakhtin reference is quite well known:

"The grotesque body is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body. the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world."12

This conception of the body is also highlighted in the French translation: "e corps grotesque est un corps en mouvement. Il n'est jamais prêt ni achevé: il est toujours en état de construction."13 The body is thus not simply perceptible as overflowing and proliferating, but is perpetually in an uncompleted state of construction: the body is a construction-site. This, I argue, is a pivotal point at which an analysis of art and dance can begin. For how could something be fundamentally recognized as grotesque, as counterculture, if everything is always already interwoven and in exchange, as Bakhtin specifies – especially within the temporary framework of carnival.14 Where would we set the caesura that separates the grotesque from the familiar and the known?

Interestingly enough, this is the point where Wolfgang Kayser's writing comes to the rescue – in spite of it being criticized by Bakhtin.15 Kayser emphasizes the grotesque as a phenomenon of reception, especially through the entry of the strange and uncanny into the experience of art – the moments of perception when the familiarity of what we see or read is shaken.16 I suggest that this level of experience, in turn, adds a missing element to Bakhtin's theory, especially when experiencing the grotesque for the first time and dealing with the question of how one would recognize the unbounded as such in the first place. Kayser, however, goes one step further and already hints at possible methods of analysing grotesque phenomena, which prove to be productive when it comes to the grotesque in dance. Kayser conceives of the grotesque, among other things, as a phenomenon of movement, which he identifies equally in the visual arts and in literary texts. Using Jacques Callot's graphic drawings, Kayser e.g. speaks of a grotesque "gestic style"17 and highlights the motifs of movement, e.g. in Fischart's German-language 'Reprise' of Rabelais's novel. Kayser cites the latter's translation of the Giant’s Dance, in which Fischart further heightens the already hyperbolic proliferations of the original:

"Da dantzten, schupfften, hupfften, lupfften, sprungen, sungen, huncken, reyeten, schreyeten, schwangen, rangen, plöchelten, fußklöpffeten, gumpeten, plumpeten, rammelten, hammelten, voltirten, branlirten, gambadirten, cinqpassirten, capricolirten, gauckelten, redleten, bürtzleten, balleten, jauchzeten, gigaten, armglocketen, henruderten, armlaufeten, warmschnaufeten ..."18

In the downright embodiment and dynamization of the vocabulary, it becomes clear that movement is not to be understood as an abstraction, but that the body itself emerges very directly and almost plastically 'between the lines'. This also makes explicit the way in which the latter appears as grotesque in art. As Kayser mentions, the intertwining of the border ornaments on the walls of the Domus Aurea, discovered in Renaissance Rome, gave the grotesque its name.19 Kayser further describes the endless intertweaving of animals, people, and plants, which are a significant element, as a "Knorpelgroteske" (gristle grotesque): Similar to Bakhtin, here, Kayser relies on the motif of grotesque embodiment – and in the anatomical choice of words, on protrusions of the interior to the exterior – and emphasizes the tendential dissolution of fixed contours in the hybrid intermingling of the organic and the inorganic.20 (Fig 3)

Consequently, I assert, that the grotesque can be thought of as an oscillating phenomenon that resides precisely at the fringes of the familiar and unfamiliar, of the known and the unknown, and requires those (aesthetic, cultural, or social) systems of ordering as a basic prerequisite and blueprint in order to 'function' as the grotesque. Yet, it is especially within Kayser’s depiction of the caricature-like estrangement of the world, that another phenomenon of the grotesque becomes evident: its fleetingness. For something that was perceived as grotesque in or for a certain period of time, can quickly move into the centre of established art aesthetics - such as the body transformations by Xavier Le Roy that I presented at the beginning, who with his movement experiments, intentionally or unintentionally, advanced to become the influential figure of an essential style of contemporary dance. Here again, the grotesque becomes a valuable mode of analysis as it is able to record and describe precisely those border phenomena between opening and contour, between counterculture and convention.

Translated by Aminata Estelle Diouf

1 This article is comprised of the first, minimally edited part of the essay Monster und Metamorphosen: Groteske Körper im zeitgenössischen Tanz. In: Cahiers d‘Études Gérmaniques No. 78, 2020, pp. 257 – 271. Sincere thanks to the editors of the issue, Dr. Hélène Barrière and Dr. Susanne Boemisch, for permission to reproduce it in parts.
2 Xavier Le Roy‘s biographical context is first and foremost scientific: he earned a doctorate in molecular biology before turning entirely to dance. This first profession still plays a role in this solo, as he worked with terms such as ectoderm during rehearsals. Cf. Siegmund, Gerald: Abwesenheit. Eine performative Ästhetik des Tanzes. William Forsythe, Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Meg Stuart. Bielefeld: transcript, 2006, p. 384. The ectoderm refers to the stage of tissue in the early stage of the embryonic phase in which the two embryotic layers form by invagination, which later develop into the skin and brain. Le Roy incorporates this later developing relationship of inside-outside into his metamorphic dance experiments.
3 Schlagenwerth, Michaela: Ein Leben als Broiler. Xavier Le Roy präsentiert Körperfragmente bei den Cottbuser Tanztagen. In: Berliner Zeitung, 16. November 1998; Sieben, Irene: Das unvollendete Selbst. Über Xavier Le Roy. In: tanzdrama 1, 1999, S./pp. 47 – 49, hier S/p.48; Brandstetter, Gabriele: Staging gender. (K)ein Thema für das Tanztheater? In: Tanz der Dinge 56, 2001, S./pp. 6 – 10, hier S./p. 10; Siegmund, Gerald: Abwesenheit. S./pp. 373, 384.
4 Vgl./Cf. Foellmer, Susanne: Am Rand der Körper. Inventuren des Unabgeschlossenen im zeitgenössischen Tanz. Bielefeld: transcript, 2009.
5 Kruschkova, Krassimira: Defigurationen. Zur Szene des Anagramms in zeitgenössischem Tanz und Performance. In: Corpus, Internetmagazin für Tanz, Choreographie, Performance, 2006. (letzter Zugriff am / last accessed 22.01.2023)
6 For example, as an oversized poster at the press conference for the exhibition Krokodil im Schwanensee . Tanz in Deutschland seit 1945 (Akademie der Künste Berlin, 2003), in the themed room “Wir sind ein Volk. Die Tanzszene im wieder vereinten Deutschland seit 1990” . The poster was then taken down before the official opening at the request of Xavier Le Roy‘s production manager, as they did not agree to display Le Roy as a figurehead of contemporary dance. A year later, Super Uovo, a festival for contemporary performing arts in Milan, used a pictogrammatically condensed figure of a silhouette from a scene in Self unfinished as an advertisement on the homepage of its website.
7 Bachtin, Michail M.: Rabelais und seine Welt. Volkskultur als Gegenkultur . Übersetzt von Gabriele Leupold, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M. 1995. S. 379.
Bakhtin, Mikhail M.: Rabelais and his World. . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. p. 337.
8 Ibid. pp. 150.
9 Ibid. p. 26.
10 Ibid. pp. 21, 81.
11 Ibid. pp. 319 f.
12 Ibid. pp. 317, emphasis ibid.
13 Bachtin, Michail M.: L’oeuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen Âge et sous la Renaissance . Paris: Gallimard, 1970. S./p. 315, Hervorhebung ibid.
14 In his reading of the grotesque in the art of modernism, Peter Fuß describes the entire art production of the avant-garde as “essentially grotesque”. Cf. Fuß, Peter: Das Groteske. Ein Medium des kulturellen Wandels. Köln/Weimar/Wien: Böhlau, 2001, p. 54. However, it would then be necessary to inquire about the identifiability of the surprising and the unusual, if the entire art production of a (short) epoch qualifies as grotesque.
15 Bakhtin received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1932 (see Grübel, Rainer: preface in: Bakhtin, Mikhail M.: Die Ästhetik des Wortes. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M. 1979. pp. 21 – 78. Translated from the Russian by Rainer Grübel and Sabine Reese.); his subsequent paper on the grotesque and the carnivalesque in Rabelais’ work, however, was rejected by the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union for a long time and was not published until 1965 (cf. Lachmann, Renate: preface in: Bakhtin, Mikhail M.: Rabelais and His World. pp. 7 – 46, here p. 11). Meanwhile, Kayser’s theory of the grotesque was published, which Bakhtin subsequently criticized in detail in his book (Bakhtin, Mikhail M.: Rabelais and His World. pp. 46 ff.).
16 Kayser makes this point e.g., by referencing the story Der Sandmann by E.T.A. Hoffmann and later summarizes: „the grotesque is the estranged world.” – Kayser, Wolfgang: The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. pp. 78 f., 184.
17 Ibid. p. 39.
18 Ibid. p. 168.
19 The concept of the grotesque can etymologically be traced back to the term grotta (cave) (cf. ibid. p. 19) and is connected to the discovery of intertwined proliferating ancient ornaments depicting merging plants, animals and human bodies on the walls of the Domus Aurea, Nero‘s palace in Rome, rediscovered around 1480.
20 Ibid. p. 24.

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