2023 / Magazine Susch MS#4
Essay by Jette Büchsenschütz
A late summer evening in a park in Berlin. A group of performers equipped with objects, some rigid, some flexible; textiles and other materials move among the trees, pedestrians, dogs, picnickers, etc. As they explore the park’s bounds, duets, trios, and groups form and separate again. A colourful game ensues, and for brief moments everything and everyone is a participant. It’s no coincidence that the rule of the game is ‘completing the form’. A group of unsuspecting teenagers appears and is spontaneously invited to play music, momentarily contributing to the improvised performance. The entire park becomes a permeable assembly in motion – not only defined by the individual bodies’ materiality, but also through the relations they enter into with each other. Its actors are manifold: people, things, plants, animals, wind, light, sounds and so on. This short-term creation of a social order and the instances of its own disintegration – and thus also of any implicit hierarchies – creates a harmonious, yet unchecked dynamic.
Improvisation techniques and strategies constitute the core of Cranky Bodies a/company’s practice. Founded by the Berlin-based dancer and choreographer Peter Pleyer and set and costume designer Michiel Keuper in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensemble draws on a longstanding collaboration of Peter’s choreographic work and Michiel’s sculptural compositions, as well as the dancers’ well-established cooperation. Despite their different places of living and working, despite crises and disruptions, Asaf Aharonson, Caroline Neill Alexander, Aleksandra Borys, Márcio Kerber Canabarro, Oliver Connew, Mor Demer, Björn Ivan Ekemark/Ivanka Tramp, Eszter Gal, Anna Nowicka, Ka Rustler, Marysia Stokłosa, Alistair Watts and the musician Marc Lohr have repeatedly worked with each other in various constellations over the years. They have been developing pieces together since 2014, such as Visible Undercurrent, Cranky Bodies Dance Reset (2017), the ongoing German-Polish exchange project Moving the Mirror (since 2016), the performative film project Terrestrial Transit (2022) with film-maker Stella Horta, as well as improvised encounters in public space like the previously described scene, and workshops. Whether in Stolzenhagen/Ponderosa, in Poland or in Berlin, the development of each piece is inextricably linked to teaching and co-working – in other words, the process of building further communities.
A/company’s practice intentionally references the Judson Church group’s choreographic approach from the early 1960s, where improvisation and choreography were no longer practised as opposites. However, a/company’s particular interest lies in tried and tested methods by collectives such as Grand Union, which emerged in 1970 from the former Judson Church dancers and who were interested in reinvestigating collective choreography through improvisational practices. In the following twenty years, these experiences were further developed and condensed into new methods, i.e. by Barbara Dilley (Contemplative Dance Practice), Nina Martin (Ensemble Thinking), Nancy Stark Smith (The Underscore) or Mary Overlie (The Six Viewpoints). These approaches explore the challenges of making collective compositional decisions in the mode of improvisation: in other words, how individual decisions may intertwine, allowing one person’s actions to fluidly mesh with those of the rest of the group.
In the mid-1990s, Nina Martin began to develop practices that focused the dancers’ attention on compositional forms and trained them to shift between compositional processes in solo, group, and contact improvisation in order to navigate a complexity ‘that is always at the edge of chaos’ as she notes, and is often present in improvised group dance. Similar to the aforementioned score ‘completing the form’, Martin’s Ensemble Thinking scores consist of formal tasks that raise awareness of compositional coherency.
Improvisation is more than a situational practice that strives to be fundamentally open to the present and the future. It’s foremost a paradoxical practice that follows a set of mostly indirect rules, relies on a lot of practice and may resort to pre-existing structures, but also speculates on things that lie beyond one’s technical availability. This experimentation with what is at least in part unavailable is linked to a concept of collective action that is not oriented towards the planned production of an (artistic) product, but towards the unrepeatable process of its collective production – a ‘practice as performance’, as Nina Martin calls it.
When improvisation and choreography are no longer considered binary opposites but are accepted as a complementary web of relations generated through dance itself, the polyphony of an ensemble becomes visible. Choreography becomes a spontaneous, self-organising collective event. Any authoritative potential is in constant motion, unbound to a particular part of the body or a single person, ideally making the formation of hierarchical structures impossible. Herein lies the socio-political potential of Ensemble Thinking: in the creation of a polyphonic unanimity, the process of which is revealed in the moment of negotiation.
The basis for the collective exploration of ensemble processes and their often crisis-prone dynamics lies precisely in the heterogeneity of the members of Cranky Bodies – their different origins from Eastern as well as Western Europe, Israel, Palestine, South and North America, New Zealand and other places, their individual training and generational backgrounds and the distinct perspectives and differences resulting thereof. They form a plurality or ‘multiplicity’, as described by author Bini Adamczak, which propagates itself in ever more extensive interrelations.
Change of location: a late summer evening in a square in front of the job center’s dominant architecture, located at the heart of Berlin’s not yet fully gentrified Wedding. A similar game of improvisation as in the park – in between dance, objects and urban setting. Existing patterns, like the geometric lines of the pavement, are variegated, broken, transformed into different dance forms and sculptural objects. In this case, however, the aesthetic game has a provocative effect. The mood of the passers-by, who unwillingly become the audience, oscillates between curiosity, irritation and incomprehension. More and more, the improvised game creates an uncontrollable, emotionalising contradiction between the job center (which embodies the neo-capitalist labor market and manages individuals who drop out of it or are difficult to place within it) and the artistic performance, a functionless composition that has no interest in becoming a commodity or product. Its fleeting scenes, which cannot be assigned to everyday experiences, clearly have the potential for disruption – and perhaps for a possible revision of established social behavior.
But why insist on collective improvisation in dance at this particular time? During a phase of accumulating ecological, political and social crises? Instead of an individual strategy for coping with contingency, it’s an experiment in creating communities – collectives that are not prescribed from above, but rather called for from below. It’s an experimentation in improvisation with power-sensitive options for action and composition, which point to an ethical and political potential that goes beyond the purely organisational. A demand for other forms of assembly, a call for redistribution regarding new perspectives on the needs of bodies; a conscious or unconscious destabilisation of traditional regimes of discipline and control, and the search for more casual ways of community building in a series of spontaneous departures and interruptions.
In her book Revolution für das Leben (Revolution for Life), philosopher Eva von Redecker also calls for new forms of assembly that can simultaneously be spaces where relationships are established and don’t reproduce the utilitarian principle of the economic sphere of production but recognise the needs and interdependence of all living things. In her book, Von Redecker formulates a ‘philosophy of new forms of protest’ that does not take the form of violent revolutionary upheaval but is defined by acts of self-empowerment of communities that share and care for one another. Instead of domination, she postulates something she calls ‘wild interconnectedness’: the creation of community that is not based on exploitation and devaluation, but on the preservation of natural and social resources.
In its own way – through moving structures or assemblages in which dance, stage design, costumes, music, language, film and site specificity and their different perspectives, difficulties and abilities are equal actors – Cranky Bodies’ work is based on a similar utopia. It’s no coincidence that a/company can also be read as a verb: to accompany.
Change of location: the outdoor area of Theatre Kana faces the street, an expressway in Szczecin, Poland. The audience sits in a semi-circle around a lawn, children scamper about, here and there somebody gets up to fetch a beer. In between all this, sculptural structures take form – ‘transitional sculptures’ made of driftwood, bolts of fabric and various shaped mirrors balanced by the dancers, kept in gentle motion by the wind, and supplemented by materials the theatre’s gardener tirelessly and unaffectedly supplies. A transitory performance space emerges, where animate and inanimate bodies interact in a way that the age-old question of power, of who initiates which movement, isn’t raised. Each movement, of a person’s body or a material, has an equally potent effect on the space and its perception, which is intensified by the mirrored reflections. Sometimes the mirrors multiply and dissolve, sometimes they distort and estrange. However, the key dissolution process occurs between dancers and spectators, who feel an increasing pull to participate in this game of improvisation. Curious and unafraid, first the children, then the rest of the audience becomes part of this changing assemblage. An atmosphere of solidarity transpires in the sense of Bini Adamczak’s redefinition of the outdated term ‘solidarity’, which was once used in an inflationary manner, especially in the socialist Eastern Bloc. Their ‘sphere of life’ is one of ‘multiplicity’ that expands into ever ‘more extensive interrelations’.
Szczecin was the penultimate stop on the choreographic journey Terrestrial Transit, which stretched from Berlin to Ponderosa/Stolzenhagen to Szczecin to the Baltic Sea. The slow, meandering journey, which made frequent stops in small towns, where old relationships were revisited and new experiences exchanged, was documented by filmmaker Stella Horta as a collaged cinematic diary. This project’s concept was more than just a formal score: it deals with questions that touch on different artistic forms of protest in the former Eastern Bloc and the West. The diametrically opposed conceptions of the individual and society, of the individual and the collective, then, now and in the future.
Last, but not least, it is perhaps also about how a ‘seismography of interwovenness’ as Von Redecker phrases it, or, in other words, how a radical co-existence of simultaneities can be achieved precisely in dance. And, in the words of the writer Olga Tokarczuk, to whom Von Redecker’s neologism refers, it’s about ‘recognising the ultimate fact that all things that exist are mutually connected into a single whole, even if the connections between them are not yet known to us. Seeing everything also means a completely different kind of responsibility for the world, because it becomes obvious that every gesture “here” is connected to a gesture “there”.’** Ensemble dancemaking, with its assemblages and ever more extensive assemblies, is an attempt at this ultimately ecological view of the world.
** Olga Tokarczuk, Nobel Lecture 2018, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/lecture/
Jette Büchsenschütz works at the intersection of text and dramaturgy in the field of dance and performance – mainly in Berlin. She has a background in sinology as well as dance studies and is working together with Cranky Bodies a/company since 2021.