texts and interviews > 09.2006 pichet klunchun and myself - marina grzinic
How to dance with words: Pichet Klunchun and myself

I analyzed some selected performances presented at the International festival MLADI LEVI 2006 in Ljubljana, which displayed some extraordinary theater and dance productions, that opened a productive platform for an analysis of what the current topics are, and as well processes and antagonisms in the field of performative arts, specifically, and in contemporary arts in generally.

My main focus in this essay is on the performancePichet Klunchun and myself by Jérôme Bel and Pichet Klunchun, being the most extraordinary performance presented at the Festival.

Pichet Klunchun and myself is a duet by French choreographer and contemporary dancer Jérôme Bel, regarded as one of the most successful and prominent contemporary dance artists in Europe , which he created with Pichet Klunchun, a traditional Thai dancer. The plot is simple: two dancers, Bel and Klunchun, from completely different worlds communicate about dance; mostly sitting on the stage, they discuss nudity, religion, fear, tradition and choreography in the form of Platonic dialogues. Bel and Klunchun combine signs and gestures, narration and abstraction; they compare contemporary dance with the thousand year old Thai dance tradition, which is based, as Klunchun tells and shows us, on only four characters: the man, the woman, the demon and the monkey. Nevertheless, these four characters never die on stage, as this would bring bad luck. This is almost recopied from the announcement about the performance, and I am tempted to say that it is maybe provided, as is the case with the photographs from the performance, by Jérôme Bel himself. The duet performs the underside of contemporary dance and the condition of contemporary arts and culture in today's global capitalist world.

I will take a path of contextualizing the performance in order to purge some of its productive elements with another reappropriation, with rereading of the book by Slavoj Zizek The Parallax View, 2006 (1). I would like to emphasize that this rereading or contextualization or even reappropriation of the performance for my purpose (the purpose of trying to answer not only what to do with contemporary arts in the “tender hug” of global capital, but even more in which form to continue to do arts and with what arguments, topics and narratives to do this) coincide deeply with this other reappropriation. I can say that this essay is a product of a misreading of the performance and as well of the book. The procedure I developed here is possible to be put in parallel to a situation when in the performance Pichet Klunchun and myself, Bel wants to go naked and then we witness to weird intrusion of “politeness” by Klunchun, who stops him. This “wait a minute, thanks, but it is not necessary,” is the moment we have the opportunity to encounter the enigmatic signifier, the desire of the Other in all its impenetrability. Instead of a raw desire to see Bel naked, we get a total, but politely formulated, refusal.

What is the main goal of Bel's and Klunchun's 120 minute dialogue on stage?

First ) With two hours of speaking indeed, Bel and Klunchun stage the underside of what is to be seen as the public face of the contemporary dance universe. It is contemporary dance (although the performance also has references to traditional Thai dance) that is framed on the Freudian couch, so to speak, especially as we know that Lacan stresses that the unconscious is structured like a language, BUT not by a language. It is precisely the second part of this important statement by Lacan that provoked a revolution in theory, that is performed in front of our very eyes during the performance. What do I want to say ?

Adrian Johnston argued that the standard reading of “Lacan as a ‘structuralist' maintains that, since each individual is born into a world dominated by already-established languages ( langues ), Lacan's linguistic, ex-sisting unconscious is a product of specific language-systems. Lacan specifically warns against seeing language, understood in any ordinary sense as the structural cause of the unconscious. Instead, he hints that one is dealing more with a parallel analogy between two similar structures that indissociably interpenetrate each other, rather than with an exact equivalence between a cause and an effect. In French the English term ‘language' can be rendered in two ways: langue and langage . Langue designates an actual, specific language system: English, French, and German. It is approximately equivalent to the English ‘tongue,' and emphasizes the everyday employment of language. On the other hand, langage is close in meaning to the English ‘discourse' (it isn't close to the French discours , especially as Lacan uses discours ). Instead of stressing the phenomenal side of concrete articulations, as in langue , langage refers to a structured system, grammar or style that governs the formation of statements: scientific discourse, religious discourse and etc.”

Bel and Klunchun's 120 minute long dialogue is about the structure of the system of dance, about its grammar, politics and the administration that govern the formation of contemporary dance practice, its ways of understanding its dance figures, body enactments, its history, and its discourse, in a strictly Lacanian sense, that is a mixture of practice, theory of meaning and procedures of truth. This is why it is possible to say that although it is a reference to Thai traditional dance, it is a performance strictly about contemporary dance, its hierarchies and interferences, its hegemonic procedures within the First capitalist dance world and outside it; Klunchun's references toward Thai traditional dance are therefore already spoken from his contemporary dance perspective, he studied in the US and performed in Europe. Therefore the dialogue between Bel and Klunchun, coming from two completely different geographical and cultural contexts, is not a clash of two systems; they communicate extremely well between them. They understand each other perfectly clearly, as they don't speak, literally, so much about their cultural differences, but about the framing from outside and inside of the same discourse, about the same langage of contemporary dance.

This langage is not transparent and it is not natural, although it is constantly performed as being natural, almost without history and without the history of its discourse. This discourse is governed/blurred/mystified by institutions and hierarchies going back to as far as the French revolution, coming back to the present by questioning the procedures of neo-liberal capitalist democracy and its usage of contemporary dance forms of representation.

Therefore this procedure of constructing the logics and modalities of the discourse of contemporary dance impregnated with power, institutional logics and hierarchies is something that in Pichet Klunchun and myself is of extreme power and importance.

It is a display of the mechanisms of a discourse of contemporary dance and the way capital intervenes in today's global dance world. When tourists from the First capitalist world visit Thailand, they consume traditional dance only as an empty decoration, but the same can be said for a lot of classical dance performances today, they are here in the “old world” just for the decoration of this world, a manneristic style, without power.

This is the reason why both classical and contemporary dance performances literally drowned in the orifice of multimedia kitsch and direct conservative ideology of normalization. Discourse, as Zizek says, always means a certain social link with two forms of existence, the biopolitical logic of domination (that is conceptualized as bureaucracy, administration, the institution of dance for example in the first capitalist world that structures, selects and establishes histories and presents of contemporary dance) and the incessant production and re-appropriation of excess (surplus value). Something that was before perceived as local perversion is in capitalism elevated to a principle of social life ! Lets think about DV8 or Jérôme Bel or Thai traditional dance or Mozart in Austria they are all elevated today to the level of (empty) contemporary cultural signs.

Second ) When Bel answers different questions regarding contemporary dance he does this in a form that is in psychoanalysis named Versagung ( not to be at the level of the mission ). Versagung is presented as a signifier that turns into an object, that is reduced to an inert stain. When he is asked to perform his favourite dance figure, to show it to the public, and to Klunchun, Bel just stands immobile on the stage, in a corner. It is a signifier–turned–object, a signifier reduced to an inert stain that stands for the collapse of the dance order. With Versagung, it is possible to describe the whole setting of this duet for dance. Jérôme Bel and Pichet Klunchun “not being at the level of the mission” (they talk instead of dance) means performing the collapse of the dance order to open a particular future for it.

Here, it is also possible to develop a certain critique of Bel. In taking this position of a signifier turned object we can say that Bel repeats the relation of the analysts toward the subject (that is always in psychoanalysis the split subject). This can be presented as the stain or the object small a, the inert object in relation to the split subject $ that equals in the formula of such a type: a — $; a —$ within Lacanian psychoanalysis is also the formula of perversion. Therefore it is possible to read the entire endeavour by Bel as a perverse link to contemporary dance practice. As Zizek argues, the masochist pervert, the one who takes the position of an inert stain, or of an immobile object, occupies the position of object a, as an instrument of the other's desire, and in this way serving his victim, he posits him as the hystericized divided subject who does not know what he wants. The pervert (Bel) is the one who knows it for him, that is, he pretends to speak from the position of knowledge about the other's desire, which enables him to serve the other. The final product of such a relation and of such a link is the Master signifier, or to put differently, it is the very development of the narcissistic personality bent on self-realization and self control! But let's see the possible twists of such a relation in the future.

Third ) Bel and Klunchun are like two lovers who excite one another with their innermost fantasies about dance to such a degree that they reach full orgasm merely by talking. We, the public are in a situation of being framed as in a kind of communality — peep — show. The result of such an excess of intimacy is not difficult to guess. The dialogue does not normalize the situation within contemporary dance, but on the contrary opens a space of antagonism that questions its appropriation, normalization and normativization. After such a radical mutual exposure, they will not be able to maintain their amorous link. But the point is that this amorous link (and love matters a lot here) is not the relationship between them, but towards contemporary dance. What we could learn from the dialogue is that contemporary dance has to rethink (like any other artistic practice today) the role it has, the slavery it maintains, the dirty job it does and the excitement it produces for capital. This is the main antagonistic relation, stated perfectly clearly when traditional Thai dance is just seen as a tourist decoration for those coming from the wealthy capitalist world.

Therefore the dialogue on stage is not a dialogue at all. It is an outcome of a purely antagonistic situation, or, through Zizek's Parallax View, it can be called an ontological excess. The dialogue, in the way it is displayed and orchestrated, leaves the public and the space of contemporary dance with a disruptive excess of such a magnitude that it is not possible to be easily reintegrate in the field of dance afterwards. The difference is between the constitutive ontological excess and the obscene excess. The obscene excess is the excess of exception that sustains normality, while the radical ontological excess is a pure excess, the paradox of an excess as such, of something that in and of itself is excessive, with no presupposed normality. Therefore the outcome of the performance is an excess that can't be be normalized easily.

The performance shows contemporary dance and its discourse at its purest. This is the true excess: Bel and Klunchun are not putting their innermost fantasies into practice, but precisely talking about them, allowing their fantasies to invade the medium of an almost untouched institution of contemporary, classical and traditional dance to such an extent that one can literally dance with words (or as Zizek says, fuck with words).

A “normal” contemporary dance performance is a poor substitution for this orgy of the slicing into particles of this precise discourse, its mechanisms and its figures.

The outcome of the whole performance is a gap that points to truth. This gap is the impossibility of ever attaining a neutral view, or of adopting an attitude of inner peace and distance. In short, although struggles take place in reality, the key fight is to be won in the matrix, within the field of contemporary dance, its history, modes of interpretations and procedures of power. Similarly to “matrix reloaded,” this “duet about Dance” shows that what is at stake is precisely the discourse of contemporary dance and its institutional politics, economies and ideologies.

Dr. Marina Grzinic lives in Ljubljana , works in Ljubljana and Vienna . She is researcher at the Institute of Philosophy (ZRC-SAZU), Ljubljana , and Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna . She is involved with Aina Smid in video art from 1982.

Endnote :
1. Cf. Slavoj Zizek, Parallax View , The MIT Press, Cambridge , Mass. , and London 2006