Jan-Tage Kühling: On How To Make Mistakes

Neforma 75, 18. oktober 2019

“It will be most interesting if we make mistakes”, Katja Legin says at the beginning of the already 75th edition of Neforma, Slovenians dance and music improvisation series, taking place in the context of the international Shifting-Baselines project in Maribor. Together with fellow-dancer Yuri Konjar and musician Zlatko Kaučič they await the audience in a small studio in the attic of the Maribor puppet theatre. Standing in front of the blackboard, Kaučič at their feet manipulating a plethora of analogue and digital instruments and small children toys, they start their dance. Having her initial words in mind, I watch and think: What can be a mistake in movement? What can go wrong in improvisation? Besides: If there is no fixed structure, who is to decide what is right or wrong in the first place?

Legin and Konjar use carefully placed steps and gestures to explore the small space between Kaučič, the diagonal ceiling of the attic and the audience. Cautious movements with their hands, slow tilts of the torso giving guidance to the limbs that follow as they fall, a couple of relaxed steps, a pause: Legin and Konjar listen attentively to Kaučič and then – go on. Kaučič, on the other hand, begins to match sounds with movements: Starting from scratches on the wooden case of his hammered dulcimer he goes to playing its strings, then to the sanding noise of two small stones held in his hand. The sounds both support and contrast Legin and Konjars movements, intensifying their rhythms or opening other ways of movement. They respond to Kaučičs sound, to the sound and the movements of each other, but above all to the blueprint of their own body – the functional yet extremely flexible design of their bones, joints, muscles and tissues working with and against gravity and the tensional forces in and around them. If their body is full of potentiality, so is the space around them: They shift and shuffle across the empty stage; changing its structure, changing its geography, changing its density by movements that seem to be the effects of stumbling rather than of deliberately made decisions. They walk, run and play – increasing dynamics, falling to the ground, exploring all dimensions of the compact, empty space as if to fill it with narratives. 

Then and now, Legin and Konjar come to a rest. As if opening up, they face the audience, acknowledge their own being acknowledged, watch how they are being watched, and finally – as in a freeze-frame – recognize in what positions their bodies came to rest: Konjar leaning against the tilted ceiling, Legin next to him. But Konjar is somehow a bit too tall for the place he chose, Legin is standing neither close enough to Konjar to convey intimacy nor far enough to be at ease. Their positioning conveys awkwardness, weirdness, a feeling of being ‘out of place and out of phase’; as if both were trying to subvert our preconceptions of how bodies relate to each proxemically; as if both wanted to show how they do not fit. But is it really them intentionally creating this moment or is it something somehow provoking it, something somehow getting in their way? Maybe it is rather the latter: Legin and Konjar having been set by their bodies into an arrangement that just weirdly seemed to happen to them. Along those lines of movement, their bodies turned from solely being the means of improvisation to the source of its resistance. Here Legin and Konjar came to a halt. Or rather: here they were made to halt. Reflecting, involuntarily, on what their bodies have done to them; reflecting on their position, on their relation, on their form. “I do not know how to go on”, Legin says to Konjar, using English instead of her native Slovenian and thus clearly also directing herself to the international audience. Does she interrupt the dance? Does she detach from the illusion of the performative space as being different from the space of the audience? Does she detach from the flow of movement that was underlying her and Konjars improvisation? Does she fall out of form? Or does she fall into form, as the stop in movement and the use of language as a symbolic means that can be clearly identified and pinned down would suggest? A form Neforma meant to subvert in the first place?

‘A hiccup in movement’, as dance scholar André Lepecki recalls, though, produces “critical anxiety”. If so, then the ‘stop and go’ of movement, the use of language and the acknowledgement of “not to know, how to go on”, is so much more than setting an end to dance-improvisation as the spontaneous expression of constant movement and uninterrupted flow. Instead, it portrays a problematic but highly productive experience, where language as well as stillness are not opposed to one’s body but are its prolonging. Not knowing how to go on, how to set the next step, how to keep on walking and moving can create deep anxiety. But it also allows for the acclamation of body and language as both systems that have their own ways and own rights independent of the ‘self’. Systems that create both possibilities as well as resistances for the ‘self’ trying to go on. Systems that create finally other ways of (not-)moving and (not-)speaking. 

Making use of one’s mistakes means to acknowledge that productive force of resistance. Of something that always is outside of the dancer-self, even if it is the own body; of something that produces aesthetic tension because it is awkward, full of friction, out of phase and neither-going-nor-stopping from its beginning. The dancers’ bodies become as weird as Zlatko Kaučičs plastic toy-dinosaur moving on the strings of his hammered dulcimer that creates not noise, but a universe of sound. Maybe then to improvise means to move, slide, stop, slither and limp along the lines, surfaces and planes of this strange universe that resides within our bodies and the material world around; confronting us with experiences that are as awkward as they are poetic.

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