Woman on floor with microphone at POST-DANCE-ING 2019 conference, Stockholm


Postdancing in the dark

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Scene from a conference. POST-DANCE-ING, October 2019, Stockholm
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Posting from the POST-DANCE-ING conference in Stockholm 2019, Anna Kozonina asks: how did it work, what did it do?

‘A dance studio is not just a dance studio any more – it’s a hybrid space,’ says choreographer and curator Karina Sarkissova during a panel discussion at MDT theatre in Stockholm. This is the second day of the POST-DANCE-ING conference, and my impression is that we are in a mess; but this remark suddenly grabs my attention and puts everything in its place. A studio is not just an area demarcated by the walls and the floor, but also a laptop screen connecting the dancer with the images, affects and informational noises of the ‘outside world’.

For the last fifty years, this world has been changing dramatically: from industrial production with guaranteed jobs to mostly intellectual, ‘creative’ freelance labour; from colonial dominance of European countries to a postcolonial state of affairs and fierce migration; from mostly patriarchal rule to the new feminist uprisings; from beliefs in eternal progress to awareness of ecological catastrophe. It’s always changing in terms of technologies and media, which in many ways have influenced politics, social relations and the balance between private and public life.

Our habitual ways of living are not valid any more – and neither are our accustomed ways of dancing. How can we face those challenges as dance practitioners?

It seems that such questions could describe the vague intentions of the POST-DANCE-ING conference, held at MDT from 23 to 25 October 2019, which gathered together more than 150 professionals: dancers, choreographers, curators, managers, and theoreticians. Although the term ‘conference’ often refers to scientific discourse, this gathering was in no way academic. Instead, this meeting proved to be more like a choreographic piece than a consistent set of reports – and this is directly related both to the ‘postdance’ concept and the complicated set of circumstances which it tries to explore and illuminate.

What was it about? Huh, that’s a difficult question, and those seeking answers might find them on the livestreamed video (online until 24 November 2019). We’d rather ask how it was functioning and what it did do for the attending people. But before we go into details, it’s worth saying a few words about its origin and background.

A container, not a concept

The term ‘postdance’ appeared in 2015 as the name of another conference at MDT, curated by Danjel Andersson (who back then headed the theatre), along with Cullberg ballet artistic director Gabriel Smeets and theoretician André Lepecki. No one could say exactly what postdance actually was – and such exposed uncertainty was indeed the very idea of the curators. According to Andersson, ‘postdance’ is a container, not a concept, which probably means that this term tries to grope towards and map out current situations in dance rather than define it in settled terms.

The word ‘postdance’ was vague but nevertheless exposed several issues which were and still are relevant for experimental dance, at least in Western countries. In the book of the same name, published by MDT two years later, there were texts dealing with queer and feminist strategies in dance, precarious freelance labour, the affective turn in arts and culture, dance in the era of post-internet art, imagination and knowledge production, the aims of choreography, somatics and the issues of power. In such a context, dance found itself sensitive to changes and shifts in today’s politics, aesthetics and social life, but also specific in its relation to bodies, imagination and affects.

Blue Quote Mark

Postdance could be the next step in this history – which would, ironically, mean an affirmation of dance

Blue Quote Mark

Though defining the term was not the main objective of the book, a few authors reflected on what ‘post’ might mean in relation to dance. In ‘Notes on Post-dance’, philosopher Josefine Wikström said that ‘post’ could literally mean ‘after’ – in this case indicating a new period in Western dance coming after so-called ‘conceptual’ dance or ‘non-dance’. Though those terms are also debatable, they identify a powerful tendency in the 1990s and 2000s, which had started with works by Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, and others, and was characterised by the primacy of choreography over dance, and criticism of traditional theatre representation. In that sense, postdance could be the next step in this history – which would, ironically, mean an affirmation of dance. A similar thought could be found in Mårten Spångberg’s essay ‘Postdance, an Advocacy’, which insisted on bringing senses, affects and dancing itself back into the field of dance. Another idea was to consider ‘post’ as an indicator of a state whereby dance reflected on its own conditions – and so could be applied both to experiments since the 1960s and 70s and self-critical dance of our own days.

Since the ‘container’ was open to new interpretations, the term then appeared in various contexts in different countries, for example, in Denmark, Portugal and Russia. But it remained obscure, and perhaps therefore not that popular.

This year the curatorial team proved to be more gender-balanced: Andresson and Smeets organised the new meeting together with Zoë Poluch (DOCH School of Dance and Circus), Tove Dahlblom (Danscentrum) and Sara Bergsmark (MDT). The conference was then called POST-DANCE-ING, thus with the same ‘container’ in the core, but with the focus on process and practice. Of course, the ‘ing’ also served as another ‘container’, which might refer to practice, duration, presence, continuity, all that together – or something else altogether.

Enjoy the missing out

Again, nobody insisted on defining these terms, but the conference programme did outline some specific topics: micro-actions to fight social exclusion (a workshop by Rebecca Vinthagen); post-truth and questions of ownership (a report by Turkish artist Erdem Gündüz also known as ‘standing man’); dance in relation to words and discourse (a stand-up performance by American choreographer Reggie Wilson); a report on hope (by London-based dance maker Malik Nashad Sharpe); and finally, love and death (a lecture-performance by MDT resident Halla Ólafsdóttir). These ‘starters’ were followed by prepared responses from conversation partners, and these in-depth conversations were in turn taken further by two or three people appointed each time to discuss the topic. The discussion would then continue for all interested attendees in the studios in the basement – at the same moment that a new lecture started. So participants were constantly feeling they couldn’t attend all the conversations.

Participants at the POST-DANCE-ING conference in Stockholm, October 2019
Participants at the POST-DANCE-ING conference in Stockholm, October 2019

Curiously, that feeling of ‘missing out’, the constant cognitive ups and downs – even, I would say, a sense of failure – proved to be not only structural but also the real content of the meeting. We were rather improvising within a predetermined score: always snatching ideas from the space, trying to be sensitive to emotional shifts, feeling confused and, evidently, always missing out on something.

The first day actually started with the idea of failure and absence: the organisers admitted they had failed to arrange the first performance as intended. Because of many cancellations during the preparation period, they decided to invite Ingrid Mugalu and Lydia Östberg Diakité, two women of colour, to share their artistic practice – but did so at short notice and offered less preparation time than they had to everybody else. In response, Mugalu and Diakité accused the curators of structural racism in a very detailed and emotional letter. Instead of giving a presentation, Mugalu publicly read the letter to the curatorial team saying they were fed up with being treated as people always ready to fill the diversity quota and keep the skin color balance at public events. However, this ‘failed presentation’ provoked more discussion and emotion than we could probably expect if it had succeeded. Though it was the only specific case, I could feel this tendency throughout the conference: instead of trying to ‘fill the gaps’ (saying something smart in a discussion, being politically correct or ostentatiously cute) people were welcoming vagueness, confusion and failure.

Cancellation notice of the first session at POST-DANCE-ING 2019.

Dissatisfaction with words and traditional knowledge production, with its recurring theoretical cliches and politically correct mantras – was another theme manifested both in the content and the structure. ‘I hate words,’ said Reggie Wilson in his stand-up lecture, indicating that texts in our society have more power than dance and bodily knowledge, which is beyond words. ‘Understanding is a conservative concept in terms of art,’ echoed his conversation partner Jeanine Durning in her lecture-performance, which in 15 minutes made me stop looking for ‘information’ and concentrate on movement, atmosphere and space.

The only conventionally well-structured report by researcher Konstantina Georgelou was dedicated to choreomania and chaotic power of collective dance on the streets. But in the frame of the conference this academic paper was read slowly, as if it were a fairy tale. The following discussions were all stitched with pauses, suspended remarks and uncertain questions… Seven hours a day – well, it was enough to suppress the desire for clarity and make people accept the vagueness and uncertainty inhabiting the aforementioned ‘container’.

No apologies for magic or tears

‘It’s all about you and us and all the love in-between again and again and again, over and over and over, it’s never over (into infinity) 4everuntil DEATH’ – that was the name of the last ‘starter’ (my favourite one), performed by Halla Ólafsdóttir. Ólafsdóttir is a dancer, but this was a quasi rock concert rather than a lecture or a dance, an experiment in the production of affects and collectivity aided by loud music, imagination and showing off. This was perhaps the least academic ‘report’, dealing with the rock star image and its performativity, collective emotions and impossible combinations of masculinity and femininity, affection and sympathy, joy and love. But it also illuminated the whole conference’s intention to find liminal or hybrid ways of thinking about dance. Someone in the audience described Ólafsdóttir’s ‘lecturing’ as a ‘disruptive monstrous presence’ – and this could well describe the essence of the conference in general. ‘I don’t want to be here apologising for magic or tears,’ claimed choreographer Eleanor Bauer during the final discussion, highlighting the importance of affectivity throughout this meeting.

Can we treat confusion and vagueness as positive concepts? Can we stay with undefined things and unpredictable relations between thoughts? These are perhaps the most important questions I would take with me from this conference, which otherwise rather pissed me off in terms of concepts and rationality. (Honestly, there were a few moments when I was afraid that the ‘container’ was ready to turn into a garbage bin.) But maybe it was just another step to defining the agendas of future dance conferences with more care and attention. ‘Conference’ might suggest academic presentation, but conferre means ‘to come together’ – and hopefully these two semantic layers will reach a balance in a further post-postdance conference. 

Publicity image of the POST-DANCE-ING conference in Stockholm, October 2019

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MDT, Stockholm, Sweden
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