Parsing Re-Performance and Institutional Critique in the Choreography of Sasha Kleinplatz

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what about doing the same piece for the rest of your life in different iterations? Chorus II as a work for children? as solo? as a work for women? as a work done on a floor of sand? as a work for fathers and daughters? mothers and sons? as a work for a group of elderly people? what if i only did one piece for the rest of my life? questions regarding commitment, the fait accompli of the new in contemporary art, longevity, economics, repetition and meaninglessness, refusing to move on as a practice

— Sasha Kleinplatz

Repetition is a tricky thing in dance and performance presentation. It might, as choreographer Sasha Kleinplatz suggests, offer an alternative to the persistent drive to produce anew, which seems characteristic of contemporary art in global capitalism. However, it also risks complicity in a stratified art market as a means of assessment. Consider how Marina Abramović’s exhibit Seven Easy Pieces demonstrated, and participated in, the canonization of performance art works, or how dances by certain modern choreographers have been similarly valorized through reconstructions in the past few decades. If something is worth doing again, logic would follow, it has value.

The starting point of this conversation is Chorus II, a dance work choreographed by Kleinplatz that has repeatedly been performed throughout the past four years. Most recently, it was presented as part of Danse Danse’s season at the Cinquième salle in October 2014. If re-doing a piece implies value, re-doing it framed by one of the more prestigious institutions in Montreal’s dance community seems to confirm it.

It‘s tempting to read most of Kleinplatz’s work within a genealogy of “institutional critique.” Through her company Wants&Needs danse, co-founded with Andrew Tay, Kleinplatz has placed an emphasis on democratizing dance, presenting performance outside of conventional theater spaces. Piss in the Pool provided choreographers with rapid-fire residencies in an abandoned swimming pool, while the Short & Sweet performance series presents 3-minute works amidst the convivial barroom environment of Sala Rossa. From such venues, the Cinquième salle presents a striking departure.

And yet, as scholar Andrea Fraser wrote just over a decade ago, “Art is not art because it is signed by an artist or shown in a museum or any other ‘institutional’ site. Art is art when it exists for discourses and practices that recognize it as art, value and evaluate it as art, and consume it as art, whether an object, gesture, representation, or only idea.” She asserts that no one is outside of the institution; in fact the institution is inevitably within us. As Fraser quotes Pierre Bourdieu: this is a case of the “‘social made body’, the institution made mind.”

How, then, do we try to understand and account for the fraught relationship so many dance and performing artists feel toward the institutions and art worlds they find themselves imbricated within? These questions have undergirded my discussions with Kleinplatz around her conflicted position in contemporary dance economies and ecologies.

 

A Conversation

Fabien Maltais-Bayda: There’s quite a radical relationship to space in what you do. You’ve brought us, along with your choreography and the choreography of others, into empty swimming pools, into bars. And then, last year, your work was presented by Danse Danse, at Place des Arts – an institution that abides by, and contributes to, established cultural economies. So I’m wondering what that shift was like, and how it affected your work.

Sasha Kleinplatz: It was definitely challenging, even in the rehearsal process. I had created a lot of internal pressure regarding what it meant to go into a space like that, and I think I wasn’t very good at making choices, and being the “captain” of the ship [laughs]. So now I’m questioning whether I need to build that skill set: to be a captain in a more traditional performance space. Or maybe I don’t really care if I’m in that performance space. I’m leaning towards the latter.

Before presenting Chorus II at the Cinquième salle, you did it at Piss in the Pool in 2011, and in 2013 at the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels). How did the piece evolve through those three spaces?

Well at the pool, it was made in somewhere between four and six rehearsals. There was very much this spirit of, “everything we do is fine, and it’s my job to shape whatever comes out this set of improvisations around pleading or wishing or asking or giving thanks.” The work was made for that space, and I knew that I wanted to make it there, because there was something about the walls of the pool that reminded me of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and I was really in the thrall of that original idea.

And then at the MAI, I found that working in a space that already has a dialogue about power, and how power works, and about privilege and oppression – that was amazing for me. I come from a women’s-studies background, and it’s always been a part of how I see the world, so to be in a theater space where everybody has that as a priority, and where everyone has already done their theoretical work around that and is attempting to put it to practical use was super exciting.

With Danse Danse it was a very different experience. Their job is to buy the work, to bring the work in, and sell the work to their subscribers. And in one sense, I mean, I’ve never been given that much money. And I did feel that they really wanted the work there. But it’s challenging to go from an environment that feels so holistic in its practices, to something that’s much more commercial. It’s something that I think works for a lot of choreographers, but I don’t know that it works so hot for me.

This all seems related to how we imagine a trajectory of working in the arts. We tend to build this teleology around ideas of reputation, and a progressive movement toward increasingly important or visible presentation platforms. Especially in recent years, this has been linked with the increasing (and much commented on) ubiquity of dance in the art world. When we think about the increasing media visibility this has provided for performing artists, we might assume that the reputations of dancers are getting a boost. But this doesn’t always match up with their economic realities.

Or with the lived experience of dancers.

Exactly. Can you talk about that disparity some more?

There’s this idea that if you have a certain reputation, there are privileges coming along with it. But I think a lot of those privileges are quite ephemeral. They get played out in a social circle, but not in terms of your personal stability or your quality of life. And it’s the reason I think a lot about community, and economies outside of money. A lot of us don’t have money, so how can we create economies of trade and support that allow us to have a little more than our reputations?

Another theme we are seeing in contemporary dance presentation is the process of re-mounting or reconstructing work.

I’m sort of questioning the re-mount. I feel like a lot of the work I’ve done has been created out of specific contexts that everybody who made the work was in, together. And every time I’ve tried to re-present work, I’ve felt like little pieces of its soul are slipping away. Working on remounts, I kept questioning myself. I would think, maybe I need a better formula for re-presenting work. But then the question sort of became, why are we re-presenting work?

And a lot of it has to do with economics, and this idea that when you have a work that sticks, you should ride that for as long as you can. But that feels so strange for me, because the work is so personal, and it comes out of a set of really precious dynamics. The experience of a work is a set of unique moments. Then you attempt to re-present what came out of those moments, and yet, nobody is in that anymore. And I just end up wracking my brain. How do you re-harness this moment so that it has the same magic, and the soul of it is the same? I haven’t found the answer yet.

・・・

To return to what we were talking about earlier, I think it’s unsettling that there is this rush to get into the art galleries, and suddenly have our work affirmed and supported by the visual artworld. What is this rush to increase our reputations, or make more money? I get it, we want to survive, and we want to be legitimized. But my question is, what is so illegitimate about us in the first place?

I think the conclusion that I’ve come to out of all this, the last year or two, is that I love being the spunky, grubby, DIY stepchild in an art scene. I’ve received feedback from people who say, “you can’t always stay DIY. It puts you in opposition to things, and do you really always want to be angry?”

But like, we have this Short & Sweet performance program coming up, and it’s called Rejected, and I’m so excited. I’m so excited to be addressing this topic. I’m so excited to be back at Sala Rossa. I’m so excited to be doing these haphazard shows that we’ve been doing for 10 years now. I feel like I’ve been given the impression – or maybe I’ve given myself the impression – that there is a lack of maturity in that. But I don’t really think that’s true anymore. I think that whatever makes me excited, and happy, and whatever feels enriching is what I want to pursue. And if that means being grubby, I’m good with that.

 

Further Notes on a Conversation

At the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Radical Acts “unconference,” we spoke obsessively about institutions, perhaps because we were placed within one, the specter of which was unavoidable. Can institutions be radical, we asked? While a firm answer proved elusive, we seemed to lean toward no. Even if institutions are just constellations of people, they enforce structural relationships that quickly become obtuse and unwieldy.

Yet “unconference” participants suggested that perhaps radical individuals can exist within a not so radical institution, a notion that brought Kleiplatz’s familial metaphor to mind. The stepchild is not outside the family, but rather occupies a vexed, and occasionally antagonistic, role within it. Fraser writes “the institution of art is internalized, embodied, and performed by individuals.” And so, too, does the stepchild internalize their family context, simultaneously enacting their resistance to it.

“Resistance” is a term that repeatedly surfaced at the “unconference.” Resistance, if rehearsed with the tenacity of Kleinplatz’s grubby stepchild, may present a way of existing in institutions while allowing us to renegotiate how we engage them. Institutions, perhaps especially those we have internalized through habit or conditioning, may be slow in responding to the push-back; we may need to repeat ourselves.

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