He, who neither reveals nor conceals, but gives signs

Review of a contemporary dance performance that opened Festival Spider 2018

Leja Jurišić, Filip Štepec: [yet unnamed contemporary dance performance]

Author, choreographer: Leja Jurišić
Dancer, co-author: Filip Štepec
12 September 2018, Festival Spider 2018, Plečnik’s open air theatre, Ljubljana

“The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.” (Heraclitus B93)

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As the dusk fell and we were crowding under the imposing treetops of the Tivoli park on the location of the former Plečnik’s open theatre, I noticed Filip Štepec standing amidst the audience, blending in, his focus turned inwards. Unassumingly he took off whatever clothes he was covered with, took off his glasses and walked naked, apart from his underpants and a white tutu, straight into a rather small square lit by four floodlights – place of the former water fountain. With his back towards the audience he raised his arms and the sound of choral music came over us. As he slowly turned in our direction, his silhouette surrounded by a halo from the back lights, I got the impression that within Filip there was also the presence of the lord, whose oracle is at Delphi, who neither reveals not conceals, but gives signs. Thus the 2018 edition of Festival Spider was initiated.

It seemed as if bodily intelligence was an animal trying to sniff and explore this building of ballet it’s being kept in.

Within 10-minute performance we could observe Filip’s body trying to inhabit the ballet form, maybe get acquainted with it, possibly trying to figure how does it feel like to live in it. Choreographer Leja Jurišić challenged the dancer to face the technique he never trained in and whose principles lie oppositely to his dance approach. The venerable dance form that tries to deny gravity and ignores specificity of an individual dancing body by subjugating it to pre-existing dance positions, themselves so formalised they could function as a language code, was being examined by Filip’s bodily intelligence. With inner focus and bodily awareness, the performer would try to inhabit recognisable and iconic ballet positions. Slowly, impulses would travel through torso to fill in from the inside the images of the body created for the outside gaze. It seemed as if bodily intelligence was an animal trying to sniff and explore this building of ballet it’s being kept in. Filip later explained his performative approach was in keeping his mind blank, letting his body to instinctively inhabit, embody or mimic ballet in the task of creating an impression of “I know what I’m doing”. This sincerity together with performer’s intense inner concentration and slow unfolding pace of the performance created an atmosphere of a ceremony, which was accentuated by light design as his body was lit from below as if it were a monument.

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Instead of Filip’s body being subjugated to the ballet system, it retained its own intelligence, its own inner processes and coherence, from which it entered the dialogue as a willing partner.

An exchange happens in the meeting of Filip’s bodily awareness with ballet’s choreographic system, its culturally ingrained values and its matter defying metaphysics. Ballet, as a system of visual form which requires years of training to properly interpellate its practitioner and subjugate their body into a unified hierarchical code, was being partnered with one particular body on equal terms. Instead of Filip’s body being subjugated to the ballet system, it retained its own intelligence, its own inner processes and coherence, from which it entered the dialogue as a willing partner. Ballet, the same body training that tries to appear immaterial, unbodied and gravity defying, was being embodied. Instead of being a “what”, a codified system of meanings, ballet became something to be experienced, a “how”; or a place to be explored, a “where”. Instead of existing on the level of signs, in this performance ballet becomes a thing, which can then form horizontal relations with other things. When in one moment Filip’s hand moved swiftly to squash a mosquito that landed on him, his bodily concentration made this action as present as his investigation of ballet positions – making both inscribed into his body in the same way and thus equal in value. As ballet’s regime of representation enters a self-aware living body, it brings with itself a gift: ballet’s positions of “higher cultural status” and “eternal values” carry a sense of ceremony, a sense of sacred, which Filip used to bring the performance into the realm of the ritual. Both partners complement each other – Filip’s dance training grounds the performance and brings it into the bodily here and now, while ballet lifts it up and connects it with the otherworldly.

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The method of the performance cuts through the immediate layers of signifiers and re-establishes wholeness to causalities of reductionism.

I entered the ritual aspect of the performance through the metaphor of “the lord, whose oracle is at Delphi”, who, “neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign” – namely Apollo on whom Filip’s presence reminded me of. Filip’s bodily awareness and inner concentration managed to pierce through several metaphysical barriers of rational domination over the material, bodily and instinctual. First of them is the above-mentioned ballet’s metaphysical subjugation of the body in the name of a codified system, which is mirrored in Nietzsche’s interpretation of Apollo. He depicted Apollo as the rational principle of order supressing instincts, as opposed to unrestrained, emotional, instinctual and chaotic Dionysus. And yet, this reduction of Apollo speaks about Nietzsche’s time, as both gods were seen as complementary in antiquity, both sharing the principle of sublimation of instincts to gain a deeper insight – Dionysus through trance, Apollo through divination. As ballet became grounded through Filip’s dance by gaining access to a self-aware body, so did the impression of Apollo floating over Filip acquire “feet” – a sense of irreducible complexity arising from materiality. The Apollo in the performance is a fully bodied rehabilitated Apollo, one that merges physical presence with oracular functions, whose harmonious features are infused by eeriness. The method of the performance, which contraposes traditionally “higher”, “spiritual”, “eternal”, “immaterial” principles with the bodily presence and inner concentration of the performer, cuts through the immediate layers of signifiers and re-establishes wholeness to causalities of reductionism. Similarly, we, the audience, also regained our bodily presence by standing through the duration of the whole performance. Not being reduced to only our capacities of sight and hearing, our so activated bodies partook in the principle of Apollo’s sublimation that happens through the bodily, as they responded to the dance they were witnessing. There was another causality of the subjugation of the material present, namely we were standing on the location of a former natural spring, which architect Plečnik in 1930s forced into a fountain that was removed in the 1980s and the spring buried. Possibly dance as an entity gave it another outlet.

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If dance isn’t subjugated to system of signifiers – codes, meanings, values – but is allowed to remain a thing in itself, it will also “neither reveal nor conceal, but give signs”

Apart from alluding to Apollo, Heraclitus’s fragment B93 also directs us to the core tension between any system of signifiers and the reality which is signified. “The lord, whose oracle is at Delphi, neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign”, as for Ancient Greeks the nature of reality isn’t immediately accessible to us. In the tension between revealing and concealing, the truth – “Alethea” – is a temporary disclosure, a space in which the world opens up in unconcealedness. “Revealing” would mean any codified language or a system of visual representation which is always a reduction of reality, as reality could never be fully revealed. Therefore, Apollo gives signs, i.e. clues or hints, which themselves enter the game of revealing and concealing and are thus in tune with the nature of reality. If dance isn’t subjugated to system of signifiers – codes, meanings, values – but is allowed to remain a thing in itself, it will also “neither reveal nor conceal, but give signs”. As a thing dance can form horizontal relations to other things which can all enter the performance, and they do: Filip’s performing presence, Filip’s dance training, Filip’s bodily intelligence, ballet as a system, the mosquito, the choir music, the tutu, the bodies of the audience, the ceremonial atmosphere created between the performer and the audience, the treetops, the myth of Apollo, the buried spring, the Festival Spider’s opening, and so on.

The tension between the hierarchical system of meanings and the coexistence of things, between “revealing” and “giving signs”, opens a doorway beyond unambiguous prescribed reading.

By co-existing as an audience member within this heterogenous performative situation we can get glimpses into Filip and Leja’s dance, and into the decentralised web of relations forming from its centre. Enabling these observations is the original counterposition between the system of signifiers in the form of ballet and the open-ended thingness of the self aware autonomous dancing body, namely Filip’s. The tension between the hierarchical system of meanings and the coexistence of things, between “revealing” and “giving signs” or, in post-dance terminology, between “epistemology” and “ontology”, opens a doorway beyond unambiguous prescribed reading and functions as an introduction to the lands beyond – the multifaceted landscape I’ve used different metaphors, plus an allegory of Apollo, to describe. Welcome.

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Samo Oleami, Januar 2019

Photo: Matija Lukić

Author: Samo Oleami

Reviews drama theatre, street theatre, improv theatre, contemporary dance, intermedia, boardgames and stuff.

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