The German Dance Archives Cologne is chock-full of photographs of a certain type: a dancer, striking an elegant pose, is seen in a single segment of the sequence of movements that comprise a given choreography. Sometimes there is a series of images allowing one to glimpse a phase of movement, recalling Eadweard Muybridge’s famous photographic motion studies. However, amid the vastness of this historical collection, what often happens is the whole is dispersed, order is confused, and one ends up trying to make sense of a single syllable that has slipped out of an unknown sentence. These photographic sentences, supported by drawings and notes, were meant to preserve something that is, in principle, impossible to record: the energy of conscious movement emanating in the moment from the bodies of dancers in motion.
Dance is physical labour. The dancer’s body is subjected to a never-ending training regimen to prepare it to perform (produce) the desired movement, which should be effortless, airy, gracefully upsweeping—an ideal of beauty. Despite the innovative approach of generations of dancers and artists, this romantic vision endures as the most popular. At first glance, the contents of the Cologne archive reiterate this image. It was a challenge to find photographs that did not reinforce this inherited ideal. And yet, so many of the artists whose careers are documented within the German Dance Archives Cologne were trailblazers who catalysed dynamic advances in the history of the development of modern movement and dance. Rudolf Laban, and then Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss, Harald Kreutzberg, Gret Palucca: through their experimentations with the body and movement, they disrupted existing canons of dance art, which had been founded upon classical, spectacular narratives.
Although the archive’s photographs exist to preserve these legacies, in part by conveying the radical emancipation of the body, they generally adhere to the visual form of conventional representations of classical movements. The body posed in the photograph still only generates at most an illusion of motion. When we efface the human, two elements generally remain undisturbed in the photograph: the fabric of the costume, suspended in a vacuum of human intention; and the background (also textile) or space (stage, studio, a plein-air setting). In the absence of bodies, we become aware of the weight and the solidity of stillness in dark, empty scenes. Steps, drapes, and walls come to the fore. Masks hang in a void. Costumes become as heavy as the robes worn by marble sculptures. Empty stages, rehearsal studios, academy corridors. Barres, props, scenographic elements. This stilled matter—an ensemble cast accompanying the body of the dancer immobilised by the photographer—has become the material out of which I assemble my pictures and objects.