Electric Dance, or How to Talk with Birds

Johannes Birringer*

Reflecting on a series of ongoing outdoor performance experiments during the COVID-19 lockdown period, this dance essay is a composition that interweaves an outlook on the political and social fallout of the pandemic with more intimate, personal probings during the return to self-insulation in a generous countryside. The essay’s title evokes a series of climbs (up electrical power masts) or reverse bird-eye views on an eco-philosophical imaginary that seeks to combine body weather techniques (derived from Japanese butoh dance), enacted in various organic nature and industrial locations, with digital processing. The site-specific performances are creative responses as well as social choreographies in an era of climate crisis and virological pandemics. The author proposes that experiential time-based performance is an art form for the twenty-first century, capable of capturing the pulse of anxiety but re-connecting human and not-human lives or organisms: reflecting on what is important in our environments, nurturing mind-body connection and somatic experience in a commons.
Keywords: social choreography, ritual, electricity, plague, resurrection, maraboutage

Summer valley with electric power lines, Schmelz, Saarland, July 2020. Photo: Johannes Birringer
Digital Ontologies

The year 2020 has not changed my understanding of theatre and performance; it perhaps only offered reprieve. The term as I understand it means: a stay of punishment or, perhaps less drastically, a delay that keeps something bad from happening. Why not consider the theatre in crisis? Why not consider that something really bad has in fact happened? But many theatre makers always proclaim a crisis, and then continue to produce theatre. The theatre in crisis is a sustainable theatre and always has been, since it was always able to find or adopt new ways of communication and to reinvent communal rituals (even if immersive and participatory performances and installations did not always succeed in the much needed catharsis).

The ontological crisis is unsurprising because it had always been known, anticipated, theorized and archived. The pandemic has happened, and many of us in the performing arts had to change gears, slightly but not drastically. We did not retrain to become plumbers or accountants. After all, we were experts in “empty rituals” (Eugenio Barba spoke of such when referring to secular, non-sacred theatre). Alan Read, in his new book (2020), anticipates our lives in a continuous inter-pandemic era.

Rather than calling it a stop, or going into details of what the global lockdown meant to many in the performing arts or the “creative industries,” one could imagine harvesting the many open seeds and spores that emerged, perhaps modestly first on a local level, the level where one was confined. And I would venture to argue that everyone, most practitioners I should think, continued their practices on that local or domestic level. Shifts to working on camera (and in Zoom rooms, etc.) were not terribly complicated—acting on camera or with multimedia set up can hardly be considered unusual in the twenty-first century. The ontological question of unrepeatable live performance was long decided in favor of mediation, loop, reproduction. Zoom theatre is a theatre in the age of technical reproducibility.

Thus, theatre was not in crisis, only the commercial and independent venues were closed for a while; concerts and film festivals moved online, theatres opened their archives and streamed some of their favorite productions. Everything became more accessible. Local to local communications (across national borders that had suddenly reappeared), across the seas and time zones, were moving along. The notion of a live stream gained new significance, as performers rediscovered telepresence and the joys of telematics that were once proclaimed to be initiating a new era of virtual art or cybertheatre. Digital performance, we knew for some time, is the current name for a multimedia theatre that is at ease with augmented realities, projection mapping and live feed cameras, electronic sound and 3D images. Some actors may prefer to send their avatar.

Many directors, from the ancients (Piscator, Svoboda, Wilson, LeCompte, Lepage, Castorf) to the late postmoderns who, like Marianne Weems or Katie Mitchell in their recent productions, create live webcam or “camera shows”—had realized the convergence between the medium specificities: theatre, cinema, sonic art, opera, circus and installation.[1] Nothing was left unexplored; VR or 3D glasses not far away from slowly becoming an infrequent regular device to be offered to audiences who, at times, were also encouraged to use their smart phones and copy/paste what they experienced to their social media friends.

Theatre to Zoom was perhaps one avenue, and we probably will read about the theory of “zooming” and its dark ecology in the current journals. In the remainder of this essay, I venture to the outside instead, reflecting on the less digital and virtually augmented, on the less good idea (as William Kentridge calls it) yet the still entangled materiality of performance aware of “elemental mediation” (Durham Peters 2015).

Gravel Maraboutage

The elemental is a particularly pertinent dimension for any discussion of art in an era of climate crisis and virological challenges. Let us reflect on slow space and slow time, precipitated by the 2020 lockdown experienced by peoples across the planet as an emergency response to the coronavirus disease emerging in late 2019, then becoming a global pandemic in early 2020—a crisis of unprecedented proportions generating overarching systemic effects of suspension of activity and economy, the quarantine of entire countries and continents. This suspension had severe, distinct effects on almost every country, immediately as well as in the months to come, after the emergence of the viral disease. If the suspension was a barely understood complex scenario, overshadowing everything in our global ecologies and our being in the world, a plague per se was nothing new.

It was not something Antonin Artaud had in mind when he wrote his 1934 essay “The Theater and the Plague”—and yet it is not impossible to imagine Artaud deliberately theorizing the notion of the theatre as epidemic with awareness of early modern medicine’s radical reconceptualizations of the body and its boundaries, as well as of the ideas of health, illness and immunity. The theatre’s boundaries naturally proved to be porous, and those discourses of theatre, medicine and immunology may need to be returned to.

Another crisis, after 2015, was perceived through scapegoating boundary crossers: the migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean who began to be understood as a major political and socio-cultural challenge to the West and its open borders. Global migration at times was labeled a kind of “contagion” by populist, nationalist discourses; a threat to the common wealth. At the same time, global migration of course also was an inevitable outcome of globalization and neoliberal market policies.

The connections between these shadows of trauma, scapegoating, ritual and immersion are tentative at this point in my thinking, but I am grasping at something that is extra-ordinary, perhaps threatening but surely uncanny and spooky. Connections that are also disabling: undermining the sense of theatricality that one knows to be underlying the ancient and modern apprehension of ritual.

I imagine that many of the old rituals took place outdoors. We recognize rituals through the repetitions we enact, just as the seasons repeat themselves and religious festivities follow their calendars. Grass is cut, and there is the harvest, the bonfires. The significance of ritual rests in its ability to measure our repetitive lives, and thus fresh performances of rituals will remind us of earlier performances, and how we might remember them emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Recoveries and survivals, for example of grave illness or surgery, are also part of such refrains that we know; patterns and psychosomatic practices required by healing. My first steps will be to approach contagion through the notion of ritual.

The 2020 pandemic has brought a range of new terms into currency that we had not known or experienced in this sense beforehand, such as self-isolation, social distancing and dissociality. The idea of a curfew or quarantine of course was comprehensible; I felt it was socially acceptable for the time being, even if legal-political debates started soon after. Psychosomatically, quarantine begins to resemble a private ritual. It also involves the repeated self-cleansings that are ordained upon us, ordered as a new protocol of self-sanitation and auto-participation in a (presumably) collective ritual cleansing and self-protection. This ritual is politically sanctioned as the protection of all others. That is the mask. Medical advice I receive tends to clarify that the mask is less helpful to protect myself than it is helpful to protect others.

The pragmatic collective social choreography, as I experienced it in London in March 2020 and in Germany during the following months of the lockdown, was coherent if one argued, and believed to adopt one’s actions, on behalf of the common good and the protection of others and self. Argumentation was necessary, as the lockdown meant restrictions of one’s civil rights and the accustomed freedoms one had taken for granted. The idea of the common good became an important corner stone for reflecting on the ethics of sharing public space, economic and ecological space (latente Allmende or latent commons, as Anna Tsing calls it), ritual space, spaces of health care, care for the elderly, food care, special needs, care of animals and nature. Shops and factories, schools and kindergartens were closed. Theatres and museums and all arts activities shut down; festivals cancelled. The compulsory wearing of face masks became the norm (no reason here to make any further theatrical allusion to masks and what Brecht, in The Measures Taken, calls the Auslöschung des Gesichts, but it is of course a strange irony also in regard to the laws that were much contested in some European countries regarding Muslim women and their wearing of hijabs). Masks are compulsory.

We all had to adapt. By the time I internalized the self-isolation, I was prepared for a long sustained period of solitude, a slow time to listen to nature, the trees, plants and birdcalls in my environment, and also the silence in my inner space. Violence and civil strife over racial oppression, as it erupted later (in late May 2020 in Minneapolis) and raised a storm across many cities in the world, seemed far away and unwarranted. Yet, assaults on the body, from a dangerous virus, and from dangerous racist ideologies and practices, came to be an overbearing trauma by midsummer, a trauma for which people needed proper tools to recover from. Existential questions not only moved to the foreground for most; the complex interrelations between quarantine, oppression and social accountability were suddenly immensely discomforting for all who felt trauma, experienced loss and a deep sense of fear, or yearned for intimacy and the accustomed lightness of interpersonal being. Regarding artistic practices built upon embodied expression, it quickly became apparent that all of us had to re-imagine breathing together. The breath in dancing, theatre and music making is absolutely vital, and it reassures us of the simplicity of being which also is intimacy. Intimate climbing high.

Such new forms of intimacy, or strategies of imagining the future of theatre and ritual, are required. I tested it in the valley of my village and also in my quiet explorations of other sites, such as the asphalt plant I found during my hikes, almost occluded by trees and plants: a facility engineered and designed to manufacture asphalt and asphalt  concrete (mainly used as the starting raw material to lay down and construct roads). I climbed over the fence of the still plant, next to an abandoned truck (no work was allowed during lockdown), and imagined to be a bird that had landed on the heaps.

Gravel Maraboutage, site-specific dance by Johannes Birringer, Asphalt Mixing Plant, Schmelz, 2020. Photo: Intakt

One could argue that creative and ritualized compositions, for example in kinetic actions in the outdoors, are now more necessary than ever, at this time when our vulnerabilities have been exposed and we need to keep exposing them further to examine them. We examine risk, the chances that are worth taking, the metaphysics of danger. We wrestle with such intimacy and what it will be. We also learn about behavioral modifications, quite surprisingly quickly implemented regulatory behavior that alters—or affects—our tacit agreements of how we act in public or institutional spaces. Norbert Elias had assumed civilizational habits and social gestus evolve over a very long time—a slow process. But in our current globalized digital era, the pandemic has led to an accelerated pattern of adoption of changed social manners due to external constraints and self-restraints practiced by most. The notion of “tacit agreements” I take to be a cultural set of unspoken manners or etiquette that we know intuitively when we encounter art works, rituals or performances.

Electric dance, performed by Johannes Birringer and local audience participants, 2020. Photo:  Intakt

When I began to climb electric power masts in my valley, over a period of weeks, I did not know yet what would happen, but soon the word spread: people walking their dogs every day spotted me, children saw me, and soon I had an audience. I invited them to form a circle and meditate on the climb, the question, the underlying proposition for the communal attention. In such attention we form a kind of “substation,” a common transfer point of energies and electric power, reaching many, linking up between us. The dogs did not stick to the circle, and not every local fellow citizen approved of the action.

Transactional behavior, conduits of communication and communion (and there are religious or sacred undertones involved too, apart from legal, economic, social and political connotations), thus also involve faith in the currency, in the attention as much as in the uncertainties of site-specific performance or installation, the public reactions and participation. Back in the valley during lockdown, I am also invited to join a website forum on the corona crisis where I have to choose a color for my name.[2] Light red 3 is my color. After a while, I realize I am not isolated and in distress as much as I am tired of reading panic news, blogs or diaries on the COVID-19 crisis. I am retooling, partly to avoid being overwhelmed by news that could be traumatizing, damaging to my mental health, as there are so many conflicting viewpoints floating around the ether. I am retooling also in the sense of adjusting to a few newly configured transactions. I notice no one shakes hands with me any more or wants to be hugged or kissed.

And yet, I get asked to join this or that forum, enter my opinions or relate what I have found, from the rhythm and blues of popular debates, the wild songs and Werkstattberichte of artists, to the statements by virologists, pulmonologists and medical researchers, criticized by the messages from the admonishers, master thinkers and prophets (Sloterdijk, Agamben, Gumbrecht, Žižek, Ferguson, Finkielkraut, and others). It is hard to keep up. May Day approaches and the weather forecast for demonstrations is bad. No public assemblies are permitted yet in the county where I am locked down. Little Richard dies, and I read long obituaries. A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom. Over the weeks to come, many more obituaries. Bob Dylan sings an interminable ballad, Murder Most Foul; the music critic in Germany’s weekly Die Zeit considers it a funerary playlist for the end of the United States of America. The Black Lives Matter protests start soon after.

Preparing for my eventual next appearance in the theatre, I keep up my bodily practice. I train outside, in fresh air. The electric power masts become a daily routine. I climb, and sometimes, above me on the power lines, I see birds gather and sing songs, or just look down at me, with the bird’s eye view. I begin to understand the term we use for a certain camera angle. It implies looking down. Up high on the electric mast, holding on for dear life, I in fact look up to the bird’s eye view. I talk to them in my native language, they respond in their native tongue. Of course, I do not know when our next dance performance will be. They say everyone has a bit more time now to write and reflect. Manjunan Gnanaratnam, a composer friend from Minneapolis, tells me that he feels able to listen to himself better now. I find this is not necessarily true, in my case, although the assumptions, during the general lockdown, make sense. Many assumptions also change daily. Another friend, dance researcher Michael Kliën (Duke University), suggests I join the weekly sessions of the Social Dreaming Matrix arranged by his Laboratory for Social Choreography. The Matrix promises to enable associative thinking (based on dreams we share) for new thought to emerge. I decide this is a good exercise.

Electric Dance, performed by Johannes Birringer, 2020. Photo: Intakt

I also write in light red 3 color. When I look at the archive for the first time, I realize it will be impossible to catch up and read everything, so I give up. I wonder whether my entries could be like a small dance, something that moves outside and blossoms like a tiny plant or flower, peeks through the asphalt cracks or makes a small noise like woodpeckers do. Can one bring photographs and sound files to the blog? Or just ask questions? Or not participate, but acknowledge that this—asphalt cracks and archives—exists? Perhaps one’s writings, like small movements in the outdoor areas we are permitted to walk or run to, are really only interesting to the one who writes, as a mild self confession, an excuse to write. “Dark writing,” as playwright Ngozi Anyanwu calls it during one of the talks broadcast by Segal Theatre Center and HowlRound Theatre Commonsduring the first months of the pandemic.[3]

She means it as method to drive away dark thoughts, including the guilt one might feel for not knowing how to engage, how to share one’s isolation, how to not feel abandoned. But small movements should not need an excuse? I realize of course I am not Little Richard, I cannot sing, but I imagine, in my small movements, the infinite potentials of funk, the little ecstatic falsetto shouts and restless flamboyance, the woos of kinetic flamboyance. It ain’t the ocean, it’s the motion, he sang for us. I hum to the birds, and they look at me. Up there, and down in my garden resurrecting trees that had to be cut after the storms, I dream of metabodies as a kind of magic (in Senegalese culture, maraboutage refers to spirit magic and bird knowledge), composed into a libretto here, replying to this flamboyance.

Resurrection

Two trees were damaged, in my garden, since before and after the outbreak of the epidemic. One was the crown of a blue fir tree, decapitated and thrown across the land by the storm. The other: a slender beech, it fell sideways and was caught by another beech; now, they formed a strange duet. I tried to re-erect the fallen one, even though the root seems rotted. When it happened, I was in London, far away, like last year when eleven more were damaged and had to be cut.

Tree resurrection workshop and gallery, 2019. Photo: Johannes Birringer

My workshops began last year,  as I pondered the increasingly devastated garden I find upon my returns—some trees reaching upward to the sky like ghostly torqued skeletons, some buds already dead before blooming, the earth a strange green-yellow, fallen branches strewn all over, some mighty green fir trees waving in the winds nearly ready to fall, too. The little solar lamps stopped working. There is a new ant hill, which I welcome, although my Russian neighbor tells me they are bad news and need to be dealt with. I find holes made by field mice and mole hills. On the north side, my resurrected tree gallery is holding up well, in spite of the storms. The barks are peeling off: I did not see this coming. A newspaper clipping I had attached to one of the tree sculptures (“Von der Majestät des Schreckens”—a review of Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Mozart’s Requiem), which hung there for months, even in midst of winter, has disappeared. Perhaps eaten by magpies? Resurrecting trees, or composing statues with the truncated pieces of the stems, is a form of scenography too. I use some of the trunks in my dance installations.

Tree resurrection, with Majestät des Schreckens paper clipping, 2019. Photo: Johannes Birringer

I feel my electric dance begins to convey a bitter resonance, something I had hardly anticipated. The confinement of quarantine was probably not intended by earlier uses of the term isolation, which Carlyle (in the mid-nineteenth century) likened to the sum of human wretchedness. Surely, he was referring to social isolation and perhaps even pondering a religiously motivated critique of the emerging capitalism in industrialized societies. The term “isolate,” however, goes back to the Latin insulare, literally meaning “making into an island.” And as governments were issuing commands to self-isolate, slowly and gradually, when I first heard the regulations I thought the term was self-insulate, to become an island unto oneself or create protective boundaries around oneself. I then slowly relaxed into my floating islands.

River Row Dance, Johannes Birringer, 2020. Photo: Intakt
Coda: Poem

in this valley
nobody lives anymore and nobody
knows the way:
i wake up
in midst of the river
and hear the water
the mouth speaks a word – ‘row’ –
and inserts it into the hills
under the skin, the waves.

(river row)

Works Cited

Birringer, Johannes. “The Theatre and its Screen Double.” Theatre Journal, vol. 66, no. 2, 2014, pp. 207–25.

—. Kinetic Atmospheres:  Performance and Immersion. Routledge, 2021.

Broadhurst, Susan, and Sara Price, editors. Digital Bodies: Creativity and Technology in the Arts and Humanities. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Dixon, Steve, and Barry Smith. Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. MIT Press, 2007.

Durham Peters, John. The Marvelous Clouds. Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. U of Chicago P, 2015.

Giesekam, Greg. Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Read, Alan. The Dark Theatre: A Book about Loss. Routledge, 2020.

Tsing, Lowenhaupt Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World:  On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton UP, 2015.


[1] For my exploration of Mitchell’s Miss Julie and her ideas on “camera shows,” see Birringer (2014); for my reflections on immersive theatre and augmented realities in performance, see my new book on Kinetic Atmospheres: Performance and Immersion (forthcoming). See also: Dixon and Smith 2007, Broadhurst and Price 2017, and Giesekam 2007.

[2] Cédric Weidmann edits and writes for Delirium Magazine; see for example.

[3] Monday, June 8, 2020, Ngozi Anyanwu and Jonathan McCrory (National Black Theatre), Daily Live Online Conversations with US and Global Theatre Artists, Segal Talks, curated by Frank Hentschker, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, with HowlRound Theatre Commons (a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide). 


*Johannes Birringer co-directs the Design and Performance Lab with Michèle Danjoux, and he is Professor of Performance Technologies at Brunel University. London. DAP-Lab’s most recent dance installations, kimospheres III-V (2016-2019), explore the convergence of physical-sensory and augmented VR spaces. The dance performance Mourning for a Dead Moon (December 2019) addresses the climate crisis. Birringer’s recent books include Performance, Technology and Science, Dance and ChoreoMania, Tanz der Dinge/Things that Dance, and a new book, Kinetic Atmospheres (Routledge) that probes the implications of environmental immersion and mixed reality digital architectures.

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