Land/ing Dance—Of Hosting and Being Hosted: Guest Curating in Dance

Angela Conquet*

With gratitude
to Michelle and Starr for being invited in the circle,
to Mirna, for the invitation.

Abstract

Following Derrida’s take on the etymology of hospitality with meanings of “stranger,” “guest” and “power,” this essay interrogates what it might mean to be both a good guest and a guest curator in the field of dance, a colonial and colonised field itself. By inviting in Indigenous dramaturgies of inter-relationality, horizontality and accountability, the paper seeks to map out modes of being IN relation with (a) dance of and in a place. The paper proposes a model of “slow curating” dance and extends this model to other intentions of slow-ness in institution-ing, spect-acting and response-ability by paying attention to place as land when presenting dance/ making dance present.

Keywords: dance curation, place, guest, power, Indigenous dramaturgies, slow curating

The Invitation

In November 2020, I was invited to be the Guest Curator of the 2021 edition of a dance festival in Canada. I agreed immediately, and somewhat eagerly, for two reasons. I was then in Australia, in the middle of the third (of a total of seven) Melbourne lockdowns, and the possibility of a dance gathering in those surreal times felt like breathing again. Secondly, I was thrilled to be invited to be a “curator.” It sounded “cool,” most likely because I was thinking of the glamour customarily associated with this job in the visual arts, so glamorous that, sometimes, curators are known simply by their initials, such as Hans Ulrich Obrist a.k.a HUO. This level of recognition, of course, rarely happens in the field of dance. Soon, the initial exhilaration provoked by this two-worded invitation, “guest curator,” faded to make room for a wave of sheer perplexity and deep discomfort. Despite having presented and produced dance for over two decades, I had never been a curator per se. I have been an artistic director or a dance programmer but never a dance curator. I then started to ask myself: would being a dance “curator” be the same as a dance “presenter”? If yes, why had I never thought of myself or of my work in curatorial terms? If not, what legitimacy did I have in accepting the invitation? Was being a curator something more than being “simply” a dance presenter? And if so, what would this imply? Or demand? And importantly, how might I do a good job if I do not know exactly what it means?

Indeed, it felt strange to accept this invitation giving me curatorial carte blanche without knowing whether my work would be of a curatorial nature. Faced with the inability to name with precision what I had been doing for the last two decades, I felt like a stranger in my own professional field. These somewhat existential interrogations led me to look a little closer at what dance curating might mean. Perplexingly, more than a decade after the first attempts to analyse and theorise curatorial processes in the performing arts, spearheaded by the Croatian theatre magazine Frakcija and its special issue on Curating Performing Arts in 2011, arguably the very first publication entirely dedicated to the curation of performing arts, the literature dedicated to “curating” dance is still sparse and often bundled indiscriminately with theatre or performing arts (Malzacher et al.).

In stark contrast with visual arts and performance, presenting/curating dance has not constituted a body of discourses, practices or theories and the professionals involved in these processes remain “strangely undebated” (Malzacher et al. 11). This lack of clarity may be due to a still limited number of dance professionals self-identifying as “curators” (slightly more regularly in North America or those employed by museums). “Presenter” or “programmer” continue to be the terms generically and interchangeably used for those professionals in charge of commissioning, producing, presenting or touring dance, and whose jobs have a plethora of titles such as artistic director, head of programming, creative producer, amongst others.

The term curator has been occasionally used in dance in the context of discourse-based festivals, such as In-Transit curated by André Lepecki in 2009/10 in Berlin, or in reference to free-lance professionals. Dance researcher Elisa Ricci points out that the use of the term curator in all these instances affirmed a non-institutional or non-institutionalised process-oriented approach and a desire to work with new critical or dialogical formats and multi-disciplinary invitations for the audience, because also capable of leading to social changes, a process which she calls an “activating move” (40). Here, curatorial practices are “modes of doing, ways of dealing with possibilities, a compound of ritual and improvisation, a manipulation of spaces, the development of networks and the art of combining” (Ricci 41). I wondered, then, what possibilities this invitation in Canada would afford, as I too was freshly outside the institution, keen to imagine what those un-usual times of pandemic slowing down might allow to emerge? Although I questioned whether I was a curator, I knew with certainty that I was a dance presenter. I asked myself: if my job is to present dance, that is to make dance present, what exactly would this “presence-ing” mean?

Vanessa Goodman and Simona Deaconescu, BLOT – Body Line of Thought. Photo: Ionut-Rusus

The second part of the invitation, that of being a guest, was more reassuring as I have often been a guest, as a friend, a visitor, a migrant. Yet, in this case, I was a guest invited to organise a festival, therefore to be also a host, hosting both the artists’ offerings and the audiences’ experiences. I realised the full extent of the strangeness contained by this invitation, as I was invited to be a guest and a host in a place where I was an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger, to do a job that I felt strangely about. The invitation implied a double layer of hosting, and I remembered the generous ambiguity of the Latin origins of host, hospes, –ĭtis, which can simultaneously mean “being a host” and “being hosted,” a meaning that has stayed identical in Italian for instance –ospite means both host and hosted. I wondered whether “guest curating” dance might reside in this dual hospitality posture?

Another semantic interpretation further complicated my conundrum, that of Derrida’s take on the etymology of “hospitality,” and his interest less in its Latin roots and more in its farther origins, deriving from two proto-Indo-European words which have the meanings of “stranger,” “guest” and “power” (O’Gorman). I decided to locate here, in this triangle, my questioning of what guest curating may mean, as a way to also address the question of my being a foreigner to a place and a stranger to the field of practice in question; I followed Derrida’s invitation of starting with the question of the foreigner, the stranger, as a way of placing myself in (the) question by “being-in-question” while interrogating the “question-being” of what being a good curator and being a good guest may mean (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000).

Stranger

The notion of stranger has coloured my personal and professional career. It is in Australia, where I relocated from France over a decade ago, that I started to think deeply about space as place and place as land, as well as my own place in this new space. I arrived as an étranger, an uninvited foreigner on stolen lands and as a stranger to these lands. As in any act of migration, there is movement and arrival, and I had to re-orient myself to land and literally ground myself. Sara Ahmed reminds us how the “starting point for orientation is the point from which the world unfolds: the ‘here’ of the body and the ‘where’ of its dwelling. Orientations, then, are about the intimacy of bodies and their dwelling places” (18). When living in Australia and when working with dancing bodies, it seemed impossible not to start with the “here” and “where” of these bodies who have been dancing on these lands for over 40,000 years. As I was arriving and was re-orienting myself, I reflected a lot about my role of making present both the dances of this place, as well as the place in and of these dances. I wanted to learn to host them by “giving place to the place” (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 14), a way of understanding hospitality culture and culture as place, one that is simultaneously given and received. I hoped I would be less of a foreigner if I could learn to be in this place by understanding the dance(s) OF this place. I then questioned whether this meant to be OF place.

Trailer of the festival

Phenomenological geography and social theories of space remind us how much place and body interanimate each other and how much the political kinesis of a place acts upon us and emplaces us. Kelina Gotman, borrowing from Jean Gottman’s kinetic theory of political geography uses the concept of “dancing-place” as being “an attention to history and historicity, genealogy, relations of alliance, identity and identification, roots and the compounding of geohistorical and geocultural factors in a site investing it with affective contextual weight” (9).

Place is indeed agential when understood in this multi-layering, but in Australia, where the place is the land and where the land is “alive” with ancestral culture(s), the dances of this place demand a special kind of paying attention, one that foregrounds a subjectivity rooted in an attachment to land. This practice of paying attention, of sensing and understanding this subjectivity is defined by scholar and artist Rachael Swain as an Indigenous dramaturgy of Listening to Country, a “choreo-political process of re-connecting place, time and moral accountability” (50); a whole reconfiguration of perception as attention and intention, a genuine dramaturgy of and for place-based sense-making through dance.

As this invitation was extended to me to guest curate, being a guest hosted on other unceded ancestral lands, I thought again of Derrida’s understanding of hospitality as culture itself and not only “an ethics amongst others” (Derrida, 2000, 16). Edmund Casey reminds us that culture meant “place tilled” in Middle English, a word that goes back to the Latin colere, to inhabit, to care for, to worship (34). To have a culture is to inhabit a place to care for it, to be responsible for it. It is this notion of care that also connects to curating which in Latin also means “to care for.” I wondered if being a good curator entailed understanding care as an ethics of culture as/of place? A being both caring and care-ful, treading lightly, yet grounded by a heightened sense of attention, an active and ongoing way of paying attention that becomes an ethics of listening. One that may make us less foreigners, strangers or estranged perhaps?

Curators: (top) Angela Conquet (Credit Alfred Mrozicki), (bottom) Starr Muranko and Michelle Olson (both Melanie Orr)
Guest

Being invited to be a guest implies mobility, as a guest arrives necessarily from somewhere to be IN a place. Alas, I was unable to arrive as I remained immobile in Melbourne, in an endless succession of lockdowns. How could I make dance present in my absence? I later read that hospitality is made up of both mobility and immobility, as “hospitality connotes slowing down, resting and stopping for a while. In this sense, it also always entails immobility; it moors the travelling subject” (Germann Molz and Gibson qtd. in Lynch et al. 7). The hospitality I experienced from afar was online. It may be this extra-ordinary temporality that allowed it to unfold as it did. It was slow, mooring and grounding.

I was welcomed into a curatorial triangle shared digitally with two Indigenous co-curator colleagues. They made the triangle a circle, one where we took the time for long slow conversations, out of time, out of production pressures, out of the usual, where ideas circled flowingly and time flew in circles. I knew little about what it meant to be in a circle. I was coming from a world made of lines, horizontal, often left to right, and vertical, from top to bottom, too often. Isn’t it how we, white people, tell our stories and histories? A line from past to present to future, a line from the top—of gods, of power, of hierarchy—to bottom, that of the othered others? We live the line, we think in line, we toe the line, we fear we may be kicked out of the line, and sometimes, we imagine we may be able to step out of line.

I wondered constantly how I could be a “good guest” in this circle? What did they expect of me? What did the circle expect of me? Would I have anything to offer, me, the “a-lined” stranger? Would I be worthy of what it will give back to me, the relations it was weaving with me, within me, conceptually and intimately? Would I know how to work with these other frames of thought and of imagination that Indigenous peoples have been using since times immemorial to think, to plan, to lead? To think through a circle and not in a line? And in this circular motion, I noticed how easy it was to re-orient myself as I was held in the circle, in the relations. By agreeing to twist, to spin, there is necessarily a letting go of the centre point, of gravity, you become light, you see better, inside and outside at the same time, and when you stop, the circle is not completed because you never arrive at the same place, and you are no longer quite the same. You become decentered, there is no longer a centre. You notice there is no such thing as centre, it is only a matter of perception, often the perception of those with power. Being decentered does not mean being unmoored but being IN relation—to others, to place, to time, to context. Being IN relation means being attentive, responsible, accountable. I understood then that these were the grounds where the “presence-ing” of dance needed to start.

What happened in this metaphorical curatorial working circle was very much the “activating move” Ricci speaks about. We put aside the spectacle—of the spectacular, of the transactional, of the marketeer-ing, of the spectat-ing—so as to imagine something different, unusual. We did not want spectators. We wanted witnesses. We wanted ritual. We wanted the ritual of witnessing dance, with attention, with intention, a listening-gathering as an artist beautifully put it, an incarnated presence rendered possible only through a certain form of ceremony for togetherness—a form of withness. We cared little for the economic, we wanted the unmeasurable. We did not want to put together a program of shows, we wanted experiences choreographically connected as connecting tissues; we did not want to market the shows, we wanted the artists’ offerings to be an assemblage of gifts to be unfolded with care and with time. All this was not how the institution usually does its business of presenting dance. Ours was business as unusual, as we ended up framing our curatorial statement.

Mahaila Patterson-O’Brien, MID-LIGHT: A TRANSLUCENT MEMORY. Dancers Eowynn Enquist and Isak Enquist. Photo: Sepehr Samimi
Power

I do not know when exactly I started thinking about institutions as gravity. It may have been when I read Steve Paxton’s little book on Gravity, which coincided with myself leaving the institution. He speaks about gravity as a natural force, so powerful that it becomes the canvas we locate our stories on and the ways we do this define our relations to it (Paxton). I knew how much the institutions presenting dance, artists and their stories, are a force—one that has power to make visible, present, but also invisible, excluding, limiting as they come with rules, frames, expectations. They host so many potentials, yet on their terms, dictated by funding, stakeholders, markets and other circuiteries of power. Derrida’s concept of hostipitality, pointing to the ambiguous and contradicting linguistic proximity between “hospitality” and “hostility” could not be more fitting, as one is invited in but must align with the rules of the house (Derrida). Like gravity, the institution provides weight, but it can become a burden for movement, for turning, for re-orienting. As I was already working independently at the time of this invitation, I interrogated deeply what this disentanglement from the gravity of the institution could afford, what I could do better, differently. The institution rarely allowed me to step out of its lines and work from within a circle, it rarely gave me the time to slow down, to process (and not to produce), to not know, to unknow.  

Working in a circle dis-placed the gravity away from the institution. Although all three of us were hosted by an institution with the expectation to deliver a festival program, we were able to keep it out of the circle. Working with, in and within a circle allowed me to admit the necessity to leave the centre—in my case, the Eurocentric ways of understanding and presenting contemporary dance; to leave the line, that of transactional relations, of disembodied unsituated circulations of bodies, of other unchecked gate-keeping. By being hosted in these relations, in this circle, I sensed that this would demand a whole new re-imagining of how I understood my role of making dance present. That it would require working with and through dance’s choreopolitics to disarticulate the fraught choreographies of its conventions, categorisations and circulations, arrogantly imposed by the geo-political realities of the Global North contexts. Being in a circle IN relation demands paying attention, an attention that becomes almost an organ of sensing place as agential and relational, and this should allow for everything to fall into place. It is this “falling into place” that made me feel being IN place. This was the gift that the curating circle offered me.

The Gift

I never made it to Canada, neither before nor for the festival, COVID prevailed. But this is not important. It is not important whether the festival-as-ritual we imagined happened as we hoped. What is important is that the process was the work. This too, I learned later, is an Indigenous land-based dramaturgy (Lachance). What is important is to see how much the circle was THE invitation, not to “guest curate” but to understand what “guest curating” may make present. Perhaps making dance present is always about guest curating—being simultaneously hosts and hosted, a being IN relation with (a) dance of and in a place. It is a form of slow curating, one that gives the place to place in order to land the body like a coming into presence of the body’s places, a presencing of the body through place. One that emerges by being in relation with other dramaturgies of time, of place, of generosity, of meaning-making and of accountability. Slow curating can work by invitation only. Like hospitality, it belongs to no one, neither to the host nor the hosted, it is in the gesture of being inviting in. It is activated circularly and relationally. It requires time, presence, attention and, just like choreography, resisting gravity. It is not easy business.


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*Angela Conquet is French-Australian dance curator, author, editor, researcher and translator living between Melbourne and Paris. Her career spans three continents (Europe, Australia, Canada), working across and within a multiplicity of disciplines, contexts, and territories. Her specific expertise lies in connecting artists’ ideas with current social issues and diverse communities of thought. She considers art and culture as a socio-political practice to activate imagination, creativity, and change.

Copyright © 2024 Angela Conquet
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