Last Friday I premiered a new solo at the HAU 2: OPFER/The Sacrifice of Kareth Schaffer. I performed this piece as part of a platform that asked ten choreographers to do their own take on Le Sacre du Printemps. The very existence of this platform seemed to beg the question: why do choreographers still do Sacres? It’s a question I ask in the piece, it’s a question most people with whom I spoke about the piece before it premiered asked, and it’s a question that has changed for me through the experience of actually making and premiering a solo about it.
So, instead of posting a video link to my Sacre (actually, the law firm administering the rights to the music made me sign a paper that I will NEVER show a video of my Sacre to ANYBODY, for WHATEVER REASON…that’s another subject. If you want to be subversive about this, contact me in the comments), I want to write about what I learned from Sacre, and why I think the dance to the death actually might be relevant today*–if we have the courage to reframe the narrative.
Let’s start with the figure of the Chosen One. In the second part of Sacre (according to the ballet by Nijinsky), the Chosen One is dancing in circles with her friends, and then all of a sudden she stumbles over nothing and that’s it, that means she is the Chosen One and she will dance till the death to ensure a good harvest for the rest of the village. What is so strange about this figure is that the Chosen One reconciles two disparate attributes in one figure: 1) She is SPECIAL, the Chosen One, it is up to her to ensure the survival of the village, and 2) She is SUPERFLUOUS, unnecessary, dispensable, überflüssig: the village would not be sacrificing this girl if they needed her to bear children or plow the fields or other useful things.
To whom might these two attributes otherwise apply?
How about artists? How about performing artists in general, and perhaps dancers the most specifically? People who perform on stage are important–their mere presence there proves that. Otherwise, somebody else would be on the stage. Think of all the freedom given to artists, the great romantic myth of the artistic genius, the general acceptance of weird-ass behaviour from artists because they are artists. Being special is part and parcel of being an artist these days, if by ‘artist’ you mean ‘contemporary dancer in Berlin’, which is obviously my context. Simultaneously, however, every performing artist is aware that “standing in the wings” (to use some nice theater metaphors) there are literally thousands of other artists or wanna-be artists who would gladly take their place in the spotlight. Nobody is irreplaceable in this business, yet everybody spends a great deal of time and energy trying to convince everybody else they are the exceptions to the rule. We are dancing to the death and fighting for the privilege of being the one who jumps the highest while doing so.
This is why Sacre holds so much fascination for choreographers. It describes their condition. However, these two paradoxally linked characteristics of being special and being superfluous might well apply to many people in a ‘knowledge society’: the university-educated, middle-class type of people who keep the seats of the theaters filled. The experience of being special and superfluous, maybe even having one’s superfluousness be the very basis for one’s specialness, is common to us all.
…and I think it creeps us all out. After all, I and nearly everyone I know have been raised to think that they, just by virtue of existing, are special. And then one day you realize you are just as special as everybody else, and that you are just ‘averagely’ special, more lucky by birth and environment than in actual uniqueness. But then again, maybe the mediocrely special people sometimes get the biggest opportunities: after all, the Chosen One can’t even walk in a circle without falling over. I guess I’ve got one up on her already!
Ha. If I get into a discussion now of Robert Castel’s theory of exclusion and all the people in the world who are superfluous but NOT special; and then portray my flatmate’s description of growing up in a socialist state where no one was special; and then talk about the documentary Born Rich I saw this week where insanely wealthy heirs are interviewed–where it becomes quite clear that the only thing making them special is their wealth–well, I would need several more hours to do that, and to somehow connect this back to Sacre. But regardless, if I keep going with this solo, that might be the direction it goes in.
*I first tried out this story on a bunch of very smart 14-year-olds from the College Francais in Berlin, who had invited us artists to talk about Sacre du Printemps. I am pretty sure that they had no idea what on earth I was talking about during our conversation, so in a way this post is an attempt to try to make my thoughts a bit more clear.