When difference makes a difference


Using a dance work recently presented at the Athens Epidaurus Festival as a case study, Anastasio Koukoutas unpacks the colonial and appropriating processes at play when local traditions and folklore are used as "inspiration" in contemporary culture.

It has been widely documented and persistently evidenced how tradition becomes a cornerstone in the re-production of mythologies pertaining to cultural authenticity and ethnic originality. The folklorization and commodification of cultural idioms, however imaginary and detached from the initial romantic ventures of folklorists and ethnographers, is still a symptom of the “Byronic syndrome:” the predominant role of the foreign gaze, especially that of continental Europe, and its constitutional role in the construction of minor Balkan/Oriental identities. From the fashion industry to contemporary dance, Greece is often conceived and re-imagined via a nostalgic gaze, which objectifies cultural characteristics and uses ‘tradition’ as a source of inspiration [1].

It is actually this gentle diplomacy disguised in the form of creative/artistic practices, that renders ‘tradition’ problematic; the power to represent is not only power in an abstract, theoretical sense, but a power that turns powerless those who cannot resist the field of representation. The reference to tradition as a source of ‘inspiration’ is based upon prior cultural appropriation through colonial contact; it also reminds us of the modernist impulse connected to the more ‘universal’ Orientalist roots of Western dance, as shown by Randy Martin [2]. Within the myth of modern creation, theatre became an assumed ‘autonomous’ space, a frame set in the broader context of colonialism that captured successfully and repeatedly the Other/Orient at the moment it dissolves exotically in the horizon. A mourning ‘act’ itself as the Other appears only to dissolve exotically in the horizon, a metaphor the Western gaze and culture has implemented to lament for the lost innocence of an ‘original experience.’

I am using the example of Lamenta, a dance performance conceived and choreographed by Koen Augustijnen and Rosalba Torres Guerrero (presented at the Athens Festival in June 2021) [3], to support the above argument and to solidify it with certain stylistic approaches that attempted to ‘aestheticize’ lament in order to present it to wider audiences. Although laments have been widely bastardized in contemporary Greece as well, becoming part of local festivities and entertainment — especially as a music genre — their value or ethos to this day is preserved through what Nadia Seremetakis calls “truth-claiming” [4]. Either gestural or musical, those acts are judged upon the emotional responses of the audience, thus judged by their performativity. In such cases, the audience indicates more than a consumer behaviour — a mere receptor of a commodified image — and ultimately is perceived through a desire for belonging and sharing a common identity.

Thus, the audience is intrinsically ‘unstable’ both in terms of its own presence and in its ability to imbue the performance with a quality that remains ‘irrecuperable’ in any attempt of stage representation. In addition, gender, age, race, social status and other categories are not just complexifying the legitimacy of the laments performed in local festivities but, most importantly, are key factors to their efficacy. Unlike the devices of proscenium presentations, which often construct a spectacle ‘distant’ in time and space –if not ‘neutral’ to strip off the existing social and aesthetic characteristics, the cultural context of the laments is crucial if we ever try to understand the very indeterminacy of representation as an internal quality of the performance. This indeterminacy also suggests that identity is not perceived in ontological terms, captured and chronicled as fixed, but as one that carries plasticity, being dispersed, polymorphic and appropriated as a performative product of figuration.

Dance is a polysemic means of communication. Expressing intense emotions associated with mourning — grief but also anger and rancour — dance carries a unique capacity to create iconic and stereotypical bodily images. The beating of the chest — referencing kommós, the lifting of the arms as if in supplication, the shaking of the head and torso are recognized and repeated signs of physical and psychological pain. These movement stylizations are all related to lament performed usually by women and pertain to a repertoire exploited as visually compelling . The greater the loss, the more extravagant and powerful the physical action. However, claiming truth doesn’t necessarily imply lived experiences or sincere emotions; rather, ‘truthiness’ is purely embodied and exemplified through the body so that thrênos could also be considered a queer method to allow women to enter the male dominated public sphere.

In other communal demonstrations of grief, it is the dance patterns and formulations that create a sense of solidified community; a bonding that is both a gestural sign — holding hands — and an affirmative corporeality — an embodied sense of self and the other. The rhythm and the spacing of the dance are not merely a metaphor or an allegory of social bonds; that would exemplify them into a sign of ‘lost’ communal bonding, thus further objectify and aestheticize what is at stake. On the contrary, the formal characteristics corresponding to the aesthetics of the ‘original’ performance are the ground upon which ‘emotional communities’ are based. As Michel Maffesoli has explicated [5], community as an aesthetic form implies a collectivity within which members are connected via the expression of common feelings, thus reinserting the formal characteristics of (a) dance performance into broader social mobilizations. Maffesoli detects the existence of an ethical aesthetics, an art of living which emphasizes ‘getting along’ and getting by so as to maintain the solidarity of tribus and facilitate everyday social interaction.

Hence, neither the aestheticization nor the originality of laments that would unavoidably lead to its romanticization are at the centre of our analysis. On the contrary, temporary ‘identifications’ and ambiguity help reconfigure what is being ‘lost and mourned’ in the staged version of laments. Augustijnen and Guerrero, to avoid any connection with folklorist approaches, tried to imbue the laments with a ‘modernist’ touch, thus already perceive them as ‘distant’ or ‘absent’ from our contemporary societies. The stylistic choices, such as in the costumes or in the movement vocabulary, were a visible sign of the attempted ‘modernization,’ accentuating the bias of the theatre apparatus. Their version of the lament became a showcase of self-indulgent deliration, climaxing to moderate and ordinary ‘contemporary’ dance material — which in some cases felt weary, absorbed in maintaining an energy level imposed on the dancers’ dispersed and agonized presence. The absence of live music and the underestimation of musicians’ corporeality dialoguing with that of the dancers was immensely felt and created sorrow more than exuberant solace.

However, our discussion is not oriented in the dance’s failed ‘intention’ nor in examining the performance as a thing-in-itself, for itself. Our main concern is to show that Lamenta perpetuates an uncritical assessment of how dance fits into, or even appropriates its ‘multinational world’ under the corporate strategy of “international production.” To use ‘tradition’ as a source of inspiration, to access it randomly without skepticism or carefully investigating narratives that reinforce the predominant grid of power in cultural representations, is to further invest in the impoverishment of minor cultural identities [6]. What (dance) can share with history is the sense of an otherness against which self-identity asserts itself, states Randy Martin [7].

Without adequate historical and societal reflection, the way self is captured and chronicled by the other reconfigures old colonial practices based on self’s utopian sense of a sweeping modernity; Greece is still Europe’s cadaver, what idealism mourns of its lost past. Thus, we keep falling into the trap of perceiving cultural tradition as a ‘storehouse of guises’ and the artist as an eccentric being who is capable of appropriating the other as labour power so that it appears without history and ultimately without identity (or in some cases, with an identity that needs to be ‘modernized,’ homogenized and commodified as a cultural product of dance). This is when ‘difference’ really does make a difference.

[1] The tension between tradition and inspiration is propagated by the constant ‘re-invention’ of tradition. Thus, tradition, contrary to what one may think, is often linked to historical innovation and the development of the nation. Inspiration is a key concept to understand how tradition is desired, imagined, performed, experienced and ultimately consumed.
[2] Randy Martin, Dance Ethnography and the Limits of Representation, Social Text, No. 33 (1992), pp. 103-123, Duke University Press
[3] http://aefestival.gr/festival_events/lamenta/?lang=en
[4] As cited in Olivia Dunham (2014) "Private Speech, Public Pain: The Power of Women's Laments in Ancient Greek Poetry and Tragedy," CrissCross: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 2
[5] Michel Maffesoli, The Time of the Tribes – The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society, Sage Publications, 1996
[6] For the opposite trajectory, that of empowering minor identities and troubling genealogies, see Marios Chatziprokopiou, Queering the archive of Greek laments, Journal of Greek Media & Culture, Vol. 4, n. 2, p. 223-238
[7] ibid. p. 119

Koen Augustijnen and Rosalba Torres Guerrero, Lamenta. Photo by Heloise Faure. Courtesy of Athens Epidaurus Festival.