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Inédito. Conferencia impartida en PSI-Performance Studies international conference 17, Camillo 2.0. Utrecht, Mayo 2011
6 de julio 2022
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The minimalist spectator

We can perform history through the transgression of its discourse and chronology, but we can also do it by finding other means that allow us to travel through history in other ways. Today I’ll take this second option guided by the hand of the minimalist spectator.  During the summer of nineteen sixty two, the students from the composition class that Judith and Robert Dunn taught at the Cunningham Studio in New York, decided to organize a “Dance Concert” to show their works to the audience. Robert Dunn had passed on to his students -Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Alex y Deborah Hay, Fred Herko…-, some ideas, learned from John Cage, concerning chance and indetermination. This resulted in a series of choreographies composed by means of repetition and games including sound, words and objects. Each piece had already been analyzed during the lessons, emphasizing always the creative process and the new compositional tools. This analytical work forced the artists to act simultaneously as makers and spectators. Soon, it was clear to them that they were setting up a new concept of dance, that rejected all accessorial elements and focused on a radical approach to body, the sense of motion and the desire of making their writing tools visible; the minimalist dance. This new dance demanded simultaneously a new concept of spectator, someone willing to dive into the conceptual structure of movement, and understand dance as a process of confrontation with language; the minimalist spectator.  The space they found for the “Dance Concert” was a desacralized church, the Judson Memorial Church, located at a corner of Washington Square. This fact supposed the liberation of dance, its independence from the conventional theatrical dispositive. In parallel, the diaphanous morphology of the space broke the frontal distribution of space, and facilitated the absence of hierarchical divisions as well as the mobility of the audience. People should choose where and how they wanted to place themselves according to the different events of the evening. The concert lasted three hours, through which an enthusiastic audience witnessed the birth of postmodern dance, with pieces such as Ordinary Dance (1962), where Yvonne Rainer spoke about all the places she had lived in while performing a series of daily movements with no apparent connection among them; Proxy (1962) where Steve Paxton explored a new approach to body and movement through actions such as walking, looking or sitting down; Instant Chance and the solo on roll-skates Once or Twice a Week I Put on Sneakers to Go Uptown, by Fred Herko; or the film Overture 2  (1962) by Elainne Summers, pioneer in the dialogue between dance and experimental film. Since that day, the church became both, a space for rehearsals as well as a space to meet the audience. This ambivalence gave the pieces a kind of open work character, and the spectator a new space within the process of articulation of choreographies.  Although it is true that the choreographers gathered around the Judson Dance Theater had different aims and ideas, they all shared the desire of defining dance in a new way. A wish that repeats three decades later in the proposals of a new generation of choreographers, coming from diverse European countries, that crystallized in what it was known, at the beginning of the nineties, as new dance or conceptual dance. This movement was characterized by the actualization of the aesthetic postulates of postmodern dance: solo format, immobility, approach to the body, economy of resources, experimental character, transdisciplinarity as well as experimentation with the theatrical dispositive and the desire of confronting the spectator with language. All of these caused the reappearance of the figure of the minimalist spectator from whom the choreographer demands something else than just watching from the seat.  The object of this text is to analyze different examples taken from some pieces of the seventies and the nineties- I’ll focus in particular on works by Jérôme Bel and La Ribot, whose performances have actualized in the best way the minimalism of the New York movement – with the aim of showing how some of the conceptual lines that define both movements are articulated, as well as the roll of the minimalist spectator.

The aesthetic of neutrality

In 1965 Yvonne Rainer wrote the foundational manifest of postmodern dance, it said “No” to everything that had defined dance up to that moment1; its extreme minimalism included the “no to the seduction of the spectator”. Her most emblematic piece, The mind is a muscle, Part I, Trio A (1966), is a manifest on the aesthetic of neutrality, so much due to her approach to the body as for the way in which she communicates with the spectator. In this piece the choreographer strips movement from its ornamentality and focuses all her attention in the body. The piece is a catalogue of movement possibilities, where development, climax,  variations, characters, representation, expression, variety and virtuosity are replaced by uniformity, movements found by chance, repetition, fugacity, monotony, neutrality and inexpressiveness, avoiding at every moment meeting the gaze of the spectator. “Trio A’s achievement”, says Sally Banes, “lays in its determined renunciation to style and expression, undertaking a historical turn in dance while leading it towards pure movement. […] in its neutrality, complexity, fugacity and continuity, Trio A opens up a world of activity for the thought through the physical an intelligent body” (Banes, 1987: 54).. With Trio A dance becomes a sort of thought for which the body is a tool, a thought that seeks to make visible and share with the spectator the sense of movement.  The neutrality is the key concept in the new relationship the artist longs to establish with the spectator. This desire is stressed by the use of nudity as a tool for reaching a major objectivation in the performance of a uniform and impersonal dance, that practices the “no to glamour” and the “no to the seduction of the spectator”. This happens in the piece Word Words, that Rainer made in collaboration with Steve Paxton in 1965, and it also happens in the works of some choreographers from the nineties who also neutralize nudity to underline their approach to the body as an essential tool of language, detached from any expressive or erotic connotation.  From Socorro! Gloria! (1991) the striptease that preceded the series Distinguished Pieces, La Ribot retained the idea of the naked body as the essential tool for a choreographic writing she began to develop two years later in the project Distinguished pieces. In the first piece of this series, Muriéndose la sirena (1993), the choreographer sets off from a neutral body, dispossessed of any technical and stylistic connotation. Through this body she constructs the image of a mermaid issuing her lasts death rattles. The nudity, the silence and the stillness stress this approach, creating a space of tension to be inhabited by the spectator.  Jérôme Bel also uses the objectivation of the body by means of nudity. A clear example of this can be found in Jérôme Bel (1995), were he introduces and questions one by one the basic elements of dance: Four dancers, with chalk in their hands, enter the stage naked and write on the wall their names and some personal data (height, weight, social security number, bank credit…). The third performer holds a bulb that will light the whole piece and writes on a blackboard “Thomas Edison”. The fourth one writes on the wall “Igor Stravinsky” and sings The Consecration of Spring. In this piece the nudity of the performers alludes to the importance of body as essential tool in dance. The focalized light stages the reduction to essential of technical and escenographic elements (“its literal minimalism invokes Rainer’s “no to illusion” (Lepecki, 2006: 93)); and the presence of Stravinsky recalls the roll of music in traditional occidental dance. The clarity of the structure in Bel’s piece creates a space where the spectator is confronted with the basic concepts of dance, and stresses the will of communication by means of exposing the tools of language.

The incorporation of the private as choreographic material.

In La Ribot’s case the private manifests itself through the objects that stick to the naked body: the high-heel shoes, the dresses, the wigs, the little dolls, the songs, the cardboard, the measure tape, the diving helmet… Along the line of objects of Candida Iluminaris we visit diverse moments of her project and life: the measure tape of Capricho mío, the mini-ventilator of Divana… and it is then that we became aware that it’s in the objects (including the body) where the memory of the Distinguished Pieces lies.  The objects generate a displacement from the universal to the specific, something that already happened in some of the pieces shown in the context of the Judson Dance Group such as Carnation by Lucinda Childs (1964). There Child sat astride on the corner of a small table with a salad bowl, some pink foam rollers and several rectangular little sponges: She would place the salad bowl on her head and begin to make sandwiches with the sponges and the rollers; then she would undo them, fit a roller on each of the bows handles, bite the sponges and fit the rollers through them one by one, abruptly she’ll turn her head to show the grotesque effect to the audience and right after spits out all these objects into a blue bag attached to her leg. In the next section she would lean against the wall with a sheet tied by two of its corners to her ankles and hold the two other remaining corners with her hands, remaining thus hidden behind the cloth totally stretched. Then she would fold the sheet, put it in a sack, run in a diagonal through the stage, go on top of the sack, look at the audience and cry. Jump abruptly off the sack, climb on it again and return to cry. She would repeat this action three times and the piece would finish. This piece can be read as a critic to domestic life2, but it’s carried out with total neutrality, establishing an absolutely trivial relationship with the manipulated objects. Even Childs’ crying doesn’t have any dramatic connotations, it’s just one more physical action, and the same thing happens in 40 Spontaneous by La Ribot. The relation between Carnation and the Distinguished pieces of la Ribot is also quite significant, partly due to the clarity and extraordinary precision of their  construction, but also due to the non-hierarchical relationship established between body and the objects that adhere to it in order to construct the image. Child undertakes a process of alienation quite similar to that of La Ribot when comparing her naked body with that of a chicken in Sin título III, or when she becomes a fish machine in ¡Ya me gustaría a mí ser pez!; Also the criticism to domestic life and female obsessions show up in De la Mancha and Capricho mío. 

Game as a composition and communication tool

Simone Forti began to experiment with the use of game in choreographic composition in Ann Halprin’s Dancer’s Workshop, and since then she became really interested in transferring children’s pre-symbolic games to adults’ bodies, with the aim of experimenting with their potential in relation to movement and composition. Some of the foundational pieces of postmodern dance come out as result of this research; pieces such as See-saw (1960) based on this child’s swing, Rollers (1960) around roller-skates or Huddle (1961) where the performers construct a dome with their bodies, climbing one by one on top of it while all the rest adjust to hold the weight. In these pieces game frees composition and generates some conceptual structures where movement and action can take place without any apparent logic, allowing the spectator to establish possible associations and complete the choreographic construction.  Nevertheless, -diverging from the use of children’s games in postmodern dance where it was linked to freedom of composition-, the choreographers from the nineties experiment with ruled games, which point more towards a search of communication mechanisms alternative to spoken language. A clear example is El Gran Game (La Ribot, 1999), a piece for four dancers that takes place on a white game board conformed by thirty six squares containing different instructions; and where compositional choices concerning time and space are determined by daces (thus chance) and some rules that are only known by the dancers. It wasn’t the first time La Ribot based one of her pieces totally on a game, the duets Los trancos del avestruz (1993) and Oh! Sole! (1995) already based their construction on a primitive game that freed composition and carried to the extreme dance’s communicative ability, using exclusively physical and gestural actions. In these pieces the performers only screamed and reacted to each other according to a language unknown to the spectator, a language he could not decipher; although he would be totally aware of the fact that nothing there was ruled by chance. Thus, La Ribot challenges and confronts the spectator with a language he can not understand, but which is ruled by a precise choreographic code; this same situation will appear again some years later in another “big game”: 40 spontaneous (2004), here the aim was to communicate the writing by means of questioning choreographic codes –body, movement, technique, music and theatrical space-. This piece was divided in two halves: The first part would pass off in an apparent chaos during which the 40 (non-professional) performers would carry out a series of actions such as dressing, undressing and placing furniture and objects, creating a sort of tapestry that covered the stage. By the end of this first part, when the performers would remain in silence, lying over the tapestry, the spectator would realize that they had been performing according to a precise language unknown to him. The second part’s opening game would be the destruction of the tapestry, which later the performers would reconstruct identically, verifying thus an accurate choreography as well as the communicational will of the piece.

The spectator’s choreography

In 40 spontaneous all the performance responsibility relied on a group of interpreters with no performance experience, who were actually the projection of the spectator. Through this piece, La Ribot fulfilled her desire of transgressing performing arts codes. A desire she had already pointed quite early in her career through the figure of the invented audience in 12 toneladas de plumas (12 tones of feathers,1991), and continued seeking throughout the three series of Distinguished Pieces, until finally abandoning the theatre’s dispositive on the third one – Still Distinguished (2000)-, and taking the spectator into the place of action.  When coming to see Still Distinguished, the first thing the spectator meets is a series of objects spread through the space through which he can wander around, observing how the other spectators move, murmur and look, becoming slowly aware of their being also part of the installation. After a while La Ribot would appear, connect some TV screens and disappear again. The screens would show different shots from the same action, where the camera was a prolongation from the body and captured movement in relation to her own body. The beginning of Still Distinguished destabilized the concept of dance as a discipline whose main object is the dancer’s body: The body had been substituted by the objects at the beginning, and later by the self-filmed image of the body in motion. Faced with this situation, the spectators would move around, observing restlessly and expectantly, as objects among objects. When the video would finish La Ribot would return and begin her transformation into body-object that becomes work of art through a series of minimal choreographic actions, -all of them supported by stillness, silence, extreme slowness, intensity and objects-. Then the spectator would realize that La Ribot was not showing a dance performance, but rather inviting him to share the process of construction of dance in a space without hierarchies, where body, gaze and the writing of the artist and that of the spectator would meet. 7  With Still Distinguished dance places itself at the same plane than installations and performance art –there are no characters, nor theatrical staging, there is only what is been seen and takes place in real time-. A clear precedent can be found on Simone Fortis’ fist work in New York, Five dance constructions and some other things (1961). In this piece, which was presented at Yoko Ono’s loft, the audience could walk around some “dance constructions”, pieces that demanded the gaze as well as the physical and mental motion of the other to be completed. In the same way, La Ribot aims to construct a series of pieces in the time and space shared with the spectator; where white light, the plasticity of the naked body, the slowness or extreme stillness and the proximity between artist and spectator would generate new planes in relation to movement and presence.  In 2003 La Ribot presented Panoramix at London’s Tate Modern, an action/spectacle that gathered within the museums space the 34 Distinguished Pieces composed since 1983 and divided in three series. The pieces belonging to the fist two series were originally conceived for black box theatres, so Panoramix’s new exhibiting conditions provoked a change in the gaze of the spectator, who shifted gaze from the fixed seat at the theatre to a new gaze in movement that observed the performer, the objects and the other spectators, at the same time that it was aware of been also observed. This gazes’ dialogue stresses horizontality, dynamism and a temporality determined by present time, all of which favors the idea of presentation and urges the spectator to choose in each moment how to relate with what is happening. So, he ceases to be a voyeur and begins to compose his own choreography of gests, gazes, thoughts and acts.  When in the piece 40 Spontaneous La Ribot hands over the spectator the absolute responsibility of movement, the chosen space to do so is not anymore a visual arts place, but a black box theater. The choreographer is conscious of the fact that this decision implies a more complex transgression, which fulfils a desire already expressed by the Judson choreographers: The democratization of bodies on stage.  Postmodern choreographers used diverse strategies to reach this aim: the incorporation of non-dancers -who would bring along in a natural way the “no to virtuosity” to the dance pieces-, the new transdisciplinary vocation of dance, the use of casual costumes that stressed the “no to glamour” from Rainer’s manifest- who as a matter of fact conceived Trio A as a catalogue of movements to be performed by any body-… On the other hand, many pieces were based on the performance of actions or the performance of quotidian tasks, 8  such as We shall run (Yvonne Rainer, 1963),, piece in which the performers, following some patterns drawn on the floor, would run during seven minutes on stage; or Satisfying Lover (Steve Paxton, 1971), where they walked following some indications. All of which reduced the distance between artists and audience, as the spectator could identify himself as much with the actions as with the people performing them, facilitating thus, the approach to a new language.  The conceptual dance of the nineties has taken this desire of the choreographers of the seventies to its last consequences, and to do so has chosen either to abandon the theatre’s dispositive in search of other spaces that would facilitate this new relation with the audience, or to remain in the theatre –aware of all it implies as institution and aware of its codes concerning darkness, frontallity and division between performers and audience- to question dance codes through a democratization of the bodies on stage that places the spectator at a new level of communication with choreographic language. This happened in 40 spontaneus (2004) of la Ribot, piece to which I have already referred, as well as in two pieces of Jérôme Bel I’ll talk about now: One of this pieces Shirtologie (1997) was conceived for white, diaphanous spaces, and the other one, The Show must go on (2001) for theaters. Shirtologie –is a piece for 20 performers and a collection of t-shirts where movement is limited to an action conditioned by the message, logotype or drawing printed on each t-shirt. At a certain moment, the performers come quite close to the audience, draw a line in the t-shirt, and remain still for a while, looking. The immobility that crosses the piece transfers the movement to the audience, to their reading, to the de-codification of codes and the tension of the gaze. In The show must go on, Bel works with a large group of performers (actors, dancers) who react freely or composing small choreographic sequences in response to the lyrics of the consecutive songs that invade the space (Hair, West side story, Beatles, David Bowie, Queen…). Some songs led to stillness (during Every Breath you Take by Police, the performers observe in absolute stillness, how the audience members breathe), others lead to death (Killing me softly by Roberta Flack); in some occasions the reaction to the lyrics comes from the stage elements (when Let the sunshine in sounds the whole stage is lighted, and during Imagine it remains in darkness). Bel relied on this piece on the aesthetic conventions (actors, stage, lighting, stage machinery, spectators) and composed a choreography on the limit of every convention. So, to communicate its full meaning and confront the spectator with language in an extreme way, it had to take place in a theatre.  Although it’s true that these pieces seek to radically approach the spectator, in many occasions they are rejected by an audience who comes to the theatre to see dance: The  audience at Théâtre de la Ville booed the piece since its beginning and some people tried to climb on the stage3.  In Bel’s words underlies the relation of proximity postmodern and new dance seek to establish with the audience: A horizontal relationship that breaks away from the superiority of the performer and the passivity of the spectator, creating a relationship based on dialogue and the exchange of gazes and perceptions between the artist and the minimalist spectator. A spectator that brings his attention to the essential in dance, language, and enters the space the artist has created for him in his piece, from where he also joins in the writing of the choreographic composition.  Traducido al inglés por Ana Buitrago


  1. No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic. No to trash imagery. No to involvement of performer or spectator. No to style. No to camp. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer. No to eccentricity. No to moving or being moved.
  2. como dice S. Banes: “La obsesión con los productos de belleza, la forma compulsiva de hacer sandwiches, la necesidad de doblar las sábana de forma perfecta, su lucha con la bolsa de basura, constituyen una pequeña tragedia doméstica” (Banes, 1998: 218).
  3. Algo parecido sucedió en la presentación de 40 espontáneos en el Centro Cultural de la Villa, en la edición de 2006 del Festival de Otoño (Madrid). Los espectadores gritaron, se levantaron y hubo quien pidió que le devolvieran el importe de la entrada.  “ I wanted to put on stage a group of people that would not dominate the audience, I wanted to create a situation of equality between the people on stage and those sitting in the darkness. And this, audience could not bear it. Normally the spectator is dominated by the actor: he comes to the theatre and admires someone who can do many things he can’t do… someone who dies, who dances, or lives an extraordinary love story. I propose right the opposite: we are equal, we do not dance better than you, we dress alike and our bodies are not better.”

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