Otto Ramstad’s “Lineage” @ Vital Matters

In the context of a contemporary dance festival dedicated to the “vital materiality of the body,” I was surprised that the greatest challenge to my idea of embodiment came about through its negation—through a conscious disembodiment of dance, in Otto Ramstad’s solo work Lineage.

In the opening of the piece, Ramstad shuffles onto the stage at the Southern Theater with a gray blanket tied around his waist. He opens a laptop and starts a video projection: on the screen we see a duplicate Ramstad, wrapped in the same gray blanket, lying on an expanse of snow in a remote landscape. The live Ramstad sits down on a chair and addresses the audience calmly, directly:

“I’m not going to do the piece I imagined I was going to do tonight. I’m going to describe some of the things I imagined and some of the things you would not see if I was dancing.”

He continues to address the audience, verbally and methodically, for most of the rest of the piece. He tells us about his great-grandfather, who immigrated to Minnesota from Norway in 1911, and his own recent trip to Norway to visit the farm where his great-grandfather was born. Through straightforward personal anecdote, he draws out the themes around lineage and learning, what is passed down from generation to generation, what is held in the body or in the landscape.

Interspersed with the exposition, he describes movement in present tense, ostensibly the piece that he imagined that we are not going to see: “Right now I’m walking.” “I’m moving the space and being moved by the space.” “Now I’m spinning…” He uses rich language like “carving” and “tasselling” to describe the movements that we do not see, but he stays at the level of description rather than interpretation. Ramstad’s upper body and gestures express a connection to the words he is speaking, but are just a shading compared to the full-bodied movement he describes.

Another viewer might be captivated by Ramstad’s subject matter at face value, or his subtle embodiment as he addressed the audience from his chair, or even the conversation between his live, seated body, and his body on the video, in nature. But for me, the crucial device of this piece was Ramstad’s opening statement: that he was not going to perform the dance that he (and we) expected. I fixated on this moment as a performative strategy, a device that speaks to our collective understanding of the definition, essence, or ontology of dance.

When Ramstad says that he’s not going to dance, it could mean a number of things:

  1. There is a dance, and it is being withheld from us.
  2. There was no dance to begin with.
  3. This verbal address is, in fact, the dance.

I believe all of these are true simultaneously. In effect, it’s a kind of refusal to dance, a verbal obscuring of the work for the viewer. Movement is acknowledged an integral component of the work, but will not be enacted for us.

This reminds me of Andre Lepecki’s concept of the still act, a performative refusal to produce dance as a continuous flow of movement. The still act, however, performs not-dancing as an action, so the viewer is able to see that the stillness itself becomes the dance. When enacted physically, the refusal to dance proposes that dance can be something else entirely: that dance need not be synonymous with a continuous flow of movement, that dance can appear as a different form of embodied action.

But to perform not-dancing verbally, the way Ramstad does as a speech act, preserves the idea that there is and was, in fact, a dance. The dance is allowed to exist separately from the live fact of the performance, to remain untouched. When we are asked to imagine the dance, even within some general parameters of description, the dance can be exactly what we want it to be. We imagine the carving, the tasselling, the walking, each in their purest and most vibrant form. In contrast to the empty expanse of the stage, we imagine liveness. In sum, the dance can remain the ideal dance—not just the dance you’d prefer to see, unencumbered by gravity or anatomy or history, but the platonic ideal of what dancing is.

Sometimes the idea of dancing, in its infinite freedom, is more transformative than the concrete fact of the flesh onstage. When we are invited to imagine the dance, it allows us to believe in dance as essence, dance as pure movement, dance as transcendence, dance as sublime integration of body, space, and time, presented to the viewer. We can’t argue with its execution on the grounds of physical skill, historical reference, or choreographic innovation. The imaginary dance cannot be derivative because it is specific to each viewer, and at the same time it is completely generic because our imaginations are not bound to the specifics of what we are viewing.

This is actually the fantasy of dance that the still act is meant to counteract. When the dance is located in the present body, yet that body is stopping flow, not corresponding to the standard definition of dance as movement, it refuses dance as transcendence. We are forced to contend with the solid fact of the body, and perhaps to expand our definition of dance. When the dance is conceived as a thing apart, something that exists outside of a body—or at least will not be embodied in our presence—it allows us to keep our imagination of what the dance could have been.

At the same time, however, this kind of verbal/imagined movement betrays another key tenet of dance: that the performance is something that is created for the viewer. If the dance is something that exists without the audience, does it still fulfill our ideal of absolute freedom and joy? Is it even more ideal, because the dance is so free it does not need us?

Audience expectations in this arena are revealed when a dance fails to perform “sufficient” movement. After Karen Sherman’s 2014 solo on known-virtuosic dancer Greg Waletski, a piece that contained more speech and gesture than sweeping dance phrases, I heard that many audience members felt cheated. Such a complaint belies assumptions about the value of dance training and the value of buying a ticket. It also announces a narrow view of what dance is or can be, and fails to recognize choreographic tactics applied to speech, gesture, and use of objects. In short, one can be accused of “not dancing” for employing any performative strategies other than full-bodied, expressive movement—again, this imagined platonic ideal of dance.

Ramstad’s Lineage relates to other contemporary dance works that employ verbal refusals to dance, as well as verbal descriptions of movement. I see another parallel to works where movement is simply described, without reference to a dance that exist separately, either with still bodies onstage (as in the work of Ivana Muller) or with no bodies onstage (as in the work of Theresa Madaus). A more similar example is Xavier Le Roy’s Untitled (2014), which I saw at at Impulstanz last summer. At the beginning of the work, the artist stands in the orchestra pit and informs the audience that he will not be able to perform the work he had planned for tonight, due to a condition that has impaired his memory. In Le Roy’s case, I suspect there never was any dance, while in Ramstad’s case, I do suspect he made another piece–which I think is indicative of the privileging of concept versus embodiment in their respective bodies of work.

For that reason, I want to theorize Ramstad’s verbal refusal to dance with respect to embodiment, rather than with respect to the more typical comparisons to conceptual art. BodyCartography Project’s work is heavily invested in the materiality of the body—and contrary to appearances, I actually think that Ramstad’s speech-act preservation of the dance belied a kind of reverence to the body, or certainly upheld its possibility. His description of the dance gave the viewers a screen onto which to project our own embodied experiences—rather than assuming that Ramstad’s embodied experience will necessarily translate to the viewer.

Ramstad does actually dance by the end of the work—dance, as in expressive, nuanced, full-bodied movement taking up most of the stage. He also told me when I asked him that there really was an original dance, and he had to alter the plan when he got injured. But I would argue that, no matter how practical, the opening lines of the piece still constitute a significant conceptual choice, and a considerable strategy for embodied performance specifically. By “not dancing”, the work created a proliferation of new dances entirely.

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