Observations on the stances of the body. The theoretical and practical case of Salva Sanchis.
Finding the body's stance, watching what it tends to do when left to its own devices, seeing where it goes when released from easiness and habit, is essential for a choreographer. For knowing oneself. And, when needs be, to abandon clichés that, used repeatedly, would have a limiting effect.
Observation 1. All bodies move, more or less, even the amateur and most idle of us who rely on the same movements over and over again in our daily lives. Everyone's body has a clear tendency to set itself adrift. Its main job is to work. And if it is consistently made to work, as dancers do, it will usually work well, almost against its will and without being aware of it. The body is stitched together with movement.
First and foremost, the body is. It IS... precisely because it DOES. It becomes what it is from what it does, as in Antonio Machado's poem sung by Joan Manuel Serrat, there is no path, but if you become a "traveller", it is because you are making your own path as you travel ("traveller, there is no path, you make your path as you travel"). The way forward only becomes clear a posteriori. As in existentialism, here essence does not precede existence, the function makes the organ, what identifies us is what we have done; ergo, actions are the only reliable proof of intentions. Along with another undeniable piece of primary evidence: all bodies are complex and extraordinary mechanisms, however, people are not always as clever or ingenious as the basic machinery that supports them and often conditions much of what they think. The best and worst thing about the head is that it's a part of the body, just (albeit exceptional) physiology.
If dance is to get to the root of the problem, it must do away with abstractions. From now on, movement must be embodied and captured by particular limbs. Salva Sanchis' work functions in this practical way, open to the possibilities provided by a body set free to be studied in movement, in the same way as a field zoologist gazes at the freely moving bodies of other animals. It is about seeing what each anatomy needs, what it can do, how it behaves, what possibilities it has in a certain space (the dance habitat, the stage eco-system). If needs be, and only at the end, psychological or anthropomorphic questions can be asked and intentions questioned, that is, if the physical answers examined (both signifier and signified) can be linked to some ulterior motive, a sense that transcends beyond their definite physical nature.
Since nowadays we know omniscience to be impossible and we mistrust globalising and self-serving views, in the 20th century and perhaps even more so in the 21st, we have learned to take things in stages (although in this case, in a very small way) and we move forward in a fragmentary fashion, feeling our way. As with many of today's writers, as a choreographer, Salva Sanchis moves forward with a magnifying glass focused on the subject he puts in motion, partly giving himself up to the inertia of language (the weight of a legacy), while at the same time trying to break with the automatic responses involved. In the order he creates, he endeavours to make the language speak for him. This is the sphere of shared territory. Sanchis has to address issues that concern everyone, including the thrilling distrust of the code and the shared grammar that rules it. Like many other artists, such as the Belgian René Magritte, who he is now geographically closer to in Brussels, he knows as choreographer what Magritte knew as a painter: that there is no pipe in the picture in any art form («ceci n’est pas une pipe»), only that this is dance like that was painting; in other words, shapes and colours, volumes and rhythms, and no objects at all. Art is not a window: it is a lens, a mirror that is more or less clean, more or less distorted, more or less seductive or accusing, at the fair or the gallery of errors that the world seems to be sometimes. The problem is that objects seen in a mirror often deceive, they are not where we see them or what they seem, either in terms of their direction or their distance (his latest piece is entitled Objects in mirror are closer than they appear). Despite this, we arrange them, we stroke them, we listen to them (we become like Narcissus in danger or the wicked queen in Snow White, when art becomes merely a process of instant identification and gratification, as with so many commercial narrative-based options). The mirror seduces and confuses us because it multiplies the light in the half-dimmed room that is the world, it duplicates it for us with the reflection, and objects give the impression of being too clear, more like "real" rather than a sensory "impression", which is what they really are. So, the mirror's seduction is like that of art, in a similar stylising process, and its force lies not in luminosity or beauty, but in what it takes from the mechanism of how reality is understood and the lens with which we look at it.
In choreography, forms in movement are inscribed in space and time. This is what is definitely outside the mirror. What these forms describe further inside, if no kind of mimesis is created, only exists to the extent that it responds to a set of conventions shared with the receiver. Does the choreographer have anything to say? Of course he does. He determines it by making choices and by early contextualising work, and this will then be his initial authorship: the fixing of a framework for action, of limits, of boundaries that help to overcome themselves, involving the acceptance of a range of possibilities understood not as a lack of something, but as a stimulating starting point. But the first work is formal, strictly grammatical, both in the morphological micro-terrain (the territory of the body) and in its syntactic development (the body articulating movement in space and stitching sequences together in a natural way).
So how do you start to work on choreography? Bodies move anyway, whoever happens to be driving them. They can go somewhere of their own accord or not, they may not have any desire for the time being other than finding themselves awake (which is knowing they aren't dead), but no healthy body is able to keep still. The inertia that takes it one way or another, translated into personal gestures (in the original creator) or in mere stereotypes (in the case of the majority of mortals, social beings that we are) has mechanical, organic and social roots. Like all forms of contemporary art, dance is the physical manifestation of a language, a form of knowledge that can point to any of the three directions mentioned for our own self-diagnosis, for knowing ourselves and explaining ourselves on all these levels: the physical and anatomical, the organic and physiological, and the socio-cultural.
To half paraphrase the famous quote by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in Meditations of Don Quixote, instead of just saying that I am "myself and my circumstances", I can think that all the circumstances of my life's actions are translated into gestures, that all contexts will leave their mark on my own movements and that choreography can become the scalpel with which to dissect them (the gestures) so we can understand ourselves (humans). I think and I move, therefore I am. From this point, all that remains is to know how.
Observation 2. Salva Sanchis' gaze is a sideways one. Lateral views are good for creating, because in an over-stimulated world, in which everyone is bombarded with codes and languages by a huge variety of media, artists must permanently de-automate forms, change register to continue to be effective and not allow their material to fossilise. Creation is research and as such, it must aim to be a living instrument of discovery, polished and sharpened as if it were brand new, because (like in the natural world, with many medicines or with over-exposure to noise) the continued repetition of a stimulus eventually renders it useless and completely sterile. We end up being either immune or deaf. As we are conservative by nature (an ancient way of surviving) we activate our defence mechanisms at the slightest threat. Art, therefore, depends on the surprise effect, on partial attack or on coming through the back door, on the knight's sideways move on the chessboard. This means it can always be the exception that proves the rule. It wants to be once more the new antithesis which, when confronted with the current prevailing thesis, will give rise to young future syntheses and keep the game going like a permanent circle of changes in motion (dance is like this and that's life). Sideways gazes are like that of the spy who comes home with some fresh piece of information or like the scientist who closes one eye to focus the other on the microscope or the telescope. The operation enables the problem to be seen from the correct distance. And to be considered from the exact same distance.
In fact, Salva Sanchis' gaze was already a lateral one by designation of origin, like a smooth tasting wine drunk at midday. Half out of need. These days, the choreographer lives in Brussels, a lateral or peripheral place in a Europe that occupies the same position in relation to world's real centres of power. He was born in the seventies in Manresa, a town in the centre of Catalonia: so he is a Catalan in Spain and a Spaniard in Europe. An accumulation of peripheries from which to watch things from the doorway. However, depending on your age, when we don't fit the cut or the size of clothes we try on in bulk in department stores (the ones that fit "everyone", which really means "the majority") it's good to mistrust certain universal prototypes and learn to ask ourselves questions and accept nothing as being "natural" or "logical" in any set of relations. Not quite fitting in with the commonly accepted template (in the cliché only invented by the "logic" of time), finding ourselves out of place or out in the cold and feeling like strangers in some situations, makes us conscious of the conventional and particular (or perhaps "selfish") nature of many generally accepted rules. Being aware that there were a many different ways of seeing the same issues or that something could stay the same yet change in relation to the group because of a new situation, these are all things that Sanchis learned naturally as an adolescent. For example, in class, he saw "theatrical" as being mainly the physical and visual theatre of La Fura del Baus, unlike a colleague of his, who preferred text-based theatre. But Sanchis had a greater affinity for the physical, while his friend was a writer, so what happened was that both of them argued their own point of view. As a clearer example of the importance of context, we can use sport: at the age of twelve, Sanchis stopped swimming, changed his sport and started to train with a basketball team; he was tall for his age so they made him a wing player, but over the years he didn't grow any taller although his team mates carried on growing, so each new season he had to learn to play in a different tactical position (shooting guard and base) and pick up new codes for each role.
These may seem like trivialities. It is evident that we can never make a direct connection between these youthful experiences and his method, which shows a clear preference for experimentation and a tendency to treat the viewpoint as relative, so as to approach it from many different angles and try out the maximum possible number of variations in a fixed space. Following this same theme of "displacement" the subsequent effects of two much more relevant experiences during his training are probably more pertinent here: one, caused by deficiency, at the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona, from an independence enforced by the rigid and passive environment; and another by suggestion, at the PARTS school in Brussels, from an independence encouraged by the creativite buzz of a new and exciting environment. The reaction is a similar one, but coming from opposing directions: one on the rebound and the other, intentional. Let's look at them.
We'll start with Barcelona and Catalonia. What is the main feature of Catalan dance? For a start, it has no background, or put more positively, it has the variety that comes from having no school (or in cases where there is quality, despite this inconvenience) and individual personality, the original adaptation of everything that each choreographer has absorbed throughout a series of learning experiences in the outside world and a long period of experimenting at home. Cesc Gelabert, Ramon Oller, Àngels Margarit, Sol Picó, Marta Carrasco, Andrés Corchero, Juan Carlos García's Lanònima Imperial and the Malpelo company, to cite a few great ones, and young choreographers such as Roberto Oliván and Sònia Gómez, both of whom studied in Belgium, the PARTS school and the Rosas company (the case of Oliván), are all creative artists whose main virtue is being the exception that proves the rule, the distinctive possibility that undermines the established norm.
There has been no school in Catalonia, other than the interdisciplinary urge encouraged in the early 20th century by the example of Diaghilev's Ballets Rousses and by a widespread taste for dance conceived as rhythm and visual art, thanks to the spread of the teaching method developed by a pupil of Dalcroze (the Catalan Joan Llongueras). The desire for movement not tied to the classical ballet option, the preference for expression rather than any kind of technical prowess, the taste for the artistic avant-garde and for interdisciplinarity are probably why, when the dictator Franco died in his bed in 1975, all the new dance forms developed in the West and in Japan during the 20th century came into Spain precisely through the Barcelona gateway. This was not because of its proximity to the border (which in the era of air travel was not so relevant as in the 19th and early 20th centuries) but because the terrain was primed and ready for it. The chains fell away and the body was freed at all levels. The main contribution to Catalan dance comes from this: from enthusiasm with no school and having had to shape a tradition of its own because of a previous vacuum. This is why, although he understood nothing (until the age of nineteen he had never seen dance) despite studying at the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona (he was already enrolled on an acting course in the gestural theatre department) Salva Sanchis saw choreography as an audience member (a performance of Corol·la, by Àngels Margarit), he became fascinated by the potential of a body gliding in space as if isolated from everything, a radical and utter protagonist, master of the time shared with us during the performance.
So, when in 1995 he auditioned for the first student intake for the PARTS school, Sanchis was following the example of the best Catalan creators: he went outside to find what he couldn't get at home, happily taking on board the popular Catalan saying "if there's nothing there, nothing comes out". This decision brought him another stroke of luck: that first year, PARTS too had no clear notion of what it wanted from its students, who had been selected from a range of age groups with very different educational backgrounds and life experience. Sanchis' education took place amongst a sense of difference and peripheral views, including in what was to be his best and most stable school. That first year in Brussels everyone was different, perhaps even a little strange in relation to what was later a more or less homogenous group in the school dance class, within the disparity that still flourishes in PARTS. They were quite personal and original, not because they had any firm idea of the origins and tradition of the dance discipline in which they wanted to work, but in the best and worst sense of the term original: exceptions that slip past the rules and are therefore almost inherently creative rather than by having taken some sort of conscious decision. They worked step by step, testing and trying out, in a long and continuous process of research.
From 1998 up to now, that drive has remained intense and Salva Sanchis has choreographed unceasingly. As a creative artist he is still young, although he has fifteen works already to his name and which he has presented in various venues in Europe and other parts of the world. These include Barcelona, Brussels, Paris, Vienna, Lisbon, Istambul, Singapore, Venice and Bagnolet, the French town where he was born and which, in the seventies, awarded prizes to the Barcelona Contemporary Ballet and the Heura company, two pioneering Catalan modern dance troupes. Sanchis has worked as choreographer with the Rosas company and with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, with whom he choreographed Desh and A Love Supreme. He now teaches dance and improvisation technique at PARTS, as well as coordinating the second cycle at the school (third and fourth years), an activity he has also undertaken in other European teaching centres. Listed in chronological order and including the two choreographies in collaboration with Keersmaeker, his corpus of work comprises: Less than a moment (1998), Underline (1998), Reckless Reckoning (1999), Gap (2000), Itch & Fear (2000), To Stick Around (2000), Previous (2002), Constant Relay (2002), Double Duet (2004), Desh (2005), Double Trio (2005), Love Supreme (2005), 10 Variations in G (2006), Still Live (2007) and Objects in mirror are closer than they appear (2008).
Many of these titles reveal his concerns on issues such as time, formal undertones, reckless or indifferent judgements, circular movements (temporal or spatial), highlights, variations, etc., all his experimentation has been focused on making each work part of the same questioning attitude but at the same time a distinct and differentiated part, an individual portion of the final outcome. You could say that he refuses to allow himself to rely on a tried and tested piece from an earlier work. What the choreographer wants is to move in a different direction or with a different tone, from a movement base that might be traced to release and to contact improvisation, if specific influences are to be sought; although these serve more as a bodily or mental research approach rather than as a template or a safety net, as execution is never imprisoned within limited ranges of movement.
In the performance space, the dancer begins to move and, once a gesture is engaged, starting with a series of limitations placed on it as agent provocateur, what choreography attempts to achieve is what the much-admired saxophonist and musician John Coltrane does with music, threading freedom and imagination through it, thanks to his precise control over what he holds in his hands. Performing in freedom does not mean having to do everything: it means wanting to do what we can in certain chosen circumstances, but avoiding unchosen limitations, those that are standard, over-used, predictable, automatic and false.
One of Salva Sanchis' closest role models for acquiring working tools is Lance Gries, his principal teacher at PARTS. He also takes inspiration from two unique choreographers with whom he has worked at one time or other: Marc Vanrunxt and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. There are a number of people he admires from afar, choreographers like Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown and William Forsythe, all with different styles but connected by what might be termed their radical attitude to movement. All working under different signs, with varying aims, but arriving at the end result after a long research process, taking options to their ultimate conclusion, with total commitment.
For a creative artist, reaching one's fifteenth choreography is like being in the midst of a creative adolescence, after having gone through a process of growth and testing in previous pieces. To some extent, Objects in mirror are closer than they appear is a work in which part of the experience from these years has settled, enabling him to address content other than the formal kind he previously explored. Deep down, then, it is not surprising that in the mirrored surface of Objects in mirror, Sanchis ends up asking what looking at things from the outside means, from a new, de-automated, unemotional, analytic and calculating perspective. It's not surprising because in Objects in mirror this interest suddenly became "the topic"; raising the issue of the body's memory in a serious way and the challenge of having to approach movement as if from scratch every time he goes on stage, with a body ideally without artificial and automatic gestures, with an attitude that is pure, naked and out in the cold, has always been "the form" of his work, a fusion of signifier and signified.
Now, only so it is made it clear to us, so we understand it better, like the queen in the story who stands in front of the mirror even though she knows it isn't going to give her the answer she wants, Objects in mirror makes the spectator aware of the existence of a point of view, it underlines that things can always be seen from the outside, from the closed reflex of someone's perception. It is therefore a piece that opens doors to the many viewpoints inherent in a form of knowledge and of access to the world, including dance. This is how he gets audiences to cover their ears during the performance. We need to ask ourselves: "what's this" or, even more basic, "hey, am I getting everything I'm supposed to be getting?", or "how is it getting to me? how do I get to it?". This is a way of provoking a view that is estranged from reality (as the Russian formalists might put it), as if externalising the questions that, at the end of the day, the young choreographer has always asked himself, even when he didn't intend to do anything more than achieve a simple account of the number and quality of the tools at his disposal.
In any discipline, preparing this inventory to know what means we have available is normal when one is conscious of one's own precarious condition of explorer or castaway. This brings to mind the disciplined example set by Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, or the lists made by Jules Verne's brilliant and ingenious characters before they set off on a new journey. Within the human duality that afflicts all of us, the feeling of dispossession that comes with having started without sufficient work, baggage or school has given the advantage to the conscientious Dr. Jekyll when it comes to working, over and above the disordered impulsive and instinctive behaviour of the bestial Mr. Hyde. Sanchis deals rationally with formal intuitions and for the moment his work shows no signs of the emotional concerns and psychological ghosts apparent in the work of restless choreographers like Jan Fabre and Wim Vandekeybus, for example, or that of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, whose work belies a contained insinuation of sensuality, reminiscent of some of Simenon's disturbing characters. Sanchis does not merely appear to be self-possessed: we know for sure he is, because he behaves like a craftsman who calmly and conscientiously polishes the pieces produced in his workshop. Things start to change when he makes use of this first production process and takes it beyond formal testing, which is partly what has started to happen with Objects in mirror.
For this piece, the programme states that it deals with the dichotomy between reality and appearances, using cognitive neurology studies, out-of-body experiences and even, I think with a touch of humour, alien abduction. In any case, some audiences regard choreographers to be extraterrestrials and some pieces in particular appear to be Martian, unidentified flying objects flying in and out of the radar with no explanation, baffling spectators whose visual education has consisted almost entirely in watching television. Sanchis wants to break the comfort derived from this automation; he knows that the music chosen by Helmut Lachenmann, for example, may disconcert some audience members, but he considers this to be essential precisely in order to contribute towards developing a richer kind of awareness, one that is able to enjoy a wider range of possibilities, and that comes from increased nuances. He thus overcomes the upward struggle involved in any kind of new path, and it turns out that this unknown thing, this thing with feelers that scared us so much, is not an alien, it's just an ordinary ant that we couldn't see properly before. The role of the artist is also to teach us how to look; and when necessary, to sharpen everyday tools so they can be used again and we see everything more clearly. Not everything we are shown in art needs to be beautiful, that might be like taking a drug. What art has to do as soon as possible is to call us to account, show us another fragment of truth, new points of view, more angles and perspectives, and all presented with honesty and clarity.
In this sense, Salva Sanchis is very much an earthling. Literally, including in the performance space. The arms take on great importance for giving expression to his sequences of movement, but the feet advance cautiously, as if treading on unfamiliar ground. Side effects of being an explorer, I imagine. One day I suggested this to him and he admitted it was true, that it would be really difficult for a photograph to catch him with both feet off the ground. But this doesn't surprise me: his lateral thinking is so free and amazing that when he chooses where to move, he has already decided where he will place his feet.
Here and now, of course. And for the moment, in each specific piece.
Dance is the present tense because it is the only movable tense.
Observation 3. Salva Sanchis starts from scratch, but remembering what has been learnt. Tomàs García, a mid-20th century Catalan writer, once said that it's not true that to be original and avoid repeating old formulas one has to ignore everything, and not know anything about anything; he illustrated this by saying that when old people lose their memory is precisely when they start to become senile and they don't realise they're repeating themselves. The creative artist who knows where they are going and uses the knowledge gained by those who have gone before them, lays a solid base for their own trajectory thanks to the pillars and foundations inherited from others, becoming the artist with the greatest potential to surprise us. An original artist is rooted and connected with new sap, with the very heart of the origins of his or her art.
Not having an established and secure tradition to shelter under in Barcelona did not exactly help Sanchis. The negative implications of not allowing him to know much at the start did not go in his favour. But, as a choreographer he was unable to restrict himself to inheriting and repeating just one formula as if it were the only possible one. Quite the opposite: he was obliged to search outside himself, compelled to meet others, and even with the vast amount of material amounted on the way, today he still continues to search for the new. It is not a one-way objective, it has many angles and perspectives. Deep down, what really interests him is the research process itself because, as Montaigne wrote in his memoirs so many centuries ago, in the chapter on conversation, "the whole world is nothing more than a school of research" and "it is not a matter of who achieves the objective, but of who will run the most beautiful race". The appreciation for the process and the relative nature of the results that dance so values in postmodern authors turns out to lie in the very bases of western modernity, inherent in any process of discovery, otherwise the complexity and harshness of the journey would put anyone off doing it.
When the choreographer stands in the performance space, this is his world. He places himself in the centre of the space as performer and searches for possible outlets for movement until all the possibilities presented to him are exhausted. The process is a game, the action articulates a script within the rules set by the chosen code. For the dancers he chooses to accompany him, the task is no different, the choices are also very open: the choreographer makes suggestions, the performers take up the baton, the game is a dialogue, they throw the ball back to him with improvisations, they all play table tennis on the table that is the stage, a circular making and unmaking, until finally it is the choreographer who must fix the parts he wants from this material, as the person responsible for the overall direction. But this doesn't mean that the rest of the team cannot contribute vital components to the whole piece, nor that Salva Sanchis doesn't need someone (like the musician or the stage manager) to take a step back from the melée involving him and the performers, so they can help from the outside, from the same distance that a spectator sitting in the auditorium would see the work. The system of creating the movements arises from improvisations under specific conditions, which must always be kept under control. The choreographer has no interest in what might be termed "vomiting movement", if it is going nowhere or comes from nowhere. It's not that the choreography has to be meaningful from the start (or in the end, even if it isn't rejected), but every step and each sequence it contains does have to acquire a formal sense (visual and rhythmic) and must be balanced and coherent in relation to the other forms surrounding it.
At first, Sanchis tends to concentrate especially on things close to his heart: strict language questions, morphological analysis of the micro-grammar of limbs, the body's specific vocabulary. He is interested in how movement is generated. From here, the aim is to communicate, but in the bodily sense, conveying emotions and not necessarily ideas, however good they may be. He works with a specific kind of dance, which could never be called objective. The subjectivity inherent in any process of dramaturgical joining, of stitching together and making the work into a performance artefact, is undisputable. Throughout his various works, he has played with a variety of views, angles, points of view and perspectives. So it is not surprising that he deals with a topic such as memory (which can take on so many guises: personal, social, historic or even the artistic tradition of the discipline on which we leave our footprints). Taking a more scientific and neurological approach than a literary one, Sanchis already dealt with this topic in an early work, his first full-length piece produced after a process of information gathering, Less than a moment, in 1998. Bearing in mind how inherent and completely central it is to this discussion on language and on how we look at it, it will not sound strange to say that memory can be extrapolated to so many other ways of playing with human perspective (being so mobile, so adaptable to personal contexts). This interest is no rarity in a century in which Picasso stated that if there was one single truth, so many pictures on the same subject would never have been painted, or in which Pessoa said in a letter that there are only two ways of being right: keeping silent or contradicting oneself. The variety of this approach has been present in the ruptures of 20th century dance, the same as it has been in many other art forms. In the end, art is a formalisation of experience, and experience is memory, all human life is none other than this. Culture is true human nature, and this natural culture is social, it is memory shared between human beings throughout time. It is more evident in other arts, because their respective languages are written or materialise in some physical substance that is fixed and can be seen, and this underlines what are remembering (the stylisation of a specific experience) and their preserved and preservable memory.
In contrast, the fact that dance is ephemeral and disappears seems more dramatic (a death, when art is precisely a form of exorcism) and it is possible that this has triggered many people to deal with the topic again. Vicent Dunoyer, an artist from the Rosas company, has been going over and over this theme in his solo creations. In Catalonia, Sònia Gómze, also from the PARTS school and a choreographer who continually revisits, in a very fresh way, her personal experience on the stage, a pop, media-mad and local memory, seen through joyful and mischievous eyes. In an intimate piece called Julius i Florette, another Catalan choreographer, Carles Salas, revisits a trajectory and a generation that, without work to record it, in the case of dance would probably to disappear without trace. But Sanchis doesn't approach memory in the Proustian way used by these other artists, nor do we find the slightly elegiac touch that is sometimes implied. In fact, ten years after he first addressed the topic of neurology, memory and our perceptions in the piece Less than a moment (1998), Sanchis returns to similar topics in Objects in mirror (2008), although the starting-point is a set of scientific articles that in some cases laterally discuss these same questions from a neurological point of view. In the end, the finished work focuses on perception and out-of-body experiences (OBE) and naturally, all this subject matter is nothing more than an initial pretext that moves the work, rather than a meaning developed in an analytical way. Once more, the resource is treated like another formal tool of composition, as an excuse for instrumentally dealing with alternative points of view. It's not about looking back, it's about taking a leap forward with a formal development that is self-justifying, understood as written signifier rather than a read signified.
I spoke about this to Sanchis and he confirmed that "in principle" he always uses topics this way "as an initial stimulus and basis for inspiration". But, he adds later, "the extent to which this content reaches audiences just as we (the creative team) understand it during rehearsals is relative". In any case, "this literal relationship between what the creative team believes the work says and what each spectator sees and understands has never been important for me. It's enough that it's useful to us as a formal stimulus and that it may later get to the audience in a very open way in the form of emotions or as a suggestion. In Objects in mirror I approached it in a slightly different way and I made an effort to try to make what we did in rehearsals reach the audience more or less intact, keeping on the topic, even going so far as to explain it in the programme".
It is evident that the information and the interpretation given in the programme are all part of how the show is received, and so Objects in mirror may have contained some elements that attempted to channel how the audience read the work and encourage their interpretation to coincide with that of the creative team. In any case, what is important is the confluence of certain emotional textures between the two sides of the stage; in other words, that the work is capable of transmitting and sharing similar sensations and feelings of clarity, happiness, sadness, anguish, energy and tension with the audience, something that Sanchis thinks is possible, thanks to the existence of a kind of common grammar of movement. He likens it to speed, to harder or softer qualities, to movements of attraction or repulsion and the performers' connections and positions in relation to each other and to the stage set. Even if we ignore that it is performed by people, even if we think about the components of the choreography almost like abstract notes moving along a musical instrument, the truth is that all this produces a formal narrative or script; a stitching together, a cookery recipe, an organic operation in which the end result is much greater than the mere juxtaposition of the separate parts.
But this is never an exact mathematical calculation, warns the choreographer, as "it is also true that dance movements can be so strange that they distance the viewer from the perceptions that you think are the most basic ones, and this leads them to understand something else because of their own personal context. That's why, with a piece like Previous, I decided to go for the purest form of abstraction, so the choreography could not have any meaning at all; the forms of movement I chose had very pure, bare and basic qualities: stops, speed, attraction, repulsion". Previous was a very physical choreography with a great deal of play in a construction that felt its way forward, searching in the present for somewhere to point towards and culminate. "Sometimes, during the creative process, we argued about some point or other and when we started to make movement it all became irrelevant. The argument was only an initial excuse, what we had talked about was somehow there and coloured what we did, but it stayed in the background and we didn't try to translate it. In a formal sense, I wanted everything to be very basic: I wanted to avoid anyone racking their brains, I didn't want anything to be read into the choreography or for it to project any abstract or momentous idea". Sanchis wanted the pure physical evidence to stand on its own, requiring no other meaning than its own existence and nature: specific, bodily, material.
Seen from the outside and separately, Salva Sanchis' performances all seem to be very different inquiries. They appear to be aimed towards different targets. This is not the case: deep down they are works conceived as complementary, equally nourishing portions of a single cake which when put together make a complete whole. It is as if this Catalan choreographer of Belgian adoption is making a formal presentation of a guerrilla attack on the truths of dance as a language, a coded structure, but launching it in parts, in a fragmented way, for tactical reasons, so the outcome can be spread over manageable formalised chapters, a sum of differing perspectives and registers, colourful and varied fragments like the pieces of a kaleidoscope. It is typical of a postmodern, quantum, fractal mind.
For the choreographer, personally, looking out from within the creative process, the method is dealt with completely differently for each new work. When I ask him this, he admits it. It is highly significant, and illustrates his very personal way of doing things, that he uses the first person plural to talk about the decisions made along the creative route, as if they had all been taken by the whole team and there had always been complete agreement on the choices made. He explains: "we take a very different approach to each performance. For the Double Trio piece there was no particular topic, only the relationship with the music, and the movements were conceived to follow the flow of the music. The same for Still Live, we just had the music and we looked at reproducing its formal development, but it was all quite different because after talking with the composer Helmut Lachenmann, we realised that the music itself contained implicit themes and reflections that had far greater implications and we could reproduce them with the choreography. Lachenmann's music composed for string quartet was very philosophical".
Does the viewer receive these ideas? It's what we said before about the interpretative framework provided by the programme, for example. Sanchis believes that if you have no information whatsoever, "in Lachenmann's music you'll only hear sounds, and in the choreography that was attempting to reproduce its formal development you'll only see movements". Afterwards, as the Catalan choreographer explains, the fact "that you liked it or not, depends on your personal inclination for this type of music or movement, because you won't be able to get a handle on anything else other then this. However, the more information you have, the deeper you can get into the work. I think that emotional experience and pleasure are enhanced rather than diminished by having a deeper understanding and more information about the work. But this is a very personal view. Some people believe that knowledge cools emotions. And yes, it is true that some people feel less the more they know. But I do understand that this is an individual reaction. And against the anti-intellectualist cliché, I certainly don't think that anyone should be forced to work like this".
In Still Live an agreement was reached with Lachenmann on certain processes. What Sanchis learned from the German musician has influenced subsequent works. This is normal, as neither of them is fazed by trying out new things. Both find it stimulating. They are craftsmen, artists who have accepted the unknown element of every true, non-simulated creative and receptive act, as an open and necessarily brave, courageous, personal stimulus. Some of the conversations with Lachenmann with which Sanchis most identifies were centred on the type of perception and impressions usually aroused by a work we think of as "different". Faced with novelty, he says, "our first emotion is almost always rejection, produced by a feeling of loss, because we can't identify what its newness is. It's not that you can say definitely that you DON'T like it, but as you can't really recognise it, you waver, it unsettles you and you're sceptical, cautious"; this preventive behaviour, when faced with something new and unknown, is after all (as we said) a natural and ancient mechanism of survival. Of course, human adaptability is equally important; it is our almost infinite ability to evolve and adapt. This is why, says Sanchis, "Lachenmann argues that there is a certain pleasure in proudly discovering that you are able to overcome that momentary loss of references, of not automatically recognising the new taste, yet you can continue subjecting yourself to the new experience.
Sanchis thinks that this point of intellectual achievement is a very pleasurable challenge, bringing rewards for the receiver's efforts. [...] Lachenmann never stops theorising, and something very interesting that he explains (I can remember the example well because I liked it a lot) is that, when people go to a concert to listen to Mozart, they often do no more than listen to themselves, meaning that they only want to satisfy their image of themselves as someone who listens to Mozart under certain circumstances. This routine spectator doesn't go to the concert to discover anything, rather to recover the feeling of pleasure recorded by their brain from previous occasions, when they subjected themselves to the same experience. The feeling they yearn to recover is their own automatic chemical response, not to gain in-depth understanding of Mozart's music or find new meaning in his pieces. Lachenmann added that this behaviour obviously doesn't find any virtue in Mozart's compositions because if people really listened to them properly, they'd find that they could make new discoveries every time. The music is so good that every one of his pieces contains much more than anyone could appreciate the first time they hear it, much more than anyone can remember at once. They will never be able to recover more than a tiny amount if they just go into automatic pilot and not accept that they can learn something new".
Salva Sanchis adopted this nomadic kind of learning as a life system some time ago. It is part of his life, in the challenge and changes of his permanent quest. In the Kunst/Werk company he found his ideal habitat, with three different choreographers, with the lively and friendly dialogue that this coexistence of proof and exchanges enables one to have. When we spoke in the summer of 2009, Sanchis talked excitedly about a project he is now working on with Marc Vanrunxt, each of them choreographing separately for one side of the stage, Sanchis the right and Vanrunxt the left. They work on the whole process in different studios, Vanrunxt rehearses in Anvers and Sanchis in Brussels, and the idea is to join the two parts over the final seven or eight days. Having fixed the two choreographies, they will see how they fit together and finish combining them to adapt them to the performance space. As both groups are working with a piano composition by Morton Feldman that allows for major variations in tempo during the performance, I commented that this would also open up a number of possibilities for the choreography. "Naturally" he replied, drooling at the very thought of it, excited and full of enthusiasm for this new shared project.
And what else would we expect? What else could Salva Sanchis want but this; when the idea of play and dialogue, variations, testing and research implicit in the formal opening of this new choreography allows him to move forward in the way he likes best: laterally, by surprise, taking risks but also with the strength and collateral surprise of the energetic sideways leaps of the knight on the chessboard.
Precise movements are hard but wonderful when they are ruled by intelligence, even if at the end they mean nothing more than the visual and rhythmic possibilities they open up and invite us into. Seductive and hypnotic, choreography marks recurrent actions like the movement of waves or the ticking of a clock. It can be understood as a pacemaker of life, a metronome that marks its rhythm and drives it forward on one single rhythmic itinerary at each attempt; but mimesis can never play at reflecting it, except in the merely insinuated form of its beats.
This is dance: the rhythm of time imprinted on the coordinates of space.
Joaquim Noguero is a dance critic and teaches cultural journalism in the Blanquerna Faculty of Communication of the Universitat Ramon Llull, Barcelona.