Dance is a Barbarian: The Choreographies of Marta Ziółek

Marta Ziółek, TO, 2015

When choreographed by Marta Ziółek, dance is a barbarian.1 It infiltrates repertoire and “off” theaters to the sounds of Justin Bieber, Kanye West, twerking, and dancehall rhythms. This dance does not try to insinuate to its audience that it is something “other,” separate, sophisticated, and elite. On the contrary: by drawing on practices associated with popular culture, it clearly implies that its heart lies in the clubs, on the streets, in music videos, and GIFs. This dance is a space wherein temporary identities are created; tangled in a web of seduction, embodiment, alienation, expression, intimacy, and spectacle, it provokes questions about the viability of criticism through affirmation while lewdly performing euphoric and exotic outbursts of freedom in the post-Internet world of late capitalism. This dance is bound only by bodily stamina and the potential of stylistic reference points (after all, dance like this is a product, too).

The dance that Marta Ziółek draws from typically references ideal products, sophisticated, elaborate music video games, and stage performances by megastars from pop culture. By watching them multiplied and reproduced in a series of ever new versions, we create a phantasmal sphere of reference. Will our bodies ever overflow with such energy, precision, eroticism, and frivolity as the ones in the music video for Justin Bieber’s Sorry?2 Simultaneously, as a daily, popular practice, dancing is a sort of sensual interpretation of internal experience, of an (auto)erotic sublimation of incessant energy flows, a temporary substitute for the fulfillment of one’s desires.

Identity as Product

Marta Ziółek, Zrób siebie, 2016

In the performance Zrób siebie (“Make Yourself”,2016) “we find ourselves somewhere between the gym, a rave, and the corporate church of mindfulness,”3 Ziółek writes in a publicity announcement. The introduction of the cast—High Speed (Piotr Sakowicz), Coco (Ramona Nagabczyńska), Lordi (Katarzyna Sikora), Glow (Robert Wasiewicz) and Beauty (Agnieszka Kryst)—resembles the roll-out of a series of diverse products that serve a very similar function—to perfect the means of production of new hyper-capitalist subjectivities: disciplining the body, narrowing the mind’s focus, the incessant arousal of desires; self-disciplining, self-presentation, self-expression, self control, self-improvement.

Angel Dust (Marta Ziółek) is the carnival’s master of ceremonies, bearing the same name as a hallucinogen popular in the 1970s (the ingestion of which could result in paralysis and dissociative states). The name also refers to a deceptive marketing tactic, angel dusting, that sees manufacturers introduce minute quantities of a given active ingredient into a product and then advertise as if it made up a significant proportion of it. In one of the opening scenes of the performance, we see a masked Angel Dust enunciate, in a distorted voice, a sequence of catchphrases: move your soul, relax your body, move your body, move your soul, relax, relax, come on, come on. These often mutually exclusive phrases/stimuli introduce the intensity of the performance, the latter stacked with buzzwords clearly borrowed from mindfulness techniques, yoga and fitness classes, rave culture, music video choreographies (Justin Bieber), TED-style Econ 101 courses, and TV commercial editing techniques.

In this particular case, dance is more than just another way of honing one’s body, it also serves as a self-sustaining expositor of a whole range of ready-made identities. In Make Yourself, we have at our disposal the highly vigorous bodies we see in music videos, a body spiritualized via yoga practice, a body sensualized in erotic dance, a perfect body chiseled through ballet training, and the nimble body of a street dancer. By using dancers from of the worlds of ballet (Paweł Sakowicz and Ramona Nagabczyńska) and street dance as figures of supply and demand, Beauty (Agnieszka Kryst) gives us a lecture on the free market with a particular emphasis on the moment when a niche appears in the market. As a result, the market becomes fragmented and then enters a period of hypercompetition when companies have to constantly change strategies and react dynamically to the ever-shifting tastes of customers. “You need to look for new energy,” concludes Beauty. In the scene that follows, we see High Speed (Paweł Sakowicz), a metaphor for hypercapitalist subjectivity, emanating readiness for change, ultrafast reactions, and neutrality. Was dance not, in its autonomization stage – i.e. in the early decades of the 20th century when it was finally perceived as an autonomous form due to its efforts to distance itself from ballet – identified with movement, thus dovetailing with the kinesthetic nature of modernization processes?4 The workings of the dancing body were back then a field of experimentation running parallel to experiments in the field of economics at a time of dynamic industrial development. In her choreographies, Ziółek returns to dance as a way to identify and define the processes of bodily mobilization harnessed by the forces of market effectiveness and self-reflexivity. Thus, dance is not so much a metaphor as a form of training, an exercise in exhausting ever new transient incarnations of ready-made identities.

Identity-products are created corporeally. By improving, perfecting the surface of the body, transforming its shifting shell, the attire-brand; by improving its fitness and build through conditioning and sexual enthusiasm. Dance, both classical and ballet, as well as street and club dance, is nothing short of a display of mastery over one’s body across different cultural and class registers. Simultaneously, it is a sublimation of desire. What’s important is the most skillful use of the capabilities of one’s body, using it as a nimble machine which, by providing ever new thrills, is supposed to bring us to self-fulfillment.

Identity as Assembly

Marta Ziółek, TO, 2015

The eponymous TO (“IT”, 2015) of Marta Ziółek’s performance (during which she was accompanied by Robert Wasiewicz and Korina Kordova, the latter replaced later by Iza Szostak and Ramona Nagabczyńska) is a constantly shifting point of reference, a sort of incorporeal, performative object that precedes agency; a promise of the incorporation of desires through absorption of ever more medially created phantasms. Each new potential version of events, starting with how we’re going to spend Friday night and ending with the exciting summation in the form of our lives, seems equally desirable. In this particular case, the labor of imagination entails only the assembly of ready-made versions fed to us via the media.

One of the opening scenes of the performance involves Justin Bieber’s I’ll Show You, co-performed by Ziółek herself, wearing a tight, fluorescent dress and holding a smartphone mounted on a selfie stick. My life is a movie and everyone's watching / So let's get to the good part and past all the nonsense, coos Justin in the opening verse, before capping it with the lines—Don't forget that I'm human, don't forget that I'm real / Act like you know me, but you never will / But there's one thing that I know for sure / I’ll show you. As already pointed out by Magdalena Zamorska, the titular phrase can be understood in one of two ways—naively, as an expression of the desire to expose our private, true self, or, in line with Ziółek’s ambiguous delivery of these lines, as a challenge to the audience—“I’ll show you!”5IT came to life in the course of Ziółek’s residency at the 7th MAAT Festival in 2015, which focused on exploring the work of Tadeusz Kantor.6 In Marta Ziółek’s version, Justin Bieber becomes a Kantorian substitute, the smartphone, laptop, and tablet become bio-objects, while the sprawling wasteland of the Internet becomes a lower-grade reality. In the words of the artist herself, “this choreography’s a bandit, it steals and transforms.”7 Multiplied and mediated popcultural visages, gestures, and images, pasted together into a music video-like narrative, present individual versions of possible, readily available identities. The virtual versions of our subjectivities seem to materialize, the labor of imagination becomes the labor of the flesh, the self-creation of an image, a shell through which we communicate with others. The transient identities available to us make up a palimpsest of projections and phantasms that we embody in our everyday cultural praxes, transforming them according to expectations, desires, whims, and manipulations of the market. By using tablets and smartphones as masks, Ziółek demonstrates how contemporary bodies resonate with simulated techno-identities and eventually become technoflesh. We are currently witnessing not only the destabilization and fragmentation of corporealities, but also their decorporealization. As we function in our everyday realities, we simultaneously launch our bodies into the orbit of virtuality where they soak in the possibilities of incessant mutations. That is why the physical training of our bodies could potentially allow us to break free from its acute materiality and imperfection.

The Choreographies of Identity

Marta Ziółek, 5 rzeczy albo kilka twierdzeń o choreografii, 2016

In the performative lecture 5 rzeczy albo kilka twierdzeń o choreografii (“Five Things or a Few Theses about Choreography”, 2016), as she elaborates on the history and the meaning of the term “choreography,” Marta Ziółek dances street dance,8 usually dismissed as a popular, inferior variety. In the history of dance itself, as well as in cultural practices, the body seems an instrument, a medium, an object, a screen. Choreography becomes a technology of using bodies immersed in a reservoir of (not only dance-related) attitudes, gestures, steps, sequences of bodily movements, expressions, materialities, embodiments and disembodiments, appropriations and fictions. Ziółek blends the order of dance as high culture together with a dismissed popular practice, revealing not their incompatibility but rather points where the two converge—as it turns out, the opposition against subjecting the body to virtuoso performance techniques, so prevalent in the 1960s and 1990s, was not based on hostility towards virtuosity itself, seeing that it required virtuosity but of the intellectual variety.

In Ziółek’s approach, choreography becomes a barometer quantifying the degree to which bodies are permitted to be mobile and visible. The artist invokes the concept of choreopolitics,9 defined by André Lepecki as an instrument for diagnosing the relationships between bodies and suggesting new topographies oscillating between dissent and surrender, freedom and necessity. This is nothing more than just the politics of mobility and mindfulness. Which bodies need to move and which bodies can? Who and what is dictating the parameters of that movement? Which bodies have the right to full mobility? And which moving bodies are genuinely visible to us and what is the ethical dimension of the attention we give to some bodies but not others?

Thus, choreopolitics becomes the realization of choreography’s political potentiality. From a dance studies perspective, choreopolitics is supposed to unearth the critical potential of choreographic practice by identifying emancipatory moments in the relationship between dancing and choreographing. Choreographic tools, wrenched free from the aesthetic parameters of dance as a discipline, become useful in the sensual and kinesthetic analysis of everyday relationships of power.

Historically, choreography was an instrument for enforcing ideology and the dominant order given its origins in the royal courts, embodied in the figure of the master dancer, imposing specific sequences of movement onto bodies under his control. Choreography – understood as a sort of embodied apparatus, i.e. a framework regulating the relationship between the ideological, the political, the social, the intimate, and the cultural components of our actions and our relationships with our environment – may possess emancipatory potential.10 Nowadays, we can understand choreography as not only the composition of the movement of bodies in time and space but also as a means to practice affective relations, generated primarily by parameters of affection, intimacy and empathy. As a means of controlling attention, choreography can also become a medium for experimenting with new methods of practicing multisensual perception, a medium for politically conscious alertness. How do we adjust our own perception apparatus in conjunction with our, and others’, bodies? How do we react to stimuli and how do we process sensual material? Are we fully aware of what regulates our watchfulness?

Marta Ziółek, Black on Black, 2015

Thus, in modern practice, choreography becomes the “polarizing performative and physical force that organizes the whole distribution of the sensible and of the political at the level of the play between incorporation and excorporation, between command and demand, between moving and writing, as those central elements for all performance composition,” concludes André Lepecki.11 The power of choreographic instruments, therefore, resides in the fact that they are simultaneously immersed in materiality and virtuality, alternately embodying and disembodying the fluid reference points in webs of relationships, allowing at the very least a temporary takeover of control over who watches what and how, over where they direct their attention. It is thanks to them that we are able to see the complexity of the relationships driving our everyday behaviors.

The choreographies of identity as performed by Marta Ziółek draw on the immense arsenal of popular culture. By multiplying, reproducing, and composing readymade identity models, the artist makes them absurd. Although her tactics should be considered affirmative, I read her immersion into an ever-changing stream of pop culture clichés as an open field wherein the audience can see the reflection of its own place in the everyday media backdrop. Is it possible to see our own entanglement? Moreover: could we draw joy, or even strength from that entanglement? In other words, is unconstrained joy and pleasure drawn from one’s own corporeality and sexuality, performed on stage by women or non-heteronormative persons, not even slightly subversive in 2017 Poland?

1Paweł Soszyński, “Taniec powinien być barbarzyńcą. Rozmowa z Martą Ziółek,” Dwutygodnik 179 (2016), http://www.dwutygodnik.com/artykul/6418-taniec-powinien-byc-barbarzynca.html; see also: the video MARTA ZIÓŁEK - DANCE.DOC TRAILER! VII MAAT FESTIVAL KANTOR NOW’ 2015 https://vimeo.com/144282563, accessed May 8, 2017.

2https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRh_vgS2dFE [accessed May 8, 2017]. The choreography was performed again by Ziółek herself in the 2015 performance IT.

3 The announcement of the performance can be found at the komuna//warszawa website: http://komuna.warszawa.pl/2016/05/14/marta-ziolek-zrob-siebie-premiera/, accessed May 8, 2017.

4 see: André Lepecki, Exhausting Dance. Performance and the Politics of Movement (London–New York: Routledge, 2006), 7-10.

5 Magdalena Zamorska, “Performans choreograficzny w kulturze postmedialnej,” Didaskalia. Gazeta teatralna 137 (2017): 56.

6 Festival announcement: http://www.news.cricoteka.pl/maat-festival-2015-kantor-now/, accessed May 8, 2017.

7 The performance announcement can be found at the website of Cricoteka—Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor (the performance was co-produced by the Maat Theater in collaboration with with the Centre of Culture in Lublin): http://www.news.cricoteka.pl/marta-ziolek-to/, accessed May 8, 2017.

8 The performance was created during a residency accompanying the “Let’s Dance” exhibition organized at the Art Stations Gallery in Poznań, see: http://www.artstationsfoundation5050.com/wystawy/wydarzenie/lets-dance/2456, accessed May 8, 2017.

9 André Lepecki, “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: or, the task of the dancer,” TDR/The Drama Review 57, no. 4 (2013): 13–27; André Lepecki, “The Choreopolitical: Agency in the Age of Control”in The Routledge Companion to Art and Politics, ed. R. Martin, (London–New York: Routledge, 2015), 44–52. see also: André Lepecki, Exhausting Dance, and Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance (London–New York: Routledge, 2016).

10 see: Michel Foucault, “The Confession of the Flesh”(1977) in Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 194-228.

11 André Lepecki, “On Choreography,” Performance Research 13, no. 1 (2008): 4.