video installation, films made in animation technique, 1999-2002
The “Rite of Spring” based on a ballet scored by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky consists of projections divided in two circles. On the three screens of the inner circle one can see solo dancers performing a part of Chosen Victim, the one chosen from the crowd who was to dance herself to death in order to wake the Earth to live. On the six screens of the external circle the corps de ballet is dancing, that is, the crowd of the Wise Elders surrounding the Chosen Victim. The place of the viewer is situated somewhere in the circle between the dancing Elders and the danced Victim.
The work has two versions. A large and complete version (9 big monitors placed 3+6 in cycles) and a small one presented on six monitors consisting only of the looped first 30 seconds of the dance of the Chosen Victim.
Having completed this version Kozyra decided to animate the whole dance from the moment of selection to the moment of death of the Chosen Victim, who in artist’s interpretation, is not a young girl but an old woman or an old man with interchangeable sexual attributes. There are no longer the sequences of wired, spastic and hypnotizing movements. It is a dance representing the whole story of the Chosen Victim told by the artist, the choreographer and the dancer: the moment of choosing, the attempt to escape, fear and trembling, tossing in the crowd of people, fainting, falling down and rising again. The dance of the Chosen victim ceases with her death. The woman/man dancer falls down from exhaustion and remains still. In Kozyra’s “The Rite of Spring” the Chosen Victim is dying in order to be animated according to the artist’s will, to rise again as if through the music and to begin anew the Sacrificial Dance. In this “Rite of Spring” spring never comes; what really remains is the ritual tending towards death.
THE CHOSEN VICTIM’S DANCE
Artur Zmijewski interviews Katarzyna Kozyra
– Who are your actors?
– Karolina has put me in touch with some old people who used to be dancers at the National Theatre. There is a 94 year old woman in Skolimów who seems to be knowledgeable and active, then there is also grandma Ursula. Everyone will appear in the nude but in disguise. The grandpas are going to have huge, hairy pussies, and the grandmas will sprout fresh silicon dicks.
– They are going to be part of the animated film you’re making…
– They’ll reproduce the movements of the dancers from the ballet “The Rite of Spring”, choreographed by Nijinsky. Diagilew, the Russian impresario, along with Stravinsky and Roerich wrote a ballet about Orthodox myths. Roerich was the scenographer, Stravinsky wrote the music and Nijinsky did the choreography, drawing, among others, on Slavonic totems like the World Seer, with four faces looking at the four corners of the earth. This is probably where the weird dance arrangements come from. Nijinsky began with the choreography of the last part of the ballet – The Chosen Victim’s Dance and then made other characters perform the same arrangement. This is why all the dancers perform movements from this last dance at some point. The movements of the actors are organised in “mystical” circles and squares. When they move along the edges of a square it means that they are in the labyrinth of death. When they move around a circle they’re in the grasp of life. Snake-like movements indicate uncertainty and divination. Everything has some kind of meaning. I begin with The Chosen Victim’s Dance because it is the purest and because the rest of the dancers also perform fragments from it. The task of the chosen victim in Nijinsky’s ballet was to dance herself to death and to awaken the earth to life. I saw Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer’s film which recreated the original choreography of the “Rites of Spring”.
– Why do you only work with decrepit old people?
– Nijinsky’s choreography made it impossible to disguise the dancers’ effort. He made the dancers’ every move as difficult as possible. The ballet dancers had to be sharply trained if they were going to manage. There is one incredible sequence where a woman jumps in the air and has to carry out the same movement three times before landing. She stretches her body and head as far as possible to the left and her arm as far as possible to the right. Nijinsky’s dancers lost their centre of gravity but still managed to carry out complicated movements whilst in the air – defying the laws of gravity and the body’s limitations. When you watch it you don’t see how difficult it is. Old people wouldn’t be able to dance this, it would be impossible for them. But lying down, they can manage somehow, even imitating the complicated leaps into the air. Thanks to animation, even grandma Ursula is able to do this. Besides, their old bodies have something despairing about them – and the fact that they are doing something which is beyond them is terrifying.
– You want to achieve the illusion of the body’s movement in an empty, white space.
– The editing together of a sequence of movements, frame after frame, creates interesting effects. I noticed that in this choreography the dancers’ movements are all on one plane. This is why there is no problem with them lying down. I just have to watch out that it is not too obvious that they are really lying down. Ewa thinks that if you lay them out and film them very precisely, frame after frame, you can create the impression that they are dancing, suspended in emptiness. Ewa helps me. She used to work in an animation studio. She was the one who put all the movements on paper, because I didn’t have a clue how to sketch these framed movements. It was a great weight off my mind because I really didn’t realise that there was so much work involved in animation. Two seconds of film is a whole day’s work. But at least I’ll achieve the effect I want. Not just an approximation – the same movements that there were in Nijinsky.
– How far do you want to go with the project, how many seconds of film do you want to have?
– Thirty for the moment. It depends how many people I’m going to animate. I would really like to recreate the whole ballet with these human puppets. Nijinsky’s spectacle only lasted half an hour. But for me, it’s a year’s work. Also, it would involve loads of characters, more than forty. So I think I probably won’t do the whole thing.
– So much effort, an uncertain result, but you’re still going to do it?
– I just feel that right now this is the most important thing in life.
– Why do you make people do the impossible? Why do you animate them?
– It is a way of imposing my will on them. We usually associate the body with a person, who has a will. My film shows the body deprived of its will. My old people are passive bodies, puppets, which I mould. I do what I want, they don’t put up any resistance, I use their bodies and collapse the conviction that man is a self-determining being who decides for himself. When all is said and done, this someone is directed. This is just a body, a body deprived of its will – but it moves all the same. It is a kind of Totentanz!
With roles switched – Notes on The Rite of Spring
As a historical starting point for her own eponymous work, Katarzyna Kozyra chose The Rite of Spring, a ballet by Igor Stravinski and Vaclav Nijinsky – a choreographic interpretation of a pagan sacrificial ritual – first performed in 1913 at the Paris Théatre des Champs-Elysées. Stravinsky based the historical version of the ballet on the idea of conceiving a sequence of scenes that would culminate in the offering of a virgin to the God of Spring.1 Gathered in a circle, the Old and the Wise select the sacrificial victim from within a wheel of dancing virgins, and her dance of death is meant to appease the God of Spring. While in his work Stravinski takes the central act of sacrifice as his point of departure and interweaves it through a whole sequence of dancing scenes – such as the messenger of spring, opposing tribes, a procession of Wise men, or offerings to the victim, Kozyra condenses the entire event into a single dance, combining elements of individual dances and blending different roles into one another. In this way, she creates – with one version on the monitors and another, expanded version, on video-projection screens – a single, integrally choreographed version of The Rite of Spring where both interpretation of history and observation of the present on the one hand and reception of myth and social reflection on the other, appear to be mutually dependent and complement one another.
The circular and concentric structure of both her versions of The Rite of Spring relate to a circle as a form of gathering of Wise Men and dancers in a pagan ritual, or rather, to its dramatic quality found in Stravinski/Nijinsky. Kozyra’s dancers are all elderly, men and women – the men fitted with the characteristics of the female sex and the women taking the roles of men. Additionally, the media stage-management transforms these old people, whose roles have been switched, into youthful and supple performers. While creating the work her “dancers” had to lie on a white floor and were then filmed from above in a string of individual shots which were subsequently edited into a sequence of motions. In this way, the bodies, which in themselves are no longer able to emanate a youthful and dancing spirit, have been brought to life again by way of media and technology, and the freedom of movement they have lost, has been, so to speak, virtually substituted. This style of image staging gives the observer standing before the monitors and video screens, the impression of motion recorded in a cinematic manner, in a white space devoid of all props. In other words, the editing technique itself suggests the nimble leaps and breakdowns which characterize the real sequence of movements, and its artificial and constructed nature is evident in the movement itself. The rhythm of the musical composition, its syncopated structure, seems to have found its congenial visual synchronization in these artificially accelerated images. The animated movements link the marionetteish to the powerful need for expression; they convey movement to the same extent as does a corset, and a non-utilitarian creative play. Therefore, a staged movement is not a mere expression of choreographic creativity, but rather the result of media manipulation. That which usually stands one against the other, here appears to be conditioning one another, and indeed is closely intertwined one with the other. Technology and mechanics ought not to be rashly condemned, in a moralising way, as simply the antipodes of the body and identity, but as their constituent parts. Technology, used as creatively as it is by Kozyra, does not, after all, submit to the identity which would be defined by its own purpose.
Presented in ornamental, mobile vignettes, the mutual correlation between the individual and the group appears like an allegory of the relationship between the individual and society, between the private and the public as proportional components in the process of the construction of individuality. Thus, the dance becomes a dynamic metaphor of that very mechanism, its procedural structure becomes a symbol of the formation of identity set in motion, like an ongoing process of changes and movements. The work presents us with images that seem like mobile ornaments, whose motifs combine sublime solemnity with the draughtsman’s schematisation and standardisation.
The way in which the images on the role of film are represented evokes the time when pictures were learning how to move, in other words when the Parisian version of the ballet was made. The flickering restlessness of images, the distinct contrasts of light and dark, the musical synchronization of silent dancers, the interrelation of body language and intonation – are all characteristics of the composition, qualities which remind one of the dawn of the history of film images, thereby establishing a link with history by way of media, all the dissimilarities of technical possibilities notwithstanding. Thus, Kozyra’s installations become stages too, where the preconception of purity and clarity of delineations between artistic means of expression are erased by the combination of dance, theatre, film and media art. The whole work is by techniques of hybridisation and transformation: artistic types and media permeate each other, the old play the young, women play men, and vice versa, genuine stillness mutates into the dynamics of movement, the individual represents the reflection of a group, or rather, rises from it. By setting in mutual relationship and linking otherwise opposed elements, Kozyra creates an artistic reality within which duplexities and polarities are mutually contrasted.
If one bears in mind that a dance dedicated to gods and a sacrificial ritual in fact depict the inner rituals of a society, and that the relationship between youth and old age, between men and women, is a manifestation of the patriarchal hierarchy which, as a projection of that very society, is still echoed in the concept of God, then it is understandable that a historical myth becomes fertile ground for questioning both social and individual identity, and their being linked to the preconditions of their construction. The intention of the creation of every myth – to naturalize social relations, and by so doing, to immunize them – carries on, although under an altered designation, and has been doing so since the creation of the myths of modern and post-modern society. In his work Mythen de Alltag, Roland Barthes quoted the said mechanism with a view to describing the creation of myths as the establishment and securing of power in a bourgeois – capitalistic society. “Semiology has taught us that the task of a myth is to establish a historical intention as nature, an accident as eternity. This is the very procedure deployed by bourgeois ideology. If our society is, objectively speaking, a privileged area for mythical meanings, then it is so because a myth is formally the instrument best suited for an ideological turning point by which a given society defines itself. A myth causes twisting of the anti-natural (Antinatur) into a pseudo-natural (Pseudonatur) at all levels of social communication.”2 It must, however, also be said – as Bernd Hüppauf concluded – that myth creation is not a specifically capitalistic or “bourgeois” phenomenon: “Mythical thought is just as inseparably linked to the historical movements of emancipation. (…) Periods of crisis, or revolutionary movements, do not break the power of obfuscating mythical thought, once they are over or they breakdown, it is restored. This circle of crisis development and blurring through myth cannot be broken by the critique of mythical thought either, bearing in mind that suggestion issued not so much from the myth itself, as it did from the conditions of perception of that myth.”3 Starting from that perception, referring to Robert Musil and his differentiation between sense of reality (Wirklichkeitssinn) and the sense of the possible (Möglichkeitssinn), Hüppauf in his analysis of myth observes the latter as a potential for a critical and productive understanding reception of a myth, without a rash adoption of an ideological concept about enemies which rather contributes to the creation of the very cliché it is attempting to dismantle. “The attempt to develop, in reality, such a sense (the sense of the possible) for veiled possibilities, but without abandoning that very reality, should be linked to the reawakening of interest in myth. It is by way of a myth that the relationship between the possibility of deliberation and the possibility of reality – which has long been thought understandable in itself – could be investigated (…) The advantage of a communicational and socially-integrating aspect of activity against that which is prevalent and deforming, cannot be “transposed” into the world of Modernism.
And yet, a search for the completely different, and the mobility which dismantles the given, is the very thing which could instruct the imagination that finds itself in a state of socially induced poverty into which it was pushed by instincts of such forms of activity, on how to deal with a myth.”4 It is within that context that one could discuss Kozyra’s reception of myth, as well as the breakdown and critique of the polarizing pattern of thinking and the utilization of concepts as symptoms and catalysts of a socially impoverished imagination. Conscious distortion of clichéd classifications, mutual permeation of that which ordinarily excludes one another, deviation from accepted concepts about roles and identity, can be perceived as activation of the sense of the possible. “Possibilities of deliberation “, realized in a work of art, as for instance in the form of male women, or rather female men, or the old youth, and the “mobility which dismantles the given by such means”, characterize one interpretation of myth by the rotating scenes filled with substituted relationships, which “translates its foreign language into a productive attitude towards one’s own, without the desire to either abandon or colonize either of the languages.”
Within such a context, The Rite of Spring is not a past-enhancing work concerned with essential authenticity, or the loss of it, but is an artistic reflection on myth and its naturalized historical concept. In that context it is possible to understand both the pagan ritual and its mythical dimension as one, in reality already highly complex system of interpretation of real experience and formation. Kozyra’s relationship with the past also dismantles the polarizing view of the present and the past as a stereotyped contrasted true experience of complexity against nostalgically enhanced primitiveness and simplicity. That such a dualism is itself a projection conditioned by the present, is confirmed by Kozyra’s choice of myth as a complex motif, worthy of deliberation in double sense.
In coming face to face with that work questions arise not only with regard to clichéd historical conceptions, but also about stereotyped conceptions of social roles. The Rite of Spring extends the difference of those roles to the area of the differences between the sexes, where the division of roles and identities appears unalterably determined – when viewed from the perspective of a certain ahistorical biologism. But the fact that such fixing has its own schematising-come-identificational and constructional dynamics, and that the solidification of polarities in this area confirms the sexual as a political category, is a realization for which Kozyra’s work can provide a framework. The substituting game of specifically sexual classification, the deliberate mixing of sexual identities by fitting men with female sexual attributes and women with male genitalia, undermines the concept of rigid and naturalized identificational images based on the biological differences between the sexes. Through such a deployment of blending and mixing, “Sex” as a biological gender, and “Gender” as a social construct become recognizable as relative categories. Even perception of the biology of body and gender is subject to historical analysis, while the attribute of “natural” associated with them itself possesses a shifting conceptual history determined by different historical contexts. “As a permanently shifting and contextual phenomenon, gender identity does not denote an essential kind of existence, but an intersection between culturally and historically specific reactions.”6 In the context of denaturalisation and rehistoricisation of concepts of identity, the staged switching of roles of genders in Kozyra’s works can be explained as a reflective game. The hegemonic catchphrase “man is man, woman is woman”, based on, or rather persisting in, the unchangeableness of the existing order, and opting for “either one or the other” in the polarizing figure of thought, is opposed by The Rite of Spring as an identificational concept of changeable certainties which go by the motto “like one – like the other”.
In The Rite of Spring a dictate of a beautiful and youthful body, also confirmed in every sense by old age as its counterpoint, is opposed by the image of reversed relationships. The issue of the sacrifice of a virgin in a patriarchal, pagan society imposes itself as an issue for the subject of sacrifice in today’s society. Old people, embodying a youthful spirit, literally turn the logistically coordinated system of the so-called society of achievers upside down, counter-posing a deliberately de(con)structive artistic image bursting with humour – bearing in mind the existing clichés about genders and generations – against social real-cynicism. Additionally, aging and death as further thematic complexes cast a significant light on the mechanisms of suppression in a society which became accustomed to dualistic models of explanation, and as such “instinctively recognizes discussion and presentation of death as a life-threatening principle. The fact that the ritual dance of pagan mythology was not the only one that was, literally, a Danse Macabre, but that every dance, being an allegoric representation of life, is at the same time a dance of death, can be pointed out as an example of concurrency of the non-concurrent which Kozyra consistently thematises in her work. In other words, hinting at death in one’s life, talking about it as the other side of life, represents yet another step in establishing relations between what are otherwise rigidly separated areas, introduced by The Rite of Spring.
And not quite finally, it is important to mention Kozyra’s ability to initiate discussion about the correlation between art and reality through the specific reception of her work, since The Rite of Spring is, in its essence, a work about real life shaped in art as allegoric representation. The work is conceived in such a way that an observer must step among the dancers, thus finding himself/herself in the middle of a circle, which might render the observer both a victim and a perpetrator. He/she can take the place of a Wise Man, but will find himself/herself simultaneously in a position of a chosen one, the outcast, in other words in a position of a victim. While viewing a work of art that tells of traps and potentials, of the links between biological, cultural and social determinations of his/her own self and his/her own identity, a person can transpose the script onto his/her own existence, or rather its difficulties, and recognize himself/herself as a dancer.
1) The opening performance caused riots among the public, because Stravinsky’s innovative, aggressive and dynamic composition was linked to choreography which surpassed, congenially, the conventions of classical ballet.
2) Roland Barthes: Mythen des Alltags (Myths of everyday life), Edition Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main, 1996 (1 Ed., 1964), p. 130.
3) Berndt Hüppauf: Mythisches Denken und Krisen der Deutschen Literatur und Gesellschaft (Mythical thinking and crises in German literature and society), in: Mytos und Moderne – Begriff und Bilder einer Rekonstruktion (“Myth and Modernism – concept and image of a reconstruction.”) Publisher: Karl Heinz Bohrer, Edition Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main, 1983, p.p. 508-527, 522.
4) ibid., p. 525
5) ibid., p. 524
6) Judith Butler, Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter (Discomfort of genders). Edition Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main, 1991, p. 29