words by silvia fanti, jérôme bel, tim etchells, la ribot, xavier le roy


In 2003 Silvia Fanti wrote Corpo Sottile, one of the first attempts to provide a definitive account of the avant-garde of contemporary dance theater in that period. Now, almost ten years later, the artists she wrote about have become established reference points, and we have asked Silvia to return to the subject. For the occasion, we have also invited four of these artists (Jérôme Bel, Tim Etchells, La Ribot, Xavier Le Roy) to recount themselves by writing a brief autobiography, almost as though it were intended for the pages of an encyclopedia.

NAME: Jérôme Bel

BORN: 1964
PLACE OF BIRTH: Montpellier, France

After two years on a dance apprenticeship and eight dancing for different companies, two key experiences inform the emergence of Jérôme Bel’s work:

1 – The death, in 1992, of two of his best friends from AIDS.
2 – His keen reading, between 1992 and 1994, of Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, Guy Debord, Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu.

The developing choreographer began by questioning the rules of choreography and theater that were considered natural at the time. He thought of theater less in practical terms and more as a device which only works thanks to three functions: author, actor (or dancer) and spectator. From his very first shows, the spectator was a key theme in Jérôme Bel’s work. The spectator had, as the choreographer put it, to be “reactivated,” to realize his or her role in the theater and become just as much a “co-producer” of the show’s meaning as the author and the actor.
Theater itself lies at the heart of Jérôme Bel's artistic project. According to him, theater is the best means of revealing personal and social realities. The theater constitutes, for the choreographer, a place and time removed from social laws, and the only way to uncover the unsaid.
The radical critique of representation that Jérôme Bel produced is also a celebration of theater, or rather of a certain idea of the theater. This idea is of an artistic theater, one which is minimal, analytical, distanced from illusionism, from the spectator and from entertainment; a demanding theater which can produce limit-experiences for the spectator.
If the question of theater either as a device or as a practical tool is always present in his works, one also cannot ignore its political dimension. By provoking a crisis in theater, Jérôme Bel makes evident wider issues. Perhaps the most pertinent question in his work is that of power: the alienation that capitalism, or institutions, can produce in individuals.
In his works, he subtly articulates the subjective experience of dance as a practice, and the political consequences that this experience creates.
In conclusion, one can say that his work aims to measure the degree of alienation and/or emancipation that the practice of dance, theater, or representation is able to produce in the aforementioned members of the theatrical device: spectator, dancer and author.

Jérôme Bel, October 2011

NAME: La Ribot
BORN: 1962
PLACE OF BIRTH: Madrid, Spain

La Ribot. Madrid 1962. Dancer by formation. Independent choreographer since 1985. Visual artist and educator. Lives and works in Geneva and internationally.

Bearing in mind the economic and political environment in which she is obliged to develop her activity, La Ribot works, starting from the 1990s, in Madrid, then in London and currently in Geneva. The questioning of the way that this political-economic environment influences production, as well as its diffusion and language of expression, reinforces her interest in the ephemeral. By means of live art, of the spectator understood as receiver, and of the relations established between these, the artist is able to reconsider what dance means for her. As working material, she privileges the perishable, from cardboard to the wooden folding chair, from found objects to movie extras and the video sequence shot.

The dance from which she departs becomes a vast field of research, a space which gradually amplifies as it advances, starting on the ground and continuing like a vine curling up the wall. The importance of the found objects is given by the context in which they are proposed. She composes the scene – of a theater or of a hall – as a horizontal and plastic surface that includes spectators, artists and objects: a space where everything occurs on the same level with no hierarchy, producing paradoxes and questioning what we see and the way we look at it. She uses the comic and the burlesque, which are more characteristic of the cinema – a medium for which she nourishes a great passion. Laughter is an action ceaselessly repeated in her work, insisting on the present, on the living, and on the violence of the new global reality. Laughter is the working basis for her workshops throughout the world.

She delineates three major lines of experimentation, which have interacted in her works from the beginning. The first is the use of local extras as live matter, enabling her to work with the raw material of the city where the presentation takes place, and to allow it, in the form of extra-spectators, to invade the scene. The second is the solo dance and its proposal for sale through the “distinguished pieces” project. The third is her interest in video as witness to a dance action.

With the extras, she introduces the question of the spectator as a contemporary unknown. This extra-spectator invited into the scene is the link between the real spectator and the professional actor. For the artist, the extra-spectator is an ideal living and shifting material that enables her to speak about the unpredictable, the vulnerable and the unstable. She borrows the figure of the extra from cinema, and uses it, as in cinema, to construct a real background for her theatrical discourse. From the cinema, she also borrows the logistics that shooting with extras requires; not, however, in order to record a film but in order to create a live event. Between the extras and the professionals there occurs a transmission of knowledge, a rich human relationship that expands in each of their bodies and lives. The extras function as a metaphor for the outcast and the forgotten of society, who will never become profitable objects of art. The memory, the lived experience and the work of these extras, as well as their position in the cultural industry, question the forces of consumption, exploitation and alienation. Paradoxically (with respect to this profitability), some 3000 persons for 20 years have anonymously and discreetly spread the question of the value we give to experience, memory and life, like spring pollen, fertilizing theater stages and stalls.

Within the project of the distinguished pieces she is the sole author and interpreter. She introduces the brief, the heterogeneous and the naked as expropriation of artifacts. She fragments her discourse into short pieces, independent of one another, orders them by series and sells them to “distinguished owners” as intangible visual artworks. The selling of the distinguished pieces is an economic paradox in the realms of dance, the market and the relationship to objects. It gives value to the moment in which something occurs and once again considers the ephemeral in its relation to the cultural economic environment.

Video interests her as the witness of a dance action, a live act. The choreography, the movement of the camera, the space utilized, and the set design are all registered at the same time and in relation to the body, to its experience and its point of view. She uses the sequence shot unedited, as the only means of witnessing this action without any cuts. The built infrastructure and the mechanism for the filming provide the framework for the performance, for an ephemeral action of which we will see a single and unique recording – the one chosen, just as one chooses a day to go to the theater.

For her film Treintaycuatropiècesdistinguées&onestrip-tease, she selects from among her archives of sequence shot recordings, any one of which could have become a distinguished piece between 1993 and 2003. In this way, she diverts the attention to the person recording the piece, to the spectator in question, with no respect for chronology and through a continuous change of place: a theater, a room, a museum, a garage. The spectator’s viewpoint forms part of the film, and the spectator him/herself functions as an extra: the extra-spectator who watches and shares the room with her as a background figure.

La Ribot, January 2012

Interlaced works and dates: Socorro! Gloria! (strip-tease) 1991. Distinguished pieces series 1993 – 1997 – 2000 – 2003 – 2007 – 2011. The extras appear in 1991 – 1992 – 1999 – 2002 – 2004 – 2011. The video 2000 – 2001 – 2003 – 2007 – 2008 – 2009. The laughter action 1994 – 2002 – 2004 – 2006.

*The extras are locals of the city where the action takes place, and are numbered like extras in a movie.

NAME: Tim Etchells
BORN: 1962

Tim Etchells. Born 1962.
Long ago and far away there was a country and all the people that lived there were a bunch of fucking cunts.
Language. The North of England. Space Race. Moon Landing.
“Brought up in a house with the Television always ON.”
Born in time of optimism, living into Cold War & repeated Recession. Endless Neo-Conservative and Neo-Liberal Wars/Crises.
Amstrad. Apple Mac.
Interests: Slang. Making-do. The improvised. The ramshackle. The incomplete. The fragment.
The city. Urban Landscape of England.
Punk/New Wave/DIY – “Here are Three Chords Now Form a Band.
Language from the end of Kerouac/Burroughs/Ginsberg to The Fall/Mark E. Smith. J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock. All kinds of science fiction. Kathy Acker. Calvino. Borges. Perec – especially Species of Space. Russell Hoban esp. Riddley Walker.
1970s conceptual performance and conceptual art. Esp. from Eastern Europe.
Graffiti. Thatcherism. Tommy Cooper. Morecambe and Wise.
The Task. The rule. The breaking of rules. Establishing and exploiting frames of expectation. The game of any situation. 
(What game can be played with a bottle of whiskey, a blindfold, two tennis balls, a gun and a record player?)
From Baudelaire: the child’s relation to the toy is, fundamentally, an enquiry about how he or she may break it.
Radical incompletion. Abandoned, half-built or partially demolished houses as the best places to play.
Interdisciplinarity. Fake death. The absurdity of representation.
The collaborative practice of Forced Entertainment – group work, negotiation, the creation of live art work from diverse and conflicting intentionalities, skills, necessities and whims. Work lacking a single author. Rehearsal processes. Video tapes and transcriptions. Long months in the studio. Late nights in conversation. Fiction and non-fiction interwoven. Acting and not acting. Character/performer/persona.
The unfolding of events in real time and real space. Dramaturgy. Spatial dramaturgy.
Cy Twombly.
Crossings in and out of performance towards other forms esp. into visual art and fiction. Writing itself as a kind of performance. Dynamics of the relationship between stage and auditorium. Dynamics of the relationship between page and reader. Audience as temporary (and problematic) community.
Reading/spectatorship as both performative and fundamentally co-authorial practices.
Cardiac health issues since birth. Numerous operations and medical crises esp. inc. 1998, 2001, 2004. Etc.
Durational performance (6, 12 and 24 hours) – inevitable processes of decay. The performer and audience revealed in a new relationship to time.
Lists. Language again. Constant rain.
The machinery of culture and language. A novel in the form of a Dream Dictionary. A novel in the form of a guide to a non-existent computer game.
London and Brussels. Beirut. Sheffield and New York. Cambodia. Croatia.
Performance with a cast of 16 children and young people – That Night Follows Day. “You dress us, you feed us, you clothe us…”
Kids: two, inspiring and awakening.
An endlessly inspiring and beautiful partner, friend and sometimes collaborator, currently absent/departed, longed for.
An empty house. Photographs of Empty Stages.
Internet announcements of imaginary events: Vacuum Days.
Present status: heartbroken.

Tim Etchells, January 2012

NAME: Xavier Le Roy
BORN: 1963
PLACE OF BIRTH: Juvisy sur Orge, France

Xavier Le Roy is an artist who shows a lack of interest in placing his work within history. And if you asked him to do so and to say what is to be remembered of his contribution to dance discourse and practice, he would probably answer with a work that puts that question to work rather then giving a proper answer. In fact, a part of Xavier Le Roy’s answer could be found in his latest work, called RetrospectiveI, which will open in a couple of weeks at the Antoni Tàpies Foundation. This work uses retrospective as a way of production rather then aiming for self-historicization. Employing the conventions of an exhibition, he transforms and uses the form of the retrospective to continue his artistic gestures and practices, aiming to do and produce rather then to mark and leave traces. Like many of his interventions, this work has literally turned upside down the common understanding of artistic categories, relationships between cause and effect, our understanding of product/production, the division between objectification and subjectification, and many other key issues and questions produced and embedded in our modernity.
To be remembered about his practice is his tendency to include the forces of becoming within the dynamics of the “difference that makes a difference.” Following that ligne de fuite, he has worked and continues to work with dance and choreography in order to set up experiments, searching for modes of production of subjectivities that could emancipate themselves from the reproduction of dualisms such as man/woman, master/worker, teacher/scholar, animal/machine, animal/human, etc…

If you asked the curator of his next show to describe what Le Roy’s contribution to dance discourse is, she would probably answer that she prefers to write about his contribution to art. She would describe her reception of early pieces, such as Narcisse Flip (1997) or Self-Unfinished (1998), in order to point to a recurring question in his work: “What can a/his body do.” “Through this question, XLR plays with our perception and invites us to interpret what we see, not what the object is. As spectators of his works we are facing a moving subject, who slips from one identity to another, yet is still unique.”

In answer to that same question, one of his collaborators on Low Pieces and 6 Months 1 Location could say: “XLR should and likely will be remembered for the ways in which his artworks emphasized, politicized, altered or subverted the circumstances and means of production in the performing arts. Included in this theme, though less visible to the audience, is the diplomacy, respect and transparency with which he handled the personal and professional relationships constitutive of each process, working team, or project: a contribution to both discourse and practice to be remembered for the example and standards he set for those around him.”

In 2001, a friend of his wrote: “Despite his characteristic of making mainly solo works, his involvement in setting up different platforms to experiment with collaboration dismisses, in an obvious manner, the hypothesis of the ‘egotist’ track. It places the light on the singularity of that particular artist.”

Production, situation, collaboration, solo, uncanniness, reception, are six words that are significant to his work and that a collaborator with whom Le Roy has often worked, across a diverse range of art productions and educational contexts, used to discuss the artist’s specificities. In relation to Le Roy’s works, he writes the following about “situation”: “Everything that has extension implies some or other situation, so what is at stake here is the articulation and unfolding of specific situations that is both recognizable and foreign, or that when encountered produce distanciation in kind, yet also attraction. This two-foldedness, this intrinsic and ongoing production of tension, creates, without becoming overly psychoanalytical, the possibility for a certain kind of après-coup, an afterwardness. XLR has specifically contributed to this approach to and discourse about situation, setting up radical experiments and speculation about/with ‘collaboration.’ Often when we refer to collaboration we think about lateral structures, some NGO running a half-cool cinema or activists operating through consensus; but obviously, a conductor and a symphony orchestra also collaborate: it’s just different kind of collaboration.”

From a different perspective, XLR’s contribution to dance discourse and practice would be described by an academic researcher in the field of dance as follows: “In the time when contemporary dance was almost entirely based on a postmodern mix of movement techniques and styles, XLR set out to link his artistic practice to other social and scientific practices related to the body. Instead of accepting the then common movement style and producing very similar results, he turned the body and its possibilities into an object of research. Le Roy has avoided creating any kind of style or technique to be learned, copied or followed. His pieces are an intellectual and physical adventure.”
Another theoretician would say that “Xavier Le Roy has made or/and have made us understood dance as a discursive practice.”

As one of his collaborators in Low Pieces and 6 Months 1 Location wrote: “XLR’s contribution to be remembered is the resistance to the dance system’s mechanisms of mainstreaming, constantly creating a friction between not accepting/establishing the position that the dance world needs him to be (in order for the system to recognize its own continuity), but constantly also cutting edge while leaning into the void that needs to be filled in by the reconfiguration of the system. Le Roy’s contribution to be remembered is the ability and decision to risk his own individual position as artist for the sake of the redistribution of production means and conditions.”

Xavier Le Roy, February 2012

I encountered Xavier le Roy as a bodily sprawl in an international dance magazine that had just started up in Berlin (Ballettanz), and had strangely enough inserted a long piece (perhaps an interview) into a sequence of photographs. They depicted the gradual transformation of a bodily object, which looked like an upside down heart, a squashed tomato (although the mental image came apart straight away in black and white), a chopped trunk, with an appendix, and then two, and it was symmetrical again. There were other shifts on the ground, at the edge of a skirting board, where they changed levels. That formless object, which had abandoned verticality, was a director, an actor (they were no longer/not yet called performers). Well, if that was the choreography they practiced in Berlin, I was very interested. I found out that the photographer was an autonomist friend of ours from Munich. Or maybe it was just someone with the same name (Stephan Gregory). It was perfect that such different topics, choreography and political activism, were intertwined (the Germans were very well-equipped back then – 1998 – both intellectually and practically). I sought him out, and invited him to present his work at the Link Project in Bologna. The text must have been persuasive too, as it revealed a personality with an objective, or better yet a method. An outcast, he had abandoned his life story (know-how and fate) to produce (not create) experimental stage objects. By education he was a biologist, and applied scientific criteria of analysis and research to the humanities, and to humanity. Indeed, one of his first productions was Product of the Circumstances (1999). He was French but had chosen to live in Berlin, looking for some kind of freedom away from social regimentation, and was shortly to begin a long-term group project called E.X.T.E.N.S.I.O.N.S. This project took place in a gym where you could go to look in on the process but not watch it, like you do a show. It had a random and fluid shape. In its positioning as a self-convened alternative in the world of European dance (this was pre-Schengen, incidentally), highly cosmetic and formatted, it recalled the Judson Dance Theater. Politics and dance, emancipation and independence, self-education and the creation of a zone outside of the circuits. In Italy, possible syntheses.

Jérôme Bel, encountered in the mix of a large, mutant event in Vienna, the Wienerfestwochen (2001). The event was an experiment performed by the city’s institutions, which had evidently been penetrated by a revolutionary curatorial staff (I found out years later that they were Mårten Spångberg, Hortensia Völckers and Christophe Wavelet, who actually must be congratulated as forerunners). Shirtologie, a fifteen-minute event in which Frederic Seguette, Jérôme’s trusty comrade, gradually began to stand out from a crowd of youngsters, nearly all the same age and identical, standing at the bar of the large theater, taking off one commercial T-shirt after another, each one bearing a phrase or message. The striptease was a narrative of wearable slogans and commonplaces. It was a theater of semiotics, of a disarming simplicity, that could be transmitted (and worn) by anyone. In Europe we no longer speak about performance, but about centrifugal dance and theater, while in France there’s talk of the “non-dance” phenomenon. It was an example of the operative and theoretical lucidity of an artist (back then he was still a dancer and interpreted other people’s works), who applied the Barthesian dictum to his own sphere, introducing, for the first time, “dance degree zero.”

La Ribot was a Spanish avant-gardist who immediately gave up her Christian name of Maria so as to be unique and individual. Isn’t that what the art world calls for? I met her in various contexts across Europe. Together with the choreographer Blanca Calvo and some other contemporary university-based theorists including J.A. Sánchez, she invented and publicized a movement of new Spanish dance with international horizons. La Ribot attempted straight away and programmatically to contract a conceptual performance practice that would be acceptable to the world of dance, and at the same time enticing to the world of the visual arts. For example, she made her performances into sales items, unique and numbered pieces for collectors who became their sole owners (Piezas Distinguidas, starting from 1993, bought by Daikin Air Conditioners, Olga Mesa, Mathilde Monnier and others), but that may have happened some years after my epiphanic memory. This was in Munich, at the Haus der Kunst (2002), with Still Distinguished. The white-cube room (rather unusual back then) had an audience (around fifty people) that was disorientated (or rather not orientated), and came in to stand along the walls or sit on the ground, waiting for some event to take place. La Ribot entered and placed on the floor, one after another, objects she had accidentally come across, or which had belonged to her, or had been used in previous performances. They kept on getting smaller. Each of them had a raison d’être, they were everyday objects and materials taken from the street, lost and found, fundamentally insignificant, all at our feet. We saw them from an average height of five foot seven: they were out of scale. The way the spectator had to move in order to relate to them was the point that La Ribot was making (this time it was officially a performance, and it was not by chance that it took place in a museum). For those present it was about calibrating visual distance – as spectators still very used to a seat in the theater – with the insignificance that was on display. It was an unusual work for the dance milieu. In short, it staged a theme regarding the attribution of value, which La Ribot’s activities were to put into discussion for at least the next decade.

Tim Etchells. Nowadays we say Tim Etchells, but in the 1990s it sufficed to say Forced Entertainment. The director was such an organic part of the experience of the legendary British theatrical group (which began in 1984 in Sheffield) that his authorship couldn’t be abstracted from it. Let me clarify: there have always been different roles in the group, and even changes and alternations of people’s functions, but never chaos, despite the repeated gags about Anglosaxon “mess.” On stage, there is always a falling apart, a decomposition in plain sight, a tiring out and sweating of both bodies and minds, the running of the clown’s make-up, but it is all provoked by an extremely conscious direction. Etchells wrote and directed, he recomposed his six lifetime colleagues’ improvisations (having collaborated with some of them for 25 years). He still does so today, even if his solo career has run parallel, bringing him into contact with zones outside of the theater. Long duration was a novelty candidly introduced into worldwide theater in the 90s by Etchells/Forced Entertainment. The “durational” became a prototype, a form, almost a trademark of the group. In Vienna, in a cellar underneath an important theater, I saw Quizoola! (1997), a performance based on an uninterrupted barrage of questions and answers that lasted eight hours: a quiz on encyclopedic knowledge, anecdotes, pointless facts, gossip, true and false, and the meaning of life. There were forty slapdash seats spread over two rows. Two actors were at the front, wearing normal clothes with Elizabethan ruffs and clown grout. At the entrance to the cellar was another actor, an usher, who was reading something, bored, with a bottle of beer, glancing at whoever was coming and going. “Does Persia still exist? Why are people frightened of dying? What is hoarfrost? Was John Wayne really brave?” To the power of n. That heap of banal and complex questions enraptured me, and I saw that the actor who answered was thinking about it and really going through his own experience, his memory. After half an hour the two swapped parts. After two more hours, they changed places with the actor who was an usher. It went on. In the meantime people got tired and left, and one could move forward a row. These were adjustments in