"The Poised Disturbances of Raimund Hoghe"
Dance Theatre Journal 2/2005
Raimund Hoghe is a true vanguard of the arts who has been performing throughout Europe for over a decade. He began his career working for Die Zeit, the German weekly newspaper, writing profiles of outsiders and celebrities, was dramaturg to Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal throughout the 1980s, and is a respected art critic.
In his performance lecture, Throwing the Body into the Fight Hoghe brings together minimal dance choreography and passages of texts from his previous performances, to explain the key motivations behind his practice. The title, taken from a quote by Pier Paolo Pasolini, highlights an absolute necessity on Hoghe's part to interrupt the canonical exclusion of the non-normative body from the traditions of dance and theatre, to claim these spaces anew for atypical bodies. His inspirations are:
"memories of history, people, images, feelings and the power and beauty of music and the confrontation with one's own body which, in my case, does not correspond with conventional ideals of beauty. To see bodies on stage that do not comply with the norm is important, not only with regard to history but also with regard to present developments, which are leading humans to the status of design objects."
Hoghe refuses to apologise for putting his body on stage, for the discomfort you might feel, for showing you up for not being accustomed to the encounter. Neither apology nor weakness, but a certain fragility all the more heartbreaking precisely for these noble absences.
Meinwärts (translated as 'Me-wards') was his first solo performance, conceived in 1994. Hoghe's pieces are characteristically slow and paced, and display an exceptional and idiosyncratic use of music. Meinwärts includes German songs from the 1930s and 40s, by Joseph Schmidt, a Jewish tenor exiled by the Nazis who died in a Swiss internment camp in 1942. The singer, made popular in wireless broadcasts, performed on German radio for the last time in 1933, three weeks after Hitler had taken power. Hoghe's spoken texts in the piece document the persecution and death of Schmidt, as well as the scraps of history that record the individual traumas of people who died in the Holocaust; Hoghe also reads from postcards sent to him by a friend who died of AIDS in the 1980s, and tells painful stories that chronicle contemporary attitudes to the body of the person with AIDS. This inferred consistency or re-emergence of eugenic attitudes - towards bodies that are ideologically categorised as unclean and thus as expendible - is an uncomfortable truth at the core of Meinwärts. Moreover, it is a thematic that Hoghe redirects towards his own body through the course of the performance. Near the beginning of the piece, Hoghe appears naked with his back to the audience, and jumps up to hang from a trapeze bar hung low in the space. He holds on to the bar until his strength gives out, his body dropping back down the short distance to the floor. He repeats the gesture - jump, hang and drop - until he can only hold on for a few seconds, exhausted by the exertion. Throughout the sequence, Hoghe is lit dramatically from above, creating unfamiliar landscapes across his back and down his gently swinging and falling body. He presents his body as irredeemably different, yet reinvents that body as one that is receptive to the world, its trials as well as its consolations.
In a verbal testimony from Meinwärts, Hoghe reiterates his childhood diagnosis: "People say he is too small for his age. Too delicate, too weak. And there is something else, barely noticeable: a slight curvature of the spine, a scarcely visible arching that makes them afraid. It becomes more and more pronounced, and there's no way of stopping it." Hoghe is a soft-spoken master of crushing testimonies, and a stunningly economical and sensitive choreographer. In his performances, he moves between delicate, simplified movements - setting out and lighting candles; walking tentatively in Japanese block sandals; or marking his prostrate body's points of contact with the floor - and the strategically neutral delivery of recalled histories. His stories, of love, betrayal, persecution and death, are both personal and appropriated narratives: from the almost banal recollection of a song, a movie, or far-away event, to the haunting destitution of a traumatic memory, a lost lover, a dead friend. In Another Dream, he remembers Judy Garland on stage, saying 'I'll stay as long as you want me'; he remembers seeing, on TV, the blood spattered on Jackie Kennedy's pink suit; he remembers Mike, a young prostitute from Hannover, who had a snake he loved called Future; he remembers never being taught about the Holocaust at school; he remembers the day Marilyn Monroe died, and the report that her heart weighed 300 grams. The repetitive simplicity of the spoken 'I remember…' that structures Another Dream mimics the choice of affect-loaded popular music as the piece's score. He recounts a story about a boy who mistakes his grandfather's concentration camp tattoo for a telephone number, a tale that inversely activates both of these formal elements - remembering and reminding - contradicting Hoghe's own actual reminiscences by signaling the tendency for subsequent generations to refuse or be impassive to their own cultural pre-histories. In collision with the stark fact of Hoghe's physical presence, he presents the brutal persistence with which bodies remind us of histories that we are culturally conditioned to repress.
His work relates closely to the diffuse and compelling work of a number of post-war German artists, such as Paul Celan and Heinrich Böll, who have worked to highlight and radically address ubiquitous forms of cultural amnesia. They challenge, through the uncomfortable exposure of grim truths, the dangerous forgetting of history that is mobilised as an ideological strategy to cope with the horror of the present. Yet rather than re-enact the inherited terrors of our dark pasts, these artists attempt to recuperate language (a mother tongue that is, for Celan, the language of his mother's murderers) and the cultural present through performance, literature, or poetry, as radical re-evaluations of the individual subject's agency in relation to the lost present of history. Raimund Hoghe remembers. He remembers by bearing witness to the survival of fascist dogma in skin-head cultures; by reinvesting the deaths of kitsch or camp icons with the apposite tragedy of human loss; and by testifying to the disavowed continuation of eugenic Third Reich ideologies in contemporary responses to the suffering of people with AIDS.
Hoghe's art occupies a complex relation to history; his work is driven by a desire to recuperate the present and our tools for reading it, in order not to forget but live despite - or beside - history. Moreover, his is an art that derives, ambivalently, a certain empathetic force from his longings for a past that is missed, but never one to be recuperated fully as the wishful bliss envisioned in pure nostalgia. He imagines a time before AIDS, of unstained love, dependence and security; a time for lives lived to the soundtrack of sugar-sweet records by Sandie Shaw or Lulu, the sentimentality of My Funny Valentine, the beguiling sexual menace of Jacques Brel, all heard in the course of his performances. Of course, even these times are inevitably tainted by the reality of loss and absence, of frustrated desires, needs and capabilities. In a performance recounting the 1960s, Hoghe tells us of a twenty-five-year-old who needs to keep his room warm to give him a feeling of protection: 'After all, I'm all alone', he confides.
Lettere amorose is an intense, two-hour slow-burner of epistolary sequences and the ceremonial setting-up of objects and artifacts, constructed and dissembled in the process of performance. A pivotal point shows Hoghe creating house-shaped structures out of thin, red wooden sticks, only to break them apart later with similarly slow and methodical disassemblies. This ritual configuration and dissolution of shape and sequence presents the audience with arrangements of objects that give the pretense of discernible meaning, only to confound the viewer with the inconsolable instability of, or loss inherent in, that indeterminate presence. The physical object, we learn, resists full knowledge, by not bearing essential a prior characteristics that can be deduced empirically through our encounters; what can be known is only the object as we know it in subjective experience: the phenomenal object. The thing as we try to know it is a culmination of ourselves with the thing in itself. The phenomenal object will therefore bear qualities we attribute to ourselves, and will always conform to what we assume to know about the world, which lies within what we assign to our own experience of it. Hoghe dramatises and exploits this problematic, these mute conversations, in his presentation of objects. He creates scenes that go to build a world for knowledge, only but to fail, beautifully, in divulging something central to the experiences, cares and concerns of the performer. In this sense Hoghe's performances are always a movement 'me-wards' (he-wards): whether through the manipulation of objects, light and movement to construct oblique autobiographical narratives of individual experience; or in the redirection of the fragments of other people's lives towards an affective comparison with his own stories of happiness or hardship.
In his latest pieces, Swan Lake, 4 Acts and Sacre - The Rite of Spring, Hoghe's work continues to be presented with a striking economy of means. Asked about the development between earlier woprks and these two new pieces, Hoghe comments:
"In my former pieces I worked with a collage of different kinds of music: pop songs and classical music, songs in different languages, mostly sung by female singers with significant histories, like Peggy Lee, Judy Garland or Dusty Springfield… People know them and have memories associated with them: for example, they remember the life of the singer, or the moment when they heard a special song for the first time: The Man That Got Away for example, or Is That All There Is? Or You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. Already the titles say a lot to me and, I know, to other people too, and that's a connecting point. Sacre and Swan Lake are classical pieces of music, but they are also very popular and well known by many people. In Sacre - The Rite of Spring and Swan Lake, 4 Acts I present only this music - not confronted with other pieces of music and that's new in my work."
Scored to more traditional, reassuringly 'historical' music than the pop soundtracks of his trilogy, these works prompt a catalogue of relations between the viewer and history: one's personal history; the cultural moment one misleadingly calls one's own; and the more difficult, strictly distanced relation one has to a cultural history one lays claim to but has not experienced, one is absent to but which nevertheless leaves its mark.
His de-specialised body, and that of his (lithe yet formally untrained) collaborator Lorenzo De Brabandere, stage further collisions between dance method, music, history and the political. The untrained body, introduction of everyday movement as choreographic mainstay, and the use of domestic objects (in Sacre these include a piece of cloth and a bowl of water) connect his practice to developments in contemporary dance made in the 1960s, especially Judson Dance Theatre. Nevertheless, the dynamic particularity of his body always tends to retain a testimonial function, and scored by Stravinsky's irregular, atavistic rhythm, this tendency takes on an almost allegorical intensity. The testimonial, and the ethical-political imperative that Hoghe stages lies starkly at odds with the tradition of Minimal dance (over and above the tamely democratic, collaborative precepts understood to be the logic's key achievements). His two recent pieces are notable also for their refusal of the spoken word, although they do include recorded speech. Hoghe states,
"At the beginning and end of Sacre - The Rite of Spring, I play some sentences by Igor Stravinsky about the creation of the piece, the scandal it caused and how it became popular over the years. The last sentences describe my feelings concerning the creative process. Stravinsky says: "I was guided by no system in the Sacre du printemps, and no theory. I had only my ears to help me. I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which the Sacre passed."
Hoghe's audience is located in the nowhere of separation that sets us apart, as individuals, from the solipsistic bodies and phenomenal objects on stage; for Emmanuel Levinas, full knowledge of the other in his absolute alterity amounts to a pure form of violence, that of ontology. In opposition to the violence of this possession or containment of the other is the paradigm of the face-to-face encounter. In this, the 'apologetic moment', the subject asserts his position, though inclines to the transcendent Other. The prerequisite of this double movement is the relation of the reciprocal gaze, the appeal offered in the imperative surface of the face of the other, of the performer. The movement from interpersonal expression to a responsibility to gain from the encounter is confirmed by Levinas as the ethical condition of language and communication; coding the gaze as a solicitation, he writes, 'In expression a being presents itself… and consequently appeals to me.' In confronting us with his art, Raimund Hoghe appeals to us - without violence though with a certain seduction - to affirm his place in the world, and to learn from that experience. In the space of performance it is the charmed spectator that is led into a moment of apology, of incline, of reception and communication. It is a distinctly ethical position that does not lead to full knowledge of the other, but to our openness to the radical and beautiful diversity of the world. Here, it becomes more and more pronounced, and there's no way of stopping it.