Exhibitions about dance have to face a similar dilemma to most exhibitions about architecture – literally a dance around the void created by the notable absence of the object. But in the case of Rosemary Butcher this problem takes on a whole new meaning in the sense that in much of her work the performance itself is only a part of the story. Well known for her many collaborative projects developed with architects, artists, film-makers and dancers her approach is characterised by a durational process that extends the work well beyond the time of the performance.
This was one of the themes addressed during an interesting discussion of Butcher’s work that took place during the 2015 NottDance festival (Nottingham, 5-15th March), with a panel of artists and academics sitting within an exhibition of archive photographs and videos – again, as if to further blur the distinction between the record and the event itself . This idea that the notion of archive is already implicated within the work is particularly evident in a piece like Scan (from 2000-01) developed in collaboration with the artist Vong Phaophanit. This happened to be the only work I had personally seen performed both live and on video, prior to the two new pieces shown at this year’s festival .
In the case of Scan Butcher has described being influenced by medical imaging technologies , particularly the shock of seeing an x-ray of a hand wearing a wedding ring – a jolt of individuality leaping out from anonymity that echoes Roland Barthes’ famous notion of the punctum . The basic concept for the setting of Scan was to create sharp white bands of light that slice up the space of the stage, which also, of course, slice up the bodies that move across it. This effect supports the link made by dance writer Susan Leigh Foster between the violence inherent in the city-scale divisions of the urban street grid and that of the human-scale dissections carried on within the intimacy of the anatomy theatre . The latter reference also reminds us that the word science comes from the Latin term scire, which tellingly means both to know and to cut. In the final section of Scan this link is made even more explicit with a video projection on to the stage showing close-up footage taken during rehearsals. The film focusses on the hands and feet of the performers as they come into contact with the floor, with the disembodied fragments of bodies suggesting an ‘expanded field’ in both spatial and temporal terms: bodies are stretched across the space beyond the limits of human anatomy, and the present moment of the live performance is extended back to include its development.
In contrast to a conventional front-on proscenium setting Scan is presented as a four-sided performance-in-the-round. While the viewer enjoys a curiously hybrid overlay of performers’ and spectators’ bodies, the floor plane remains the only surface over which the artist has complete control. Hence the extra effort invested in creating a kind of chessboard of light – a datum against which to calibrate the dancers’ movements as well as to maintain a strong sense of visual framing. Another more abstract architectural reference mentioned by Butcher in the video interview was the notion of a sequential or ‘phased’ development. Like some larger building projects which are constructed in separate stages, according to when funding or space becomes available, Butcher described how the performance was also organised in stages in order to rotate it in turn towards the four sides of the audience. At one point she suggested that ‘what happens’ is actually less important than ‘where it happens’, and this observation goes a long way to explaining the strident visual formality of a gallery-based piece like Scan. As Butcher herself admitted in a Q&A session following the live performances at this year’s NottDance, if she was beginning her career again she might even have preferred being a visual artist.
For me the real highlight of the archive exhibition was the video installation sited on the end wall of the main gallery, showing an in-depth series of discussions in which the artist interviews her various collaborators. The revelation here was to listen to the artist seemingly trying to understand her own achievement, carefully teasing out from the people involved what at the time must have remained largely unspoken. I was reminded of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of the power of language to surprise even the speaker  – and how visual artists even more directly use their medium of expression as a means of discovery. The choreographer Jonathan Burrows, one of the performers in the original production of Scan, described his difficulty in understanding the explicit directions contained in Butcher’s verbal instructions, but feeling that he had somehow still managed to execute the ‘correct’ action. This point highlighted something important about the nature of Butcher’s collaborative method, which seems to involve a certain looseness of structure that encourages improvisation but within limits. As an architect, this for me echoes the relationship between designer and builder, and the role played by the architectural drawing in passing on instructions about what should be built. In these days of risk-aversion there is an increasing tendency to over-specify, whereas historically the drawn instructions would leave plenty of room for the creative builder, whose know-how and embodied knowledge would make a valuable contribution to a successful outcome.
Many of the themes discussed in relation to Scan could also be seen in the two newer pieces presented as part of this year’s NottDance festival: a video installation Secrets of the Open Sea and a live performance including video called Test Pieces . As with Scan, both pieces have an interesting narrative dimension, although again this is really just as a starting point for the work’s development, as opposed to being any kind of ‘script’ or content. For Secrets of the Open Sea the trigger was the story of a shipwreck and some water-damaged photographs that were recovered from the debris. The barely recognisable fragments of faces turned out to be the only available clues to the identity of the casualties. This sense of a struggle between loss and recovery is nicely evoked by the camera work of film-maker Sam Williams, slowly circling a lone grey-clad performer in the white and not-quite-featureless expanse of an art gallery. As a video work the artist is able to control the audience’s viewpoint, while the movement of the camera also suggests the presence of the viewer within the performance – turning the solo into a kind of unconsummated duet as the performer constantly slips out of and then back into the frame of the shot.
Test Pieces on the other hand draws on a site-specific narrative, the deeper history of the Kunstbau Gallery for which it was originally created – the 120m long former underground tunnel above the Königsplatz U-bahn station in Munich. Reminiscent of the structured movement space created for Scan, this time the movements are slowed down as well as drawn out across a more expansive field. On the floor of the gallery space a number of lengths of heavy rope are laid out and these are gradually manipulated by each of the four performers. Again ‘where it happens’ seems much more important than ‘what’, as the pieces of rope are slowly pushed, dragged and rolled across the gallery, some even ending up in bundles which only seems to further accentuate their weight. The intense focus on the ground surface is also an echo of Scan, and the powerful sense of gravity that results is even further reinforced here: a number of video monitors placed around the perimeter of the space show live shots taken from cameras at floor level, which also produce arbitrary slices of action as the performers move in and out of shot. Likewise there is a sense of each movement being a ruined fragment of something larger, just as the performance itself seems like a momentary snapshot cut out of what could be a longer piece.
As an exhibition Moving in Time is certainly a moving experience, although some of the photographs – arresting as they are as images – offer themselves a bit too readily for visual consumption in their own right. It would have been interesting also to have seen some of the presumably more rough-and-ready working materials, such as the sketches and notebooks that must have also figured in the process. Overall the display provides a fascinating insight into a collaborative working process – one that still shows no sign of slowing down, despite Butcher’s already almost 40 years of highly influential output.
Review of: Memory in the Present Tense: Rosemary Butcher at Work 1976 – Present
A photographic exhibition from Rosemary Butcher’s archive curated by Rosemary Butcher and David Ellis (Why Not Productions) 2015.
At the Bohunk Institute, Nottingham, 5-15th March.
This review is partly based on an interview and post-show discussion with Rosemary Butcher at Nottingham Contemporary on 6th March 2015. The author would like to acknowledge the help of the artist as well as Paul Russ, Director (and staff) of Dance4 for the invitation to take part in the event.
*All images © Sam Williams/Rosemary Butcher 2015
- In Conversation with Rosemary Butcher, Panel Discussion with Vida Midgelow, Joe Moran, Florence Peake and Rosemary Butcher. Bohunk Institute, Nottingham. 7 March 2015.
- Secrets of the Open Sea and Test Pieces, (2014) Chor. Rosemary Butcher. Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham. 6 March 2015, Performance.
- Butcher, Rosemary and Susan Melrose (eds). Rosemary Butcher: Choreography, Collisions and Collaborations, Enfield: Middlesex University Press, 2005, pp. 69-70.
- Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London: Vintage, 2000, pp. 25-27.
- Foster, Susan Leigh. “Rosemary Butcher’s Scan (2000)”, in Butcher and Melrose, Choreography, Collisions and Collaborations, pp. 108-117.
- Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “On the Phenomenology of Language”, in Signs, (trans. Richard C. McCleary), Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 88.