The spectre of freedom:

Observations on 'Schreibstück' by Thomas Lehmen

© Franz Anton Cramer (translated by Charlotte Kreutzmueller)

Nobody has thought of reviewing dance on the basis of written source material. Indeed, given that the immediate performance of movement in space and time is one of the main indicators of the genre, it seems positively outlandish. The nearest approach has been the scientific study of dance and step notations for establishing historical classifications and, sometimes, aesthetic value. Yet, over the last few years hardly any concept has been so intensively explored in contemporary dance as that of the work-character of a choreography.

With 'Schreibstück' (writing piece), the first version of which premiered in August 2002 as part of the 'Tanz im August' festival in Berlin's Podewil, Thomas Lehmen has adopted a clear-cut position in this vast field of discussion. In the project, finding movement (as the „search for truth“ or as an „expression of self“) is no longer the central focus. Rather, the subjects treated and the temporal sequences converging and contained within three mutually independent, but related, choreographies are at stake. These are developed and performed according to written guidelines – according to a score. However, the movements themselves, the actual physical realisation, is entirely a product of the individual choreographer/dancer relationship; the author no longer has any influence on it.

In this way, some central points are taken up (or rather, written down), which are currently dominant in dance and choreographic thinking: authorship, repeatability, assertions of truth, individuality, the stage situation / how the audience relates to the action on-stage (i.e. questions of perception). The written in contrast with the "direct" and the relationship between the successive and the simultaneous are also themes.

This complex overall conception, with its legal implications (who has the copyright on what: the author on the script, the choreographer on the production, the dancers on their performance?) and organisational conundrums (who is producer of the individual versions? who pays whom, how much and what for?) emphasises the collaborating teams' differences regarding cultural integration, personal history, aesthetic models, prior knowledge of the audience and the like.

Indeed, the premiere showed striking differences in Estonian, German and Portuguese danced self-portrayals. Treatments of the subject 'Love Story' ranged from a kind of dance-like serenading, loosely based on Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet', to a grotesque hopscotch of bizarre imaginary beings. There were, however, also concurrent interpretations, apparent in the 'Fucking' or 'Working' sections. That the non-presentation of content, for example in 'Thinking' (where the score strictly forbids communication of content) or in 'Waiting and Watching', has less spectacular scenes to offer as far as pure execution is concerned, is also plausible and part of the concept. (Incidentally, for the 'Common Choreography' task the three groups agreed on 'Pina Bausch'. But as one of the teams involved had insufficient experience of the choreographer, a revealing sequence à la manière de Bausch was shown; from which it may be concluded that Wuppertal-style tanztheater dramaturgy and movement generation no longer necessarily ranks among the world's most important nor exclusively valid cultural legacies for dance...)

Thus, the organisation of stage action (the canon-like sequence, thematic arrangement) and individual interpretations prescribed by 'Schreibstück' open up a tremendous area of freedom, despite the stringency. This is particularly obvious in the simultaneous – when all three versions are being carried out at once and at certain points (and this is where the author also acts as a skilled composer) a thematic simultaneity is reached. Which is not, however, expressed by synchronised movements. This mark of the author's omnipotence is definitely erased in the choreographic idea underlying 'Schreibstück'.

In this way, a shift in the simultaneous (and therefore unclear) dance action takes place, which Thomas Lehmen addresses in the published book to the piece – containing the choreographers' foundation for reflection – with the following question: "Which kind of thinking-spaces must be created which is not occupied by fixed significations, but makes changes and extensions of ways of understanding signs possible?" 'Schreibstück' would be the kind of performance model that retains the collective core, contained in every form of communication, without restricting the right to independent decision-making. A performance model then, which is based on generally accessible signs yet still uses free will. Everyone can say – or dance – what they like, how they like. There are basic rules which must be adhered to. But the "system" for generating form and content remains open.

'Schreibstück' thereby casts an entirely new perspective on the creative and interpretative process. It provides ideas which only find their realisation, their "authenticity", in their being seen and appreciated by other "creative individuals". I have called this shift a ground-breaking turn-about and likened it to the Marxist overthrow of a hitherto undisputed because considered ideal Hegelian world order of dance.

This is because movement is no longer the central focus, nor is the individual performance. Only the abstract score offers orientation. Within it, however, spaces open up for the realisation process. They allow understanding to take place in a process of change. In fact, only there. And so the 'Schreibstück' project not only breaks down the motif of the score as the written mark of an absent author and therefore also his creative "original function". It also removes the category of „a work“ with its according dogma of overall stylistic meanings.

This is not to say that it is entirely incomprehensible. There is simply no longer any metaphysical reference point; no choreographic transcendental signifier (regards to Derrida). The turn-about involves a double-bend, as it were: what one sees and what one is going to see is a process of perpetual approach towards a score and its content which, however, would not exist without others' involvement with it. Or would remain simply a script.

Thus, 'Schreibstück' is perhaps the only contemporary choreographic project which can be discussed on the basis of written source material, as it speaks for itself. "Understanding is, first of all, a state of accepting. Not only accepting the other, but also accepting that self-created definitions and signs of something do not necessarily have equivalents in the interpretative structure of the other," writes Lehmen in the book to 'Schreibstück'. That is the mould, as it were, for the creative and the communicative process. It does not mean that the motto of the piece's script becomes less valid: "Well, I'm an artist, and I can write whatever I want and in whatever form I want." This degree of freedom is necessary. On both sides.

'Schreibstück': rethinking choreography
With his 'Schreibstück' project, Thomas Lehmen radically reverses the conventional choreographic arrangement. He has recorded the idea for a piece – as author – in a script: subjects to be treated, technical data, number of dancers, production guidelines etc. This score is subsequently implemented by different choreographers on whose work Lehmen no longer has any influence. Three of these independent versions of exactly defined length are performed staggered, like a canon in singing, whereby the pieces created can be combined and put together at will to make new performances. The performances are each 70 minutes long. In this way, the teams of choreographer/dancers become interpreters, similarly to actors in a play or musicians in a concert. And as the audience is always presented with three versions, it can compare between them how the guidelines have been implemented, how the interpretations differ and what they have in common. 'Schreibstück' offers a groundbreaking combination of score and choreography, a dance to read. And it is infinitely repeatable, with no two performances ever the same. By this stand, then, 'Schreibstück' completely rethinks the relationship between production and reception in dance. Thus, 'Schreibstück' is also a manifestation of the much talked about, rarely so systematically implemented idea of the "open art-work" – an aesthetic form which never reaches a conclusion but always exists as the process of its making.