dance & aesthetics, mostly
Adorno once claimed that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”1, an accusation that has managed to upset quite a few writers and literary experts over the years. It’s difficult to say whether Adorno was being ‘serious’ or not; at any rate, perhaps his intended target was not poetry itself but the callousness and indifference of a poetry industry that, in the face of the evidence of overwhelming suffering, simply carried on as if nothing had changed. Suffice it to say that Adorno’s challenge did not signal the End of Poetry in the West. It did, however, prompt a fair amount of soul-searching among those brave enough to claim the job description of ‘poet’, forcing them to think long and hard about what, after Auschwitz, their poems could possibly mean.
Reflecting on Dog Kennel Hill Project’s bitingly witty The Devil and the Details, I couldn’t help but think of Adorno’s words. The ironic humour of the piece barely stretches wide enough to cover the complete deconstruction (nay, dismemberment) of the ‘contemporary dance experience’, from the stage-directed rehearsal of audience applause to the carefully orchestrated collapse of the sublime finale. The ‘performance’ is shown to be highly artificial, governed by worn social conventions, and riddled with ridiculous Romantic clichés that have little or nothing to do with ‘real life’ as it is experienced by most people today.
On first watch, The Devil and the Details left me feeling deflated — if dance is so artificial and clichéd, then why bother? Adorno’s polemic, however, suggests a way of thinking about the piece in more positive terms: as a challenge to dance makers to start paying attention to what is going on in the world around them, to think about the implications for their practice of shifts in shared attitudes and values, and to reinvigorate and redefine an art form that is struggling to make an impact on their society and culture. I doubt choreographer Rachel Lopez de la Nieta would go as far as claiming contemporary dance to be barbaric. But if The Devil and the Details could in some ways be post-ballet dance’s existential crisis, then I think the hard self-questioning it provokes can only be beneficial in the long run.
Oh, and has poetry ever managed to prove Adorno wrong?
1 Theodor Adorno, ’Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft’ [‘Cultural Criticism and Society’] (1951).