When I sat down to watch James Batchelor’s evening length piece, Shortcuts to Familiar Places, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was winking to something ironic in the title of the performance. Even though nothing in the duration of the dance betrays a hint of irony, the word “shortcuts” in particular sticks out to me as the life and legacy of Gertrud Bodenweiser—the dance pioneer whose craft James’s inherited—is nothing but a winding path of extreme vicissitudes. As a scion of the upper crust of the Viennese Jewry at the turn of the 20th century, Bodenwieser was allowed a pristine education to develop her considerable talents within the world of Central European dance and performance. Alongside dance titans such as Mary Wigman and Hanya Holms (a pupil of Bodenwieser), Bodenwieser contributed much to the inception and evolution of ausdruckstanz, borrowing heavily from Asian influences (her incorporation of slow, cyclical movements especially with the arms in contrast to the “line” of classical ballet—the Europeanist aesthetic) and Africanist movement vocabulary (the articulation of the torso and polycentric movement in contrast to classical ballet’s monocentric straight spine). However, unlike her peers—Wigman and Harald Kreuzberg among others—her artistry was never appropriated into the aesthetic and propagandist service to National Socialism and unlike Hanya Holms, who was already living in New York before Hitler’s rise and where she subsequently became a celebrated founding member of American modern dance, Bodenwieser—on fear of gruesome extermination at the hands of the Third Reich for the cardinal crime of being Jewish— was forced to quit her country to tour South America before finally settling in Australia, where she stayed in exile. With her family scattered across the globe, subsumed to torture and/or killed, Bodenwieser became a very private and reserved person, as traumatized individuals often are. Before her death, she passed her technique on to her company, with Eileen Kramer being among them. And then the Bodenwieser company passed its teachings on to a younger generation of Australian dancers, with Ruth Osborne being among them. Now, Osborne has passed her teachings on to James Batchelor and Chloe Chignell who have just now premiered this piece in Berlin, Germany, Central Europe. It’s a bit comforting, but tragic nonetheless, that perhaps this is the shortcut Bodenwieser needed to take to get back to this familiar place.
Lineage. Memory. Archive. Migration. These are words that come to me as I think about Shortcuts to Familiar Places. They are loaded themes and they figure prominently throughout the work, intentionally—as with the grand figure of Ruth Osborne projected onto a screen behind James as he and Chloe prepare to begin the third and final arc of the piece as if to suggest these are the successors of her lineage. And serendipitously—as on a cab ride with James after the show, I asked him if he was aware that Gertrud Bodenwieser was known for her silk trousers and leather dance slippers because I had noticed that he wore those articles of clothing in the first act of the performance, his solo act, and apparently he had asked his costume designer for other options and he then chose those particular pieces…almost as if a spirit had imparted a memory onto his person. Archival work is subtle work; there is a whole academic discipline whose underpinnings rest on the concept that so much of our world is constructed by unseen tastes, choices, aesthetics, and ideologies that we are not aware of until they peep out of the ether and make themselves known as “coincidences.” Or unless we train ourselves to look for them, and I say this with all of the cheek I can muster. Of course, someone could say that many dance practitioners wear silk trousers and leather dance shoes just like Bodenwieser and they have continued to wear them after her time but that is missing the point: our tastes are developed by and belong to society and they don’t just disappear after a certain time. As long as there is memory and archive, they will appear and reappear indefinitely in some new reincarnation—so now, James finds himself in Berlin, an immigrant (or because he carries the correct passport: an expat) performing the dance Bodenwieser would never again perform in her homeland, a dance taught to him by the last surviving member of her company, Eileen Kramer. I had been talking with James on and off about this project for over a year and I feel that I never really understood the magnitude of this work until I saw Eileen teaching James the dance, Passionsblumen [Water Lillies], on video. Kramer’s power was palpable through the screen because she exemplified the power of the body as a living archive, not only recounting an experience through words but through deeply internalized muscle memory. The resulting duet with Chloe was a heartfelt homage and I honor and respect it.
I would now like to revisit the image of Ruth Osborne projected onto a screen behind James as he and Chloe begin the third and final arc of the piece. The juxtaposition of the projection and the two dancers on stage suggest that James and Chloe are successors to her lineage. It is this final piece of Shortcuts to Familiar Places that sticks with me because of the tonal departure from the previous arcs of the performance. From the cyclical and slow solo of the first act to the graceful asymmetric symmetry of the second act’s duet, the piece thus far had been very precise even down to how the music responded to the performers (kudos to Morgan Hickinbotham for the superb sound design with his string instrument). The first two acts were a reenactment of classic Bodenwieser technique and demonstrate the performers’ virtuosity within that school. The third act, however, departs from the previously melodic sound design and introduces a rhythm and then further syncopates this rhythm into a sound reminiscent of a techno Irish jig—implying a fusion of past and present with a gaze towards the future. Furthermore, the performers now enter the stage in modern streetwear as reference to the current trends in club culture while the cyclical movement vocabulary introduces what seems to be a waltz or court of Versailles step fused with Irish footwork, performed with a ram shod straight torso. This for me signaled a departure towards the unknown that the audience and I suspect the performers don’t know about. Especially with the preceding image of Ruth Osborne metaphorically handing the floor over to James, this last act was an open ending promising deeper exploration and experimentation and I find myself wanting more.
To end things, I would like to mention that I find it salient that Eileen Kramer was born a little more than a century ago—between the years of 1914-15. At that time, Gertrud Bodenwieser would have been in her mid-twenties and at exactly a century ago, she would have been in her early thirties—1 year older than James. This is salient because the society she found herself in mirrors the current one we find ourselves in when we are talking about the magnitude of disruption to the established way of doing things in the West and the Global North. The Viennese dance world, not to even mention the upheaval that was happening in other aspects of society, was going through a revolution against the established aesthetic form—ballet—in the same way that the Berlin performance world is moving away from the abstract performance art that has so permeated Berlin’s zeitgeist—a refreshing turn away from the heady reaction to the stereotype of performance and dance as a lower and decadent art due to biases fostered by the Cartesian mind/body split. Dance belongs to the body—the whole, complete, and intact body; complete abstraction and separation from the self has become indulgent, tone deaf, a privilege that white artists have to not worry about whether people will understand their work, and often times unreachable for artists who are voluntarily and involuntarily subsumed to minority identity categories for the sake of easy promotion/visibility/representation/commercialization by art institutions. I see the beauty in James’s work—he carries himself with dignity and unmatched self-possession that belies an unaffected vulnerability, a quality he extends to his work. I sense that after two years of being with ourselves, people want connection and relation. Perhaps, he senses that he is touching too many sensitive subjects in his research, but whether this is true or not I say dive into the uncomfortable. Embrace the unknown. Our loved ones will pull us back up if we go too deep—then we can regal the world with tales of our harrowing adventures and enlighten our audiences with the insights we have gained from those dark nights of the soul. Nothing Bodenwieser did was new or novel, she borrowed heavily from her surroundings and presented it in an original fashion to create a unique amalgamation. The old saying goes, “nothing is new under the sun" but there are infinite possibilities to cut our eyeteeth on. I congratulate my friend on his honesty, his virtuosity, his grace, and his brave decision to be vulnerable.
Djibril Sall is a Berlin based choreographer and writer. Djibril received his BA in Dance from Wesleyan University with a focus on Performance Studies, Queer Studies, and Critical Race Theory. He is an avid student of the factors that produce intergenerational trauma and, at the moment, his practice revolves around exploring meditative tools for the purpose of sustained and deep communal healing.
His work evening.haiku, premiered at Sophiensaele as a part of the 31st Tanztage Festival. He has presented pieces at ImPulsTanz International Vienna Dance Festival, Ballhaus Ost, and radialsystem. Additionally, he has organized and hosted panels on the question of art, race, and their role in community building at Sophiensaele, The New School, Flutgraben, and Dansens Hus among others.