Stillness Speaks: What Modern Dance Can Teach Us About Turkey Protests

NYU professor Andre Lepecki explains why it’s important for creators of dance to be politically aware.

Shir Hacham
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Shir Hacham

How does a professor of political theory feel when he discovers that an act of protest has been done in the spirit of things he wrote? Andre Lepecki, a professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and a founding father of the 1990s political-critical school of dance theory, received a frantic e-mail from Turkey in June. After weeks of public protest — which in some cases spilled over into violent confrontations with the police — the Turkish demonstrators found a new way to protest the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: to stand still and silent.

The first to initiate this type of protest was Turkish choreographer Erdem Gunduz, who stood for hours in Taksim Square in Istanbul in passive defiance against Erdogan's government. Shortly afterwards, masses of people followed his example, not only in Istanbul but in other Turkish cities too.

The person who sent the e-mail to Lepecki was Gurur Ertem, a woman who is familiar in the Turkish dance community and a colleague of Gunduz. She appended a picture of silent protesters in Taksim Square along with a citation from an article written by Lepecki in 2001, called "Undoing the Fantasy of the Dancing Subject": "This [resistant] act of silence is not synonymous with freezing. Rather, what it still does is to initiate the subject in a different relationship with temporality. Stillness operates at the level of the subject's desire to invert a certain relation with time, and with certain [prescribed] corporeal rhythms."

"This e-mail validates for me the whole project of thinking choreo-politically. In 2001 I was writing about stillness within the stage, and how it had political potential as representation. Now, the same text has been used, recontextualized to underline the political work of a still-act. This, for me, shows that the masses do not need a choreographer but do need choreography."

Lepecki was born in 1965 in Brazil, moved to Portugal as a child with his mother, and now has U.S. citizenship and is an assistant professor at NYU. He says that in his childhood he lived "under two harsh dictatorships — the Brazilian and the Portuguese," and even witnessed the fall of the last colonialist empire in Europe (Portugal).

This experience aroused his political awareness from a very early age. He did his BA in anthropology in Lisbon in the mid-1980s, and wanted to switch to comparative psychology but several of his Portuguese dancer friends, including Vera Mantero, began creating their first choreographies and asked him to be their dramatist. That is how his involvement in dance began. He wrote dance criticism and even worked from 1992 to 1998 with the famous American choreographer Meg Stuart, who lives in Europe (and is coming to Israel at the end of the year as part of the "Moves Without Borders" project of choreographer Arkadi Zaides).

In 1993 Lepecki decided to write his doctoral dissertation about dance, and switched to the Department of Performance Studies at NYU. There he also taught some of the important thinkers in the field, including Peggy Phelan, Mark Franko and Jose Munoz. He has published innumerable articles, books and anthologies. He is a coeditor of over 10 international dance periodicals, such as Dance Research and Choreographic Practices, is honorary president of the Greek choreographers' association and the winner of the International Art Critics Association award for best performance, for curating, directing and recreating Allan Kaprow's artistic work "18 Happenings in Six Parts" in 2008.

Lepecki's formative book, "Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement," which was published in 2006, has now been translated into Hebrew as part of the flourishing and up-to-date series by Asia publishers, with the help of the Payis Council for Culture and Art and the Israel Center for Libraries, in the delicate and precise translation of Niv Savriago. The book is devoted to an analysis of the action logic of the contemporary choreographic school that began operating in the late 1980s, which included choreographers who stopped the movement machine of dance and stilled their choreographies.

The book offers a theoretical act that can be called an exhaustive politicization of choreography. At the end of the book his demand is to redeem dance from "being-towards-movement," which in his opinion is also the logic of modernism. The artists whom Lepecki embraces with demonstrative passion (he also admits that they are his favorite artists) are known leaders of the intellectual school of dance such as Jerome Bel, Vera Mantero (who was invited by Ohad Naharin to create a work for the Batsheva Dance Troupe), Trisha Baron, La Ribot et al.

The "still act" is not a new in political terms. It cropped up, for example, in demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the United States. But the interesting question, in Lepecki's opinion, is why this practice is appearing again today as one of the answers that he calls "choreo-political," in other words, why has it been transferred from a choreographic still act to a mass protest?

"It's as if all of a sudden the multitude realized that indeed capital, power, the state and all sorts of neoliberal machines have captured all available images of political protest and made a mockery of them.

"Unfortunately, the contemporary political ethos — even in the U.S. under Barack Obama, even in the supposedly ‘enlightened’ EU, and of course in current Israel, China, even Brazil — is of an ongoing colonialist project, endless exploitation of natural resources predicated on obnoxious class stratification and local variations of all sorts of (more or less explicit) racial or ethnic discrimination. Not knowing what I am talking about, I would venture to say regarding the situation of the Israeli occupation that it is crucial for all sides to develop another logic for doing politics, and for living life. We are forever establishing new records of violence everywhere — George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden were two sides of the same coin. Barak Obama and the assassinations of U.S. citizens by presidential fiat, murderous attacks by radical Islamists, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: macro–politics of endless wars, so that populations are offered by their leaders only resentment, suffering and horror as a condition of living blindly within a regime of vengeance — while the military–political complex profits on, shamelessly. This is the sad condition of our current world, where the differences between countries and regimes can be found only in variations of degree of political turpitude — not in actual differences in kind.”

A protest in Istanbul, inspired by performance artist Erdem Gunduz, whose eight-hour vigil in the Turkish city's Taksim Square earned him the nickname 'the Standing Man.'Credit: Reuters
Lepecki (right): 'The masses don't need a choreographer but do need choreography.'Credit: Aya Salgad
Erdem Gunduz (C) stands in a silent protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul early June 18, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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