Tiger’s Leap: A Method of Reloading the History of Local Scenes

Ana Vujanović (2008-12)

A Happy Consensual Tribe

Many experts agree that contemporary dance emerged in the West (Western Europe and the USA) during the second half of the 20th century and, therefore, that it was conditioned by the democratic character of those societies. At the same time, it is commonly accepted that societies in the East overslept the second half of the 20th century behind the Iron Curtain that divided the democratic (capitalist) West from the totalitarian (communist) East. So it only stands to reason that there was no contemporary dance in the East. Adhering to this teleological view of history as progress, contemporary dance accordingly appeared in the Eastern societies only with their transition to democracy-capitalism in the 1990s and 2000s. Many agree not only that contemporary dance organically had to appear in the East at that time, due to the new social conditions, but also that its appearance is a proof that those ex-Eastern societies have become democratic. Naturally, this late awakening of the East results in its always-being-late in its efforts to keep up with the contemporary dance scene in the West.[1]

A lot of experts may agree about a lot of things. And when a majority agree on many “things”, the river of history may flow smoothly, all the way from its source, right down to the mouth, the past clearly shaping the future… And here we are, in the present, where one can see, on the international dance scene, contemporary dance both from the ex-East and the ex-West – although still not in equal proportions – that belongs now to the borderless – although not quite “history-less” – global society.

Good morning, Columbus: My colleague, performer, and cultural worker Saša Asentić and I have spent a lot of time discussing the (hi)story above. At one point, it dawned on us: isn’t this just like Columbus’s discovery of America – a land that had existed for centuries under another (its own) name? With this “Good morning, Columbus” kind of insight, we embarked on our research project, A Tiger’s Leap into the Past (Evacuated Genealogy). It is a part of Asentić’s larger artistic-research project Indigo Dance (2006‒2009), comprising, in addition to A Tiger’s Leap, an installation / impossible project proposal titled BalCan-Can Sussie Dance and My Private Biopolitics, a performance-lecture. Each segment of the project deals with a specific aspect of the structure of the local dance scene and its position in the international danceworld. A Tiger’s Leap in particular deals with the history of contemporary dance in Serbia and here I will focus only on its methodology rather than content.[2]

Our Own Tiger’s Leap

The purpose of A Tiger’s Leap into the Past is to articulate the past of local contemporary dance in historical terms. Its point of departure comprises the following questions: Why isn’t there a history of local contemporary dance? Why is it still waiting to be written? How do we actually use the term “contemporary dance”? Is it an umbrella term for every artistic and cultural practice of bodily movement that is current in any way? Are there other names in the local past that might signify the same or similar practices? What might we identify as constituting the history of dance in this region? What did we have in lieu of contemporary dance in the past? Why wasn’t it called contemporary dance at the time? Can we call it contemporary dance now? Is it entitled to claim contemporaneity? Is it about the state of affairs at any given time or is it about the right to contemporaneity?

Starting with these questions, A Tiger’s Leap has been produced as a series of video interviews with actors, participants, and witnesses of the local dance and performance scene in different periods of the 20th century.[3] The work is an open long-term research without a predetermined list of interviewees. We simply started with the biggest figure in local dance history of the early 20th century, Maga Magazinović, and then followed the divergent traces that emerged in the interviews themselves. This way, the work has been constantly self-broadening and self-(re)defining with more and more figures, who formed a web of cross-references of the interviewees. We asked all of them questions grouped around three big issues:

  • conditions of work – organisational, technical, financial, educational, and infrastructural circumstances of work in the field of dance and performance on the levels of state/local cultural policy making, institutional positioning, and personal relations and experiences;
  • conceptual framework – the concepts, terms, names, and notions with which the interviewees operated; artistic influences (persons, styles, techniques, and paradigms); references to the history of ballet and dance; and relations to other artistic fields, as well as to the surrounding social and political contexts;
  • public reception of their works – reviews and critical reflections in mass media, theoretical approaches, reactions from their audiences, and general public opinion.

This rhizomatically-structured history rests on a twofold formula that I borrowed – and modified to a certain extent – from Foucault’s new historicism:[4]

archaeology – a method of researching the facts, names, opinions, experiences, and agencies present in one context and period in the past, without the idea of a big (majoritarian) historical narration, that is, a red thread connecting all the fragments into one coherent story;

+ links through time – which appear from within this self-regulating structure as various indirect links, reread(ing) connections and reversible cause-effect lines;

= genealogy – a provisional and particular result of the links that offers a chronology of the archaeological layers but without the notion of teleological progress clearly leading from one (earlier) layer to another (later) one.

In this way, we got a vast rhizomatic network of ideas, concepts, images, stories, experiences, and memories, for our audiences to interpret, depending on their own historical positioning, contexts, and subjectivities. This also explains why we conducted interviews rather than collect solid historiographic data: we simply do not believe in pure data, objective facts, objects found in the past “as they really were”. Instead, we foster subjective perspectives that give meaning to the facts from the position of singular historical subjects; there, the facts (documents, video recordings, etc.) are only so much illustrative or demonstrative material added to a history constructed in this way. This idea is firmly rooted in Walter Benjamin’s conception of history, which I proposed as the general politico-theoretical methodology of the work. As it is a more complex and broadly useful issue, I’ll explain it later, following some concrete descriptions of our work.

History (of dance) is not given, but must be constructed: In the first round we interviewed Katalin Ladik, Svenka Savić, Dubravka Maletić, Sonja Vukićević, Nela Antonović, Jovan Ćirilov, Vladimir Kopicl, and Boris Kovač, and later also Nada Kokotović, Ljubiša Ristić, and Haris Pašović. We complemented these interviews with a video exploration of My Life, an autobiography of Maga Magazinović, written in a style close to (self-)interview (Magazinović 2000). The work was first shown in February 2007 at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina in Novi Sad. The video archive had an important interactive element: we placed a big piece of canvas on the wall, inviting the visitors to draw a map of the history of local contemporary dance on it. The invitation read: “History of dance is not given, but must be constructed”. This was another way to invite actors on the local scene to construct our own history and for that reason we borrowed Irwin’s method of representation from their project East Art Map (Irwin 2006) as the highlight of the event.[5] Accordingly, we also included my own self-interview as a live performance in the video exhibition, in which I served as guide and keynote speaker and also as a witness and participant in the current dance scene. However, my self-interview is not permanently included in the archive, because my name has not been mentioned by the interviewees.

The space of art is not determined only by that which it includes, but also, or even more so, by that which it excludes: For the second stage of the project, we made – together with video artist Marta Popivoda – a cluster of interviews about unrealised dance and performance projects over the past few decades. This connected A Tiger’s Leap with another work that Marta Popivoda, Bojana Cvejić, and I made in Graz in 2006 (as part of the exhibition No Space Is Innocent! at the Steirischer Herbst): Archiving Performances at the Edge of the Void. We used the older work’s principles – making the invisible visible, including the excluded, affirming the negated – and combined them with the procedures of A Tiger’s Leap – interview, remembrance, and storytelling. This time we focused on the incubation period and early years (from the 1970s on), when the contemporary dance scene in Serbia emerged and was recognised as such. The work was displayed as a video installation, Recycle Bin – Archiving Performances at the Edge of the Void, in March 2008 at the Magacin u Kraljevića Marka in Belgrade. The interviewees were Jovan Ćirilov, Vladimir Kopicl, Sonja Vukićević, Katalin Ladik, Nela Antonović, Miroslav Benka, Bojana Cvejić, Olivera Kovačević-Crnjanski, Dragana Alfirević, and Dušan Murić. This work aims to show the “other scene” of the positive history written by A Tiger’s Leap. It speaks about the non-existent, erased, rejected, impossible, or unrealised dance and performance projects, pieces, festivals, venues, projects in education, and networks. These “not-to-be-done” works are situated “on the edge of the void” of the current situation in the local danceworld. Since it cannot be decided whether these work proposals truly belong to the local dance scene or not, they convey a concentrated sense of historicity of the current situation.

A Public Domain Net Archive: The third aspect of A Tiger’s Leap is the creation of a free and open-access online archive.[6] Together with the interviews that we have already uploaded, it will contain video recordings, documents, as well as interactive and changeable historical map(s). The aim of the archive is twofold: to share what we, as cultural workers, obtained and made with the public at no charge, and to intervene into those “things” about which many agree, by making the archive as visible as possible. 

Walter Benjamin’s Political Theory of History

I will conclude this text with some explanations of the politico-historical methodology that informs our work. A Tiger’s Leap into the Past, including its title, is based on Walter Benjamin’s writing, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (Benjamin 1969). Benjamin’s text has served to shift our approach from a neutral archiving or objective historicising of the past of the local contemporary dance scene toward a critical illumination of those aspects of the past that were invisible then and are still not visible from the perspective of the globally predominant historicisation of dance. In Benjamin’s words: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’. … It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Benjamin 1969, 255). This is why we chose the interview format, to envoice those subjective perspectives that may not retell the past “as it really was”. On the contrary, they blast out the past, by wresting it from the continuum of regular history into the present, which they are meant to change, transform, and revolutionise – as a legacy for the future. This is Benjamin’s “tiger’s leap”, which re-orientates history entirely toward the future.

Another important influence that comes from Benjamin’s text is his rereading of history as a “memory-scene” (Gedächtnisszene), whereby actuality comes to condition our readings of historical images. Thus, what we address and challenge here is, above all, the very actuality to which A Tiger’s Leap relates as a reality check, staging its political structures, hierarchies of power, and ownership, not only over products and material infrastructures, but also over concepts, names, and paradigms – that is, over history itself. What is crucial for us here is Benjamin’s notion of Eingedenken, often translated as “remembrance” or “memory”. However, as Slavoj Žižek asserts (Žižek 2008, 183), Eingedenken cannot be translated simply as remembrance or reminiscence, because in Benjamin, Eingedenken denotes a politically interested appropriation of the past by the oppressed and the exploited, for their own political benefit. Positing the local dance practice and discourse in the global history of dance as that oppressed and exploited class, A Tiger’s Leap constructs its own version of the past mostly by means of its interviewees’ singular memories, who “here and now” write the “there and then” in a genealogy that is evacuated from the regular history of the contemporary dance scene. It is about re-actualising the repository of historical knowledge embedded in the memories of the overlooked, the erased, and the forgotten.

The third important influence on our work was Benjamin’s theoretical approach to history. According to his “Theses”, the tiger’s leap is the leap of the present into the past that was already waiting for it, waiting, according to Žižek, in order to be established through it. Žižek notes that Benjamin was a unique Marxist thinker of his time who regarded history as a text, because he maintained that the meaning and historical dimension of events would be decided only later, once they are inscribed into the symbolic network – into the story of history, I would add. This is not about a historical relativism claiming that we can never know the past because our understanding always depends on our current knowledge. In Žižek’s view, Benjamin’s key theoretical insight is that the present is relativised, not the past, and thus remains open for future rewritings through this procedure. The present is, one hopes, a “retroactive force”; it not only rereads but also writes the past and thus breaks the homogenous continual time of official history.[7]

(In lieu of a Conclusion): The Tiger is Leaping Around

At the very end, I would like to take the above-described methodology and procedure of historicisation beyond A Tiger’s Leap into the Past. For me, A Tiger’s Leap is but an explicit example, while the method itself may be used in a much wider scope, beyond this work and the specific context of the Eastern European dance scene. I would therefore emphasise the similarities between our work and works and projects such as the following: the already mentioned East Art Map by the Slovenian group Irwin, which (re)constructs the history of the visual arts in Eastern Europe after the WWII; Swedish Dance History initiated by Mårten Spångberg and based on the following statement: “History must be written, and those who write it define the future”;[8] What’s Welsh for Performance? by Heike Roms, which explores the constructive character of the history of performance art, confronting its history in Wales with the already canonised history;[9] the East Dance Academy as well as some of its specific projects, such as Maska’s platform ARTCHIVE – Contaminated with History and a series of re-enactment performances in Ljubljana and Zagreb; and so on. To be sure, there are significant differences between those projects, ranging from their topics to their contexts, but what connects them here is their shared striving to problematise big, smooth, majoritarian histories. That striving is realised through similar political orientations, wherein the tiger’s leap appears as a method of intervention by minoritarian subjects, whose concern is to shape a different future. In that sense, the tiger’s leap in all of these works should not be mistaken for historical revisionism, but rather understood as a futurist intervention into the present that will become the past of another and different future, a future in which historical univocalism will be replaced by a multiplicity of voices, and no longer indistinguishable noises, that will resonate all around.

Works Cited:

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, New York: Schocken, 1969, pp. 253‒264
Irwin. East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, London: Afterall, 2006
Kunst, Bojana. “Performing the Other Body”. Bal canis 2/4 (2002), pp. ??‒??
Magazinović, Maga. Moj život (My Life), Belgrade: Clio, 2000.
Naverán, Isabel (ed.). Making History: Reflections from Dance Practice, Barcelona: Mercat de les Flors and Institut del Teatre and A Coruña: Centro coreográfico gallego, 2010
Vujanović, Ana. “Not Quite – Not Right Eastern Western Dance (On the Contemporary Dance Scene in Serbia)”, 2011, http://www.anavujanovic.info/#!/2011/11/not-quite-not-right-eastern-western-dance-on-the-contemporary-dance-scene-in-serbia (23 January 2013)
Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology, London ‒ New York: Verso, 2008

This text has already gone through several versions, starting with a short statement in the leaflet accompanying the project A Tiger’s Leap by Saša Asentić and Ana Vujanović in 2007.
 It was presented as a lecture at the 2008 Maska seminar on contemporary performing arts in Ljubljana.

The first published version appeared in Maska 23/117‒118, 2008, pp. 63-68.
 In 2009 and 2010 it was presented as a lecture within My Private Biopolitics, a performance project which evolved with every showing, at the Live Art Festival, Kampnagel, Hamburg; BilBak / ARTEA, Universidad del País Vasco, Bilbao; Stadsfestival Brugge Centraal, Brugge; Dance & Politics conference, Giessen; Wiener Festwochen, Vienna; Off Europe, Leipzig; Personal Profile, Moscow; TransEurope, Hildesheim; and Dance Theatre Workshop, New York. In 2010 it was reworked again and published in Naverán 2010.
 The present version was updated in 2012 and published in Parallel Slalom: A Lexicon of Non-Aligned Poetics, ed. by Bojana Cvejić & Goran Sergej Pristaš, TkH/CDU, Belgrade-Zagreb, 2013

[1] Cf. Kunst 2002, 75–76.
[2] I used this research work in several theorisations of the local contemporary dance scene and its past, which made ample use of the work’s content. Cf. Vujanović 2011.
[3] Ending with the ’90s, when contemporary dance – first as a form of theatre, and then as an independent artistic discipline – started appearing on the local scene.
[4] Especially from The Archaeology of Knowledge and The History of Sexuality / The Will to Knowledge.
[5] Their famous slogan is “History is not given, please help us to construct it”. See http://www.eastartmap.org,
[6] See the archive at http://www.perart.org/savremeni-ples/tigrov-skok-u-istoriju/ (accessed December 2012).
[7] Here I should point out that my present rereading of Benjamin’s tiger was guided by the concerns, time, and context of our own work. Therefore, for the purposes of A Tiger’s Leap, I disregarded his widely discussed theological references, challenging of Marxist historical dialectics, the image of the chess-playing automaton, the Angelus Novus, and many other aspects, employing the tiger’s leap instead as an action-event that transforms the present and breaks with the course of history, inviting and writing the past for the sake of the future. It was a Benjaminian gesture par excellence, I would say.
[8] See http://www.inpex-universe.org/events/swedish-dance-history-2010, http://theswedishdancehistory.wordpress.com/ (accessed February 2013)
[9] See www.performance-wales.org (accessed November 2012): “Traditionally, histories of performance art have tended to concentrate on a well-documented (mostly US-based) canon of works, neglecting local scenes outside of the centres of art production. This project aims to chart the manner in which performance art as an international artistic movement was negotiated in response to the particularities of specific cultural situations during its formative years – here examined in the context of Wales between 1965 and 1979”.