Visual and performance artists are increasingly engaged in reenactments that are often hosted in museums and art galleries. Even though reenactment defines a very distinct phenomenon that we usually refer to as re-performance, re-make or re-creation, in dance, it certainly offers a different approach to past dances in comparison to the established practice of historical reconstruction. As suggested by Mark Franko in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment (2018), whereas reconstruction always reveals dance as already historical, reenactment treats the past dance as something that exists in the present. Therefore, it troubles our sense of what we perceive as distant in time, forgotten or lost. In other words, reenactments shift the focus from remaining true to a past source to its appropriation in the present, and in contrast to historical reconstructions, they reject the idea of accurate renderings of a past work from an anti-positivist theoretical perspective. In Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (2011), Rebecca Schneider suggests we re-think the ontological status of performance as what remains rather than what vanishes without leaving any trace. Some reenactments for contemporary audiences stage dance works that never lost their place in cultural memory, while others make available for the first time dance pieces that oblivion, marginalisation or censorship have limited in their journey through time and space. These different kinds of reenactment share the rethinking of methods for approaching the past, and the dramaturgical and conceptual framework that removes claims of authenticity. Dance reenactments also reject the linearity of the traditional narratives of dance history, its chronologies and genealogies, which have been taken for granted. For these reasons, they are precious tools for reflecting upon the structures of knowledge that emerge within old and new historical accounts, and for re-thinking how the blurring of reality and historical fiction can be productive.
Reenactments radically negotiate the relationship between documentation and the artwork, its preservation and representation, by transforming the methodology of reconstruction and the associated notions of “philological” restoration of the “original version” of a dance piece into a rather affective and personal experience of the past. By reconsidering the role of material documentation that has been privileged by historiographical discourses in relation to other archival processes based on movement and (embodied) memory, dance artists (sometimes in collaboration with scholars) engage in reenactments to revisit their own or others’ past works and repertoires. They transcend the urge to preserve dance as it was and where it was presented originally in search of still unexplored possibilities of a dance piece through their performative investigations.
Additionally, (dance) reenactments engage with multiple and overlapping temporalities in cultural production that fold and unfold within the complexity of historical narratives. What makes reenactments increasingly central in current research in visual and performing arts history is precisely the relevance given to a critical, philosophical and to some extent polemical reflection on temporal shifts and spatial displacements that have shaped our understanding of the past. This methodological and theoretical approach places pressure on what we have inherited as a valuable and widely-accepted version of history, and more specifically it challenges rather problematic views on gender, ethnic and national identities and their representations onstage and inside museums. In other words, reenactments contribute to a more globally interconnected and theoretically-informed history of performing and visual arts by simply “doing them”.
The widespread interest in reenactment has convinced museum directors to program dance and performance, and hire dedicated performance curators. As observed by Claire Bishop in her essay Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention (2018), the strategy of reenactment is adopted as a way to stimulate the audience to “think through the historical presentation of performance art in an exhibition context” (Bishop, 2018: 26). By way of shared collective presence, embodied immediacy, and physical proximity, dance reenactments affirm an alternative form of “performing history”. Inside museums, dance reenactments contribute to rewriting dance canons and, therefore, to re-inscribing dance and its histories in the larger frame of cultural heritage (Lista 2014). Through reenactments, artists propose repeatable experiences rather than new representations based on objects, photographs and video recordings. Dance reenactments in museums are often displayed in space and time in ways that subvert the linear route usually designed for the visitors, to privilege different and rather personal trajectories for spectators who should move (and be moved) following their curiosity and desires. Through the act of restaging past dance pieces and performances, the abstract and conceptual trends in contemporary dance produce an extended reflection on theatre as an apparatus, and at large a critique of representation by affirming a logic of continuous re-activation and transformation of past works and repertoires. These features become even more complex when choreographic pieces move from the theatrical stage and the black box to the white cube. The context of the white cube further alters the structures of the choreographic pieces and more specifically their original fixed duration because they must operate rather “in a continual flow without beginning, middle, or end” (Bishop 2018) during the opening time of the museum. Therefore, the re-temporalisation of performance and often its reenacmtent is one of the main issues to address when the performing arts enter the museum.
The practice of reenactment is also crucial for contemporary museology because it interacts with other strategies that aim to subvert the logic of exhibitions based on unconscious Eurocentrism. The very concept of uniqueness and originality of a work of art, for example, is not necessarily reflected in non-western cultures. However, dance reenactments stimulate a new theoretical approach to the relationship between the real and the copy, the original and the originated, influencing curators and conservationists to decide what and how to restore. This is how the presence of dance reenactments inside museums also proposes alternative archival modes that (re)arrange the co-existing temporalities in a choreographic work and challenge the notion of authorship as singular.
Bishop, Claire (2018) Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention, TDR: The Drama Review 62(2), pp. 22–42. doi: https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/695785.
Franko, Marko (ed.) (2018) The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schneider, Rebecca (2011), Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. London and New York: Routledge.
Lista, Marcella (2014) Play Dead: Dance, Museums, and the “Time-Based Arts”, Dance Research Journal, 46(3), pp.6–23. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0149767714000515.