Felix Ruckert: Participatory Theatre: Touching Instead of Fumbling

By Felix Ruckert in « Wissen in Bewegung »/Tanzscript Verlag

Published after the Tanzkongress Deutschland 2007 / Haus der Kulturen der Welt, April, 20-23, 2007. Felix Ruckert presented the first version of « On Pain & Presence » within this colloquium.

The today’ relationship between performer and recipients in the field of contemporary dance is reminiscent of the loveless interaction in a swingers’ club. A nervous and somewhat silly forced encounter which creates an illusion of freedom. A mind-boggling selection of hi-tech toys to conceal the lack of creativity. Feelings surface, only to be watered down with humour. Participants let themselves go physically, unperturbed by perversion or pain, but their hearts are not truly in it. What is going on? Contemporary stages are brimming over with fucking and shopping, but there is very little loving and giving. Communication theories are covering up for the fact that people have curiously little to say.

Apropos shopping: The successful dance product allows for greatest possible projections. It says a lot but means very little. It simulates altered perceptions instead of actually altering them. It offers us a choice of trivia. It sells us mere variation as innovation. Like all other superfluous consumer products, it simply creates an illusion of innovation and modification, without really offering anything genuinely new.

As with all other creative forces, the raw, subversive and healing power of dance is destroyed by the market. The system of academies and festivals, the alliance between the media, theoreticians and presenters filters out the primeval passion for movement leaving only sterile artefacts destined for the gratification of a fickle elite of dance spectators. Consumer society. Although we dancers love the playful, irrational and fleeting qualities of our art, we are also trying to create marketable products and sell them for as much money as possible! We also have a tendency to believe that sales figures and consumer-friendliness are an indication of quality and so we ultimately yield to the demands of the masses. We deliver in all format and colour.

Theatres are dark ‘non-spaces’, designed to control everyday perception. They are artificial nights in which we try to focus attention on our message, with the help of complex stage technology. We have the same zeal as rocket scientists and physicists who use sophisticated technology to try to grasp the infinity of the universe or the subtleties of relativity. If the same efforts were applied to investigating the subconscious mind, our perceptual capacity, our own built-in software, how much more satisfying might the results be. But as long as winning concepts and applause are supported instead of uncertainty and provocation…

One hundred years ago, when images of the steam locomotive first chugged towards cinema audiences, our grandparents ran screaming from their seats. Despite the poor picture quality and the obviousness of the illusion, the viewers could not trust their senses and were not able to suppress their need to respond physically to the ‘danger‘. The more sophisticated movie effects have become, the more sophisticated is our perception. Today, we can easily distinguish between appearances and reality and happily sit in the cinema exposing ourselves to emotions such as fear, revulsion, pity and grief. Our acquired sensitivity as recipients is decisive here. If we are familiar with our feelings, then we will be aware of them. If we are used to expressing them, we will be susceptible to authenticity.

The magic, and also the impotence, of the silver screen lies in the ethereal quality of the pictures, made only of light. Because we know that it is not possible to experience them kinaesthetically, the most emotional channel of perception remains blocked. If this were not so, we dancers could become rich through selling movement itself, our core competence. But a medium for storing kinetic experiences has not yet been invented. What would it be like if the feeling of a triple pirouette or a floor relaxation exercise could be called up on a Walkman?

Film allows moviemakers to portray their wildest and most brutal fantasies without seriously threatening the emotional security of their audiences. The sophisticated eyes of today’s viewers only allow the images to filter through to our bodies when we deliberately decide to switch our minds off. However, we are used to controlling our feelings in this context. Yet, while our eyes are over-stimulated and hardened, our physical sense, our skin, is soft and weak. We are largely unschooled in dealing with physical presence, closeness, intimacy, and only learn through private improvisation. Intense physical experiences such as hunger, cold, pain or fear of death are not immediately accessible; we have to deliberately induce them in order to appreciate them. This has opened up a new market for the more daring among us: the extreme sport and adventure holiday sectors are thriving. For more cautious types who find the cinema too commonplace but are too wary to tackle a bungee jump, dance is an excellent way to experience physical emotions.

The people who attend dance performances, the observers of our activities, are a very particular, and fortunately quite rare, species. They want to be close to the physicality, the carnality of the dancers, but keep their feelings hidden. They are fumblers in the dark, voyeurs who seek to gratify themselves without getting involved. They have seen it all and are quickly bored, yet they are also easily unsettled or even feel cheated by the possibility of a discomforting, embarrassing authentic experience or of experiencing the black hole of genuine sensations. Tricky customers. Contemporary choreographers are asked to create fear without being frightening, create shame without being shameful. Dancers must demonstrate control of their feelings, not the feelings themselves. This balancing act between the desired thrill and the required level of comfort produces nothing but hypocrisy.

Often only two options are left open. So-called conceptual dancers practice seduction through refusal. ‘Post-modern dancers’ are excellently trained, yet dance sloppily. They look fantastic, but are dressed hideously. They are sexy, but never sexual. Nakedness is absolutely okay, but it must be embellished with a concept. The ’dance dancers‘, on the other hand, rely on the good old formula of heroic pangs, self-harm, despairing virtuosity, the suffering from the form: pent-up emotions which explode into life on the stage. Fortitude and self-sacrifice are reliable assets. This works for large, powerful companies in particular. They can give their dancers sufficient fame and financial security to compensate for the self-abuse they endure. They are good to watch and audiences applaud with a slight feeling of shame. In this orgy of simulation and/or simulation of an orgy, some theatres are becoming ever louder and more cynical. They are trying to avoid a descent into banality, while the audiences leave the halls – not slamming the doors in disappointment, but closing them quietly, in the knowledge that the exciting stuff is going on somewhere else anyway.

In the subcultures of physical work and play, alternative models are flourishing which are dedicated to obliterating borders. Dance is mixed with therapy, performance is feeding off psychodrama, martial arts are becoming a form of meditation, and cuddling is a party thing. Tantra groups organise orgies, fetish clubs hold permanent carnivals. The gay and lesbian scene invents a range of sexual identities beyond mere ’man‘ and ’woman‘. Interwoven connections. All over the place, watching and touching at the same time. Participation instead of reception. In the mainstream too, doubt is growing as to whether passive consumption can really bring fulfilment. The internet as a participatory, communicative medium is superseding television. Sports fields and courts are full. People want to go out and play by themselves. Tango, Salsa, Hip-Hop and Contact Improvisation are becoming new forms of folk dancing and leisure rituals.

The body has largely been replaced as a means of production by machines and technology and has thus gained relevance as a means of expression. It plays the central role in this reorientation; it has become a statement, a project. Depending on taste, wallet, socialisation and neuroses, it is beautified, styled, adjusted, decorated, trained, instructed, pushed to its limits, analysed, reflected upon, tended and mended. Of course, it is also moulded into a product, something to be sold and marketed. And yet there is more to it than that: the clients of the proliferating dance studios, gyms, yoga schools, tattoo parlours, spas, Botox clinics, hair salons and other playrooms have one thing in common: the desire for beauty, well-being and company, and then, to be physically in touch with oneself and with others.

For over ten years I have been attempting to give my audiences a taste, a whiff, a sense of dance.

I unsettled them individually with my solo dancers (Hautnah, 1995), I encouraged them to dance themselves (Schwartz, 1997), I lead them into an organised kiss and cuddle ritual (Ring, 1999). I massaged them in public (deluxe joy pilot, 2000), I had them bound and whipped (Secret Service, 2002), and lured them into a collective cocooning party (Love Zoo, 2003). I enticed them to join sex and tantra workshops (xplore 2004) and packed them inside plastic and iron (Placebo Treatment, 2005). Ultimately I clothed, cleaned and trained them and made them subject to a megalomaniac (myself!!) (United Kingdom, 2006)[1].

All these partly magnificent, partly ridiculous projects owe everything to the audience themselves. They were astonishingly willing to surrender and clearly enjoyed doing so. Sensing an opportunity to experience something new, they were capable of overcoming inhibitions and apprehensions. All the monstrosities I have listed above, until now inconceivable in the context of theatre, arose through chance-collaborations (I mean through the coming together of different events, not through collaborations that came together by chance) in which the most daring and curious participants in my experiments and test arrangements were involved.

When reflecting on all these extraordinary events, three notions always come to mind: presence, permeability, transformation. If the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was right, and art has replaced religion (everyone practices it but no one believes in it!), then these three terms could be deemed the equivalent of the Holy Trinity. However, just like with the miracles of old, these phenomena have to be experienced in order to be understood. And if neuroscience is correct, we must – put simply – act if we are to perceive. So we sprang into action. The overwhelming reactions inspired me to develop rules of play and composition tools so I would be able to respond more flexibly to unforeseen challenges. This knowledge could be applied to conventional stages remarkably well.

I began to undermine the world of ballet, which suddenly seemed more open towards less traditional forms of stage performance (Tools and Tricks, 2003; Venus in Hanoi, 2004; Tokyo-Tools, 2005). The technical excellence and intelligent use of space and time, which I trained in these projects could be easily converted into direct physical interaction with the audience. I.e. dancing strategies proved successful when they were to be applied to the bodies of spectators.

We clearly experienced the kind of liminal situation postulated by theatre researcher Erika Fischer-Lichte in her Ästhetik des Performativen[2], an experience which affected not only our audience, but the dancers, too. They started to develop empathic, psychological and therapeutic skills. This was, however, not a planned development, it was a spontaneous, organic growth, more of a mutation than a construction, more of an avalanche than a snow cannon. Every new project arose out of the questions which the previous project threw up. Every new adventure which the audience embarked upon was initiated, demanded, even provoked, by them. The borders between the actors and the reactors became fluid even in the design stage of the new projects. The power of the participation principle slowly became clear to us. The fourth wall collapsed.

This dynamic of their own which my projects acquired often overtaxed me myself. I changed, too. It seemed increasingly difficult to separate art from life, work from play, the private from the public sphere. Is this the longing for re-enchantment of the world or an insidious insanity?

Participatory theatre leaves all questions about meaning or content behind. It does not represent anything, it is, it does. It is pure movement. It is the choreography of the moment and of placelessness. It is everywhere and always, because it abrogates time and space. It consists of a series of impulses. It proliferates. It is called flow, ecstasy, meditation, communitas, liminality. Like all these phenomena, it can offer much more than mere entertainment; it can change lives. It knows no spectators, only participants. It is created wherever the will and readiness are there and disappears when it fails to keep its participants’ attention. It cannot be enforced, it can only be practiced.

Participation is much more than just a peripheral form of theatre, a risqué ‘no-go area’ of the dance scene. It is a social desire. The removal of boundaries and differences and the acceptance of conflicts are part of a historical process of individual emancipation, democratisation and abolition of hierarchies. Participation is the fundamental strategy applied in the search for renewal, change and bonding.


[1] United Kingdom is an interactive performance project with different degrees of participation. Based on the idea of creating an utopic society it functions on a corpus of laws and rules. It allows its members to explore different degrees of dominance and submission in the frame work of a fictional kingdom. The central mission of the kingdom is the elaboration of play structures that allow the authentic experience of emotions such as fear, pain, anger, aggression, sadness and weakness but also trust, strength, kindness, pleasure, connection and devotion to happen. These play structures may include choreography, scenario, role play, ritual and drama. Cf. from 12. May 2007.

[2] Erika Fischer-Lichte, Ästhetik des Performativen, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 2004.