There are several reasons to why the performing arts are on the run from the theatre houses. It is part of modernism and its wish for a total experience, a ”gesamt-kunstwerk”. In the 1960’s and 70’s it was also motivated politically, to reach out to audiences that never would dream on buying theatre tickets. Partly this political tendency had a romantic aspect of finding the roots of stage arts, returning to processions and ritual ceremoniess, street theatre andbuffoonery..
Some of this has created new traditions. For instance the Swedish summer is full of theatre in industries and castles and shipyards and summer palaces – the Swedes love it, and many non-theatre goers would be happy to not only buy the tickets but also to buy food and wine for the picnic dinner on the lawn in front of the palace. This kind of theatre I would not define as true site-specific, but site-adapted; they take advantage of a beautiful or interesting scenery, of storytelling buildings and a context that might as a framework for the performance.
Site-specific demands a more exclusive definition: the site decides not only the framework but the piece self, which without its site, its place and space, no longer is this piece, but something else. Contemporary dance and dance theatre pushed forward the field of all the performing arts, and many of the achievements you can see on stage are reflecting new footsteps taken by artists who prefer not to respect existing boundaries as Pina Bausch, Robert Wilson or Robert Lepage, Mats Ek or Sasha Waltz. These artists could not be labelled ”dance” or ”theatre” but must be specified with terms describing there cross-over-attitude to fine arts and images, sculpture, architecture, music- and soundscape, light-designs etc. Many of these useful terms are to be found in Hans Ties-Lehmann’s study on post-dramatic theatre, where, in fact, many examples are picked from contemporary dance, such as soundscape or bodycasting.
Roof tops, streets, museum walls, industry halls and pools – dance, dance theatre and theatre in a place where normally performing arts are far away is closely related to the fine arts of painting or sculpture. The latest decades of installation and performance arts are close to the art life in terms of regarding the space and the room as an active counterpart in creation. Interactivity also in regard to the audience is part of the site specificity which opens doors to the world and society outside the theatre houses.
To involve spaces and rooms might involve new audiences and introduce art forms unseen by large populations; but the opposite might as well be the result with ufo-like visits of qualified artists in a context with little possibilities to interact.
My experience tells me, that particularly the critics are suspicious towards site specificity and maybe prefer to wait and see if something that attracts large audiences could be something just trendy and superficial. The reasons for this attitude are several, honest and often humble, but during my thirty years as a critic, I never understood the position of many colleagues to choose theatre OR dance, when the combination of these art forms are so fruitful and correspond so well with the arts during the 20th century and the 21st.
I will propose some aspects that I think are problematic to us, the critics:
The history lesson
No one claiming to be intellectual would like to fall into the arms of trendiness and being superficial. In general, site specific performing arts are referred to as post modern and the contemporary tradition to investigate space and bodies and their relations. But, in fact, the site specific event is as classical as theatre and dance as art forms. The close relation to rites and ceremoniall performing becomes more obvious in site specificity, but also in early times of classical western theatre, during the 15th and 16th century parades, processions. out door performances in palace gardens or at public events such as royal funerals or wedding adopt a moveable scenography to a given space.
The Royal Swedish Court, although compared to other European royal courts of limited financial resources, was eager to perform its power and capacity. In the 17th century the crowning of princess Christina, later abdicated and emigrated to Rome, was a several kilometers long procession of pictorial excesses. In the same period public processions introduced competitions on horse back and in fighting and these processions
It is reasonable for an intellectual person to respect the language as the main tool to express thoughts and feelings, theories and stories. However, ideas, thoughts, feelings and opinions could be communicated also by images, body language and mime as well as by music, sound and light. The non logo-centric works, based on other languages than the spoken word, need not be less intellectual rich or emotional expressive. The capacity of reading other languages than the spoken word can be trained and perfectionned, and a dance critic, for instance, must be capable of reading styles and compositions, spatial and movement patterns as well as the correspondence between moves and music, sound and light. The site specific piece as the inauguration of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, choreographed for dancers and the opera choir, is also in dialogue with the architect Frank Gheery and the building, the flat water mirrors around it and the solemn occasion of a new, big museum opening to the public.
Site-specific works tend to be non-ironic. They embrace the site, the place, they investigate, explore and enter into a communication with the site and the audience present, and so far, I did not see irony in site specificity. Irony is a sophisticated attitude, a signal of distance and cold blood and intellectuality. Site specific arts normally demands the kind of open-mindness that can embrace humour, laughter but invites the viewer to share an experience rather than observe, which leads us to number 4.
The audience, with few exceptions, is invited to take part. Actively or by being there as a part of the scenery, the framework of the piece. Especially to the critics, this is a challenge. Many of us, depending of country and tradition, prefer to make clear that we are different and not a ordinary member of the audience. Which is true. On the other hand, we are members of the audience, we laugh if we go to a farce, we clap our hands (even if German critics do not). Theatre is a collective art form on stage and in the audience; without the audience theatre would not theatre. All these remarks are made even more clear if a critic goes to a performance for young audiences together with a child – it would only be too peculiar not to clap hands, not to share the experience. Inter-acitivity is even more provoking: The dream playy of August Strindberg, 2012 is the One century memorial year, performed by The Underground Theatre for Kids, BUS, invites young and old to play with the group of actors who transform Strindbeerg’s play to a playground event. Children carrying quotations from Strindberg’s text are taking the words of the old master literal, the fragments that form a cultural Swedish heritage carried around – it has to be shared and not looked upon. The critic must be mature enough to take part, share and even enjoy – maybe a sense of humour and a rich capacity of imagination is something we forgot in our ethical code!
Margareta Sörenson is a Swedish theatre and dance critic in a newspaper Expressen and a member of the editorial staff of Danstigningen (Dance Magazine). She has authored and collaborated in anthologies on history of dance, theatre, puppetry and contemporary performing arts, such as New Swedish Theatre History I-III (in Swedish only, 2007). Among her other books are …are but tugs on strings. 40 years with Marionetteratern (1998) and A Great Little Theatre- 30 years with Puppet Theatre Tiutur (2008). She has directed the Seminars for young critics for some time and, recently, at the Congress of the IATC in Yerevan (Armenia), she was appointed Vice-President, as well as Director of Colloquia, of that same Association.