Undoing The Archive
In their project Touching Margins, dance artists Nitsan Margaliot and Sasha Portyannikova explore alternative archives and underrepresented dance history.
How might alternative archives change our perspective on dance history? How might we encounter the altered narratives that are needed? Dance artists Nitsan Margaliot and Sasha Portyannikova have some ideas. In their dialogue they describe how their project Touching Margins came about and how it is connected to the Tanz∆rchiv Berlin.
Text: Nitsan Margaliot & Sasha Portyannikova
Sasha: When participating in the Campus for International Students at the Academy of Arts (AdK) as part of the project What the Body Remembers. Dance Heritage Today in 2019, I felt a lack of space and time for professional exchange with the participants. This campus was, I think, a kind of provocation or invitation for us to deal with or think further about the topic of ‘archive’ and what is still missing within there.
Nitsan: We thought about what wasn‘t there but should be. So we came up with the idea of exploring the edges of narratives in dance history.
Sasha: We had the desire to explore this topic together with people who are interested in little explored archives and underrepresented heritages. With our project Touching Margins we want to highlight the diversity, complexity and multiplicity of Berlin‘s dance scene and the amount of work that deals with dance lineages which deserve further attention, care and recognition.
Nitsan: There was certainly a personal motivation behind this initiative. Through our own research, we discovered how difficult it is to get support for research on artists who have worked outside the Western canon, and how much practice-based dance research of unknown artists from history is underestimated and mostly receives rejections today.
Sasha: I also believe that our individual research led us to develop this project. I am exploring the culturally inherited embodiment of my post-Soviet dance and life background. On a personal level, my research unfolds toward family history and the relationship of this micro-narrative to the larger narrative of the Soviet era. On a professional level, I am interested in “recycling” little-known archives of early Soviet-era dance experiments into current dance practice.
Nitsan: And in my research I am entangled with queer archives, materializing impossibilities, absurdity and relationality. I am also creating a homage to Israeli artists who died during the HIV-AIDS pandemic as a way to position my personal and political efforts on a timeline.
Sasha: Since 2015, together with my friend, colleague and ally Dasha Plokhova (with whom we co-founded the dance cooperative Isadorino Gore), we have been researching the legacy of early dance experiments in Soviet Russia. There was a dance department at the State Academy of Artistic Sciences. The main idea of this academy was to explore art as a science. They used scientific concepts and approaches of the time to study movement. Compared to the so-called “natural” and modern movement established in the West, they did not form oppositions or hierarchies between everyday movements, gymnastics, artistic or work routines. It is amazing to discover that in Soviet Russia in the 1920s they had such a progressive approach! Dasha‘s and my research is a continuous artistic one. We recently published a practical manual for choreographers about it. It is now available in Russian, but hopefully soon in other languages.
Nitsan: In relation to our joint project Touching Margins, we created the first Think Tank meeting, which took place at AdK in the fall of 2020. It was a meeting of artists and actors from several generations who responded to our open call. After the meeting, we shared our idea to host a long-term exchange lab with local artists working on untold archives and underrepresented heritages. This brought us into conversation with Alex Hennig and Christine Henniger, who are involved in the conceptual phase of the “Tanz∆rchiv Berlin”. They invited us to contribute to the Tanz∆rchiv Berlin and to conduct interviews with actors from the local dance scene supported by #takecareresidenzen at OFF-Bühne KOMPLEX theater in Chemnitz.
Sasha: We spoke with twelve choreographers and makers who engage with dance archives in the margins. They include Boglárka Börcsök, Elisabeth Hampe, Kasia Wolińska & Agata Siniarska, Christelle Kamanan, Furutani Michiyasu, Jule Flierl, Laurie Young, Netta Weiser, Peter Pleyer and Przemek Kamiński.
Nitsan: Some of the topics which are explored by them are including Black German culture, vocal choreographies, Eastern European characters from the archive, interpretations of impressions of Berlin dance audiences, neglected parts of Cuban folklore, and practices of artists who died during the HIV-AIDS crisis or ones who were not ‘big names’.
Sasha: The project questions what is considered an archive, as well as the multiple, non-normative, and flexible ways of transforming the archive into a living, moving, questionable entity as well as into material for work. Our platform proposes a more provocative discourse that, unlike what is common in academia, is meant to be intergenerational and looks with a broader focus at what has taken place in dance history and how and why narratives enter memory.
Nitsan: I think it‘s nourishing to look back to understand the past or the future, to question what deserves to be part of our archive and lore. What do arts practitioners consider inspirational and supportive channels for imagining and transmitting embodied knowledge? How have archival facts been made malleable and sourceable through their work? To what extent is an archive not as fixed or finite as we might at first think? Our body is our own archive, it is a source of information and knowledge, and this knowledge is transmitted and transformed in mostly undocumented ways in the dance world. How do we ensure that this knowledge continues to be transmitted? Even though we have addressed these questions, they remain open as trajectories of thought, as suggestions rather than fixed answers.
Sasha: This leads us to another important aspect of our work: strengthening cross-generational connections. From my experience, I see a tendency to follow fancy trends in movement and composition that often neglects the work of the previous generation. However, this mostly affects artists who are not beneficiaries of these trends. ‘Big names’ remain big and continue to be present on stages and in archives, even if their work is not really appropriate today. But artists who didn‘t become that ‘big’ (possibly intentionally, because they couldn‘t stand the way the system worked ethically, or because they wanted to undo the strange power dynamic associated with ‘the author’) – became our teachers and our older colleagues who introduced us to the world of dance. It would be nice if we could acknowledge them. Maybe that would lead us to become a stronger community or to have a different vision of what that community could be.
Nitsan: Expanding, recognizing, and highlighting narratives that have been pushed aside feels important right now. I see an urgency to move away from problematic and damaging representations on stage, created primarily by older generations that portray male-female power dynamics, for example, but also from manipulative working relationships in the field that discourage creative work. Sometimes I feel like we should “restart” the field of dance. I try to find hope beyond dance technique and in less competitive areas of the field, in places where abundance can reside, in a plurality of voices, and perhaps in how to undo the “single artist narrative.”
Sasha: Following the idea of progress, we in the West assumed and believed that our definition of dance and choreography expanded in the 20th century. But from my research on what people thought about movement and dance in Soviet Russia in the 1920s, I have to admit that we rather narrowed it.
Nitsan: That leads us to the title of our project, Touching Margins – it‘s about rethinking the frame, moving out of the center, looking at the untold, the gaps, as we consider that beauty is in the margins, which is a form of acknowledgement, counteracting existing paradigms that should be reconsidered.
Touching Margins online: touchingmargins.com