Intimacy as a Dramaturgical StrategyAuthor: Mette Gjandrup Tast
Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in Delft, M. van, Z. Gündüz, H. Koolen, J. Voets, L. Wijers (eds.) (2017), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 9. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp.141-144
Intimacy as a Dramaturgical Strategy
In my thesis for the Theatre Studies master’s programme at Utrecht University[i] I explore the phenomenon of intimacy in embodied encounters in contemporary participatory theatre and dance. Through the analysis of three case studies—Tino Sehgal’s Kiss (2015, Amsterdam, the Netherlands), Wunderland’s Sommerfugleeffekter (Eng: Butterfly Effects, 2009, Aarhus, Denmark) and Dries Verhoeven’s Guilty Landscapes: Episode 1 – Hangzhou[ii] (2016, Utrecht, the Netherlands)—I aimed to address the question: How do performances that thematise the body of the spectator produce feelings of intimacy? In the extract from my thesis that follows, Kiss (which was part of the 2015 exhibition A Year at the Stedelijk: Tino Sehgal) is presented in order to illustrate how generating intimate experiences in contemporary theatre and dance become a dramaturgical strategy for researching interactions in- and outside the performative sphere.
Intimacy: a (syn)aesthetic phenomenon connecting closeness and distance
My understanding of intimacy is based on a fusion of theories by three scholars: Josephine Machon (2009), Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink (2012) and Bennett Helm (2013). Machon understands the notion of (syn)aesthetics as a multitude of perceptions and processes of somatic and semantic sense-making(s) dominating contemporary affective performance, both as means of expression and reception.[iii] Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink perceives intimacy in theatre as connectivity of closeness within distance and difference (2012, p.420): elements of immersion, in connection with elements of alienation and staging move, ‘(…) intimacy out of the realm of authenticity or psychological evaluation and foregrounds the involvement of both performer and spectator in the theatrical encounter’ (2012, p.415). This understanding of intimacy in theatre resonates with the well-known Brechtian notion of Verfremdung[iv], whereby alienation and distancing lead to reflective modes of spectatorship. Groot Nibbelink sees that intimacy in theatre includes elements of Verfremdung, but does not exclude emotional and corporeal engagement. The intimacy generated in the fusion of these elements is maintained through elements of mutuality, which Bennett Helm theorizes in his research on intimacy in friendship (Helm, 2013). Thinking with these writers through the following case study has led me to an understanding of intimacy in performance as a (syn)aesthetic phenomenon that fuses and connects perceptions of closeness with elements of distance and difference in a multitude of sense-making processes.
The potentiality of the visual void in Tino Sehgal’s Kiss
The room housing Tino Sehgal’s Kiss at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam had a completely different character than the surrounding rooms, which house attention-seeking pieces of contemporary art. I entered a dark room without any descriptions or signs; I was not able to see anything; the darkness surrounded me, pressed itself up against me as a physical mass of black that I voluntarily pushed myself into. Slightly tense, alert, and with my eyes wide open, I tried hard to get a glimpse of a contour of something—another person, or an object—breaking the darkness. My hearing sharpened, trying to focus on detecting what the room contained. The sense of the unknown in this situation awakened my attention, and I soon found myself sitting on the floor, up against the wall in the dark room that I had found by searching with my hands. Something in the room made me feel relaxed: a sensation of warmth and a sweet smell of body aromas—a natural smell, not superficial as from perfume. The room was charged with sensations of presence and attention. I heard the sounds of subtle whispering and the quiet steps of people walking carefully in the dark.
Slowly, my eyes started to get used to the darkness, and I could now glimpse the contours of two naked bodies—a woman and a man—in the middle of the space, moving in slow motion in an intimate embrace. When I looked directly at them I could only see a blur, a moving mass, but when I looked slightly to the side I could see their contours and movements more clearly. In the darkness my face and my actions were almost invisible for others, just as other visitors were almost invisible to me. There was a certain freedom in this limitation of my sight, a freedom of not being watched and a freedom for the imagination to fill in the missing gaps in what I could not see clearly.
What could one potentially do in this room? What did it mean to be an observer here? The almost invisible position in the dark from where I was looking at the almost invisible formation of the intimately moving couple made the situation simultaneously thrilling and awkward. I was ambivalently experiencing myself being a voyeur in the position of looking almost invisibly, but without actually being able to see clearly in the absence of light. I was ambivalently close and distant to the action by being forced to re-experience what it means to ‘observe’ with the whole sensuous system that automatically provokes imagined scenes of bodily closeness.
Is there such a thing as imaginary or inner voyeurism? David Shearing discusses this phenomenon in his article Intimacy, Immersion and the Desire to Touch: The Voyeur Within (2015). In that text ‘the voyeur within’ designates an innate desire within us to come closer and to touch, even in our imagination when it is not physically possible (Shearing, 2015, p.71). Shearing discusses how audial stimulation can be perceived as intimate proximity, almost as a sensation of touch, that creates a sense of inner voyeurism in the desire to be fulfilled as real touch (Shearing, 2015, p.86). Similar to this, the olfactory perception of bodies that I experienced in the dark room of Kiss intensified the intimacy by giving me the sensation of being in close proximity to the performers and the other visitors, whilst simultaneously being aware of being in a museum space. The direct limitation of my sense of vision forced my other senses to co-operate in navigating in the dark and in creating meaning out of the sensory information given.
Once every 5-10 minutes the silence was obstructed by one of the two dancers who spoke out loud, staccato and inexpressively, ‘Kiss, Tino Sehgal, 2005,’ contextualising it as a piece of art in the museum space. In the absence of any other text or signage, this was the only clear indication of authorship. These moments created a certain distance to the close but yet ambivalent emotions of voyeurism created between the dancers, their movements, the situation of visual void, and the activation of corporeal and imaginary sensations created through this.
Another element obstructed my experience of involvement and closeness in a different way. While sitting in the room, several visitors switched on the light of their mobile phones as they entered the space in order to immediately reveal what the room contained. This act seemed to testify to an innate desire to reveal and understand one’s immediate environment, but it also showed how interconnected we are with technology, automatically deploying the phone’s flashlight function as an extension of human vision. The immense darkness, and the process I had gone through myself in experiencing the time it takes the eye to get used to darkness, generated an awareness of how such devices extend our perceptual palette, which in everyday life is often only experienced in the absence of technology (in this case, in the absence of a mobile phone). This seemingly unintended illumination of the space obstructed the embodied experience of visual void. Even though it was just a short moment, the magic of the darkness, its potentialities and its blurring of concrete material, were disrupted. Intended or not, illuminating the space in this way could also be understood as an illumination of the situation so as to enhance the voyeuristic theme, turning the previously invisible quasi-voyeurs into real voyeurs confronted in their act of looking at an intimate encounter.[v]
In Kiss, intimacy is (syn)aesthetically constructed through elements that generate a feeling of closeness and elements that disturb closeness and create distance. The visitor’s vision is obstructed through a lack of light, which automatically activates the other senses in acts of making sense. Smells, sounds, senses of movement, contours and the tactility of darkness all create a sense of closeness, a somatic understanding of the material given—and at the same time this somatic understanding automatically leads to an attempt to semantically analyse and imagine the scenario. Elements of distance and difference in the piece are manifested partly in this semantic moving away from the corporeal experience, and partly in the moments of speech and the brief illumination of the space that break the mystery and ambiguity of the dark space. These elements point towards the act of staging in directly bringing forward the facts that make this piece a piece of art and in revealing the actual museum space. The activation of the body while provoking the thought and the mind through alienation exemplify Groot Nibbelink’s intimacy in performance as closeness within distance and difference. The intimate experience of voyeurism, despite the physical disability to see, appears in the (syn)aesthetic perception of this piece, in sensory perception and above-mentioned elements of staging while maintained through mutuality.
We might conclude then, that intimacy in theatre and dance, in order to be experienced as closeness, has to accept and incorporate elements of distance. Kiss exemplifies how intimacy is produced through the performativity of our senses, imagination and emotions that reveal, in addition, how intimacy in the social and digital world is constructed, maintained and challenged in a deconstruction of ordinary perceptions of closeness, distance and presence. This choreographical piece moves choreography out of the realm of physical movement alone and into an understanding of choreography as movement of thought and association.
This article is based on:The Performativity of Intimacy in Theatre: A research towards the potentiality of intimacy in contemporary affective participatory theatre. MA Thesis, Theatre Studies, Utrecht University, 2016.
[i] I followed the programme in the academic year 2015-16; in the following year the programme’s name was changed to Contemporary Theatre, Dance and Dramaturgy.
[ii] Dries Verhoeven’s art installation Guilty Landscapes has four parts: Episode I – Hangzhou; Episode II – Port-au-Prince; Episode III – Homs and Episode IV – Pattaya. http://driesverhoeven.com/project/guilty-landscapes/ [accessed 20-01-2017].
[iii] In her specific way of writing ‘(syn)aesthetics’ with a bracket around the prefix ‘syn-’ Machon emphasises the different aesthetic processes co-existing in experiencing visceral performances that incorporate corporeal evocation through different sensorial stimuli and how these synesthetic experiences make sense both somatically and semantically in the creation of reflections and emotions. The experience in this type of theatre becomes part of the material as well (Machon 2009, pp.14-20).
[iv] As part of the epic theatre movement in the early to mid-1920s century Bertolt Brecht introduces the term Verfremdung, which means ’alienation’ or ‘estrangement’. By using Verfremdung in the acting style audiences would not get immersed in the emotional lives of the characters but be able to reflect on the meaning of the piece and its relation to what it represents (Encyclopaedia Britannica: ‘epic theatre’, ‘alienation-effect’).
[v] Kiss was later that year performed in a bright room in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. This circumstance created a completely different expression and the piece did arguably not create the same feeling of intimacy and voyeurism.
- A Year at the Stedelijk: Tino Sehgal, exhibition in Stedelijk Museum. (2015).[accessed 10-08-2016]. Available from World Wide Web:
- Groot-Nibbelink, L.(2012). Radical Intimacy: Ontroerend Goed Meets The Emancipated Spectator. Contemporary Theatre Review, 22 (3), pp. 412-420
- Helm, B.(2013). 1.2 Intimacy: Friendship. [accessed 03-08-2016].
- Available from World Wide Web:
- Machon, J.(2009). (Syn)aesthetics - REdefining Visceral Performance. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan
- Shearing, D.(2015). Intimacy, Immersion and the Desire to Touch: The Voyeur Within. In: G. Rodosthenous, (ed). Theatre as Voyeurism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.71-87