The Power of ‘Co-’ in Contemporary Dance

On May 20, 2015, André Lepecki was invited in the frame of the E-Motional program of the Gabriela Tudor Foundation to give a public lecture called “In the Dark”, in which he spoke about performance pieces happening in the dark and the implications of this method. But around this public event a smaller, less public event took place. For five days, Lepecki gave a workshop for 23 participants, which I had the chance to be part of. The five themes which organized our learning process were Score/Performativity, Corporeality, Thing, Speculation and Darkness. On the fourth day, after going through texts and pieces around the subject of speculation, we sat down and had an hour long conversation about none of the above, but which revolved around one word.


Throughout your workshop in Bucharest there was one recurring notion. Whether we spoke about choreography, things or places – the word ‘co-imagination’ kept popping up. As you noticed, it had a lot of adherence to the audience and people started using it as if they had known it forever.

I came into dance not by dancing, not by making art, not by being a choreographer, and not by being an artist. In the late 1980s I was working on cultural anthropology in Lisbon, and also writing for some newspapers, mostly book reviews and chronicles on social and cultural issues. But I had friends who were working as choreographers and dancers in Portugal and the United States. And these friends started to ask me to come to the studio with them. Choreographers started to ask me to be alongside their processes of creation. So a situation of co-inhabitation and dialogue was created. Let’s say I was someone who did not belong to the “natural” processes of production of choreography but was invited to be present during the process of choreographic creation. And not only to be present, not only to be a passive witness or a distant observer of the process, but to actively participate in the production, at different stages of a work’s composition. Over the years, I wrote a few essays on dance dramaturgy trying to make sense of what I did working in the 1980s and 1990s with Vera Mantero, João Fiadeiro, Francisco Camacho and Meg Stuart / Damaged Goods. And I thought that maybe what I did, as a dramaturge, was actually to co-imagine. Because, as a dramaturge, I didn’t co-author, I didn’t co-dance, I didn’t co-produce, I didn’t co-manage. So I thought that perhaps what I was doing then was co-imagining. I was imagining alongside the production of other people’s imaginations. But I kept that word for myself. This happened a few years ago, my stumbling upon this expression that really helped me a lot. It is not really a concept, by the way. Just the name of a procedure that also rescues the potentiality contained in the word “imagination.”

As I said, I was happy with this word because it helped me better understand what I did then as a dramaturge. But then I kept thinking: how does one actually create critical discourse, or theory, about performance? Is it really that different a process? The goals might be different, the means of expression might be different, but the process – is it really that different from co-imagining? At the beginning of our seminar here in Bucharest, I listed a few questions that I consider being precisely not the most conducive to critical analysis, not the best ones to actually create critical discourse on live performance, and yet I Iisted them because they still inform academic and critical writings as well as journalistic reviews on the arts. Those questions are variations on: “What is the truth of this artwork?”, “What is the meaning of that dance?” and “What is the function of that performance ?”.  Truth, meaning, function.  Against such stifling questions, a series of other ones, much closer to dramaturging as an active-empirical and dialogical practice of thought can replace them. For instance: What is my discourse (in the studio or when publishing) doing? How is my discourse (in the studio or when publishing) analysing? Is my discourse critiquing? Is my discourse explaining? Is my discourse domesticating? Is my discourse making? And if so, then what is it that I am doing with my discourse as I co-work in the making of a work’s discursive life? Going over these questions and their many possible answers, I started to consider that what when discourse is at its best, it is always trying to co-imagine. Here, I understand imagination in the way it has been defined not too long ago by Patricia Reed, in an essay we read in our seminar. In it Reed calls imagination “politicized metanoia” and defines it as: “the collective bringing closer to reality of an inexistent, an alter logic from which a novel world is possible – an insistence on a supernumerary possibility obfuscated by the logic of ‘what is.’”

Just like in dramaturging, co-imagination is not at all a personal flight of fancy, an opinion, or an individual creative wish – but a rigorous form of empiricism, requiring a complete adherence to the concreteness of the situation. Staying with the object, staying with the thing and its many contexts. It is about considering the effects of this one particular dance being performed by these particular dancers with its specific set design and these sounds creating this one particular (yet multiple) situation. It is with these always dynamic elements that we co-work. And it is because empirical rigor in performance derives from essentially dialogical procedures that dramaturging becomes not merely a personal imagining, but always an impersonal co-imagining.

But, again, if it is “co-“ then it also means that whatever it is that you are saying or writing about a work must be always somehow “co-authored” – even if the hands typing the text or the mouth voicing the words are only your own… So the questions for me are: Who is, after all, imagining the work? Whose work is it after all? These questions can only be answered with certainty under specific regulations and laws that assign authorship to certain recognizable individual or group identities. But, outside laws and regulations, the answer to the question “to whom does the work belong to?” must necessarily remain undetermined. Is the work the univocal property of the author’s intentionality? Or is it rather the expression of certain potentialities that belong to some mode of creative individuation we call “the author” but also to all the other people that were co-imagining the work with the author, including the audience, the critic, the dancers, the collaborators? In a very important way an author is also, and above all, a co-imaginative vortextual entity.

The “co-“ factor in co-imagining means that on the planes of composition, something altogether different from authorship is always taking place. What is this something? Thinking now in terms of theoretical production on and around performance, we can call this something else, this other level of expression, the performance of critical thinking. Which thanks to co-imagination, is no longer to be understood as an expression of the “truth of the work”, or as an expression of the “meaning of the work”, or as a description of the “form of the work” but rather as one of the multiple unfoldings of the work in its many theoretical-critical effects.

So a hypothesis we discussed in the seminar here in Bucharest, and that took me a while to figure out, is that maybe co-imagination is a critical-theoretical task that demands of those co-working for a new piece never to be “creative” (since creative for me is a synonym to opportunistic neo-liberal smartness); instead, co-imagining demands of its agents to be co-responsively participative of all that the work proposes already as a field of potential co-compositions.

Finally, all of these perhaps too convoluted remarks, are just to say that a couple of weeks ago I went to see a long-durational piece by Anne Teresa de Keersmaker at WIELS titled Work/Travail/Arbeid. This piece happened daily for a couple of months, for 7 hours a day, dispersed throughout an entire floor of one of WIELS’ gallery spaces. Anne Teresa had invited me to give a lecture on the occasion of the work but I kept having scheduling conflicts. Eventually, however, I had a last minute opening in my schedule and I could come to Brussels to see the piece. It was too last minute for me to write a whole lecture on Anne Teresa’s work. But then I thought that since I was going to spend a whole day with a piece that lasted hours, and since the piece was insistently titled Work, then I could perhaps engage in a kind of co-working with the dancers and the musicians for that whole day we would share the same space-time. Thus, I proposed that I would arrive at WIELS at the gallery’s opening hour in the morning, and then spend the whole day with the piece until closing time. I would write throughout the whole day there in the gallery, and at the end of the day I would go immediately downstairs and read whatever I had written. This co-working alongside Anne Teresa’s work, I titled: “Co-imagining Work/Travail/Arbeid.”

This was the first time I put the expression “co-imagining” out in the world. But even now I still feel ambivalent about it. It’s really interesting because by claiming something publicly you put into motion an inevitable dynamic. People look at the word, and quite rightfully demand that you clarify your concept. This is the moment when things becomes really interesting because by becoming a public word, reactions to its usage makes one think in other ways about what one thought that “co-imagination” might be or express. This pressure towards refiguring and clarifying is already the collective intellect at work – proving once again that there is never such thing as solitary thinking. So questions like “What is imagination?” or “What is the difference between imagination and the imaginary?” arise.

Indeed: the moment one makes an idea public, one becomes responsible for its afterlives.  I remember at WIELS many of my answers during the Q&A session after my talk were based on some early writings by Roger Caillois’ and what he had called, in a 1935 essay, ‘phenomenology of imagination’. But right there and then it became quite obvious thanks to certain objections voiced by some members of the public that this would not be too productive a route, since phenomenology is predicated on an ideal subject and on his (phenomenology tends to align itself with the majoritarian figure of Man) supposedly pure and universal capacity to assess directly his five senses, and express this access clearly through a kind of transparently available linguistic a priori.  This objection helped me understand more vividly how co-imagination must always be affirmed as operating beyond (or besides) the notion of the subject. This is why I insist on the “co-“, to emphasize it is always intersubjective, transindividual, or better still: totally impersonal. And it also operates beyond any accountability of the senses (therefore making it be about a logic of sensation to use Deleuze’s expression). Anyway, this is my (way too) long story for the very simple notion of co-imagination!


You specified that co-imagination is not sharing the credits of authorship, which would still be about “you” and “another person,” as creators of the work. So does it become a third identity?

I don’t think co-imagination should create or lead to something that we can understand or operate in terms of an identity (whether it is third, fourth, fifth, or nth… identity). First of all, because we never know exactly where the boundaries of an artwork are, it is very hard to say a work has or is an identity. The work is always exceeding itself, differentiating itself, moving away from its boundaries and limits, and thus never coincides with itself. What we call “work” names an excess of itself because an artwork is always remaking itself, even if it is the most “static” one, even if it is a marble sculpture or the most traditional painting. What seems to be a mostly self-containing, enclosed entity will produce more than anyone ever thought it could produce. And certainly, much much more than what the work ever gives to perception.

I mentioned earlier how my background is in cultural anthropology and that I did postgraduate research as an anthropologist for three years. It was only after this period that I finally started my PhD in Performance Studies at New York University in the early 1990s. My first course in dance studies ever was at NYU. It was taught by Marcia Siegel, one of the founders together with Deborah Jowitt, of the so called New York School of Dance Criticism. The two of them were interested in a Laban-based approach to movement analysis but they were also interested in translating it into daily language. I remember that Marcia would say that as a dance critic you may only write about what is visible. You can only write about what you see on stage. But we know how both the stage, and particularly in dance, and the gaze, particularly when aimed at bodies, is filled with invisibles, blank spots, wiped out zones, and these are no metaphors or pretty figures of speech. Absences do fill up dances to the brim; affects and sensations arrive to us faster than the eye can process. And there are also elements that are absolutely choreographic and yet absolutely non-visual.  Including how specific dance works give themselves to full visibility only because they are directly addressing other works, artists, or events that are truly not there, but their not being there is what nevertheless grounds the possibility of that particular work to exist – now.

By binding dance writing and dance analysis to the realm of pure visibility, dance and its images are removed from any empirically-based imaginative activity. Again: imagination is not personal hallucination. Just as it is not personal projection. It is the acknowledgement of virtual aspects of images of whatever dance opts not to give to view. By giving some things to view you decide to give other things to non-view. Or to not give other things to view. This is why to write about live performance, including dance, is like an exercise in forensics. You may not have seen the crime taking place, but you can still give an account of what happened, thanks to its traces being performed before you, as invisibilities of a past the persists in not leaving, even though it may have already stopped being seen. This is why you can even discover who the killer is. Through an empirically bounded line of thought, a co-imagining. Which means, that there are two major parameters for writing on dance: first, dance is much more than it produces for view, or gives to the eye, it is always more than an image. And second, the work always produces more than we think it does and way more than what the author intended. Representation always exceeds intentionality. Imagination, which does not necessarily imply visual images, helps us to experience that excess which remains totally empirical.


Co-imagination sounds like friendship, a form of engagement without a contract. And from my point of view this requires a certain trust or hope. A way of looking at the commons without suspicion.

So maybe co-imagination, as a relationship, is not a creative exercise, but an alliance, a promise without a contract. A temporary friendship for the sake of something bigger than both sides. Which is the production of a story, a text, or a new dance work. Or it could be simply the work you do after seeing someone else’s work. It doesn’t need to be a direct response. But every action and daring of bringing something new into the world has already been influenced, has already been co-imagined, without being explicitly co-created. I believe a lot in this kind of daring: you join, and then there is something that cracks (snap of fingers), and which is really beautiful like a delirium – and through that crack you crack something open.


In your lecture “In the Dark” you spoke about presence in western metaphysics and how its connection to the notion of visible bodies, which are made possible through exposure to a field of light. You spoke about companies using light for processing big data and how that related to a photon-centrist logic in which the speed of photons would represent the acceleration of 24/7 capitalism and its media culture. You spoke about darkness as a suspension of this manifestation of power via tamed and profitable electricity. And then something happened, something which changed the course of your lecture: a socket swooped from the ceiling, dangling into a guy’s lap. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but I thought it functioned as a metaphor: this was the guy recording the lecture and he had all along been connected to this device that is symbolic for photon-centrism.

It was a little event, but an event nonetheless. The point is that there is nothing metaphoric about it. A critique of “fraudulent light” (Jonathan Crary) was made, an éloge of darkness was articulated, a critique of enlightenment, a critique of full visibility in dance (following Manuel Pelmus’ “Preview”) and then a lamp fell over the audience, breaking down photo-graphic recording of the event, revealing the importance of Stephane Mallarmé’s observation that the most important element in the theater is not the stage, not the actor, not the dancer, not the audience, not the building, not the dramatic text, not the voice, not the gesture, but the chandelier. So the falling of the lamp is no metaphor, it’s an event. And at that point I decided I would not continue to read my prepared words. I decided that I would take this fall or break or crack as a calling. Which is kind of a playful attitude from my part, but it also made it quite evident to those present, I hope!, that my reading of the lecture was being endorsed, made possible, by electrical power.

In “The Logic of Sensation” Deleuze talks about the concept of “diagram.” He starts from the work of Francis Bacon and introduces the notion of the diagram, which has not too long ago been picked up by Brian Massumi, in fascinating ways for a theory of performance. But, to come back to Deleuze, he describes the following situation. A painter has a canvas in front of him and the canvas is empty. The problem of the painter is not facing the emptiness of the blank canvas. That is not the problem. The problem of the painter is that the blank canvas is filled with clichés. And so, in order to begin making the work or to bring something that matters into the world, he first needs not to create, but to destroy whatever clichés lie there. In order to do so, he needs to have a plan – so that this act of destruction does not become in itself another cliché. This plan Deleuze calls diagram. But the diagram is not solely a pre-existing immutable plan, imposed from the outside onto the plane of the canvas and onto the forces of expression. It is something that remains open for change, transformation, and responsive to the events that the actualization of the plan imply, once set into action.

So, you do not draw your diagram on the canvas and then paint over it. The diagram is something that has to be co-activated as you plan it and then paint it. You have a mental diagram, a plan, kind of vague but also kind of precise, to help you start your work on the nonempty white canvas. But what happens is that the diagram is also, and essentially, a manual operation. A material cooperation between hand, eyes, planning and matters. Inevitably something happens during the making. It can be an accident, a sneeze or something that drips from the brush. Or a new idea, or actually a new figuration of the idea, its wild inflection. It can even be that in the middle of something you have planned, preplanned, and is simply following it through, something breaks down – for instance, a lamp falling from the ceiling, surprising you, recasting the entire situation. Something happens and changes the actualization of that virtual plan you had. And this kind of little event is what happened in yesterday’s lecture. And the question is always: how do I answer to the event? In which ways do I change my diagram, so to better co-respond to the demands of the world as they interpellate the plan. How do I co-respond to that which has just happened? How do I make myself worthy of it? Yesterday, I had to take a decision. Start over as if nothing had happened, or follow the event’s reverberations. Which means that the diagram has to have a zone of dialogical openness. So that, in the end, even though you had a plan, the plan was not operating as a transcendent imposition, it was not operating as an imposition from above. The plan was the virtual concretion of an ideal distribution of forces that once set into motion, needs to change so that their distribution expresses the co-doing of the plan and its events.

But that means that everything that happens has to be taken as a possibility to be included in the blank space (canvas, paper, studio, stage, street) defining the work. This simply means that you keep having to fall into, and follow closely, the present. This means that at the moment when I’m talking about blackness, electricity, the tamed photon of advanced capitalism and how performance and dance respond the situation and all of a sudden this thing falls from the ceiling… That moment can only be taken nonmetaphorically. It was a material objection to the premises of the situation. That object was objecting to whatever I was doing or about to do and I felt that I should answer to its impersonal action and indeed do something else.


Let’s talk about the recent migration of performance towards the museum, where the museum is treated as a starting point, in a certain sense as a blank canvas.

What do you mean by that?


In such a context, performance refers to the history of the museum. It questions a history that does not belong to itself. Even when enactment takes place in the black box of the museum, because a lot of museums have adapted and created black boxes which are used for performance and film screenings, most of today’s performance in visual art contexts doesn’t question the history of dance or theater or black box for that matter, but the history of the museum as the white box. So contemporary performance operates with this history that is not its own. But while talking about the history of the museum, it puts its own history into a new perspective. So we are looking at  two different types of spectatorship. But how does the museum operate with this being-in-the-present of performance, with a way of working which allows for the unpredictable?

So it’s the late 80s very early 1990s, and we have Pina Bausch and her enormous influence with tanztheater going on at the time in Europe. And then come the mid-1990s and the intersection between dance and other arts moves towards different fields. And in different ways all of a sudden there is the possibility of imagining and producing other kinds of dances with Jérôme Bel, Xavier LeRoy, Meg Stuart, Vera Mantero, LaRibot…. But first they are still in the black box. Of this 1990s generation, LaRibot was one of the early ones to leave the theater and go into galleries. She said she needed to go to the gallery because this new space, the gallery, allowed for a proximity that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible, a proximity between performer and audience.

Something that LaRibot said: because in the gallery there are no seats people stand holding their things. But then they get tired and sit and put their things on the floor. And she’s also sitting on the floor and all of a sudden you can’t tell the difference between props and people’s belongings. There is a dissipation, a dissolution, an inclusion but also a proximity. I think that dance had to address this proximity between all kinds of bodies and matters and at a certain point the white cube allowed for this proximity.

And later, already in the 2000s, Tino Sehghal made his piece “Instead of allowing something to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things.” In a very small place a dancer was revolving with absolute concentration and technique and all of a sudden you see, as opposed to LaRibot who still has a little theatricality, the dancer incorporating the integrity of an object that is ongoing. This piece does not propose a theater. It proposes an object that is stable, with no beginning no end, just revolving, looping within itself and this allows for the creation of something which feels like an object. So therefore you are in proximity of something that remains autonomous, that doesn’t require applause, a dance that has no end. It’s an ongoing work which is labour which is work which is labour. And when I think of it, I find it fantastically interesting for dance, how moving to the gallery space allows for this proximal mode of existence. And then for some reason, there is also dance strongly informing and entering into the visual arts world – that starts directing its attention towards the dance world. And I find that quite interesting as well. Because one thing is to have choreography wanting to go into the museum and another thing is to have visual arts going towards choreography. And these days we’re seeing a correspondence between these two desires. It seems to me that there are several reasons for which dance and choreography become interesting for visual arts and cultural production at large: you don’t produce physical objects, you disturb the circulation of tangible goods, you involve through the work urgent questions of precarization, precarity and so on. But when it comes to the museum there are some problems to be addressed. I think I heard Xavier Leroy saying that sometimes the museum wants from dance what dance doesn’t want for itself. The museum has a preconceived image of dance which it loves and wants to have there, but this is an image that dance is not interested in having anymore. And one image that the visual arts world has about dance revolves around animation, beautiful bodies, perpetual movement, event, spectacle, sexy things going on. And this is a problem, because this vision takes the attention away from how the fact that the dance loved by visual arts today appeared thanks to its own gestures of institutional critique regarding the apparatus of visibility and presence that is the theater. And that has been very important for the emergence of the type of dance that the museum presents, which participates, but also expands and modifies, the critical-political gesture of conceptual art. But conceptual dance came about because it responded and criticised the conditions of production of its own form. So it was the critique of theater, of the stage, of the types of audience, of the conditions of labour and so on which were used as frame. This frame is still part of the work. And the frame of the work is the work itself, in a way. So if you take that away, and bring only the moving bodies to the museum, what you’re left with is dance as the art of moving bodies again. A very modernist regression, in many ways. Because the work cannot interpellate what is absent from the architectural and institutional context of the museum, dance’s very historical conditions of emergence. So it’s really interesting to talk about the lack of historical context of dance in the museum, because you can feel there is less choreographical critique and more dancing events. Once I heard this simple but very strong idea from an important visual arts curator, who also brought dance to museums, Sabine Breitwieser. Her curatorial concern was that as dance enters the museum today, what this entering excludes is body art, political performance, actionism to be in the museum. These other forms of making the body present are all around us, but they’re not in the contemporary museum. How come? Breitwieser was super critical about it, because in the end you only display beautiful bodies. It’s a bit extreme, but she might be right about it.


Speaking about dance in the museum, it is interesting to talk about two different types of spectatorship. The museum has a historical background and in this context it presents a ‘body of work’ for visitors, which is to be activated or made more appealing through the insertion of performative ongoing actions. The visual artworks and the performative ongoing actions are displayed throughout the interval of visiting hours, with indications about the ‘nature’ or medium of the work. Boris Groys marked that anything included in the such a space can become part of the artwork simply because it is placed inside the museum, so we never see or experience the artwork separately, but the whole complex system containing the artwork: the room, the temperature, the employees and so on. At the same time more and more choreographers call their ongoing actions inside museums ‘installations’. This brings us back to the idea of co-imagination but this time as a relationship between artworks and performative actions.

Many things can be subjected to co-imagination. And why not, installation is one of them. But now we have to talk about what is to be installed. Installing an artwork means adapting the space to the specifics of the work. But because dance is more flexible, sometimes it’s the dancers who are compelled to adapt to the space, and when it doesn’t work so well is when the installation becomes a little fake theater placed within the gallery or the museum.

So on one hand, dance in the museum is always going to imply an installation. But installing is taking care of the conditions under which you emerge within the institution and give yourself to view. I think it’s really nice when performance in the museum is not just a dance event that was simply displaced into a new architectural-institutional context. I’m more interested in works that try hard to find how to be in a museum and operate directly with the empirical conditions of the place. I saw Xavier Leroy’s “Retrospective” once in Barcelona and once in Brazil. And it was amazing. The same piece but completely different. Completely consistent work, making total sense with the logic of the situation and of the place – including the logic of the local dancers, language, histories and geographies. And so maybe this is how I understand the idea of installation, as dance installs itself in the museum, and not the museum installing the dance according to its transcendent rules of space and traffic. Because the museum still operates with the notion of spectacular objecthood, assigning it even to the ephemerality of the dance and the body.


Edited in dialogue with Xandra Popescu.


André Lepecki, PhD. Associate Professor in Performance Studies at New York University. Main areas of research: dance and performance theory, dance and philosophy, contemporary dance, performance and dance in the visual arts, experimental dramaturgy, curatorial studies, post-colonial theory and performance studies. Editor of the following books: Dance (Whitechapel Gallery / MIT 2012); Planes of Composition: dance, theory and the global (Seagull Press, 2009 with Jenn Joy); The Senses in Performance (2007 with Sally Banes); Of the Presence of the Body (Wesleyan University Press 2004). He is the author of Exhausting Dance: performance and the politics of movement (Routledge 2006) currently translated into 10 languages including German, Turkish, Spanish, Korean, Hebrew, Finnish and Slovenian. His directorial and co-curatorial work of re-doing Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (a commission from Haus der Künst, Munich) received the 2008 AICA Awards for Best Performance. He was the chief curator of the festival IN TRANSIT at Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 he was co-curator of the interactive video archive ‘Dance and Visual Arts since the 1960s’ for the Hayward Gallery in London. Since 2013 he has been curating series of lectures on performance theory and performance history for MoMA-Warsaw. In 2013/4 he was a member of the C-MAP group at MoMA, New York. Selected keynotes include: Princeton University Gauss Seminars, Brown University, University of California Berkeley, Freie Universität, Berlin, MACBA, Museo Reina Sofia, MoMA PS1, MoMA-Warsaw, MAM/Rio de Janeiro. In 2009 he was a Resident Fellow at the Advanced Institute ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’ at Freie Universität, Berlin. In 2013 he was Visiting Professor at the post-graduate program at the School of Communication, UFRJ, with a grant from CAPES. His next single authored book, Singularities, dance in the age of performance is scheduled for publication in May 2016 through Routledge.


Larisa Crunțeanu

Larisa Crunțeanu has studied Photography and Moving Image and is currently a PHD candidate at the National Arts University of Bucharest. She works at the intersection of video and performance between...

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