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Thinking Through Tragedy and Comedy A Symposium on Performance Philosophy and the Future of Genre

Katja Vaghi


There is this idealization, possibly due to Romantic ballets (La Sylphide, Giselle, ... ) and early modern dance pioneers such as Martha Graham, of dance being only about tragedies. It seems that the comic was long considered not viable for dance, almost shunned by dancer makers. In reality, there is a great number of dance works with either a comic structure or comic sequences.

One choreographer who has long worked with the genre is the Czech Jiří Kylián, former artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater. While watching his dance piece Birthday (2001) one is struck by the way in which through the use of slapstick sketches, he is able to construct a nonsensical surreal Rococo world.

If the Past is always ‘present’ and the Present can only be understood through the lenses of what has been before, what does this return to the Rococo in an apparently irreverent manner point to? And, taking a preposterous approach (Silverman in Bal 1999), how does the present illuminate the past? Considering that each reference entails a comment, my argument is that Kylian’s recreation hides a light-hearted reflection on those aspects of humanity that do not change in time thus making comedy a genre able to express the inexpressible.

Extract of the piece:
Birthday (2001) final scene:

Quoted bibliographical sources
Bal, Mieke (1999) Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Prosperous History,
Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

With a formation as a modern dancer (Ballet Arts, NYC) and a background in Literature and Linguistics (MA Zurich University), Katja Vaghi has recently been working on the relation between theories developed for language and dance, and the role of embodiment in understanding. She is PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton.