When I discovered, on a flying visit before an event elsewhere, that Eastside Projects were screening a film featuring dance, I knew I had to come back for a proper look. The film in question was Grace Schwindt’s Only A Free Individual Can Create A Free Society, a recent commission that takes an interview recorded between Schwindt and a left-wing activist as a kind of score for an elaborately staged choreography performed by eleven dancers. The interview explores the interviewee’s experiences of radical left-wing movements in 1960s and ’70s West Germany, before moving on to how his own views on the nature and practice of freedom have developed and found expression since that time.
The choreography borrows liberally from the history of dance, with sequences influenced by classical ballet, modern dance, Tanztheater, and more contemporary minimal experiments. It is performed in a free-standing three-walled stage that appears in various configurations throughout the film. Whatever style the movements are borrowed from, they are performed mechanically and without a trace of expression, with the only interaction or awareness of other performers seeming programmatic and routinised. The dialogue, developed from the afore-mentioned interview, is delivered by the dancers in deadpan monotone, sometimes alone and sometimes in unison, seeming at different times diagetic and non-diagetic. I was never quite sure whether the stage had really been constructed on a hill overlooking a city at night, or whether it was green-screened.
Such extreme stylisation often has the effect of distancing the work from its subject matter, suggesting either that the moment described has now passed or that the experience of it is simply too uncertain or alien to be grasped. Straightforward Brechtian alienation, then? Maybe not: the exhibition notes reference the artist’s “processes of translating language into vivid material”, in which “each element is equally important and should be read together as a melody”. Perhaps the flat, expressionless delivery is therefore intended as a way of distributing intensities evenly across a plane, ensuring the equality among elements that is suggested in the dialogue as a pre-condition for a genuinely free society.
The problem, if it is indeed a problem, is that this equality is achieved only through a very high degree of top-down choreographic and directorial control, where every gesture and movement has to be exactly so in order to guarantee evenness of distribution. The level of rigorous training required to function as a vehicle for that control — as a dancer, a set designer, a post-production editor — is also high. The desired equality thus only appears through the central coordination of several regimens or disciplines that impose the constraints of their respective techniques upon the elements being primed for freedom. Perhaps this is Schwindt’s answer to the debate, pointed to by the film’s title and also brought up in the dialogue, regarding the chicken-and-egg problem of whether a free society produces free individuals, or vice-versa: if equality requires submission to a technique and a routine, then it is only to be hoped that the possibility of individual freedom will later follow.
Only A Free Individual Can Create A Free Society closes at Eastside Projects today, but tours in the UK, Germany and Canada throughout 2014 and into 2015.