Liminal Performances: In-Between Threshold States
Kristberga, Laine. 2020. Liminal Performances: In-Between Threshold States. In: Lauma Mellēna-Bartkeviča., ed. Contemporary Latvian Theatre A Decade Bookazine. Rīga: Zinātne.
Liminality as a theoretical framework can be used in the contexts of various research fields, yet primarily it is drawn from the discourses related to social sciences, especially anthropology. The Latin word limen means ‘threshold’, whereas liminality refers to the physiological, psychological and spiritual experience of threshold states. As a concept, it was first introduced by the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) in his 1909 book Les Rites de Passage (Rites of Passage). Van Gennep noted the importance of rites marking the passage of an individual or social group from one identity or status to another, for example, the transition from childhood to adulthood. Further on, the concept of liminality was discussed by the British anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983), American performance theorist and theatre director Richard Schechner (b. 1934) and German professor of theatre studies Erika Fischer-Lichte (b. 1943), to name just a few. In her 2008 book The Transformative Power of Performance, Fischer-Lichte writes that liminality is accompanied by a profound sense of destabilisation1 in which the traditional dichotomies and binary oppositions are overturned. For example, through active engagement in a performance piece, a spectator may become a performer or a participant and vice versa. The collapse of dichotomies consequently leads to a liminal experience in which it is difficult to mark a boundary between “this is art / theatre” and “this is reality” (or “representation” and “presence”, respectively).2
According to British professor Susan Broadhurst in her 1999 book Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory, “all liminal works confront, offend or unsettle”3. She writes that hybridisation, indeterminancy, experimentation, heterogeneity, innovation, marginality and the centrality of non-linguistic modes of signification appear to be among the quintessential aesthetic features of the liminal4. To understand the liminal in performing arts, Broadhurst offers the framework of intersemiotic analysis. This means that, for example, all separate units or elements in a performance piece, such as a dance, costume design, video projections, digital technologies, the performer’s body, etc., can be regarded as separate “texts”, which together create meaning beyond verbal language. Often, such works are experimental, multi- and interdisciplinary and ritualistic.5 One of the examples Broadhurst offers to define liminal performances is the Tanztheater of Pina Bausch, which is a hybrid form between dance and theatre.
In this context, performance art as a hybrid between visual arts and theatre offers a testing ground for liminal practice. In Latvia, performance art has always been marginal and practised rather sporadically by visual artists who from time to time want to experiment with new disciplines. On very few occasions, theatre actors have also tried out these trajectories, for example, Dārta Daneviča and Elīna Dzelme, who in may 2014 spent twenty-four hours in a transparent box of glass during their performance Dzīvo damies (lit. LiveIng) at Kalnciema Street Quarter in Riga. As an ephemeral, transient and immaterial process-based act, performance art defies the rules of objecthood and thus commodification – it is difficult to sell. To address this lack of exposure and visibility, the Latvian Centre for Performance art (LCPa) was founded in 2018. One of the LCPa’s initiatives is the annual “Starptelpa” international Performance art Festival, which offers a platform for local and international performance artists to exhibit their works. Starptelpa, which translates as ‘in-between space’, focuses on the concept of liminality, in which the constant dissolving of boundaries, as well as hybridisation, is nurtured.
At the Starptelpa festival, both group performances, devised through collaboration, and individual performances are presented. The festival offers a panoramic and kaleidoscopic view of a myriad of creative and conceptual strategies employed by the artists to explore the concept of liminality.6 For example, in the group performance Bearman (Lāčuvīrs, 2018) directed by Simona Orinska, the concept of liminality was revealed from multiple perspectives.
First of all, Bearman exposed hybridity in terms of traditions and symbols from three cultures: Japanese, Sami and Latvian. The Japanese culture was introduced in the performance through the Butoh performing tradition implemented by the IDEAGNŌSIS performing arts group. The Sami and Latvian cultures were represented through music, with the Sami singer Torgeir Vassvik singing in the ancient yoik tradition of the Sami people and Sanita Sprūža playing the kokle, a traditional Latvian musical instrument. Moreover, the bear is a sacred, totemic animal in both Sami and Latvian mythology and folklore. Our ancestors believed that the bear was a creature in between a human and an animal.7
Second, liminality was revealed on the narrative level, with the story unfolding as an initiation ritual in which a Bearman (performed by Arvis Kantiševs) was born. The birth of a new man was revealed as a complex process in which the masculine and feminine, as well as the creative and destructive, primordial forces embodied by the Butoh dancers collided in a cathartic, ecstatic clash, leaving the Bearman empty, exhausted and in stasis. The new man could only be born from this empty shell. The birth was also signified through universal symbols of motherhood. The Bear mother and ancestress was performed by voice improviser and singer Dana Indāne-Surkienė, who was heavily pregnant at the time of the performance, whereas the movements of the Butoh dancers were choreographed so that at one moment their bodies formed a nest, and at another moment their rhythmical movements referred to labour contractions. Overall, the performance was devised as a process of transformation, and liminality was presented through the initiation ritual as “a transitional state filled with ambiguities and contradictions.”8
It should be emphasised that, apart from Vassvik’s singing in the Sami language, the performance was absolutely non-verbal; thus, liminality was also revealed through the non-linguistic mode of signification, a feature noted by Broadhurst. The Butoh dancers produced non-articulated sounds, laughter, sighs, cries and groans, and these noises provided a certain rhythm to the performance, yet at the same time they symbolised primeval forms of existence or the pre-verbal stage of human development. Indeed, such an Artaudian devising technique developed a “unique language half- way between gesture and thought”9. In this context, the white bodies of the Butoh dancers in Bearman could also be regarded as semiotic signs and carriers of meaning.10 According to Japanese theatre scholar Gunji Masakatsu, the white colour in Butoh is ambiguous: “On the one hand, white represents a world with no colour whatsoever and is a sign of the world of the dead; on the other hand, it is a sign of the world of the living and denotes the white light of the sun”11 . This kind of in-betweenness added another layer to the concept of liminality explored in the performance.
Liminality in the work of individual performers is often explored through the problematic concept of authenticity, which is juxtaposed to acting and “pretending” in theatre. Performance artists frequently create works that are based on autobiographical experiences or questions of identity. Consequently, performing in performance art differs from acting in theatre, in which:
The performer goes from the “ordinary world” to the “performative world”, from one time / space reference to another, from one personality to one or more others. He plays a character, battles demons, goes into trance, travels to the sky or under the sea or earth: he is transformed, enabled to do things “in performance” he cannot do ordinarily.12
Instead of playing a fictitious character from a dramatic text, for example, Hamlet, performance artists are suspended in an in-between state in which they perform and act out themselves. For example, in her 2019 performance Genderbender artist Laura Šterna drew attention to the social pressure she constantly experiences because of her androgynous look. The forty-minute-long performance had a minimalistic mise-en-scène – there were just a few props, such as a bicycle and a mirror, and a screen on which various comments that she had heard in real life were projected (“Are you a girl or a boy?” “Hey, dude, pass the ball!” “Do you know that you’re in a women’s bathroom?”). During the performance, Šterna attempted to show that the binary representation of “male” and “female” is a form of social performance to adapt to society’s expectations. By putting on a feminine look with the help of make-up, high heels and a dress and then exchanging them for a boyish look with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, Šterna demonstrated that gender representation is performative and that, like her, some people do not belong to either of the binary categories – indeed, they are in- between. By engaging the spectators in the performance and asking them to help her wax her legs, Šterna also broke down the binary opposition between the viewer and performer. Such participatory experience was liminal to the viewers, because it made them question the prescribed rules, norms and order, as well as boundaries, between art and life.
Performance artists explore another aspect of liminality by testing their physical and psychological limits. Often such performances are durational and last several hours. Fischer-Lichte writes that liminality becomes especially apparent in performances involving self-injury:
These performances erase valid rules and norms and establish a state of radical betwixt and between for all participants, even for the artists inflicting injuries on themselves. In this situation a purely “aesthetic” response would border on voyeurism and sadism. Ethical responses, how-ever, contain the risk of violating the artist’s intentions. These performances plunge the spectators into a crisis.13
Although no artists have injured themselves at the Starptelpa festival, the threshold of endurance has been tested several times. For example, the Mørketid photography exhibition was organised as part of Starptelpa in 2019. It focused on the visualisation of depression by combining performance and photography. At the exhibition opening, artist Anna Maskava stood with her head bent down for two hours while pouring water on her head and long blonde hair. This repetitive, monotonous movement in the quiet gallery space, where only three to four spectators could enter at a time, gave rise to strong associations with the cyclical nature of depression, immobility and feelings of being trapped and caged. Some spectators were touched emotionally so powerfully that they wept. After the performance, Maskava acknowledged that she had lost the sense of time and experienced a state of trance during those two hours.
At the 2018 edition of the festival, artist Daniela Vētra in her performance The Unbearable Heaviness of Oxygen (Skābekļa nepanesamais smagums) asked the spectators to choose a stone, which was weighed and registered by her assistants. Then each spectator put their stone in a special costume worn by Vētra. The total weight of the stones reached 120 kilograms, and then Vētra – in the heavy costume – was lifted up in the air at least three metres above the ground. She proceeded to slowly get rid of the stones, throwing each stone down one by one and saying “thank you”. The spectators at this performance also experienced a liminal state, because Vētra had an attachable microphone and her heavy sighs indicated how hard it was to hold the stones on her tiny body. On a symbolic level, through her physical and mental distress Vētra showed that a person is able to endure only so much.14 Though she voluntarily took on the heaviness from others, she also retained control over the maximum limit.
Because liminality can also occur as a result of hybridity when artists integrate various modes of representation and technologies in their performances, Anda Lāce’s performance All the best! (Daudz laimes!) performed at Starptelpa in 2018 should also be mentioned.15 In it, Lāce worked with several layers of time: the objects (all kinds of crockery inherited from previous generations) represented the layer of past; the big screen behind the installation, where all the crockery was carefully placed in huge piles by the artist during the performance, projected the gaze of the artist that was tracked by a real-time camera attached to her head; and occasionally, the real-time frames were interrupted by a speedy rotation of photographs of the artist that could be found on the internet, registering yet another layer of time. the performance ended with Lāce smashing the crockery while balancing on the installation. not only did she literally and metaphorically destroy this heritage; she also referenced a culturally specific idiom about smashing crockery.16 To a certain degree, All the best! resonates with the performance by Vētra described previously, because both artists rid themselves of a burden.
To conclude, the concept of liminality not only in performance art, but also in the performing arts overall, can be examined from various perspectives. as such, it offers fertile ground for theatre and performance theoreticians. Liminality can be addressed from the point of view of the performers, audiences, engagement and interaction between performers and audiences, mise-en-scène, a system of semiotic signs, and the experience and integration of technologies. This list is not exhaustive, and the next Starptelpa festival will definitely bring new examples of liminality.
1 Fischer-Lichte, e. The Transformative Power of Performance. (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 157.
2 The concept of liminality, in which hierarchies and norms disappear, also resonates with Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival. Pursuant to Bakhtin’s definition, “carnivals are playful subversions of the established social and political order of things, which might otherwise appear fixed. through common practices of masquerade, the burning of effigies, the desecration of sacred objects and spaces, and excessive indulgences of the body, carnivals loosen the hold of the dominant order, breaking free – though only for a time – from law, tradition, and all that enforces normative social behavior” (Auslander 2008: 41–42).
3 Broadhurst, Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory. (Bloomsbury. 1999), 168.
4 ibid. 11–13.
5 An earlier attempt to define a theatre that would advocate a system of signs beyond the dramatic text was expressed by Antonin Artaud in his 1933 book Theatre and Its Double. From Artaud’s perspective, theatre should be seen as a rich source for semiotic experiments with a certain “visual language of objects, movements, attitudes, and gestures, but on condition that their meanings, their physiognomies, their combinations be carried to the point of becoming signs, making a kind of alphabet out of these signs” (Artaud 1958 : 90).
6 Every year, a new thematic scope is employed (liminality in 2018; control in 2019; ritual and myth in 2020).
7 For example, “Aijā žūžū, lāča bērni” (Hushaby, hushaby, bear cubs) is an ancient Latvian lullaby in which a bear is identified as a human, since according to ancient mythology, humans descended from bears. In fact, a motif from this particular lullaby was also integrated in the closing part of Bearman.
8 Westerveld, J. Liminality in Contemporary Art, 2011. http://www.judithwesterveld.nl/pressandpublications.html.
9 Artaud, A. The Theatre and Its Double. (New York: Grove Press, 1958 ), 84–100.
10 Another non-verbal and yet important component of the performance was revealed through the kinetic, revolving video projections created by the artist Gita Straustiņa. These projections not only served as instruments of stage design to add a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere, but also delivered the concept of the cosmic bear.
11 Masakatsu, G. Butoh and taboo. in: Baird, B., Candelario, r. (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Butoh Performance. (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), np.
12 Schechner, r. Between Theatre and Anthropology. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 126.
13 Fischer-Lichte, e. The Transformative Power of Performance. (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 176.
14 After the performance, Vētra said that at one point her rib cage was pressed so hard that it was difficult for her to breathe.
15 For this performance, Lāce was nominated for the prestigious Purvītis Prize in 2018.
16 When one accidentally smashes a plate or a cup in Latvia, it is perceived as a sign of luck and happiness.