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On Reenactment: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools

Cristina Baldacci
Susanne Franco


Witnessing Versus Belatedness: Representation, Reconstruction, and Reenactment

Mark Franko et Lucia Ruprecht

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1Mark Franko (Temple University, Philadelphia) and Lucia Ruprecht (Freie Universität Berlin) speak about the genesis of The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment (2017) which was edited by Mark Franko and weave its connection with The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Memory (forthcoming) that is currently being edited by Susanne Franco and Marina Nordera. Their discussion raises key issues in witnessing versus belatedness and what each term affords in relation to representation, reconstruction and reenactment of past dance events.

  • 1 Lucia Ruprecht, “Afterword: Notes after the Fact,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment(...)

LUCIA RUPRECHT: What we are meant to do today is actually a conversation about The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment that you edited and for which I wrote the afterword.1 I am so interested to hear more on how this handbook came about and what was important in its process for you.

MARK FRANKO: The reason I felt motivated to do such a handbook goes back to the 1980s when I was a dancer and an active choreographer working on some issues around historical dance. In particular, I was concerned with how to create the history effect in choreography. This question of historical sensibility – the problem of an unreconstructed audience – took as its object in my earliest work the Renaissance and the Baroque. But it had to do with issues that from today’s perspective are fundamentally connected to reenactment. I was working choreographically with the quotation of historical movement in a contemporary context. I say contemporary context in the sense that I was not attempting to simulate an unfamiliarity on the part of the dancer with their own technique. I was playing both with the way in which an audience receives historical materials through contemporary bodies and the way an audience can transit from a familiar to an unfamiliar apprehension of movement. The sensation of unfamiiarity would be what I call the history effect. This of course presented its own set of questions as it had to do with whether or not an audience assumes that what it is seeing is a reconstruction or not. Underneath this experiment was a question about historical experience itself in the reception of movement between distinctly unfamiliar material and recognizable references to pastness. And between these two the dancer’s contemporary body and contemporary movement acts as mediator. To support this process, I made use of the idea of the image choreographically. By mobilising visual intertexts, I sought to displace reconstruction as the interpretation of notation. Rendering movement as an image of itself captured by a tremulous coming to stillness acts as a very provocative counterpoint in my practice.
Later, when I first saw Urheben Aufheben (2008), the work of Martin Nachbar, and A Mary Wigman Dance Evening (2009) by Fabián Barba, I recognized something analogous happening in their evocations of earlier artists. There was an analogous question of mimesis: what can be represented and what cannot? How can someone who is obviously not the historical protagonist—someone of a different age, a different gender, a different training – actually embody the absent artist’s work? I really appreciated what they both brought in different ways to these questions, which is why, in the Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, I was careful to call reenactment a dramaturgical mode. This was the next step in what I had been doing in the 1980s even though it was now being done in a different way.
So, this was the first inspiration for the Handbook.

LR: This is really significant because for you everything started already in the 1980s, emerging out of a beautiful interaction between theory and practice that is still very much at the heart of our current thinking about reenactment.

MF: Yes, and dance critics accused me at that time of confusing theory and practice.

LR: For my part, I came to the field of reenactment rather late, around the time when you asked me to write the afterword for The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment. At that point, I had embarked on thinking about reenactment and historiography, and I had begun to develop my own project in the field. The afterword was a great opportunity to pull together the strands of this thinking. From the very beginning, I had a sense of “being late” and, when I sat down to write the afterword, this feeling became productive as I started to think about the parallels between the genre of reenactment and the genre of the afterword. “Being late” with regard to an original performance or the main body of a text became the crucible point which led me to organize the afterword around concepts of deferral, distortion, omission, and misunderstanding that are part of the idea of belatedness. When I tackled the task of writing an adequate afterword for a thirty-chapter book, I thought I could not deny the impossibility of the task itself.

  • 2 Anna Pakes, Choreography Invisible: The Disappearing Work of Dance (New York, Oxford University Pr (...)

MF: I loved the job you did on that afterword, and I think it took it into a theoretical space that was very powerful; you did in the afterword something I tried to do in the introduction. Which again stressed the presence of theory and dance as knowledge and the interaction taking place in reenactment between dance and the theory of history. Or, we could perhaps better say, dance and dance scholarship in relation to a theory of history.
So that dance itself takes position – and of course, this is controversial and can afford a lot of discussions – but dance itself plays the role of its own “history-maker” and, in so doing, changes history or supplements conventional history.
The other thing that relates to the belatedness that you brought in so appropriately in the afterword is the fact that many of the dramaturgical strategies – I think of Nachbar in particular – are very much about stressing that belatedness and not a knowing in person. In an interesting way, I think it contradicts very intentionally and provocatively the idea of memory as a form of embodied knowledge. It is still embodied but not embodied in the same way because it is not about contemporaneous living with and through the original. That is to say, in other words, that memory is something that has been theorized as living memory, as something that is transmitted from the living original doer to the secondary doer. But here there is an effort to deny that sense of livingness in memory. Belatedness makes an organic living connection impossible. And with that connection goes away the pretension to authenticity that drove many historical reconstructions of the era. Similarly, recently with reenactment the authentic presence of the creator (for instance, Dore Hoyer or Mary Wigman) upon which their own work was predicated was being confronted as impossible: yet the work was performed. So, we saw the absent work of choreography – what Anna Pakes has called “the disappearing work of dance”2 – as something emerging effectively from distance rather than closeness. To see something from a distance is to see it “historically.” This was a variant of the authenticity debate directed at aesthetic modernism whereas mine was directed at empirical trust in the early-modern document to materialize an absent body.

  • 3 Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: R (...)

LR: I agree with what you just said. Maybe we can return to this later in our conversation to follow up on your points about challenging embodied memory. Going back both to Martin Nachbar – who did an incredibly influential reenactment of Dore Hoyer’s cycle of dances (Affectos Humanos, 1962) that is now a theoretical reference in the field – and to what you proposed about the gap between remembrance as something lived and memory as something that happens at a historical distance. While preparing for our duet, I thought about what Rebecca Schneider called the “inadequacies of the copy,” and “what inadequacy gets right about our faulty steps backward”.3 Again, this is something I tried to approach in the afterword for The Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, and I think that Derrida’s concept of “restance” (in English remainder) is very useful here. “Restance” arises from the fact that there is always something that falls through the gaps in the grid of any synthesis. If we think of a reenactment as such a synthesis, there will always be elements of the historical performance that are no longer present in its belated recreation. Hence, authenticity in reenactment must always remain contested. But at the same time, traces of the past might resound precisely in the gaps, in the “restance” of things which are not retrieved, which are irretrievable. Something resonates there, so maybe this is one way in which we can approach the past in the non-positivistic genre of reenactment.
But anyway, what is interesting here, is the way in which we deal with the “inadequacy” or with the impossibility of approaching pastness.

MF: Yes, I think this is exactly right and also highlights what is unique about dance reenactment. Because in this mode, precisely what cannot be present becomes so through its very absence. This is almost an invocation through negativity or denial. Because I am not that, that will appear.
Staying with Nachbar and going back to the earlier 1980s, what you said also brings me back to the situation of Renaissance reconstructions – which were done mostly by musicologists that were very smart in the way that they analyzed the relationship of music to steps within the notated score. My critique was always that the process that created them was lifeless: it had no theatrical reality.
I will not go into all of them now but, speaking with one of those reconstructors who said that the reason why he did not want to “perform” the choreography in the present was precisely because he did not want to get in the way of the choreography itself. In other words, he believed that he could show the choreography simply by not performing it; or maybe he thought that he could enact it by behaving properly with the measures, rhythmic expressions and distribution of movement but that he would not do anything more because otherwise he would have gotten in the way of the choreography. While I understood the point, I immediately thought that actually it did not work. This was the obverse of what reenactment would come to be. By affirming the object in and of itself reconstruction secured its effective absence.
If we go back to more contemporary reenactments, it seems to me that precisely by withdrawing from the source – in the case of Nachbar the source is Dore Hoyer – what emerges is the choreography. Choreography is being conveyed by the performer and also distanced from the performer. Paradoxically, this engenders a very powerful sensation of presence.

LR: I remember a performance I saw last summer in Berlin at the Akademie der Künste during a festival on dance history. Instead of proposing a reenactment, they showed an interesting example of a historical reconstruction, and I struggled with a feeling I had while watching it.
It was a 2017 reconstruction of Mary Wigman’s Dance of the Dead by the dance company at the Theatre Osnabrück in Germany under the direction of choreographer Henrietta Horn. With the help of former Wigman pupils, Horn and her company restaged a few major works of Wigman in recent years, among them the reconstruction of her 1957 Le Sacre du Printemps.
When I saw Dance of the Dead on stage, I immediately thought of a 1926 photograph of one of these dances that seemed to be almost exactly recreated in the performance. While this was fascinating, it also left me irritated because I felt that I was presented with something like a historical fetish, a glamorous spectacle that denied the absence of the past, covering this absence up, as it were. So, while I was excited to experience a performance that looked like it could have been in the 1920s, I was also disappointed by what seemed to be a form of unreflected disavowal of irretrievability. This led me to think about how to know, describe, and understand the feelings we have as spectators when we are in front of reconstructions or reenactments.

MF: Precisely: I love your formulation “denies the absence of that reconstruction, denies the absence of the past performance”.

LR: It is indeed almost fetishistic, but not knowingly so.

MF: In attempting to reproduce the past, there is convoluted communication between the stage and the spectator. What is denied is the denial of its absence. Paradoxically, the acceptance of its absence conjures its presence; the assertion of its absence, the insistence on its absence, is what enables something to presentify itself.
I think this is the fascinating crux of reenactment, at least this is what attracted me: this mutation.
There is a certain work that has to be done on the part of the spectator that reconstruction for its part disavows. It disavows the work or what I call work – maybe it is more of a Freudian “working through”, or what Sigmund Freud actually named “reconstruction” and allows the essential affect to emerge.
So, the point is precisely that emergence of affectivity. Reenactments made me think about issues of spatiality in relation to things like documents. What assures the historical real is some form of document – all the archival resources one can assemble – whereas the document itself as something that occupies space, like clothing or jewels that belonged to the original doer and gain a true documentary value, become aspects of the true real once they occupy space with us in our present. This is different from the fetishization of the image as the moment of totalizing meaning.
I remember hearing a very inspiring talk by Martin Puchner on theatrical reenactment. He touched on several interesting points. One of them is that the stage is always elevated but reenactments take place normally on the ground because the ground can be a documented site of historical action (as in a specific geographical location and the earth lying about in that location), whereas the elevation of the stage is an ideal – so that the return to the ground is typical of reenactment which needs to replicate certain conditions exactly. He also gave examples of performances for which earth from specific locations was transported across the world so as to be able to be used as the ground – or the Brechtian idea that one should not create costumes but instead use lived-in clothing as costumes.
This notion of the livingness that is supposedly part of embodied memory, but in reality is to be found in the spatial surroundings, starts to invade objects rather than people then; it is an animation of the object, and the choreography is such an object itself that also becomes animated before us. It is an event score that takes on a life in attendance of emergence – the metaphor of the mid-wife that suggests itself – without actually embodying that emergence directly. Something here happens on the part of the audience that I think we do not understand very well yet. But in these cases, perhaps we can say that distance – the situation of non-embodiment – is the very condition of embodiment. There is something here that works against more conventional notions of embodiment familiar to dancers and dance scholars.

  • 4 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works (1930 (...)
  • 5 Mark Franko, “Introduction: The Power of Recall in a Post-Ephemeral Era,” in The Oxford Handbook o (...)

LR: This last point calls up issues of spectrality rather than liveness in reenactment: something – you suggested affectivity – emerges that can only do so in the interplay between the “psyche” of the audience and what it encounters on stage, in a process that happens at once inside and outside. You also brought up the issue of Freudian “working-through,” which I wrote about in the afterword in relation to another piece by Martin Nachbar, where he danced with his father and engaged with inherited bodily traits. In light of this issue, what might be interesting now is to think about Susanne Franco’s Mnemedance project – which is our “umbrella” here – with regard to Freud’s essay about “remembering, repeating and working-through”.
“Working-through” – in terms of both a spectatorial and a choreographic attitude – is intimately tied to memory and to memory processes. How then can we link The Handbook of Dance and Reenactment with The Handbook on Dance and Memory that Susanne Franco and Marina Nordera are editing in the framework of the Mnemedance project?
I reread some contributions of the handbook and I noticed that concepts of reenactment are theorized very well but concepts of memory remain vague. It would be good to gain a better understanding of memory in/as dance by rethinking it and using the work that dance scholarship has done on reenactment. Coming from reenactment, we might want to begin to address memory through all those highly articulated theorizations of belatedness; and, why not, perhaps also through Freud. There is no primacy of presence in Freud, on the contrary, in his view we live belatedly, so that the present is always intensely structured and defined by the past.
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud holds that “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish”.4 If we think about it from the perspective of reenactment, this tenet itself gains new leverage. Freud already posed the question of how to represent all the temporal layers of that which has (not) perished. There is a famous passage in Civilization about the impossible model of Rome with all its archaeological layers coexisting at once. It echoes our reflections on reenactment and its forms of multitemporal representation: what you call in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment “hetero-temporality” or “inter-temporality”. But to be more specific, one of the central questions of reenactment is of course how to think “gesture” in time. You address all this succinctly in your introduction to the handbook when you write: “The reenactment of dance is always already enmeshed in overlapping temporalities, thanks to which the notion of historical time as chronicle time becomes destabilized by an uncertain historicity hinging on gesture”.5

  • 6 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  • 7 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham a (...)

MF: Well, you think about Freud in relation to this matter, which is a great choice. I am a little bit more inclined to go toward Walter Benjamin within the idea of the fragment, quotation, citation, and so on.
But memory is a very vast topic and there is also a danger in this being a very vast topic. I am sure the editors will find a way to bring it into relation to dance in a way that will not limit the reflections of the writers but will yet still focus on them. Moving out from reenactment toward questioning memory itself seems like a very logical process. And you are right that it is now time to think about memory more directly in relation to dance production.
Of course, memory seems absolutely embedded in the very “presential” phenomenon of dance. Even going back to the Italian Renaissance, when the early treatise writers like Domenico da Piacenza collected all of the different terms that were essential to dancing under the term “memoria”. Memory was the key term. It is curious that it has always been the master category. So, there is something about memory that is functionally embedded in dance, at least historically speaking. Of course, there is also the very broad notion of “cultural memory” – and I am thinking of Connerton’s book How Societies Remember in which he did not deal with corporeal processes at all.6
Within the dance field there is a tendency to think about living an embodied memory as the only way in which memory is effectively sustained, and reenactment is telling us actually something different.
See, for example, Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire.7 There is something more archival or textual about how dance can work with and through memory or some form of memory. Just the awareness that there is something called the past could be thought of as memory.

  • 8 Mark Franko, “Epilogue to an Epilogue: Historicizing the Re- in Danced Reenactment,” in The Oxford (...)

LR: I agree. And I should add of course that memory has been a topic in dance studies before the emergence of the term reenactment. In this sense, we are coming back to memory again and again, now through concepts of reenactment. So, maybe, what is important is to think how to grasp that extremely broad category called memory with the help of reenactment theory.
At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned Fabián Barba’s A Mary Wigman Dance Evening, which many of us will have seen. Thinking about it once more, there is one image in my head right now that brings back what you said about a Brechtian use of costume; even though the costume is not an original one in this case. It also brings back your discussion of “dis-tanz” in your chapter Epilogue to an Epilogue as part of The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment. German for “distance”, “Distanz” includes “Tanz” (dance), suggesting a distance that is constitutive of dance as an art of reperformance. The kind of reconstruction that is at stake in Barba’s (and Nachbar’s) work “is not a representation of the past”, you argue, “but its reinstitution as interval, its reproduction as simultaneously distance and proximity”.8 In the performance of Barba’s Mary Wigman Evening that I watched, the zip of one of the dresses that they wore was partly undone: this material gap was like the interval, indicating a rupture between present and past, while actually embodying this past. It was very powerful to witness this.

MF: Absolutely, we have not spoken too much about Fabián Barba’s work here today, but it presents a number of other possibilities because its affective nature is so powerful. It is less a question of choreography than of the spectral presence of movement itself in its affective configuration. What emerges there for me is an affective turn in choreography.
I initially had not seen it live but when I got to see it – as I was working with them on another piece – , even the way their face slides off the stage at you in the first number – Seraphic Song – makes it seem that they are channelling something there. The production of intense affect was part of early Modernism and Barba not only evokes that, they make it powerful and unavoidable.
In other words, I connected to those things because my early training with Paul Sanasardo was partly Wigmanian, through his early training in Chicago, with Beatrice Strongstoff, and in Washington, DC with Erika Thimey. But I wonder whether the audience really realizes what is coming at them from the past, what is being channelled and sent out toward us? What is the meaning of this resurgence of affect in contemporary dance?
It might sound a bit crazy but, when we were on tour in Argentina, ghosts actually appeared on the stage and a person sitting next to me saw them as well. So, there is something incantatory going on thanks to his very precise research and performance. It presents another paradigm – no longer that of distance exactly – that we have not dealt with today.

LR: This is a perfect closing statement! But it is also an opening up, so perhaps there is no better way to end.

MF: Hopefully something spectral will emerge from this opening up.


1 Lucia Ruprecht, “Afterword: Notes after the Fact,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, ed. Mark Franko (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017): 607-19.

2 Anna Pakes, Choreography Invisible: The Disappearing Work of Dance (New York, Oxford University Press, 2020).

3 Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011): 6.

4 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works (1930 [1929]), in Civilization and its Discontents: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XXI (1927-1931), ed. by James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1961): 68.

5 Mark Franko, “Introduction: The Power of Recall in a Post-Ephemeral Era,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018): 2.

6 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

7 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003).

8 Mark Franko, “Epilogue to an Epilogue: Historicizing the Re- in Danced Reenactment,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018): 501.


Mark Franko is a Laura H. Carnell professor in Dance at Temple University. He has published eight books, including Choreographing Discourses: A Mark Franko Reader (2018) and The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: French Interwar Ballet and the German Occupation (2020). Franko is editor of the Handbook of Dance and Reenactment (2017) and founding editor of the Oxford Studies in Dance Theory book series. He is recipient of the 2011 Outstanding Scholarly Research in Dance Award of the Congress in Research in Dance. Also an artist, his choreography has been produced at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival, Berlin Werkstatt Festival, Getty Center, Montpellier Opera, Toulon Art Museum, Haggerty Art Museum (Milwaukee), Akademie der Künste (Berlin), Mozarteum (Salzburg), STUK festival (Leuven), Centro Cultural San Martín (Buenos Aires), and in New York City and San Francisco venues. Franko is recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.

Lucia Ruprecht is professor in Dance Studies at Free University of Berlin. She has published widely on dance, literature, and film. She is the author of Gestural Imaginaries: Dance and Cultural Theory in the Early Twentieth Century (2019) and Dances of the Self in Heinrich von Kleist, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Heinrich Heine (2006, special citation of the de la Torre Bueno Prize). She has edited Towards an Ethics of Gesture (special section of “Performance Philosophy”, 2017) and co-edited (with S. Manning) New German Dance Studies (2012), (with M. Minden) Cultural Pleasure (special issue of German Life & Letters 62/3, 2009), and (with A. Webber, C. Duttlinger) Performance and Performativity in German Cultural Studies (2003). She is preparing (with M. Diagne, E. Wittrock) Queering Dance Modernism: Sexuality and Race on Stage (special issue of Dance Research Journal 54/2, 2022), and (with B. Brandl-Risi) Handbuch Literatur & Performance (2023).


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