Interweaving Cultures in Performance: Different States of Being In-Between

As I have argued in my recent book The Transformative Power of Performance, performances epitomize the state of in-betweenness.[1] These states give rise to performances, because they take place through the bodily co-presence of those who perform and those who look on. Whatever the performers do affects the participating spectators; and whatever the spectators do affects the performers and other spectators. Thus, a performance comes into being only during its course. It arises from the interaction of performers and spectators.

It follows here that its course cannot be entirely planned or predicted. Performances rely on autopoietic processes involving participants, performers, and spectators alike and are characterized by a high degree of contingency. The exact course of a performance cannot be foreseen at its beginning. Even if performers set the decisive preconditions for the progression of a performance – preconditions that are determined by a set of rules or the process of the mise en scène, they are not in a position to fully control the course of the performance. Many elements emerge during a performance as a consequence of certain interactions.

In other words, over its course a performance creates the possibility for all the participants to experience themselves as a subject that can co-determine the actions and behaviour of others and whose own actions and behaviour are similarly determined by others. The individual participants – be they performers or spectators – experience themselves as subjects that are neither fully autonomous nor fully determined by others; subjects that accept responsibility for a situation which they have not created but which they participate in.

Given that performances arise out of the encounter of different groups of people who negotiate and regulate their relationship in different ways, performances cannot transmit given meanings. Instead, they themselves bring forth the meanings that come into being over their course. Therefore, a seventeenth century court festival cannot be understood as the realization of a given allegorical programme; nor can the political mass spectacles of modern times be seen to represent an individual’s power, like that of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, or Hitler; nor can a theatre performance using a particular dramatic text be regarded as transmitting its fixed meanings or particular interpretations. While the organizers or directors may have intended for it to be so, the actual performance emerges out of the encounter between performers and spectators, with unforeseen reactions and responses constantly changing the planned course.

The Spectrum of Liminality

Due to the inherent in-betweenness of performance, its participants, too, are automatically transferred into an in-between state – such as the state between co-determining the course of a performance and being determined by it. Referring to Victor Turner’s theorization of such a state, I have characterized the experience participants undergo over the course of a performance as a liminal experience. This holds true for all kinds of performance – in the arts, in rituals, sports competitions, festivals, games, or political events. Within that spectrum, however, we may distinguish various types of liminal experience, which Turner labelled the state of being ‘betwixt and between’.[2]

Some liminal experiences might lead up to a particular goal. Such goals might consist of socially recognized changes in status; the generation of winners and losers; the creation of communities; the legitimization of claims to power; the creation of social bonds; or simply entertainment. Other liminal experiences turn the very journey into the goal. Such liminal experiences in particular characterize artistic performances, which is why I have labelled these aesthetic experiences. That is to say, aesthetic experience concerns the experience of a threshold – a passage; here, the emphasis lies on the very process of transition. In contrast, non-aesthetic liminal experiences concern the transition and resulting transformation into something.

This brief sketch of the in-betweenness of performance will serve as starting point for my further deliberations. The emphasis on in-betweenness reveals that performances become particularly suitable sites for processes to take place between people within but also outside of the same milieu, religion, social status, gender, ethnic group, nation, or culture. Therefore, it seems particularly promising to examine processes of cultural exchange in performance.

As far as neighbouring cultures are concerned, such exchanges can be traced back to ancient times. During the Nara period (ad 646–794) in Japan, for example, the courtly dance bugaku and the didactic Buddhist dance gigaku evolved, based on Chinese and Korean forms of musical theatre. The history of European theatre is replete with similar examples. In their performances, groups of English comedians travelling across the continent in the late sixteenth century allowed for exchanges between English and German culture that led to the development of a professional theatre in German-speaking countries. In France, Molière established a new kind of comical theatre by fusing the French farcical tradition with elements from commedia dell’arte in his performances. In this way, different cultures were interwoven through performance.

The above-mentioned examples all refer to the interweaving of neighbouring cultures that share a number of features. Rare exceptions include the introduction of Jesuit school plays in Japan during the brief period of proselytization that left traces in the new theatre form Kabuki when it was established by Okuni between 1600 and 1610. Voltaire’s tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine, which premiered at the Comédie Française in 1755, based on Ji Junxiang’s Chinese opera Zhaoshi gu’er (The Orphan from the House of Zhao), dating to the Yuan dynasty (1280–1367), serves as another example here. In both cases, theatrical elements from an otherwise largely unfamiliar culture were seamlessly incorporated into the native culture via performance and adapted to its specific needs.

From the beginning of the twentieth century such transfers from one culture into another obtained an entirely different status and dimension. Since the mid-nineteenth century, European travellers had increasingly brought home detailed accounts of diverse, predominantly Asian, performing arts. Half a century later, the first Japanese and Chinese troupes arrived in Europe. During their often extensive sojourns, they presented their performances before audiences accustomed to very different performance conventions. European theatre artists such as Reinhardt, Craig, Meyerhold, Tairov, Brecht, Artaud, and many others drew inspiration from these guest performances, incorporated certain elements and practices into their productions, and created entirely new theatre forms for their European audiences.

Likewise, Japanese performing artists came to Europe to collaborate with Stanislavsky, Reinhardt, and Meyerhold. Based on their exposure to European realistic and psychological theatre, they founded a new theatre form upon their return to Japan – shingeki, a form of spoken theatre. It was received enthusiastically by Tokyo’s Chinese students, who went on to establish the Chinese spoken theatre form huaju in Shanghai shortly thereafter.

  1. Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: a New Aesthetics (London; New York: Routledge, 2008). This paper was given as a keynote lecture at the 14th Performance Studies International conference, ‘Interregnum: In Between States’, in Copenhagen, 20–24 August 2008 and is published in: Erika Fischer-Lichte. “Interweaving Cultures in Performance: Different States of Being In-Between.” New Theatre Quarterly 25, pp. 391-401 (doi:10.1017/S0266464X09000670). []
  2. Cf. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (London; New York: Routledge, 1969), p. 95. []

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