The mirror and the empty stage

Raimund Hoghe's staging of desire

Shadow Bodies 2006English
in Jeroen Peeters (ed.), Schaduwlichamen. On Philipp Gehmacher and Raimund Hoghe / Shadow Bodies. On Philipp Gehmacher and Raimund Hoghe, CC Maasmechelen, 2006, pp.106-118

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The woman in the blue bathing suit and high-heeled shoes is storming onstage protesting loudly that she does not need help from anybody.  It is Jo An Endicott in Pina Bausch’s piece Walzer from 1982. Peremptorily  she commands that a table be brought and an apple. In a mixture of aggression and self-assertiveness she bites of pieces and gulps them down ferociously. While she is destroying  the piece of fruit her veneer is slowly falling apart until, at the end  of the scene,  she is reduced to a sopping mess. Breaking down she  asks for her colleagues to support her.
    Raimund Hoghe, during the 1980s  a dramaturge with Pina Bausch, remembers this scene in his own piece  Tanzgeschichten , stories about dance in 2003. Jo Ann Endicott, just like Meryl Tankard,  was ‘one of the strong screaming women of Pina Bausch’s  Tanztheater Wuppertal. But I am tired of screaming people on stage’, Hoghe comments, circling the edges of the stage, even kicking off his shoes in excitement. In the vast empty space a young man is squatting  on his heels behind a neat nest of  brown coffee beans.  ‘And therefore I do what I do’, Hoghe continues, his gaze alternately directed towards the audience and the young man who is completely self-absorbed. ‘And I do it together with him. Lorenzo de Brabandere. Just so years old. A good football player and always causing me to cross boundaries. And I follow this young one because he’s great. He’s strong. He’s not afraid of me’.
    All the while, Raimund Hoghe is screaming at the top of his voice. Although he has just confessed to being tired of screaming people on stage, this tiredness ironically does not apply to himself. Almost angrily he hurls out his justification of why he does what he does, to the audience and to his critics, who think, in this context, it is alright for women to scream on stage but don’t think it is an appropriate thing for men to do. Why? In an act of substitution the screaming women are replaced by screaming men in general and Raimund Hoghe in particular. Female hysteria, which is a physical manifestation of repressed desire, is metonymically passed on to Hoghe and the male sex. This operation identifies screaming women and screaming men in the fact that both their ‘acts’ speak of thwarted desire for an object that may not he had or possessed. In Tanzgeschichten Lorenzo de Brabandere stands in for this forbidden fruit.
    Gay desire, men desiring other men, has become increasingly prominent in Raimund Hoghe’s recent pieces Sacre - The Rite of Spring (2004) and  Swan Lake, 4 Acts (2005). It has caused increased anxiety amongst many critics, who think the pieces, given that Hoghe is gay, are either too personal in their tragic failure of desire (they are said to be overburdened with emotion verging on kitsch), or they reproach him for ‘taking on the weight of the world’ and producing only shallow, empty rituals. (1)  Would they have said the same thing if one of the two men had not been a man in his
fties with a deformation of the back, but rather another youngster? Would they have made the same remarks if it had been a man and a woman whose desires fail just as often? Isn’t failed heterosexual desire the reason why we enjoy ballets like Giselle or Swan Lake? Why is it then that a homosexual version suddenly becomes too personal for heterosexuals to enjoy? Who has the right to desire and who would be better not bothering us with his? Whose desire is worthy of representation? The issue of gay desire is thus closely linked with one of the main political issues of Raimund Hoghe's work: A deformed body like his should by rights not be seen on stage.
    In this article I will look at Hoghe’s strategies of staging desire. I will mainly focus on Sacre - The Rite of Spring and Swan Lake, 4 Acts. The question that will lead me through my article is: Does desire ever succeed or is it structurally destined always to fail? If this is the case, then Raimund Hoghe puts his
ngeron a general issue that is too close to home, and not only for female critics: He stages the Reality of desire that we do not want to see.


Tanzgeschichten begins with a typical scene that can be found in a great many variants in almost all of Raimund Hoghe’s non-solo pieces: the mirror. A black curtain covers the back wall of the theatre, leaving small entrances en either side. With their naked hacks to the audience, Raimund Hoghe enters on the left and Lorenzo de Brabandere enters on the right. Hoghe is wearing a pair of black trousers, de Brabandere’s are white. Step by step they approach each other slowly, stepping sideways towards the middle. With each step they let a handful of coffee beans run down their respective backs, carefully at rst, so that the beans sound like gentle raindrops falling on the ground. While Tchaikovsky’s waltz from The Nutcracker plays, their gestures become more and more agitated and stylized until in the end they throw the beans high in the air like fountains of water. Finally, they stand in front of each other, Hoghe turning around to face his partner while covering his back with a black T-shirt.
    The black and white colour scheme returns in Swan Lake, 4 Acts. In the context of this speci
c piece, it is of course reminiscent of the black and the white swans, Odile and Odette, the princess transformed into a swan by the sorcerer Rothbart. In Hoghe’s interpretation, the roles, however, are not clearly dened. Both the men could be either a swan or the prince, or, as a matter of fact, neither of the two. I will return to that point shortly. Here too an exchange of T-shirts takes place. When Lorenzo de Brabandere appears he again faces Raimund Hoghe, who takes off his white T-shirt, his deformed back showing to the audience. He hands it to de Brabandere, who trades in his black T-shirt, thereby hinting at some kind of reciprocal relation between them. The position of the two men in space marks the middle axis of the stage thus dividing it into two equal halves that mirror each other. Here they stand, the palms of their hands pressing against each other, their bodies leaning towards each other. Here they lie on the floor, with Hoghe on his knees, head bowed down, arms stretched out like the wings of a swan while he carries de Brabandere prostrate on his back.
    Sacre thrives on this double act. They kneel in front of each other, holding hands while their upper bodies lean backwards. They lie on the floor, head touching head, Hoghe on his stomach with his arms resting on either side ofhis body, de Brabandere lying on his back with his arms stretched out sideways. In one of the climactic scenes of the piece, they both lie on their backs touching each other with their feet when they start kicking each other across the stage. Their heads roll sideways, their bodies curve slightly upwards to pick up the impulse. If it went on for much longer, they would he kicking themselves into an orgasm.
    In Swan lake, 4 Acts, these symmetrical arrangements have one focal point: Raimund Hoghe. From the beginning it is made clear that we are witnessing his dream of Swan Lake. Standing in front of a small model theatre made of paper, Hoghe, again taking the exact central axis of the stage, watches his fellow dancers Ornella Balestra, Nahil Yahia-Aissa and Brynjar Bandlien appear behind the scenes, taking their seats in a row of chairs lining the back walls. It looks as though he is conjuring them up, making them appear on his stage,  and it is he who brings them to life like  a puppeteer without even touching them. Hoghe releases them from their positions as spectators leading them one after the other onto the stage where they perform small sequences of movement reminiscent of the vocabulary of Swan Lake. The gentle swaying movements of the arm, the hand crossing the heart before it is  raised for the oath. When they have
nished he accompanies them back to their seats.
    Hoghe turns the stage into a stage of (his) desire. He mirrors himself in de Brabandere, arranging the other dancers to support not only his, but also their own fantasy. The stage itself is a mirror of Swan Lake, with the performers remembering playing themselves performing their former roles from Swan Lake. Balestra was once a ballerina with Maurcie Béjart, and Brynjar Bandlien has worked with John Neumeier. This strategy of a mise-en-abîme of mirrors mirroring themselves can be extended to the gay topic of the production. In Swan lake the composer Tchaikovsky mirrored his own  gay desire in the heterosexual desire of the prince towards an ideal woman, and vice versa. Hoghe then mirrors this mirrored primal scene back, thus reflecting the gay subtext of the piece and making it appear. But the mirrors do not reproduce or represent Swan Lake. There is no narrative to follow and to hold on to. In order to make desire appear as desire (and not as desire for a  particular person or  object), the mirrors have to distort the piece into little fragments and glowing details. The result is an anamorphosis of the piece that shifts its traditional centre out of perspective and draws into the endless flight  ot the mise-en-abîme. The focus of the anamorphosis is the loss as the Reality of Desire that as the Reality can never appear or be represented as such. It speaks of its ontological emptiness and nothingness.
    How do those mirror effects I have described
t into this? First of all, they articulate a desire for a particular person or object: Lorenzo de Brabandere (gay desire). Secondly, they transcend this particular object by marking it as always already lost (desire as desire). De Brabandere, of course, is the object of desire. Yet at the same time he is not, because he is merely a physical vessel, a positive form or shape, for all the other absent lost objects. Thus, to reduce the piece to some autobiographical dilemma (older man craving for young boy) on the part of the choreographer, is to miss the point.
This marking of the loss, which we may
nd so disagreeable to watch, may occur precisely because the mirror situation is played out to the full. In all these symmetrical arrangements the two of them can never come together. A hidden wall or the surface of the mirror separates them. It keeps them at bay while all the time promising contact. When they lean forward, putting all their weight onto the palms pressing against each other, they enter into a play of mutual trust that balances their bodies. But they also have to push away from each other in order not to fall. The game of give and take, of impulses and weight, assumes an aggressive undertone. Lorenzo de Brabandere appears as an image-ideal that Raimund Hoghe desires. I want you (or to be you),but I cannot be you. The black and white clothes may also be read as positive and negative versions of a photo print.
    What these mirror scenes do is to draw attention to the incommensurability of the subject formed by identi
cation. The mirror leads the subject astray, because its image literally approaches you from somewhere else, where you are not physically present. De Brabandere approaches Hoghe from the dark unknown region at the back of the stage as a phantom, in the same way as all the other dancers are phantoms of the imagination. Hoghe stages a fixation on an image- ideal that will not yield, that will neither move away completely nor obey. The result is an impasse. Neither moving nor standing still, the image clings onto you, but you can never be in it. You can never be in the image identical to your object of desire.


In her famous 1964 essay Notes on a camp, Susan Sontag lists Swan Lake as one the prime camp experiences.(2) Ever since then it has become clear even to a wider public that Swan Lake has a strong hold on the gay imagination.  Of course there have been lots of gay interpretations of the subject ranging from John Neumeier’s fantasy about Prince Siegfried and the Bavarian King Ludwig II to Bertrand d‘At who made it very clear that the prince was much more interested in his Playmate Benno than any of the female suitors at court. But none of them laid bare the structures of this elusive thing called desire in the way Raimund Hoghe’s production does.
Swan Lake was written and composed in a somewhat turbulent time inTchaikovsky’s life in the winter of 1875/76.  Rumours about his homosexuality were circulating and the composer was looking for someone to marry to ‘silence the pack’ as he wrote in a letter to his brother Modest. In the summer of 1877, just months after the premiere of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow he married the young Antonia Ivanova. Even though it was agreed from the outset that their marriage would he based only on friendship, Tchaikovsky couldn’t even muster that. He felt disgust for the woman and in October of the same year he suffered a nervous breakdown and never saw his wife again.
    Apart from such, somewhat short-sighted,biographical identi
cations (because Tchaihovsky was gay, his protagonist must he as well), there are other reasons why the ballet has such a strong hold on the gay emotional household. First, it offers various possibilities for (cross-gender) identication. Second, while making this possible, the ballet at the same time unmasks the masquerade that covers the charade that is desire. There is no ‘natural’ desire that would make homosexual desire look perverse. This simultaneous doing, over-doing and undoing is, I think, responsible for Susan Sontag’s ‘camp’ verdict. The ballet already thrives on too much emotion that appears articially fabricated. Yet it does so with much precision, care and seriousness.
    Freud in his eternal wisdom gives several explanations for homosexual object choice without favouring one or the other or even ruling out other hitherto unknown explanations. They all refer more or less to the castration anxiety of the little boy. A strong identi
cation with the mother leads to a xation of libido. By choosing other men, the boy remains faithfull to the mother as an ideal love object. This is related to the second explanation: He avoids conict with the father (and other men) over the mother, thereby renouncing all women as future love objects. In the middle, there is a third explanation that Freud calls narcissistic. His reluctance to give up the penis results from the discovery that women don’t have a penis, i.e. that they have been castrated. The homosexual object choice would then be a denial of castration.(3)
    The three reasons betray a somewhat paradoxical relation towards women. Whereas in the
rst explanation women, in the blueprint of the mother, are idealized, in the third they are abhorred. These conicting impulses may, however, he brought together in the gure of the phallic mother. This phallic mother has never been castrated. It is therefore not necessary to be appalled by her. She is an ideal loving the boy. And yet the mother with a penis is nothing but a fantasy of a powerfully endowed woman who never existed outside the boy’s imagination The strap-on supplement of an imaginary penis, the phallus,  turns her into an  idealized object of desire that may, however, never be fulfilled precisely because she is an imaginary figure outside the realm of reality.

In the context of the Swan Lake the swan princess Odette is the crucial figure. She is a woman masquerading as a swan, i.e. she is an object of fantasy. She does not appear as herself but as something else that, for Prince Siegfried, has a strange and strong alluring power. The attraction towards that supplement is so strong that he even mistakes the black swan Odile in the third act for the woman he swore to be faithful to. It does not matter who is ‘really’ behind the guise. As long as the guise is the right one, desire will be set in motion. In fact there is no desire without the little phallic supplements attracting its attention.
    The swan offers at least two possibilities for gay identification. The prince imagines being the princess. He wants to be lived like his mother is loved, namely by other men. Following from that the prince could direct his yearning towards the swan, who is the phallic mother and therefore always already lost. With much pathos this of course increases the yearning, hinting at the fact that all is not as it appears. In this case the swan would be only the ideal supplement, turning the princes’ desire towards other men. The princess is a boy the prince is in love with. Here the importance of the spell the swans are under becomes evident. It is equivalent to a period of sexual latency, the outcome of which remains uncertain but full of promise because it opens up possibilities of change. Once the spell has been lifted, castration might be avoided and the swans might actually mature or mutate into men. Or so one hopes.
    Raimund Hoghe stages this intricate play of fantasy by stressing the imaginary relationship between himself and Lorenzo De Brabandere, between the prince and the swan, between a man and a man. If all women, in order to be desired, need to turn themselves into phallic supplements for men, the subtext of heterosexual desire would be gay male desire which has to be repressed. (4) Hoghe’s Swan Lake, 4 Acts is the return of the repressed: he portrays gay male desire, uncovering the masquerade that the original Swan Lake staged so elaborately - and visibly so for those who know about masquerades: gay men and women. All objects of desire are under a spell. We are all swans in the imagination of the other. We all mirror each other in an ideal that we may never possess. Desire is based on distance to the object and on the unreachable which produces  images to lure us  into false closeness.


Swan Lake, 4 Acts, like Sacre - The Rite of Spring and all other pieces by Raimund Hoghe take place on an almost empty stage. The emptiness underlines the theatre’s position as an architectural and symbolic structure. It also underlines the emptiness of the symbolic structure made up entirely of historically contingent behavioural codes and regulations. When we go to the theatre we are subjected and subject to its laws. They are not ontological givens, but we have to accept them and believe in them for the theatre to do anything for and with us. We have to behave like an audience sitting in the dark watching something that is presented to us up there, beyond the divide that constitutes that other realm, the stage. Up there the performers have to behave like performers, establishing a ctional reality as if it were real.
The symbolic structure of the theatre, like any other symbolic structure, gives the subject a place from which to speak. The theatre is a space where his or her desire may be articulated. By leaving the stage almost entirely empty, Raimund Hoghe again focuses on the structural function of the theatre. Its empty space is the space of desire. Here it is given ample room to circle around the objects and  mirror images that attract its attention like lures. The emptiness highlights the individual images and  objects. But its vastness also underlines their precarious, delicate and fragile status as imaginary images always on the verge of disappearing and becoming lost. The emptiness is the place for the audience on stage where, by all rules of theatre, it can never be. Our desire to see,  to observe, to imagine, to remember and to touch is given space to circulate precisely because the stage is empty. We projects ourselves up there where we are not,  because in our role as audience we always sit down here.
    Within this symbolic void that is the theatre, Raimund Hoghe introduces gay desire as a structural variant of the mechanisms of desire in general. He confronts us with the excluded (and therefore with ourselves) and asks for its right  to be represented and acknowledged.(5)


Objects play a crucial role in all  Hoghe’s mirror images, charades and empty  spaces. In Sacre – Rite of Spring it is a bowl of water used for cooling. In Swan Lake, 4 Acts ice cubes are lined up neatly on stage. In other pieces, curtains, cards, candles,  lamps,  sand and pictures were used repeatedly and  extensively. As such, the objects Raimund Hoghe uses are completely meaningless in the context of the pieces. Swan Lake, 4 Acts  does not require ice cubes  neatly arranged in a pattern. And yet they acquire meaning in the way they are used and in the context they are placed. As in Walter Benjamin’s theory of  melancholy, these objects wait to be acted upon  and with in order to be meaningful. Like Benjamin’s letters, these objects appeal to the reader to read that ‘which was never written,’ (6) as Benjamin puts it, because it was only ever given in the empty space in between. Meaning is thus produced as a way of presenting the objects in relation to each other. This performative act in the here and now of the theatrical situation draws attention to the space or even the stage where these congurations are allowed to present themselves. In this space they only exist as meaningful actions or constellations because they are looked at by a spectator who actively produces their meaning.(7)
    The objects link memory and desire. Desire is memory. Memory is desire. Desire only exists because we remember a former desire, and memory only exists because we desire what we have lost and will never know or possess. Hoghe uses and re-uses these objects as supplements for desire to gain a positive face. Their changing constellations do not represent desire. These con
gurations map out desire in the empty spaces in between. In Lacanian terminology they would be objets a, meaning they stand in for emptiness. They give us something to mirror ourselves in. They temporarily ll the emptiness in order to help us along and open up possibilities. We need them in order to project ourselves into that which we call life, with its constant charades that arise from linking memory arid desire. Without the charades and its mirrors we wouldn’t exist. We need Raimund Hoghe’s theatre to engage us in contemplating our desire.

(1) cfr. Gabriele Wittmann, ‘Wie aktuell sind historische Rekonstruktionen im Tanz?’, Deutschlandradio, Kultur Heute, 09.09.2005; for a positive review see: Katja Schneider, ‘Zeit der Zärtlichkeit’, in: Tanzdrama, 05/2005, pp.36-38.

(2)Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on “Camp”’ (1964), in Idem, Against Interpretation, London: Vintage 2001, pp.275-292, here p.277

(3)Freud gives a brief summary of his theories on homosexual object choice in his essay ‘Some neurotic mechanisms in jealousy, paranoia and homosexuality’, in The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XVIII (1920-22), London: The Hoghart Press, pp.221-232, here pp.230-232.

(4)Vice versa, and just as disturbing as homosexual identities, homosexual desire would then be the subtext of gay desire. Judith Butler builds her theory of gender melancholia on this insight, cf. Judith Butler, The psychic life of power. Theories in subjection, California: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp.132-198.

(5)For the introduction of sex and violence into Sacre – The Rite Of Spring see my essay: ‘Le sacre du printemps’, in: Balletanz 03/2004, pp.8-11.

(6)Walter Benjamin, ‘on the Mimetic faculty’, In Idem, Selected Writings, vol.2 (1927-1934), Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith (eds), Cambridge MA/London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, pp.720-722, here p.213

(7)For a more detailed discussion of Benjamin’s theory in relation to the objects or performance, cf. my essay ‘Emblems of Absence: La Ribot’s  Piezas distinguidas’, in: La Ribot, Claire Rousier (ed.), Paris: Merz & Centre national de la danse, 2004, pp.79-86.