It has been over a month since mass protests in Belarus started following the presidential election results falsification. One can analyze this case of street protests from many different points of view – (re)distribution of power, crowd psychology, resistance strategies, public opinion expression forms etc. I personally suggest looking at it in terms of the body and corporeality, because any gathering of people always provides us with bodily experience.

Collective body

Both history and the world’s attention are currently centered on Belarus. On August 9th, people started taking over the streets, turning the city into a total “protest performance” scene, where the line between life and art disappeared completely. What is happening there right now is especially remarkable because instead of the usual political opposition it is the people of the country who oppose this time. Students, representatives of governmental and private organizations, athletes, culture workers, technicians, clergy, medics, artisans of different age and background come together with a mutual demand to release detainees and political prisoners, to stop the violence and to organize a new honest election.

Every day, Belarusians form solidarity chains, thus creating horizontal rather than vertical bonds. This kind of transgressive collective experience along with the spontaneous sense of unity and equality is what Victor Turner called communitas: “In communitas, people regard one another directly, and not through the prism of social restrictions, thus establishing a straightforward and equal connection. This connection is impulsive: everything exists only here in this moment and it cannot just be controlled. The concept of social roles gets pushed back to give way to the value of a person’s integrity and depth of presence” [1].

Mass protests similar to the aforementioned encourage the creation of collective subjectiveness and even something we call “collective body” – a varied but solidary multitude. Its body is dynamic, self-organized, impulsive and follows the logic rules of the city streets. It’s resisting, dissolving into sprinkles and gathering into ominous waves of a human ocean, which gives rise to brand new forms of emotional, interbodily and social interaction.

People often stand close to each other and join their hands not only to materialize the idea of unity, but also to build a physical protective wall.

Another person to have described a collective body to be a distinctively assembled human entity was Mikhail Bakhtin [2]. Contemporary researcher Judith Butler has mentioned in her book “Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly” that “acting in concert can be an embodied form of calling into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political” [3]. As a result, collective kinesthetic experience evolves into transforming motive, which induces changes on both personal and public levels.

Bodily vulnerability

Protest marches demonstrate not only the unity’s power, but also human bodies’ frailty and vulnerability as they become subjected to retributive actions. In Judith Butler’s opinion,

“to attack those bodies is to attack the right itself, since when those bodies appear and act, they are exercising a right outside, against, and in the face of the regime” [4].

The unprecedented scale of violence demonstrated by law enforcement authorities, unreasonably cruel arrests and monstrous tortures of the peaceful Belorussian people have brought back the painful memories of the traumatizing soviet history.

The topic of the punishers’ empirical and physical domination over the victims is described by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau in the following way: “The torturer is the person who has ‘screwed’ the other one; he is the one who has reached agreement through sheer force and violence – the true victor of the ‘bodily battle’” [5].

The tortured body in its defenseless nature was the primary motif of the Belarusian artists’ rally, “Art of Regime”, which took place in front of the Palace of Art in Minsk. Numerous people lined up with the photos of the protest victims in their hands. According to a Facebook post uploaded by one of the activists, the rally’s manifesto was the following: “You took away our art and put up yours instead:

  • your brushes – bullets, batons and paddy wagons!
  • your paints – our blood and broken bones!
  • your canvas – our bodies!”

A case of psychological and physical identification with the imprisoned people was performed during the “My cell” campaign, which also took place in Minsk. The members were the ex-prisoners of the holding center on Okrestina street, as well as the prisoners’ families and friends.

The campaigners painted a contour of a prison cell with the capacity for 6 persons and 50 of them stood inside the contour together, replicating the real events occurring in prisons. They also held the photos of the tortured in their hands and text posters describing the most horrendous abuse – “they broke my fingers when they heard I’m a pianist”, “we were stripped naked”, “they put a grenade in my pants and threatened they’d detonate it” etc. The motif of a suffering body in “My cell” became the main subject and documentary evidence of the dreadful imprisonment experience.

The motif of bodily vulnerability painfully follows us throughout our whole history, inspiring contemporary dance artists to articulate and reflect the events of both recent and long gone history. For this reason, an example of Irina Anufrieva’s butoh-performance “Embers” (2015) is dedicated to Armenian, Greek and Assyrian genocides of the 1910s. Irina started her artistic career in a Minsk studio of InZhest theatre, proceeded to SU-EN Butoh Company in Stockholm and is now working as an independent butoh dancer and choreographer in Sweden. Returning to “Embers”, physical body in this performance becomes a medium of sense, a mirror of the physically and psychologically traumatizing experience, a visual metaphor for the apocalyptical mental turmoil and its disturbing aftertaste. Further emotional effect is provided by Diamanda Galás’ expressive vocals, which stand for the dancer’s partner (the musical basis of the performance is built upon the album “Defixiones: Will and Testament”).

Body manipulations in “Embers” make a significant reference to the crucial butoh techniques: hokotai and zero walk, which respectively mean neutral step and body “zeroing”. As butoh inventor Tatsumi Hijikata claimed, butoh is about “killing the body”. By this he meant that a dancer’s body must be freed from the established human characteristics, from any physical representation related to current time or space around. Such method allows the body to come up against new meaning and senses, opens it up for new voices and tones, makes the body transparent, making the information hidden inside and unseen before now visible.

Dancing as protest

“Sometimes when art expresses its disagreement with the existing order of things and calls for a change, its takes form of a mass protest”, a polish theatre expert Dariusz Kosinski writes [6]. Dance art from the 20th century until now has left us with plenty of examples. Even the emergence of contemporary dance during the period between the 19th and the 20th centuries is attributable to social and cultural rearrangement of life and revolutionary ideas of freedom, which have primarily manifested themselves in mass withdrawal from classical disciplined movement practice and from the ballet-like notion that the body should act as an obedient tool. The search for new options/alternatives in bodily communication process, as well as new individual movements independent from any laws (including gravity), was adopted as their aesthetical imperative by many choreographers of the time – Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Rudolf von Laban, Mary Wigman among them.

In this day and age, we witness a great variety of still-evolving dance protest practices that generate new behavior models, new kinds of social and aesthetical learning. Body is now used as a surface where one builds up social ideas and dance serves as a bullhorn to attract attention to them. Thus, dance is a tool for unifying like-minded people and transmitting information. Prominent examples of dance protests of the recent years include:

  • Rave-protest “We dance together, we fight together” in Tbilisi, started after police raided multiple clubs under the pretense of action against drug crime, using excessive force against workers and guests (2018)
  • Massive techno party in Berlin, organized to protest against far-right political party Alternative for Germany (2018)
  • A rave party in front of The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, protesting against night club shutdown due to quarantine restrictions (2020)
  • International annual campaign “One Billion Rising” aimed at gender-related abuse awareness. Founded in 2012, it has reached over 200 countries

Contemporary experts argue that the impact of individual protest practices (including dance practices) has grown recently. For instance, a Dutch choreographer Jan Ritsema notes that the concepts of “unity” and “collective body” are currently transforming:

“One could say there is no common or communal and therefore there should be no ‘one’. But at the same time we are in the common. We swim in it, but we are connected individually, each one with a unique IP address. […] The times where revolutions will be made by streamlining what all people should think and do, are over. The future revolutionary force will be based on personal and individual perspectives […] The modern revolutionist operates alone, based on the knowledge of not being alone, but being together alone” [7].

An unusual individual protest action took place in Moscow in January 2014: a dancer and performer, member of Isadorino Gore dance cooperative Alexandra Portyannikova in a ballet tutu in 25-degree frost danced “The Dying Swan”, a famous miniature by Mikhail Fokin, staged for Anna Pavlova (1907). Alexandra’s hands were chained, which symbolized the absence of rights and freedoms in modern Russia. The performance was created as part of a project by Amnesty International, an international human rights organization that recognized the laws adopted by the Russian authorities as repressive.

A recent case of individual dance protest is addressed by Sarah L. Kaufman via The Washington Post. On May 31st 2020, when a protest took place in Santa Monica, a Californian dancer-choreographer Jo’Artis Ratti performed a powerfully painful krump dance dedicated to George Floyd in front of a wall of police officers. According to Kaufman, similar dance protests are happening across the country and beyond: “Where demonstrators have gathered in Floyd’s name to decry racism and police brutality, the streets have become dance floors. Protesters are tapping into dance’s power as an act of rebellion as well as connection, a way to express ineffable emotions and share those emotions with others”.

Another solo performance protest is happening these days in Gomel, Belarus. Choreographer Anastasia Yembulaeva comes to the circus every day and sits in front of it in the same pose – with her hand up in the air showing the “V” –symbol of victory and peace. She hopes it will be worth it:

“People passing by look at me and wonder what is going on. It is good for them to wonder, to start pondering about it, to realize new things. There are people who approve change, just like there are those who disapprove, and even people who don’t care. Everyone has their own opinion and we should respect it. My opinion is: I oppose all the lies and violence taking place right now. And I am simply expressing it”.
According to Judith Butler, “when bodies gather as they do to express their indignation and to enact their plural existence in public space, they are also making broader demands: they are demanding to be recognized, to be valued, they are exercising a right to appear, to exercise freedom, and they are demanding a livable life” [8].

In this way, dance no longer possesses the autonomy of its artistic boundaries and is becoming a social practice, and even a form of public political resistance.

[1] N.S. Vorobyeva Communitas as the “essential We”: The Possibility of Dialogical Relationships in a Community – 2019. – P. 160.

[2] M. Bakhtin Rabelais and His World – Eksmo, 2015. – 640 p.

[3] J. Butler Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly – Ad Marginem, 2018. – P. 15.

[4] Ibid, p. 84.

[5] Histoire du corps, edited by G. Vigarello, A. Corbin, and J.-J. Courtine – V. 3: Les Mutations du regard. Le XXe siècle. – New literary review, 2016. – P. 282.

[6] D. Kosinski Polish Theatres. The Histories – New literary review. – P. 341.

[7] Ritsema J. The Army of Artists // Walking Theory. – 2016. – № 3. – P. 39.

[8] See [3], p. 31.