Latifa LAÂBISSI, Distorsions of language and body in the artist-choreographer Latifa Laâbissi’s work

, par Martine Le Gac

La démarche de Latifa Laâbissi, artiste chorégraphe, consiste à rendre compte, à travers différents états du corps, des enjeux sociaux qui le traversent. Plusieurs de ses pièces, à la frontière des arts visuels et des arts de la scène, questionnent la relation conjointe entre pratique de danse et idéologie politique. De manière à mettre en place un espace critique, elle s’appuie entre autres sur la modernité en danse de l’Allemagne de l’entre-deux guerres. Son point de départ est un corpus d’archives et de films autour des propositions de Valeska Gert, figure emblématique du cabaret politique à Berlin et, d’autre part, les œuvres de Mary Wigman, dont la carrière a été associée au mouvement expressionniste allemand jusqu’à la montée du nazisme. Le corps a été dompté, enrégimenté, alors qu’il aspirait, par des exercices chorégraphiques en groupe et en plein air, à un nouvel épanouissement de l’être. C’est l’époque où les esthétiques et les ambitions de concepteurs de la danse, tels Rudolf Laban, Martin Gleisner et Jean Weidt, interrogent la pratique corporelle et la parole qui font autorité, constituant les moyens d’une recherche individuelle d’émancipation ou d’un assujettissement collectif à une unification de masse. Ce retour vers l’Histoire, étayé par les recherches de l’historienne de la danse Isabelle Launay, est une manière de faire écouter les temps actuels que nous traversons. Comment la danse intègre-t-elle ou non des notions disciplinaires, des codes ; c’est aussi l’histoire du médium que Latifa Laâbissi prend en charge. Elle appartient à la génération des années 90 qui a souhaité ardemment en France le décloisonnement des disciplines de création et revendiqué une attitude performative à la limite de la non danse.

Social violence and totalitarian regimes remain Latifa Laâbissi’s major reasons for concern. This choreographer wonders about the representations of political dominations and the status of minorities. In order to develop her reflection and practice, she refers to Valeska Gert and Mary Wigman’s commitments, two legendary dancers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their contrastive and disquieting gestures were the means of describing the repressed contents that affected behaviours of a society in crisis between the two world wars. Through solos, these personalities, bound to the German avant-garde, experimented archetypal figures so as to stage the social and political tensions and to provide a transition from an alienated state to a new one. Both re-enactment of archival fragments of dance and invention allow Latifa Laâbissi to examine our present situation and thus set up a critical space.

Mary Wigman (1886-1973), pioneer of bodily expression and free movement, was a German dancer and choreographer, and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of modern dance, that was developed during the first three decades of the twentieth century. She started studying under Emile Jacques-Dalcroze in Hellereau near Dresden, and trained under Rudolph Laban in Ascona, Switzerland. From Laban’s school emerge a new genre called “Ausdrucktanz”, also known as Expressionist dance. Wigman adopted the Rudolf Laban’s technique based on opposite movements, contraction and release. She contributed to the German culture with works as solos, group dances and chore-eutic dances. She elaborated the ceremonies during the Nazis power period, and was finally considered as a degenerated artist by the Nazis.

Valeska Gert (1892-1978) was born Gertrud Valesca Samosch from a jewish family in Berlin. She was studying acting by 1915 and is one of German’s most enigmatic artist, dancer and actress. She was very well-known in the 1920’s and early 30’s, before suffering a ban from the German stage - the Munich Kammerspiele, the Deutsches Theater and the Berliner Tribüne – with the Nazis in power. After emigrating to the United-States, via France and Great Britain, she came back to Berlin and the ile of Sylte, she was forgotten and her work was overlooked until her triumphant return to the cinema in the mid 1960’s (during her career, she played in the Pabst, Fellini, Fassbinder and Volker Schöndorff’s movies). She wrote four books and two of them have been united in her biography : Je suis une sorcière [I am a witch], published in 1968. Valeska Gert created the aesthetic conditions for her own personal artistic environment : the three cabarets she opened successively in Berlin, in New York, and once again in Berlin : Kohlkopp in the 20’s, the Beggar Bar in 1941 with furniture from the flee-market, and the Witch’s Kitchen installed in 1949 in an ancient fruit and vegetable store.

Latifa Laâbissi belongs to the generation of the nineties in France who yearned for decompartmentalization of the artistic disciplines, and claimed a performative attitude verging on non-dance. She founded her association « Figure Project » in 2008. From september 2013 to april 2014, and during her guest residency at the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, she investigated with other partners the question of « toxic figures ». One of the challenges is the transformation of destructive and disfiguring energies into creativity and consciousness.

The conference will take into consideration this notion of « figure », which is one of the features of her project. Latifa Laâbissi calls our attention on the cultural representations, which distort the social body when casting doubt, shame and opprobrium on a few of its members. The conference will underline the spatial, temporal, physical and artistic elements involved in the process.


If a society is violent, if in front of precarity and immigration, political regimes reply with discrimination and racism, Latifa Laâbissi, as an artist and choreographer, takes into consideration such attitudes in order to fight them. She proposes through dance and performance to turn social and political poison into cure, and first of all, into ways of consciousness. It is the purpose of my intervention to let you know something about her work and the elements involved in her process. I will speak about Self Portrait Camouflage (2006), Ecran somnambule (2009) and Loredreamsong (2010).

A film of the performance Self Portrait Camouflage has been carried out by Sophie Laly. She worked editing to restitute the intensity of the live show. This performance is related to the social events that occurred in France in November 2005 - what the mass media called “the suburbs rioting [les émeutes des banlieues]” - and the reactions of politicians such as Chirac, Sarkozy, Le Pen, Ségolène Royal, etc. Latifa Laâbissi is convinced that the French political class at that time functions as an archetype. The performance is still a subversive act which does not need, during its European and American tours, to be updated depending the country and current affairs. The idea is not to “make up” the mask, but just notice through the news and their representations that a dreadful toxicity is going on.

Speeds and gestures

Latifa Laâbissi works on slowness and the duration of the performance, whereas most of mass media representations are characterized visual speed and special optical effects. Her movements are very slow, long, and precise to the point of being exasperating or very new in their shape. She stretches the movements to a maximum, before loosening them as elastics. The concentration is suddenly broken, and this breaking allows the spectator to return to himself, to examine what’s going on with patience and with infinity. Any interval of time, any distance between spaces is visible, as well as the finest expression. It looks at the same time tensed and relaxed. Latifa Laâbissi takes advantage of this contrast to suspend the audience to what could happen. In any case, one can imagine something will happen…

Such developments are so different from the realism of everyday gestures that the transformation of a silhouette is even more noticeable. Her movements are so strange and unusual that her body seems to belong to another species but no longer human race. Either it deals with animal and monster’s behaviour, or with another kind of being : a spirit like ghost or priestess. In fact, it seems that she is negociating with invisible presences. It is one of the artist’s missions to act as an intermediary between the ordinary vision and the one “never seen before”.

The figure of the witch

Mary Wigman expressed earlier the relation between forces, that would be on earth and in the hereafter, bad ones and good ones. In 1914 she performed in Munich her first solo, her Witch Dance [Hexentanz], whose second version was created in 1926 in Dresden. It is not possible to know really what it was, apart from 1,40 minute sequence and some photos.
She wore a costume, used a mask and danced to percussive sounds. One can observe the concentration and the specific rhythm of her movements. The gesture is both instinctive and controlled, bearing a relation to Primitive art, and for that reason brings dance to its essence. Its powerful expressiveness was immediately appreciated.

Valeska Gert also was interested in the witch figure and her extreme position. Mary Wigman and her, seem to deal with visible and invisible strengths, through gestural language connected to the aesthetic of German artists. Gert was associated with the writers and artists who were part of the expressionist movement : Oskar Kokoschka, Rolf Lauckner, Georg Kaiser, and with Frank Wedekind and Max Reinhardt in whose works she played. Those authors were very active to stage figures dealing with anxiousness and strangeness. Wigman saw frequently the painters Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde of Die Brücke. Mask, dance in relation with rituals constitute a few subjects of their artistic representations. It is interesting to note that modernism can be understood as an abstract and intellectual movement, as well as an absolute sensation or expression, including laughter and screams.

The archaic figure of the witch personifies associated talents of rapture, destruction and exorcism. It stands out during murky periods of history, marked by massacre, sacrifice and madness. As folkloric character, it embodies fate or misfortune and the way to cast a spell on the future. The possibilities of metamorphosis related to, fascinate and reassure. The dance functions as a medium for regeneration to go beyond a phase of depression. Furthermore, it constitutes the experience of an innovative way to become an artist, ready to face up to reality, be confronted with the irrational and with the history of the medium itself.

Latifa Laâbissi decided in 2009 to slow down the duration of the Wigman’s performance, by lengthening the existing dance of 1,40 minute into a 32 minutes play, Ecran Somnambule. The music itself was adapted. This re-enactment is a part of her choreographic process, to find out or discover what vitality is really like.

Identity, figures and grotesque

Latifa Laâbissi points out the notion of “Assignation”. It is a term very often used in dance concerning roles, spaces… It has to do with determinism, to body’s decisions.
Offensive remarks, racist words reduce people to a very few particularities. These adjectives are so many times repeated, that the persons become caricatures and thus loose the components of what they are. Suspicion, insults, hate disfigure and put into question the notion of identity. How can life exist under such conditions ? How to face the misrepresentations, the injuries of the distortion, other than showing their consequences on stage, and making sure that toxic energies can be transformed into positive ones ? Thanks to artistic invention, performance allows a reversal of situations, or the way to read them, or to think oneself as a citizen.

For that reason, Latifa Laâbissi creates “open” figures. Her true-to-life characters are equivocal. When she performs a naked woman with an American native headdress and just a blue-white-red piece of fabric, she creates an ambiguous identity : the one of a chef, the one of a curious “creature” shown in the universal exhibitions of the XIXth century, the one of a French person of Morocco origin. At the same time the spectator finds indications, feels embarrassed, even lost. This uncertain and vigorous position, the elements of a post-colonial representation allow the spectator to project himself and, consequently, to recognize his own contradictions and his part of darkness. Repressed content may emerge, be clarified, then displaced. It is a question of energy and a question of focus. The perception is radically changed.

Valeska Gert’s origine is from “modern dance”. She has realized radical performances, which could either fascinate or shock the audience. Performing Death, Female pimp, Baby, Boxing, Circus, she analyzed the limits of the societal conventions and always ignored borders. Her characteristic is the grotesque. She performed regressive figurations close to mime and belonging to the theater, to the pantomime… Most of the archives, concerning Valeska Gert, are photos. But there is a 3 minutes black and white film that Suze Bick realized in 1926 (cf. Whatever the character, the dancer’s energy is astounding, electric and audacious.
At the same time, another dancer called Anita Berber captured the corporeality and sensuality of bodily movements. She was also extremely provocative and caused a scandal. She danced and figured Death, Madness, Syphilis, Ecstasy, Morphine, Suicide, Agony and Orgasm.
Valeska Gert wanted to stage such figures that suggest uneasiness and fear. She identified her own resources when laughing to play the nurse of the Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Having made the experience of an extreme relaxation, she understood she was able to listen how the feelings affected her and how the public is greatly moved by their expressions. Exploiting her confidence in her exteriorization, Valeska Gert won authority and kept control over the audience. Very often, she says “I did what I wanted to do, it was like a magical power”. The audience was both surprised and in a great discomfort, because ugly scenes are charged with moral values.

Latifa Laâbissi and Valeska Gert aspire to turn poison into an antipoison. For this, they have to assume the distortions, the visual consequences of the trauma. Art plays the role of a mirror. The question is to break the proprieties and the taboos, to disobey to the codes that confine expression within strict rules, and release the paralyzed psychological and physical states. The idea is to propose solutions, invent another way out. As everyone knows, such a process is violent. It’s an artistic violence against social and political restrictions.

Artistic means to modify the perception

Latifa Laâbissi and the stage designer Nadia Lauro work closely together to create the setting of the performances. Accessories and stage sets are always very sober. In Self Portrait Camouflage, The minimalism of the geometric forms makes reference to the “white cube” of contemporary galleries and art centers. In any case, black and white are predominant. They give an abstract environment to the body whose flesh appears more organic and fragile than ever. The body is overexposed. This situation is very rough.

If Valeska Gert could have done anything about it, she would have equiped the theater stage with magnifying glass or huge lens. She wanted the public to see the actor’s face with giant features and a ridiculous body compared with usual height and normal sight. She thought that the public was supposed to come for this.

She was an actress whose face was shown on cinema screens, when she began acting in silent movies. Her expressions could be watched in very large dimensions. Such appearances were perceived as outrageous, as if excessiveness was added to extravagance. Ridicule and ugliness were received as an offense against social decency, and particularly when she played Death. I refer to the Philippe Alain Michaud’s book : L’Horreur comique - esthétique du Slapstick. Michaud explains that the movement of a comic expression can be transformed, with fixity, into something strange and horrible. It leaves the impression of a deep and irreversible disfiguration. In a film, the representation of death combines two fixities, one of a physical state, and one of definitive capture of images. Even more with a silent movie.

In a different way, Valeska Gert proposed a very specific dance, her most enduring performance consisted in going on stage in cinemas, between the changing of two film reels, and doing nothing else but posing a few minutes. It was a kind of anti-dance, called Pause. She made this experience when she was model for painters. Wolfgang Müller writes in his Valeska Gert’s biography (Valeska Gert – Ästhetik der Präsenzen) published in 2010 : “She did this in the Twenties when the convention was speed, business, activity and you see this in the films of the 1920’s : large cities, traffic, nervosity. To go out there and do the complete opposite was very, very modern.” The more astonishing was she was herself very tonic and eccentric, never being able to keep quiet.

Silence and words

On one hand, Latifa Laâbissi exploits silence, a situation in between a play which has not started yet and something about to finish. With no sound, or after hearing the crackling spotlight in the darkness of Self Portrait Camouflage, the visual perception is amplified. Each detail is exacerbated. The grimaces are meaningful and say a lot about political manipulations. One can think there is worse to come.

On the other hand, she introduces words on stage and speaks with different accents. Her texts are short and biting in Self Portrait Camouflage and in Loredreamsong. She jokes and talks lightly about social and political minefield situations. Funny impression as well as embarrassment, even torture emerge from the contents and mispronunciation. What happens to the body happens to the language. Something is contorted. Nothing helps really to reconstruct a story, a specific fact, except the memory of humour, humiliation, mockery. The title Self Portrait Camouflage has a double sense : simultaneously revealing and covering up the identity. Gilles Amalvi writes :
“ (…) capturing an impossible image – which has already been caught in other histories, other speeches, other performances.”

Valeska Gert was revolutionary and provocative in staging again the great classical plays of Shakespeare, keeping the rhythm of the diction but changing the lines. She proposed also brightly-coloured costumes reminding advertisement posters. When performing those roles under the form of a solo, she made a mix with dance and theater. As in the cabaret, creations worked with other media such as literature, music, painting and film.

The teacher of dance history, Isabelle Launay, participates as researcher and latifa laâbissi’s dance partner. She uses human sciences in various fields to enlighten different knowledges. Such studies help to highlight what is hidden.

In this direction, Latifa Laâbissi works on her own identity as Mary Wigman and Valeska Gert did. She examines what she knows about herself and what she ignores, paying attention to what could emerge from her unconscious, without worrying about it. Dance is conceived on conceptual, tactile and other levels. Latifa Laâbissi refers to sedimentation of different layers.


Dance has been omnipresent in the large cities of Germany from the end of the nineteenth century, both as popular entertainment as well as high art. A personality as Rita Sacchetto proposed to dance “alive pictures” [tableaux vivants] and to transfer on stage this familiar home custom. Mary Wigman and Valeska Gert, with the figures they have performed, have invented a new genre of dance. Their searching of the sacred passed through mysterious or trivial attitudes, and the dance became a trance with its cathartic functions. They have elevated its status to a new religion and her own status to an intercessor. They aimed for an independent artistic vision.

Latifa Laâbissi’s creations have a major impact. They show clearly the commitment of the author and her ambition to associate art and life. All sorts of contortions and contrasts in the performances maintain a shock between heterogeneous elements. If everything in the show was made of the same stuff, the audience would not feel any crisis. The oppositions are heavily significant to represent the social unrest and to signify that relationships in a rigid political system are trapped. The grotesque and the mask allow to escape from a situation of domination and creates a gap between the subject and the dancer. The purpose is to request changes and rescue the mistreated body from the stale environment and from the dictates of capitalism with its oppressive norms and sterile values. It is also to break down the boundaries of art. The performances gain in intensity. Choreographic situations exist with renewed vigor.

Performances :
Following Latifa Laâbissi’s guest residency at ENSA Dijon, three students of ENSA Dijon : Clémence Chartenet, Clara Vidal-Rosset and Nassima Salhi will propose création-vidéos-performances.

Diffusion de films :
Valeska Gert (1892-1978), La mort, Canaille, Maquerelle, 1925, extrait 3’, film de Suse Byk, La Cinémathèque de la Danse, Paris

Mary Wigman (1886-1973), Hexentanz [Danse de la sorcière], 1929, 1’40, musique de Will Goetze, extrait d’un film 35 mm de quatre solos de M. Wigman, anonyme, archives danoises.

Latifa Laâbissi Ecran somnambule, 2009, extrait 2’, vidéo de la performance, chorégraphie et interprétation Latifa Laâbissi.

Latifa Laâbissi Self Portrait Camouflage, 2006, 26’, images/montage de Sophie Laly, chorégraphie et interprétation Latifa Laâbissi.

Latifa Laâbissi Loredreamsong, 2011, 42’, vidéo de la performance, chorégraphie et interprétation Latifa Laâbissi et Sophiatou Kossoko.


Philippe-Alain MICHAUD, L’Horreur comique – esthétique du Slapstick, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2004.
Céline ROUX, Danse(s) performative(s) – Enjeux et développement dans le champ chorégraphique français (1993-2003), L’Harmattan, Paris, 2007.

Anna COLIN, « Ecran Somnambule », interview de Latifa Laâbissi in Sorcières pourchassées assumées puissantes queer, édité par Anna Colin, Montreuil, Edition B42, La Maison populaire, 2012, p.114 à 127.

Fanny de CHAILLE, « Latifa Laâbissi - De l’étirement, de la transformation », entretien in Questions d’artistes n°IV, Création contemporaine au Collège des Bernardins, Paris, septembre-décembre 2012, p. 28 à 33.

Mary Wigman, Le Langage de la danse, [traduction française], Paris, Chiron, 1990

Valeska Gert, Je suis une sorcière : kaléïdoscope d’une vie dansée, éditions Complexe, centre national de la danse, 2004 (1ère parution en allemand, Munich 1968)

Isabelle Launay, A la recherche d’une danse moderne, Rudolf Laban, Mary Wigman, Chiron, collection Art nomade ; Librairie de la danse, 1996.

Céline Roux, Danse(s) performative(s)Enjeux et développement dans le champ chorégraphique français (1993-2003), L’Harmattan, Paris, 2007.

« Ecran Somnambule », interview de Latifa Laâbissi par Anna Colin, in Sorcières pourchassées assumées puissantes queer, édité par Anna Colin, Montreuil, Edition B42, La Maison populaire, 2012, p.114 à 127.

« Latifa Laâbissi - De l’étirement, de la transformation », entretien avec Fanny de Chaillé in Questions d’artistes n°IV, Création contemporaine au Collège des Bernardins, Paris, Septembre-décembre 2012, p. 28 à 33.

Vanessa Morisset, « L’Art comme lore. Chorégraphies et performances de Latifa Laâbissi », in Esse arts + opinions – revue d’art actuel, Montréal (Québec), Canada, N° 78 – Danse hybride, 2013.

« Latifa Laâbissi : témoignage », entretien avec Martine Le Gac réalisé en septembre 2013, in journal Hors d’Œuvre n° 32, Dijon, Interface, octobre-juin 2013, p. 8 et « Latifa Laâbissi, la distorsion de la langue et du corps », site de l’ENSA Dijon :, Programme pédagogique > Résidence - atelier d’artiste.