back printable version

Liminal Acts - A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory

All liminal works confront, offend or unsettle (Broadhurst, 1999: 168)

Liminal Acts by Susan Broadhurst provides an overview of aesthetic and critical theory in order to illuminate certain contemporary movements in performance. Incorporating theatre, music and film, Broadhurst details a range of interdisciplinary and experimental performance practice using examples of diverse practitioners, from Pina Bausch to Nick Cave to elucidate her argument.

Broadhurst's theory for a liminal aesthetic appropriates Victor Turner's definition of the limen 'expressive of ambiguous identity. . . . a fructile chaos, a fertile nothingness, a storehouse of possibilities, not . . . a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structures'. She asserts that, following Turner, liminal performance puts 'greater emphasis on the corporeal, technological and chthonic'. The quintessential aesthetic features of liminal performance are defined as, hybridisation, indeterminacy, a lack of aura and the collapse of the hierarchical distinction between high and popular culture. The central characteristics of the 'genre' (for want of a better term) in all areas of performance include utilisation of the latest developments in media and digital technology which lead to increased creative possibilities. Quasi-generic traits are given as experimentation, heterogeneity, innovation, marginality and an emphasis on the 'intersemiotic' (Broadhurst,1999:11-13).

Intersemiotic analysis, following Horst Ruthrof, is important to understanding the liminal, and any performance work which interweaves a variety of 'texts' (dance, video, digital technology and so on) to 'mean' together - texts which are, 'beyond' but also inclusive of verbal language. This is particularly relevant with the emphasis placed on the human body, and its complex nature as a performance signifier, in liminal work. One of the strengths of Liminal Acts is that it clarifies intersemiotic practice and those theories essential to elucidating it. It foregrounds developments in experimental performance modes, drawing on a wide range of international practitioners from theatre, live art, film and music. These include the Tanztheater of Pina Bausch, the 'theatre of images' of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, the ritualistic social sculptures of the Viennese Actionists, the films of Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and Wim Wenders, and the digitalised sampled music of Einsturzende Neubauten and neo-gothic sound of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Criticisms that have been levelled at it are that the application of critical theory, particularly the post-modern aesthetics, is too brief and somewhat reductive as a result. I would have to disagree with this point primarily because Broadhurst acknowledges the fact that she is providing an overview of performance strategies and 'a selective review' which surveys aesthetic theories central to the liminal in order to clarify liminal practice. A friend, and lecturer in post-modern performance, suggested to me that in choosing a selective review of the theories and notions discussed, Broadhurst's liminal does not offer anything new to existing post-modern strategies, but instead presents an argument that merely 'rehashes' old theories alongside over-used, 80s based practice as case studies, rather than providing a new and original theory - (I was left thinking that surely this is a trait of post-modernism itself - particularly as post-modernism has merely ‘rehashed’ post-structuralist strategies of making and analysing work). My answer to this is that the liminal is not a new term for post- modernism but a generic term for that work which is characterised by indeterminacy and an innovative use of the latest technological and artistic advancements. It is thus an aesthetic argument that employs certain postmodern arguments to support and clarify its position as a performance perspective - not a 'new' post-modern theory.

Broadhurst's reconsideration of the theories of Kant through to Baudrillard are useful as she highlights certain essentialist traits and foregrounds the need to continually reassess modes of aesthetic and critical enquiry in the light of perpetually changing times and perspectives. Following this, and regarding the notion of 'rehashing' old theories, it is my opinion that no theory should be taken as complete and finished but must be taken up and reassessed with each progressive movement (artistic, cultural, political, social and so on). Therefore, theories - performance, critical, aesthetic or otherwise - should never be taken 'as read' but constantly need to be reviewed and reapplied. This is particularly crucial to performance theory in order to inject a more exciting and colourful discourse into the performance debate, especially in the current climate where boundaries between the arts are becoming increasingly blurred and experimentation is proving evermore innovative. Just as Broadhurst points out that 'Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard have responded to and continued in a certain Kantian tradition', so too does she choose 'selective criteria' from the above in order to provide 'a new aesthetic form of theorization' able to, as Broadhurst, quoting Baudrillard, puts it, 'survive among the remnants' and 'play with the pieces' (1999: 24). In this respect, I believe that Broadhurst provides an exciting aesthetic and critical springboard for future performance theorists to jump on and bounce off. Furthermore, with its intersemiotic stance it also suggests wider implications for cultural and social theory.

From the examples of liminal works given, there are areas that I would have liked to be explored in more depth. Specifically the connections made between digital sampling in music and the equivalent method of 'sampling' in other performance practice, as touched upon with the Wooster Group example, and the questions this raises in terms of ownership and interpretation. There was a greater potential for connections to be made between the practitioners and the methodologies of practice under examination in general, particularly as hybridity is a quintessential feature of the liminal.

I do feel that my curiosity would have been reawakened if Broadhurst had uncovered a new generation of case studies, drawn from the diversity of fringe and underground scenes emerging on the cusp of the 21st century – those not yet established as forerunners in their field. For this reason there was a delight to be had in the use of Nick Cave as a case study and the references to current music artists, such as Norman Cook, in the discussions of digitalised performance. Although the theatre and film case studies did clarify perfectly liminal strategies of performance, I would like to see how these are being explored by ‘new’ liminal practitioners, themselves on the threshold of contemporary practice.

Like many academic texts, it is presupposed that the reader is familiar with its scholarly discourse, or at the very least attuned to its register. At times statements are made that assume the reader has a background knowledge of particular theorists referred to (Julia Kristeva for example). This aspect of the book may 'unsettle' those less practised in such an approach, and in that I include undergraduates new to university study. Bearing this in mind, Liminal Acts is a text that will be important in academic circles, particularly to performing arts students, including drama, media, film and music, at both undergraduate and post-graduate level.

To sum up, Liminal Acts is important to performance practice and analysis as it provides a generic term to determine that work which is experimental, multidisciplinary and ritualistic - work which has previously been difficult to define and discuss within the boundaries of conventional critical tools and traditional performance genres. Of great significance is Broadhurst's highlighting of intersemiotics as a mode of analysis crucial to performance study and appreciation. Within this it is an important study in showing how the body in theatre performance (as opposed to dance) has a crucial and complex role to play in performance signification – one that linguistic theory fails to address. Primarily useful as an academic source, Liminal Acts does extend to issues of relevance in non-academic areas. The consideration of digital sampling and her analysis of Nick Cave will be enticing to those with a general interest in contemporary music. Accordingly, this book will appeal to those with a wider interest in aesthetic, cultural and social theory and those inquisitive about experimental performance in general, or the work of the particular practitioners under examination.


Broadhurst, Susan. Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory. London: Cassell, 1999.

Liminal Acts is published by Cassell and available in hardback and paperback from bookshops and on the Internet.