In the previous chapters I have argued for
an approach to appreciating (western) theatre dance as a communicative
phenomenon that brings into play semiotic analysis of the dance as
‘read’, with the phenomenological experience of dance in performance.
At the intersection of self and world, dance artist and audience interact
within a space that, wrought by a network of conventions, is yet susceptible
to the occasional ruptures that are the product of the creative imagination.
In the current context of the cultural changes that frame daily life
From consideration of the context within which
the works of the dance artists are appreciated, it has been suggested
that, in spite of arguments to the contrary, there remains an implicit
assumption that for (western) theatre dance to be valued as art it
is considered at least potentially likely to be aesthetically pleasing.
The dualism inherent within western aesthetics that is problematic
for an embodied art form has become intermeshed with the historic
development of ballet and European and American modern dance. Those
dance forms not emanating from a western experience of embodiment
stand in a different relationship to traditional western notions of
the aesthetic and this can have implications for the values attributed
to them when presented in the theatres of a European city such as
The formulation of this argument has been based on the bringing of my own experiences and reflections into play with those of ‘non aligned’ dance artists based in London and the interdisciplinary study of how what is understood as embodied in dance might be related to its appreciation. Chapter one considered the development of the research method and recognised its relationship to the findings. This emphasised that the argument put forward is not presented as an unadulterated rational ‘truth’ but as the result of contemplation of particular views and experiences and is thus pertinent to them.
In chapter two, in an exploration of the relationship between what is understood to be embodied and the appreciation of dance, consideration was given to the philosopher David Best’s (1973) warning that ‘embodiment’ may be used to gloss over a dualist position. Given the legacy of the expressionist influence on the development of both American and European modern dance and, in Fokine’s symbolist variant (Garafola 1989), on ballet, it is important to recognise the lasting impact of what Best terms ‘traditional expression theory’ on these dance forms. Heed has been taken of Best’s assertion that recognising what a dance expresses is an interpretation dependent on a cultural context rather than an intuition of significance that is reliant on some metaphysical connection of movement with meaning. However, while Best focuses on reasons for interpreting dance, drawing on the comments of the philosopher Graham McFee (2001), it is argued that ‘understanding’ might better account for how the work is experienced as meaningful without it always being easy to translate what is meant into words. Adapting Best’s arguments, the significance of the specific and broader cultural context to the interpretative act of ‘seeing as’ is considered important to understanding what is embodied. Accepting that intuition also operates within a cultural context (contrary to Best’s suspicion of it) allows for contemplation of the role of the unconscious and the ‘unsaid’ in understanding what is embodied in dance.
The discussions of semiotics in chapters two,
and later in chapter seven, offer some insights into how significance
might be viewed as embodied from structuralist and poststructuralist
perspectives. The dance anthropologist
In further consideration of poststructuralism the concept of intertextuality has been explored. Whilst in the work of the literary theorist Julia Kristeva and that of her doctoral supervisor and colleague Roland Barthes, this seems to celebrate the potential of texts to give rise to multiple interpretations; in a less radical form, such as described by Umberto Eco, the role of the reader is limited by the text itself. Eco’s approach seems to have influenced that of Janet Adshead’s (1999) approach to intertextuality in relation to dance. While in some respects she displays an indeterminate view as to the extent to which interpretation should be circumscribed, she tends towards agreeing with Eco that it is the text itself that should be prioritised although she recognises the audience’s role in the construction of dance as text. In the approaches to intertextuality that Adshead’s collection offers, what is understood as embodied may appear at times to be overly dependent on a rather disembodied act of relating interpretation to (inter)textual written references. The manner in which, for Kristeva, intertextuality is interwoven into the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious is sidestepped in Adshead’s account, thus losing a sense of the potentiality for creative ruptures to incorporate the lingering manifestations of preverbal experience.
Consideration of Kristevian intertextuality would necessitate a foray into the realms of the unconscious in psychoanalytic terms that is beyond the scope of this project. Rather this study, particularly in chapters four and seven, has reflected upon the play between the semiotic and the phenomenological. The earlier of these chapters focussed on the extent to which the creative processes of making dance may seem to lend themselves to this interplay. For those artists creating work on themselves, the Janus-like sense of being both embodied in the experience of their dance whilst creating themselves as a signifying object for others highlighted the sense of reciprocity intrinsic to dance as a (western) cultural phenomenon. In the later chapter, drawing on Merleau-Ponty provides for an understanding of (western) theatre dance as a communicative phenomenon that is both culturally ensnared and embodying of the individual artist’s approach to being in the world. For the audience, ‘reflecting back’ on the phenomenological experience of dance may bring to attention both the elements perceived in the dance and the broader cultural concerns shaping that perception. In this manner, understanding is intrinsically bound with appreciating the phenomenon of the dance itself and not linked to those textual references that, rather than illuminating, may seem to be bolted on to ‘readings’ of the dance without necessarily reflecting back on the immediate and sensuous engagement with the dance for itself.
A distinction may
be made between resorting to external references and, following the
discussion of Rowell (2003) regarding Crowther (1993), the appreciation
of aesthetic ideas as embodied in dance. Thus, as Rowell discusses
in relation to the ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ scene of
The discussion of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus raises the possibility that aesthetic appreciation may itself be thought of as part of the habitus of a particular cultural group, the distancing process being intertwined with the concept of (western) civilisation. This may perhaps account for what Bourdieu (1979, 66) discusses as the difference between those born into elite groups, who seem to inherit the inclination to appreciate the aesthetic values in what, in spite of contemporary threats to its status, is considered to be ‘high’ culture, and those whose appreciative strategies are acquired through more formal studies. What it is important to recognise here is that the perceptual skills informing understanding are still learned even when they are absorbed as a ‘way of being’ rather than inculcated through the more conscious tasks of education or pursuing personal interests.
The cultural complexity of a capital city
in postmodernity makes it extremely likely that dances presented in
At a time when diversity is a fact not only
in terms of culture but in the ways in which gender, class, sexuality,
age and ability can be experienced within different cultures, relying
on the perceptual habits and understandings pertaining to an individual’s
personal background (however privileged) may only take the spectator
so far in understanding and appreciating a dance. The experiences
Reflecting back (in the phenomenological sense) on that experience as deeply as possible allows for discussion of what underpins the appreciation of a dance that brings the discussion into the realms of semiotics. As much as spectators may try to engage with different ways of being, in a diverse society this is unlikely to lead to complete agreement about what is embodied. If following Crowther’s ecological approach to art, efforts are to be made to share considerations of what lies behind aesthetic judgements, then consideration of what is perceived as embodied in the dance becomes an important element of that discussion. In addition, recognition of the reciprocity of the subject:object relationship proposed by Crowther suggests further considering the roles in this relationship in dance. This may lead to reflection on the embodied act of aesthetic engagement as itself dependent on the reciprocity of culturally enmeshed interactions.
Those western traditions that have stressed the detached, disinterested, enjoyment of formal qualities prioritise a cognitive form of appreciation. This is not unrelated to the dualist legacy that prioritises mind over body. As was discussed in chapter six this has been problematic for those dance traditions emanating from the west that have been presented as art. In their development they may be thought to have embodied dualist dialectics in a manner that audiences may understand prioritises the aesthetic. (In Jakobson’s terms this would mean the domination of the poetic function over the referential and expressive.)
In the past the worryingly bodily aspects of dance (from a rationalist, Christian perspective) have perhaps been appreciated as controlled in a particular manner: ballet may allow for the sensuous pleasure of the ‘male gaze’, but the perceived control of sexual desire, subsumed under the domination of the aesthetic, has perhaps underpinned ballets appreciated for their artistic merits. The development of American and European modern dance in the twentieth century offered new female and male embodiments in the context of changing attitudes to sexuality and gender roles. However, as discussed in chapter six in relation to the later developments of contact improvisation, there may still be aspects of physical control embodied in what are seemingly ‘freer’ approaches that relate to newer constructions of bodily and sexual politics. While new forms of dance emanating from the west have sought inspiration from ‘non western’ approaches to bodily being, they may be appreciated as embodying a western orientated struggle with its own dualist traditions. For those artists drawing on ‘non western’ dance traditions and/or a physical culture that is ‘other’ to a white western norm, their relationship to that struggle may be constructed differently.
A new corporeality in some ‘alternative’ western dance practices may be felt to embody concerns with the dualist legacy of rationalism. To some extent this may be linked to the concerns of postmodern theorists to challenge the notion of the autonomous rational subject that spearheaded the ideals of the Enlightenment. Such ideals may be perceived to have framed the domination of the body by the rational mind in the practice of dance techniques that are now criticised as instrumental in attitude to the body. As discussed in chapter six, situating the philosophical development of body:mind dualism in the context of differences in physical day to day experience provides a context for the historic prioritisation of the faculty of reason. Arguably it has been the success of disembodied reasoning that has led to the recognition of its underside: in chapter seven it has been suggested that a sense of ‘lack’ may be felt to be more intensified the further the ‘symbolic’ disconnects itself from physical experience. Dancers seem to need to retrieve what is felt to be missing in contemporary western culture by searching not only ‘other’ cultures but, through the practice of body awareness techniques, their bodily ‘evolutionary’ development.
Ironically, it may also be felt that those ‘alternative’ practices which may be viewed as responding to the negative aspects of the Enlightenment legacy, reveal a desire for a (re-)connection with (lost) innate human capacities that is not out of keeping with Enlightenment humanism. Similarly humanist is the focus on the agency of the individual subject which allows for the felt experience of the dance artist’s intentionality to be significant. At a theoretical level, this may be viewed as in keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s claim that the laws of cause and effect do not govern the psychological realm. Or alternatively, Varela’s suggestion that agency may be considered as causal because it is embedded in the social would further emphasise dance as a communicative social act. From a more practical perspective it can be recognised that the individual immersed in alternative ‘somatic’ dance practices, in emphasising ‘immediacy’ and physical responsiveness is the antithesis of the rationalists’ resort to reason. Rather, such a dancer may be thought to exemplify an existential phenomenological approach to ‘being in the world’. This is particularly evident in contact improvisation in which there can be seen an emphasis on interpersonal ‘copresent’ (Friedland and Boden, 1994) embodied interaction.
A postmodernist view of the Enlightenment that prioritises the negative aspects of dualism may be seen as distorted by current concerns with the detrimental aspects of its legacy. For instance, in relation to the Enlightenment legacy in aesthetics, Sara Houston (2002) suggests refocusing on the credence Kant gave, in his third critique, to the realms of the sensual and the imaginative in the aesthetic experience. It may also be helpful to reconsider Kant’s view of humanism:
If we grant that the urge to society is natural to man but that his fitness and propensity for it, i.e. sociability, is a requirement of man as a creature with a vocation for society and hence is a property pertaining to his humanity, then we must also inevitably regard taste as an ability to judge whatever allows us to communicate even our feeling to everyone else, and hence regard taste as a means of furthering something that everyone’s natural inclination demands.
For Kant, the motivation to comprehend from
others’ points of view as being part of an inherent social contract
fits his theoretical commitment to the possibility
of a universal (or synthetic a priori) moral law ‘given...as a fact
of pure reason’ (Kant, 1977,  41,[5:47]. His ‘categorical imperative’
upheld the Enlightenment belief in a rationally
based obligation to all fellow humans. Currently, the scant regard
given to issues of metaphysics in the era of poststructuralist theory,
together with postmodern concerns with difference, makes the acceptance
of such a theoretical approach unlikely. However, in a context in
which global concerns affect local issues and any pretence of one
homogenous culture in a city such as
From a perspective situated within the phenomenology that has informed this thesis, it is interesting to note that Merleau-Ponty, while critical in some respects of how Kant articulated the relationship between consciousness and world [ii] , was more positive about Kant’s account of aesthetic engagement in which ’the subject is no longer the universal thinker of objects rigorously interrelated, the positing power who subjects the manifold to the law of understanding…’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962xix). Moreover Merleau-Ponty comes to a not dissimilar conclusion about the importance of the relationship between self and other. To emphasise this, his final statement in Phenomenology of Perception cites not another philosopher but a man of action, the mystically inclined pilot Antoine de Saint Exupéry: ‘Man is but a network of relationships, and these alone matter to him’ (Saint Exupéry in Merleau-Ponty, 1962 , 530).
It is not suggested that a commitment to such interaction would be easy, nor is it intended that through it would be recovered an essentialist understanding of humanity. It is however, posited that it might lead to consideration of why, within western traditions in aesthetics, some aspects of Kant’s legacy have been prioritised over others. Those theories of philosophical aesthetics and critical practices that draw on a Kantian notion of ‘disinterestedness’ might benefit from revisiting, in the context of the twenty-first century, the relationship he suggested between moral and aesthetic judgements:
Taste enables us, as it were, to make the transition from sensible charm to a habitual moral interest without making too violent a leap; for taste presents the imagination as admitting, even in its freedom, of determination that is purposive for the understanding, and it teaches us to like even objects of sense freely, even apart from sensible charm.
Kant, 1987, 230 
Historically the Enlightenment’s resort to reason in order to flee from prejudice and superstition (Kant, 1987  161) may be seen as challenging a dogmatic adherence to power by promoting the ideal that individuals think for themselves. Yet this individualism was tempered by a conception of morality free from self interest.
Dance artists within western society, by developing concepts of lived, even thinking bodies, are struggling with the inevitable prejudice against what was separated from reason. However they are not necessarily opposed to all aspects of the Enlightenment tradition. As I stated at the end of chapter seven, what the artists I talked with seemed to share is a commitment to dance as a communicative interaction within society. This is not to suggest a prioritising of the referential over the poetic in their aesthetics or any naive assumptions that dance can be universally communicable. Rather, that understanding the different ways in which their dance negotiates bodily significance is an important aspect in the development of their choreographic style. For these artists it seems this is so bound up with their own sense of self (or rather selves) that what they value is a kind of personal integrity in performance, revealing of the ‘truth ‘ of their lived experience as they understand it in the moment.
Often to the detriment of their careers, these artists have made decisions in relation to these values rather than what they thought people, important in terms of funding or opportunities, would like. Where perhaps fortuitously (or responding to unrecognised pressures) they have made decisions that did fit in with a known agenda, they seemed anxious to assert that it was their decision and suited their artistic concerns. Where possible, and to the limits of their agency, they challenge what Kant would call ‘passive reason’. Their approaches to their work may be viewed as relating to those aspects of Kant’s aesthetics that suggest a humanist moral dimension but reworked in a very different, postmodern context that perhaps offers a way out of either essentialism or absolute relativism. In contrast, an aesthetic tradition that focuses on Kant’s notion of disinterestedness has led to his aesthetics being associated with the appreciation of classical, formal dance that, for instance, supports the dance critic Roger Copeland’s (1990) preference for Balanchine’s choreography to that of Bausch. If more emphasis were placed on the humanist ethics underpinning Kant’s aesthetics, dance artists who struggle with how their dances can be appreciated within the context of diversity may not be so far removed from Kantian concerns with aesthetics as at first might be supposed.
I am aware that there is another bleaker reading
of this in which, caught up in hidden discourse, the artists’ actions
are merely inscribed by the power structures of society still dominated
by ways of thinking belonging to a (western) elite. Moreover the work
of this small group of artists, working on the edges of mainstream
dance, is unlikely to be representative of the values that dominate
within the dance sector as a whole. My own understanding of dance,
in which ‘dance, like music, resides at a juncture between the biological
and the cultural’ (Grau, 1999,166) not unsurprisingly corresponds
to that of my tutor’s and may be thought of as ‘typical of a middle-class
liberal’ (Grau, 1999,166). As such my perspective has its own position
within the cultural discourses in which dance is placed. However,
reflecting on this research I have become conscious that what drew
me to the artists I talked to was, at least in part, the values I
perceived to be embodied in their work. This in some ways was a surprise
because when I initially chose the artists my main concern was to
ensure some of them had different cultural and/or dance backgrounds
to my own. For ethical reasons I had decided to approach only those
whose work I respected even though it might not be representative
of the work I most enjoyed. It was through the research process that
I recognised that what I respected was that I perceived their work
as embodying concerns I shared. These might be summed up as valuing
the attempt to communicate across difference (whether of culture,
age or gender) and a willingness to enter into an interaction with
the audience with a sense of honesty. Whether many other people would
perceive these values to be embodied in their work
and, how representative such values are of the
wider dance sector in London (or even further afield), are issues
that could only be resolved through further research. In terms of
this project what has been found is that reflecting on what is embodied
in dance can enrich appreciation. Further that the experiences of
living, working and watching dance in a diverse society such as
What has been argued for in this thesis is
that in the play between semiotics and phenomenology dance can be
appreciated as a communicative phenomenon. Aesthetic enjoyment of
this phenomenon might be described as an embodied savouring of its
primarily poetic or aesthetic function which focuses attention on
phenomenological engagement with the medium of the dance whilst allowing
for a play between the associative functions that bring in aspects
of performance, context, and the responses of the audience. Intermeshed
with aesthetic ideas which may be perceived as embodied in the dance
are cultural understandings of the temporal and spatial structuring
of bodily action. In the context of cultural diversity, in which these
cannot be taken for granted, reflecting on their significance may
enrich the understanding and appreciation of dance. Rooted yet unbounded
by the ‘real’ of the physical, the potential for dance to negotiate
different ways of bodily being stands in contrast to both the presentation
of the definitive (modernist) subject and the dislocation of embodied
experience from a (postmodern) world constituted by continually shifting
signs. In the context of current concerns with difference, consideration
of this negotiation may bring ethical dimensions into play to determine
a shift in attitudes to the aesthetic. In order to fully appreciate
the wealth of dance performed in
Notes to Conclusion
[i] ‘So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle in a giving of universal law’ (Kant, 1977,  28 :31).
[ii] For instance, Merleau-Ponty, drawing on Husserl, posits an important distinction between Kant’s ‘noetic analysis which bases the world on the synthesizing activity of the subject’, and the phenomenological ’ ‘noematic reflection’ which remains within the object and, instead of begetting it, brings to light its fundamental unity’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962, x).
[iii] A few comments made to me at a performance by Sushma Mehta, and what I have read in reviews in relation to one of the anonymous artists, suggest some other people have appreciated these qualities.