0.0 Background to the Research
What is happening between performer and audience when a performance ‘works’? This question, almost an afterthought in my planned discussions with dance artists as part of this research, seemed to get to the heart of what they most valued in their chosen art form: a sense of ‘exchange‘, an insight into another person, a ‘shared journey’, ‘shared experience’ and the importance of emotional ‘truth’ featured as important to their experiences of dance. I was reminded in their replies not only of my own experiences as both performer and audience, but also of how in my more academic studies of dance, I had tended to side step such issues since they are difficult to account for without seeming theoretically naïve.
follows is an account of my interrogation of some aspects of how dance
is experienced in performance. Focussing on dance created for presentation
Prior to accounting for this process, lingering a little in the realms of the personal provides an opportunity to offer insights into what shaped my perspective: first, as a young ballet dancer, I was disorientated by the differences in responses to my performances; I was convinced that for my part, in most aspects the performances had been the same, although I distinctly thought that the audiences had ‘felt’ different; a few years later as a student of contemporary dance I could not help noticing that my fellow students would insist on talking about expressing themselves in their dancing however much the theory they studied posited the significance of the features of a dance rather than the feeling of the dancer; then at the end of this period of training, an intense feverish dream brought to my attention that I could never cut off a constant sense of watching myself. At this point I had no knowledge of such concepts as ‘the male gaze’ or ‘panopticism’ that might have provided a means to interpret this sense of an internal eye, but believed I had recognised the impact of dance training on my consciousness.
again, organising community dance events in South East London, I experienced
the intensity of each participant’s viewpoint as to what dance was
more or less worthy of their interest and became increasingly aware
of the close relationship between people’s cultural perspectives and
their dance values. I began to question some of the assumptions about
dance that I had previously taken for granted by considering the influence
of my experiences as a white, middle class female exponent of ballet
and the ‘contemporary’ dance that draws on North American and European
innovations. Yet, while becoming more sensitive to what might be thought
of as the underlying cultural significance of both posture and action,
I was also curious about those instances that seemed to counteract
the limitations on dance as only being understood within cultural
conventions. For example, at a
Bemused by my experiences, it took some time to clarify that what I was interested in pursuing was how consideration of what might be perceived as embodied in dance could contribute to its understanding and appreciation. This entailed developing a research method that allowed for reflection on the experience of dance (my own and that of more experienced dance artists) alongside theoretical perspectives developed from a range of academic disciplines. These interdisciplinary perspectives were particularly important in working to clarify some of the different uses of ‘embodiment’ and ‘appreciation’ that was an important element of the research.
0.1 Research Parameters and Some Issues of Terminology
A full account of
the research process is outlined in chapter one, in which the choice
of research methodologies and the defining of the parameters for the
research are discussed. The latter was problematic in that my interests
ranged over a number of areas concerned with what might be considered
as ‘embodiment’ and its relationship to the understanding, interpretation
and appreciation of performance. Narrowing the focus to consider the
topic in relation to dance in contemporary
This raised another
issue of terminology. What has been termed ‘western theatre dance’
is usually thought of as being based on traditions originating in
In each case a description of the precise dance traditions and the intended performance context of a dance performance would mitigate such problems. However, apart from being unwieldy, this might then suggest a complete disintegration of a localized theatrical dance culture which, while fractured by difference, might still be thought of as a 'family' of dance performance practices understood through the rhizomatous structure of their interconnections. I thus decided on the descriptor (western) theatre dance to indicate dance made within western culture, for presentation to western orientated theatre audiences (wherever they may be based geographically) but potentially drawing on dance traditions from anywhere in the world. Under the umbrella of (western) theatre dance might come artists whose work draws on one or more dance forms from ballet and ‘contemporary’ to butoh, Egyptian dance, flamenco, Ghanaian dance, Hip Hop, kathak, jazz, street dance, tap and so on, each with its unique heritage but all being presented within a similar performance context. Thus while the kathak based work suggested above might come under this category, a traditional kathak dance presented as a part of a specific cultural event not publicised to an audience would not, whether it were taking place in Southall or Mumbai.
As can be seen from this discussion of terms, in postmodernity boundaries are often challenged, even dissolved on occasion; yet while recognising that the distinction between the west and its ‘other’ is problematic, in the contexts of globalisation and postmodernity such conceptual understandings may be viewed as shifting but yet to be obliterated. Similarly the present vogue for site specific work that has taken dance into all sorts of unusual spaces adds a further layer of complication because it plays with assumptions about the performance location. At present while new and experimental work raises all sorts of questions about what is understood by 'theatre', a distinction can still be made between a performance that goes into unusual places and those that unquestionably belong (street carnival for instance) in a different milieu to the conventional theatre. For the purposes of this research, my aim is simply that the term (western) theatre dance describes the situation that exists at present with all the inherent contradictions encompassed by postmodern performances.
0.2 Concepts of ‘Embodiment’ and ‘Appreciation’
Having determined on the parameters and initial research methods, it was necessary to explore ‘embodiment’ and ‘appreciation’ and the relationship between them. The initial theoretical reflections into these terms provided the basis for the first series of discussions with artists, suggesting ‘foreshadowed’ problems that could be explored in relation to their experiences. These underpinning considerations are thus presented prior to a focus on the artists’ perspectives: an investigation, placed within the context of western philosophical aesthetics, forms the basis of chapter two while the focus of chapter three is on anthropological and sociological perspectives.
Approaches to appreciating (western) theatre dance as art have roots in a long tradition of western philosophical aesthetics. An exploration of those that seem to influence how dance is currently appreciated informs a discussion of the implications for what might be understood by 'embodiment' in this context. One issue that arises is a distinction between understanding and interpreting a dance: whereas the latter may emphasise an act of translating meaning (or meanings) usually into words, 'understanding' may suggest a way of perceiving the work to make sense of it for itself. While this is considered to rely on active perception, in itself an interpretative act, a distinction is made that allows for aspects of a work which cannot always easily be explained in words to be viewed as significant. Moreover, appreciating a dance is suggested to be dependent on experiencing a way of understanding it for oneself rather than comprehending another person's reasons for their interpretation; thus while interpreting aspects of a dance may inform appreciation, to interpret a dance is not the same as appreciating it. A focus on interpretation is viewed as a problem of those semiotic approaches which, by focussing on the dance as ‘text’, may marginalise those bodily significances that are difficult to discuss. This however is not intended to give the impression that such bodily significances are not publicly available, hidden in the unfathomable depths of the psyche or in some mystic realm. It does however emphasise that communication about them is not always easy.
In contrast to a long tradition in the appreciation of art, academic interest in ‘embodiment’ is comparatively recent. However, currently within the dance community the term has become very popular, although the theoretical perspectives that underpin its use may not always be clear. This latter point took some teasing out since the term is used in a range of approaches to dance. In general use the term ‘embodiment’ is perhaps shifting away from the more generalised sense, still found in many dictionaries, of giving (bodily) form to an idea. What is emerging is a new specific concern with the bodily aspects of subjectivity. For instance in the field of cognitive science, ‘the basic notion of embodiment is broadly understood as the unique way an organism’s sensorimotor capacities enable it to successfully interact with its environmental niche’ (Cowart, 2006). While perhaps in the field of dance science the term might be used in this manner, there are subtle differences in how it might be used in other areas of dance such as in a practical class, in discussion of aesthetic considerations, in semiotic approaches to dance and in considering dance from a sociological or anthropological perspective. For example, indicative of many approaches to embodiment in dance practice is that of the dance educators and writers Valerie Preston-Dunlop and Anna Sanchez-Colberg who, influenced by the phenomenological approaches to dance of Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1979) and Sondra Horton-Fraleigh (1987), emphasise the lived experience of the individual act of embodiment:
Embodiment of movement involves the whole person, a person conscious of being a living body, living that experience, giving intention to the movement material. It involves perceiving oneself in the space and hearing one's sound, with kinaesthetic awareness of creating and controlling movement.
Preston-Dunlop and Sanchez-Colberg, 2002, 7
The importance of the concept of 'embodiment' to attempts to account for the totality of the whole person in dance became a key issue that emerged during the research, particularly with regard to counteracting what are often regarded as dualist attitudes to the body as 'instrument'.
Whereas Preston-Dunlop’s choreological approach (1998) to dance offers a view of embodiment primarily from the phenomenological perspective of the dance artist, in philosophical aesthetics the focus is more generally placed on how significance might be viewed as embodied in the artwork. While interest in embodiment may be thought of as developing out of phenomenology, and particularly the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962 , 1972 ), within philosophical aesthetics in Britain the term seems to have come into more general use in the 1960s with philosophers such as Louis Arnaud Reid using it to describe how content and form are indivisible in a finished work of art (Reid, 1969 and 1979 ). That is, what is embodied was found to be discovered in the artwork rather than existing prior to its fruition. The American philosophical aesthetician, Monroe Beardsley (1975 , 336), made use of the term in a similar manner but also related it retrospectively to the Romantic period in his translation of the early nineteenth century writing of August Wilhelm Schlegel who, according to Beardsley, stated:
Romantic poetry embodies a striving for the infinite, stems from Christianity, and is marked by inner division of spirit, a sense of gap between actual and ideal, hence an unsatisfied longing.
Schlegel in Beardsley, 1975 , 245
The significance of this ‘striving’ and ‘inner division’ in the Romantic tradition raises issues about responses to the Christian and rationalist legacies that are explored, in relation to ballet, in chapter six. In terms of the concept of ‘embodiment’, there being no nineteenth century source for Beardsley’s translation, it may be that this use of ‘embodiment’ reflects his understanding from the perspective of the mid twentieth century.
More recently, the philosophical aesthetician
In addition to (or rather intermeshed with) aesthetic ideas that may be considered to be embodied in dance, is what may be termed a broader cultural embodiment. In the appreciation of dance it may be useful to consider how culture may be embodied through all the physical habits particular to members of a cultural group. It can be argued that this aspect has long been of interest to dance critics: writers from the past, while working within a discourse separated from that of contemporary cultural theory, may be felt to offer rich insights into current discussions with regard to the broader cultural significance embodied in the minutiae of movement in performance. For instance the, Romantic poet and dance critic, Théophile Gautier, in his oft cited distinction between the dancers Fanny Elssler and Marie Taglioni, situates their differences within two contrasting, but equally significant influences on the development of western culture, classical civilisation and Christianity:
Mlle. Taglioni is a Christian dancer if one may make use of such an expression in regard to an art proscribed by the Catholic faith: she flies like a spirit in the midst of the transparent clouds of white muslin …she resembles a happy angel who scarcely bends the petals of celestial flowers with the tips of her pink toes. Fanny is a quite pagan dancer; she reminds one of the muse Terpsichore, tambourine in hand, her tunic exposing her thigh…when she bends freely from her hips, throwing back her swooning voluptuous arms, we seem to see one of those beautiful figures from Herculaneum or Pompeii…
Gautier, 1986 , 15 -16
Gautier situates his responses to dance by emphasising the ballerinas as sources of poetic imagery within western traditions of iconography. Over a hundred years later, the American poet and critic, Edwin Denby, managed to convey the relationship between dance style and culture, this time not by referring to differences between individual dancers but to the dynamic qualities of different balletic styles. Commenting on the differences between the emerging American ballet and the European he stated:
The American dancers had neither an instinct for imaginative characterisation through liberties of rhythm and accent in classical variations, nor an ensemble instinct for the kind of rhythmic liberty the Ballet Russe had used for a sweeping collective climax.....
The American steadiness and exactitude of rhythm, its reticence of phrasing, have not the same but a different clarity of sweep. They do not underline the pathos of a scene by taking sides, but its tragedy by not taking any.
Denby, 1968 , 400
In the context of
the concerns of the time, his description may be interpreted as an
allusion to both
While not all dance
critics have had the same poetic grasp of language, others have also
found ways to hint at some kind of relationship between culture and
dance style. For instance, there is a rather withering account of
the post hey-day Royal Ballet in
While in dance criticism
there has been something of a tradition of implicit recognition of
the relationship between dance and the wider culture, it is only in
comparatively recent academic studies of dance, including discussions
of criticism (Banes, 1994, Jowitt, 1995), that this relationship has
been made explicit. It was, however, the subject of earlier works
on dance written from an anthropological perspective. For instance,
The question is not that ballet reflects its own heritage. The question is why we seem to need to believe that ballet has somehow become acultural. Why are we afraid to call it an ethnic form?
The answer is I believe that Western dance scholars have not used the word ethnic in its objective sense; they have used it as a euphemism for such old fashioned terms as “heathen,” “pagan,” “savage,” or the more recent term “exotic.”
Kealiinohomoku, 1983 , 546
However by the 1980s
the relationship of dance to the wider culture found its way into
books intended to support the more general academic study of dance.
So that dance scholar
Dances are social and cultural products which embody, and are created and received in relation to, the conventions and traditions of a particular time and place.
Hodgens, 1988, 65
Similarly reaching the pages of a ‘dance reader’ was the view of anthropologist and pop culturalist Ted Polhemus that:
While physical culture may be viewed as crystallization - an embodiment - of the most deeply rooted and fundamental level of what it means to be a member of a particular society, dance might be seen as a second stage of this process.
Polhemus, 1998 , 174
Within the related
field of sociological investigation of dance,
Dance is simultaneously a feature of the socio-cultural context of its emergence, creation and performance and a reflexive practice realised through the medium of the body...
Thomas, 1995, 1
And Valerie Preston-Dunlop, writing with more poetic intent and influenced by phenomenological accounts of dance suggested how political attitudes may be given form:
Plotful and plotless dances
may reveal social values -
an appreciation of the ensemble not the étoile,
a reverence for the mundane not the sophisticated,
a detestation of elitism or racial intolerance,
of sexist behaviour, of homophobia.
They are given form in the dance
through choices made,
in casting, in movement material, in group forms.
Preston-Dunlop, 1998, 15
Preston-Dunlop proposed that artists exert agency in making creative choices that reveal values that challenge what, in some parts of the ‘dance world’, may have been previously accepted norms. More recently Gay Morris has drawn on the theories of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to contemplate the underlying significance of the body that may also have political implications:
In terms of dance, this view of bodily practice offers the possibility of dance ordering thoughts and feelings not just through choreography but in the basic techniques and comportment that present the body to the world in a particular way.
Morris, 2001, 57
Albeit couched in different terms and drawing from different theoretical approaches, which are explored further in chapters two and three, there seems to be a general consensus that dance in some way embodies wider social significance than may be immediately apparent. It is, however, sometimes difficult to establish this except by reference to actions that are easily interpreted in relation to codes that are already well understood within a stated context; these can then provide 'proven' examples. Such ‘evidence’ may refer to accepted conventions of everyday non-verbal behaviour, or the established significance of actions within a dance tradition or as defined by the choreographer. Hence although Morris (2001) suggests the significance of 'basic techniques and comportment' in her discussion of how consideration of the concept of ‘habitus’ may illuminate understanding of Martha Graham's Night Journey (1947), she tends to focus on the significance of 'conventionalised movement and gesture' or the more 'denotative' movements by referring to easily understood, almost mimetic actions, such as Jocasta's rocking her son/husband Oedipus in her arms (Morris, 2001, 72). Morris is aware of how 'struggles within the dance field', between the values of early Modern dance and ballet, are embodied (Morris, 2001, 61) and relates these to Graham’s personal struggles as a woman in dance. However, in the discussion of gender issues, the analysis of how the movement might be understood to explore male:female power relationships is perhaps limited to those that refer to readily identifiable codes. Thus reference is made to such easily defined features as the use of different stage areas, roles in partnering, even size of steps. Yet the underlying tensions in Graham's dance could be read as revealing the pressures on women in a modern, but patriarchal, society to meet up to ideals of behaviour in terms of class and gender that conflict with the desire for a freer expression of their sexuality and individual agency.
Within academic discourse how a particular play on dynamic tensions in the spine might carry connotations (in the above example for instance of the underlying conflict in the social position of women in the 1940s) is open to debate. Such subtleties of movement provide less solid ground for discussion than examples that rely on interpretations that draw on well established codes such as who is placed downstage. Yet it may be that differences in postural organisation that Bourdieu calls the 'bodily hexis' can be very significant in what is understood in a dance work. Pierre Bourdieu's (1979) description of the 'habitus' that Morris draws upon suggests how bodily ways of being are an important part of the 'feel for the game' necessary to fit in with a particular cultural group. From the point of view of understanding dance, what is problematic is that the underlying rules of the ‘game’ may not always be made explicit.
0.3 Interdisciplinary Perspectives
One further outcome of consideration of the habitus is the potential for a particular understanding of aesthetic experience to be considered as part of that ‘feel for the game’ of a specific cultural group. Following the consideration, in chapter three, of the sociologist Norbert Elias' discussion of distancing in the civilising process and Bourdieu's demonstration of the relationship between taste and class, it is possible to see the notion of the aesthetic attitude as proposed by Bullough (1977)  and Stollnitz (1960), together with the sensitivity to discern particular aesthetic features, as to be part of the habitus of a group that is recognisably western orientated and elite. Thus viewing aesthetic experience as an indicator of artistic value becomes problematic unless it is accepted that the tastes of a particular group should be prioritised. While this is an unattractive proposition, attempts to shift the focus away from aesthetics have not necessarily resulted in satisfactory resolutions to the problem. Institutional definitions of art (Dickie, 1974) may allow for a broader range of tastes but may lead to a focus on the extrinsic concerns that shape dance and arts institutions. While a tendency to account for the appreciation of dance works in relation to their semiotic significance raises once more the problem of interpretation. On the terms of (inter)textual analysis, different readings of a dance may become reduced to choices between discourses and as such, as is explored in relation to George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments (1946), are often too easily politicised in terms that fail to account fully for the experience of the dance. Crowther's (1993) ecological definition of art is again referred to, in this third chapter, in relation to his argument against reducing questions of aesthetic value to those of the status and preferences of different groups. Instead, as he proposes, emphasis is placed on the need for more debate, incorporating a multiplicity of viewpoints, to consider the basis of aesthetic judgements.
In tandem with allowing for the communication of diverse aesthetic perspectives, the potential for the interrelationship between phenomenology and semiotics is revisited in chapter three. Following Thomas Csordas' (1994) discussion of the relationships between perceived dualities, it is suggested that the interplay of phenomenological and semiotic approaches to dance might allow for a fuller reflection on what is understood. Further, in the moment of watching dance the imagination may have a role to play in facilitating understanding of dance that draws on ways of being that are not part of the spectator's own cultural experience?
0.4 Artists’ Perspectives
While the ethnographic element of this interdisciplinary research is limited, it was important to me, as a previous practitioner, to bring artists’ perspectives into consideration alongside those of dance theorists, sociologists, anthropologists and philosophical aestheticians. The play between semiotics and phenomenology is thus interrogated further in chapter four, not so much in relation to academic texts but rather in consideration of what some dance artists themselves have to say about their experiences of performing their own work in the current dance ecology. Such a limited and qualitative study could hardly be presented as ‘proof’, but it is interesting that each artist can be viewed as having developed strategies for bringing their (phenomenological) experience of dance into play with their understanding of dance as ‘read’ (as in semiotics). However, the methods by which this is achieved are found to be varied.
Similarly in this fourth chapter, the different
means by which dancers seem to develop a sense of their self as seen
by others are discussed. In this context the current turn away from
the use of mirror in some dance practices is linked to interest in
bodily sensitivity and the notion of the ‘lived body’ that draws on
phenomenological approaches to dance. Referring to the work of sociologist
Within the context of dance performance, the dancers’ comments in relation to norms of physical appearance and action are also discussed. That the artists, while sharing the experience of living and working in London, differed in terms of dance background, ethnicity and gender was important to the development of the research as it facilitated the recognition of some ‘taken for granted’ attitudes that might be perceived as embodied in their work. In addition, it allowed for consideration of those aspects of current social experience that may be of particular significance to a range of artists.
These issues raise the question of individual agency in relation to the extent artists feel they can vary from, or even be seen to challenge perceived norms. In this context that some artists preferred to remain anonymous is interesting. While some artists had no hesitation about their name being revealed, others were more concerned. This latter group’s reasons for their decision remained private and may have been simply due to the fact that they were aware our discussions had ranged over quite personal experiences and feeling and, just in case they had missed any possible allusion to this [ii] in the editing process, decided it was prudent to be anonymous. However it is also possible that they were concerned in terms of their ‘non aligned status’ that they retained control over suggestions of any challenge to accepted norms. In one case an artist who had seemed quite unconcerned about their name being published changed their mind when I suggested they check with the person responsible for marketing and applying for funding for their work.
These initial discussions with artists informed further reflection and research (that included further discussions with three of the artists) that is accounted for in chapters five, six and seven. The topics aired will not surprise anyone involved with dance or even wider cultural issues: chapter five focuses on issues of cultural diversity and ethnicity, chapter six on those of gender and sexuality, and chapter seven, in considering style and skill in the context of postmodernity, further raises issues about difference, including in ability. However, through these chapters is interwoven a development of the previous discussions. In particular, consideration of the importance of the phenomenological experience of dance as communicative is developed alongside scrutiny of what may be perceived to be embodied in dance. This emphasises how current interests in ‘embodiment’ may be felt to reveal a retreat from mind:body dualism and a search for new ways of conceptualising the relationships of mind:body, self:other.
Finally, from consideration of the artists’
discussions of their experiences of presenting dance as art in
Note to Introduction
Since what may be termed contemporary dance is also
a disputed term (Grau, 1998) ‘contemporary’ dance is here understood
as that presented as such in
[ii] I attempted not to include personal reminiscences/remarks that I felt the artists might regret being publicised, anonymous or not, but such discussions do colour my interpretation of other comments.