Exploring ‘Embodiment’:

 Dance Artists’ Perspectives



4.0 Introduction

In the previous two chapters it has been suggested that in the moment of watching dance, the audience may understand what is embodied in relation to their immersion in a communicative matrix in which language and movement are intertwined. I have drawn on the work of philosophical aestheticians, critics, anthropologists and sociologists to consider how what is experienced as embodied may inform the audience’s understanding of dance. However, many of the dance writers, whose work I have drawn on in developing this study, were also informed by their practical experience of performing and/or creating dance. My own interest in the field stems as much from my role as practitioner as spectator and, as I have outlined in the introduction and chapter one, it is important to me to draw on the experiences of dance artists in exploring embodiment. The following discussion revisits some of the issues raised in chapters two and three drawing on the perspectives of artists concerned with creating and performing dance.


Descriptions of each artist interviewed for this study (Gaby Agis, Nina Anderson, Sushma Mehta and those identified anonymously as Artists A, B and D) and an account of the research process are detailed in chapter one. It is perhaps most important in relation to this discussion to emphasise that they all live and work in London and have experience of presenting work in the ‘non aligned’ (i.e. not for regularly funded dance companies) dance sector in London. They have varying experience of performance outside London and some beyond Britain. Of the six artists interviewed initially, three work out of what could be loosely described as ‘contemporary’ dance traditions, one from the traditions of kathak, another from Egyptian dance and the sixth from a ‘fusion’ of club dance, jazz, ‘contemporary’ and ‘street’ styles. In terms of ethnicity, one is a British resident but American and of ‘Hispanic’ ethnicity, and the others British, two of African Caribbean ethnicity, two European and one South Asian. While undoubtedly the artists chosen reflect my own concerns, coming from different cultural and dance backgrounds they can also be seen to represent something of the range of artists currently creating dance works in London outside the framework of ‘national touring’ dance companies. Most importantly they all dance in their own choreography and it is this aspect of their particular perspective in relation to the issues raised so far in this study that I will focus on in this chapter. 



4.1 Approaches to Making Dance for Performance

Issues raised in chapters two and three suggest the potential for dancers to be concerned with the relationship between apparent dualisms that the cultural and psychological anthropologist Thomas Csordas identifies as the ‛terrain on which opposed terms meet’ (Csordas, 1994, 20). Of particular concern is the relationship between phenomenological and semiotic accounts of dance. While undeniably my findings reveal the focus of my questions (see appendix 1), I will be suggesting that the dance artists I chose to interview could be viewed as having strategies for bringing their phenomenological experience of dancing into play with their understanding of dance as ‘read’ in a manner akin to a semiotic approach.


However I also found that there are a variety of strategies used to bring these two ways of knowing into play. This is clearly demonstrated by the different ways the artists had approached starting to make recent work. For instance, while Artist A had gone into a studio wanting to explore her emotional response to a situation through movement, Artist D’s approach was, in his words, ’cerebral’. He realised that unlike many of his contemporaries he could not start a piece from just exploring movement in a studio but ‘needed the necessity and urge to ”make”, coupled with a momentum, image or feeling as a purpose to start’ (Artist D, 2003, edited 2007). While both would improvise and watch the video of their improvisations, Artist D would refer to video to see whether the movement images translated as he imagined, only later concerning himself with ‘weaving his being through the structure’ (Artist D, 2003, edited 2007). Artist A, very much working intuitively by exploring feelings through improvisation, was concerned to see (via video) how what she had improvised would ‘read’ to an audience and thought of the process of structuring that material as the more cerebral. Artist B’s starting points seemed to combine intuitive responses to music with a strong sense of a body image and a particular concern to convey a kind of ‘energy’ through dance which correlated to his experiences not only of dance in clubs but of life more generally. However, ideas from life, theatre and film would be mulled over in preparation for work in the studio. Yet another artist, Gaby Agis, often drew on visual images as a source, sometimes finding these images coming to her as she responded physically to music. She translates these images into instructions to herself and her dancers who take it in turns to step back and ‘witness’ the movement, watching and reporting back to the others what they perceive.


Working with traditional ‘non western’ dance genres, the creative processes of artists Nina Anderson and Sushma Mehta also reveal strategies for playing between the different ways of experiencing dance. In Anderson’s case a ‘persona’ she was exploring was linked with use of traditional music from Egypt that she explored partly through intuition and partly by reflecting on its structure. Her work, a structured improvisation drawing on Egyptian dance traditions in relation to a chosen piece of music, developed through a series of repeated structured improvisations with reflections on them (usually viewed on video) informing each rehearsal. While she sometimes tried to remember movement ideas that had worked previously as she danced, her ideal was to incorporate these as habitual responses allowing her to respond intuitively to the musical structure. In contrast, Mehta, working out of her background in kathak, started with a clearly articulated concept of the movements she wanted to work with, and was very concerned to see how the dance would look, willing to cut or change anything that did not work visually. She was however careful to rehearse movements until she had the ‘feeling’ of how it should be in her body. 


Artists did not always stick to the same strategy in creating a dance. Although Artist D, for instance, usually had a clear visual idea that he would then explore more physically, in relation to the last section of a solo he had recently created he stated:


I had an image that it would just be this furious thing but within the locomotion of this fury I didn’t want anyone to grab onto an image.

 Artist D, 2003


I interpret these different uses of ‘image’ as trying to distinguish between different ways that dance is experienced. Artist D later clarified this: ‘movement that gives very visual cues, conventional steps for example from a classical disposition (history) conventional social gestures/actions (waving goodbye)’, that for D are often ‘static’, were felt by him to encourage an audience to interpret it in relation to ‘past references which took away from the premise of entering an unknown’ (Artist D, 2007). By concerning himself with the dynamics of this ‘fury’ he may be viewed as encouraging the audience to draw on their experiences of physicality to interpret the dance without reference to visually symbolic references. Similarly, for Gaby Agis, there was recognition that whilst some people would respond to the visual images created by dance, for others, or at other moments, movement could be interpreted in relation to bodily experience:


The body has a memory - So maybe a certain note in the music or a certain look on a dancer or a certain relationship between two dancers, or a certain energy of a movement, or the whole experience, or the whole atmosphere clicks them into something in their life and they have an experience.


Agis, 2003


This artist’s approach seemed to focus on creating dance that would have the potential to offer different ‘resonances’ for people, both visually and kinaesthetically. She was particularly aware that what the audience brought to the performance would affect their experience. 


Within the context of a performing art it is hardly surprising that for all the artists the creative process included reflection on how the dance would be perceived. This is such an integral feature of ballet and ‘contemporary’ dance and, as Mehta’s account reveals, much theatre dance more generally, that it is taken for granted. However what these interviews began to highlight was the complexity of the processes informing the artists’ understanding of how their dance would be perceived by others. In discussion artists’ statements might seem to draw on a number of terms relating to both phenomenology and semiotics in a manner that could appear theoretically naïve. While undoubtedly dancers are more schooled in movement than philosophical niceties, there is the possibility that this mix of terms is the result of attempts to describe the complex interrelationship between personal experience of dancing, experience of watching others dance and reflecting on how others respond to both of these. It may be that dance artists are particularly able to negotiate just the terrain Csordas refers to. To this end they may also be seen as being particularly adept at a form of self monitoring that, as discussed in chapter three in relation to the theories of Michel Foucault, can be seen as a feature of modern society.


4.2  Shifting Perspectives

The monitoring of their own movement, through the use of mirror, video and/or feedback from teachers, peers and audiences seems to provide artists with a heightened sense of how they will be perceived. For instance, during one interview, Artist A was looking for the first time at a video of some improvisation in which she felt she had been concentrating on feeling, developing movement from an emotional source. Initially she recognised that in spite of consciously trying not to be too judgemental while improvising she was perhaps ’twenty five percent aware’ of how it looked. As the interview progressed she reported that there were ‘no surprises’ on the video and that she was more aware of the movement than she had thought. It seems she had become adept at monitoring the images she created even while not consciously focussing on this (Artist A, 2002).


When questioned how she thought she could do this she referred back to her training, particularly to the use of mirrors in ballet class, commenting that she was more aware of the spatial content than the dynamic content of her movement. It is commonly accepted that conventional dance training ingrains a way of moving, ‘re-educating’ muscles (Lawson, 1975) so that by habit movements adhere to a particular aesthetic without the performer having to focus consciously on this intention.


Even outside formal traditions ingraining the right style can be important. For instance,  Artist B, who uses improvisation within a structured performance, emphasised at the beginning of his first interview how ’energy’ and ‘being inside the music’ were all important to his sense of his movement. Yet he also revealed that when he started dancing in clubs and before he went to dance college, he and his contemporaries all used their bedroom mirrors to check they had the right ‘style’.


There has always been a mirror. From the beginning when I was going to the club, from growing up, there has always been a mirror …When I was at home I used to go upstairs- In the bedroom there’s a mirror. Every dancer had a mirror and most clubs had a mirror...


Artist B, 2003 (edited 2007)


While those working from kathak, Egyptian dance and street and jazz traditions appear to be very willing to use mirrors and video to monitor the look of their work, in some ‘contemporary’ dance practice the use of mirrors and to some extent video is frowned on: Siobhan Davies, a leading ‘contemporary’ dance choreographer ensured her recently purpose built studio was mirror free. The three ‘contemporary’ dance artists (A, D and Agis) did not use mirrors and while video featured in a number of artists’ rehearsals, Artist D and Agis were also wary of video. For Artist D this meant there was sometimes a dilemma whether to trust the video or his own intuition. That he tended to trust the video was linked to his ultimate acceptance of dance being viewed as a ‘visual art’ (Artist D, 2004). However the importance he placed on feedback from knowledgeable peers counteracted this emphasis on video and perhaps suggests his recognition of the importance of experiencing dance as more than a series of visual images. The artist least reliant on mirror or video was Agis. She preferred to rely on feedback from ‘witnesses’ and having worked quite intensely with film recognised:


The thing with video is that you have to get it all in the frame and quite often with my work you can’t get everything in the frame...you can’t get the detail. Its like breath ­ How are you going to get breath in the video? How are you going to get the relationship between this person (and) this person? How are you going to get that sense of energy between...that’s sometimes quite translucent...


Agis, 2003


While Agis was the least reliant on mirror or video to monitor her dance she was no less aware of how she appeared to audiences. In fact, she was perhaps more easily able than some of the other artists to answer questions about how people responded to her. Her considerable experience of not only training and performing but working with film and being photographed may well have informed this awareness, but it is also perhaps linked to her practice of releasing technique. For this artist, it is the very awareness of her movement that she recognises has been ingrained through training. Agis reported other people perceived the legacy of her training (particularly in releasing technique) even in an everyday context:


I think if you are involved in working with your body you have a whole sense of yourself outside in a context of the environment. You have such different awarenesses, a physical awareness and emotional awareness... So I notice that even as I walk, other people are aware that I am a dancer- that I have a deportment and a way of moving...


Agis, 2003 (edited 2007)


Whilst traditional western theatre styles, such as ballet, used the mirror and the ballet master’s instruction to encourage dancers to adopt the ‘correct’ movement habits, in much current western ‘contemporary’ dance (as opposed to current dance drawing on a range of traditions)  the emphasis has shifted to becoming self aware in relation to proprioceptive feedback. Particularly in the more experimental forms of ‘contemporary’ dance, dancers are encouraged not to focus on positions in relation to their mirror image. Instead, the emphasis on a bodily focus through techniques such as Skinner releasing technique, Body Mind Centring©, and body orientating techniques such as Alexander and Feldenkreis have offered dancers the techniques to become aware of, and thus modify very subtly, the details of their movement in relation to their own sense of dynamic alignment and physical balance. It could be argued that in turning away from the use of the mirror, dancers are becoming more sophisticated in monitoring their actions and not less concerned with how they are perceived. These dancers demonstrate a high level of what might be termed embodied sensitivity that is valued in its own right rather then being viewed as instrumental to perfecting the ability to perform difficult moves. Although they may have adopted different strategies to those working in more traditional dance forms, through self monitoring in training and rehearsal these dancers may also be seen as having a sophisticated sense of how they seem to others. This can be drawn on in the process of performance, the experience of which may also further develop their awareness.  


4.3  Experiences of Performance

If the artists may be viewed as negotiating the boundaries between the phenomenological and the semiotic in the interrelated processes of training, creating and rehearsing, it is perhaps in performance that there is most seepage across these boundaries. In the interviews with the artists there seems to be a current concern with the phenomenological experience of shared perceptions of audience and performer as the ‘energy’ of performance.


I think it’s a dialogue or an exchange... of sensations, of memories, of energies, of resonances with something the artist has communicated…


                                                Agis, 2003


It was very shamanistic and there were points within that where the audience, the whole audience went silent. The state of the audience changed, presence changed and it changed through her. Within her performance she was able to embody something that altered space change and its effect was felt


Artist D, (describing Deborah Hay), 2004 (edited 2007)


You can feel them [the audience] as well. They give you energy or they are like holding energy... I don’t know how you just know.

If you can’t feel the audience you are not reaching out -

by throwing yourself over there - even if they are cold



                                    Artist B, March 2003


When a performance is felt to have been successful the artists tend to experience some sense of shared communication. It is not just that the artist utilises a semiotic system and the audience ‘understand’ but that there is a shared experience of communicative exchange. Or, as emerged from a discussion with Nina Anderson and Artist B, the ‘energy’ dancers talk about is not always a dynamic quality that is perceived in the movement but is a sense of shared experience of the movement (Artist B and Anderson, 2005 [i] ). Perhaps this is what underpins the popularity of phenomenological accounts of dance as they give value to the in-the-moment experience rather than breaking dance down into its symbolic parts. Such moments of communication, which I remember as being valuable in my experiences of performing, seemed to be an important part of dance for all the artists. However they do not seem to be dependent on meaning being completely fixed, there being recognition that what audiences experienced as having been communicated could be surprising. Agis for example reported being slightly taken aback (until she considered more of their perspective), at one person’s association of her work with their camping holidays (Agis, 2007).


From my perspective, based in the traditions of ballet and ‘contemporary ‘ dance, Sushma Mehta’s account of a concept in South Asian dance was particularly interesting. Out of the traditions discussed in these interviews, kathak is perhaps the most prescribed mode of communication in terms of established mimetic gestures and performance conventions. Communication in this dance form might be thought of quite easily in semiotic terms. However as Mehta talked of ‘rasa’ it seemed to me that what she was describing, while depending to some extent on a semiotic system, had an experiential aspect that was more in tune with a phenomenological approach to dance than I had expected:


We have a concept called ‘rasa’. That’s the most important concept in South Asian Dance. As an aesthetic principle it is the essence of a work of art. It is evoked in the sharing of an experience by the audience and the performer. So the performer does something and the audience feel it. It’s a shared experience, shared aesthetic experience…


Mehta, 2003 (edited 2007)



This artist described how Asian audiences usually show their appreciation very audibly, but maintained that even without the audience’s exclamations or clapping, this sense of shared experience can exist:



In the west there’s no tradition of that but somehow you can get the vibe from the audience in the live theatre you can get the vibe…


It’s how people are responding to you, and to an Indian performer that is the most important thing. Very important because if a performance does not evoke rasa (it literally means the flavour or the juice, as an aesthetic principle it is the essence) - There might just be one moment when you feel goose pimples- because you like something so much. You feel it. As an audience you feel it - Someone has communicated it to you.


If the performance is good and the performers are good at communicating and they have been able to communicate (and) it might be just for a moment, just a split second where they just come together. They journey together. You have taken the audience with you.



Mehta, 2003



A similar tradition, in terms of there being conventions of how to use the voice and clapping in response to a dance performance, was also the experience of Nina Anderson [ii] .  She questioned whether in the more silent performing environment, the performer’s perception in performance of whether the audience was ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ was more to do with how they felt (Anderson, 2003). When confronted with a quiet audience, which at first was strange within the context of traditional Egyptian dance, she had felt it was important to trust her own sense of how the performance had gone. However, she was also aware that over the years she had ‘come to look for the more subtle signs of appreciation rather than always expecting the audience to react in a more overt way’ (Anderson 2007b). While it may well be that at times performers can be deluded about their communicative rapport with their audience, it is possible that through more experience of performing to (almost) silent audiences they have become sensitive to tiny changes in the space, the result of how people change their breathing and posture depending on how they feel about what they are watching. For her part, when her experience of being an audience was questioned, Anderson distinguished between appreciating the skill of a dancer and being ‘really into a performance’. She felt this may be related to the perception of the performers. Some performances she observed ‘you feel that emotionally they’ve kind of got you somewhere’ whereas in other performances the dancers were reported to be ‘distant or disappeared somewhere’ (Anderson, 2003).


For both these artists there was a sense of how the techniques of their tradition could be used to establish communication with the audience. For example Mehta indicated that within her tradition it was clear that a sense of shared experience was dependent on the audience having some understanding of the dance conventions utilised:


What we call rasika ­ an informed audience with some knowledge and that rasa happens when there is an understanding ­ to some extent. 


Mehta, 2003


Albeit in different ways, all the artists, while not resorting to an expressionist belief in their movement being universally communicable, seemed to be edging towards an understanding of dance performance in which the phenomenological experience of communication is dependent on, but somehow not quite contained by, semiotic systems.



4.4  Accounting for the Dancers’ Experiences within Semiotics

In considering the artists’ accounts of dance as communicative, the sociologist Edward Varela’s approach to semiotics may be helpful. This seems to allow for the placing of ‘significant acts’ within an interactive social context that allows for the phenomenological first person experience of interactions to inform the semiotic system. Such a semiotics could thus draw on the phenomenological experience of performance and is posited by Varela as an alternative to phenomenological approaches to dance such as Sheets-Johnstone’s (discussed in chapter two) which he finds problematic in that they propose a ‘force of bodily intention that is as ghostly as the force of the Cartesian mind’ (Varela,1997, 219). Critical of Sheets-Johnstone’s later development of her phenomenological approach to dance, Varela suggests her formulation of ‘thinking in movement’ depends on a concept of mind as a ‘fundamental dynamic of kinetic rationality that is non linguistic (not simply pre-linguistic)’ (Varela,1997, 233). For Varela, such a concept seems to make linguistic rationality a later addition in human evolutionary development that still raises the problem of its relationship to the (moving) body. Varela’s own approach to resolving the dualist problem is to propose that:


The organism is an individual entity but the body is a cultural entity ­ it is embodied in a substantial person with its pure agency.


Varela, 1997, 281


He thus supports the semasiology of Drid Williams discussed in chapter two: 


The concept of the signifying act allows us to deal systematically with the enacted body, that is, the person agentically deploying a semiotic system for body movement in the cultural space of social action.


Varela, 1997, 221


By focusing on role of the agentic socially interacting person, Varela’s contribution to semiotics is to draw on the later work of Merleau-Ponty to propose a framework for a semiotics of signifying lingual and action signs that are the products of human agency. However, Varela is also very keen to argue that capturing the first person experience of performing action signs through movement scores records ‘talk from the enacted body’ (Varela, 1997, 287) in a manner superior to words. Whilst Varela’s viewpoint fits those dance forms that depend on clearly articulated spatial and temporal gestures, it may be that his prioritising of notational representation does not account for what is important to some current dance practices. In particular those artists taking improvisation into performance seem to focus more on the ‘energy’ of interactions than their spatial/temporal content. For them the communicative relationship in performance, both between dancers and between the performers and the audience is becoming of increasing importance:


When I see improvisational dance work I sit back and ride the waves. As decisions are made in real time and manifested in action it takes on a natural cycle - evolution. If the performers can keep their egos at bay and allow the bigger picture to develop this cycle moves in waves regardless of specifics in space. I am taken on a ride, I no longer see points in space as this organic animal has taken on a life of its own and is not bound by structures.


Artist D, 2004 (edited 2007)


Whether notational symbolic systems or words best capture this relationship is open to question. Notation systems, such as Labanotation, capture the movements of body parts in space and time. Ironically one could argue that this fits the traditional model of dance as clearly articulated spatial /temporal gestures that can be seen as embodying the dualist preoccupation with the mindful controlling of bodies in space and time. Yet there are currently other ways of conceptualising dance beginning to emerge.


Nevertheless, Varela’s placing of the understanding of significant (dance) actions in a phenomenological context relates to that sense dance artists develop of how others experience their dance, drawing on this to inform their work. All the artists, whether working for clarity of rehearsed action or to reveal their sensitive response to the moment, at times seem to blur the boundaries between (phenomenological) experience and (semiotic) reflection in performance, being at once in the moment of the dance and conscious of their dance as the subject for another’s perception.


4.5 Recognising the ‘Lived Body’ 

Through training, creative practice, rehearsal and performance dancers develop an awareness of their movement and a sense of how they may be perceived by others that informs their ability to perform with embodied sensitivity and experience their performance as communication. In this they may be seen as blurring the boundaries, not only between the dualisms of phenomenology and semiotics, but between self and other. Non dancers such as academics, less practised in embodied sensitivity, seem to still be able to recognise this sensitivity in the dancers and this may be a feature of what is currently valued in dance. This perception of difference between those practised in embodied sensitivity (such as dancers) and those who recognise their comparative lack of bodily awareness is interesting in the context of current cultural concerns with the legacy of dualism. As part of his complex discussion of existential phenomenological solutions to the problem of the Cartesian legacy, Varela suggests that the concept of the ‘lived body’ is a ‘sensitising but not definitive conceptual solution to the problem of the disembodied actor in the behavioural sciences’ (Varela, 1997, 217). It is the tacit acceptance in Varela’s paper that within western society there is a need to be sensitised to the problem of disembodiment that offers an insight into the value placed on the dancers’ embodied sensitivity: a perceived need, observed by Varela, for a sensitising to the ’body as lived’ is paralleled amongst dancers both in terms of their own performance skills and also in the perceptual skills of their audiences. [iii]  Since, in Britain it is the study of ‘contemporary’ dance that predominates in academic institutions, it is not surprising if this parallel is most prevalent within ‘contemporary’ dance. ‘Contemporary’ dance that emphasises subtle qualitative aspects of movement is popular with audiences ready to forgo more obvious virtuosic displays. Even in London it has a relatively small audience who often attend the more experimental venues and events. The dancers interviewed were very aware that there is often a tension between the obviously virtuosic that is popular with wider audiences and the skills needed to demonstrate a heightened bodily awareness. There was also a sense that the latter was in some way more artistically valuable and only perceived by the more discerning members of an audience. Since such attitudes tend to be a feature of more experimental contemporary dance they were thus most evident amongst the ‘contemporary’ dancers questioned. However, a sense that audiences sometimes lack the ability to perceive the subtler qualities of their dance certainly pervaded discussions with Artist B, Anderson and Mehta, although here this was also linked to problems of cross cultural understanding that will be explored further in chapter five.



4.6  Improvisation as Phenomenological Experience

An emphasis on embodied sensitivity is particularly important to those using improvisation in performance. Dance improvisation places value on the intuitive in-the-moment response and prizes creative and individual reactions. Arguably a current interest in performance as communicative experience accounts for some of the popularity of improvisation not only as a creative tool but as part of a dance work. In performance the audience may enjoy those moments when dancers seem to communicate through movement in fresh ways, having to respond to the other performers, the sound or the space at that moment, rather than relying on a rehearsed sequence. Improvised dance is perhaps the archetype transitory event to describe in relation to the phenomenological field. With its emphasis on the here and now there is no time to stand back and reflect on the dance, no score or exact repetition to analyse and no objects to collect after it is over. This can be illustrated through reference to my own different experiences of dance: in studying ballet I experienced the conscious capturing of bodily motility to work towards a natural seeming grace that was nevertheless precise in pre- conceived measurements of time and space. Later in Agis’ improvisational classes based in releasing techniques, I had to learn a means of a more diffused consciousness which permeated different layers of awareness and aimed towards responsiveness within time and space.


For those, like Artist A, who want to set their choreography, improvisation may be a rehearsal tool for finding different ways of moving and responding to a stimulus. For Artist A this meant exploring a perceived disjuncture between the flowing, sweeping movements which came easily to her when improvising and her own personality which she felt to be more ‘spikey’.


There is a certain quality of movement I have to admit that I’m trying to break out of it because I find that it’s ­ it’s stuck in me and I can’t break out of it. To watch I find it monotonous and it’s a kind of softness.  I don’t know if that relates to me in real life ­ I don’t think that it does …



 I guess that is quite a lot to do with the way I have been training over the past five, six (may be longer) years. I’ve been doing a lot of release work because I feel comfortable that way in my body. It’s the easiest way for me to move, it feels natural to me, whereas anything that demands more percussive quality, anything that demands more suddenness, I find quite strenuous and quite - well it’s almost like a shock to the system. But I think those shocks can be good for you sometimes and that you need to do that to yourself now and then and I think I would like to try to explore it a bit more in the movement, to break myself out of what is my set quality ...


Perhaps it’s really where did the movement come from? You know, the softer movement, was it not from such a true emotion? Maybe perhaps that’s something to do with it as well.


Artist A, 2002


For Artist B, improvisation revealed the sense of individual expression in performance, the inspiration for which, in his case, came from dancing and watching dance in clubs:


So if you don’t go back to where you came from [dancing in clubs] you will lose it and you forget how to improvise - Forget how to feel the music - You’ll just be counting. Counting’s alright - After you see someone counting you want to see them dance- and that is where what I call the spice is - Its inside if you’ve got the confidence to bring it out.


                                                Artist B, 2003 (edited April 2007)



In relation to the discussion of Best’s criticism of traditional expression theory and dance in chapter two, it can also be seen from Artist B’s  comments that a dancer’s understanding of the personal experience of dance can be important to what they value in other dancers. There seems to be a recognition of those who have an enhanced personal sensitivity to the experience of moving which can be drawn on in communicative interaction.


Whether artists used improvisation in rehearsal only or in performance, there was an implication that consciousness was experienced as being layered and that artists devised improvisational strategies for ‘delving deeper’ into layers that were perceived to be less saturated with those movement habits ingrained through training. This seems to be related to an interest in improvisation as a means to draw on the subconscious within a set framework. Elements of such a framework may be consciously set and thus easily agreed on. What is harder to define is the extent to which subliminally absorbed norms may impact on what are often viewed as creative ‘free’ choices. Some of the rules that structure an improvisation may be agreed. Depending on the context this could be rules about who goes where and when in freestyle ‘dance offs’, quite detailed movement tasks in a ‘contemporary’ dance piece or the range of movements that can be related to a particular form of music in Egyptian dance. There are also the rules governed by elements of style which often can be articulated if necessary, perhaps most easily in terms of what is not acceptable. For instance the club dancers when ‘freestyling’ were concerned to keep their style ‘macho’ as distinct from the more feminine jazz dance they saw on television. Yet there is a sense that beyond the stated rules there may be others that are harder to define. While dancers may talk about ‘letting go’ when improvising, l felt that there were occasions in rehearsal, particularly in ‘contemporary’ dance, where certain moves, although they fulfilled the stated function, seemed to be vetoed because they did not quite fit in with some implicitly understood criteria. Unlike some older improvisational traditions (in Flamenco, Egyptian dance and Bharatanatyam, for example) where there are clear conventions regarding what style of movement can be used in what context, the current ‘contemporary’ dance culture is more transient. I wondered to what extent the norms that governed movement choices could be stated but were not for various reasons, or whether they are only understood in movement terms.


Towards the end of the research I had the opportunity to take part in a discussion with some dancers experienced in improvisation in ‘contemporary’ dance. In relation to my questioning about how these dancers viewed improvisation in other dance genres Charlotte Derbyshire, one of participants, responded:


It’s a really interesting question- It’s difficult because in a way those forms, [seen] from the outside ([while]I don’t know much about any of them)...they’ve all got their set forms and shapes and patterns which people play in and out of. And that’s an interesting thought because maybe, we do too.


win lab, Independent Dance, 2006



This statement met with the laughter of recognition from the others present suggesting there are recognised normative limits on the ‘freedom of expression’ in ‘contemporary’ dance.


4.7 Recognising Normative Influences

All the artists interviewed were certainly able to define some key dance norms that affected how they might be judged by an audience. Through the various interviews emerged norms that affected the audience’s expectations in relation to age, ability, body shape, health, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. In terms of those that were articulated in initial interviews there was little that would surprise anyone involved either in dance or in reflection on any of the above areas. However what also emerged, even in the first interviews, were the ways in which artists drew on their experience of these norms in creating work for themselves to perform and how this was bound up with their sense of how others perceived them.


In Choreographing Difference, Ann Cooper Albright posits that ‘contemporary’ dance,


...foregrounds a responsive dancing body, one that engages with and challenges static representations of gender, race, sexuality, and physical ability, all the while acknowledging how deeply these ideologies influence our daily experience


Cooper Albright, 1997, vii


In contrast with the rather confrontational attitude this might suggest, not all the artists seemed always to be focussed on the potential significance of their own embodiment to challenge the prevailing norms. For instance Anderson had been made to be very aware during her training that she was larger than an ideal body size and due to both her physical proportions and ethnicity found herself categorised as more suited to folk rather than to classical Egyptian dance. However while she had been made only too aware of the pressure on her to be thinner and more flexible she did not give any clear indications in her initial interview of a strategic representation of her body image as subverting the demand for dancers to be slim. In a sense she tried not to dwell too much on her body weight as if she did she feared she would ‘never get going’ (Anderson, 2003). 


Although the cultural context of dance and embodiment are currently quite popular academic subjects in dance institutions, a questioning of just what is embodied in a dance does not seem to have yet fully permeated into all choreographers’ practices. Rather it seems as if some practice is still influenced by the view articulated in a key British dance text from the 1980s:

The basic movement material of the dance is impregnated with meanings with which the choreographer, performers and audience have come to terms.


Hodgens, 1988, 65


This position, different to Cooper Albright’s, provides a context in which it is not surprising that some dancers do not tend to focus consciously on the significance of  their ‘embodiment’. If everyone has ‘come to terms’ with the meanings ‘impregnated’ in the basic movement material of a dance there might seem little point in reflecting on them or challenging them.


However, although it was not always articulated as such, it did seem to me as if these artists, all working outside the mainstream dance companies, had a sense of how they could play on audience’s expectations in relation to their physical presence. Artist A, on reflection towards the end of the research of these issues stated:


When I was training I was encouraged to think of my body as a geometric tool but in reality when an audience perceives a performer they are seeing the gender, the body shape, the hair colour, whether they are attractive or not. You can’t get away from that. 


Artist A, 2007


While perceptions of gender were not a key issue in the piece she was working on when interviewed, Artist A had referred to these issues in a previous work. Anderson, while initially reticent about how her dancing responded to issues of the idealised feminine form, was aware of her work relating to her interest in revealing the African influence on Egyptian dance. As one of very few Black artists performing Egyptian dance who has found herself being categorised by teachers as suited to ‘folk’, she draws on these expectations to propose, in dance terms a different perspective on how western audiences view Egyptian dance. To western audiences, rather than emphasising Egypt as the site of oriental exoticism she draws attention to the African influences on the dance. As the research progressed, it became clearer that in contemplating how western audiences viewed Egyptian dance, Anderson was interested in exploring approaches to the viewer:viewed relationship that did not take western assumptions about gender for granted. If in her dancing she is beginning to challenge norms of idealised femininity, her perspective is complex in that it draws on feminism interwoven with a cross cultural consciousness.


For Mehta the simple facts of performing alongside a cast of dancers from different ethnic backgrounds drawing on training in kathak, ‘contemporary’ dance, yoga and martial arts, helped her work have resonances for different cultural groups. In presenting a work exploring issues of immigrant populations this helped to establish a context pertinent to more than one cultural group. 


Working in ‘contemporary’ dance, Artist D’s experience of not having a ‘conventional’ body but being seen as rather ‘tall and lanky’ was not all negative. In spite of some problems this caused fitting into other people’s companies he looked on his physical distinctness also as a ‘blessing’. He was perhaps the most able to respond easily to my question about the body as constraint and/or inspiration. ‘People have an image of me moving in a certain way... I’ll try to push beyond that’ (Artist D, 2003). He seemed to enjoy exploring ways of moving that were new for him and thus changing people’s expectations of him.  Recognising that an audience would try to ‘place you’ in relation to your physical appearance he seemed to like the fact that ‘they can’t really pigeon-hole me’, something that also seemed to be linked to his ethnic background which he described as ‘Latin American but with links to indigenous people and Europeans‘ (Artist D, 2003, edited 2007).


The two artists who were perhaps the most aware of challenging audiences’ expectations in a manner most in keeping with Cooper Albright’s (1997) understanding of ‘contemporary’ dance were Artist B and Agis. The latter felt free to play on, even disrupt expectations linked to images stemming from ideals of  female beauty that had been projected on to her when younger: ‘That was a part of who I was and therefore people come to see you in that context and expect to see something portrayed in that light’ (Agis, 2003).


For Artist B, the presumption that certain dance forms are less sophisticated than others meant that he felt some audiences were not able to fully appreciate what he created. To avoid his work being dismissed as ‘only entertainment’ he was developing a number of strategies to challenge expectations. In one discussion he revealed that he had started using text to explain to the audience the culture and the complexity of the dance they were watching (Artist B, 2005). 


While for all the artists there seemed to be a sense of playing with the audience’s expectations, for those seeking to present work to a wider audience this was perhaps tempered by a concern to stimulate a positive response from the audience that may be related to the artists’ valuing a sense of communication. The artists seemed to be aware of differences between audiences, some of which might relate to differences in how they responded to challenges to established norms.


Performance as communication seems to depend to some extent on a culturally based but often intuitive absorption of the significance of movement that draws on the understanding of behavioural norms. Some norms are deeply woven into everyday life and affect assumptions made with regard to the look of dancers and what is understood of their actions in relation to the spatial and temporal structures of everyday life. Given the pace of change, at least at a superficial level, to contemporary life it is not surprising that changes in dance vocabularies and styles may also be quite rapid. In such a context it is possible that there are norms that even dancers are barely aware of and yet they may communicate a shared perspective of a particular group.


4.8 Implications for the Relationship between Dancer and Audience

The dance artists I interviewed had developed a range of strategies to make connections between the different ways of knowing their dance. Mirrors and increasingly video play an important role in informing them about how their dancing looks and this seems often to be linked to how they consider it might ‘read’ to their audience. However there is recognition that dance can be experienced as a communicative ‘energy’ that is harder to perceive on video and for this reason an artist may decide to rely on an account of their dance from a trusted ‘witness’. This raises the issue of the significance of the presence of the dancer and the relationship with the audience. It may be helpful to think of both dancers and audiences as being able to experience dance through the interplay of phenomenological experience and interpretation of semiotic content. The dancer, rooted in the experience of dancing, has to draw on his/her imagination to have a sense of how his/her dance will ‘read’ to the audience, while the audience seeing the dance draws on their imagination to have a sense of what it must feel like to dance like that. Different emphases may be placed by the choreographer on how much s/he imagines an audience responding to a visual image and how much to an imagined experience of moving, or kinaesthetic response. (Their choice of sound and design will be important here in shaping the audience’s perception.) Visual images can often easily be ‘read’ and contribute to semiotic analysis of the dance. A kinaesthetic response, although stimulated by perception (visual and auditory) draws on the audience’s proprioceptive experience of moving, bringing into play their movement culture by reinforcing, extending or challenging this.


For the artists participating in the research there is a conception that when a dance ‘works,’ audience and performer have a sense of some shared experience or ‘energy’. This does not mean they would necessarily agree on a definition of what the dance ‘means’, nor feel that this is essential or even desirable. This sense of shared experience seems, to some extent, to be dependent on what could be viewed as a semiotic system but is also reliant on performer and audience experiencing the dance as a communicative phenomenon. This emphasis on the in-the-moment phenomenological experience of dance seems to be particularly important in relation to current practices that prioritise embodied sensitivity. Sensitivity to the ‘moment’ is allied to the ability of the dancer to respond to other dances and the performance environment and is particularly prized in improvisational performances.


The value placed on a sense of the shared experience of communication may lead to the temptation to think of this as some ‘universal’ attribute of dance performance. However, apart from the obvious bias in my choice of artists, a more general concern with those moments when the audience is caught up in the ‘journey’ of the dance may be revealing of a wider desire in  complex urban societies to experience contact with other people. For instance the sociologists Deidre Boden and Roger Friedland have noticed that modernity and the technological age are not antithetical to personal interactions in the manner some theorists suggest. Rather ‘copresent interaction’ is actively sought after:


The immediacy and inherent indexicality of all human existence means that the fine, fleeting, yet essentially social moments of everyday life anchor and articulate the modern macro order.  


Friedland and Boden, 1994


One key question emerging from interviews with artists coming from very different dance traditions is the extent to which dance as communication depends on conventions that have to be learned. The traditional forms clearly articulate established codes that the audience is expected to be aware of before they are able to best appreciate the dance. Much ‘contemporary’ dance practice may eschew explicit convention, the emphasis being on the individuality of expression, yet it seems that there are expectations, albeit that a number of them may be only tacitly agreed. For some dance artists communication is important at a level that draws on the subconscious and is thus, in intention, different in communicative aim to everyday use of language and gesture. There is a sense, particularly in some 'contemporary' dance practice, that if an artist is going to engage an audience in his/her dance they have to communicate in a manner that ‘goes beyond’, or is at a ‘deeper level’ than the conventions of everyday discourse, be that verbal or kinetic. In order to achieve this, dancers may need to devise strategies to break down the movement habits, or norms, they have imprinted on their subconscious through training. In Varela’s terms there may be a connection between language and gesture but it is important to the dancers that their gestures communicate that which it is difficult to put into words. In pursuing this aspect of communication they may be following a tradition dating back to the pioneers of modern dance who searched for ‘true’ reflections of the psyche. However, whereas the ‘great’ dance artists of the early twentieth century could believe in the potential for dance that emanated from the psyche to be universally communicable, twenty-first century sensibilities are sceptical of such claims, questioning what hidden norms influence movement choices.


For artists the ability to reflect on what assumptions audiences may bring to a performance and how they thus might respond to the dancer’s physical presence may inform their awareness of how the work may be perceived and thus support them in their quest to communicate. Both the dance styles and the movement cultures to which they are related are sustained by norms, not all of which will be articulated verbally. A traditional view that performers and their audience have ‘come to terms’ with the ‘meaning’ of the basic movement forms on which they draw does not account for performances in which the dancers and audience members may come from a range of both dance and cultural backgrounds. This traditional view may also be felt to have inhibited some artists from questioning how these norms affect how they are perceived even when they had negative experiences of behaviour reinforcing them. Others have developed quite a sophisticated understanding of normative expectations and might play on them to their advantage. For these artists a sense of the importance in performance of ‘taking your audience with you’ is perhaps interwoven with their challenges to established norms that might be expected in the postmodern context as described by Cooper Albright (1997).


While the choreographers questioned may have shown different levels of recognition of the significance of their embodiment, from a personal point of view of immersion in dance theory, I have found that reflection on the significance of a dancer’s embodiment can enrich appreciation of their work. Since the very nature of dance training is to ingrain a particular way of moving it can be interesting to reflect on what movement habits reveal not only about individual dancers but about their culture and environment. For instance, in watching Artist A’s rehearsal videos, I appreciated the edgy movement she was beginning to develop alongside her more habitual soft, flowing, movement. In the context of her stated theme of love and loss, this seemed in keeping with the realities of coping with feelings of grief and anger. In relation to her embodiment in a wider culture the difference between this and her more usual dance movement seemed to speak of the conflict between the idealised harmony of the fluid moving, physically well balanced persona projected through ‘release’ dance, and the harshness of much life experience. Part of the attraction of fluid, harmonic dance may be that it can seem to sustain a belief that people can be in tune with ‘nature’, and can live in a state of ease with each other and with the organic flow of life. Yet, at least in contemporary London, evidence of the opposite is only too common. Seen this way, Artist A’s choreographic experiments can be understood not only as exploring these emotions but as articulating the contradictions that are an integral part of contemporary life.


For the audience such reflections may offer rich insights into what they enjoy. In relation to the work of the artists with whom I  talked, and more generally the work I see being made and presented at present in London, this perspective has offered some insights that  will be explored more fully in relation to some of the norms that emerged though the research process. In general terms within (western) theatre dance, dance itself can currently be seen as reflecting concerns with globalisation and the dualist legacy of rationalism. In their developed sense of bodily awareness some dance artists may be perceived as embodying the concept of the lived body and as such present a sensitising strategy as one solution to the problem of the ‘disembodied mind’ that will be further explored in chapter six. By being concerned with communication in a culturally diverse context in which what is given cannot be taken for granted, dance artists may raise issues concerned with inter cultural understanding and the fusion of new cultural identities that will be explored in chapters five and seven. For all the dance artists, a concern with the immediacy of communicative interaction in performance suggests a valuing of interpersonal interaction that may be perceived as an important antidote to the problems of contemporary society.

Notes to Chapter Four

[i] That Artist B seemed surprised that I did not view this as being an experience specific to ‘black’ dance suggests it may be more easily experienced in dance most closely related to one’s own cultural experience.

[ii] Reading this Anderson felt there was a correspondence between ‘rasa’ and traditions in the appreciation of Egyptian dance.

[iii] Similar concerns may also be seen in the visual arts' interest in body and the performative (Jones, 1998) and in calls for experiential sessions in bodily practices to be incorporated into the study of aesthetics (Shusterman, 1999).