Dualism and Dance: Desire and Distance


6.0 Introduction

In a discussion in chapter four of how the artists I interviewed approached their work, I drew on the argument of the sociologist Charles Varela that the concept of the ‘lived body’ can be useful as a ‘sensitising strategy’ in the struggle to avoid the problem of dualist approaches to human behaviour in the social sciences. For Varela this concept, derived from phenomenological approaches to subjective bodily experience, is not a ‘conceptual solution’ since it fails to account for ‘the personal enactment of a semiotic system of action-signs’ (Varela, 1997, 216-218). This then raises issues in relation to a parallel interest amongst some dance artists to develop ‘embodied sensitivity’ in performance: the subtle skills with which dancers demonstrate high levels of awareness of their movements and their ability to respond intuitively ‘in the moment’ can be understood as suggesting a bodily way of being that challenges the instrumental attitude to the body that is so often associated with dualism. However, Varela’s critique of the concept of the ‘lived body’ suggests such dancers may still not have completely resolved the body:mind problem.


Returning to the relationship between dance and concepts of the ‘body’ (lived or not), in this chapter I will explore what is perceived as the legacy of ‘Cartesian dualism’ to provide a context to current approaches to the body/embodiment in dance. The contemplation of body as distinct to the mind will be discussed in relation to a religious tradition that sets ‘flesh’ in opposition to soul and, more generally, furthering the discussion of Bourdieu in chapter three, as part of the ‘habitus’ that shapes ‘high’ culture. This will lead to a discussion of how attitudes to the body as flesh are interrelated with issues of sexuality and gender that in themselves have influenced (western) theatrical dance.


This exploration is both a response to themes that have emerged from discussions with artists and also an attempt to provide a context for further reflection on their current dance practices. However, the diversity of these London based artists, which was the subject of chapter five, brings into consideration that it is not only the legacy of western attitudes that affects dance in Britain. Further, the artists’ accounts illustrate the complexities of the relationships among, gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, age and ability that may inform understanding of what is embodied in their dance.


6.1 Body:Mind Problems

The seventeenth century philosopher, René Descartes, is often credited with conceptualising the mind as distinct from the material body with which it is somehow, causally, related. This led to the philosophical problem of how this relationship can be explained logically that is popularly referred to as the ‘body:mind problem’. It has been argued that this conception of Descartes’ theories is erroneous and that his work is better understood as an attempt to ‘explain the existence of consciousness and its relationship to the material world’ (Pakes, 2006). Irrespective of the assessment of his work in philosophical terms, Descartes’ writings reflect that in the seventeenth century, in contrast to a previous reliance on existing religious dogma, there was an important shift towards emphasising the human capacity for self reflection and abstract thought. Writing at a time when the Church had considerable power, Descartes’ care, in developing his ‘method’, not to offend the Inquisition is evident in an oblique reference at the beginning of the ‘Sixth Discourse’ to the trial of Galileo [i] . Yet in his determination to test the rational basis of knowledge, Descartes can be seen as outlining a way of thinking that ‘opened the doors to the development of modern science’ (Sutcliffe, 1968, 21). Out of his famous ‘Cogito ergo sum’, Descartes deduced (albeit on his terms that had ‘proved’ the existence of God) ‘we should never let ourselves be persuaded except on the evidence of our reason’ (Descartes, 1968 [1637], 59). Since for Descartes human reason was a God given attribute, recourse to it in his attempt to ‘avoid precipitancy and prejudice’ (Descartes, 1968 [1637], 41) deflected the potentially heretical significance of a reliance on human intellect. His writings, however, were still treated with suspicion by the Catholic Church.


For the purposes of exploring attitudes to the body in relation to dance, it is important to contemplate changes in the experience of embodied existence that parallel this conceptual shift. From a sociological perspective, the body in modern western society may be viewed as the site of control. As I explored in chapter three, the control of the body in rational time and space that Foucault described in relation to changes in social control in the transition from Medieval to Modern society can still be experienced as important to the practice of bodily control in ballet. Surveillance as a technique of control in modernity, exemplified by Foucault in the concept of the panoptican prison, and the sense of how the ever watchful eye controlling behaviour becomes internalised into a constant self monitoring in relation to acceptable norms of behaviour, may also be related to issues of control of the body in ‘contemporary’ dance training (Smith, 1998). In reading the work not only of Michel Foucault, but also the earlier sociology of Norbert Elias at first hand, I was struck by how their references to primary sources illustrated the effects the social changes they analysed must have had on people’s experiences of their embodiment. Foucault commences Discipline and Punish with first hand accounts of a public torture and execution in which the condemned man was subjected to (amongst other horrors), tearing of the flesh, boiling oil, and quartering before the parts of his body were burned. Foucault thus draws attention to the extreme physical violence involved in very public punishments contrasting this with the increasing regulation of behaviour within the formal institutions of school, army and prison that developed from the end of the eighteenth century. Elias (1978) [1939], draws on early writings on good manners which demonstrate how the control of personal behaviour in every day communal settings changed. He draws attention to a history of etiquette in relation to eating, defecating, passing wind, nudity, and sleeping in near proximity to others. In general terms, as Europe moved further away from the Middle Ages, restrictions on behaviour that revealed human corporeality increased. Moreover, a shared understanding of what behaviour was to be hidden also developed so that early texts openly discuss the need to moderate certain behaviour that later ones would find too crude to mention. 

Bodily self control and the detachment, in public life, from bodily functions and their products, the cessation of public displays of a criminal’s or enemy’s innards and the claim to personal space make for a very different experience of embodiment today to that conjured up by Foucault and Elias of those living before eighteenth century ‘enlightenment’. If these writers provide a fair perspective on the past, one can envisage that for Descartes, writing in the mid seventeenth century, there would have been many reminders of the fragile, physical reality of the body. Apart from the more visceral aspects of day to day living, Descartes’ travels around Europe and his attempts to be a soldier meant that as a young man he would have gained wide experience of life beyond the confines of the Jesuit school he attended. Descartes had reason enough to be aware of the fragility of fleshly existence and, while he had little faith in the methods of the doctors of his age, his discourses reveal a profound interest in physiology and the future potential of medicine to cure illness (Descartes, 1967 [1637], 79). 

The effort of thinking his way out of the accepted ‘truths’ of his time by, what he described as, becoming accustomed to ‘detach my mind from the senses’ (Descartes, ‘Fourth Meditation’ 1967 [1637], 132), permeates The Meditations. Descartes recognised the difficulties in everyday life where ‘the necessities of action often oblige us to make a decision before we have had the leisure to examine things so carefully’ (Descartes, ‘Sixth Meditation’, 1967 [1641] 169). However, having succeeded in contemplating the distinction in terms of matter between immaterial mind and the material body, the problem for Descartes was the relationship between them. If, as he believed, the relationship was causal, then how did the immaterial mind and physical body interact? While he was adamant about the material distinction between body and mind he admitted:


I am not only lodged in my body, like a pilot in his ship, but, besides that I am joined to it very closely and indeed so compounded and intermingled with my body, that I form, as it were, a single whole with it.


Descartes, ‘Sixth Meditation’, 1967 [1641], 159



The logical basis for this interrelationship has been a question that has bedevilled Modern Philosophy [ii] . While the idea that mental states causally interact with physical states appeals to common sense, logical arguments have been difficult to sustain. It is, however, important to recognise that in spite of philosophical critiques, the legacy of the ‘Cartesian’ shift to popular attitudes to the relationship of mind and body is such that it still plays a considerable part in shaping attitudes to the body in dance. In contemporary western society at a time when dualism is no longer given depth by a belief in god given intuitions, and where people have become adept at hiding the physical reality of their embodiment, efforts to distinguish consciousness can be viewed as having exaggerated the separateness of mind and body. For instance, while Descartes was all too aware of how pain reminded him of the ‘mingling of mind and body’ (Descartes Sixth Meditation 1967 [1641] 159), Foucault (1979) [1975] points to the change in ethical attitudes that lie behind contemporary (American) forms of capital punishment: from the seventeenth century Christian point of view, being deprived of the chance to suffer and repent put the immortal soul at risk; in the age of the anaesthetic and analgesic, in a most extreme manifestation of conscious experience being set at a distance from the body, while a prisoner may be deprived of life s/he is prevented from feeling what is happening to her/him. Something of the seventeenth century viewpoint may be seen as lingering on in the ‘if it hurts its good’ dance training regimes that lasted well into the twentieth century. Today the emphasis is on injury prevention and pain management. However, with proportionately high numbers of dancers struggling with injury (Laws, 2004) [iii] , it is not surprising that some dancers are challenging what is seen as an underlying dualism that informs instrumental or mechanistic attitudes to a  body ‘as a thing to be whipped, honed, and moulded into shape’ (Fraleigh, 1987, 11).


As dance academic, Anna Pakes, points out, in philosophical circles theoretical dualism has been on the wane since the 1950s. According to Pakes (2006) the ‘current orthodoxy’ amongst contemporary philosophers is ‘physicalist’. That is to say consciousness, rather than viewed as an immaterial entity that interacts with the physical body, is reduced to its physical base. This physicalist alternative is shown by Pakes to be problematic for dance since the laws of physics allow only for physical occurrences to cause other physical effects. Dancers’ actions thus become the result of physiological or neurological occurrences. Any non physical, mental experience involved in such actions cannot logically be allowed to have any causal influence. Reducing consciousness to its physical base risks making the lived experience of dance a by product of neural functions. In particular ‘qualia’ (or the felt experience of perceptions) become a side show (epiphenomena) having no causal impact on the actions of the dancer. Yet the artists I talked to certainly seem to believe felt experience has a very definite effect on how they dance. Further the underlying determinism of the physicalist perspective strikes at the heart of the significance of the sense of agency that seems important to these artists.  An emphasis on physicalism may thus not be out of keeping with an attitude to the performer as a material commodity subsumed into the discourse of capitalism, a subject that is discussed in the next chapter.


In the light of the problems with both dualism and physicalism that Pakes discusses, it is not surprising that (as was discussed in chapter two) some dancers have tended instead to explore phenomenology as an alternative conceptual approach to mind:body. The focus on lived experience and embodied engagement with the world provides a means to avoid both the dualist framework, in which the body becomes the object of the mind (and particularly of the minds of others), and the physicalist one, which minimises the importance of sentient experience. At a theoretical level, Merleau-Ponty’s claim that cause and effect do not govern the psychological realm allows for an account of human agency understood in relation to reasons which would thus allow for qualia to be significant. Unashamedly ‘unfinished’ in its task ‘to reveal the mystery of the world and reason’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002[1945] xxiv ) phenomenology’s potential for dance has been to uncover how assumptions about the relationship between consciousness and the world underpin the experience of self and other.


6.2 Soul: Flesh Perspectives

In order to understand the perceived influence of dualism to (western) theatre dance it is useful to draw further on an historical perspective. According to Foucault (1975), prior to the drawing up of modern penal codes in the eighteenth century, the destruction of the body of the condemned was made into a spectacle to demonstrate the power of the sovereign. Up until the later part of the seventeenth century in France, the Sovereign himself could be seen at the centre of a different kind of spectacle, the Ballet de Cour in which the power and glory of the monarch and his kingdom were displayed. These spectacles often glorified his unique position as ruler by divine right, a position sanctified by the church. Most famously Louis XIV, who loved to dance, presented himself as Le Roi Soleil. Louis XIV retired from dancing himself in 1669 and with the instigation of L’ Académie Royale de Musique (later L’Opéra), dance performance gradually made the transition from courtly to professional activity. Whilst the history of ballet demonstrates that performances still could, and would, continue to be used to make visible the power and resources of the state, power would no longer be seen as simply invested in the actual people performing. Rather it would be inferred in the ability of the state to deploy its subjects in skilfully arranged and performed displays. With the transition to the professional stage, the status of those dancing would become more precarious and more susceptible to the opinions of others and particularly to those of the church, the attitudes of which to the theatre have been generally acknowledged as ambiguous.


But what they [the Church] could in all faith damn on one plane of consciousness, they absorbed, for future use, on another.


Kirstein, 1969 [1935] 59


...in the endeavour of the Church to transmute the popular love of theatrical spectacle into something higher... the Church itself must, throughout the Dark Ages, have come at times to seem curiously sympathetic towards the very thing it was at times impelled to condemn.

Perugini, 1935, 48


In facing first the legacy of Roman entertainments and later the secularisation of liturgical drama, the Church, while happy to  make use of theatrical elements to propagate its own message through the theatre of its rituals and later miracle plays, would condemn those events that encouraged secular entertainment for its own sake.


In addition to the Church’s general suspicion of entertainment, the inescapably physical aspects of dance made it particularly open to censure. This point has been made by the dance anthropologist, Judith Lynne Hanna. While she quotes the bible to show there have been Christian approaches to the body as ‘temple of the Holy Spirit within’ and that recognise the church as the body of Christ, she concludes that ‘the theological and philosophical traditions of Christendom devalued the body, some emotions and dancing’ (Hanna, 1983, 32). Certainly biblical extracts reveal a view of the body as the source of sin that could corrupt the soul.


Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body that ye should obey it in the lust thereof.

Romans 6, Verse 12


The dance writer Lincoln Kirstein came to similar conclusions revealing the Church’s attitude to dance as having been one of suspicion and inconsistency: according to Kirstein (1969) [1935], in the early development of the Church, the gnostic gospel of 160 AD portrayed Christ as a dancer but the gnostic gospels were suppressed in the second century AD and by 744 Pope Zacharias had forbidden all dancing. A combination of Renaissance humanism and Royal patronage of the ballet de cour perhaps partly explains why, by the Baroque period, the Jesuit father Menèstrier appreciated dance to the extent he published its history in 1683. Yet, also in the seventeenth century, while Molière might have been popular at the French court and his entertainments, which integrated ballet into the whole event, attended by the highest in society, his body as being that of an entertainer was not permitted holy ground (Kirstein, 1969 [1935] 59).


The influence of the Church has fluctuated through its history, during which change and schisms have become intertwined with social and political upheaval. Thus it should not be thought of as one monolithic viewpoint shaping attitudes to the body or theatre. The Church’s conceptual approach to the question of human ontology has been subject to much debate over the centuries leading to theological differences as to the source of ‘original sin’ (Russell, 1946, 383-384, 480-483).


However, in general terms, there is a pervasive legacy of Christian flesh:soul dualism predating ‘Cartesian’ body:mind dualism, and both contribute not only to popular conceptions of the material and non material aspects of ‘self’ but also to how that self is experienced. Through the influence of Neo-Platonism, dualist influences may also be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and his account of the theory of forms in Socrates’ dialogues. For Plato, objects of sense were distinct from ideal forms, or real essences. His ideas, and in particular his concept of the ‘form of the good’ were drawn on by the Neo-Platonist, Plotinus whose ideas influenced the development of Christian theology (Flew, 1971, 46-69) [iv] . Plato’s image of men in a dark cave who see only shadows and not the things themselves (Plato in Flew, 1971, 67) may be felt to have seeped into the Christian consciousness which stresses a striving  for ‘higher truths’ beyond what is given to the corporeal senses.


The influence of Christian dualism on dance is recognised by Hanna in relation to the Puritan influence in America and by Kirstein in relation to the historical roots of ballet.  He adds that even in the twentieth century, at the time his history of dance was first published, the ’ballet girls’ of La Scala were not permitted confession by the Catholic Church (Kirstein 1969 [1935]). Similarly Alexandra Carter reveals that in a largely Protestant, Victorian Britain in the late nineteenth century, the efforts of the Reverend Stewart Headlam to defend the ‘ballet girls’ at the Alhambra from charges of immorality lost him his parish (Carter, 2005, 112).


Protected at first by its Royal patronage and later by popularity amongst the developing professional classes, the future of theatrical dance was secure. Yet the legacy of Christian suspicion of the body shaped its development. A few years after the success of Le Ballet Comique de La Reine (1581) at the French court, a gentleman and canon of the church published a guide to the dances of the day. In Orchesography (1588), the author (one Jehane Taboruot using the pseudonym Thoinot Arbeau) was careful to establish the decency of the dance he described. The book being contrived as a dialogue between the older Arbeau and the younger Capriol, gave the author the opportunity to answer concerns regarding historical attitudes to dance. Dance is legitimised by its practice amongst the ancients and its place in early religious events: Arbeau reminds Capriol that King David danced before the Ark of God (Arbeau, 1588 in Perugini 1935, 68). In addition, Arbeau is clear that most objections to dance have been in response to dance that has gone beyond what is decent. It is made clear that the kind of dancing that Capriol is anxious to learn is that which will be useful in courting with the intention of marriage and which Capriol would be happy to teach to his own younger sister (Perugini, 1935, 68-69). Decency within dance terms is here inexorably linked with the maintenance of stable social relations in which sexuality is controlled by social conventions.


This sense of legitimising some dance in relation to ideas of decency by contrasting them to more lewd forms of dance, is a recurring theme in the history of western dance. Lincoln Kirsten reports that the catechism of the Westminster Assembly (1643-7) opposed lascivious (as opposed to all) dancing (Kirstein, 1969 [1935] 176). As dance professionals developed dance as an art, controversies arose that drew on Christian sensibilities. For instance when Camargo shortened her skirts:


It promised to occasion a very dangerous schism. The Jansenists in the pit cried out heresy and scandal and refused to tolerate the shortened skirts. The Molinists [v] , on the other hand, maintained this innovation was more in accordance with the spirit of the primitive church, which objected to pirouettes and gargouillades being hampered by the length of petticoats.


Grimm, in Kirstein, 1969 [1935] 208


The controversy that surrounded Camargo’s skirt length echoes through western dance history. From her contemporary, Marie Sallé’s, Greek drapery, to the tights of the late Romantic danseuse en travestie and Isadora Duncan’s dancing in a flimsy tunic, pregnant and corset-less in the early twentieth century, changes in technique, style and expression demanded freedom of movement that have often challenged each era’s conventions of modesty. 


6.3 Gender Issues

Current awareness of the patriarchal emphasis of both Church and state makes it hardly surprising that it has been the costuming and presentation of the female dancer that has been of most concern. It can be argued that patriarchy is implicated by dualism: within a dualist approach, whether flesh;soul or body:mind, it has been harder for women to hide from others, and probably themselves, the actuality of their embodiment. Menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding ensure an awareness of physicality. In the context of the Church’s suspicion of the body, women may be viewed as inferior by virtue of the body’s intrusion into the life of the mind or spirit. That dualism, whether Cartesian and/or Christian, favours the male has led some radical feminists to dream of achieving gender equality in societies where babies can be ‘grown’ without a womb (Lovell, 2000 [1996], 310). In Julia Kristeva’s complex, psychoanalytically inspired account of child development she has suggested that immersion in the symbolic, enforces patriarchy and separates the child from the ‘semiotic’ [vi] (not to be confused with conventional uses of the term) non verbal domain of the mother (Lovell, 2000b, 329-330). While the details of the early formation of the subconscious are beyond this discussion, it seems possible that the legacy of dualism, in distancing consciousness from embodied experience has suppressed awareness of the latter, particularly amongst those more able to hide the reality of their embodiment from themselves. Within Christian traditions, it has been the ‘lusts of the flesh’ that are recognised as having reminded men of their physical being and thus threatened their mental capacities and spiritual virtues. Locating fleshly desire (and generally the loss of innocence and thus banishment from Eden) as a response to the temptations of women has served to maintain the dominant association of the male with the 'higher' values of the spiritual and mental set in dualist conflict with the physical.


Such attitudes have made the presence of the female dancer on a public stage problematic. By being presented to be viewed, dancing women all too easily became objects of male desire, the provocation for sinful lust. Research by dance writer Sally Banes reveals that the Church has not only had to be concerned with the sin of lustful thoughts ‘ballet girls’ might engender amongst male spectators. In particular, at the Paris Opera during the rather decadent times of the Second Empire, ballet dancers were perceived as belonging to the demi-monde, a world beyond the confines of polite society. Banes reveals that the dancers were certainly thought of as available for sexual adventures and, drawing on the dance historian Lynn Garofola’s research, points to the economic factors that may have fuelled their prostitution (Banes, 1998, 39). Whatever went on off stage, at a time when the strictures against extra marital relations were relaxed enough to allow for open recognition of desires beyond the marriage bed, there were those who made no secret of their openly sexualised approach to the on stage presence of female dancers: 


I wager that eight out of every ten abonnés prefer Pierre de Medicis to the fourth act of Les Huguenots, and Néméa to Guillame Tell. And why? Simply because Louise Fiocre shows her limbs in Pierre, and her younger sister Eugenie shows much more than that in Néméa...


Charles, Yriarte, 1867, in Banes 1998, 38


It can also be argued that a more complex attitude to the female dancer was to be found at those times that more prurient attitudes held sway. While Ivor Guest’s account of ballet in London in the 1840s suggests that at Drury Lane, and to a lesser extent Her Majesty’s Theatre, liaisons between the dancers and wealthy men about town were not uncommon, Guest delights in how ballerinas in Victorian London could became the focus of romantic affections off stage leading to permanent relationships and even marriage in the case of Mrs Lyne Stephens, formerly Pauline Dauvernay (Guest, 1954, 73-74) [vii] . Banes reveals how French bourgeois concerns at the time of Louis Philippe’s reign were reflected in conflicting attitudes to women in the Romantic Ballet of the 1830s and 40s. The Romantic ballet incorporated the sensual rather than casting it outside the realms of the aesthetic. The dual aspects of womanhood portrayed in the ballets were epitomised in the distinctions made by Théophile Gautier between the ‘Christian Taglioni’ and ‘Pagan Elssler’. Banes suggests that Carlotta Grisi, the first Giselle, was able to portray both the spiritual and the more earthly attributes of femininity. The scenario for this ballet, written by the great Romantic Théophile Gautier himself, Banes argues, upholds bourgeois values. In contrast to the Aristocratic tradition of  Droit du Cuissarge (by which the nobleman had the right to enjoy sexual relations with servant girls living on his land), Albrecht’s dalliance with the peasant girl Giselle is presented in the ballet as morally wrong and thus the source of the unfolding tragedy. However, although Prince Albrecht comes to recognise and regret the implications of his actions, the privileges due to his position in the social hierarchy are not challenged: at a spiritual level the peasant girl’s love wins out over Myrthe’s reign of revenge; but, at least in the original scenario, Giselle’s Prince, returning to the world of the living, will marry Bathilde in accordance with his rank. For Banes, at a political level, the ballet sustains individualism in the private sphere while giving sway to the demands of society in the public realm (Banes, 1999, 23-35). 


In Banes’ terms, in Giselle love is consummated spiritually rather than physically. A sublimated sexuality that drives the expression of spiritual love can be thought of as the theme of many ‘white act’ pas de deux from La Sylphide to Swan Lake. In her white tutu, the ballerina’s image becomes layered with conflicting significances. She may be the object of male desire but is often unobtainable; while she may inspire and be herself capable of a spiritual form of love that conquers evil, no one marries the Sylphide or the Swan Princess (or at least not in this world). Further, it was not only in Giselle that the ballerina role required the dancer to portray conflicting aspects of womanhood. The tradition of the dual aspect of the ballerina continued, coming to its apotheosis in the role of Odette/ Odile in the Russian ballet of the late nineteenth century. In the Petipa /Ivanov Swan Lake (1995) the ballerina is expected to interpret different facets of femininity, the ‘pure’ Odette contrasting with the seductive temptress Odile.


The ballerina’s allure may have, in part, been based on her extraordinary physical feats, suggesting sexual adventures beyond the confines of bourgeois norms. Yet it is not only the story lines that revealed that desire for her was to be repressed. In the years leading up to the period of the Romantic ballet much effort (including a Royal command of 1813) was put into ridding the stage on which she danced of the ‘stage loungers’ or fashionable rich young men. In their keenness to watch their favourite dancers at close quarters, they annoyed the critics who complained it was hard to actually see the ballet from the auditorium (Guest, 1954, 21). Once the audience were cast beyond the proscenium, developments in stage lighting and scenery helped to sustain the other worldly illusion necessary. In dance terms, in much classical adagio the ballerina was displayed at arm’s length from the man. The self control demanded of her, especially in order to achieve the balance demanded in pirouettes and adagio, suggests the domination of mind over body. (And it has been suggested in the discussion of Descartes how part of his legacy to western thought was to attribute mind’s rational powers to God.) In ballet technique, balance has been achieved through strict muscular control, particularly over the pelvic area. While in technical term this relates to the transition of weight from torso to supporting leg, given the cultural context, the potential metaphoric significance of controlling this part of the body is hard to ignore. Moreover, the focus on upwards movement in ballet signifies the effort of renouncing more earthly existence. It was the choreographer Michel Fokine who in the early twentieth century, in trying to make ballet more emotionally naturalistic, recognised the symbolism of the Romantic tradition in ballet:


An arabesque is sensible when it idealises the sign [viii] , because it suggests the body is straining to soar upwards


Fokine, 1916, 138


Romantic ballet can be viewed as embodying the struggle for individual expression set against rational geometry of technique and form. As the Russians developed the technique of the Romantic ballet they inherited from the French, they set great store in developing the use of arms and torso to mitigate the virtuosic control of the Italian school. For the Russian school the arms and épaulement lent a soulful aspect and grace to their art. The Italian ballerina Legnani, who would first perform the thirty two fouetté turns as Odile, was ‘transformed’ (Roslavleva, 1966, 135) through working with the choreographer, Lev Ivanov, to develop the expressive use of torso and arms for the role of Odette in the white acts of the Petipa-Ivanov Swan Lake (1995). If the actions of Odette are considered, the upper body can be seen straining against the formal lines of the arabesque. Odette in yearning for freedom against the magician Rothbart’s spell can be thought of as embodying the Romantic striving for release from the confines of rationalism’s rules, those of behaviour as much as geometry [ix] .


Arguably, the ballet’s continued popularity lies in the embodiment of neo Romanticism, the dialectical pull between the increasing demands to conform to established norms and the recognition of a need for individual expression. It is thus possible to interpret Odette as the focus for desires beyond the sexual. However the white ballet may also be seen as embodying the sublimation of sexuality into a danced discourse of desire. In The History of Sexuality Volume 1, (1981) Michel Foucault argues against the generally held notion that the Victorian period saw the repression of sexuality. Rather he sees an increase in the discourses of sexuality and suggests a focus on the relationship between sex and power. Whether or not Foucault’s analysis of sex and the Victorians is accepted, contemplating dance in relation to issues of how modern western societies have sought to control sexuality adds a dimension to contemplating the significance of the desirable, yet unobtainable, ballerina.


The latter interpretation may be particularly relevant to the development of British ballet in the mid twentieth century at a time when established codes of carefully regulated ‘proper’ behaviour were tested by the beginnings of the sexual revolution. Bonnie Rowell, drawing on the research of Beth Genée, discusses how in the 1950s, as many of the arts in Britain responded to and even influenced social change, dance audiences clamoured for revivals of the ‘classics’ (Rowell, 2000,193). In developing repertory for the Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet in the 1930s and 40s, Ninette de Valois had been aware of the need to distance dance as an art from dance in the music hall by establishing a ‘classical’ tradition from the Petipa/Ivanov legacy. While the actual moral behaviour of dancers in London’s music halls at the turn of the century is open to debate (Carter, 2005, 108-125), the reputation of the ‘ballet girls’ was such that the early progenitors of British Ballet needed to establish its respectability if they were to attract the responsible middle classes to support ballet and even to agree for their daughters to appear in performances. While such a tradition may have been intended to provide a foundation from which to grow British Ballet and develop new choreographers, this ‘classical’ heritage was very popular with audiences.


But were the audiences who flocked to the ballet the same as those who embraced the ‘kitchen sink’ drama? Or, in a class conscious Britain, were ballets set in the Royal courts of a mythical past more popular with those who were anxious about challenges to the status quo? In the mid twentieth century an audience enchanted by the glamour, on and off stage, of a ballet carefully positioned amongst the elite would be more likely to respond positively to the strivings of dissatisfied princes and spell bound princesses than marital breakdown in a bed sit. For many of the grandchildren of Victorian Britain, the stirrings of the sexual revolution may have affected their imaginations rather than their daily reality. For them, perhaps the image of the ballerina could become a symbol of female sexuality in an erotic combination of potentiality and constraint. That the glamour of this image could also have lent itself to aspirations to transcend the barriers of class may have left a rich mix of connotations in the popular imagination. Such a heritage may still haunt today’s perceptions of what a ballerina’s dancing embodies and, by default shapes what is understood in different presentations of the female body in dance.


6.4 Feminist Perspectives

There is much about the contemporary image of the ballerina that, with the rise of feminism, has become problematic and the subject of much scrutiny. A survey of feminist approaches to (western) theatre dance is offered by the sociologist Helen Thomas (2003). She reports how the facts of the training regime and selection processes that demand a specific idealised body shape have attracted feminist criticism of the ballerina. Her account also demonstrates the appropriation, by a number of those writing on dance from a feminist perspective, of Laura Mulvey’s (1975) Freudian, semiotic account of the ‘male gaze’. Coming from the discipline of film studies, Mulvey suggested how the female is the object of the ‘male gaze’ in Hollwoood films. According to Mulvey, the female is presented from the male point of view, films fostering this perspective from audiences through identification with the lead male main protagonist. Thomas reports how the ‘male gaze’ has been applied to dance to reveal ‘ballet as a vehicle for patriarchal repression’ (Thomas, 2003, 161). In particular, she describes how the ballerina in a pas de deux is presented as the passive object of male desire ‘manipulated, dependent and supported by the male dancer’ (Thomas,2003, 161). A version of this argument which, emphasising Mulvey’s more Freudian considerations, focuses on the ballerina’s manipulation as a phallic object has also been developed by Rose English (1980), Susan Leigh Foster (1996) and in Ramsay Burt’s (1995) discussion of the male dancer.


In contrast to what is written from an intellectual perspective, ballerinas’ discussions of pas de deux reveal a relationship with the male dancer that is rarely completely one of passivity. (From a feminist perspective there might be interesting parallels between the problem of finding the right man to be a dance partner and the competition amongst women for a real life partner.) The subject of what a ballerina needs from her danseur may reveal how some accepted gender roles are certainly reinforced in ballet: traditionally the man needs to be strong and tall enough for partner work and this can make the search for a partner difficult for a taller ballerina (Beryl Grey quoted in Newman, 1982, 125). However, dance partners also need to be willing to develop a rapport in relation to how they interpret their roles, timing of lifts and musicality (Antoinette Sibley quoted in Newman, 1982, 258-259). For the ballerina there seems to be an expectation of partnership and a sense of being happier dancing solo if this is not possible (Grey, and Ashley in Newman, 1982, 125 and 387). In relation to Balanchine, (whose choreography was the subject of Ann Daly’s concerns discussed in chapters two and three), there is a tacit acceptance that manipulation of the woman does occur. However, Tanaquil LeClercq, talking about her experience of The Four Temperaments reveals that this is within quite a dynamic interplay between the ballerina and her partners: 


You don’t get pushed around so much in that section, even when the four boys promenade you. You give your arm to one, you do arabesque, then you do soutenu on your own, then you give your arm to another one, and if he’s good he stays out of your way. You do your arabesque minding your own business, unless he’s a lump and knocks you off. And then there are two boys under your arms in that lift in the finale, and its only done twice. So you feel secure - no problems.


 LeClercq, cited in Newman, 1982, 153.


Although from a feminist perspective supported adagio can be seen as the manipulation of woman as (fetish) object, the ballerina certainly enjoys an element of agency in her actual working relationships, albeit within a patriarchal framework. The dance critic Alastair Macaulay has offered an alternative interpretation of classical supported adagio as revealing ‘a woman’s need to be independent of, or remote from her partner’. This is in the context of a discussion of the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton’s pas de deux in which, according to Macaulay, ‘the nearness of the bodies is all-important; we constantly sense two bodies seeking union’ (Macaulay, 1994, 121). Macaulay also suggests that as a homosexual, Ashton may not have choreographed from a traditionally male perspective. From this viewpoint it seems that as ‘progressive’ attitudes to sex in western societies have emphasised mutual enjoyment and recognised variations in sexual preferences, dance has responded with explorations of sexual pleasure that are not purely derived from the dominant male and heterosexual point of view. The sense of the ballerina as (powerless) object of male desire thus may be overly simplistic.


In general terms, from a feminist perspective, representations of women that portray them as objects of male desire, lacking agency or bound by their reproductive function, are viewed as supporting the patriarchal system of women’s oppression. The ballerina has thus fared badly in relation to feminist criticism, while the figures of the early modern dance have attracted complex debate. For instance, Helen Thomas points out that Isadora Duncan has been viewed as feminist in that she challenged the sexual repression of women, but in her representation of natural ‘womanhood’ is criticised by feminists for sustaining the biological essentialism that sustains patriarchy (Thomas, 2003, 165). The dance critic, academic and artist Sarah Rubidge has also pointed to how constructions of gender inform what she sees as the subtext of a dance work:


Underlying attitudes about men and women are embedded in the movement language the choreographer chooses to use, in the setting, in the inter-relationship between the dancers on stage. 


Rubidge, 1989, 3


For Rubidge, differences that reinforce gender distinctions are to be found in 'contemporary' dance as well as ballet. For instance, seemingly abstract works in uniform costuming that may appear to disregard gender differences may still differentiate gender in a manner consistent with existing stereotypes in terms of the movement vocabulary and dynamic content.


The four women I interviewed, working in different dance traditions and coming from different backgrounds in terms of ethnicity and class approached the subject of their gender and sexuality very differently in their dancing. In the interviews, although they asserted themselves as feminists to different degrees [x] , they were certainly all aware of and influenced by feminist concerns. The increasing plurality of feminist voices means that even if they had all been consciously working from feminist perspectives, a black woman originally from a working class background, two white middle class women and one well educated South Asian woman would very likely encompass different facets of ‘sisterhood’. What they did share was a strong expectation of control over their work that would have been impossible without twentieth century improvements to the rights of women in Britain. Moreover the development of the American modern dance tradition of the female concert dancer, that had links with aspects of the early feminist movement, has provided for recognition of the work women choreograph for themselves. If the feminist notion of a pervasive patriarchy is accepted, what these artists’ works represent are the ways in which individual and groups of women can develop a sense of agency to make strategic choices even in the face of patriarchal constraints.


Although not all necessarily emanating from a strict feminist viewpoint, three of the four female artists interviewed were aware of responding to audience’s preconceptions of the female dancer’s image. For example Nina Anderson, with some difficulty, ignores the unwritten rule that in the west, even in Egyptian dance, a female dancer should be slim. She has also decided not to undermine the sensuality of the dance form by maintaining an element of glamour in her costumes that emphasise the hip movements. In reviewing this section she commented further:


I think it is about more than the costuming ­ I think we are hampered by a restricted view of sensuality; I think I am working to a more encompassing “sensuality” which isn’t about enticing men but which includes women in the story.


Anderson, 2007


Whilst her audience (and feminist critics) may thus perceive her presented as a sexual object it will be as one that will neither fit a fashionably small sized dress nor proscribed notions of female sexuality.  An important part of Anderson’s practice of Egyptian dance was to present images of women not restricted by western assumptions about the male gaze. She was aware of conflicting pressures and contradictions inherent in the situation of dancers in Egypt but still felt that this dance form allowed for a different understanding of women in performance that neither prioritised nor ignored sexuality.


Within the traditions of experimental contemporary dance, Gaby Agis, who was aware of her feminist perspective, was conscious of playing on idealised perceptions of herself to present an alternative view of female sexuality. She was aware that in her youth she had been perceived as a ‘classic…in terms of a female kind of beauty’ (Agis, 2003) and that this had an impact on her audience’s expectations:


I was aware that there was a lot of imagery projected onto me - That was part of who I was and so therefore people came to see me in that context and expected to see something portrayed in that light - You might do something quite different.


Agis, 2003


As a dancer, Agis has at times been able to present a more everyday movement quality in task orientated movement that defies conventional ideas of female beauty in dance. At other times she has been able to project a sensuality that is not necessarily dependent on being the subject of a male gaze but that challenged established modes of feminist resistance:


 A lot of feminists in that period would come and see the work and we would be very, very fragile and very exquisite and very, very and sensual…


Agis, 2003



In contrast Artist A had, in a previous work, responded to the pressures she had experienced to conform to bodily norms in dance and wider society. Her work had explored ways of representing the experience of plastic surgery. However she had needed the support of a mentor to consider confronting the audience in this work (Artist A, 2002).


The pressure to conform to ideals related to gender stereotypes also seemed to be as strongly felt by the two men. Artist D commented on the difference he had experienced between Europe and America. In America, what he called the ‘cowboy’ legacy meant he had felt his lack of muscle bulk had made it more difficult for him to be successful as a dancer. In the field of ‘contemporary’ dance he had found Europeans more willing to accept him as tall and thin. However, Artist B remembered as a young man checking his moves in the mirror to ensure he had the right look. The dance battles that took place in the jazz clubs of his youth demanded an ultra masculine persona. In later life, while in his dance works he has been able to poke fun at (and more recently question) this macho posing, it is noticeable he still maintains something of the muscular physique required for this style. 


That both the men I interviewed were from ethnic minorities brought into consideration that the problem of dancers being perceived as sexual objects is not confined to women. The legacy of slavery, discussed in the previous chapter, brings more complexity to the issue of the ‘gaze’ of the spectator: the black male body may be felt to be as much a commodity as that of women of all ethnicities. However, these two men seemed confident in their ability to guide their audience’s response. Artist B saw the structuring of the choreography as playing an important part in this while Artist D viewed the dancer as having a choice as to how much of their sexual nature they revealed on stage.


6.5 Sex and Aesthetics

While it is the issue of responses to female dancers that have been the subject of much analysis and discussion, as discussed above, male dancers have also been recognised as objects of desire. Nijinsky’s dismissal from the Imperial Russian Ballet ostensibly for wearing too skimpy a costume that offended the Royal Family and ladies in the audience shows such sensibilities predated later advances in feminism (Bourman, 1937, 190-194).That males can be viewed as objects of desire within patriarchy is accounted for by Ramsay Burt in terms of the homosexual gaze, but he also concludes that more recent examples of male dancers as objects of desire also relate to female sexual freedom of expression. Similarly Susanne Moore, in discussing the female gaze in relation to cinema has argued: ’that the codification of men via male gay discourse enables a female erotic gaze’ (Moore, 1988, 53). Such a viewpoint could support Macaulay’s analysis of Ashton’s pas de deux. However, it is also possible that just as homosexual desire remained tacitly acknowledged even while Church and state denied its legitimacy, so did awareness of  women’s enjoyment of their sexuality. Arguably, during those periods when the virtues of Christian controls over fleshly pleasures were most promulgated, the potential for dance to reveal what in polite society might not be said offered the potential for dancers and audiences, regardless of gender, to explore the constraints surrounding sexual expression [xi] . 


With generally more liberal attitudes to sex emerging in Britain during the last part of the twentieth century there has been more overt recognition of the place of sex in theatre dance. In the works of Kenneth Macmillan, what might be seen as the delicately played sexual nature of many Ashton ballets of the 1950s and 1960s was replaced by the impossible to miss grappling of a sexual nature in Manon and Mayerling in the 1970s. In their time these ballets may have dismayed the traditionalists, but the shock value of ballet as sexually explicit has been replaced by a growing acceptance of the presence of sexuality as one facet of theatre dance. If on Foucault’s terms we consider the relationship between power and desire, it could be argued that as dance moves into the twenty first century the dancers’ bodies no longer present a danced discourse of desire but of control. Where dance is performed to audiences more relaxed about sex, the dynamic of controlled sexuality loses its charge making control an end in itself. 


This last idea is related to the discussion in the next chapter as to how capitalism can be perceived as intertwined with attitudes shaping perceptions of dancers. However, what I want to focus on here is that for dancers, whether male or female, the legacy of Christian dualism intertwined with body:mind dualism, has, at least in the past, jeopardised their status as artists. While this may be changing, what is of concern is that currently in Britain it seems that some dancers seem to run the risk of being devalued more than others.


As has been discussed in chapters two and three, although not a necessary condition of any single instance of art, the potential for aesthetic experience has been and, it has been argued, still is important to (western) conceptions of art. Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Norbert Elias I explored the possible equation between the notion of aesthetic distance and the ‘habitus’ (in Bourdieu’s terms) of the privileged classes in western society. Copeland’s approach to Balanchine, I argued, reveals the extent to which in the ‘high culture’ of western civilisation, through the cultivation of aesthetic enjoyment, perception of dance as art can be  experienced as distanced from what are viewed as ‘extra aesthetic’ considerations. In discussing Roger Copeland’s defence of an updated formalism in relation to appreciation of Balanchine, I suggested that in focussing on aspects of Balanchine’s ballet that abstract the human body, Copeland relied heavily on the notion of the ‘disinterested aesthetic’. I have argued that in western culture, the body and sexuality have been set in opposition to more spiritual concerns that are closely connected to the prioritising of mind over body. Given also the feminist challenges to patriarchal representations of the female image, it is hardly surprising that it has been sexual interpretations of the physical manipulation of the ballerina in some of Balanchine’s ballets that have been at the centre of disputes about his work that demand consideration beyond the formal aspects of the choreography.


Although, as discussed above, attitudes are changing, my own experience of theatre dance in Britain suggests that in relation to ballet, by too openly eliciting a sexual response the dancer may be seen as endangering the audience’s ability to maintain aesthetic distance which can lead to their performance being devalued, unless the sexual attractiveness of the dancer is ‘framed’ in such a manner as to suggest either she (and nowadays he) is unobtainable, or that her/his presence is intended to comment on aspects of sexuality. At the same time, in a more ‘contemporary ‘or post modern dance perspective, particularly in relation to female dancers, the presentation of the female form for the enjoyment of the (male) gaze is likely not only to attract feminist criticism but more widely be seen as a signal not to take the work too seriously. In dance that enjoys a high cultural status it seems to be important that what may be very evident sexuality is seen as controlled. By savouring the passionate expression of a ballerina in Manon (1974) or the sensitive intimate physical responses in an improvised dance, the audience demonstrates their ability to reciprocate in the recognition of controlled sexuality. That in other forms of dance this control may be viewed as lacking is perhaps one factor affecting perceptions of dance in musical theatre as having less ‘high cultural’ status. Traditionally while dancers in musicals are thought of as less controlled ‘technically’ than their classical counterparts, the chorus line are generally  required to be more sexually alluring than the corps de ballet. Their dancing uses a more direct focus rather than the traditional extended lofty gaze of the ballet dancer. Moreover their hips may be controlled in series of complex isolations, but what the audiences often recognises is hip ‘wriggling’ with all its connotations. As Alexandra Carter (2005) discusses in relation to ballet in the nineteenth century London music hall, there was a distinction in the reputations for sexual availability between chorus girls and the corps de ballet and this may well still influence expectations today that frame how the dancers are perceived on stage. For the artists I interviewed, there seemed to be a generally accepted equation between dance that was recognised to have an overtly sexual attraction, particularly jazz, and the commercial field.


6.6 Erotic ‘Others’

In spite of the acknowledgement of artists such as Katherine Dunham, who provided insights into the ways sexuality is governed in some African and African Caribbean dance (Burt, 2001, 84), audiences may be less willing to view dance that draws on these traditions as embodying a controlled sexuality. In part, this may be linked to the different uses of the body. Within the context of western dance traditions which have sought to control actions of the hips, any dance form in which articulation of the torso draws attention to movement of the pelvis may be interpreted sexually. In addition, as was discussed in chapter five, perceptions of ‘non western’ dance also carry the vestiges of how ‘other’ cultures have been viewed by the west, particularly in relation to the control of sexuality. A combination of attitudes to sexuality, the arts and dance have thus tended to make it more difficult for those drawing on dance forms ‘other’ than ballet and contemporary dance to be valued as artists. 


Artist B also recognized that in relation to the commercial sector, dancers were likely to be perceived in relation to their sexual attractiveness. This could impact more on black dancers than white since, at least until recently black dancers might be more likely to be channelled into jazz dance. However in making work for black dancers that draws on a range of dance forms, this choreographer was adamant that the audience would not be able to focus on the sexual attractiveness of the dancers due to the way the performers were presented. This artist showed his customary determined sense of agency to shape the perceptions of his audience. Watching a rehearsal, verbal references to the serious themes, the strength of the interactions between the dancers and what at times could become a confrontational approach to the audience would make it very unlikely  for the audience to focus on the performers as objects of desire (at least in relation to usual norms).


Recognition of how dance that is perceived as ‘sexy’ can be less valued as art was apparent in Anderson’s discussion of Egyptian dance in Britain. According to this artist, when promoting their dance as an art form in London, some Egyptian dance practitioners focussed on presenting their work in established arts venues and the more glitzy attachments to costumes, which compound every shake of the hips, were dispensed with. In their place, long dresses enhance the line of the body so that hip drops and figures can be seen as spatial configurations requiring a precise technique. In contrast, Anderson recognised that she felt able to use elements that within a (western) theatrical context might be thought to belong to the cabaret. Talking about how she approached teaching dance to other women she commented on how a woman can display herself as sexual without resorting to ‘sleaze’ or being vulgar:


You can be playful and teasing but “women of good family”. In Egypt dancers will be playful and teasing but it’s not as sexual… You would play and tease and project to everybody in the audience; you are not projecting say [only] to men. It’s that dichotomy - It’s having an open attitude to what being playful and teasing can be. And that can be a bit difficult because, especially with this dance, it’s got a lot of baggage.


Anderson, 2004


As we discussed her dancing in relation to other approaches to Egyptian dance, it seemed to me that Anderson was offering an alternative to either an overtly sexualised representation of Egyptian dancers, that perhaps relies on a western exoticism of ‘Easterness’, or the more svelte, streamlined look of some alternative approaches to Egyptian dance that emphasise attributes that are often identified with ‘contemporary’ dance. She had spent much time playing with elements of her costume to create an image that related to a ‘persona’ she described as ‘daughter of the country’, a female figure in touch with her sexuality who still presented a sense of tradition and who for Anderson (2007) represented a kind of ‘wholesomeness’.



Alternative ways of presenting women in relation to their sexuality is something of a tradition in modern dance dating back to Isadora Duncan’s concert dances and Ruth St Denis’ danced portrayal of exotic beauties. That St Denis took her inspiration from 'non western' sources to achieve this was no accident but drew on a developing orientalism within western culture. The Denishawn project promoted dance very carefully as a safe middle class activity, eschewing vaudeville for the concert hall and promoting the school as suitable for young ladies. By positioning herself in relation to the interests of an educated, mainly female, audience, St Denis could offer the opportunity for them to reflect on aspects of sexuality in a manner removed from the crudity of the music hall (Banes, 1998, 89). Unlike Anderson, who has made a  very thorough study of the techniques and styles of the dance tradition she draws on, Ruth St Denis depended on a more imaginative approach to arrive at what to her (and presumably to her audience) were more evocations of a distant world peopled by ‘others’. Her original inspiration for an Egyptian dance did not come from the study of Raqs Sharki but purportedly from a depiction of Isis on a cigarette advertisement (St Denis, 1939, 52). While she undoubtedly made attempts to research her work more than this suggests and by her own accounts drew on what she could find out from libraries, museums and personal contacts (St Denis, 1939, ) St Denis’ impressionistic appropriation of ‘other’ cultures dates her work. Yet the positioning of the sexual aspects of the work towards those with the ability to articulate intellectual concerns about the nature of sexuality was important to the development of American modern dance (Banes 1998, 66). While work that is perceived as mere sexual titillation is devalued, work that is understood to comment on perceptions of sexuality or the nature of desire can take its place as art. Ironically for Anderson, it is this tradition that may provide for artistic approval of her work. As a British woman of African Caribbean ethnicity, conscious of the African heritage within Egyptian dance, Anderson offers a more complex intercultural exploration of sexuality than would have been possible for St Denis. That this artist recognises the influence of Hollywood depictions of Egyptian dance on the presentation of dance in Egyptian cabaret itself further layers her understanding and suggests how the boundaries between dance traditions were permeated long before the effects of Globalisation became a topic for academic discussion. The links between Denishawn and early Hollywood [xii] suggest traces may be found of Ruth St Denis’ approach to dance influencing dance traditions in Egypt itself. 


Working out of the South Asian dance tradition of kathak, Sushma Mehta was aware of the dubious position of female dancers in India’s history. Perhaps like the twentieth century figures of ballet and modern dance, who sought to establish their dance as art, she was still concerned with ensuring the acceptance of dance as a worthy profession for women. Her account of the changing position of female dancers within the history of South Asian dance, along with Anderson’s perceptions of the status of dancers in Egypt, highlight that it is has not only been in Christian dominated western culture that perceptions of the female dancer have been problematic. Moreover in her discussion of how the codification of dance movement reinforces norms of polite behaviour, there is a distinction between decent and indecent that is reminiscent of attitudes that shaped the development of (western) theatre dance. What is not considered polite may take different forms but there is a recognisable contrast between what is and is not acceptable.


Especially if you are a girl, you are taught not to sit with your legs apart - So in kathak you would never see (nowadays they are doing a little more) somebody sitting with their legs apart. In South Asian culture and dance it would be considered unaesthetic and a bit vulgar. One thing that I would feel very hesitant to use is a sitting position with legs really wide apart and facing the audience.



If you wanted to show an intimate scene like a sexual encounter you would only suggest it though symbolic [action], through coming close - But in kathak we do not touch because touching is considered to be like kissing in public. It is not readily accepted. We won’t show that kind of intimacy - Now I have seen people touching a little more, but originally in kathak you could be very close but not actually touching…


Mehta, 2003, edited 2007


While for traditional Asian audiences this artist recognised the need for a subtle approach to sexual themes, they are not in themselves out of bounds. Many traditional kathak dances deal with earthly love and, in the same discussion, Mehta reported a fellow kathak artist had recently made a work on a lesbian theme.


Mehta felt that some restrictions on the body equated to attempts to rid dance of some of the connotations of the past. Historically dance had been an important part of Hindu religion but had fallen into disrepute, with dancers becoming viewed as courtesans. Referring to sculptures of dancers from the past she understood there had been hip movements that did not now feature in classical dance. She described that when the kathak tradition (that fused elements of Hindu and Islamic heritage) had been revived the hip movements were eschewed to avoid any ‘vulgar’ associations. But was this the result of Victorian sensibilities adopted during the days of the British Empire, or related to attitudes that predated the days of the Raj? This artist also reported that some kathak teachers were beginning to encourage more use of the body:

It’s delicate body movement but it’s come back. It’s encouraged now to use the body a little more but in a disciplined way. Bending is never from the front. When we bend it’s from the side - from the hips. It’s got certain rules. If you break them then you’ve got to know what the rules are to be able break them.


Mehta, 2003, edited 2007


Again, it is difficult to discern whether these changes relate to a revival of aspects of older traditions or the influence of western sensibilities. At the turn of the twentieth century both in ballet and the early modern dance, an emphasis was made on the connections between gesture and the whole body: the once straight-and-laced-up-in-corsets torso was freed to move. The dancers in photographs of early Fokine ballets [xiii] can be seen straining against tight bodices to bend sideways while, less encumbered by clothing or tradition, the modern dance led the way in the exploration of all the different ways the spine could move. Are kathak dancers, like ballet dancers before them, responding to a freeing up of attitudes to the body and sexuality, or are they retrieving a dance tradition from the restricting influence of earlier western sensibilities while maintaining a distance from what might be seen as the more degenerate attitudes in contemporary western society? Such a question is made more complex by evidence that western dancers in the early twentieth century influenced the re-emergence of South Asian dance (Hanna, 1993). It reveals the complex inter cultural shaping of perceptions of what is embodied in dance and hints at how, in a complex culture, such questions may be answered differently according to the background and experiences of the person answering. Moreover, within the traditions of theatre dance in Britain, it may be considered that dancers have often been considered as ‘other’ even when they belonged to what was thought of as a homogenous culture:


It is my firm belief that human society is divided into three distinct castes, Russian dancers, dancers and very ordinary people.


Haskell, 1979 [1934], 22


In seeing dancers as ‘other’, Haskell may have recognised a physicality that he felt was missing in early twentieth century British social behaviour. In a society such as Britain, that successfully adopted a Cartesian approach to analysing the problems of the sciences, industry and every day life, it is possible that members of that society have struggled to re-engage with the actuality of their embodiment. Perhaps Haskell approached dancers, and particularly Russian dancers tinged by oriental exoticism, as ‘other’ by virtue of their having to engage with their embodiment in order to dance.


         6.7 Dualism and Difference

I have argued that the legacy of dualism can be considered as underlying the distancing of consciousness that in (western) theatre dance sustains the, often painful, control of the body. In addition, this same consciousness, at a distance from the body, may be equated with both the notion of aesthetic distance and an awareness of the gulf between self and other. Dualism of body:mind, intertwined with the Christian dualism of flesh:soul, has shaped attitudes to dance in western theatres and, in particular, concerns with how to display the body on stage. Within the context of Christian traditions, sexuality has been particularly problematic for dance as art. As the Church’s power has diminished, more relaxed attitudes to sexuality have provided a context that allows for the appreciation of sexuality within the realms of art. It is thus not surprising that audiences saw new embodiments of the sexual self emerging in the more secular twentieth century. However, the extent to which sexuality is acknowledged in relation to the dancer as artist can be affected by class, gender and ethnicity. Western attitudes to ‘other’, ‘non western’ cultures as being less regulatory of sexuality have influenced how ‘non western’ dance has been viewed. Depending on the context, in the first half of the twentieth century this led both to the censorship of Katherine Dunham’s Rites of Passage in Boston in 1944 (Burt, 2000 ,79) and a fascination with the exotic ‘other’ that fuelled audiences for both Denishawn and Diaghilev’s orientalism.


Today the picture is far more complex. While past exoticism still may influence perceptions of ‘non western’ dance as being more overtly sexual than western dance, in Britain we are becoming increasingly aware of how ‘non western’ cultures regulate sexuality. Indeed the freedom for most British women to dress in revealing clothes without it being presumed they are sexually available contrasts with our increasing awareness of stricter rules for some, particularly Muslim women. Yet, whilst in contemporary Britain attitudes have been changing in relation to ethnicity, class and gender, to what extent is the dancer still viewed as ‘other’, the other being those who have (re-)learned to be more consciously aware of their bodily actuality? And, as such, are dancers all too easily viewed as objects of desire?


As was discussed in the previous chapter, perceptions of difference are significant to the appreciation of dance in a culturally diverse city such as London. As globalisation brings cultures into play with one another, both in culturally diverse cities like London and on a global, political scale, what is understood as embodied in a dance becomes implicated in an ever more complex web of bodily significance. Such a multiplicity of points of view is often regarded as a key feature of arts in the postmodern period and is often linked with poststructuralist approaches to dance that, as was discussed in chapter four, may emphasise a challenge to the norms that are thought to maintain social inequalities. In this context, tensions between ‘old’, ‘high’ culture and ‘new’, postmodern culture may be understood as battle lines being drawn in bodies, in how they should look, act and be ‘read’. For instance if a ballerina opens her legs wide, her action is most likely to be discussed in terms of formal geometry, technique or ‘line’: perception of her actions is shaped by traditions in ‘high’ culture’ by which the percipient observes a proper aesthetic distance. Moreover, if the ballerina’s actions are seen as sexually charged this may well be savoured at a distance and related to elements of plot or theme that are seen as an important part of the work of art. A refusal to view the work this way (as in the discussion of The Four Temperaments) is thus seen as a challenge to the work’s artistic status. In contrast if a black jazz or street dancer moves his/her hips the action is probably seen in sexual terms and viewing such dance as art may be seen as a broadening of traditional aesthetics.


6.8 Embodying New Corporealities

Dance artists, reacting to the potentially negative aspects of a focus on their body as object to be viewed, may be seen as resisting overly instrumental attitudes to the body by drawing attention to the subjective experience of the dancer. This may be informed by a critical response to what is perceived as the continuation of the dualist legacy, perhaps in mechanistic training methods or performance styles that emphasise visual image over felt experience. That the emphasis on control of the body and formal qualities are most associated with ‘high’ cultural forms such as ballet may add a political dimension to some criticisms of perceived dualism in dance, particularly in relation to feminist approaches (even though some feminist approaches to dance seem to fall into the trap of supplanting a focus that distances sexual and other interests to another that prioritises them). However, the antagonism to dualism reveals a theoretical problem for dancers. While dualism allows for a causal relation between consciousness and action, the opposite, currently more accepted, physicalist attitude to the mind:body makes popular assumptions of the relationship between a dancer’s thoughts, feelings and actions problematic. 


As was discussed in chapter four, what dance artists seem to seek is the phenomenological experience of communication in performance, drawing on a variety of strategies to encourage the audience to experience a sense of interaction, responding to the dancer as agent capable of an in-the-moment embodying of intentionality. Hence there has been an appropriation of the terminology of phenomenology such as the ‘lived body’. Dancers focussing on the lived experience of dance practices in which they strive for body/mind integration can be seen as responding, however theoretically naively, to what they experience as the problems of dualism’s legacy. To return to Varela’s discussion of the concept of the ‘lived body’, while recognising its usefulness in terms of shifting sensibilities, his criticism of it is that it ultimately results in a ‘reversing of the centre of privilege in Cartesian dualism from mind to body as lived’ (1997, 219). Varela argues neither mind nor body (lived or otherwise) can exercise the agency of intentionality as it is people that intend, people who are ‘causal in their exercise of agency’. This shift from body to person is important, since for Varela agency can be causal because it is embedded in the social. Varela may however be misrepresenting phenomenology, for one of its main protagonists has claimed:


The phenomenological world is not pure being, but the sense which is revealed when the paths of my various experiences intersect, and also where my own and other people’s engage each other like gears. It is thus inseparable from subjectivity and intersubjectivity.


Merleau-Ponty 2002 [1945] xxii


In such a context dancers in performance can be seen as engaged in a social act. This makes sense of dancers’ emphasis on dance as a communicative phenomenon but may be interpreted as placing their dance on a collision course with formalist aesthetics and thus with assumptions that still seem to be contained in notions of ‘high’ culture. However it is important to stress that if dancers in performance are engaged in a social act, it is in one that plays a very specific part in cultural life that is subject to complex codes of communicative relations between dancers and audience. Aesthetic traditions have played their part in shaping these. However much dance artists may encourage their audience to engage with them as people, no one today expects a member of a theatre audience to be so entranced by a dancer that they try to leap on the stage to dance with them. Where in experimental arts events, or at the presentation of African-Caribbean or Egyptian dance forms in predominantly ‘white’ venues, the audience are expected to interact more closely with performers, my experience is that such crossing of boundaries usually takes much persuasion.


Within the controlled setting of (western) theatre dance, those artists who focus their audience’s attention on the corporeal can do so in an attempt to encourage awareness of those aspects of human experience that may be felt to be undervalued or ignored in contemporary western society. Hence physical sensitivity and awareness, the ability to respond spontaneously to others and that sense of connection to others and the environment are valued in performance. These are skills that may be felt to have been stifled by the legacy of dualism. However, this is a carefully selected corporeality that keeps intact the controls on bodily hygiene and, in performance at least, on sexuality. Parts of what is seen as dualism’s legacy may be challenged but the new corporeal emphasis would not have been possible without it.




Notes to Chapter Six

[i] It can be argued that the Roman Inquisition posed little real threat to academics, but Descartes postponed publication of his work after Galileo in 1633 was prudently emphatic in his renunciation of his findings: ‘And if I contravene any of these said promises, protests, or oaths, (which God forbid!) I submit myself to all the pains and penalties which by the Sacred Canons and other Decrees general and particular are against such offenders imposed and promulgate’ (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ mod/1630galileo.html).

[ii] Descartes himself suggested the pineal gland as the point of interaction. See Wilkinson (2000) pp35-44 for a discussion of the problem of mind-body interaction in Descartes’ two substance dualism.

[iii] 80% of professional dancers and vocational dance students responding to a survey in 2004 had incurred at least 1 injury over the previous 12 month period (Laws, 2004.)

[iv] That Plotinus’ writings also influenced Islamic philosophy adds to the complexities of intercultural influences existing prior to the more recent ‘globalisation’ discussed in chapter five.

[v] The inconsistencies in religious attitudes are highlighted here by the fact that in opposition to the Protestantism of the Jansenists at least some Catholics (the Molinists) could admit the significance of dance to early Christianity.

[vi] For Kristeva, according to Lovell, the ‘semiotic chora’ refers to the ‘pulsation’ and rhythms’ of the infant’s early, even antenatal environment. What Kristeva terms the symbolic order would be organised by those linguistic structures that are generally discussed within conventional ‘semiotics’.  

[vii] Her body was laid to rest at her husband’s estate at Roehampton.

[viii] Fokine strived for a symbolist fusion of form and expression in his idea of the ‘sign’ (Carr, 1989).

[ix] See accounts of the choreography for Odette in Siegel 1972 and 1977.

[x] Agis and Artist A stated their feminist perspective when asked directly.

[xi] Hanna (1988, 250) makes a similar point in relation to more recent dance in America where it was not the church but fear of litigation that limited what could be openly stated. Hanna, while recognising the role of the viewer in constructing meaning suggests some dances carry a ‘hidden‘ messages  that may be understood to challenge patterns of dominance. That those in authority tend to dismiss dance as entertainment means they are unlikely to be concerned with such significances.  In America in the 80’s the establishment’s main concern still seemed to be overt ‘genitally connected’ dance behaviour.

[xii] For instance Ruth St Denis choreographed dances for Intolerance and D.W. Griffiths sent his actresses to Denishawn classes (Shelton,1981, 136-137).

[xiii] See for example the photo of Les Sylphides in Paris 1909 (Lifar, 1954, 160-161).