Dance Styles and Skills:
Significance in a Postmodern Context
In the previous chapters it has been suggested
that (western) theatre dance can be viewed as a particular sort of
cultural act in which the phenomenological experience of communication
may be felt to be important even though it is often hard to state
precisely just what has been communicated. In this chapter I will
explore how within such a framework, and within the context of a postmodern
urban environment, what are thought of as ‘style’ and ‘skill’ in dance
may be seen as significant. The discussion will thus build upon previous
chapters not least in considering how within contemporary, culturally
diverse cities such as
It can be tempting in the postmodern era to consider questions of significance and value only within genre specific frameworks. Drawing on the discussion of the relationship of dance to the wider culture(s) explored in chapters three and five, dance genres such as ballet, kathak or hip hop can be considered to relate to aspects of specific cultures from which judgements as to meaning and worth may be derived. Hence the 'right' bodily attitude in hip hop may be seen to parallel values in urban youth culture, in which context differences in bodily stance might be understood that might not be clear to a middle class, middle aged, white audience. Similarly, the stress on clarity of geometric positions in ballet that have a value and significance rooted in European cultural history may seem curious to a young black British urban generation.
However, notwithstanding the importance of recognising significance and value in relation to the specific demands of genre, developing upon the findings of the previous chapters I will continue to reflect on whether dances made and performed by artists working in different genres and coming from different cultural backgrounds, but living and working in the same city, may be seen to be responding to similar cultural concerns. This may reveal pressures, the responses to which, while shaped differently within a variety of dance and cultural contexts, emanate from the broader social context. In addition to reflections on the significance of style and skill in a range of dance, discussions with artists will also be drawn on. It will be important, in relation to these latter, to recognise that the artists selected for this study, while enjoying various levels of success, are not making work for mainstream dance companies. Thus they are likely, indeed were chosen, to view what they may well see as dominant culture(s) from a critical distance.
Before entering into these matters, I will first develop some of the themes that have emerged in previous chapters to explore further how, from a theoretical viewpoint, dance may be conceived as a communicative phenomenon. This will be important as, while not disputing the problematic nature of the communicative phenomenon in the context of diversity and globalisation, I will return to the consideration that a key aspect of what is perceived as important in dance as art within the cultural context of contemporary London is its potential to communicate to (or rather with) audiences whose daily life emphasises communication as fraught with difficulties.
7.1 Dance as a Communicative Phenomenon
In order to discuss dance as a communicative phenomenon there is a need for clarity with regard to the different ways in which dance can be thought of as communicative. The analysis of dance as communication is generally considered either in relation to semiotic approaches to significance or to phenomenological accounts which prioritise the experience of the observer. However, as has been discussed previously [i] , an understanding of communication might better draw on an interplay between semiotics and phenomenology.
In relation to the semiotic tradition, for
the purpose of clarification it may be helpful to return to the distinctions
that the linguist Roman Jakobson (2000)  made between different
functions of communication which, in relation to Susan Foster’s approach
to ‘reading dance’, were discussed in chapter two
. Jakobson’s structuralist and functionalist approach
to communication can be a useful analytic means to consider aspects
of dance as communicative. Allied with an intentionalist approach
to choreography, it is possible to discern between the ‘emotive’,
which reveals an artist’s attitude to a subject, and the ‘poetic’,
in which the emphasis is on the dance medium. In dance, as has been
In the early development of (historical) modern
it could be argued that the emotive function was
prioritised by individual dance artists such as Graham and Wigman
to develop new choreographic styles, the formal aspects of such dance
drawing on an individually focussed expression. The poetic focus that,
for Jakobson, dominates in art, fitted the aesthetic of much modernist
dance of the mid twentieth century that emphasised the exploration
of the dance medium in both abstract and individually expressive terms.
Choreographic style tended to be concerned with individual development
from a starting point in a known dance tradition or traditions. It
thus tended to reflect both the norms of the specific culture and
the individual attitudes and preferences of the individual.
Within Jakobson’s framework the ‘conative’ and ‘referential’ are perhaps the functions that for dance are most problematic: Precision in relation to either what is demanded of the addressee or to what is referred is more difficult in dance than in words. Choreographers have conventionally relied on programme notes and more recently on text or video to support the referential function and codified mime (such as found in classical ballet and kathak) for dance intended to be conative or referential. Jakobson’s theories have been further developed by Foster (1986) and Jordan and Thomas (1998) to allow for an understanding of the referential and conative functions as more complex, bringing a poststructuralist slant to their uses of structuralist analysis.
As Preston-Dunlop (1998, 27-36) reveals, developing
on from Jakobson, the choreographer’s playing with phatic and metalingual
functions can be significant, especially in a postmodern context.
The importance of the ‘phatic’ function or ‘contact’ aspect of communication
has gained emphasis alongside a concern with the use of ‘code’. Where
clear demarcations between genres have been maintained, audiences
have in common that generally they do not need to be guided as to
how to approach the communicative aspect of a dance work. Whether
it is a performance by the Royal Ballet of nineteenth century repertoire, a street dance
competition, or a culturally specific ‘non western’ dance performance
form in the appropriate and relevant community venue, the contact
and code aspects are generally taken
for granted. However, from the later years of the twentieth century,
the array of approaches to how the dance event should be presented
and the range of cultural traditions that could be drawn on have become
ever more complex. Increasingly choreographers and those presenting
their work are testing the boundaries between genres. Choreographers,
by drawing on a range of cultural influences in their dances, make
audiences more reliant on overt signals to orientate themselves to
the work and to understand how to ‘decode’ it. Those programming performance
seasons may seek to encourage ‘new audiences’ to their venue or to
explain to their existing audiences how to approach the sampling of
something new and different. Even audiences occasionally stray across
those unseen boundaries which provide for the make up of the majority
of the audience at
Jakobson’s theory offers some useful tools
with which to contemplate the semiotic significance of a dance work
with regard to the interrelationship of different communicative functions.
7.2 Between Structure and Agency: Merleau-Ponty’s Account of Reciprocity
Although regarded as a phenomenologist, Merleau-Ponty drew on a whole range of theory in his work. While his use of research findings in psychology is well known, his exploration of structuralism is less so. This may in part be due to this not fitting in with his label as a phenomenologist, and partly because his approach was, to say the least, idiosyncratic. In contrast to the emerging structuralists, Merleau-Ponty’s response to Saussure was to look in his work for ‘a way of understanding how subjects polarise a set of instituted signs in ways that enable them to say something new,’ (Schmidt, 1985, 162). The social theorist James Schmidt suggests that whilst in his lifetime Merleau-Ponty was allied with Saussure and Levi Strauss, after his death the structuralists placed him ‘on the other side of the divide which separated them from phenomenology’ (Schmidt 1985, 4). The Structuralists rounded on Merleau-Ponty for what they saw as his adherence to a humanism they were intent on overturning. Yet Schmidt points out that Merleau-Ponty himself called into question some of his early work, including The Phenomenology of Perception (1962) , and in his later work struggled to re-articulate the relationship between subject and world. For Schmidt, Merleau-Ponty is seen to have been concerned with the relationship between agency and structure, a topic that in mainstream sociology only became prominent later in the twentieth century:
What has come to be called post-structuralism…thus faces a problem which is the mirror image of the one which confronted Merleau-Ponty. He was faced with the task of taming an excessively subjectivist theory with a knowledge of the opacity and density of the world of structures. Contemporary social theorists are faced with the task of overcoming an excessively objectivist understanding of structures with the knowledge that structures do not simply constrain agents, they also allow agents to act in ways which frequently lead to the transformation of the structures themselves.
In Eye and Mind (1961), the last essay published before his death, Merleau-Ponty seems to be arguing for artists’ approaches to be considered as valuable alternatives to those of scientists. Merleau-Ponty contrasted modern scientific methods in which ‘science manipulates things and gives up living in them’ (Merleau-Ponty 1972,  55) with painters’ responses to the visible world:
The painter lives in fascination. The actions most proper to him - those gestures, those paths which he alone can trace and which will be revelations to others…to him they seem to emanate from the things themselves…
Merleau-Ponty, 1972 , 63
Contemplating the significance of the visible in relation to the painter’s approach, Merleau-Ponty highlights the reciprocity of visibility in that ‘my body simultaneously sees and is seen’ (Merleau-Ponty 1972  58) and suggests:
The eye is an instrument that moves itself, a means which invents its own ends; it is that which has been moved by some impact of the world’....
[painting] ‘celebrates no other enigma but that of visibility’
Merleau-Ponty, 1972 , 61
While he is careful to show he has taken into account he knows works of art are also products of specific cultures, Merleau-Ponty is not willing to sever humanity from a (potentially sharable) primordial connection with the world.
If dance is considered instead of painting it might be said, following Merleau-Ponty, that dance is always concerned with moving in the enigma of the visible. [vi]
Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made up of the same stuff as the body.
Merleau-Ponty1972  59
Such a view can be drawn on to consider (western) theatre dance as revelatory of the experience of moving in a world to which it is reciprocally related. In this way dance is infused by culture but this is not necessarily fully restrictive of the dancer’s agency. With the perspective of over forty years of cultural change taking in the growth of culturally diverse perspectives, the challenge of poststructuralism to the stability of any interpretation and the (Foucauldrian) equations of vision and knowledge with power, it will be recognised that the framework within which the relationship between artist and culture is understood has become more complex since Merleau-Ponty articulated what was essentially the modernist perspective in his account of art. However, by emphasising the reciprocity of individual and culture, Merleau-Ponty provides for an understanding of (western) theatre dance as a communicative phenomenon embodying what is an individual artist’s approach to moving in the world that at the same time is enmeshed within a culturally shared web of significance.
7.3 Democracies’ Bodies
The idea that shared cultural values are embodied
in dance has become part of the accepted narrative of the history
of western dance. For example in terms of (western) theatre dance,
it is generally agreed that the ballet d'action in challenging balletic
convention began to distance itself from its origins in the aristocratic
ballroom and perhaps 'the stage conventions that the dead hand of
the court imposed' (Jonas, 1992, 155). Noverre, in his Lettres
of 1760, accepted the division of dancers into three genres (grotesque,
demi-charactère and heroic) that can be seen to reflect attitudes
to class in the Eighteenth Century. However, his follower Dauberval
can be viewed in his production of La Fille Mal Gardée (1789), two weeks prior to the start of
the French Revolution, as ever so gently reflecting challenges to
the class system by presenting a ballet with no aristocratic characters
set in a rural idyll in which the plot centres around a couple performing
in the demi-charactère genre (Guest, 1996, 384-386, Jonas 1992, 155).
In the nineteenth century, as the Romantic ballet in
However, Burt offers a critique of this narrative of modernism, dance and democracy, pointing out that whilst both these works can be seen to respond to the democratic concerns of the time, they also may have marginalised views not taken into account. Not only does Burt address the problematic nature of the Balanchine ballerina (developing on from his previous (1995) account discussed in chapter six), but, in addition, whilst he credits Humphrey as conveying ‘a greater sense of equality between the sexes’ both she and Balanchine are seen as excluding the ‘particularities of African American experience’ from their ‘universalising ideals’ (Burt, 1998, 153).
It would be quite possible to argue against Burt’s interpretations by presenting other possible readings. For instance, given the manner in which the matriarchal figure whips up the feelings of the community in Humphrey’s With My Red Fires (1936), the New Dance Trilogy (1935/36) as a whole can be viewed as reacting against the anti inclusionary forces of fascism. Moreover, Siegel (1987, 155) relates Humphrey’s use of soloist and group in New Dance to African dance. That Balanchine, in developing the academic style in ballets such as Agon (1957) borrowed ‘from an Africanrooted aesthetic’ (Banes, 1998, 195) could be argued to reflect the more inclusive attitudes developing in his adoptive country. Further, his inclusion of the African American dancer, Arthur Mitchell, in his company in the 1950s, a decade prior to the Civil Rights movement leading to legislation against race discrimination, can be interpreted as Balanchine’s recognition of Mitchell as representative of ‘a part of the American culture’ (Hawley, 1999) [vii] .
It is not Burt’s prioritising one reading of a work over another that is problematic, but rather his tendency to present possible interpretations (ballerina as fetish object, for example) as if they are universally ‘given’. Nonetheless, the value of his revisionist interpretation of modern dance works is to exemplify how what is stated about the values revealed in a dance work is open to variations in intertextual analysis (as discussed in chapter two). From this perspective what is seen as embodied is an interpretation in relation to stated textual references. Hence in the ‘thirties, at a time when the ideals of democracy were viewed positively in stark contrast to the then spectre of fascism, and then later, after the second world war, when America took on the mantle of protector of democracy, the uses of groups, and the relation of the individual to the group, took on different meanings in American dance related to the ideals of democracy in opposition to first fascism and then communism. More recently as disenchantment with the ‘American dream’ coincides with poststructuralist critiques of the modernist project, ‘textual’ references from the later twentieth century draw attention to those viewpoints excluded from modern dance works whether due to ethnicity, age, ability or sexuality [viii] .
‘Revisionist’ histories like Burt’s may also lead to consideration that what some people experienced in the dance of a certain period is not necessarily articulated in ‘key’ critical texts written at the time. From a strictly structuralist (or social constructionist) perspective it could be argued that such understandings would not have been available within the dominant discourses of the time. A different argument could be made that there was a conscious suppression of alternative discourses. However, it is also likely that some people’s responses to dance performances, and even the artists’ perceptions of the works they created, were shaped by factors of which they were not fully cognisant. This would entail individuals being tacitly aware of meanings not entertained within the dominant discourses of the time. For instance, Burt’s discussion of the Balanchine Ballerina as a ‘fetishized display of women dancing on point’ (Burt, 153) relates to what might be termed the postmodern feminist discourse of dance academics of the late twentieth century. Articulating this perception now raises the spectre of the potential for her to have been appreciated in this regard, if by a very small number of people, while it was fashionable only to hail Balanchine’s genius in choreographic form. Some people, aware of a subordinate discourse of suppressed desire, may have wisely decided, very consciously, to keep this to themselves. For others, was it possible that such a fascination with female form fuelled excitement over Balanchine of which they would not have consciously been fully aware at the time?
Similarly, while Burt tells us that left wing criticism of New Dance was in relation to its lack of apparent content, at a time when segregation, particularly in the southern states, caused problems for African Americans, surely some people must have been conscious of what was excluded from the Utopian ideal Humphrey envisaged in this work. Were others disappointed not to feel as elated by the performance of New Dance as they expected without understanding quite why, and perhaps blaming this on what they perceived as its lack of content?
The benefit of revisionist approaches to history is that they not only offer different perspectives than were stated at the time, if largely ignored, but also cause us to question the shadowy workings of the subconscious that may have shaped responses in the past. This in turn may lead to reflection of the extent to which audience members may exercise individual agency in responding to dance. Ultimately the workings of the subconscious in relation to other peoples’ experiences, past or present, can never be proven, but revisionist accounts of history, by destabilising or ‘deconstructing’ popularly held assumptions about the significance of dance works in the past, may also lead us to question how dance is interpreted in the present.
Given the above, it is interesting that current dance is sometimes less subject to the scrutiny of deconstruction than might be expected. While Burt’s revisionist considerations of gender and ethnicity have rather rubbed some of the shine off the perceived democratic values of modern dance (and modernist ballet), some forms associated with postmodern dance still seem to be presumed to be untarnished in relation to acceptance of their inherent democracy. That a book about the dance being made at Judson Church New York from the 1960s can be called Democracy's Body (Banes, 1983) suggests that in seeking to challenge traditional elitist ideas about technique and hierarchic approaches to choreographic structure and control, these new dance experiments were ‘symptomatic’ of the concerns and ideals of the time (Reynolds and McCormick, 2003, 394). Contact improvisation, for instance, grew out of the collectivist ideals of the dancers involved in the ‘grand union’ in America in the 1960s and 70s and comments may be quite often found that support the basic assumption proposed by Lucinda Jarrett that ‘no other dance form espouses democracy and community based principles better than contact improvisation’ (Jarrett, 1997/98,7).
Certainly contact improvisation in its development drew on a range of cultural sources. According to dance anthropologist and dancer Cynthia Novack, contact improvisation, at least in its early events, was characterized by a ‘dynamic of interaction and sense of group participation’ (1990, 73). The emphasis on improvisation lends itself to group responsibility for performance, while the skills of spatial awareness and the ability to respond sensitively to others can, with time, be developed whatever the practitioner’s age, shape or ability. Such skills certainly fit happily with the ideals of interdependence and mutuality that mesh with the ideals of democracy and have been used effectively in community dance settings. Most notably the use and response to each other’s weight has enabled disabled groups to dance. However, as Jarrett admits, presenting this dance form in theatre spaces seems to reveal similar pressures to the presentation of any other dance form. In this arena it can be argued that its purported democracy is undermined by the same pressures that affect (western) theatre dance generally. To dance it well in performance requires not only the experience and the skills mentioned above, but high levels of co-ordination and that elusive ‘performance quality’. As to its being ‘better’ at espousing democracy than any other dance form, is it possible that as with modern dance a universalising tendency once again reveals a bias marginalising protagonists of so called ‘folk’, ‘ethnic’ or ‘social’ dance ?
Two black British artists of African Caribbean
ethnicity interviewed for this study viewed all ‘contemporary’ dance
forms (including contact improvisation) as strongly linked, in
In relation to dance in
However, the relationship between dance and
the dynamics of political understanding should not be over simplified.
This point is made by Steve Paxton, the man generally regarded as
the originator of contact improvisation. Commenting on an article
Contact Improvisation could not have ‘’embraced values of individualism, equality, and anti hierachical relationships “, because CI cannot do anything. It is something to be done…
If liberty and equality are chosen then at the moment of choice they exist. What happens the next moment is something for all of us, anthropologists especially, to ponder.
Paxton, 1997 , 166-167
Actions in dance may be understood to embody the democratic ideals of those performing them, but, by virtue of context become caught up in the inequalities of society at large.
7.4 Cultural Diversity, Bodily Style and the Dancer’s Image
The current trend towards ‘hybridity’, or the development of ‘new ethnicities’, that (as was discussed in chapter five) is popular with some of the younger generation of ‘contemporary’ dancers, suggests moves in some quarters to address the potential ethnocentrism of ‘contemporary’ dance. These developments place ‘contemporary’ dance in opposition to traditional dance forms that emphasise established movement vocabularies and choreographic structures over individualism, innovation and the negotiation of difference. In this way ‘contemporary‘ dance could be viewed as embodying an outlook that, while dominant in the west, is at odds with traditional elements in both western and ‘non western’ cultures. As European and American artists draw on a range of influences, including ‘non western’ dance traditions, and begin to make links with artists from Egypt, Africa or Asia who share their interests in developing and ‘fusing’ forms, ‘contemporary’ dance may be seen to be morphing into a global phenomenon challenging bounded traditions.
The discussion of dance and diversity in
...our beat includes the ballet, postmodern dance, recent hybrids of the two, modern dance, tap dance, jazz dance and musicals; it also includes breakdancing, capoeira, flamenco, wayang, kathak, ballroom dancing, parades, ice skating, processions. And when we cover an event like this week’s Ethnic Dance Festival, we’re expected to write about a panoply of traditions at a glance.
Banes, 1994, 22
Given this situation, Banes shows how the
gap between ethnography and criticism narrows. In one particular instance
she reports that she had found that in order to write about breakdancing
(in 1980 while it was part of American subculture rather than mass
entertainment) she had taken a quasi ethnographic approach feeling
that ‘a cultural context had to be limned in order to capture the
sense of the dancing’ (Banes 1994, 23). However, given that critics
usually write about dance presented in the theatre (even if it has
been uprooted from its original context to do so), the distinction,
for Banes, lies in the critic’s job being to work ‘right inside the
mainstream of our culture, and we write about events for other people
inside our culture who share our expectations and values’ (Banes 1994,
24). There is a presumption here that those people who buy the paper
or dance journal she writes for are ‘insiders’ in terms of a mainstream
culture. Yet in an era in which even banks boast their sensitivity
to how cultural differences
affect the manner in which their business is carried
out, an anthropological perspective in relation to dance may help
understanding. In terms of
Not surprisingly, given the complexities of
culture, some of the artists were particularly sensitive to anthropological
perspectives. Artist D perceived differences between European and
American presentations of male dancers in ‘contemporary’ dance to
be linked to the frontier heritage that shaped American ideals (Artist
In the past, a particular bodily way of being may have been taken for granted within a specific genre, at least until a radically new choreographic style was presented. For instance, the abandonment of lightness and grace for a harsh, grounded, percussive dynamic in Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) signalled a rupture within ballet that audiences clearly recognised and for some was a step too far on the path to modernise ballet and ‘bid adieu to the Belle Epoque’ (Garafola, 1992 , 64). The norm for the deportment of ballet dancers (on and off stage), against which this break with tradition was judged however, was one of a grace and elegance that was an extension of what would have been appropriate in any polite drawing room in early twentieth century Europe. Nearly a century later, where norms in bodily styles vary in every day life, audiences are sensitised to the subtle (and not so subtle) aspects of differences in postural dynamics. What may be thought of as the ‘bodily hexis’ draws on Bourdieu’s (1984)  concept of ‘habitus’ that, may be considered to be shaped by class and, it has been argued, is also implicated in aspects of ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. This ‘bodily hexis‘ may thus be thought of as a source of significance underlying more traditional aspects of choreographic style such as movement choices, formal structure and phrasing.
7.5 The Dancer’s Image in Late Capitalism
This play on bodily differences within choreographic styles demands from audiences sensitivity to embodiment that may shift attention onto the bodily style of the dancer. This highlights how dance may be conceptualised as caught up within two other pressing concerns of postmodernity, image and capitalism. These are discussed by the sociologist Mike Featherstone (1991)  who draws attention to how the body has been appropriated by capitalism through a concern with body image. In his account, the rise in the fitness and slimming industries are linked as much to developments in fashion and cosmetics as to those related to health: in a society in which it is not enough to be healthy but to look it, looking good is important in order to market the self as a commodity:
Within consumer culture the body is proclaimed as a vehicle of pleasure: it’s desirable and desiring and the closer the actual body approximates to the idealised images of youth, health, fitness and beauty the higher its exchange-value.
Featherstone, 1991 , 177
Where the fitness and fashion industries meet in the desire for self fashioning, the physiological demands of dance styles can be marketed as being designed to ‘sculpt’ the body into the desired image. The success of the New York City Ballet Workout (Blanshard, 2000) exemplifies this. Created as a collaboration with the New York Sports Club by Peter Martins, whose performing image is associated with the heyday of New York City Ballet, this fitness video features what the online retailer Amazon describes as ‘four gorgeous dancers (two bare midriffed women and two bare-chested men)’ (Price 2006). The exercises they perform are a mixture of balletic exercise and more general body conditioning that are designed to be emulated by those who ‘envy the ballet dancer’s long, lean body and graceful elegant movements’ (Price 2006). In contrast to fashion models, dancers need their usually young looking, streamlined, muscular bodies to do more than look fit if they are to dance at a professional level. Yet, judging by the success of the New York City Ballet’s foray into the fitness industry which led to a second volume in 2003, it does seem that in addition to the effectiveness with which dancers meet the physiological demands of their art, the values attributed to the dancer’s body relate to images of ideal bodily styles more generally. As the boundaries between consumer culture and dance become blurred it may be that dance technique itself is developing in response to bodily ideals.
The resulting focus on the image of the dancer
had affected the artists interviewed in different ways. For example
Whatever the genre, or the cultural context
of the dance, within current presentations of dance in
Here it might be expected that the role of
funding agencies to protect the arts from the demands of market forces,
could be important. In
The artists might be considered as in a continuous process of negotiation with wider social pressures to which perhaps what can be seen as their common response (as discussed in chapter four) has been to play on audience’s expectations, challenging their assumptions about what the dance artists might be perceived to embody: Artist B by switching from ‘fun jazz’, to serious physical theatre by way of the occasional lyrical solo is steadily refusing to be pigeonholed; Agis has played around with the glamorous image that in her youth was projected onto her; Anderson neither tries to fit the Raqs Sharki ‘art‘ dance look or seems to want to fit the stereotype of the Egyptian belly dancer; Artist D seems to revel in audiences not being quite able to ‘place’ him and Mehta, seemingly comfortable in her presence as an older ‘Indian’ of lady like demeanour, happily dances alongside much younger dancers of a range of ethnicities. Body image, as Featherstone reveals, may have been appropriated by capitalism, but through their dancing the artists may be seen to embody their resistance to the culture within which they are enmeshed.
7.6 The Significance of the Virtuosic
All the above has implications for the interpretation of virtuosic skills. In the earlier stages of capitalism, the perceived virtuosic ability of the dancer was an important part of their value to be promoted [xiii] . Taglioni’s pointes and Nijinsky’s jump were special abilities that became entwined with the image of the dancer rooted in ‘the real’. Virtuosic abilities were the preserve of the few and were an intrinsic element to the dancer as commodity. For the Diaghilev ballet, the value of dancers such as Nijinsky and Karsavina was such that their presence was often a contractual obligation for the company and they danced in nearly every programme (Garafola, 1989, 194). Elitism, in terms of individual dancers being valued for their unique abilities, is generally agreed to permeate theatre dance and indeed is so much part of dance training that it can make for tensions within community and youth dance organisations as they try to find a balance between providing opportunities for those with ‘talent’ to progress towards a potential professional dance career and widening participation [xiv] (Tomkins, 2006, 33).
Virtuosity may be viewed as ‘cultural capital’ within the dance world. It emerged in discussion with Artist A that she acknowledged the importance of virtuosic skills in relation to dancers’ perceptions of one another in that ‘there is an element of wanting to be accepted by that fraternity, of them knowing that you have a right to be there’ (Artist A, 2002). Even when watching work by companies that place emphasis on the emotional content of their work she still felt that ‘their dancers are incredibly technically able and they are working very, very hard to put that over’ (Artists A, 2002). This artist had noticed how this sometimes worked against choreographic intentions so that dancers may, for instance, raise their leg height to show what they can do even though the choreographer did not set high extensions. It could be said that virtuosity brings into consideration communication between dancers that sometimes is at odds with the choreographer’s communicative intentions. (While for this study, this problem was largely circumvented by talking to those who danced their own choreography, a wider issue is highlighted in the range of values shaping the perception of different audience members and how artists respond.)
In late capitalism the commodity value of the virtuosic is currently challenged in a number of ways: the digital age means a music or movie star who is an average dancer can seem to move faster, jump higher, turn repeatedly, even dance on the ceiling, that is, at least if it is on video; meanwhile for the live stage, in vying with others for soloist positions, dancers need to promote an image that will attract company directors and choreographers. That these latter themselves are concerned with promoting dance works to compete within the entertainment sector for audiences may implicate their choice of dancers within a framework that is as much economic as aesthetic. This may thus shift their concern towards ‘image’ over skill. To what degree skill is significant to the marketability of a dancer’s image, and how much this balance may have changed is beyond the scope of this study. However the development of training techniques drawing on research into exercise physiology and learning is producing large numbers of proficient dancers. Where there is a choice between dancers who can meet all the technical and stylistic demands of the choreography, consideration of a ‘marketable image’ is likely to play a larger role in the final choice.
Beyond the mainstream, alternative dance practices such as contact improvisation and release technique focus attention less on image and overt virtuosity and more on the experience of moving. While contact improvisation focuses attention on the relationship between self:other, it shares common concerns with what are now loosely grouped together under the heading ‘somatic body practices’. Increased kinaesthetic sensitivity underpins the ability both to move with another dancer with a shared sense of weight and to minimise unnecessary tension in movement. Those involved in what is fast becoming an established alternative dance scene study contact improvisation, Skinner releasing, Feldenkrais or Body Mind Centring© in the search for a ‘deeper kinaesthetic experience of movement’ (Alexander, not dated). According to the dancer and educator Kirsty Alexander, this is set in opposition to ‘the philosophy of “I think therefore I am” and the mind/body split it implies’ (Alexander, not dated). In contrast to traditional dance techniques that depended on the unconscious retaining of ‘overlearned’ movement habits but extolled the instrumental relationship between conscious mind and body, Skinner releasing, for example, is portrayed as using images with which the student is encouraged to ‘merge’, experiencing them ‘at a level just beyond our conscious control’ so ‘they become another reality’ (Alexander, not dated).
Undeniably, such dance practices often seek
to challenge the images of dance presented within large, commercially
successful or well funded organisations. They thus often incorporate
a wider range of people, including dancers who are older or who have
less than ‘ideal’ physiques. Yet in the realms of ‘professional performance’
the more subtle self control that is demanded, with its emphasis on
sensitivity, creativity and flow has a virtuosity all of its own,
one that perhaps embodies the values of the liberal, well educated
middle classes. Certainly skill in this dance form demands access
to space and time in an environment in which the stresses of everyday
life are kept at bay. The potential of dance performances in this
form to resist commoditisation can be undermined by the glorification
of the (physical) self awareness needed to perform with ease. This
has been recognised by key postmodern dance artists themselves, summed
up by Deborah Hay in the phrase ‘flow is show’
.Virtuosity, whether in this more subtle form or
in the more traditional-higher-faster mode, when pulled into the dance
mainstream becomes subservient to image. Within the dance practices
The challenge to notions of elitism in dance tied to a narrow prescription of physical excellence has informed the desire for the ‘democratic’, often drawing on the newer, alternative techniques discussed above, and celebrating the integration of a wide range of physicality and ability. One such example might be the company Candoco, whose performances integrate disabled dancers. What is interesting here is that in some ways it is the disabled dancers who shine by virtue of their difference. In this company, which embodies the ideal of ‘equal but different’ in relation to ability, there may still be tensions in terms of the sense of the group as a whole, not least because the audience tend to focus on certain dancers. One of the original co-directors, Adam Benjamin, recognised that dance accessible to disabled performers and concerned with how to foster integrated work does not equate with a lack of virtuosity. Rather, the same issues are raised. For him, ‘the tension that exists between virtuosity and communality will not go away’ (Benjamin, 2002, 40). In the choreographic approach to the use of different skills and abilities, (western) theatre dance can be seen to embody the dialectical relationship of individual and society. What the work of Candoco highlights is the change in postmodernity from an elitism defined within narrow constraints to one that allows for a broader range of what is considered excellent.
Despite people’s egalitarian intentions, the problem of the virtuosic is always resurfacing. Within the field of contact improvisation, the dancer Karen Nelson’s response to the question of the ‘allure’ of gymnastic skills was to point out that “…everyone loves and marvels at the ability of gymnasts…Maybe it stimulates childhood memories” (Nelson, 1997 , 137). In considering virtuosity it may also be important to consider the phenomenological experience of twirling, leaping and balancing that most children love. Reflecting on how these movements, recognisable in children as expressions of the enjoyment of physicality, become developed as commodities in dance may reveal the extent to which physical being has become implicated in capitalism.
Ironically in relation to the above, virtuosity in its more overt form, by emphasising the physicality of the dancer challenging her/himself to the limits, in sweat and effort, may also serve to shatter the smooth veneer of the marketable image. Some awareness of this seemed to surface in discussion with Artist B (2005), whose work I have watched develop over time. He acknowledged how a ‘rawness’ was lost as a virtuosic work, which drew on skills used in ‘dance offs’ in clubs, was performed in more established venues. This can be considered as recognising how the ‘quality’ of his work had developed to meet the ‘production values’ of larger dance venues. Yet, another interpretation is that as the work became more absorbed into the ‘market’ of mainstream dance, the dancers lost a little of that ‘connection’ with their experience of dance in clubs, the raw edges of their ‘real’ movement being smoothed off to form signifiers more suited to the promotion of dance within the discourse of theatre. The athletic virtuosic may be implicated in the competitive spirit of capitalism but it is not always a signifier of (high) cultural elitism until subsumed into the discursive practices that currently seem dominant.
7.7 New Dance Style and the Embodiment of ‘Lack’
What might be seen as a fashion for somatic
sensitivity is part of a tradition in American and European modern
dance reaching at least as far back as to artists such as Isadora
Duncan and late nineteenth century movement theories such as those
of François Delsarte. Freeing the body from the rigid forms of established
dance techniques and social conventions has been the rallying cry
for those promoting movement that is more ‘natural’ since at least
the late nineteenth century. Moreover, as was discussed in chapter
three, within balletic tradition, the mid eighteenth century ‘reforms’
of Noverre and the ballet masters of the ballet d’action can also
be interpreted as the reaction against the strictures of culture and
an assertion of the significance of the ‘natural’. Current somatic
practices have their roots in the cultural climate of the 1960s. The
general problematisation of the assumptions that had underpinned the
dominant white, male,
However, the generation after two world wars and the atom bomb may be thought of as recognising a lack in western culture that might be present in ‘other’ cultures not by virtue of their relative primitivism but their different development. The need to retrieve what is felt to be lacked fixed not only on other cultures but on evolutionary development. Body Mind Centring © exemplifies this concern with the primitive in relation to each individual’s make up. For example, a manual to support workshops in this technique states:
As we recapitulate the inherited or evolved development movement patterns, we experience with clarity our own personal development process and our deviations or inhibitions of the natural (inherited) process.
Brain structures near the bass represent an early ascent on the scale of evolution. Parts of the brain stem are responsible for eliciting stereotyped patterns of motion, e.g. swimming, and can be elicited as primitive reflex patterns in man.
Allison, Bainbridge Cohen and White, 1984, 3
The authors of the manual are clear that primitive motor patterns underlie all current movement patterns. During a workshop that drew on Body Mind Centring © techniques led by K.J. Holmes (Independent Dance at Siobhan Davies Dance Studio, August 2006), I observed how references to primitive movements are used as a source of movement investigation. From the basis of my observations the exercises given were successful in helping the participants find ways of moving that stripped away some of the culturally conditioned accretions that beset dancers and resulted in a heightening of intuition in their movement responses to the environment and to others. A series of movement investigations were presented that drew on the idea of basic neurological patterning. Exercises proposed a sense of evolving from the prevertebrate stage in the ‘ocean’ of the womb to two footed habitual movement. This left me with a question that I was unable to resolve: was what I witnessed the ‘releasing of the memory in the muscles’ retrieving neurological connections to movement patterns from the earliest days of growth? Alternatively, was the power of such imagery successful in breaking down movement habits and allowing the unconscious to be drawn on to create movement less adulterated by culturally learned habits without necessarily this unconscious being able to draw on patterns from a prenatal stage of development? Resolving this is beyond the scope of this study, and while of interest [xvii] is irrelevant to the success of the technique in engendering the movement effects in dancers. More important is what is understood to be the significance of the sense of a lost primitive that such effort is required to retrieve.
The traditional dualism of nature:culture may be seen to be embodied with (western) theatre dance in the tension between recognisably culturally conditioned patterns and movement that appears to draw on a more ‘organic’ source. It is very likely that this latter depends on the dancer being able in some way to draw on those bodily movements not usually under conscious control. Yet it is in the play between conscious and unconscious that the distinctions between different manifestations of the ‘natural’ are embodied in dance. As a dancer in ballet class, I remember working to capture the moment when I knew the body’s reflex responses would make a ‘natural’ movement reaction occur and then seeking to control the after effect so as to give a more ‘natural’ flow to my classical technique. Isadora Duncan, rejecting ballet, described herself standing awaiting the motivation to move to emerge from her solar plexus (Duncan, 1927, 75). She then had to capture that ‘natural’ urge and translate it into a performative act that, more or less, could be replicated at different performances.
Manifestations of the natural in dance have varied from Noverre to Fokine, from Karsavina’s ‘flow of movement’ to girls in ‘Greek’ tunics skipping on the lawns of Denishawn, to the BMC© inspired dance explorations I witnessed in K.J. Holmes’ summer workshop. Whether or not at some basic level there is a shared ‘natural’ pattern to human movement, in the bringing it into dance motility is culturally ensnared. In contemplating differences between manifestations of the ‘natural’ in dance, it is probably more fruitful to consider the cultural differences that account for them than to search for which is more authentically natural. For instance if the different approaches to controlling the body in ballet and ‘release’ techniques are considered, the former in emphasising the ‘instrumental’ control of the body to achieve spatial and temporal precision according to a particular aesthetic can be seen to relate to a cultural view drawn from European rationalism. In the traditional ballet class, the emphasis on the all seeing eye of the teacher illustrates the concept of panopticism. The latter in its attitude to the organisation of space and time can be seen in opposition to the rationalist tradition and, in contrast to the ballet class, seems to offer more freedom. Yet, the shifting of the dancers’ attention to monitoring of their own ‘inner’ stimulus for moving, may also be seen to correlate to a Foucauldrian vision of the carceral society in which the desired norms have become internalised.
A salutary reminder of the cultural attitudes
that shape understanding of the ‘natural’ is the attitude of
If the tension between virtuosic technique and ‘natural’ expression marked the earlier development of theatre dance in the west, in current practices this has mutated into a virtuoso organicism and embodied sensitivity. While the more traditional ‘fireworks’ virtuosity is still recognised as a crowd pleaser and requiring hard won athleticism, the dancers themselves often seemed to me to value subtler skills. Even artist A, who recognised the need to show other dancers she could perform overtly technically difficult movement, respected the achievement of a certain quality in performance:
... and I think that that’s really more what technique should be about , the quality of movement - There are people who just take your breath away in the way they move and they can just be walking - Its nothing to do with have they got their leg by their ear, its just the quality of the movement they have and that’s really hard to put your finger on - but it is a technical thing that they have and it takes the movement into another realm.
…for me, performers imbue the movement with some kind of meaning that they bring something of themselves into the performance. And they are the kind of performers that I like to watch.
Artist A, 2002
In contrast, Artist B (2005) seemed frustrated with those dance audiences, who, more accustomed to ‘contemporary’ dance, could not see the subtleties in his dance and so focussed on the virtuosic tricks. In order for embodied sensitivity to be communicable it demands audiences with the perceptual abilities to see it, something that may be harder cross culturally.
7.8 Agency and the Dancer’s Image
Bringing Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology into play with a poststructuralist understanding of the shifting sands upon which cultural significances are continuously constructed, dissolved and reconstituted may allow for an approach to dance that marries that very ‘real’ sense of physicality with recognition of the instability of the images dance creates. Thus what is perceived as embodied in dance is located within the play between ‘real’:‘imaginary’, flesh:culture. In approaching (western) theatre dance as a communicative phenomenon, dancers and audience may be thought of as negotiating bodily significances. In this context how dance skills and styles are displayed within choreography can be interpreted as embodying attitudes to wider debates.
For example, as discussed in chapter two,
Sherril Dodds’ (1999) discussion of the Cholmondleys’ play on image
in relation to Jameson’s account of the ‘death of the subject’ provides
an example of how embodiment is approached within an intertextual
(semiotic) analysis. Dodds raises the question of whether, by drawing
attention to style as constructed, the choreographer Lea Anderson
presents the loss of the autonomous bourgeois self under a welter
of transposable images. An alternative intertextual reading, different
to the one that draws on Jameson, is offered that focuses attention
on each dancer’s individuality. Dodds concludes that such individualism
is superficial in preference for an analysis that refers to Jameson’s
text. However, an analysis that brings into play a phenomenological
experience of the dance performance with such intertextual reflection
might lead to an understanding of how the reciprocal relationship
between individual experience and socially constructed styles of being
is embodied throughout a range of
Within alternative ‘contemporary’ dance practices a current concern with a new corporeality that is interpreted as a (re-)connection with a (lost) natural and innate human capacity for movement may be thought to reflect the concerns of a predominantly white, well educated group concerned with the legacy of modernity. In particular, by developing alternatives to a more ‘mainstream’ dance practice they may be considered as focussing on the agency of the individual performer. When alternative ‘somatic’ dance practices are linked with contact improvisation the reinforcing of interpersonal sensitivity may also draw on the concern to actively seek ‘copresent interaction’ (Friedland and Boden, 1994) that was discussed in chapter four.
A sense that in some way, common evolutionary and/or developmental movement patterns underpin what is culturally learned and are perhaps retrievable may reflect concerns about the over emphasis on difference in culturally diverse societies. However, there seems to be a presumption that it is white, middle class educated dancers who have to work harder at this retrieval that for the present seems to be inhibiting cross cultural exploration of this in dance terms.
What the artists I talked with share, however, is their commitment to dance as a communicative interaction within society. This serves to emphasise that analysis of the dance image without consideration of the phenomenological experience of the performance undermines the significance of the individual agency of the performer. For the ‘non aligned artists’, working in some ways at a critical distance from established dance companies, the different ways in which their dance negotiated bodily significance was an important aspect of their choreographic style in performance. Understanding their performances as in some ways continually questioning, sometimes resisting, current norms of bodily image is, in different ways, important to appreciating their work. For example, as has been discussed, Artists B and D may seem to have very different concerns in relation to dance; Artist D excels in the subtle, bodily aware movement that is considered as an alternative to the virtuosic display of idealised bodies in more mainstream dance; Artist B draws on a range of virtuosic moves from his experience of dance in clubs combined with elements of other dance forms and physical theatre. However, both Artist D’s exploration of awkwardness and Artist B’s determination not to lose the connection between his dance and what he sees as the ‘real’ life experiences of black British people may be seen as equally determined attempts to keep hold of something recognisable as ‘integrity’. What might be understood as a sense of honesty in the moment within the communicative phenomenon of a dance, on reflection, appeared to me as an important quality embodied in the dancing of the artists I had approached to participate in the research. While such an interpretation is hard to evidence, referring back to Goffman’s (1969)  research suggests the skills such understanding demands are often required in communicative interactions:
Underlying all social interactions there seems to be a fundamental dialectic. When one individual enters the presence of others, he will want to discover the facts of the situation.
Goffman, 1969 , 241
The less that is known about a social situation the more people rely on their skills in judging people’s actions. If dance is viewed as a communicative phenomenon, perceiving the artist as pursuing integrity in their part of the interaction may thus be considered to be important. Whether this understanding of integrity in the moment of performative interaction is more widely understood as important, is something only further research might reveal. However, since Goffman made his comments on ‘the presentation of self’, social situations have perhaps become more complex: it could be argued that currently for many people living in London, the experience of increasing diversity, the global separation of families and communities, changes to established rules of behaviour pertaining to notions of ‘class’ and the prioritising of digital above face to face communication may all contribute to limiting the daily experience of successful ‘contact’ with other people. In such a context, and given current disenchantment with media ‘spin’, it would not be surprising to find some people prioritising the potential of an art form to offer a sense of ‘honest’ engagement with others. Notwithstanding the difficulties of understanding dances that draw on traditions and bodily conventions different to my own, what is interesting to contemplate is how within a fragmented, yet interconnected, culture of theatre dance, the experience of living and working in twenty first century London might engender shared understandings that seem to emerge across more obvious cultural differences.
Notes to Chapter Seven
[i] See 4.4 pp.158-61.
[ii] A summary of Jakobson’s terms is to be found in chapter 2, p.87.
[iii] This Preston Dunlop discusses as ‘performative’.
[iv] While there might be some argument as to the precise definition and hence dates of the era of modern dance, in a general sense I mean to refer by this term to those artists working in (western) theatre dance in the first half of the twentieth century who developed their own new traditions that provided alternatives to ballet. Their relationship to aesthetic modernism, is a subject of debate (Franko, 1995, Copeland, 2000). Hence a modernist aesthetic as formulated by Greenberg might not best describe all (historic) modern dance and may even be used to describe some developments in ballet that focussed on the potentialities of the medium.
[v] Research indicates this may be a matter of those with higher levels of status and or education being omnivorous in cultural consumption.
[vi] Whilst he was acutely aware of the relationship between seeing and moving, Merleau-Ponty maintained the distinction between the tactile and visual sense: ‘we do not need a ‘muscular sense‘ in order to possess the voluminosity of the world’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1972 62).
[viii] Recent interest in the perceived links between homosexuality and alleged communism which were pursued in the HUAC hearings, pre Stonewall, may also be significant.
[ix] See the advertisements for HSBC c. 2000-2006 which made much of the Bank’s knowledge of local customs in locations in which it operates around the world.
[x] The incidents I have witnessed of dancers affected by anorexia to the extent they do not have the strength to meet the actual physical demands of dance technique might be explored from this perspective.
[xi] See the photo of Sylyie Guillem with Russell Maliphant to advertise their performance at Sadlers’ Wells September, 2005 on the front of the programme for that season, revealing Guillem in a shabby, long, dingy coloured coat with long straggly hair and no or little make up.
[xii] I was fascinated to see a top hip hop group dressed in neat shirts and trousers at X’pozure event, Brixton Recreation Centre, Summer 2004
Featherstone , citing
[xiv] This also relates to my own experience of developing a dance programme within adult education.
This comment was made by the American postmodern dance
artist, Deborah Hay, in a week long choreographic/performance workshop
[xvii] For instance it could be explored in relation to Julia Kristeva’s approach to the transition in early childhood development into the ‘symbolic’.
[xviii] One of my students for example commented on the bar stools section in Double Take (2005) that she imagined the performers as imprisoned in their (constructed) identity finding the women taking what were originally men’s roles as making her reflect on how men experienced their gendered identity.