Signposting bodies: rethinking intentions

In This Article

It is from a rethinking of my own practice as a dancer that the thoughts for this paper have developed. The title of my paper, ‘signposting bodies: rethinking intentions’ refers to the way that meaning is projected onto bodies through other disciplines. 1 Contemporary modes of making performance, like the use of multi-media and cross-disciplinary practice, has displaced the primacy of the body as meaning maker in dance performance.

Looking through the framework of postmodern dance history, I intend to argue that this displacement is problematic and reveals a power imbalance inherent to the way bodies and the art of dance is seen. To do this I suggest (after Foucault , 1977, 1984), that dancers carry an inscription born from historical and cultural phenomena regarding their own identity and the wider cultural identity of dance. Cultural inscription, combined with notions of dance as abstract, ephemeral and inferior, have led dance artists to search for ways outside of the body to communicate ideas. I call this development ‘signposting’: the use of a sign to help remind us of the ideas at hand. I will look at the signposts text, film and gesture to examine their multi-facetted nature but also to question their inevitable consequences. Does the use of signposts intercept the kinetic experience of dancer to audience and what effect does it have on the development of choreographic practice?

Because dancers work in increasingly interdisciplinary ways and dance is seen from within an increasingly interdisciplinary perspective, the value of articulating an individual perspective may be useful but prove difficult. I am conflicted about my critique because I believe that interdisciplinary practice has led to some of the best work of the 20th century and, I don’t intend to call for a return to purist dance—but as a dancer myself, I feel compelled to defend the body.

In dance performances of the 1980s and 1990s I found myself coexisting on stage with 90 chairs wired to collapse, swinging myself around hydraulically powered beds, reciting slabs of text, dancing under huge projected images of my pre-recorded self, or jumping over television screens that were recording our real-time movement in close-up. In Holland where I worked, outside of the ‘ballet’ companies, there was hardly a group that was not working with an interdisciplinary approach.

The principles of postmodernism, emergent at that time, had exploited the mediating possibilities of cross-disciplinary arts practice. As dancers, we were anxious to develop and extend our arts practice into new areas, and shrewd as we were, we recognised that using technologies, like film and video, and theatrical devises such as text and visuals, made dance more accessible to the younger, more media savvy and literary arts public. We were striving to project our work to a wider general audience, as theatre artists like Robert Wilson, Peter Sellers or John Jesurun were doing with their cross-disciplinary work.

As a kinetic, sensual but silent medium, contemporary dance was well placed to accelerate the destabilisation of the logo-centric nature of European theatre, a theatre tradition in which word and text have traditionally been dominant. What emerged in this period provided a new theatre dramaturgy, labelled by Hans-Thies Lehmann as "post-dramatic theatre". Lehmann (1997) suggests that post-dramatic theatre is particularly indebted to dance and to dancers. Dancers provided trained and articulate bodies that were viscerally ‘present’ but had no ‘identity’ enabling a "bringing back into focus the de-semanticising potential of body and visuality as such". (Lehmann, 1997, p. 60)

The de-semanticising potential of the (dancer’s) body facilitated theatre artists like Jan Lauwers, Jan Fabre, Robert Lepage, and others to use dance in order to destabilise the traditional significance of signs and subvert the prevalent semantic symbolism of conventional theatre. How did it change dance practice?

As I experienced it, it was exciting: I learnt new disciplines—speaking on stage, using film cameras, computers, and visualising ideas in other ways than through my dancing—but conversely, I was hardly dancing. After years of training and hard work, dancers were regularly negative about dance performances: there was "too much dancing" and "movement for movements sake". Quite legitimate to question your own practice, but we spent less time on our own practice. What gradually troubled me was the slow, pervasive idea, that dance could communicate better through the intervention of other media. While there was talk of too much dancing, some of us thought we were dancing less and less—it seemed inevitable that divisions within the dance community would increase. 2

Johannes Birringer, expressing the polarisation evident in dance circles, remarked in 2005 that the word dance is now often used as "an almost pejorative oxymoron applied to those artists who want to express something through the craft and composition of their dancin"’ (Birringer, 2005, p. 21). Although he said this in reference to ‘concept dance’ or ‘non-dance’, among the things that interested me about his statement was that it suggested something that I had often witnessed; dancers were rejecting dance and undervaluing the body’s communicative possibilities. Why was this happening?

Gaining new purpose

Jeroen Cramer (2004, p. 1) has said: "It is a constant concern within the project of modernity to define dance as a means of communicating in a more direct and more natural way". In the history surrounding the postmodern era, notions of communication crossed with artists’ attempts to redefine their position as artists and their role in relation to the spectator.

In their time, the dancers of the postmodern movement re-defined the dance from which they stemmed. 3 They took up a resistance to a culture of passive inscription and developed strategies to define their own identity—and destabilise expectations of what dance might be.

While postmodern dance arose simultaneously (but differently), on both sides of the Atlantic, it was a consequence of, and a reaction to, restrictive forms of expression in art and dance. Dance artists were interacting with the gestalt of a broader postmodern arts thinking that related to notions of authorship and conceptual deconstruction. As Ramsay Burt (2004, p. 30) suggests, postmodern dancers were developing "a more self-conscious knowledge of the body" while opening a dialogue with other artists.

Explorations by Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, David Gordon and others precipitated a break down of the borders between dance and other arts disciplines. 4

In concrete terms, some of the hybrids that resulted from this permeability are tanztheatre, visual theatre, post-dramatic theatre, dance/film and cyborg dance. From these new performance practices came diverse ways of choreographing and constructing dance by using other disciplines and media to aid in facilitating ways of interpreting and understanding the body.

The significance of these different developments in performance practice and the manner in which they have impacted on dance illustrate the move away from dance into more theatrical, cinematic and, finally, technological manifestations of the body. More recently, the materiality of the moving body, the considerations of its absence and presence in the act of thinking and moving are once again being deconstructed by a new generation of conceptual dance artists. 5

While postmodern dance, with its egalitarian and pluralistic approach to performance making opened many channels of communication, it also implemented new standards based on older assumptions. Namely that dance, principally the domain of physical movement, needed an intellectual and conceptual approach if it were to be considered on an intellectual par with other theatre. Since then postmodernism, philosophy, dance and feminist theory and criticism have all contributed to revoicing the dancer. Regaining agency in recognition of physical intelligence, however, remains in part compounded by differences in practice and theory.

Inscribed practice

Conflicting requirements underpinning a dance career and inherent undervaluing of dance as an intelligent art as well as uneven power structure in the workspace contribute to the devaluing of the body. Experience of this begins early on. When I was in dance school in Amsterdam, we shared the canteen with the acting department. We thought the acting students were loud, vocal and clever; they had a way with words. We would stand around in our ‘tracky-daks’ drinking tea and quietly keeping our limbs warm. We envied their wittiness and we knew that many of them would develop star status. We might shine, but mostly within an ensemble; our power lay in the studio and on the stage. Outside of the dance space, we were often wrapped up in our bodies and kept our distance. I learnt from a few with whom I became friends later, that they saw our physicality as mysterious and intimidating.

To clarify this anecdote, which I see as indicative of a larger issue, I will use Michel Foucault’s ideas as guide. Foucault (1977, 1982, 1984) proposes that the body is a passive recipient of cultural inscription—inscribed upon by the political, cultural and social factors behind our histories. He suggests that a genealogical/historical understanding of conventions and traditions along with an understanding of psychological processes enable us to understand the manner in which, what he calls, our ‘docile bodies’, interiorise their histories. These ideas of docility and inscription are hugely relevant to the formation of a dancer’s identity.

The inscription that Foucault describes occurs on a malleable but nevertheless resistant body. 6 The dance anthropologist Sally Ann Ness (2008) describes inscription as being carved into the body of the dancer in a number of ways. Ness uses inscription in a fairly literal sense—repeated movement gestures become inscribed into the body’s ligaments, bone structure, musculature and the carriage of the dancer.

Importantly for Ness, dancers carry, to a larger or smaller degree, a bodily inscription that reflects the cultural essence of the society in which they live: culture is reflected in their carriage and bearing. 7

I will take Ness’s inscription, born from the movement and training arising out of a cultural history and add to it Foucault’s inscription that arises from political and social demands, as much as through physical manipulation (Foucault, 1984). Ness uses Peircian 8 semiotics to explain ‘inscribed gestures’, in opposition to Foucault’s poststructuralist dismantling of semiotic structuralism. However, both see the body as a site for inscription through direct or indirect means.

Historically, the body has been mistrusted, "…seen as a secret, mysterious and sexual power" (Foucault, 1976, p. 179). Female dancers of the romantic period were stigmatised as loose women; on the one hand held up as a poetic beacon, on the other as whores. And the resistant dumb dancer myth, compounded by the Cartesian dichotomy that the physical is inferior to the mental, is a dogma that still pervades Western society. Today, once again, we are extremely conscious of the powerful potential of a strong and beautiful body. 9

However, dancers continue to be aware of a stigma stemming from a cultural belief that sees docility as feminine and negative, and also, ultimately subversive. On the other hand, there is also a conflicting need for a dancer to be powerful and proactive. This dichotomy of being docile/passive as well as powerful/proactive remains throughout a dance career, professionally as well as culturally. Professionally, the dancer must create a powerful dance technology, be physically strong and be professionally and artistically mature. Conversely, most of a dancer’s early experiences are within highly disciplined institutions in which individual will is to a certain extent sublimated. In the working world of dance and interdisciplinary practice the relationship of dancers to instructors, ballet masters, institutions, choreographers and directors informs their position within the working environment.

Relationships and power

Culturally, dancers are revered because of their physicality, beauty and accomplishment and—dance is currently in vogue. Then again, dance has been (and still is) an undervalued cultural and artistic commodity. 10 In an attempt to articulate some of the clichés that inhibit dance from consideration as an intelligent arts practice and dancers as intelligent artists, the philosopher Jan Flaming (in Steenbergen, 2005, p. 27) reminds us; "We live in a 'knowledge society': that says enough."

Knowledge, power and the word are inescapably tied together as is reflected in cultural hierarchies where the privileging of the mind has resulted in the higher status of logo-centric art forms like theatre and literature. The logocentrism of Western metaphysics has led to the belief that communication is strictly bound up with representation and meaning, while the ‘abstract’ (non-representational) nature of dance has often been given as a reason why it may be hard for audiences to connect with dance performance. 11

Alongside this privileging, is the ubiquitous nature of visual imagery and technology. Arguably, now, film is the most popular cultural medium and, as a society, we have a huge fascination with new media and technology. These historical and current cultural hierarchies play out in the interdisciplinary workspace where dancers remain subject to the dogma that the physical is inferior to the mental.

As Foucault (1982) states, a structure of power is inherent in all working relationships. Hierarchies within hybrid spaces are reflective of each discipline’s individual genealogy and history. To contextualise this with an example: the renowned and accomplished media artist Paul Sermon was involved with a workshop on dance and technology in Germany 2002. As initiator he advocated that:

Dancers must put down their baggage, put aside their knowledge as dancers…and begin to work with movement in the remote space...instead of with their own bodies (Sermon 2002, p. 272).

His call that dancers must speak a language that we all understand exemplifies the homogenisation of communicative possibilities (ibid). 12

Historically, there is a tendency to disregard the power and inventiveness of the dancers’ physicality and knowledge: that is, the learned and inherent physical technology of dancing. In current hybrid environments, hierarchies may not always be acknowledged but they are often an issue that requires vigilance, and certainly recognition.

Signposts—text

The body now shares the stage with other media. These media act as signposts, and make explicit the meaning that has otherwise been implicitly contained in the dance. I will look at three areas of signposting in particular—text, gesture and film.

Literary systems, like reading and writing, are not only metaphoric references, but they are commonly used to make dance visible, readable and understandable. 13 In Sartori (1989) by Blok and Steel, my role was dancer/actor. As I hung upside down and spoke, my incongruous position worked to disassociate the words from their meaning while at the same time providing reference points to ‘strengthen’ the choreographers’ intentions. The text pieces I spoke, helped make the disjointed, associative and semi-narrative production ‘work’. They offered the audience words with which to construct their own interpretation, an interpretation that was signposted by the title, the spoken text and the program notes.

At the prime of the postmodernist’s attempts to develop the contextual nature of a performance, text became an instrument with which to destabilise movement. Dancers like Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon and others, used text to develop a non-representational performance style—the text became ‘object’, like a chair that you threw around instead of sitting on. The American Kenneth King considered text as an equal partner alongside dance, and the Dutch dance-theatre choreographer Wies Bloemen (in Steenbergen 2005, p. 25) says: "The text tells the story, the dance communicates the emotion." But dance can communicate more than emotion—and I question its equal partner status.

On the one hand, the speechlessness of dance has been admired and discussed as the very issue that justifies its metaphysical capacities; on the other, the same "belief in speechlessness has come to stand for, or signify the intellectual and discursive deficiencies of dance" (Cramer, 2004, p. 1). While Cramer suggests that the union of dance and text signifies the end of the "split between bodily and linguistic expression", he defines that intellectual practice, through language, has created new interactions between performance as self-explanatory event and speech as ‘contextualisation’ of the dancing body (ibid). I remain cautious. The essentialist desire to merit text as having prime communicative as well as conceptual value gives cause to suspect a repositioning of Cartesian value. The communicative aspect of text is at the heart of its overuse but also at the heart of its intrigue.

Gesture

Alongside technological developments, gesture is a movement signpost developed by dancers, the use of which, I believe, has aided in explaining but also simplifying dance language. Currently, when we talk about gesture in dance, we talk about movement that has a recognisable referent, is short, autonomous and symbolic, rather than an abstract or continual dance movement phrase.

Brecht’s (1898 – 1956) notion of the gesture ‘gestus’, that is larger than the movement itself, and that speaks for itself, identifies an ideology of the gesture that was popular in theatre of the last century. For Brecht, the gestus could be the text, the movement or the visual imagery that encapsulated the idea of the play within it. However, the gestured movement that relates to dance comes from a different genealogy. The more scientific development of gesture in dance was a response led by early modern choreographers Rudolph Laban (1879 – 1958) and Emile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865 – 1960) to undertake a physiological and scientific approach to an artistic problem. Namely, how to best communicate through body language.

By developing on the work of Brecht, Jooss and Laban, Pina Bausch’s early work in the 1960s with Tanztheater Wuppertal integrated everyday actions into a gestured language used to clarify the social content of her work. The dancer became more personalised and individual, the movement less abstract or formal. Gestures were recognisable, repetitive and the kinaesthetic impact had a direct emotional challenge. When Bausch’s dancers pull down their shoulder straps, adjust their stockings or totter in their high heels, there is recognition of the manipulative effects of the coquetry, sexuality, seduction and shyness that they assume, bringing out the social content and significance behind the movement.

Similarly, when a dancer of the company Rosas runs her fingers through her hair or self-consciously crosses her legs, there is a feminine ambiguity alongside the simplicity of the movement that offers the audience an entrance through which to understand the following and the preceding movement phrases.

Further developed as a reaction to dancers’ own critique of "excessive movement","movement for movement sake" and "dance that is only about itself", gesture is a way to simplify movement to its more essential or comprehensible elements. In performances such as Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On (2004) Xavier le Roi’s Sacre du Printemps (2007) or Herman Diephuis’s D’après J-C (2006), ‘gesture’ has become synonymous for ‘dance’, as movement and the body have once again been reconfigured and deconstructed.

In the program notes to D’après J-C, an investigation into iconic and aesthetic visual referencing, Diephuis asks, "Is it only dance that can house 'beautiful' movement?" (beau geste). Diephuis uses immobile postures, subtle and suspended images and pure representational gesture to reconstructs a plethora of iconic images to show us that it isn’t. As a field for theatre/dance critique these performances are exemplary, as grounds to shift the codes in the medium of dance, they provide little scope. The primarily static images relay a conceptual self-reflexivity but avoid dance’s primary concern: to construct choreography—"the organisation of movement in time and space" (William Forsythe in Sulcras, 2004, p. 48).

Film

Both dance and film are concerned with portraying movement in space, and through time. They form a natural hybrid medium. As text, sign, words and readings mediate the live dancing body, the technologically mediated dramatises the notion of the disappearing body further as it allows for a new consignment of visual experience and interpretation; in particular, the ease with which the filmed image takes over from the live as a form of representation, and the possibilities of the cinematic image to uncover aspects of emotional and kinetic empathy that are more easily accessible to audiences.

My own experience confronted the merging of identities in live and non-live space. Often performing with recorded images of others and myself on stage, I was aware of a ‘friendly’ rivalry between the screen and me as I could ‘feel’ that when moving images were present they drew the audience attention. My own reaction in seeing other performances where I have been drawn to the image rather than the dance validated my embodied experience.

The dancer and media artist Robert Wechsler (in Wesemann, 1997, p. 32) from Palindrome, remarked: "Put a live event and a screen side-by-side and watch where the eyes go". Gerald Mast describes the visual empathy that goes hand in hand with a physiological attraction in which the eye is drawn to the screen (Mast, 1977, p. 53 – 60). The screen provides an easy immersion. There is, I believe, a voyeurism inherent in watching film that supersedes the spectatorship of live performance. Getting ‘close’ to the performers on stage is much more difficult without their filmed presence.

However, Akira Mizuta Lippit points out that while the eyes (and the psyche) may be drawn to the screen image, what they see there is not a real body but "the figure of the absent figure" (Lippit, 2008, p. 116). The dancer on screen is an illusory body while the live dancer is breathing and sweating. Both draw us in.

According to Phillip Auslander (1999), there is no difference in the immediacy of the live and the mediated; both are experienced as live performance. 14 While I agree with Auslander that the ontological purity of an image is not necessarily concerned with its liveness, the power of the filmed image is undeniable. Whereas Mast suggests that a visual kinetic empathy is experienced between the viewer and the body on screen, using Lipitt’s argument to contextualise, I would like to privilege the live as the superior medium through which to experience an empathetic kinaesthetic transfer.

A dancer’s movements are committed to memory—and memory forms the basis for the act of dancing, for the moves, manipulations and directional changes. A dancer’s body is "a vessel of memory" (Birringer 2002), and the act of dancing a showcase of remembering. The remembering is not an embodied experience for the dancer alone. The kinaesthetic transmission, the feeling of dancing with the dancer, the lived experience of the performance remains alive in the memory of the viewer long after the performance.

There is a recent performance that fascinated me because it represented the use of signposting at its most fascinating and yet I think, its most troubling. It is a thoughtful piece by Rachid Ouramdane called Loin (2008). Ouramdane is a French-Algerian dancer, and the piece Loin (translated as ‘far’) is a solo about identity and displacement created through cultural upheaval. It is a poignant and insightful biography exploring his father’s journey from Algeria to France and later as a member of the French Army in French Indo China (Vietnam).

Ouramdane also draws on other people’s stories to tell his tale. To do this, he uses close-up film images of his mother and other witnesses that are projected onto large screens. Their taped voices, recounting their histories and experiences, create much of the sound scape and emotional and political content of the piece. The texts are also projected on the back wall as sub-titles. Music, mostly pop tunes from the period, is set off manually and karaoked by Ouramdane as he stands on pedals connected to the wiring laid out across the stage.

Without going into a critique or analysis of the piece, I found Loin representative of what I call "signposted dance". Ouramdane, who is a beautiful dancer, moved only sporadically. Primarily rooted to the spot, his torso undulated with the suggestive movements of the North African belly dancer and briefly invoked the ‘popping’ and hip-hop influences of a more modern culture. Even though his movement evocatively portrayed the inner conflict of the piece and hinted at a vital (unleashed) physical propensity, text and multimedia is really at the heart of this ‘dance’ work.

Although Ouramdane does not see himself necessarily as a choreographer, in the strict sense, Loin is classified as a dance piece. I wondered what would the dancer Ouramdane have made of this piece if he had only danced. What sort of movement vocabulary might he have created? Would there have been a dance vocabulary to suggest his intentions? I believe there would. Would I have remembered the piece so vividly without the aural and the filmed elements? I believe I would, but perhaps in a more internalised, intuitive and less descriptive way.

Conclusion

Signposts signal meaning and provide direction, however, their popularity had also let to formulaic and homogenous overuse. My concern has been that the body/choreography elements of dance can be left under-explored and undervalued in the haste to develop the genre of interdisciplinary production. In an attempt to uncover how this occurred, I have looked at a number of things: the historically inscribed practices regarding the identity of dance as an arts practice and dancers as intelligent artists; the shifting power and status in interdisciplinary relationships; and, the use of signposts that have developed through the integration of other media in dance.

A return to movement would signal a number of things; a belief in the ability of the body to communicate through movement and a reinvigoration of the choreographic process to find language (without words) to impart what is being said by other media. The use of signposts has given the audience a way ‘in’ to understanding and experiencing contemporary dance or post-dramatic theatre. They now need the opportunity to develop a deeper insight into how movement ‘speaks’ for itself through a kinetic intense ‘post-verbal’ interaction. Despite all the possibilities offered by signposting, it may be time to reinstate the specifically kinetic but silent meaning making of bodies dancing.

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