Choreography at the edges
Within the Western aesthetic of dance-theatre, and contemporary choreography, there exists a lively culture for experimentation and popular dissemination of new works created by professional artists. In spite of the popular dissemination and proliferation of these new forms of dance, it remains difficult to write about the ways in which such dance knowledge, the distinctive and qualitative evocations of choreographic or corporeal content, are transmitted between artists, and to audiences.
Susan Foster’s seminal book, Reading Choreography (1986), for instance, proposed that each choreographer’s syntax may be interpreted by examining combinatory elements, including dance technique, expressive concepts, bodily presence and subjectivity, and yet her dance analyses were limited to structured modes of address.[[Susan Leigh Foster, Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).]] Since then the challenges of interpreting choreography have been extended in many ways by post-structural discourses, including feminist, postcolonial and other critical methodologies, which reject any direct equivalence between the staged dance, and its meaning. Concepts of kinaesthetic empathy have, for instance, highlighted the role that bodily experience plays in our response to watching dance, while on the other hand, social theory insists upon the historicisation of events, reminding us that aesthetic systems are subject always to the mediation of context and technologies of representation.
Following interviews with choreographers for the Australian Research Council funded research project on “transnational and cross-cultural choreographies in Australia” at Monash University from 2005 – 2009, it became evident to me that there were sophisticated, yet under-theorised, repertoires being created in Australian dance. Most of this choreography, however, receives little critical attention beyond the usual reviews or newspaper commentary in which a production or an artist is promoted in their few minutes of temporary celebrity. Academic attention has been restricted by the emphasis on practical training in most dance courses, and deeper consideration of the processes through which choreography, as a complex artform, stimulates thought or negotiates meaning are rarely discussed in public.
Taking the notion of trans- or crossing as a metaphor for transformation, or translation, between ideas and movements shaping choreographic practice, I have tried in the Trans/dance research project to consider how multiple kinds of subjectivity can be embodied or to examine how geo-political borders are exceeded imaginatively, through dancing.
In this issue of Brolga, therefore, I invited contributors to consider the ‘edges’ of contemporary choreography in Australia. If, we are to follow Victor Turner with his conceptualisation of the liminal and liminoid of performance genres, these edges of choreography might be thought of as an "interfacial region, or… an interval, however brief, of margin or limen, when the past is momentarily negated, suspended or abrogated, and the future has not yet begun, an instant of pure potentiality when everything, as it were, trembles in the balance." [[Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1982) excerpt reprinted in Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf, eds., Performance Analysis; An introductory coursebook (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 206]]
In my view, the edge might include a dancer’s proposition, a shifting of weight that could display a turning point, or accelerate the phrases of a transition. Or, it could be a spectacle that catapults into a form of chaos, or an improvisation that slows moving bodies into a kind of organic sculpture. At the edge of social processes, I see dance-making as a complex pattern-making that differs from personal habits and social rituals because set apart from the everyday. Even when it makes comment upon the world, dance is a form of liminal play. The aleatory techniques used by dancing bodies, and the temporal fragility of a dance event, are those edges of an experience that can cause an audience to shudder for a moment.
Liminoid phenomena, such as new approaches to choreography, are therefore fragmentary representations of these moments of potentiality, taking place at the edges of spaces or events, where things blur or some boundary is crossed. Like the artists at the threshold of the studio, or at the limits of performance, those who wish to write about choreography have to find ways to cross-over or make transitions between these ephemeral and material aspects of culture. I hoped that writers for this issue of Brolga might examine how choreographic practice relates to uncomfortable or alien spaces; or how a dance could expose the edges of embodiment.
On the other hand, writers might consider dances which reflect strange states of mind, or discuss choreography that comments on social, cultural or geographic edges. Given the diversity of ways of theorising choreography, I also welcomed approaches to writing on dance where the methods of research might extend to knowledges from other disciplines.
Most of all, I wanted to encourage the expansion of discourses on choreography in Australia so that dance interpretation could reach beyond that of the dedicated local dance audience, and in this respect, I am delighted with the subsequent contributions. Four of the articles discuss choreographers, in particular Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Garry Stewart, Lucy Guerin and Yumi Umiumiare, who have contributed to the Transnational Choreographies project, and therefore, in preparing this volume, I am particularly pleased to present this collection of theoretically sophisticated analyses of their work.
Jonathan Bollen’s discussion of Garry Stewart’s Devolution considers how our conception of kinaesthetic experience might be challenged by the co-existence of machines. With the burgeoning of robotics, or other forms of digital or electronic prosthetics that mimic human behaviour, he suggests the ‘collision and confluence’ of interactions with the non-human are increasingly under scrutiny. Bollen approaches Stewart’s choreography as a form of actor-networking between different kinds of agents, and suggests that although artists might have an aspiration towards a ‘post-humanist’ kinaesthetic, there is still a residual fondness for signs of the human.
Paul Mason’s approach to his research collaboration with the choreographer Elizabeth Cameron Dalman describes her choreographic processes as evidence of complex evolutionary systems. Drawing upon cognitive psychology for his key terms, Mason utilises an ethnographic method to participate in learning and shaping three choreographic works created by Dalman: the first is a reconstruction of her 1965 piece, This Train, and two more recent works created with young dancers which have reflected current environmental and social concerns. Mason suggests that his involvement in these works might provide neuroscientitists with methods to recognise the adaptability of cognitive processes involved in social interaction.
Melissa Blanco-Borelli offers a detailed analysis of Lucy Guerin’s approach to choreography, particularly in relation to The Ends of Things. Drawing upon the poststructural theory of Deleuze and Guattari, she suggests that this work explores the isolation and strangeness of a state of mind in which the normal behaviours of social belonging may not always be desired. Indeed, Guerin’s choreograpy with its peculiar alienation of the dancers’ bodies is also sensitively attuned to the potential of movement to instantiate feelings of uncertainty.
Further to the performance of alienation, Georgie Boucher mobilises postcolonial and feminist criticism to examine the ways in which Yumi Umiumiare’s eccentric performances blur the dance genres of cabaret and Butoh. Her hyperbolic posturings, both shocking and pleasurable, deliberately expose the stereotyping of the feminine in both Japanese and Australian popular culture. As Umiumiare manoeuvres across cultures and performance styles, according to Boucher, she also makes room for recognition of the interstitial subject whose identity belongs neither in one place nor another, and whose resistance signals another kind of performance.
Between these longer essays written by performance scholars, I have inserted Eleanor Brickhill’s reflections on a dance research project she conducted in Sydney with other collaborators. As both dancer and writer, she challenges the boundaries which constrain choreographic practice in different contexts and describes how her project ‘Fit’ tried to make conversations beyond the orders of pure dance, or those which privilege a particular hierarchy of forms. This mini-manifesto about 'taste' also raises other questions about working as a mature artist in contemporary dance culture, where established orthodoxies limit the edges of what can be seen.
Julie Dyson’s obituary for Hilary Crampton adds further significance to this volume’s concern with understanding choreographic practice through sustained critical engagement. As a dance colleague and critic, and fellow bush-walker, Hilary exemplified a resilience of spirit that inheres in many dance artists in Australia. She was forthright in her advocacy of dance, and choreographic invention, and committed to raising the profile of critical writing on dance.
Finally, I would like to thank Paul Mason, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Georgie Boucher, Melissa Blanco-Borelli, Jonathan Bollen and Eleanor Brickhill for working to such a tight timeline with their essays and Erin Brannigan and Susan Taylor for their book reviews. Also to thank Alan Brissenden with whom I kept up a peripatetic correspondence over the last year and without whose patient advice, this volume would not have been completed.