From grandes changements to grand narratives

In This Article


This address was accompanied by the screening of several sequences filmed by Sue Healey at the Australian Choreographic Centre (ACC) in Canberra in 2004. The subject of the sequences was the Quantum Leap Choreographic Youth Ensemble, a group of over 50 young people mainly between the ages of 14 – 18 years. The filmmaker’s work was part of an investigation into audience responses to contemporary dance. 1]] The film, Quantum Leapers, is now one of the publications resulting from the research. It was screened by the Australian Broadcasting Commission on its Sunday Afternoon arts program in September 2005. The film shows in vivid images how the nature of early experience in dance may influence lifelong attitudes to thinking about the art form of dance and how issues of importance to young people can be explored through its practice. Other relevant information and acknowledgements not included at the time of the conference are now included in the endnotes. 2

The main concern of this address is to draw attention to disparities that divide and exclude but that can be re-imagined to include the necessary relationships between artists and communities in daily dance experience. The connections between disciplines is a natural corollary and has led me to think about larger paradigms that could help us to articulate the relationship between dance practices, the audiences we hope to engage and the sources of support we hope to influence. My several references to an address given by Professor Iain McCalman at a National Press Club luncheon on 16th June 2004 are included here as they relate specifically to this concern and to other issues regarding research in the humanities, creative arts and social sciences. I also quote liberally from my valued colleague, Dr Catherine (Kate) Stevens of MARCS Auditory Laboratories at the University of Western Sydney.

The address

I have it on the best-written authority, and I know from personal experience, that a grande changement is a very small change in the position of the feet. What is unusual, and perhaps ‘grande’ about this little piece of information is that the change is accomplished by an extremely difficult leap into the air while touching the toes of each foot together and simultaneously keeping the knees relentlessly facing in opposite directions. Note how much more time it takes to describe the action than to do it. I use the image metaphorically of course and because we all know that highly complex actions in dance can involve the entire body in an intricate web of relationships that may take only split seconds to perform.

Such actions can be almost beyond verbal description and a simple demonstration can be more enlightening than a hundred words. My colleague Dr Kate Stevens has referred to this phenomena in relation to her own discipline. "Psychological theory", she said, "tends to focus on verbal communication and spoken language, on perception of static visual images. Contemporary dance as a psychological phenomenon defies this: it is temporal, spatial, auditory, visual, rhythmical, kinaesthetic, tactile, affective, non-verbal…yet communicative." In our early exchanges both Kate and I found our research vocabularies inadequate to the task of communication across the barriers of our discrete disciplines.

Kate has described a conversation between herself and the dance researchers at the beginning of their collaboration:

I remember having dinner with Robin (Grove) and Shirley and spending most of the meal designing different behavioural experiments on the fly—trying to articulate a question that I knew I could address and answer using the tools of experimental psychology. I discovered that Shirley, Robin and most dancers and choreographers were not in the least bit interested in ‘proving’ the existence of phenomena they knew about. For example, aspects of spatial memory, working memory, mental imagery (e.g., if choreographers’ memory is temporal and spatial and they manipulate moving images in memory then interfering with that process should impede their ability to create new phrases of material – yes; an obvious point). 3

The research undertaken by the Conceiving Connections team 4]] has revealed much about the relationship between processes and the systems that support them. My work with a specialist from the social sciences has shown me how much there is to learn about the way we communicate what we know and value about dance to those who have little understanding or even an acquaintance with our art form. I might just as easily have called this address ‘From the Cosmos to the Twitch’ because that is where Kate and I started over five years ago. I was interested in theoretical paradigms that could explain how ideas relate to one another—such as in the enormous multitude of factors that may contribute to creative processes in dance. Kate was interested in finding ways to measure one of these factors at a time. We have both come a long way since those early days of trying to understand disciplines not normally a part of our daily experience.

Well, the real subject of this address is the connections that can be found between the experience of the Quantum Leapers and the National Research Priorities announced by our Prime Minister in December 2002. Most of you will know that there are four and they prioritise research in relation to the environment, health, security and technology for industry. All worthwhile categories, but no mention of anything that relates to our understanding of ourselves, our human hopes and dreams or our place in this increasingly violent world. I guess this is where the grand narrative comes in.

The grand narrative as the big picture

There is a sense in which great works of art are transparent, one can see right through what appears to be there, to whatever lies beyond, to a more enlightened reality. The whole idea that the mind is capable of perceiving the complex totality of the world comes from art. 5

The notion of a complex totality suggests the big picture, the grand narrative if you like. I use this term in a positive sense rather than the pejorative sense it has acquired via cultural theory over the past three decades. For many of us it’s the experience of dance as a powerful force in our lives, a different way of knowing and understanding the world. I am drawn to this larger story and our research has demonstrated the significance of connections in a small dance ensemble as well as in the personal subjectivities from which larger wholes emerge. The significance of a ‘community of creative minds’ 6 has become ever more apparent as our research has progressed over the past five years. The reflections of the dance artists and the cognitive psychologists were at first worlds apart but in time we began to draw on theoretical models that emphasised synthesis and patterns of meaning. 7 Our attempts to encompass the worldviews of both disciplines soon gave rise to new ideas dependent for their genesis on the thinking embraced by yet other disciplines—the sciences of dynamical systems, evolution and emergence.

The Darwinian paradigm

As a dance artist and scholar my understandings and my vocabulary were tuned by years of practice. I could acknowledge my debt to history and take dance ideas for granted—I guess most of us do but I was also interested in the broader concepts opened up by our research: ideas that have originated in the sciences and which offer insights into creative processes and practices in the arts. For instance—some contemporary thinkers in philosophy and evolutionary biology claim that a pertinent application of Darwinian thinking to human issues can illuminate concepts of mind, language, knowledge and ethics: 8 I was excited by the ideas suggested by the contributors to The Third Culture 9 and wondered if these might provide a new framework for thinking about dance and particularly about dance-making. I wondered if Darwin’s ideas on the origin of species might enable us to reframe and expand our thinking on the evolution of ideas in dance and the other arts.

Evidence of all our recent studio research suggests that they do and I have written about these matters in other papers including one that will be published later this year. 10 Together, Kate and I have come a long way and the path has been illuminated by the work of all the dance artists who have joined our research team as research assistants (the dancers) or research associates (the choreographers and filmmakers) who have made their working methods so open to investigation and analysis.

I would like to pay special tribute here to choreographers Anna Smith and Sue Healey who have developed processes which show a genuine concern with the notion of inclusiveness. These processes have ensured that many ideas have been drawn from the dancers who have been acknowledged as fully collaborating artists. While this is not unusual in current contemporary practice their work has raised many questions about the role of the dancers as inventors and interpreters and of the choreographers as conceivers and masters of structure. Both Sue 11 and Anna 12 have won important awards for the work undertaken as part of the research. Without the full collaboration of all the artists involved the research could not have taken place.

While these matters are of significance in the world of dance we know that the larger worlds of tertiary education and the dance profession are encompassed by politics and economics in ways that marginalise these more intimate concerns. We all know what these are and they have little to do with what we regard as the intrinsic values of dance as an art form.  Governments and funding bodies have other priorities and while they are all instrumental I think we ignore them at our peril. The question is how do we begin to address the priorities or, better still, to change them?

The Irish example

In Canberra less than three weeks ago (16 June 2004) Professor Iain McCalman, an eminent humanist, delivered a stirring address at the National Press Club prior to the launching of the new national association now known as the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences or CHASS. It was a plea for a fifth National Research Priority, one that focused on understanding Australia’s own history, society and culture. It also happened to be Bloomsday, a holiday he assured us, that in Ireland now extends from April to August with great economic benefits to everybody, especially to those in the tourism and entertainment industries—you get the drift.

Professor McCalman recounted the story. On the 16th June 1904, exactly one hundred years ago, an Irish Jew of Hungarian extraction called Leopold Bloom set off on a twenty-four hour perambulation around the streets and bars of Dublin. "This fictional incident" he said, "is the basis of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the greatest novel of modern times." It has also given rise to Bloomsday, a kind of Irish literary holyday celebrated in cities all around the world. "Bloomsday" he asserted "provides a perfect parable for why the Australian public and government should cherish our sector." (He meant the humanities, arts and social sciences as a whole). In Ireland, and similarly in New Zealand, enlightened government policies and support have made this happen.

How is it a parable? For a start, Bloomsday "shows us the serendipitous way that humanistic culture can bring economic benefits to a nation, or to use the jargon of our day, how it can produce commercial spin-off." James Joyce, he went on,

could not have imagined that his novel would one day generate festivals around the globe, as well as a swag of income for his country of birth. When he wrote the novel, just after the First World War, he was, as usual, desperately poor, and Ulysses didn’t have the look of a commercial goer. Not only was it one of the most unorthodox and intellectually demanding novels ever written, it was also bawdy enough to be banned in much of the western world.

Can we compare the art of dance with that of literature?

Dance and literature are two very different art forms. Homer’s ancient story of Ulysses, the intrepid wanderer, is around 2,700 years old—that’s the written version: the story was sung by ancient bards long before Homer’s time and has been a source of inspiration for countless tales, poems, paintings and films ever since, including Joyce’s famous reinvention. It is a grand narrative par excellence.

We in dance have nothing to compare with this. We know about the danced chorus that was an integral part of Greek tragedy some three hundred years after Homer but nothing remains to reveal the innate quality or style that for dancers is the kernel of knowing—in one’s bones and nerves and muscles. While modern digital technologies are remedying this for contemporary times our work remains ephemeral. We lack ways of referring to the grand narrative of our history because it can only be told in all its richness in the act of doing; in performance. I think the only way we can address this is to find ever more powerful ways to tell the story of our doing and what it means.

For most of us, the modest audiences attending short runs of live performances are at the heart of our practice and rightly valued. I believe, however, that we must increasingly look to the screen to give us the means of telling our story to the nation, to politicians and to others like ourselves. Our story is not in books it is in visual kinetic images. It must, of necessity, also reside in the kind of arguments that make sense to scholarly bodies like the Australian Research Council (ARC). In endeavouring to persuade the ARC that dancers were actually research assistants and choreographers were research associates who could be paid accordingly Robin Grove and I put it like this in our first application for a research grant in 1998.

Through its art-products, Australian dance presents images of national identity, some direct and consciously local, others indirect, metaphoric, abstracted. Dance is one of the ways in which a society communicates with itself and with other societies. Choreography is the point at which new articulations of identity are explored. At present, even within our most prestigious dance companies, choreography is often treated as a matter of putting steps together, a task usually assigned three or four weeks at most. While such efforts may then be given a costly, if short-lived production, Australian choreographers are seldom given time to explore, test, or revise their creations for the work is hardly ever treated as a form of thinking. A few choreographers less constrained by the terms of their commission, often take a year or more to complete a work, but the results are there for all to see. The works of Germany’s Pina Bausch, France’s Maguy Marin, America’s (and Germany’s) William Forsythe, and other such independent artists, last for years, touring internationally, and seeding new creations in other environments as well.

By contrast, the Australian dance-industry suffers a perpetual shortage of highly evolved new work; it is internationally uncompetitive, and its widely acclaimed performers have all too little material that can develop either them or their audiences. Universities, which now contain departments of dance, are uniquely positioned to work with the industry to advance the kind of knowledge, which will enrich and extend choreographic practice.

While this kind of argument may win research grants it won’t do for the economists or the politicians, so what will?

One reason that Ulysses is being so celebrated in Ireland today is because it embodies and represents the culture of an entire nation. It’s been said that if Dublin was to disappear tomorrow we could reconstruct its history, literature, music and architecture, piece by piece, from Joyce’s pages. Above all, Ireland’s values could be recreated: the country’s deepest hopes, fears and aspirations as they are felt in the bone.

Dances are not made of words and they cannot do this for us but we urgently need to be able to demonstrate why it is important to consider dance as a vital part of our own history, society and culture. Inga Clendinnen’s marvelous book about the arrival of the first fleet in Sydney Harbour in 1788 recounts how the ‘Australians’ and the British began their relationship by dancing together. 13 Not only does she tell of the connections that were made, she recounts how fragile they were when not nurtured. This is what books can do. We know that we also turn to things like books and films when a dance proves inadequate to the task of communicating to a wide constituency. There is, however, something about dance that nothing else can equal.

What we do have is an embodied memory, for we all carry the kinaesthetic traces of our teachers and mentors that we pass on in turn. Our grand narrative, for I believe there is one, is inextricably entwined with the history of our species and I would like to take a little time to recount it here for it is the story of our all too human responses to the impulses of our bodies, and the brains and minds which are part of them.

In his wonderful television series The Ascent of Man, (produced in 1973 and later broadcast on national television) the philosopher scientist, Jacob Bronowski spoke of the long evolutionary pathway from which our species emerged—the first recognisable characteristics in a creature that stood upright, had enhanced vision and reduced dependence on smell; a creature without canine teeth that foraged with its hands, not its mouth, over two million years ago. In the long journey from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens our species has evolved in a way that makes us less dependent on our environment than any other. The connections between movement and mind are central to this particular grand narrative.

The genesis of this story can be seen in the development of the human baby, a creature says Bronowski, that is part animal and part angel. It moves and kicks in the womb; the young brain responds—a reflex common to all vertebrates—it urges the baby to crawl and that lays down new pathways for the brain. This is part of a whole repertoire of subtle, complex movements that soon become second nature. All the brain has to do is issue the command and at fourteen months the command is to stand: a first step towards looking up to the heavens.

Bronowski asks "what are the physical gifts that humans must share with the animals and what makes them different?" He uses an athlete, a runner, as an example; "he looks like any creature in flight but what is experienced is not fear but exhilaration." 14 The runner, or the dancer, is like a child at play: the actions may make no practical sense whatever: the sprint for the finishing line, the grand changement and the grand jeté are good examples. The actions are not directed to present needs or urges: the dancer can experience a breathless freedom and in imagination may be the embodiment of a god, a sacred animal, a swan princess or just a boy of special courage in the face of danger. In all these things the dancer is powerful and disciplined. Human thought projects outward from the body with a physical force—"the stamp of humanity" says Bronowski, "is in the extraordinary connections between the agile body—the muscles of shoulder, pelvis and limbs, and in the intentional concentration of the mind."

Jason Franks from QL2 Dance (Canberra) being caught by Paddy McQuiggan.  Image from Quantum Leapers, a film by Sue Healey

Nowhere else in the animal kingdom is a creature so endowed with the capacity to change its environment so powerfully, so drastically. Imagination, reason, emotional stability and toughness have made this possible. It is cultural evolution, not biological evolution that has allowed this to happen, for better or for worse. And this, I believe is the kind of story that will make a difference if it is told in powerful images that ordinary people (read ‘not dance people’) can recognise as having something to do with their own experience—with their hopes and fears and dreams. Perhaps we must first ask ourselves the questions. Whose dances? What is their purpose?  How can we demonstrate the diversity of the dance experience and its power to enter individual lives in significant ways? What kind of dances can do this? Who will make them? What can we do to help?

Boys from QL2 Dance (Canberra) rehearsing. Image from Quantum Leapers, a film by Sue Healey. Choreographer, Darren Green is on the right.

And finally:

Our government has set four National Research Priorities to guide the funding of research into the future. They are

  1. An environmentally stable Australia
  2. Promoting and maintaining good health
  3. Frontier technologies for Australia’s industries
  4. Safeguarding Australia

Unfortunately, our sector was unable to win our plea for a fifth National Research Priority, one that focused on understanding Australia’s own history, society and culture. I believe that we, as a concerned sector of the dance community, urgently need such a research priority: one that asserts the importance of our humanity, our ability to transcend the everyday needs and urges, to imagine and work for a more humane future; for our children, our students and ourselves.