Studio and seminar

I believe we academics like to talk in dichotomies and dualities – despite all claims to the opposite and numerous attempts to transgress or even abolish them. Our second working day in Beijing has come and gone. The two days were filled, in the mornings, with watching the final rehearsals of works created by Asian (Chinese and Taiwanese) choreographers and those representing the European, London-based dance scene. In the afternoon we would shift, our stomachs agreeably filled with delectable Chinese food, to the seminar rooms, where we morphed from mere observers into ‘academics proper’: i.e. those who discuss, dissect, analyse, label and evaluate dance. Split into three groups, we defined and developed together an array of guiding questions for our upcoming conference on Sunday.

Word and movement

Given the proposed theme of our conference: “Exchange: Interpretation and Translation in Practices, Processes and Performances”, we naturally gravitated towards defining topics that underpin this theme. The relation (oh no, not duality!) between oral language and movement was one, though there was not (yet) time to discuss exhaustively what is after all a wide terrain. There is indeed a lot to say about this relationship, for instance about the choreographers’ decision to use, or not use, speech and voice-overs in their works; how this decision relates to aesthetic choices; and how these might in turn be associated or congruent with certain cultural and possibly political tenets. One could, as we cursorily did, address the relative scarcity of texts and writings on dance in the public domain (by choreographers, writers and critics) in comparison with the early 20th century when such texts abounded: see, for instance, the writings and conference contributions by and about the likes of Isadora Duncan and Mary Wigman.  This is despite attempts to unite the scholarly (didactic) and performative elements in recent formats such as lecture performances. (Nota bene: one can only identify or establish cross-currents if two entities are perceived to be separate in the first place).

However, when watching the rehearsals, I was more pondering the fact that we needed a lot of interpreters (i.e. help) to understand aspects of the works conceived by the Asian artists. This reminded me of the claim, so often advanced by modern dancers, that dance is a universal language. I was always very suspicious of this view, and a scene from a TV programme broadcast in the UK or New Zealand came to my mind, in which a British family spent several weeks with the Himba tribe from a region in Northern Namibia which has a very harsh desert climate. When the teenage daughter of the British family gave a sample of Scottish highland dancing to their African hosts, they exclaimed: Oh, look, she’s dancing a grasshopper! This clearly gives rise to questions of the opportunities for, and limitations of, cross-cultural understanding through and in dance.


One thought on “Prologue

  • Thanks for the image of the grasshoppers Alex. All I can see now are insects in kilts!

    I’m pondering two things in response to your thoughtful post though. Firstly, whilst I share your suspicions about presumptions to the universality of dance (or indeed, of just about anything!), I’m not sure that I’m quite willing to go entirely in the opposite direction, and accept the view that there is no understanding without language. In ecological psychology, the theory of affordances suggests that visual perception is in itself a way of knowing how to get about in a given environment, and of what to do with the one’s body relative to the objects in it. We wrap our attentions around the things that we see, and have a kind of knowledge of them in doing so – we know something of their shape, texture, density and so on. When we watch dance, we also know something of weight, line, speed and so on in the same way. That attention is of course often an educated one, and one which is shaped by culture, but equally its faculty of binocular bipeds evolutionarily shaped towards making correlative movements with other binocular bipeds. Now, it may be that how I matrix the movement i watch into wider concepts that are culturally contextual, differ from those of others predisposed to another matrixing, but I don’t see that the meaning is only given in language tied to cultural context. I know that that is a riff off what you have been writing, but, as I said, it’s made me ponder!

    The second pondering relates to your nota bene. There’s an echo of the uncertainty principle in your suggestion. We can look at flow, or position, but not both at the same time. You’re also probably right I think, in suggesting that we can only consider separation if we identify what it is that is separate. However, this is sort of the default of so much critical analysis, and I worry that it misses out what it in between. To gloss Brian Massumi, the flight of an arrow is not described by identifying its starting or end points, or any loci on its trajectory between them. Its flight is not reducible to these static locations. It necessarily exceeds all of them, and encompasses them at the same time. So much of my experience here thus far, as it was in Taipei, has been about ‘excess’ (and I use the word advisedly) – the excess of expectations, of the places people thought they were going to find themselves in, or of the language or concepts which we thought would be fit to describe what has happened. It interests me greatly that this is often at the level of mundane detail as it is at that of grand concept. The two are intimately related. How might we write this excess I wonder?

    The grasshoppers and I are dancing a Classical Contemporary Scottish Ceilidh…

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