Choreographies of Writing
March 22, 2011
Reflections on “Choreographies of Writing”
by Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland
Editor’s note: Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland introduced each lecture prior to its performance by Dr. Susan Leigh Foster. Dr. Caruso Haviland was commissioned by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to write this series of commentary on each event and the discussions they engendered within in the context of Dr. Foster’s body of work. Unless otherwise noted, quotations are taken from the performed lecture. All images within the articles are stills extracted from the corresponding video unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Jorge Cousineau, 2012.
The Context and the Challenge
It all begins routinely enough with Foster, who at first demonstrates exquisitely proper behavior as an academic lecturer. Standing at her podium, quite restrained in her physicality, she deftly ticks off the several sites of theory and practice from which a new genre of writing, ‘performative writing,’ has emerged over the last decade and a half. This is writing that is not interested in replacing the act of moving or in accounting for every bit of meaning, but writing that, instead, seeks to enrich analysis by creating a text that enacts or mirrors the same sensual or dynamic form of the very action about which it writes. However, with phrases like “semioticization of the quotidian” and “theorization of authorship” and “implications of gestural pronouncements” flying, top speed, at us from her excellent rendering of a talking head, it is easy to worry whether this is a deliberately satirical take on disembodied academia or the laying out of important contextual information that I’ll need to follow in the lecture—or both.
She pauses and then ponders, slowly and deliberately—“HOW CAN I WRITE ABOUT THIS?” She takes off shoes, leaves the podium and starts a solo, let’s call this phrase A; segues into the same phrase A extended, stops mid-dancing… “I should end this.” Note 1
“This,” on at least some level, is the dancing. How can she write about this dancing? But, then, how can she dance about her writing as well? These are questions that Foster has been considering even as the notion of ‘performative writing’ was emerging, and these are the questions that she puts before us in this lecture.
Foster literally gestures two theoretical stances for us, as they are conventionally fixed in the dichotomy: reciting a list of the usual descriptives for dance while actually dancing them out before us in the space, she is, in fact, “mysterious, sudden and vital.” Seated at the desk, mid-stage, reading the written text, she exemplifies quiet, stillness and rationality. To push the separation further, she reminds us that in performance, meaning in dance evaporates as quickly as it is produced and performed, while writing results in a durable trace. Or does it? Actions say otherwise as she tosses away the page of text.
The rule of law in western intellectual history and practice is that performing and writing must be forever “radically different forms whose distinctness is paramount.” Whether this difference is determined by their very ‘natures,’ or by a desire to avoid cross-contamination or maintain power and status, will emerge as a continuing question throughout the lecture.
This is an interesting moment to pause and think this through for ourselves. What is lost, but what is gained or retained by saying that dancing and writing or moving and thinking are completely severed from each other? If dancing is utterly distinct from writing, the unique power of dance to communicate that which exceeds or cannot be articulated adequately in language is preserved. However, this could also render dance a non-cognitive, solely physical act, which strips it of status in any culture that devalues bodiedness.
But back to Foster: what other possible relations might she propose between performing and writing? Starting with similarity, she notes that performing and writing both require human bodiedness for their tasks. Performing and writing, she suggests, also participate equally in the production of signs that hold or generate meaning, and they equally absorb their significance from the cultural, social, historical moment in which each is at the same time “produced and/or received.” Writing and dancing overlap and participate in the generation of human meaning in ways that are equally of value. Dancing and writing are not identical but both are bodied and semiotic or meaning-making human actions. Foster actually wants it both ways—distinct and similar—or, rather, would like to blur persistent clear-cut and ranked categorizations, thereby ensuring the particular capacities of each while emphasizing their intimate relationship and their equal status.
Can any thing bring these together? Should anything bring these together? Does anyone care?
Foster first investigates whether “performative writing” might be a viable contender to bring writing and performance together into a functional, even productive, relationship.
Performative writing emerged from a renewed interest during the 1970s and ’80s in the human act of performance—on stage, in ritual, in everyday social interactions—an interest shared to greater or lesser extents among fields such as philosophy of language, cultural studies, theater studies, and performance art as it developed largely within the context of visual arts and media. Performative writing was meant to be influenced, in both its form and content, by the very modes of performance, on stage or in everyday behavior, that it sought to capture in text, shaping itself to some extent according to the rhythms, structures, acts, lapses, energy, trajectory, space, or purpose that marked the performances it observed, experienced, or analyzed. It was meant not only to reflect what was observed but also to be reflexive: in revealing itself as a historical and cultural action, in the sense of becoming aware of one’s own biases and stances, and in marking out the mutually influential relationship between observer and observed. Its very name, performative writing, held the promise that it could perform the miraculous task of mediating between performance and text.
Foster gives it a go. She first takes the six qualities offered by Della Pollock, a theorist in the areas of performance and cultural studies, to help delineate the practice of performative writing. Note 2 I list these in full because Foster not only explicates but performs them, establishing a movement theme that will reoccur during the course of the performed lecture. Let’s call this set of gestures phrase B.
Evocative: “evok[ing] the presence of the performance, now vanished”
hand to forehead, she throws her head back in a ‘dramatic’ gesture
Metonymic: “self-consciously different from that which it describes”
she jerks her elbow towards her torso in a sharp, cutting gesture
Subjective: “identifying the author’s own motivation for the writing”
she wrinkles her brow and lifts her hand to her forehead in a ‘thoughtful’ pose
Nervous: “in the sense of traveling synaptically across different fields of discourse”
she fidgets and jumps about percussively
Citational: “placing the writing amidst other writing, contributing, thereby, to a network of reiterating voices”
she repetitively ‘saws’ the air with her arm while she rubs her foot into the floor
Consequential: “productive not only of a new cultural artifact but also a new relationship to the reader”
she reaches out to embrace and bring in audience
Even as she moves and gestures, Foster wonders out loud just how effective this approach to writing might be in “suturing” together the stubbornly divergent acts of performing and writing, This is writing that, even as it allows itself to be shaped by the performance it seeks to communicate in text, is still often speaking about the performance. But does it acknowledge the capacity of the performance to speak, or to mean, all on its own?
Ironically, practitioners of dance, Foster among them, have long known that dance, in and of itself, is a site and source of meaning. She has construed dance, particularly choreography, as a sort of text in itself that could, through the body, write meaning and culture. But, then—and here is the problem and the challenge—how to write about a dancing body that was already, in some way, a writing that was already meaningful in itself…and, at the same time, undermine the long-held suppositions that the written text she was producing was the only real writing going on; that the writing could completely exhaust the meaning of this dance she was addressing? How to write or speak about the dance without silencing the dance?
It is here that Foster reminds us of two dynamics which reveal that the problem is not simply bringing performing and writing together as though they were two fraternal twins, separated at birth, delighted at the opportunity to hang out together again. First, the relationship between the two and the conceptualization of each has shifted and changed throughout history. Second, these shifts in the relationship and conceptualization of performing and writing are deeply political, that is, they are shaped by an unequal distribution of power. Performing and writing are paired in a dichotomy in which each half does not just define the other by its opposition but actually struggles with the other for dominance in a hierarchy of ranking and power. Dance’s relationship to writing is vexed by long-standing “hierarchical relationship[s] between the verbal and corporeal, the durable and ephemeral, and the mindful and the bodiful.” One of these will triumph and be crowned the correct, most valued, or only way to convey important knowledge and understanding: in a fight like this only one can win.
Thus, argues Foster, “the politics of performative writing is not only based on choosing what to write about or what to emphasize in writing about a given performance, it also concerns how the activity of writing is conceptualized in relationship to the activity of performing”—who’s on top? Can they meet in a mutual embrace?—and “how can that relationship be represented within the text?”
All this time, she literally wrestles with the podium, kicking it, pulling its weight onto her back as she crouches in front of it, and finally, standing and releasing it…and then arm wrestling with the podium light and, finally, climbing onto the podium…, wrapping around it…is it a struggle? exhaustion? an embrace?
The Task: Transforming Liveness Into Writing
Foster considers the power relations between performing and writing by analyzing three historical periods of dance criticism because it is this sort of dance writing, she proposes, that “foregrounds forces of control exerted by the verbal over non-verbal that have dominated performance scholarship over the last century.” Later, she will return to her earlier consideration about how theoretical frameworks might open up new ways of writing about dance and argue, as well, that the literal act of writing dance, i.e., choreo-graphy, is a kind of theory-making in and of itself that brings writing and dancing together.
To this end, Foster actually locates herself within the geography of the performance space she is sharing with the audience to metaphorically demonstrate the three vantage points from which nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics have located their writings with reference to the dance So…critics were or are seeing dance:
“at a great distance”
(She comes into the audience) Now, like the critic, she can observe the dance objectively, “providing the facts of the performance…or projecting an otherness onto the dance as a spectacle, fantasy, or diversion…appreciating the dance as a picture.”
“above the dance”
(She returns to the performing area and stands on the table) Now she stands above the dance, “tracking and capturing the dance, upholding standards, empathizing with the dance—but as an act of domination.”
“underneath the dance”
(She reclines on the floor) Now she is prostrate, “worshiping the dance but also peeking up the dancers’ skirts, while simultaneously lowering themselves into the capacity of amateur and admirer.”
Each of these critical positions has exercised a different sort of power over the dance and produces writing that is completely suffused with the politics of its act; but all of them, she claims, depend upon and regenerate sexual, class, or race politics, construed, with reference to dance respectively, as feminine, physical labor, or the ‘other.’ She elaborates:
- Dance suffers within sexual politics in which it “is gendered as feminine, in relation to a masculine writing.”
- Dance is ranked lower in the hierarchy of class politics in which it “is positioned as physical labor in relation to writing as intellectual labor.”
- Dance serves race politics in that “as exotic other, [it] invigorates or props up an exhausted yet dominant practice of writing”
Foster’s self-appointed task is to move beyond these to other relationships between performing and writing, which she does, accelerating her speaking and moving into a brisk, businesslike pace, turning first to new kinds of dance writing and then to choreography as a sort of writing that also embodies and demonstrates theory-in-the-making.
Foster’s earlier proposition that dancing is a sort of bodily writing is important on several levels. A body that has meaning and significance, a body that writes, “challenges the opposition between thinking and acting and gives body to the writer and the act of writing as well as to the performer.” The writer writes about dance body-to-body whether she wants to or not. She is a body writing. Dance and choreography present other instances of a body writing. Performative writing acknowledges the dynamics of this bodied duet and shapes itself to reflect the fact of the dance.
But Foster pushes further.
It’s not only that practicing some sort of writing that pays special attention to the body can do more justice to its power and significance; it’s that the body, in itself, is writing if we would only pay attention to and value what it is ‘saying.’ It’s not that there is one sort of writing that controls or contains its object of consideration. It’s not that there is some discursive lens, no matter how sympathetic, that will capture, replicate, or explain the dancing body. Instead, there are two bodied states of being—the dancing body and the bodied writer—and two writings going on—in performance and on the page. The important distinctions between performing and writing can be retained, Foster argues, but their mutual influence and complete parity must also be acknowledged.
She addresses the false dichotomy between writing and dancing by humorously performing an endless range of physical actions that accompany or are generated by what is generally thought of as the purely intellectual act of writing—fidgeting, squinting at imagined scenes, cracking knuckles, typing, shuffling papers, etc. This demonstrated bodiedness of the writer forces a first consideration of the possibility of an “equality between writing and dancing bodies.” Further undermining the theory/praxis split, Foster points out that both writer and dancer “labor to emit signs, to create a trace, and both undergo extensive training regimens in preparation for their work.” Although distinct in roles and purpose, they are more alike than some might imagine. But how, she asks, once the value of such a process is acknowledged, “can a writer make this equivalence evident in the writing”?
Foster then gives us examples of three writers who are committed to this bodied act of writing about the writing body. These acts of writing assume that their subject, dance, is an equal, and they allow themselves to be shaped by the very dancing that is experienced, observed, and considered. Each of the three writers represents a particular focus on or perspective from, in the order of Foster’s analysis, “the writer, the written or the written about.” The three writers are:
Lena Hammergren, who, using the persona of Walter Benjamin’s flâneuse, focuses on the bodiedness of the writer, using texts, images, and artifacts to recreate a past landscape and the body memory of those who traversed it. Note 3
Foster strolls the stage and observes
Marta Savigliano, who works out the friction between performing and writing about tango by staging that friction within the writing itself, empowering dance as both “a subject” of research and “a theoretical strategy of general use within cultural theory.” Note 4
Foster tangos along multiple pathways
Randy Martin, who takes his cues for content and structure from the dance itself, using the dance’s “organizational force”—its order, sequence, structure—as a “template” for ordering the writing and revealing, at the same time, that the structure of the dance is a series of theoretical decisions that the choreographer has made. Note 5
Foster goes into the audience, gathering someone’s coat, backpack, and other item, which she proceeds to order and reorder on the table
Foster refers to these writing-about-dance devices as choreographic devices, and she admits and does not apologize for the fact that they may not generate ‘objective,’ straightforward, linear, fact-filled accounts of the dancing. Instead, the writers “invest their dance with as much physicality as they can be thought to muster…treating their own dancing bodies as a partner to their own writing bodies.” She notes that there are other theoretical perspectives on performance that “stress the inability to reconstitute its presence” and even define and value performance around these notions of loss, disappearance, and absence.
While acknowledging the presence of absence in performance, however, Foster clearly finds theories that focus on absence less fruitful, preferring the writers whom she has presented who “assume the disparity between the verbal and danced, not only accepting the fact of dance’s disappearance but celebrating the opportunity to resurrect it on written page.” The writers whom Foster admires as models neither “mourn the dance’s absence” nor immobilize the dance under the microscope of theory, and they don’t return from the field of performance to neatly write up their observations. Instead—and this, says Foster, is “a crucial distinction” from performance studies view of writing as “a mediation between performance and text”—these dance writers acknowledge the writing that is dance and labor to bring the dance into their writing; they are willing to let it disrupt that process, to allow the dance or dancing to choreograph the writing itself.
By now, she is under the table on her back pushing the table up and down with her feet…the table isn’t moving on its own, the site of writing is not the site of some Cartesian ghost in the machine…the dancer, the bodied writer, moves and shakes the site of making…or maybe she’s just shaking things up in general…or maybe she means something else entirely?
Continuing her effort to establish parity between performing and writing, Foster shifts from her focus on the supposition that writers choreograph texts to the proposition that choreographers write dances.
Throughout this lecture Foster has been striving to bring writing and performance into a relationship of parity. This is not easy in the face of both a cultural history and theoretical practices that devalue bodiedness and that construe dance primarily as spontaneous, or as a reservoir of the mysterious or unspeakable, or merely as a skill-driven physical movement practice, all conspicuously mute and lacking the spine of text. Foster, therefore, turns to the action of choreography as the source, and the force, of signification. It is in the making of a dance that sense is first made. The critical and reflective, used after the fact to evaluate or analyze the meaning or significance of the creative work, are always and already at work, tacitly in the dynamics of intuition, imagination, and making, and explicitly in the micro-processes of reflection and critique that are ever part of the creative cycle. The making of a dance is also the making of theory.
Thus, although she enumerates the valuable contributions that performers do make to the process, she does so, in part, to argue difference, and embarks on a short but pointed project to distinguish choreography from performance.
She launches into an expanded variation of her very first movement phrase A from the beginning of the lecture, all the while reciting the various considerations, decisions, acts that a performer makes. These include, among others, personalizing the movement, making important decisions about style and execution, and “calculating the effect” of the movement on the audience and “calibrat[ing]” as needed. Dancers/performers may even be called upon to contribute movement and gesture. But, Foster insists, this “does not alter the distinctiveness of the roles.” The dancer performs in response to movement that is already generated, and by asking questions that are primarily generated by “how should I?” In contrast, it is the choreographer who has devised the movement, the spatial and bodied relationships that Foster believes “implement a set of representational codes and conventions through which identity—corporeal, individual, and social—is constructed.” To illustrate this difference, Foster shifts from lecture text to bodied text.
She repeats expanded phrase A—indicating the more ‘thoughtful’ attention the dancer might give in the learning and rehearsing of a dance. She verbalizes with each gesture the inner investigation, the trained impulse:
“how shall I phrase this section?…provide more contrast? What additional strength do I need to enhance the execution?”
She repeats expanded phrase A, again as a dancer, making visible and audible the short sensory, kinesthetic, and conceptual responses and decisions that drive each movement or gesture on the spot, so to speak:
“Exhale to release the leg,
Keep the spine fluid…
Curl in the fingers…
Send the energy on clearly defined paths”
and so on…
But now she adds phrase B, those gestures she used much earlier on to evoke the qualities of performative writing, and overlays these gestures with a new script:
“Approach each action as if it was an old friend…Make direct eye contact”
as she does exactly that
She repeats expanded phrases A and B, speaking this time in the voice of the choreographer. The motional and structural decisions she follows, as they move out from bodied consciousness into and through her spoken voice, now seem to be grounded in questions about meaning or import: about the movement’s impact, about kinesthetic and aesthetic judgments, about its location among other arts or in a larger social, cultural, political world. Generating significance begins with the very shaping of each and every movement and with the placement of these within the larger structure or form. The informing voice resounds with strategy, inquiry, reflection, agency:
“Start with a burst and a balance to grab the viewer’s attention…
Redefine agency as the joints carving through space break with the action…
Insert a phrase from a different part of the dance so as to layer the dance with new meaning…”
Unlike the performer’s decisions that respond to work already made, to work generated by another which the dancer then inflects with individual style, interpretation, or approach, Foster argues that choreographic decisions produce original work that not only reflects the artist’s personal and idiosyncratic ideas, history, or values, but also both reflects and “activates” relationships with its social, historical, and cultural moment. Ever vigilant of the presence of power relations, Foster claims for choreography the ability (and the duty, perhaps?) to reveal and emphasize connections between “conventions of representation,” i.e., what and how the choreographer chooses to present/represent, and the “social and political structurings of power” that influence the choreographer and all of her decisions.
Choreography not only reveals but also “disrupts the traditional division of labor between verbal and non-verbal act.” If bodiedness marks both the act of writing and dancing, then choreography does so as well, and “offers a model of interaction between writer and dancer” from both sides of the performance site, while continuing to confer on each its own difference and “integrity.”
Writing about dance is, unavoidably, a bodily action and can or should be practiced as a kind of choreo-graphy, an intentional effort to move with and embody in the trace and text of writing that very dance to which it is attending. Choreography is, at the same time, a bodily writing that emerges from the physical facticity of bodiedness as it is shaped by and shapes culture and history on both individual and global levels. Choreography recognizes the semantic potential of human movement and acts on it. As Foster says in “Choreographing History,” “The theoretical…becomes embedded (embodied) within the practical decisions that build up, through the active engagement of bodies” in the making of each dance work. Note 6
All this while she has been dragging the podium and the table closer to each other; she lies on the table and drapes herself, as well, across the podium. It is a moment of repose that suggests that writing and dancing have finally reached an embrace or equilibrium, have come into a relationship of parity; but her final message suggests multiple responses and possibilities, of motion and flux.
“Thus,” she concludes, “writing, imagined as choreography, can create a duet with its subject, choosing from the many ways of moving with it…an approach to choreography that responds to the political exigencies of its historical moment.”
The first questions from the audience addressed Foster’s efforts or her theoretical need to distinguish choreography and performance from one another. The first questioner noted that this dichotomy doesn’t seem to exist in improvisation. The second worried that in striving to dissolve the false dichotomy in which writing and performance are both differentiated and ranked, Foster was creating her own in which the choreographer was the ‘brains’ of the operation and the dancer merely compliant with his or her demands. Both questions carried the critique that dancer and choreographer are more complicit with each other in the writing or making of the dance than Foster seemed to allow.
Foster responded by suggesting that performance and choreography do coexist simultaneously in improvisation, but for her purposes she still finds it useful to “distinguish the functions and role of each…with both thinking quickly on their feet.” She also agreed that the distinction between performance and choreography can only be pushed so far, but wanted to retain the ability to differentiate between the two, albeit as a strategic move rather than one that can actually be accomplished. In dance, Foster asserted, choreography is the “evidence trail “of the acts of explicit or tacit conceptualizing that create and structure the bodied performance. Retaining choreography as a distinct practice, even just provisionally, could thus be pedagogically useful, helping students or viewers of dance “to understand the choreography as a record of decisions being made,” so that they could, consequently, “better understand the argument that the dance is making.” But she also argued that focusing on choreography as an organizing and theoretical activity governing performance could rectify the oversight and undervaluing of dance even within what might be taken as a more sympathetic theoretical arena of performance studies (in which its theorists still ironically turn to text as an organizational force even as they tout performance as the dynamic template for creative acts). Note 7
The process of writing about dance and the process of making a performed lecture were also of interest to the audience. Foster first responded to a request to further clarify or reiterate how the three dance writers she mentioned sought to have their writings reflect the dancing that they were observing or analyzing, their own subjectivities, or their surrounding communities. She explained that Lena Hammergren focuses on herself as a bodied writer, reimagining the physical experience of wandering through Stockholm’s 1930 exposition which she had reconstructed from the archives of text, photos, etc. Marta Savigliano wrestles between her Argentinian identity and dancerly identity and her first-world theoretical training to talk about tango, and discovers that the tango dances back, pressing her to make a text that is set with interruptions and different positionings of her self throughout text. Martin analyzes notions of economy and the global in relationship to choreographer Bill T. Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/Promised Land (1990), but uses the four sections of the dance to structure his four sections of writing. Foster also referred to Thomas F. DeFrantz’s work on Alvin Ailey, pointing out that he uses the act of the ‘break’ in his text, reincarnating it on the page as a sort of homage to Ailey. Note 8
As to the performed lecture, Foster confided that it was made with a very stuffy academic audience in mind, many of whom would be made quite nervous by her moving or approaching them in the audience. She enumerated some of her motives and strategies, including starting as a static and immobile body behind a podium dishing out paragraphs dense with polysyllabic words and then moving on to problematize the speaking/moving relationship, setting text and movement in relationship to each other while having the body doing two things simultaneously, multiplying complexity. She was trying to create a sort of “polyrhythmic and not obvious relationship” among these elements, ready to “erode or undermine” our expectations and create the possibilities of multiple readings.
But most of the questions centered on the relationship of language or text to dance—its function, power, and legibility. While no one implied that analysis or interpretation or any other processes that sought to discern and communicate the meaning of a dance were counterproductive, the question still arose about the “unsayable” aspect of dance. Is there too much emphasis on language; should we, as one question posed, just try “to understand the language of choreography in the language of choreography and not try to translate it”? Foster quickly assured that no piece of writing can ever be the final “certification of understanding” or the “ultimate arbiter of reality.” It is, instead, “another form of putting an argument forward.”
Throughout the performed lecture Foster has striven to remind us that the writer is bodied and that the text emerges from a physical act of writing. But as she has demonstrated, dance, too, is a text that emerges through the body. Like a text, dance conveys bodied meaning that we can read and conceptualize; but dance also, as will become clear in Foster’s third lecture, can be read, though in mediated ways, body to body. In answer to a question about the one-way flow from the dance towards scholarship, she admits that this has been her battleground for nearly four decades, and she will continue to focus on how one writes about dance.
But while Foster has built her intellectual career on the foundational belief that we can, in fact, say something about dance, she does not intimate that what we say could possibly exhaust all the meanings that dance or a dance can have. Further, she has in the lecture voiced her concerns about the how of writing, its structure and its relationality to dance—i.e., in a culture that values word and text over body and gesture, won’t that very saying and writing about dance replicate this same inequality of status? Foster, instead, utilizes writing strategies that work to undermine a hierarchy in which language has power over dance.
Foster’s entire performance in this lecture has been an attempt to disrupt the accepted notions of how the “activity of writing is conceptualized in relationship to the activity of performing and how that relationship will be represented within the text,” in part through understanding that the dancing body is a “signifying agent” as powerful and valid as any text. Dance and text are not identical, but Foster wants them to be placed into relationships of equivalence and equality. She modeled this by performing the lecture, and reminded us that people are “doing theory” when they are making dances in the studio as well as when they are sitting at computers writing about dance.
She also cautioned that, while maintaining distinctions is important, if we focus on how different dancing and speaking about dancing are we “run risk of turning the dance into an ‘unspeakable’ other, so different from everything else” that any communication about it becomes impossible. And here Foster reminded us of a continuing motive for her work that will be amplified in the third performed lecture. To what extent and why we insist on sameness or maintain difference is always a question of power—politics motivates one or the other—and she insisted that we must always keeps searching out and interrogating that dynamic.
Last to be considered in the Q & A was the contested issue of what kind of language should be used to talk about dance, an issue not inseparable from intent or intended audience. Although one audience member urged practice in the reading of texts, likening it to acquiring language, other questions ranged from the inquiring to the skeptical. “What if,” asked one questioner, “the dancer says to the scholar, ‘I can’t apprehend what you do’?” “What if,” asked another, the language makes the dancer feel “anxious or stupid”? While these questions stem from what can be perceived as the density of Foster’s theoretical language or her use of academic or intellectual terminology, one questioner used these characteristics to categorize her language as theory or scholarship for an elite readership, setting it off from dance criticism, and implying that the conventional language of dance criticism was more intelligible to a general public.
Foster has long fought the stereotype of the mute or intellectually incompetent dancer and restated her case here. Although fully committed to both bodied significance and bodied reception of dance, she wants “to confront the mystique imposed on or adopted by dancers that they can’t or shouldn’t comprehend conceptually or linguistically dense dialogue or conversation about dance because they are supposed, instead, to be extra sensitive or intuitive about what they do.” She followed this by stating that she saw nothing wrong with adding more challenging language to the mix. Foster pointed to shifts in focus and styles of writing arising from personal intent, a proliferation of serious web-based venues, and practices of critical writing abroad that do not eschew the theoretical, all of which have rendered the boundaries between criticism and scholarly writing more porous in recent years.
Foster speculated that the online world might “produce more discerning readers who demand a more fulsome writing about dance.” Challenged again on this issue of readability, she insisted that her writing always came from the dancing because dancing “presses you into writing differently and it always, always, makes you incredibly aware that you are writing and how it is that you are writing: you cannot not pay attention to that. And if you care about trying to create some kind of connection between writing and dance then you’re really going to try to use words that come from the dancing and try to find those equivalents and let the dance speak to you.” She argued that she wants to be accessible and works towards that, but also claimed her right to a “precision” of language in order to make certain kinds of arguments—and expressed her desire to pursue an agenda targeting academics in other disciplines, who have no interest in acknowledging the power and validity of dance as a locus of human signification.
Next: “Kinesthetic Empathies & the Politics of Compassion”
- Italicized sections present the author’s perception of and commentary on Foster’s movement, gesture, and choreography which, throughout the performed lecture, were interwoven with the delivery of the read text. Back to article
- Pollock, Della, “Performative Writing,” in The Ends of Performance, ed. Phelan, Peggy., et al. (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 73–103. Back to article
- Hammergren, Lena, “The Re-turn of the Flâneuse,” in Corporealities, ed. Susan Leigh Foster (New York: Routledge, 1996), 53–69.Back to article
- Savigliano, Marta, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (Boulder: Westview, 1995). Back to article
- Martin, Randy, “Overreading ‘The Promised Land’: Towards a Narrative of Context in Dance,” in Corporealities, ed . Susan Leigh Foster (New York: Routledge, 1996), 177–98. Back to article
- In Choreographing History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 15–16. Back to article
- Author’s note: From her earliest work, it has been choreography for Foster—as work that is consciously created, structured, and imbued with bodied meaning and expression that can exist in its own right, separate from the choreographer, put out into the world to be perceived and read—that has been a locus of her conceptual work. There is no dance without the dancer, of course, and Foster bases all of her work on the undeniable physical fact of the dancing body. But, while the dancer has agency, in that she must make decisions in order to carry out the decisions of the choreographer, it is possible to see these as sort of second-order decisions. Important as these may be, Foster explains, they focus on the bodied enactment of someone else’s plan. Choreography, on the other hand, might be more easily understood to be the creative work comprised of the originating ideas, structural choices, intentions, and reflections of a personal, social, political, or cultural nature.
Additionally, during the Q & A, Foster acknowledged that she differentiated between choreography and performance, in part, to challenge those “theorists or artists or academics [who used] ‘performance’ in an unexamined way” while completely ignoring the work that has already been done in dance studies around issues of performance. For Foster, choreography operates at a level of intentionality that considers more broadly and deeply the context and implications of performance. This, she suggests, is something that choreographers and dance scholars alike have known and acted on long before performance studies theorists latched onto performance as their key and christened themselves as offering the viable model for understanding human behavior. So Foster’s strategy is understandable. But does this strategy of clearly demarcating boundaries between performing and choreographing result in the construction of yet another hierarchical binary? Does she need to circle back and find a way of bringing these into parity as well? See Foster, “Choreographies of Gender,” in Signs 24.1 (1998): 1–33. Back to article
- Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004). Back to article