Concluding reflections on
Susan Foster! Susan Foster!
Editor’s note: Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland introduced each lecture prior to its performance by Dr. Susan Leigh Foster. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage commissioned Dr. Caruso Haviland to write these commentaries on the events, and the discussions they engendered, within the context of Dr. Foster’s body of work.
As with any performance, Susan Foster’s series of performed lectures is open to critique. Trying to process the complex of text as it comes flying towards you, sometimes dense with theory, always in a shifting relationship to gesture, is not easy. How to hold onto or recover or instantly integrate the multiple elements occupies at least part of the energies and attention of viewers. Although Foster indicated that she works to make all the competing or complementary elements of the performed lecture accessible, she also aims to put forth a multiplicity of discursive and gestural meanings, further complicating the reception of the work. Nevertheless, she is a provocateur. The text confounds the non-academic viewer’s expectations for performance; the performance confuses, even alarms, the academic awaiting the lecture.
Foster’s performed lectures gather together and physicalize the processes of seeing, doing, reading about, writing about, and thinking about dance—forcing the viewer to confront them all at once, in the same time and space, which is sometimes frustrating, sometimes illuminating. These performances are meant to disrupt both common notions and revered practices on stage and in the lecture hall, so it may be worth it to grab what sense you can from the words and the movement and just run with it.
Despite her stated motives, reasoned claims, and thorough answers to queries and challenges in both the lectures and Q & As, I could still quibble or outright argue with some of her points in various lectures—for example, the retention of phallus in the first lecture and the strict delineations between performer and choreographer in the second. The exchanges during the Q & As made clear that viewers had their own questions and arguments as well. However, rather than a critical dissection, what follows is an overview of the lectures highlighting what emerged as the consistent and important points through the motional and discursive texts of all three.
It is always about dance/It is never just about dance
Susan Foster is a dance historian. This identity and how it plays out in her choreography of writing and performing was noted in my introduction to the lectures. It is by looking not only at dance as a present-day art form but also in the past that she can construct a sufficiently broad terrain of meaning with which to make sense or use of what is before us in the present. But the impact of these performed lectures goes beyond using history as a lens for analyzing the dynamics of the now; they also present the practice of dance history as a field or discipline that is reimagined, bodied, and vitalized.
In her second lecture Foster performed the writer sitting quietly, supposedly disengaged from body while engaged in the intellectual work of generating verbal and written signs. In her other writings, she has specifically addressed the acquisition of this posture within the discipline of history. Historians, she says, are trained to stand apart from that which they research, to speak with “transcendental certainty,” to refrain from “[affiliating] with their subjects,” and to acquire the “practice of stillness…a stillness that masquerades as omniscience.” Instead, Foster moves towards a practice of history in which her body “wants to consort with dead bodies, wants to know from them: What must it have felt like to move among those things, in those patterns, desiring those proficiencies, being beheld from those vantage points?” Note 1 As a scholar who researches the vital, moving body, she, herself must remain vital and move.
As a historian, Foster encourages and supports a dancer in understanding where she or he comes from as a dancer, what dance has been to others before her or him. She does this not by privileging one ‘true’ view of the past but by reconstructing a researched landscape layered with historical, geographical, and cultural ‘facts.’ She then ponders motional possibilities that these facts might suggest and offers some theoretical or conceptual tools to dig more deeply. Moving and thinking and writing and speaking, Foster invites the reader or viewer to move through and work through the ideas, to imagine and consider what and why his or her alter ego in another time and space may have been thinking, feeling, dancing.
In becoming familiar with past instantiations of dance and dancing, the pressure of historical, social, and political circumstances on its form, practice, reception also become visible. This is the second point that reemerges again and again in Foster’s work. Whether through explicating the sexualization and commodification of the ballerina in the first lecture, through redefining and reconfiguring relationships between writing and dancing in the second, or through calling to our attention the socio-cultural construction of the empathetic relationship in the third, Foster reminds us that dance, and how we speak and write about it, is always grounded in political dynamics. To attend to the politics of the dancing body, for example, would remind us that even as we are seduced by the beauty of the pas de deux, we should understand how gender and even class and race play out in it.
By attending to the politics of writing and dancing Foster examines the hierarchical relationship and “conditions of inequality” between the two. In both cases, it is not just about what is formed, the dancer’s body or the written dance text, but the conditions of forming, and the value and status each carries within a given culture and historical period. Writing, for example, that foregoes any reciprocal relationship and, instead, is constituted as speaking for or in place of the dance, consigns dance solely to the realm of the mute and shores up the same mind/body dichotomy that has consistently, in western culture, undermined the status and power of dance as an agent of signification or change.
In two of the three lectures, the political ramifications of dichotomizing sameness and difference emerge as a particularly critical point. In lecture 2, as we have seen, Foster maintains that dancing and writing or speaking about dance should exist in a dynamic relation of parity. Focus too strongly on how similar they are and you erase their important differences. Focus on how different they are and you risk cutting dance off completely from language. Nothing could be said or written about it or about its meaning or significance.
Importantly, Foster suggests that an analysis of the extent to which difference or sameness is maintained will reveal that “politics motivates one or the other” and provide clues to underlying structures of sociopolitical power. What are the political dynamics of this choice? She reminds us that “you always have to keep asking that question.” In lecture 3, the difference/sameness dichotomy plays out in the construction of the empathetic relationship as “a political decision, the choice to affiliate with either sameness or difference to the exclusion of the other.” And, she says, the “choice[s] towards sameness, denying difference” or “towards difference, denying commonality” are never fully consciously or freely chosen in unmediated ways; they always respond to the “political exigencies of the social.”
Understanding how dance is located in relation to the political informs us about power and status with reference to the very basis of our humanness, the moving, conscious body, and by extension to everything deemed bodied within a culture, from gender to class to race. And this political consciousness is one element that makes Foster’s work so vital. Dance is not merely decorative or entertaining, not just an escape from the real into the beautiful and fantastic, although it can be that as well. Dance is lived, it is vital, it is a locus of meaning; it shapes and is shaped by culture, it has power and it carries consequences.
Certainly, in a lecture series, one must pay attention to the use of language. Even a performed lecture is composed of ideas and arguments spun out in words and phrases as well as gestures. Foster’s use of and attitude towards language can be considered on several interrelated levels, among them its function in writing/dancing, the influences and sources that shape it, its complexity, its intended audiences, and its implications and impact in the world.
Speaking language and writing language are not the same act and it is misleading to conflate them. Speaking language and performing dance are not the same either. Foster wants to maintain these distinctions but also wants to show where there is overlap that should ensure parity among these modes of communication and expression. Foster insists, for example, that the writer is utterly bodied, whether or not the writer attends to or utilizes this bodied state of being while writing.
Foster also insists, as well, that our bodies have all of the semiotic power of writing and texts. In moving, we generate a plurality of meanings and become a locus of signification and meaning, tracing these in time and space. This is why Foster favors a dance writer who is both convinced of the power of dance to shape the language that tries to capture it and committed to a writing that works in partnership or dialogue with the dance. This writer, explains Foster, choreographs her writing, taking on the conceptual but always through the urgent presence of the body moving in time and space, moving in the social, and moving in the historical moment. As such, Foster argues, dance is a bodily writing, and the deliberate structuring of dancing, i.e., choreography, is an act of writing dancing that parallels the written text in its capacity to signify, to activate conventions of representation, to construct identities, and to present ideas, feelings, and values.
The styles and approaches to writing/dancing, whether texts or choreography, are multiple. As Foster proposed, “writing, imagined as choreography, can create a duet with its subject, choosing from the many ways of moving with it.” There are some who accuse Foster and other dance scholars of using language that is too obtuse for the everyday dancer and reader, either deliberately—to set themselves apart as members of an elite intelligentsia—or carelessly—oblivious to the needs or reactions of everyday dancers and readers. Interestingly, this argument has played out in a broader public arena over the last ten years or so and continues to do so with distinct contingents facing off in journals, symposia, and the press.
On the one hand, there is the distrust of any language that is complex, often accompanied by charges of an overreliance on jargon, obfuscation, irrelevance, myopia, or deliberate elitism. On the other hand, there is a distrust of those accused of engaging in “dumbing down” language or succumbing to political pressures towards anti-intellectualism, as well as a resistance to giving up language that, by its very estrangement from everyday language, interrogates the status quo. One side holds the expectation that clarity and plain speech are most effective at conveying important ideas; the other, that rigorous intellectual work may be necessary before fully grasping important ideas.
George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” argued that an end to obtuse or other “bad habits” of writing would make room for clear thinking, “a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” Judith Butler, renowned postmodern scholar, in a New York Times op-ed piece defending herself after winning first place in a ‘bad writing’ survey, acknowledged the need for scholars “to clarify how their work informs and illuminates everyday life,” but warned that “such scholars are obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.” She cites twentieth-century thinker Theodor Adorno, who laments the ease with which the public circulates received opinion in an unexamined way: “only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable.” Note 2
This is an ongoing argument, but two things are clear. One is that language is powerful. Like every other human construct, but perhaps more so, it is shaped by but also shapes us, its users, often in ways that we do not notice. The second is that, once again, we are caught in a binary where the choices seem clear: we either use plain language that is accessible, informative, and doesn’t alienate the reader from our comments or propositions; or we find and use new language that best holds new and even revolutionary ideas and forces us to rethink what we have said and its relationship to how we have said it—even if this language is complicated, obscure, or off-putting. We can either fight this out within the field of dance or we can figure out how to learn one another’s languages. We can learn how to talk with one another, choosing both clarity and complexity, whether we are engaging with the richness of just one dancework or with the very important but often convoluted philosophical or social problems that dance forces us to confront.
In all three of her lectures and in her extensive body of writing, Foster makes it clear that she is interested in and committed to making her ideas—written, spoken, performed—accessible to her audiences. However, she also defends her right to play with and structure language so that it can, in fact, more specifically contain and communicate her ideas and her arguments. Foster does not hold back from the fact that she is going to make us work a bit to process all of the languaged ideas that confront us over the course of her lectures or in her many texts. And she seems convinced that reconfigured structures of writing and speaking can undermine their everyday sense and usage and actually force us to reframe and rethink the world differently.
This is evident all the more so in Foster’s lectures, in which written and spoken text is paired with a variable inventory of gestures and movement. “There is a place for that technical language that allows one to be more precise and to think more deeply into issues,” Foster argues, while adding, “only if that is important or of interest.” Not being interested is not, she explains, equal to being dumb. Anyone making that accusation from any side of the argument is only sustaining the false mind/body dichotomy that “keeps smacking dance down” (Q & A, lecture 1).
Foster’s writing does not seek complexity solely to identify itself as erudite. In addition to its need to hold arguments, it takes its shape, as noted above, from the dance itself. Foster’s writing always originates in her participation in or observation of the semiotic and physical power of dance which forces her, in turn, to structure and phrase her writing to reflect her experiential as well as conceptual engagement. “The act of writing about bodies […] originates in the assumption that verbal discourse cannot speak for bodily discourse, but must enter into ‘dialogue’ with that bodily discourse. The written discourse must acknowledge the grammatical, syntactical, and rhetorical capacities of the moved discourse.” Note 3 The writing is not meant to hold us at an objective or intellectual distance, but instead to invite us in to re-experience the physical and conceptual acts of dancing and dance recast in language. But finding our way in is, admittedly, not always easy.
Foster loves the lexicon and the rules of engagement that operate in the realms of academia and critical theory, and there is no point in faulting her for that. Why shouldn’t she avail herself of the many schools of analysis that have thrown their hats into the academic arena in the last few decades? One never knows when a particular way of making sense in one discipline will yield fruitful results in another. However, Foster does not subscribe to the usual academic practice of pinning dance, as a passive subject, under the gaze of some theory or the other. She delights in the fact that dance looks back, speaks back, kicks back, further illuminating or else revealing inadequacies or lacunae in these theories. She is committed to corporealizing or giving body to theory despite any resistance or reluctance on its part.
Foster uses language as a defensive and an offensive strategy as well. Without fluency in this style of writing and speaking, claiming a space for dance in academia is next to impossible. She is really adept in the worlds beyond stage and studio, where an unsettling number of people still don’t understand or value dance, or worse, have no interest in doing so. She can speak a language that identifies her as ‘one of them,’ but not just as a talking head, dueling it out with other theorists who have long ago forgotten the artwork in the clash of theories or the sound of their own voices arguing.
Foster is a true subversive—she injects these dialogues and conversations with the visceral power of bodiliness. She wraps this vocabulary around the act of people dancing and refuses to let others ignore this thing that dance makers and dancers do. Our worldwide cyber-culture has begun to undermine the old top-down power surge that determined who got into the academy, or museums, or onto the stage. Now, often unruly voices and bodies refuse to obey those directives to fall into line, and Foster gleefully participates in those acts of rebellion. But some of these voices still come from institutions that best speak or understand “theory” and, directly or indirectly, still have an effect on the status of dance. Foster’s agenda, to give dance a voice and presence in those institutions, is important and has served the dance world well, even when it has remained unaware of her work and her efforts.
Lastly, although Foster performs and is utterly committed to the bodiedness of dance, this is demonstrated most clearly in her primary fields of endeavor, dance history and research. She locates herself within the emerging field of dance studies, which, as she explains, has taken as one of its basic organizing disciplinary questions how one writes about dancing (Q & A, lecture 1). This question, along with her commitment to understanding and articulating (as she argued in lecture 2) how one achieves a vital relationship and parity between dance writing and writing dancing, drive her work. The choreography of her writing is as deliberate and meticulous as the choreography of any dance work. Her style is meant to command the attention of scholars in other fields as well as dance, and to provide a framework for more deeply considering dance for any who are so interested. But as one audience member pointed out, just as in dance or dancemaking, it takes practice (Q & A, lecture 2).
It is clear that Foster believes that the “historically specific relationship” between critic and scholar has “changed dramatically” (Q & A, lecture 2), opening up the possibility of dialogue. And it is clear that although she recognizes that there are different kinds of writing for different kinds of audiences, she hopes dancers and dance makers will take on her writing; that they will talk back to her and to other dance scholars and that, together, they can talk back to the academy that “produces this lack of regard—or utter disregard—for human movement.” Her entire history of writing indicates that she refuses to yield to the notion that dance is only intuitive, sensory, and before or beyond language, and she warns against buying into that mystique.
Although Foster is convinced that her writing comes from and is shaped by dancing and dance-making, she doesn’t think her writing is mandatory reading for anyone in the field. As dance makers, dancers, or viewers of dance, keeping up with the latest critical/theoretical discourses is not a prerequisite. Nor is familiarity with the language that is often generated by conceptually or historically specific schools of thought. Obtuse or difficult ‘texts,’ whether spoken, written, or choreographed, can be frustrating, but it’s up to us to decide which are worth the trouble. Besides, a range of dance writing indicates richness in the field that we might want to celebrate and encourage rather than disparage. Additionally, continuing to develop our own—as Foster says—“technical language that allows [dancers and dance makers] to be precise and to think more deeply into issues” (Q & A, lecture 2), may help us clarify what we think is important to say about dance, and to whom and how we choose to speak about it, even if our audiences or ways of speaking end up being very different from hers or each other’s. Either way, the questions asked are those that we share at the heart of dance—what is it, why do we do it, what connects those who do it with those who see it?
Over the course of the three performances, Foster moved through dancing, through making dances, through theorizing dance in the discourses of language and text, and through performing that text. We all engage in this quadruple helix—in different proportions and in our own idiosyncratic ways. Figuring out our relationships and responsibilities to our multiple roles of dancer, maker, thinker, writer, and viewer as they play out in ourselves and with others, is an ongoing challenge. This process is neither a post-postmodern dance-off nor reality show of dance theorists versus dance critics versus dancing artists. Instead, Foster invites us to kinesthetically and mindfully bring together multiple approaches to dance that can probe, partner, and know each other—not as competing stances but rather as rich, different ways in which we inhabit dance or dance inhabits our bodies and our culture.
- Foster, “Choreographing History,” in Choreographing History, ed. Foster et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 6–7. Back to article
- Butler, Judith, “A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back,” op-ed in New York Times (Mar 20, 1999), A15. James Miller offers a useful, if not unbiased, overview of the issues in “Is Bad Writing Necessary? George Orwell, Theodor Adorno, and the Politics of Literature,” in Lingua Franca Online, 9.9. (December/January 2000). Back to article
- “Choreographing History,” 9. Back to article