Dance exists in a world of constant change. Surrounding the art, penetrating the practice, shaping and defining the parameters of what is said and done and how it is understood is culture. Not one but many cultures inform and intersect each other in a postmodern world. In this world, dance is more than a reflection of culture. It is in constant dialogue with it, shaping the medium that shapes it. Those who speak through their dance are often sceptical about attempts to transform their art into another medium (be it written or spoken word, film or notation) so that it can be dissected, analysed, and discussed from without. Once removed from its corporeal reality, it is feared that dance will lose its voice. We know that words and images rarely capture the intensity of experience, the nuances of execution or the sculpting of space. One can write volumes on the craft of dance making. There are strategies and techniques which, if understood, will on application ensure some sort of cohesive structure. But the actual experience of dancing, performing and creating involves quite another genre of writing. Much recent dance writing, and here we may include writings relating to the semiotics and structural analysis of dance, aims to remind its readers of the vibrancy and power of its subject. It seeks to capture in words some essence of the physical.
But there is another facet of dance that is largely ignored in academic writing, and this is a consideration of the spiritual essence driving the dance. The dance scholar is challenged to find the balance between mysticism and pragmatism in his or her encounters with theory. The former promotes an understanding of dance as an art form which speaks only through itself – its spirit and energy cannot be articulated or fully comprehended, even by those who experience it. But the study of spirit is unfashionable in a cynical and sensible world. In an effort to conform and be accepted by those institutions one must face if one is to further an academic career, much dance writing, as Amy Koritz (1996) argues, leans towards pragmatism. As a backlash against the mystic stigma and the trivialisation of the of the dance subject, our writers ignore the very thing that feeds the dance. Dance is body; it is mind; it is communication and exploration. It responds to purpose and pleasure, creates environments where facets of one’s culture can be addressed.
Theory feeds on practice, relies on practice, reacts to practice. Practice is prior to theory, yet engaged in a symbiotic relationship with theory. The creative urge can be harnessed and directed by theoretical awareness, developing style, content and structure, all of which is the result of an interplay between the making of one’s own art and knowledge of art theory. When we delve into theory, we consult a cultural awareness which draws us into a community and expands our consciousness of the range of artistic practices which have gone before us.
In dance research, particularly models which employ a practice-exegesis component, the practice must be seen to be in a privileged position. But whose practice are we talking about? In the case of the practice-exegesis model, it is a combination of the artist-researcher and of a select group of relevant artists in the chosen field. The theory that the researcher chooses to examine and/or employ will inevitably direct the future course of the study. Our readings into narrativity and semiotics influence the way we see and analyse our own work and the work we see around us. The readings we undertake in dance theory remind us that there no one way–no perfect way–to incorporate established theoretical models from other disciplines and yet, in the discipline of dance research, we have not yet agreed upon any specific analytical frameworks. Most dance theory is in a stage of rapid development. There is an eagerness to engage in discourse within our own field and across disciplines. We have the dubious privilege to take what is appropriate and relevant from other areas and apply it to dance. With this approach, however, there is a danger of over-simplification, of the dance subject and/or that of the theory not being assimilated. Nevertheless, we find the combination of theoretical and practical research and the efforts to reconcile the two extremely encouraging in our own search for the best way to observe, analyse, and speak about this art form.
When the art form we engage in is studied from a temporal, cultural, or disciplinary distance, without the distinction of referring to the process of creation as experienced by the artist-researcher, then the theory applied will involve a different set of criteria. In dance research, this means embracing a theoretical stance and, with that, the responsibility of either adopting an interdisciplinary approach or constructing a new form of discourse and analysis appropriate to the field. When combining theory and practice, we need to be aware that theory has the tendency to spiral in on itself – it can be its own reason for existence. In the making of artistic work, this theoretical reflexivity can clash with the reflexivity of the artist or work, competing for primacy, steering the work in ways unmeditated and unwanted. In this way, we often lose the essence of what it is that we are trying to examine. Its vigour, dynamism and ‘meaning’ can be overwhelmed by theories, which try to capture, categorize, and cement. In looking for the essence, we lose the essence.
The self who questions why? how? when? where?–who needs to know the workings of the machine–investigates the underlying questions and hypothesizes many possible answers – is theory. The self – who constructs, imagines, contorts, draws shapes in the sand, – is art. Can I question the workings of myself? Can I analyse what I am? Theory is ingested as the ideas of the other and integrated as the ideas of the self. I can analyse how I work in relation to my culture, how it has shaped me, directed me and influenced my art. I can perceive myself as what I am by comparing myself with the other.
At every stage in the development of an artwork, the artist inevitably asks these questions. This is why we have fought so hard for choreography and practice to be seen as a form of primary research. Shirley McKechnie (1995) explains that, although not all dancers are researchers, those who ask questions and methodically search for them, who see their examination through to its completion, and then ‘publish’ (perform) the results, are in the same league as academic researchers.
One can never look at a thing from all angles and it is the discipline of theory which encourages us to select perspectives, certain vantage points from which a phenomenon can be examined. But art, especially the performing arts, is rather resistant to this kind of selective, external vision. That is why the selection of appropriate theory which acknowledges the individual, his or her culture as well as the spiritual, physical and ideological aspects of the work being examined is so important. When the artist is the researcher, she or he is aware of the expectations placed on her or him in terms of academic prowess, perhaps more than that which is expected in terms of practice. There may be a temptation to favour theories in fashion regardless of the appropriateness of those disciplines. Not unexpectedly, the plethora of theoretical perspectives and the domination of academic culture in general diverts attention away from the practice towards academic expertise, disempowering the lived art and the artist-researcher.
The self, singular yet consisting of multiple facets, the creator and consumer, the participant and observer, the animal and analyst, all combine in a continuous ebb and flow which defines the self at any given time. The self integrates and responds to external stimuli, ingests and regurgitates, reshaping its form as it selects and constructs itself from many possible components. The self is a child at play, a wise old man, a warrior, a builder, a nurturer, a healer. The journey from self to self never ends.
As practitioners, research’s value and uniqueness lies in the powerful ‘field research’ undertaken. Theory is important, but at different stages of the process there is a need to approach theory in different ways. We must remind ourselves that, in many cases, the artist who is creating is a very vulnerable being. This person requires support and encouragement as well as a few well-timed criticisms. Theory is asked to fulfil a nurturing role at moments of stress and artistic uncertainty, but it must also emphasize the focus of the research and open up possibilities in study and practice.
What follows is a reflection on some of encounters with theory when embarking on a creative journey over the course of nine months. Within the process, four stages were identified where the relationship between theory and practice shifted to accommodate the changing self and the emerging product.
Brainstorming, experimenting with movement, trying things on for size. Playing time. Sometimes, the regard for theory takes me on a more circular route than perhaps I may not have taken if I had not encountered it. This can be providential at times. The result may be a more considered concept than the one I may have decided upon, a greater awareness of some major factors.
Interdisciplinary study is possible here: other choreographer’s theories and approaches, the inclusion of other influences by theories that are established and those that are emergent or experimental. As a dancer and a maker of dances, I want to be challenged: questioned about existing assumptions, practices, philosophical stances and the way in which the field in general is approached.
Obsessive Compulsive Stages:
But in the very vulnerable, obsessive stages during the construction of a work, it is best to allow the artist/researcher room to just make the work. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Reading in the field can focus the work on practical applications of theory without diverting too much attention away from the process.
The Finished Work:
Once one has completed the work and given some time to ‘let go.’ to allow a distance from the intense relationship with one’s creation, then the analysis can begin. Other theoretical perspectives can be examined, compared, adopted or discarded.
As much theory as possible, always applying it to experience (one’s own work and case studies and those examined in the theory studied).
The theory can be applied to the practice. A new awareness is fostered, making way for the emergence of new ideas leading to another set of experiments and so on and so forth. Looking ahead – after what we have learnt, how do we then move forward?
Theory can help but also hinder artistic practice. Therefore the need to apply theory must be tempered with the choice of appropriate theory. Empirical, quantitative research may provide science with fact, but is constrictive and destructive when applied to art. The academic world looks on artistic practice with scepticism because it seems to seek to establish institutional merit through social approval. We are forced to justify our existence by proving the validity and relevance of our research in a society which reveres scientific thought and measures achievement through economic benefit. Qualitative research and ethnographic inquiry cannot easily be shown to benefit society in a material way, yet they fulfil a significant function by exploring the often indefinable world of human interaction. We are organic, emotive and sensual beings who value aesthetic quality and desire meaningful communication. By practicing art, we contribute to social awareness of the human condition and express our views in ways which enrich the substance of our culture. The manifestation of the self through art provides an avenue for individual expression in a society which has long been dominated by institutionalised structures. The application of theory to artistic practice represents an acceptance of its importance as a cultural voice and establishes its position as a recognised form of social discourse. With this in mind, we should adopt theories which are compatible with practice and which benefit, rather than hinder, the creative process. Let theory be adapted to fit the requirements of practice and assist in the expression and development of the self!
To be accepted within an academic context, we need to be able to present an enlightening or groundbreaking account of our experiences and discoveries, presenting them within a theoretical framework. Obviously which framework we choose depends very much on us.
At some point in the journey from self to self, we will come to a crossroads where we will have to act with purpose and integrity. We will have to decide whether to make alliances with other theories or to establish our own. If we are to assimilate existing theories, then we will need to address the question of balance: multiple disciplines, our own research, the importance of originality in our work, and the relationship between our creative and academic studies to those we have encountered.
Are we afraid to appear unworldly by announcing our very obvious involvement with the research? By detailing our work, do we fear accusations of self-indulgence or perhaps narrow-mindedness? To place our work alongside the research of those considered experts in the field is to fear accusations of being presumptuous. At this time courage is needed to put ourselves forward, to say ‘Here is my practice; this is what I have learnt from it; and this is what it is saying.’ By doing this, we enrich our field, our culture, and ourselves.
The assimilation into our culture, the meeting of the self and the other, involves both acceptance of the practice of the other and comprehension of cultural systems of analysis and evaluation. Lévi-Strauss (1973) would say that our practice is reworking the mythic forms of the rituals and stories of our ancestors. When I create I am drawing on an awareness which has been passed on to me by the culture which has nurtured and moulded my way of thinking. The structure of my practice reflects many centuries of development, retells the same stories in different ways, for different times and circumstances, but always responds to what has gone before. My narrative lives on as an extension of other narratives in Roland Barthes’ (1975) terms which have, in turn, been shaped according to other narratives which reach back through time in an unbroken chain of cultural inheritance. The issues of contemporary culture are addressed through contemporary myths which question, explain, make sense of our surroundings. The self creates images, sounds, movements which are presented to the other, are submitted to the culture as a response to the actuality which encompasses its existence. We are embedded in a world, not isolated in a microcosm of self.
I make a sign which refers to another sign, which refers to signs, signs, and more signs argue Deleuze & Guattari (1987, p. 112). My practice becomes a commodity, observed, assessed and discarded. The proliferation of signs has divorced signs from meaning.
Fragments refer to particles which reflect a sea of segments.
The self is immersed in several billion selves, each unique, each distinct, yet interactive. The art of the self enters the sea of signs to be deflected, diminished, distorted and twisted to the whim of the multiplicity of others.
The meaning I may intend becomes the interpretations of many, shaping those meanings to fit their own needs, or simply to be watched as the subject of a voyeuristic banquet of consumption.
We are indifferent to signs, and yet we devour them says Grossberg (1987).
Visual images, music, speech and sound proliferate and make available many representations of the world around us and within us.
Warhol’s pop art, the soapies, Batman comics and Barbie dolls exist alongside the so-called great masters of classical art. The exquisite and the mundane are equal and interactive in the postmodern world.
The self selects according to its needs and finds value in what pleases it.
The self responds to its consumption by reworking the many fragments into a collage and unifying the diversity into a singularity.
Theory allows us to map out the process of change and assimilation, providing us with an explanation of the world in us, the internal reacting to the external, the past disintegrating into the present.
Theory attempts to answer questions, but creates more questions than it answers.
It is the urge to define which resists ultimate definition.
McKechnie, Shirley (1995), “Choreography as Research,” Creative Investigations – Refining Research in the Arts and Humanities Conference, Australian Academy of the Humanities, Canberra, 8th-9th November.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1973) From Honey to Ashes [Vol. 2: Introduction to a Science of Mythology], tr. John Weightman (London: Jonathan Cape).
Barthes, Roland (1975) S/Z, tr. Richard Howard (Jonathan Cape, London, 1975.
Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, tr. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Grossberg, Lawrence (1987) “The In-Difference of Television,” Screen, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 28-45.