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Corporealities: Dancing Knowledge, Culture and Power edited by Susan Leigh Foster, Routledge 1995

As the author of Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Choreography (1986), Susan Leigh Foster established herself as a new voice in dance studies. Now, in Corporealities: Dancing Knowledge, Culture and Power, Foster acknowledges multiple, heterogeneous new voices from her position as editor of this Routledge anthology. This is a mixed bag in the best possible way, but a common grounding for each of the ten chapters is the body as site, or in Foster’s words, “physicality as a site of meaning-making”. For the reader, this is a fluctuating, fragmented journey through history, memory, gender and theory. Moving bodies are everywhere here, reworked and redefined in many different ways and through many different methodologies. Ten individuals have contributed to the collection, seven of whom are Foster’s fellow University of California academics. In this brief ‘tasting’ I examine a selection of the texts; some exist in familiar territory, some are, for me, entirely new experiences.

Foster re-turns to an interpretation and analysis of the ‘gendered bodies’ of the Romantic ballet in her opening essay, “The ballerina’s phallic pointe”. By fixing her understanding of the politics of performing desire in its cultural context—that is, the expansion of Western capitalism and associated marketing strategies—Foster creates ‘corporeal’ connections between history and theory. She contends that even in contemporary avant-garde ballet the female dancer is still inscribed as the subject of the male gaze and male desire; the pointe shoe is the enduring symbol, enacting a particular, imbalanced male-female relationship. I would have been interested in an extension of these ideas to include a focus on artists such as Michael Clark, Karole Armitage or Maurice Bejart. Gender is a more ambiguous, problematised issue in the ‘postmodern ballet’ which these choreographers have inspired.

In another examination of gender—and particularly femaleness—Linda J. Tomko follows the origin and development of park fetes in New York City, events in which fifty thousand girls were involved by 1916. “Gender, ‘folk-dance’, and progressive-era ideals in New York City” is a fascinating analysis of the significance of folk-dancing at those park fetes. The Girls’ Branch, the educational association which initiated the fetes, used folk-dance as a physical embodiment of ideals such as co-operation, female naturalisation, health, and, Tomko posits, American nationalism. Tomko raises the issue of the ‘authenticity’ of the Girls’ Branch folk-dance, and the fact that while the original dances were present in an identifiable form, the Girls’ Branch interpretations also reconstructed those dances, creating new forms.

In Heidi Gilpin’s “Lifelessness in movement, or how do the dead move?”, the ephemeral nature of movement, the inability to grasp it, the mystery of the body “in passage from presence to absence” are the focus. Rather than romanticising the transient quality of performance, Gilpin explores the act of disappearance from an hermeneutic perspective. The body in Gilpin’s analysis is at once real and tangible, and in continual disappearance. Her framework for the question, “How can absence be performed?” is the work of the late Tadeusz Kantor. Because Kantor was usually on-stage with his company, his work Today is my Birthday—performed after his death, even though he had taken part in rehearsals—holds particular significance for Gilpin. The actors and the audience were both intensely aware of Kantor’s absence, so that in effect Kantor, through his death, had actuated a process of performing absence; the concepts of absence and presence were then brought closer together.

Funnily enough, it was Peggy Phelan who discussed the enigma of present absence in her 1993 text, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (Routledge). However in Corporealities Phelan examines “Dance and the History of Hysteria”, discussing the significance of dance and movement in Breuer and Freud’s pivotal psychoanalytic work, Studies on Hysteria (1895). In particular, it is Phelan’s explanation of Anna O.’s condition which is most illuminating, as she identifies connections between psychic health and the body from the notion of “psychoanalysis as a mode of psychic choreography”. So rather than representing psychoanalysis as a concern only of the mind, distinct from the physical, Phelan reconstructs a “psychoanalytic body” while also reconsidering the relationship between femininity, the body, and psychoanalysis.

Marta E. Savigliano’s essay, “Fragments for a story of tango bodies (on Choreocritics and the memory of power)” is probably the most interesting work in the collection structurally. Savigliano moves in and out of history, narrative, song, legend and analysis. The “tango bodies” are ‘latina’, dancing before/for the male gaze and the bourgeois French, British, and American. They dance “Desire, Passion, Fate”, with the female role that of the exotic and ‘la Otra’—Other. Choreography, theory and criticism are interwoven here, with Savigliano interrogating traditional understandings of each by contemplating the tango body as a performance of sociohistorical and cultural specificity.

In “Dancing in the field: notes from memory”, Sally Ann Ness takes a thoroughly different tack on this notion of the cultural specificity of dancing bodies. She begins by describing in detail two experiences—two dance lessons in Bali and the Philippines respectively—and follows these narratives with an ethnographic dialogue between the lived experience, memory, and the “writerly body”. Ness “says ‘no’ to the document”, and yet seems trapped by her own declaration. She proposes a new memory and fieldwork-based document for the text, but ultimately creates another authoritative ‘document’, warning the reader about supposedly complex narrative and advising the reader to re-read the opening statements as concluding ones. Ness does create new spaces though; spaces in which ethnography and the memoir are merged.

Other contributions include Mark Franko’s “History/theory—criticism/practice”, an examination of Graham’s Dark Meadow (1946) and critical responses to the work, particularly those of the “first dance critic”, John Martin. Lena Hammergren embarks on a quest for Swedish body politics of the 1930s in “The re-turn of the flaneuse”, and chooses to centre her investigations around the 1930 Stockholm Exposition of functionalist trends. Randy Martin looks “towards a narrative of context in dance” in “Overreading The Promised Land”. Focusing on the 1990 production by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company of The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, Martin engages in a dialogue between the right and the left, ultimately rewriting the left through bodily practice. In “Antique longings” Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter extends the dance history/theory discussion with reference to Delsartean performance.

With so many diverse and innovative writings on dance, Corporealities propels dance into new domains where the body and theory share conceptual and physical space. Bodies are not just appropriated and interpreted here. Their significance within cultural experience is acknowledged and extended, for as Foster suggests, “bodies always gesture towards other fields of meaning”.

RealTime issue #12 April-May 1996 pg. 43

© Julia Postle; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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