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date: 15 October 2019

Magnetic Fields: Too Dance for Theater, Too Theater for Dance

Abstract and Keywords

Artists from the late 20th century until today have re-called our attention to the body and the affective power of performance. But the contemporary aesthetic “dance theater” is just one manifestation of the intersections between dance and theater and, as a term, is inadequate at defining all of the ways in which dance and theater meet. Attending to performances (on and off stage, professional, personal, social, or cultural) that are at the nexus of theater and dance allows us to dismantle the Cartesian emphasis on “cogito” experience, advancing embodied knowledge that is not easily explained in a paradigm of disembodied reason. By focusing on corporeality as an idea that unites the work of dance and theater artists and scholars, it becomes clear that new insight is gained into theories of embodiment and theatricality. This contribution touches on the many genres, theories, and aesthetics at the heart of this artistry.

Keywords: dance, theater, dance-theater, contemporary dance, physical theater, immersive theater, corporeality, embodiment, theatricality, phenomenology

In 2011, the English theater company Punchdrunk’s production of Sleep No More caused much sturm and drang over the genre to which this breathless performance belonged. Requiring audience members to wear masks and follow the action (sometimes at breakneck speeds) in a choose-your-own-adventure tour through Macbeth set in a fictitious hotel, the performance was simultaneously dance, theater, site-specific installation art, and architectural meditation. The performers worked very hard for us, dancing and emoting this loose adaptation of a classic story. We audience members dutifully made room so that they could move, though occasionally we came into contact with their sweating, panting bodies. They, oblivious to us (for the most part), silently (for the most part), maintained the fourth wall even as we voyeuristically occupied the playing spaces. Occasionally, an audience member became a part of the actual action and world of the performance (helping to lift the dead body of Lady Macduff for example) but we were always an embodied part of any given audience members’ experience (as obstacles, co-sojourners, new characters). The narrative relied on our Shakespearean cultural literacy—Lady Macbeth pushes her husband to murder the king and others with rightful claims to the throne so he can become king, then they both feel very guilty, seeing daggers and ghosts and such. There were three witches who make Macbeth think he is destined for greatness only to have him meet his doom in the end. Lady Macbeth kills herself, and Macbeth is killed in battle. Arguably, not even this much detail was necessary for Sleep No More. Instead, Punchdrunk created a consuming, encompassing experience for the audience members, asking us to commit with our bodies to the journey of the performance, believing that there would be an end to the labyrinth and we could feel free to make of the experience what we would.

This is an important contemporary example of the meeting of dance and theater that sparks a provocative new aesthetic. Choreographer Maxine Doyle called the production “a theater show with a dance company in the middle”1 Seventeen of the twenty performers (p. 2) had dance training and all summoned intense expressionist passion. The play text clearly informed the movement choices:

In one of the most powerful duets of the show, Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to murder the king. Ms. Doyle worked with the dancers to examine Shakespeare’s text, in terms of its rhythm and imperative quality, to gain a sense of its energy. Anatomically, she relied on the mechanics of opposition: pushing and pulling.2

And it comes through in performance. Even if one does not have command of the text, the poetry of the movement echoes the poetry of the text. The danger of the performance lies not only in the seemingly precarious (though undoubtedly meticulously controlled) thrashing about of passionate characters, but also in the liberties taken with traditional definitions of the “pure” genres of dance and theater.

Though I value my affective response to the experience, appreciate the labor involved, was pushed to consider not only the story but also qualities such as greed, passion, and personal space, and though I quite liked the performances, I was and am baffled by the continued interest in how to define this kind of performance. There have been a number of examples of immersive, embodied, theatrical dance/movement pieces since the late twentieth century (De La Guarda’s Learn to Fly, Fuerza Bruta, The Donkey Show, and Here Lies Love, to name a few). So why do we still marvel at genre/genus? Is it because we have yet to find a pithy label and we need classifications and categories to contain and comprehend?

These conversations around genre echo responses to Susan Stroman’s work for the 1999 production of Contact. Stroman, who worked with playwright John Weidman, created three pieces to make up a largely wordless evening about the ups and downs of heteronormative love. The first piece has Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s lovers from the painting “The Swing” captured midswing and brought to life in a display of acrobatic lovemaking. In the second, a stereotypical 1950s-era housewife fantasizes about a more passionate life. And in the final piece, a contemporary middle-aged middle manager in midlife crisis is “rescued” by a blond bombshell who can swing dance.

Though Contact is referred to as a “dance play,” this label seems inadequate. On the surface, the cognitive disconnect for viewers and reviewers lay in the fact that these pieces were dramatic (i.e., there were characters, plots, narrative arcs, conflict, rising tension, denouement, etc.) They had other elements of a traditional play (costumes, representative sets and props, lighting that aided in telling the stories). They had stories (not requisite in contemporary dance). They were also theatrical: The performers/characters accessed and made manifest heightened emotional and affective responses to the situations in an acting style that was more like method acting (the style most contemporary Western audience members are used to from television, movies, and theater) than the emotive styles of ballet, opera, musicals, or contemporary dance (which might be thought of as nonemotive or antiemotive).3 What the pieces lacked, for the most part, were words—ironic for a dance play. Indeed, silent method acting and virtuosic dancing in a variety of styles made Contact stand out. What the show had that does not exist in a traditional play, for the most part, was dance. The substitution of orality with corporeality was the signal difference. Story ballet has always done this but is perhaps too staid with its traditional “highbrow” technique or too steeped in a certain acting style to be of interest in the way that contemporary dance is experimenting with theatricality, presence, and embodiment.

These experiments are perhaps most obvious in contemporary dance theater with the work of more comfortably defined and labeled aesthetics like tanztheater, contemporary (p. 3) dance, performance art, and butoh and even with outliers like Elizabeth Streb or Ann Liv Young. Artists from the late twentieth century up until today have called our attention to the body and the affective power of performance in new ways. But the term “dance theater” does not completely help our understanding (with or without a hyphen and even though every new company seems to attach itself to that label). The contemporary aesthetic dance theater, with its varied examples, is just one manifestation of the intersection between dance and theater. “Dance theater” is inadequate at defining all of the ways in which dance and theater meet.4

Though dance theater is arguably more a subgenre of dance than theater, contemporary theater artists are also interested in heightened physicality in performance. Physical theater techniques are well established (biomechanics, Grotowski, viewpoints, Lecoq, Suzuki, and others), and theater artists have pushed the boundaries of physical meaning for some time now (Robert Wilson, Annie Sprinkle, The Wooster Group, Barbara Ann Teer, Guillermo Gomez Peña, Coco Fusco, Elevator Repair Service, Ntozake Shange, Goat Island).

The genre buzz around contemporary performance may lead one to believe that this is a historic moment of convergence between theater and dance. (Indeed, aesthetic experimentation, notably with the use of new media technology, is advancing a liberating freedom from labels for contemporary artists.) And though we pick up the conversation at a contemporary moment with a focus mainly on Western stage performance, opening the lens and stepping back allows us to recognize that dance and theater have met in many important ways historically and globally. Indeed, there are aesthetics that not only resist the separation between dance and theater but also never accepted it.

In my own research in African American performance, I’ve found that most examples blur the lines between performative genres. For a people rooted in diasporic African traditions, historically denied written literacy, forced to dissemble and signify to preserve the archive and the repertoire of culture, there is little surprise that these aesthetics resist discrete boundaries. For example, focusing on gender, I have written about Negro vaudeville as a discursive site where theater, dance, comedy, music, etc., came together to imagine a new black subjectivity. I have also written about the contemporary dance theater company Urban Bush Women and the ways in which the choreography “works” elements like blended dance styles, narrative, and spirituality to work through social issues and engage communities. My work on black performance theory and subjectivity is firmly rooted in and spidered out from the body.

Indeed, all of the performance that interests me as a scholar and artist take on the mix of theater and dance. This has not always meant a smooth navigation of the profession, and I have often felt too theater for dance and too dance for theater.5 And for all the academy’s talk of interdisciplinarity, the persistent resistance against more synergies between the fields of theater and dance are vexing. We should even trouble this conversation—is this interdisciplinarity or disciplinarity? Dance and theater are both embodied performing arts, natural bedfellows, with many genres that straddle the lines between the two forms. There are many departments of theater and dance, though the scholarly fields too seldom communicate. But in my fields of interest I’ve found many sites of convergence.

So I was thrilled when in 2008 Ric Knowles, then vice president for the American Society for Theater Research (ASTR), approached me to chair a joint conference with the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD) in 2010. Then he asked me to find someone on “the dance side” to co-convene. I sighed a bit, though I understood the impulse. My degree (p. 4) is in theater and drama. I am hired in the theater PhD area of a theater and dance department. Nevertheless, I was reminded once more of the disciplinary boundaries that we create and navigate. I have always attended both theater and dance conferences, and depending on funding and timing (ASTR’s and CORD’s are often on the same weekend) some years I have had to choose. So when Ric asked me, I said yes immediately and admittedly selfishly, not just to save on conference fees but also to have the opportunity for these two fields to be in more direct conversation with each other particularly around issues of corporeality and the negotiations of power—issues that have always been central to my interests and, judging from the response to the proposal, of interest to others as well.

Working with Anthea Kraut, a scholar whose work also troubles disciplines, to develop the program further pushed my thinking about the liminal space between theater and dance and the affective relationship between corporeal power and discursive subjectivity. We had a record number of proposals from grad students, artists, and junior and senior faculty from diverse geographical locations including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, and Singapore. We had a range of home departments—not only dance, theater, and performance studies but also anthropology, English, music, etc.

We were blessed with a great program committee that took on the task of blind-vetting more quality proposals than we had anticipated. In the end, the committee’s selections reflected an exciting range. Panel presentations featured an array of topics—from spectatorship in the seventeenth-century French theater, to early twentieth-century Cuban dance academies, to Chilean military parades, to the labor of Michael Jackson—while working sessions mapped the relationships between theater and dance, considered the performance of violence, and explored the theories and practices of specific aesthetics. Over the four days of the conference, we heard about a host of bodies—individual and collective, absent and present, mediated and live, on stage and off—that are both resistant to and complicit with the workings of power.

We pushed the proof in the pudding of embodied knowledge by encouraging performative presentations beyond the typical conference lecture format. These were not evening dance performances meant as entertainment after a long day of thinking. These were presentations advancing knowledge through performance. Not new to CORD but newer to ASTR, these panels aimed to further arguments that gestures are rhetorical and movement epistemological. Surprisingly, this intersectional conference attracted a greater number of attendees than the sum of what the separate conferences typically attract, which further encouraged my interest in this nexus. Beyond interesting synergies, it became clear to me that focusing on the interstices and overlaps between theater and dance afforded critical insight into not only performance history, theory, epistemology, historiography, and ontology but also the humanities, social sciences, and the arts. I was inspired.

In 2011 I began the process of proposing this book project. In 2012 Susan Manning, a mentor and leading dance scholar, and I convened a working session at the ASTR conference on working between theater studies and dance studies. (We convened the group again in 2014 and hopefully every other year going forward.) In 2013 I taught a graduate seminar on the topic. Also in 2013 I was invited to attend the Mellon Summer Dance Seminar (held that year at Brown) as a senior scholar to work with the next generation of dance scholars and speak on the “Beside Dance Studies Roundtable.” In 2014 I directed/choreographed Architectura, a dance theater piece about architecture, home, longing, loss, leaving, support, structure, (p. 5) and the ways in which the buildings we build help define who we are. Working with artists in this way drove home both the practicalities and the philosophies behind these genres. Finding artists who could give to this kind of creative process across lines was important. As was the language on grant applications, programs, and promotional materials. But most important was the access to ideas around my theme that was afforded by this perspective. In other words, neither theater nor dance alone was adequate for my exploration, and only at the nexus could we begin to make discoveries. As an artist and a scholar I am provoked by the possibilities for the arts and humanities at these interstices.

And now as I finish editing this volume of insightful and provocative essays on the intersections of dance and theater and am in my second year as president of CORD, I hope to continue to investigate the territories of these boundaries while strengthening institutional ties. I build on the work of many important scholars in this and related fields (Susan Manning, Susan Foster, Ann Cooper Albright, Selma Jeanne Cohen, Helen Thomas, and many others) and I hope to advance interest in exploring and defining the contours of these associations.

The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater collects a critical mass of border-crossing scholarship toward the goal of erasing many of the lines of demarcation between the two fields and encouraging less respect in the future for historical disciplinary boundaries. In foregrounding the politics and poetics of moving bodies, and by focusing on performative embodiment as a negotiation of power dynamics, this book hopes both to widen the horizons of scholarship in the performing arts and to move the fields of dance and theater closer together. This undertaking promises to challenge the two disciplines to take a closer look at the histories, theories, and practices of physical performance.

Taking corporeality as an idea that unites the work of dance and theater scholars, these essays focus on the moving body in performance and examine how this energy has worked on, through, and with bodies throughout history. Contemporary stage performances have sparked global interest in new experiments between dance and theater, and this volume situates this interest in its historical context by extensively investigating other such moments from early modern England to Bolshevik Russia to contemporary flash mobs.

This volume bids to define an emerging field. Scholars of theater and scholars of dance worked for most of the twentieth century in isolation from each other, developing different theories and analytical methodologies. For the past few years, however, we have begun to identify and explore common ground and to develop common methodologies that enrich each field. The scope of this work (the book and companion website) hopes to establish this research field and lay out its salient dialogues.

There are a number of theoretical implications for working between theater and dance, many of which are taken up in the essays to follow. I want to take a moment here to unpack a few that impact all of the work in this volume. Specifically, it becomes clear that new insight is gained into theories of embodiment and theatricality by attending to performances (on and off stage, professional, personal, social, or cultural) that are at the nexus of theater and dance.

What does it mean to be embodied, to be “in your body,” to be aware (or hyperaware) of your body’s movement in time and space and to exert corporeal energy or power (work over time) for an aesthetic end? The same question goes for witnessing another body moving to such ends. This cuts to the core of embodied performance practices. We move in everyday life for survival-based objectives—I get out of bed in the morning because I am hungry. I move to take a shower to remain socially acceptable and I drive to work to earn a paycheck to buy food and shelter. Hopefully, my activities bring me great happiness and I am (p. 6) surrounded by loved ones to share in this joy and I move in order to achieve the desired level of happiness for me and my loved ones. Then why do we move for reasons other than those? Why do we dance, for example?6 Why do you dance? Why don’t you dance more? Why are you interested in dance—at least enough to read this far? And why do we make pretend? Why embody an other—either a specific character or a distinctly human emotion that we are pretending to feel? Why try out other circumstances? And why do we watch others dance and make pretend, sometimes spending money that could be used for survival? Audience members commit their bodies and attentions for a period of time in order to be “enriched” by art—enriched beyond basic survival.

As evidenced by their longevity, these different ways of being in our bodies and movement for reasons other than survival are important. Dance and theater artists experiment with bodily presence, absence, and perception. Our phenomenological human experience of the world is made manifest corporeally and, as Drew Leder explains, our bodily presence is essentially characterized by absence. In other words, one is usually unaware of one’s body even as it is the most important thing in one’s life. “That is, one’s own body is rarely the thematic object of experience.”7 Except in dance.8 Even in something like sports, another non-survival-based movement genre, attention is usually more on the opponent or target than on embodiment. And in sports spectatorship there is usually a goal of “winning” that holds our attention. In dance, attention is “moved” to the body. In everyday life the body tends to recede from direct experience. In dance and theater (other than staged readings to some extent), the body is part and parcel of direct experience. There are activities such as exercise, yoga, or getting back to nature, for example, that (perhaps as reactions to the more disembodied lifestyles of advanced economies) have us focus on the body, but these activities rarely involve an audience.

Dance and theater serve as correctives to the Cartesian emphasis on “cogito” experience, advancing embodied knowledge that is not easily explained in a Cartesian paradigm of disembodied reason. And moments when these two ways of knowing are more closely aligned call on us to pay even more attention. Theater and dance remind us that the human body is not just another physical object but (after Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Noë, Lakoff, and other philosophers and cognitive scientists) the mechanism by which the world is made manifest and, indeed, existent. If the distinction between perception and movement is an artificial divide of what is always united in lived experience9 then dance and theater afford us perhaps a more direct access to knowledge than is usually recognized. Intentionality in movement (as complicated as it is), for example, takes a different shape in performance. As do motivation, organization, and the means to ends. If we push the heresy and rely on Merleau-Ponty and Leder’s assertions that consciousness is a matter of doing rather than thinking we might argue that “I can therefore I am”—I can walk, speak, gesture, etc.10 Even if I can’t (walk, speak, gesture), I can do something (breathe, think, feel) or I would not be alive. Leder borrows from Heidegger in employing the term “ecstasis” to describe the operation of the lived body. This ecstatic body “stands” “out” from a determinate stance that locates and defines. “But the very nature of the body is to project outward from its place of standing.”11 Paradoxically for Leder this happens by disappearance and absence. Again, one is unaware of most of the action of one’s body, and dance and theater more acutely call these actions forth. Raising an arm in dance and theater is no benign action as it might be in everyday life and we (artists and audience members) are asked to consider the significance of raising an arm in this particular way.

(p. 7) Not all ways of being in the world face this tension. Various ethics of humanist philosophy recognize the epistemological importance of embodiment especially in terms of social ontology and intersubjectivity (Ubuntu, Confucianism, meditation practices). And different intellectual fields recognize (or are beginning to recognize) not only the mind-body connection but also the importance of the body for their inquiries (e.g., psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, “traditional” medicine). Indeed, one gets the sense that those with a better sense of embodiment are better off medically, socially, intellectually, and spiritually.

Why then are theater studies and dance studies (fields that directly engage embodiment) still so suspect in the academy in terms of the epistemological insight they have to offer? Why are dance and theater as humanities and social sciences as well as arts such a difficult sell? I believe it is because there is something dangerous and destabilizing in the work that happens here. Perhaps it revolves around the myth of certainty and absolute truths in the sciences and the acknowledgment of contingency and persuasion in the arts. The arts disrespect, trouble, shift, and challenge absolute meaning—sometimes in serious ways and sometimes in playful, snarky, or irreverent ways. Artists have the power to manipulate feeling, empathy, memory, happiness, and pain—perhaps sincerely, perhaps as a ruse. As Amy Cook argues here, the “pretend play frame allows for a wider range of beings.” And the bringing together of theater and dance is even more threatening to academic hegemonic knowledge structures (perhaps this is the root of the genre angst discussed above as well as the difficult tenure paths for those who teach in theater or dance departments at Research 1 universities in the United States). But this coming together is also a unique and uniquely important lens through which we can analyze a host of subjects—many of which are detailed here. Ultimately, theater and dance get at experience, perception, and knowledge in significant bodily ways.

Like embodiment, insight is gained into the concept of theatricality when we focus our lenses on the crossroads of dance and theater. Theatricality has become a principal theory in performance studies though it impacts many other disciplines. And though definitions of theatricality differ, we can point to many of the tenets at play to investigate how the kinds of performances that concern us here use and are influenced by notions of theatricality. At the heart of the crossing of theater and dance is an awareness of and manipulation of theatricality.

The introduction to Tracy C. Davis and Thomas Postlewait’s influential collection of essays, Theatricality, provides a guiding primer on the concept, and it is from here that we can theorize the concepts’ usefulness in examining dance/theater. They provide a genealogy of the term and theories behind it and argue that “the concept is comprehensive of all meanings yet empty of all specific sense.”12 In some regards the same could be said of performance between dance and theater. Indeed, the resistance of simple definition is part of the appeal of much of this work. In the video European Dance Theater, for example, many of the artists interviewed struggle to define their aesthetics acknowledging both attraction and resistance to the term “tanztheater.” The “heightened states when everyday reality is exceeded by its representation,”13 one of the many definitions proffered by Davis and Postlewait, is particularly useful in thinking about the intersection between dance and theater. Though I take issue with some of the moves of this introduction to assert a purer form of theater, I do agree that, despite the protean nature of the term “theatricality,” we should aim to be as specific as possible. This volume aims to answer this call.

(p. 8) I agree because I think the stakes are very high. Rooted in a Christian suspicion/fear of the body, antitheatricalism as a sentiment is still quite pervasive in modern ideology. The paradox of the lies that get at truth (perhaps making the false seem true), the emptiness and fullness of the theatrical, and the unruliness of the body that does not always adhere to the dictates of reason get at the source of the wariness as well as the epistemological wellspring. Aligned with a general suspicion of the embodied arts in the academy and a general anti-intellectualism in the performing arts (and sometimes in the academy, paradoxically), we still need to argue for these conversations to be taken seriously.

The many definitions and competing meanings of theatricality are well rehearsed and I will not exhaust the discussion here. What is most salient is to assert that when theatricality is deployed corporeally and choreographically there are important affective relationships created, the significance of which is explored in this volume. Theatricality can be the essence of the form of theater used on or off stage. It can be a metaphor for interpreting human behavior. It can be a constellation of signs and significations. It can be an indistinct floating signifier (after Fisher-Lichte) but it is not void. It is resource. It is a wake-up call. Artists and social actors use it for a host of reasons, and attending to the specificity of different uses is at the heart of this project. Every age has a different idea of what “lifelike” performance is (and, we might say, what theatricality is). So theatricality depends on perception, not just intention. It is located both on the stage and in the perceiver as well as in the situation and ethos of the generation. A literacy among participants and/or audience members is implied, as well as a legibility on the part of the performance. And this relationship is necessarily raced, gendered, and classed. This relationship gets “worked” in different ways at different times in different genres.

In instantiations as culturally diverse as dance theater, tanztheater, musical theater, butoh, viewpoints, Kabuki, African total theater, performance art, Chinese Opera, state-sponsored mass political spectacle, popular political protest, court performances, ritual, staged ritual, staged social dance, early twentieth-century “isms” (expressionism, dadism, futurism, etc.), modern dance, postmodern dance, choreomania, gay pride parades, flash mobs, circus performance, Korean Talchum, Nazi movement choirs, explicit body performance, story ballet, early modern alchemic theater, hip-hop, clowning, krumping, and turfing, (to name a but a few), there exists this heightened state, this heightened awareness of embodiment, this heightened theatricality, but there is also an uncanniness between stage and life, even in the most abstract pieces. They are simultaneously lifelike, not lifelike, but not not lifelike. And in that uncanniness where is subjectivity? As Marvin Carlson deftly articulates what we know to be true, performances are haunted by prior performances. But performances are also haunted by life, and the ghosting destabilizes what we know of history, relationships, physics, etc. Are these performances the topsy-turvy type that restores order or the type that leads to revolution? This suspicion and threat relies on an assumption that there is any selfhood other than performed selfhood—performed with many layers visible differently in different situations perhaps, but performed nonetheless. As Davis and Postlewait say, “this defense of an inner sanctum of identity and sincerity is a dubious proposition.”14 I exist because I can and (not or) I exist because others exist. Dance and theater teach us this acutely.

For example, writing about Pina Bausch, Susan Manning examines the trope of discarded costumes in her work:

(p. 9) Discarded costumes often appear among the stage debris. In fact, constant costume changes mark the performers’ shifting roles, suggesting that the performers’ roles are like costumes to be put on and taken off at will. The performers often dress and undress onstage, frequently assisted by one another. Even when they change offstage, they often reenter still adjusting their undergarments, zipping their last zipper, or buttoning their last button. At times the performers, usually the women, are forced into layers and layers of costumes.15

A straightforward metaphor perhaps, but the idea of the shifting roles we each play and the interest in fluid identity is inextricably linked to ontology. Of course Bausch is not the only artist to explore this, nor do all dancers/performers explore identity this way, but the uncanny ghosting of identity is part and parcel of the embodiment and theatricality of dance/theater. And in this ontological turn, the stakes revealed are the most vital.

Organization of the Book

I’ve discussed a few possible genres and theories that this work engages. The project of this volume is to unpack these and other sites and theorize on the significance of this nodality. The book is organized into ten miniconversations of four or five chapters within the broader conversation at the meeting of dance and theater. Many of these chapters could fit into other conversations, and I invite the reader to rearrange them into such dialogues.

The first section is a conversation about theory and practice, oftentimes odd adversaries in theater and dance studies. Here we take on those who would advocate the rigid separation between theory and practice. Many of us even argue that the two have never been separated—indeed cannot be. Do we gain more insight by reading about or by doing? Is there a way to do both? How do we theorize practice and practice our theories? Is the divide more pronounced in dance than theater? This section (and the entire volume) pushes for a more nuanced understanding of theory and practice in the embodied arts beyond an antagonistic binary. The very definitions of theory and practice and the relationships between the two are challenged. The assumptions, arguments, and methodologies in the five chapters in this section demonstrate the tenuousness and flexibility of the binary set-up. Ann Cooper Albright opens the book, taking on corporeality as the wellspring for creativity by examining the move from the interior life of identity to the focus on bodily training practices. Anita Gonzalez looks at the ways in which two neighboring communities of working-class citizens in two different case studies negotiate shifting relationships through “theatrical dance and dancing theatrics.” Though this essay could fit neatly into the biopolitics discussion, it appears here because of the significant way she theorizes these practices, especially around notions of presence, identity, dialogic performance, and race. VK Preston takes us into her process as a scholar in an early modern ballet archive working with a material artifact, attempting to access the 1582 Balet comique de la Royne by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx. One comes to understand the distance not just in terms of the years between his hands writing the manuscript and hers turning pages to read it but also in terms of their understanding of not only dance, theater, and choreography/staging but also what is valuable in terms of the recording of process and product. Why the rich details about staged flora and fauna but fewer about movement? What results is an understanding of a kind of sorcery that enchants (p. 10) until today. Ray Miller discusses the history and importance of the role of the dance dramaturg in the creation of performance. Even though it is a burgeoning field, dance dramaturgy already has developed guiding tenets and multiple proven techniques. These practices provide productive sites for interrogating the communicative power of bodies in performance, the aesthetic possibilities for reworking genres and the relationships possible between the moving body and the spoken word. Miller is careful to lay out the points of divergence and well as the points of convergence between theater dramaturgy and dance dramaturgy and he lays out the most salient issues in the profession. Ultimately, his attention to detail on a number of fronts sets the stage for future scholarship. Vida L. Midgelow brings us into her process as an artist/scholar. This performative paper IS theory in practice as she stages a dialogue between her self qua dancer and her self qua practice. She works somatically, and her process dovetails with later conversations on affect, somatics, and cognition, but ultimately she is giving us insight into how the body experiences and knows by doing. This practice IS research—an important burgeoning idea in the academy. Midgelow gives us an important example of how this works despite naysayers. The essays in this section also set up our conversation as located on the stage, outside, in communities, in the archive, in the studio, in the mind, and, of course, in the body.

The next discussion is divided into two sections looking at genus and takes on some on the many genres that cut across dance and theater. First, Maiya Murphy lays out the genealogies of the simultaneous developments of contemporary physical theater practices and techniques of postmodern dance from the mid-twentieth century to today and makes aesthetic links between the two forms highlighting their shared cultural and historical influences. Stacy Wolf and Liza Gennaro take on seemingly the most obvious genre in our discussion, musical theater, but their examination lends new insight particularly in terms of the varied and variable functions in the relationship between dance and the text and the many ways in which dance has “served” the musical and gets at meaning in a way not available to the score, lyrics, dialogue, design, etc. Colleen Dunagan takes us in a perhaps unexpected but exciting direction by looking at the implications for theatricality, liveness, spectacle, and social identity from dance in popular television (reality shows, primetime hits, and commercials) and extends her analysis to ontological proportions. Susan Leigh Foster pushes the “usual suspects” of dance analysis even further by examining flash mobs and dance mobs, Internet culture, public spaces, spectacle, politics, ethics, and consumer capitalism.

The second part of the Genus section takes a more global approach, though many of the other chapters in the book are international, intercultural, and transnational. By no means am I arguing that these examples are totally representative of national zeitgeists. Rather, I find it interesting to examine aesthetic choices from this worldly perspective. Royd Climenhaga looks at German tanztheater icon Pina Bausch and the ways in which her work challenges notions of presence, expression, drama, obstacle, individuality, and the “convenient boundaries between dance and theater [that] are collapsed at the site of the performer’s body.” Praise Zenenga shows us that in African total theater performative elements (theater, music, dance, etc.) are always already integrated in a complex aesthetic matrix and theorizes the key elements of total theater and the conscious decision on the part of African artists to resist the separation and hierarchization of these elements. He pushes the definition of theater itself and highlights the attention necessary to understand the dynamics of the history of these practices and values. Jane Baldwin looks at Jean Gascon’s work that traverses not only theater and dance but also French Canada and English Canada. She shows how the quest for (p. 11) unity in a national theater is borne acutely on the body of the performer by giving us the history of this important artist. Marianne McDonald navigates time and aesthetics by tracing not only the importance of dance in ancient Greek drama but also how Martha Graham and Ariane Mnouchkine adapt ancient texts with uniquely modernist takes on the body.

The next section takes on historiography at the site of theater and dance. These articles are more than essays on figures or events of the past. Beyond that, these articles investigate the implications of history-making and the ways in which we remember and re-member the past. Ketu H. Katrak looks at the female Indian performance group of artist/scholars The Post Natyam Collective and the work Sunoh! Tell Me Sister and studies the work the collective does in creatively recreating the past of mid-eighteenth-century South Asian courtesans and linking that history to contemporary South Asian women in domestic violence situations through movement, script, and multimedia. This mash-up of past and present mirroring the fragmented history provides rich terrain for drawing conclusions about memory, morality, training, emotion, and stereotypes and ultimately leads to engaging communities and raising awareness about social injustice. Odai Johnson looks at the resistance of paganism in the face of early Christian eradication as a performative embodiment of identity and as a dancerly resistance. As the Christian order swept the land, pagan culture located in dancer’s bodies proved more difficult to destroy than temples, statues, books, and idols. In this new look at the relationship between the archive and the repertoire, Johnson examines the power dynamics of performances and the survival of mimes in late antiquity despite the association with heathenism. Erika T. Lin sets the stage for the historiographical implications of theater and dance in early modern performance by examining the transformation of hobbyhorse and morris dances from social contexts to the professional stage. She looks at the theaters of Shakespeare and his contemporaries to get at these complex meanings. Touching on the alchemical and transformative discussed in Preston’s chapter, Lin points to the transgressive sexuality possible in festive mirth through transformative onstage performance in The Witch of Edmonton. The morris becomes a mechanism for queer eroticism and licensed licentiousness made manifest onstage though seeping into everyday life. Esther Kim Lee participates in recuperative analytic history and writes a wrongfully neglected important figure in dance and theater back into the archive by detailing and contextualizing the career of costume designer Willa Kim. She extends from a discussion of Kim to analyze costume history in Asian American performance and make an argument for the inclusion of costume design in the study of theater, dance, and performance. Lee meditates on the ways in which Kim’s ethnicity and gender helped, rather than hurt her career even if her reputation was linked to exoticized readings of her talent. Finally, Ann Dils looks at two creative examinations of Lincoln’s legacy, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary series, The Civil War, and Bill T. Jones’s 2009 piece Fondly Do We HopeFervently Do We Pray. By comparing the two pieces, Dils is able to make claims about the choices artists and scholars make and the implications on history making. Burns’s noble vision of white American masculinity and patriotic duty and Jones’s critique of public institutions, the ways in which we treat and mistreat each other, and the fixity of identity, though not exhaustive representations of the same past, hint at the range of historical interpretations and the stakes embedded in the processes of such meaning making.

In “Place, Space, and Landscape” four authors attend to the particulars of environment as constitutive of meaning in dance and theater. Amy Strahler Holzapfel unpacks the term “landscape” and, using Gertrude Stein’s conception of “play as landscape,” traces (p. 12) the affective meeting of theater and dance through landscape in three contemporary performance examples. Anne Flynn and Lisa Doolittle provide an ethnographic and historical study of the tradition of Blackfoot dance, the effects of colonial oppression, the bitterly ironic practice of destruction of these bodily practices for their original identitarian purposes and the state-sanctioned reconstruction of these practices as theatricalized event for tourists, and ultimately, the persistence of those original purposes through the generations. Like Midgelow and Preston, they demonstrate a particularly impressive facility with navigating different voices (performance theorists, creative writers, ethnographers, and historians). Sally Ann Ness then asks us to consider the constitution of subjectivity in touristic ritual sojourns. These pilgrimages (in this case to Yosemite’s Half Dome) present liminoid spirituality and a vocational identity. Ness’s intervention is to recognize the significance and nuance of performance in these settings ultimately detailing the choreography (and improvisation) of her own experience climbing Half Dome in a dangerous (though seemingly safe as orchestrated by the National Park Service) encounter with nature. Michael Morris pushes the composition of spirituality cum love, performance, and environment by examining Love Art Laboratory (Annie M. Sprinkle and Elizabeth M. Stephens) and their performative marriage to the sea. Morris articulates their living life as love and art through an ecosexual identity as emblematic of an intra-action that portends the manifestation of a new ontology or at least a new ideology of ontology.

In “Affect, Somatics, and Cognition” the writers engage various methodologies for getting at our subjectively experienced feelings about performance. Either holistic, imagistic, or parsed out neuron by neuron, these theories all scan the body to get at meaning. Petra Kuppers asks us to become aware of our own bodies as we read her essay and view her examples. After theorizing on somatic work in communities, she details her own work as artist, facilitator, flaneur, and participant. She deeply engages relationality, embodiment, and counterpublics in terms of disability, community performance, and flanerie. Amy Cook details the possibilities for a cognitive approach to examining the nexus of theater and dance. Taking as a point of departure her flinch and squirm when a performer stabbed a horse puppet in Warhorse, she deploys theories of embodied cognition and conceptual blending to analyze two contemporary performances. She lends insight into the science of emotion and empathy by linking performance to agency and selfhood. Sondra Horton Fraleigh looks at two important affective relationships (love and power) in the works of Pina Bausch, Elizabeth Streb, and butoh in terms of the embodiment of imagery. The image-making process is a complex network of relationships between artist, audience member, performer, art, and meaning. From kinesthetic awareness to conscious cognition, our experiences of art become part and parcel of us, our projects of self-making and utopic imaginings. Taking up the theme of imagery, Darcey Callison analyzes the relationship between narrative and spectacle in the evocation of emotional response in Robert Lepage’s work. Relying on the ocularcentrism of certain cultures, the typical elements of dramatic structure (story, character, and text) no longer hold the same weight. Instead, images become discursive and the technology and choreography of the images shape intellectual meaning and power relations and challenge audiences to look, feel, and think differently.

Patrick Anderson’s essay could easily fit into the previous section and it opens the discussion on unruly bodies as a bridge between affect and dissent from normative processes. He writes about the “ruses of empathy” located in several moments of Althusserian turns. He defines a “choreographic imperative” by examining the definitions of dance by the court (p. 13) system around several public encounters with police that involved movement and examples of bodies moving or not moving in public spaces as aesthetic practices of political discourse. The essay also serves to foreshadow our discussion of biopolitics. But ultimately, these bodies refuse to behave themselves and the results have important implications for what choreography can “set forth.” Picking up on Zenenga’s articulation of African total theater, Halifu Osumare demonstrates the survival of Africanist aesthetic practices in one of the Diaspora’s latest manifestation, hip-hop. This body-based epistemology is part and parcel of a long tradition of embodied historiography, public “voice,” and layered significance. Through the amalgamation of text, music, and dance, Osumare argues that hip-hop participates in this theatrical conjuring of magic as survival making way for performance as social movement. Thomas Postlewait examines a particularly provocative example of a body that resisted “rule.” Postlewait, like Lee, delivers a recuperative analytical history of a surprisingly ignored yet important figure in London theater. Jeffrey Hudson was a dwarf who performed before kings and queens, had parts written for him by Ben Jonson and William Davenant, and was the most famous court performer in the 1630s. His absence from performance histories, no doubt because he was a dwarf, exposes a bias in historiography, and this chapter could certainly join the earlier conversation on history and historiography. But the voyeurism of his body that simultaneously captivated contemporaneous audiences and betrayed a scholarly blind spot is of primary interest here. Postlewait rectifies some of this erasure by analyzing Hudson’s unruly body in performance. Finally, Krista K. Miranda discusses another immersive space on experimental performance in which the audience directly engages heightened “life” through dance theater. Her essay discusses the movement from “real” to “hyper-real” in Ann Liv Young’s Michael and the dis-ease of the uncanny in this experience of the development of female sexuality and subjectivity.

Though many essays in this volume address a type of biopolitics, the essays in the next section directly engage the encounters between the body and political or cultural ideology. Daphne P. Lei argues that focus on the body of Chinese performers in Western spaces over the orality of the sounds of storytelling or singing was a willing act on the part of the West to render Asian subjectivity as body over voice and these muted bodies dominate the representation of the East to the West. Lei looks at Chinese dancing bodies in Chinese opera on international stages and argues that political moves served to other the Asian body and misread Oriental performing bodies as fixed dancing bodies thereby equating culture, ethnicity, and dance. E. J. Westlake gives a case study of Diana Taylor’s archive and repertoire by discussing performances of the Nicaraguan dance drama El Güegüence. As a contested site of communal and cultural memory, reworkings of the dance spark dialogue about the “authenticity” of the tradition and the resistive and restorative power of embodied tradition over the erasure of the remains of the artifact of the original dance and the original body/subjectivity. Jade Power Sotomayor outlines the national and racial corporeal “conversations” embedded in the practice and performance of bomba music and dance as repertoire. She contrasts theatricalized representations of the form with community-based counterparts and details the nuances of the different power dynamics and narratives of race and nation created in these spaces. She defines the “speaking body” to show how bomba as improvised, embodied music-making relies on both theater and dance in a complex politicized matrix of signification. William Given then adds to the body of scholarship around the politics of appropriation of African American performance tropes. By focusing in on the Lindy Hop, Given is able to (p. 14) provide a detailed analysis of the implications of the new layers of meaning created when the dance form moved from being Harlem-identified to being American-identified. The liminal space of the integrated dance floor of the Savory Ballroom cum imagined community is unpacked, and the process and social politics of shifting the dances identity is theorized.

The next section pushes these politicized conversations to larger scales. We look at performative moments that exist on extreme, intense, or national proportions. Sandy Peterson begins with a look at a 1920 spectacle in Petrograd (a.k.a. St. Petersburg, Leningrad) involving over 100,000 spectators and over 8,000 performers. This example of total theater serves a very different purpose from the African total theater discussed by Zenenga. Peterson argues that these complex displays were attempts to narrativize and mythologize the Bolshevik regime. This involved not only revolutionary reimaginings of the performer/audience relationship and experience but also reimaginings of the ultimate purpose of performance. She shows how communities are created in these processes with the goal of articulating a shared past, present, and future as a grand narrative defining national identity. Marie C. Percy looks at the incorporation of Nazi politics through choreographic strategies during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She details Rudolf von Laban’s relationship with the Third Reich in general and the Reich Chamber of Culture in particular to contextualize the use of theater and dance in Nazi pursuits and add to the conversation on embodying power. Talchum, the Korean masked folk dance-drama, also works to create, define, and strengthen community by blurring lines between audience and performer but with very different goals than the previous two examples in this section. Though it was nearly wiped out by the Japanese occupation, large efforts have been made since the 1960s to preserve the tradition. J. L. Murdoch becomes a participant observer to embody understanding and provide details of the local differences and the implications for cohesive understanding of the regional and national import of this performance practice. Following the equine affective power that sparks Cook’s examination, Kim Marra brings her embodied knowledge as a rider to explore the immensity of large-scale equestrian performances that are choreographed syntheses of human and equine movement capacity. She focuses on the work of Bartabas, the enigmatic founder and principal performer of the equestrian dance-theater troupe Zingaro. She provides a complex investigation around issues of zooesis, race, gender, sexuality, species, ethics, intensity, power, privilege, and aesthetics. And lastly, Neal Hebert examines the larger-than-life drag Mardi Gras Bal Masques in contemporary Louisiana and untangles the far-reaching implications of performances by the Krewe of Apollo, a gay male community in the city-parish of Baton Rouge. Hebert resists simple interpretations and instead recognizes the complexities of class, Camp(s), and consumer capitalism in these spectacular embodied performances of sexuality writ large.

From unconsciously tapping our feet to a song to sympathetic emotional responses to the plight of a character to dance mania resulting in death, embodied performances are infectious. The articles in the last section interrogate some important moments in history where dance and theater meet around contagion. Miriam Felton-Dansky discusses the Living Theatre’s attempt to stage Antonin Artaud’s plague (a totalizing event resulting in extinction or purification). The turning point in the company’s aesthetic in terms of dramaturgy, staging, and audience participation was inextricably linked to a turn away from using texts in the ways they had before and a turn toward embodiment of poetry and (p. 15) ritual. The “mercilessly contagious epidemic” that is a part of performance became more important to the work. So much so that when the performers “died” in the audience and audience members “caught” their plague and died with them and allowed themselves to be piled on the heap of dead bodies, there was more than just benign play-acting happening. Felton-Dansky unpacks this attempt to make gesture communicable, plague revolutionary, and pacifist anarchy contagious. Marlis Schweitzer investigates the “epidemic” of Salome performances that surfaced in the beginning of twentieth century. Salome’s dancing, state of dress, eroticism, and deadly mission were the stuff of both derision and obsession. The discourse surrounding this “fad” suggests the joy and threat of the infectious desire to witness “Salomania.” The fear was that good Victorian women would catch this disease through performance and the social order of respectability would unravel with dire consequences for health, sanity, morality, sexuality, and (for some) the very foundation of society. Schweitzer focuses in on the contradictory meanings for the dance that were shaped by anti-Semitism and homophobic assumptions about the degeneracy of Jewish sexuality. Virginia Anderson looks at Broadway’s philanthropic response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She defines the “philanthroproduction” as a professionally produced and fully mounted performance event that raises money for nonprofit organizations. By looking at Broadway Bares and analyzing the theater and dance in the performances alongside the socioeconomic situations, she shows how this annual burlesque offers important clues about the shifting attitudes about HIV. Like Felton-Dansky, Michael Lueger begins with Artaud but he directly ties Artaud’s theories to epidemic choreomania. He defines choreomania not only as a transmittable uncontrollable impulse to dance but also as performance and follows out some of the undertheorized aspects of Artaud’s philosophies. He looks at three instances of these “dancing plagues” and considers the results that lead to either death or purification.

It is fitting that we end with choreomania, a topic that has always interested me—the compulsion of large numbers of bodies to move, to perform. It illustrates the affective and effective power of embodied performance. It also hints at one of my earliest influences as a young child. I hesitated to include such a seemingly prosaic example alongside the profound articles you are about to read, but the more I engaged with these conversations as I curated the book, the more apt it seems. In the 1980 movie Fame, a movie about the hopes and dreams of students at New York’s High School of the Performing Arts, the father of a young music student, a New York City cab driver, stops his cab in front of the school, pops in his son’s tape, puts a speaker on top of the cab and plays his son’s music. Kids come pouring out of the school, take to the streets, and dance. They stop traffic (read the city) with their art while Bruno Martelli (the music student) and the cab driver play out a scene of dramatic father/son conflict. This early flash mob paved the way to understanding the characters’ journeys. Everyone in the city seemed to catch the fever. The state, in the form of a mounted police officer, was helpless. These bodies would not be contained. This moment displayed the possibilities of the performing arts in theory and practice—the boundless coming together of bodies. Utopic and hopeful? Forgive me. Did I just want to do fouetté turns on a New York City cab? Perhaps. But from the promise of this early moment, through the gritty and sometimes tragic stories that unfolded, to graduation, where they sing the body electric, this performance helped inspire me to think deeply about embodied performance as an artist and as a scholar. I hope this volume, ostensibly on the body electric, inspires the reader to do the same.


Davis, Tracy C., and Thomas Postlewait, eds. Theatricality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Jonas, Hans. The Phenomenon of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Kourlas, Gia. “ ‘Sleep No More,’ but Move Nonstop.” New York Times, September 6, 2011. Accessed May 20, 2013.

Leder, Drew. The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Manning, Susan. “An American Perspective on Tanztheater.” Drama Review: TDR 30, no. 2 (Summer 1986): 57–79.Find this resource:

Straus, Erwin. The Primary World of Senses. Translated by Jacob Needleman. Glencoe, NY: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963.Find this resource:


(1.) Gia Kourlas, “ ‘Sleep No More,’ but Move Nonstop,” New York Times, September 6, 2011, (accessed May 20, 2013).

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) These affective barometers are debatable, of course. My point is that in the spectrum of theatricality Contact pairs dance with method acting, a novel choice that was a key difference in the pieces’ aesthetic and an important factor in the show’s acclaim.

(4.) Wikipedia provides an apt metaphor for this rabbit hole, as a search for “dance theater” gets redirected to “tanztheater.” If one spells theater with “re” and searches for “dance theatre” Wikipedia redirects you to “contemporary dance,” an entirely different entry.

(5.) A colleague joked with me once about referring to me as a dance scholar only to be corrected by another who informed her that I was a theater scholar.

(6.) It is beyond this project to try to answer these questions or others, such as What is dance? or What is theater? But it would do for me to ask you, reader, and leave it to you to unravel, for surely there are many valid answers.

(7.) Drew Leder, The Absent Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 1.

(8.) For Leder, illness and aging are the important moments when our focus shifts acutely to our bodies.

(9.) See Erwin Straus, The Primary World of Senses, trans. Jacob Needleman (Glencoe, NY: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 233–36; Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 152–56; Leder, The Absent Body, 17–20.

(10.) We could push this further to argue circuitously “I can think therefore I am” if we understand thought as embodied mental activity in a nonmetaphorical sense.

(12.) Tracy C. Davis and Thomas Postlewait, eds., Theatricality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1.

(13.) Ibid., 6.

(14.) Ibid., 10.

(15.) Susan Manning, “An American Perspective on Tanztheater,” The Drama Review: TDR 30, no. 2 (Summer 1986), 68.