Dance Studies as a Reaction against Dance History
The historical changes of Ballet are apparent to dance scholars: From the 15. to the 17. century, the Ballet de court was a way for french nobility to communicate with no clear distinction between dancer and audience or even different forms of media. Only in this time it was that choreography as such was invented and dance began to be understood as a practice of fixed steps and movements, taught by experts that had reached mastery in their field. The dance showcased the position of the dancer in court and was a form of honoring the king.
By the 18. century, ballet had established itself as an independent art form with more refined narrative practices, compiled by a choreographer, author and conductor. The newly established canon for choreography included rules and offered a symbolic language for dancers. This normative aspect made international communication through dance possible and provided a seemingly rational approach to dance, based on the perfect dancing body.
The contemporary understanding of ballet – such as gendered roles and specific movements – orignate in the 19. century. The goal of artists in that area was to leave behind the strict structures of classical ballet which entailed new themes, such as fairytailes, which replaced greek and roman mythology. Movements were standardised to bring the body into the right position.1
Traditional dance history sees this development as a narrative from the ‘lacking’ beginnings to the perfectioned art of modern ballet. The field of dance studies which was established in the 1980s critizices this view. One of those critics is Susan Leigh Foster in the essay The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe. She points out the male-centric history of ballet and its interpretation, focussing especially on the role of inevitable gender-based terminology and the female lead. Her interest in these subjects, Foster claims, stems from the fact that gender related structures are still at play in contemporary ballet as they are part of what constitues ballet as such.
The early nineteenth century brought with it a new understanding of the body as a thing which had to be maintained and which should fulfil a certain standard by the means of physical education.2 Here lies a paradox, as the mastery that came with training was cast aside as a natural abilty of the born dancer. (p. 9) This objectification of the body did however not de-sexualize it but rather made it possible to project erotic connotations onto it, especially the female body. It became a good to be consumed by capitalist society, inherently connected to sexual intercourse instead of art. (P. 6)
As capital, male and female dancers had different value. Foster presents their relationship as one of subject and object: While the ballerina is at the center-stage, it is her male partner that presents her as “the object of his adoration”, guided and manipulated by him without her own agency. (p. 2-3) The beginning of this dichotomy dates back to the Romantic ballet which reserved “complex footwork, the devetopés of the leg and extended balances for women and the high leaps, Jumps with beats, and multiple pirouettes for men.” (p. 4)
This led to certain gendered narrative roles for dancers. While the male protagonist usually was an ordinary human, his female counterpart was either a supernatural being which had to vanish at the end of the story or a seductive foreigner. (p. 4) As dancers “by nature”, these female characters provided opportunity for the story to break into dance naturally.
This is further empathised by the viewer’s experience. Female audience “must look through the eyes of the male dancer at his partner in order actively to assert attraction, or she must empathize passively with the ballerina as an object of male desire.” The male viewer, on the other hand, must choose between representation through a effeminate man with access to the female body or to focus on that male dancer “within a homosexual counter-reading of the performance.” (p 3)
As “effeminate”, the male dancer failed to provide the desired gender expression and was to be removed in order to give space to the female dancer. (p. 8) Still, the dance itself supported the partriarchy by presenting the female character and body through a lense of desirablity to male character and audience. In the end, she is a means to secure the future of the nation and male dominance as she is passed on from her father to her husband. (p. 11) One way to forego this problem is the travesty dancer, a female dancer that takes the male role. She portrays several “features of the patriarchal order.” She gives the female lead the image of a heterosexual partner to procreate with, enhances the male superiority by portraying the lead of the man and, lastly, is another female body to consume for the male audience. (p. 12)
The dominant conceptualization of contemporary ballet is still defined by gender binaries. Foster offers new perspectives on the function of male and female dancers. For the male dancer, this means to step out of the compulsory heterosexuality required by his role. No longer is he forced to be the admirer of the female lead, but he offers female coded movements himself. This opens new ways of interpretation for the audience as well as new possibilites of expression for the artist.
While the ballerina, according to Foster, keeps her position as a phallic object desirable to men, but through their gaze, she is empowered. (p. 14) By this, Foster re-conceptualizes modern ballet by offering a different lense. On themes, analysis and the presentation itself. While Foster argues from a feminist perspective which challenges the male gaze, this re-thinking can be the basis for all sorts of theoretic groundwork. This means that a work does not have to be “crip” or “queer”, for example, to be analysed through those lenses. It suggests a new approach to older normative text. By findeng themes about otherness in the past, it might become easier to see and use them for present and future works.
Temporality as a concept in queer in crip theory
The queer and crip communities experience temporality differently from able bodied cis straight people. From this insight arose the question of how to talk about time in a new way. As for queer people, the differences start in childhood. They “lack” the expected attraction to the opposite sex or the “right” gender expression. The response is confusion, fear and adaption to the norm. Many queer people discover their identity later in live, meaning they do not get the chance to built the expected family by the age a cis hetero person would – given the LGBT+ person wants that in the first place and is able to do so in their home country. Additionally, the job market is harder on queer people. Overall, this leads to a “delay” in the normative assumptions about life. An additional problem is the fact that many queer people do not desire what society presents as normality. A life with one monogamous partner and children is either not desirable or not available to them.
For disabled people, temporality is rather unpredictable than slower. For example, anyone can become disabled at any moment in their life, altering their entire perception of time. Time as a whole is often unpredictable for disabled people because of obstacles such as difficulties in public transport, but even the condition of pain or mobility can vary day by day.
This is often hard to comprehend for able bodied people. The understanding of disability is inherently related to time in the process of “congenital and acquired, diagnosis and prognosis, remission and relapse, temporarily able-bodied and illness, age, or accident.”3 This accounts for the fact that disabled people perceive time differently, but theoretical approaches often focus on the time it takes to “fix” a disabled person. Not only does this approach negate complexity in the process of a “cure” – for example the “the power dynamics between processes of medicalization versus real healing.”4 This mandatory currative time also excludes disabled people who cannot heal from any possible future. And if a future with disabilty is part of a theory of time, disablity is always the “bad future” that is barely worth living at all. Instead, according to Alison Kafer, the future is mostly portrayed as a disability free utopia; future for disabled people is cured future and future for non-disabled people is not only without disability, but without the threat of it. This ignores the fact that “healing” does not always entail a complete return to able bodiedness but instead a live worth living with impairment.5
Both crip and queer theories of future are inherently connected to death. The mainstream sees disabilty as a never ending struggle which leaves two options: overcoming the disability or vanishing – either by retreating from society or dying. LGBT+ people are victims of violence and disease, not only through sexual encounter but also through impoverishment. The optins are, once again, overcoming or vanishing. This inherently connects both movements.
A new way of understanding time which accounts for these experiences is crip time. It suggests to turn away from the mandatory development from dependent child to independent adult. Rather, dependency should be seen as a complex, nuanced topic. In this sense, time looses its normative connotations and gives way to represent specific needs and reflects realistic experiences.6 This also should not only be a topic within pieces of art themselves, but also in the presentation which are to be accessible. Accessibilty is not only the possibilty to enter the building in which the presentation takes place, but also the performance itself which could, for example, be translated into sign language.
One performance this perspective of temporality can be applied to is Body of Work by Daniel Linehan. In this work, he examines the traces his work of the past 15 years as a dancer left on his body – be it through muscle memory or injury. The theme of the work revolves around the passing of time from childhood to adulthood and the connection of the past and the present.7
The body itself is, as the title Body of Work suggests, an important issue of introspection for Linehan. To him, the physicality of the body is a means of expressing emotion, to externalize them. Linehan starts the piece by caressing his body with a microphone, recording the noise of the fabric as a musical basis for the following performance. This both playful and skillful exploration of the body remains an important aspect throughout the entire piece.
The artist is looking for an emotional resonace with his dance gestures which include touching members of the audience. By this, he includes them in his personal experience of the dance. The connection also resembles the encounters with others people have on the course of their lifes. They might be brief, but in the sense of body memory Linehan is exploring, they leave traces of connection on the body. By sharing this bond, the dancer forms a sort of intimacy which is neccessary for the openness to share thoughts and memories. The movements of the dancer provide a tool of connection, not only to his own past, but also to the audience. This is reflected in the undressing of the artist. With time, he reveals more of himself to the audience. The clothing itself becomes a means of expression by exploring the fabric in unconventional ways. This suggests to explore seemingly mundain objects with a new perspective.
The circular movements represent the passing of time. They are accompanied by minimalistic gestures of head, hand and arms, sometimes slow, sometimes faster, as to reflect the subjectiveness of the speed of passing time. The dance itself often proceeds in circles in which Linehan repeats movements with small varations. This shows the linearity of time and disrupts it by new movements – relatable to the ‚explosive‘ crip time Kafer describes. The pieces are then re-assembled to a new aspect of the dance, often accompanied by different media such as text, recording, music and light.
The piece Body of Work presents the artist as explores his past both as a dancer and a human. The temporality shown is fragmented, as it is a retrospective. Looking back at previous life stages provides insights that were not available at the time. The concept of crip temporality offers a tool to analyse this fragmented understanding of time, which makes it interesting in the study of disabilty dance.
1 The paragraphs above are a summary of the introductory power point presentation.
2 Foster, Susan Leigh: The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe. In: Corporealities : dancing knowledge, culture and power. London 1996. p. 5-6. All citations fort he answer to the first question are from this work and will be refered to by the page number in the following.
3 Carrie Sandahl July 27, 2019 The Phenomenological Turn in Disability Arts: Crip Time and Disability Aesthetics. P. 10.
4 Carrie Sandahl July 27, 2019 The Phenomenological Turn in Disability Arts: Crip Time and Disability Aesthetics. P. 9.
5 Carrie Sandahl July 27, 2019 The Phenomenological Turn in Disability Arts: Crip Time and Disability Aesthetics. P. 11-12.
6 Carrie Sandahl July 27, 2019 The Phenomenological Turn in Disability Arts: Crip Time and Disability Aesthetics. P. 4.
7 https://www.stuk.be/en/program/body-of-work (link from 25.06.2020)