Scripturam Corporis : Towards a New Language of Embodiment

As an independent dance artist working with the spaces in between live art and dance I often find myself having to explain what exactly it is that I do.

After having spent a good part of my twelve years in London going to art openings, working with art curators and collaborating with visual artists, I am met time and time again with a mixture of bewilderment and curiosity whenever I am asked to explain what kind of performer I am. Despite the proliferation of dance and performance exhibitions such as Danser sa vie at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, or the Barbican exhibition on The Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York In the 1970’s and Move: Choreographing You at the Hayward Gallery in London, I still get the feeling that the visual art world’s knowledge of dance history and performance is somewhat limited.

Although I am very happy to see that institutional attention towards performance is growing, that visual artists and art curators are increasingly interested in working with dancers and performers, and that many choreographers are entering the museum and gallery space, something worries me. I am beginning to fear that our practice might be swallowed up within visual art theory. I think we are potentially witnessing the disembodiment of dance practice and the critical theory surrounding our practice.

For the past three years I have been attempting to close the growing gap between my artistic practice and theories that might support my practice. To do this I have travelled across Europe attending a series of lectures and symposiums on performance and choreography, in the hopes of finding a language that is able to give embodiment its rightful place within theoretical discourse.

What emerges from my travels and concerns me most is the sense of a “little sister complex” that some dance and performance theoreticians seem to have acquired by constantly drawing comparisons with visual art and film theory.  

I also get the feeling that, even as dance practitioners, we are developing a trend of utilizing theory as a way to
justify the use of the body and movement as a medium, almost as if apologizing for having a dance history.

Despite 25 years of dancing I still get excited about watching people move. I will never tire of observing how our gestures and the idiosyncrasies that are embedded within our physicality speak volumes about how we behave as human beings and interact with one another.

I strongly believe that the ephemerality of dance is its strength. In a society and culture where value and wealth are increasingly based on consumer goods, the fact that dance and performance provide an experience rather than yet another material good is a very empowering aspect not to be taken lightly. We don’t need to apologize for investigating the activity of moving, nor do we need to be constantly backing it up with theory that is borrowed from other disciplines.

Within the dance and performance community we often refer back to the 60’s as being the most exciting and important time for performance investigation. Even those of us that were very far from being born then appear to be nostalgic about it.

I would argue that the reason why we are so keen on reminiscing about the 60’s and post- modernism is that performance makers of the time were really testing the body’s limits. They were pushing the boundaries of what embodiment could be perceived as and, in turn, challenging what was labeled or classified as performance.
As dance practitioners and performance makers we are losing sight of something very important: the power that embodiment has in producing an emotional response which has very little to do with verbal intelligence and a lot to do with intuition.

Amidst all this theory we appear to forget about our embodied practice, seemingly accepting a Cartesian mind-body split, where the mind theorizes and the body acts merely as a tool for such theorization. Is not the activity of investigating movement a form of intelligence in its own right?

We should be attempting to create a theory about dance and performance, which is not written necessarily in the same way that visual art history has been written. What I find exciting is the idea that perhaps we can write a history of dance and performance

that may have embodiment at its very core.

In a culture that has us stepping away from a physical and an embodied understanding of the world by relying more and more heavily upon virtual realities to operate and interact with one another, the body is becoming a mere vehicle for carrying the brain around in space.

As movement practitioners and theoreticians we should not attempt to measure our embodied knowledge only through the restricted lens of reason, or subjugating this knowledge to visual art theory, where the eye and vision dominate the discourse surrounding perception. We should rather find a way of translating our physical knowledge into a theory of embodiment that might even challenge and contaminate the academic realm with new practices of embodied perception and intuitive knowing across disciplines.
This is where cross-pollination between different artistic practices, rather than a translation of one language into another needs to occur.

We need to find a more eloquent language to describe movement and the creative processes behind practice-based work that is up to par with other disciplines, such as film and visual art but without apologizing for having a younger theoretical history.

The fact that contemporary dance and performance theory is relatively young could even be an advantage: as dance practitioners we could have the important role of investing academic and critical discourse with a more intuitive perspective, which takes under account different modes of perception. Then perhaps we might also bridge the gap between the experience of dance and its conceptual and philosophical implications.