Author: Jeroen Fabius
First publication: 01/01/2004
Language: English
Originally published in: Danswetenschap in Nederland - Deel 3
Made available by: Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek
Media: article

Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in: Linden, M. van der, L. Wildschut, J. Zeijlemaker (eds.) (2004), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 3. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp.42-54.

Ways of presenting the dancing body in the work of Steve Paxton and Meg Stuart

‘The Dancer believes that his art has something to say which cannot be expressed in words or in any other way than by dancing … there are times when the simple dignity of movement can fulfil the function of a volume of words. There are movements which impinge upon the nerves with a strength that is incomparable, for movement has power to stir the senses and emotions, unique in itself. This is the dancer’s justification for being, and his reason for searching further for deeper aspects of his art.’
– Doris Humphrey –

Dance as an art form has always made use of ways in which the moving body becomes communicative in theatrical display. Dancers of all ages have studied ways in which to make this idea most effective in the contexts in which they found themselves. Dances therefore can be studied from this perspective: how do the dancers think about the body, the moving body, how do they speak about ways in which the body communicates on the stage? I am particularly interested in the strategies that are employed to deal with the problem that Humphrey describes above, the art that has something to say that cannot be expressed in words. It is an issue that remains difficult to cope with in discursive form, as Steve Paxton has repeatedly said, how can we deal in language with the unspeakable, the unknowable, the unconscious, and realms of movement where these are so prominent. Language structures our perception, and often proves quite inadequate in these contexts, especially in dance, ‘we accustom our minds to the language version of the experience’ (Paxton, 2003, p. 422).

Acknowledging Paxton’s warning, I will not try to define what is expressed, or experienced, but analyse the strategies dance makers have developed to present the body on stage, to find out what motivates the dance makers in choosing their strategies. I will therefore make use as much as possible of direct primary sources, interviews or original writings of the artists. I will introduce some of the classical ideas about presenting the body in dance, most eloquently and explicitly formulated by Doris Humphrey in her book ‘The Art of Making Dances’, and analyse the shifts of attention by the post-modernist choreographers Steve Paxton and Meg Stuart. Paxton and Stuart are both prominent choreographers of later generations than Humphrey. Paxton, of course, was part of the Judson Church innovations in dance, and has consistently questioned the workings of the body, and mind, in dancing, as he demonstrates through his still active artistic career, as well as in the amount of writing he has produced, on improvisation in particular. Stuart represents a later generation of post-modern dance, building on the Judson Church innovations, and creating a series of impressive works since the early 1990s in which the body plays a central role.

One event that sparked this discussion for me happened during the Conversations on Choreography at the School for New Dance Development in 1999. André Lepecki spoke about his experiences as dramaturge with Meg Stuart and Vera Mantero, how in working with them he had become interested in the question of ‘microscopy’, the scale of presenting dance, ‘how small can a dance be?’ Paxton, who introduced the concept of the small dance in the 70s, also asks ‘how short can the process of dance making be?’ This subject is not free from polemical debate. One can situate this discussion in the middle of the so-called crisis of contemporary art: has the avant-garde lost ground and purpose, has it lost connection with its audience, and become alienated from the public debate, in that it only produces non-art, anti-art, or in the case of dance, non-dance, anti-dance. If one looks at the debate around, for example, the Spring Dance festival of 2003 in the Netherlands, it seems that some journalists and critics certainly think so. The words ‘non-dance’ have been part of a real dance political debate, which took place over a couple of months in the Volkskrant and the magazine de Theatermaker. It seems that critics feel that theatrical rules are twisted or ignored so much that the contract with the audience is broken.[i] Hans Thies Lehmann writes in his book Postdramatisches Theater (1999) about a crisis going on in the reception of contemporary theatre: the concepts that are used to analyse the works come from preceding eras of theatre making, and are in conflict with the intentions and concerns of the makers. Where the contemporary makers are consciously trying to move away from certain ways of thinking, the critics are still applying old theories about the theatre. Indeed the previously mentioned dance debate in the Netherlands also touched on the issue of dance criticism. For example, rather than describe Meg Stuart’s work as introvert, Laermans analyses her work as portraying contemporary society as autistic, and acknowledges her ways of breaking with traditional theatrical rules for presentation (Laermans, 1995).

As part of this debate I would like to introduce the concept of presentational modes, and distinguish different positions, perhaps irrespective of the debate described above, but useful to acknowledge the contributions of these dance artists. ‘To present’ can mean to give, bestow, exhibit, show publicly, offer, state. Presentational modes then can vary in:

  1. degrees of giving, exhibiting, showing, offering or stating;
  2. the way the public space is defined;
  3. in the case of dancing, how the body is defined in this communicative process.

Humphrey: The Projecting Body
Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) is one of the influential choreographers who made most of her work between the 1930s and 1940s, but was very influential through her teaching and her writings, in particular her book ‘The Art of Making Dances’, referred to above.

Frontal projection: a conscious sense of distance
In relation to aspects of showing, Humphrey stresses the optimisation of the view for the spectator. She is very articulate about formal aspects of presenting the movement to the spectator, as can be read in her book: ‘The dance is a visual art, but, unlike good sculpture, it is not equally arresting from all angles; it is at its best from only one direction. The full impact of the body should be directed to the front whenever possible’ (Humphrey, 1987, p. 85 and further). There are many examples of this idea of presenting the body on stage. It is a very strong organizing principle for choreography of course, excluding many other options. The examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spatial organisation of bodies are but too well known. Humphrey’s theory of choreography, as well as those of her contemporary Graham and her composer Louis Horst, stand for a strongly normative tradition in modernist thinking in dance, and qualify as prescriptive theorizing.

A consequence of stressing the frontal and visual in dance presentation is the idea of projection. ‘Dancing, being much more stylised than acting anyway, not only should, but must, employ the art of projection, however unnatural this may seem to the realists’ (Humphrey, 1987, p. 85). Dance is defined as a more stylised art form than other arts, and opposes the idea of realism, which should have no place in dance. Projection assumes a conscious effort of delivering to others, you might call it a ‘generous’ idea of offering, sharing, a lot of care is put into the effective delivery to the public. ‘When working on projection in a studio, I stress the fact that communication with the audience is the keynote, and explain that the whole focus of movement must be lifted out and up. (…) To project effectively – a conscious sense of distance must be developed. (…) There are both psychological and physical aspects of projection. The dancer who moves with confidence will command our attention because he is projecting his assurance’ (Humphrey, 1987, p. 85 and further). A conscious sense of distance and assurance will be important to keep the audience’s attention, whereas a lack of sense of distance and assurance will not.

In control of attention
In relation to notions of public communication, the idea of projection expresses a clear directionality between originator and receiver. This places a strong responsibility on the originator: everything that happens depends on the degree of effective projection by the performers. Humphrey speaks about ‘the confidence to command the attention’ and the ‘projection of assurance’. In order to be able to present the body to us in this manner, a choreographer needs to be ‘fascinated with all manifestation of form and shape, a close observer of people, (…) a keen observer of physical and emotional behaviour, who possesses dramatic sense: emotional personality in check by objectivity. Good eye and sensitive ear’ (Humphrey, 1987, p. 20 and further). In order to make this special knowledge accessible to others one needs to have all kinds of qualities, which Humphrey organises in binaries, physical and emotional behaviour, emotionality and objectivity, but what is most important is that one needs to be a good observer, with a good eye and ear.

This idea fits well in autonomist, formalist traditions in art. The artist presents a unique world of designing movement, but within the parameters of what is thought proper in public communication. The private and the personal do not fit in this model, dance is not a realist art but a formal art, as Humphrey puts it. Public communication has to obey all kinds of formal rules, which depart from the idea that the artist has to control what is presented, assuming also some control over what is perceived. Humphrey’s vision can stand for a paradigm that all but belongs to the past, though it is still applied by many artists and critics in the world of dance.

Hidden treasures
How then does Humphrey speak about the body in this process? She employs a mechanistic metaphor for describing the dancer’s body: ‘The dancer’s medium is the body, an extremely practical and tangible piece of goods already has a defined shape, a complex system of levers, (…) plus a lived in personality’ (Humphrey, 1987, p. 20). From the quote at the very beginning of the article it can already be deduced that Humphrey sees that there is a knowledge which opposes verbal articulation, that ‘impinges directly on the nerves, the senses, that is stirring emotions’ in a way that is unique. In her definition of a dancer, the opposition with verbal thinking comes back: ‘A dancer is a notoriously nonverbal thinker, inarticulate as well, who reveals hidden treasures (…) via expressive movement’ (Humphrey, 1987, p. 20). The dancer is able to access hidden treasures, thanks to his nonverbal and maybe inarticulate thinking as well.

To conclude, Humphrey speaks about dance as a formal art that will need the art of frontal projection to communicate with its audience. It needs to command the attention with a conscious sense of distance and assurance, in order to make visible the physical and emotional behaviour that reveal hidden treasures, which in turn will directly stir our own emotions.

Breaking with the projecting body
As if to make Lehmann’s point, that artists have changed the rules, and will have to be looked at and analysed differently, Yvonne Rainer, in her Chart from ‘A Quasi Survey of Some “Minimalist” Tendencies’ etc., was explicitly looking to break traditional rules of theatrical presentation. Dancers are neutral ‘doers’ (Copeland, 1983, p. 328 and further), movement is seen as task or object, she does away with phrasing of movement, she looks for ‘sameness of physical tone, … unhurried control … never permitting the performers to confront the audience’. The audience is not looked at anymore by the dancer to reassure them of his confidence, and to command their attention. Rainer has called these ‘minimalist’ tendencies, the giving lies not in showing the conscious effort of projecting and arresting attention, but in doing less, minimal effort.

Public communication here is defined as: ‘a work-like rather than exhibition-like presentation’.  Art is defined not as something outside the daily reality but rather as part of it, a work-like attitude will enhance the quality of the work. ‘People are engaged in actions and movements, making a less spectacular demand on the body and in which skill is hard to locate.’ Dancers ‘move or (are) moved by some thing rather than by themselves’. Rainer tries to bring our attention to something that pertains to the physical, bodily, by trying to exclude the interpretational, skilful or virtuous. Movement, and consequently embodiment itself, might be perceived as an object of attention, disregarding notions of genius, talent or virtuosity, etc.

The conflicts with Humphrey’s postulates are clear, possibly it also explains the use of the word ‘introvert’ by Dutch critics in relation to post-modern developments in the Netherlands in the early 1980s. After all, Rainer does away with all kinds of assumptions of public communication in designing the movement, and presents them rather in a work-like fashion. Dance, or art, does not need to be contrasted with daily life but needs to stress the continuity between both.

Paxton: The Introspective or Listening Body
Steve Paxton (1939), of course, was a contemporary of Rainer’s, initially doing very conceptual work in the 1960s, and gradually moving more and more into improvisational dance from the 1970s. I will be dealing more with his improvisational approach than the conceptual period. In terms of presentation Paxton’s work introduces the kinaesthetic, small and short dances in respect to degrees of giving and showing; public space as a the introspective laboratory; and the process of perceiving and becoming as ways in which the body is defined in this communicative process.

The kinaesthetic, small and short dances
Rather than focusing on the visual aspects of dancing, Paxton has been studying the kinaesthetic aspects of showing dance to an audience, and has actively questioned the relationship between the senses in dance. He has also looked at the scale of dancing: how small, how short can a dance be. These all relate to his lifelong interest in the way humans function in performance.

For Paxton theatre and dance are not purely visual, the spectator is also affected kinaesthetically. ‘Dance as a spectator art is made for the eyes, but the spectator also has a kinaesthetic response’ (Paxton, 2003, p. 421). He repeatedly expresses a wish for more sophisticated thinking about perception, there would be ‘more models of sensing: gravity, time’ (Paxton, 2003, p. 421). He sees performance as a way to facilitate ‘some sort of sensorial exchange. By using vision the audience is able to ‘ride’ the physical situation of the dance. This is empathy, and also synesthesia (Paxton, 1990, p. 19).

In Contact-improvisation, a duet form of improvised dance based on physical contact that Paxton developed in the early 1970s, kinaesthetic experience is central to the shaping of movement. In the same period he developed the Small dance. Before or after a dance the dancers are asked to stand still and monitor what is going on in the body. The relative passive stance still requires all kinds of activities that are necessary to prevent the body from collapsing. The monitoring makes one aware of all the bodily activity as well as all kinds of automatic physiological processes that keep the body functioning. It is seen as a meditation (Fall After Newton), an important stage of the warming up (or down) of the body and the mind. It has not only to do with physical sensations but with connecting physical sensation with awareness. In Contact-improvisation one can say the kinaesthetic functions as the organising principle of dancing. The pre-dominant orientation on proprioception in Contact-improvisation leads to Paxton’s observation that space is experienced as a sphere (Chute). One can imagine how kinaesthetic orientation of the body makes the kinesphere around the body the most important spatial orientation: kinaesthetic experiences are mostly determined by touch and proprioception, and thus the structural movement possibilities of the skeleton. This is in stark contrast with Humphrey who thought of dance as a visual communication, preferably to the front, so space is flattened to allow optimal vision for the spectator.

Since the 1970s Paxton has focussed mainly on improvised dance. Improvisation, he says, is an experiment to see ‘how short can the process be’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 2), the process of making dances. But Paxton is not very interested in prescribing particular formal characteristics of presenting dance, whether space should be spherical, dances small or short. The performance ‘situation is so relative, delicate and unspecified, understanding it relies more on general primal instincts than explicit codes’ (Paxton, 1990, p. 20). In improvisation Paxton will not start out from a clearly described goal to achieve something, the score is left open. ‘So I don’t find a place where nothing is foreseen. I find a place where what is foreseen is the question. And do you want it, or do you want to change it, is the process. (…) It seems to me that we have to talk about how we perceive where we’re going, how we want to get there’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 1).

Introspective laboratory
Paxton’s approach to showing the body on stage has repercussions for how he deals with public communication. He is not focusing on an active and all-responsible performer, but one who does not know what it looks like, and includes an active investigative onlooker. The performance is rather like a scientific experiment for the spectator to make his own discoveries, not to prove any pre-stated thesis but as an ongoing process.

As previously said, in terms of theatricality there is a strong departure from the ideas of Humphrey’s generation. Paxton does not project or assume command on the reception of the audience, ‘I don’t know whether I am aware of what impact my dancing has on people who watch’ (Paxton, 1994, p. 24). It would also harm the process as: ‘every time you look at your self you change it. So you can’t tell quite where you are’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 6). Rather than look at dance for its symbolic communication, by intentional use of literal metaphors, Paxton is inviting the audience to learn from the event while it is going on. The spectator is thought of as an investigator, a naturalist, or a Sherlock Holmes, he says (Eiland), who by his curiosity and attentive observation makes discoveries. ‘It’s (Improvisation, JF) almost a machine, almost, to discover what happened. When you discover it, you do it, and then you find out what happened. (…) But with this one you have to look at it very, very carefully, like a naturalist, at all the evidence and all the intuitions you have about the process. This is very difficult to do if you’re in it, it’s really a process for the audience’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 3). Paxton’s ideas about dancing link well with the discussion of introspection in experimental psychology. Francisco Varela (psychologist) is interested in the interface between lived experience and scientific study. ‘The idea of introspection is to seek what it is you know how to do. You have to make a gesture to move what is pre-reflective – that you know, but you don’t know how you know – into the reflective. And that is a specific form of laboratory; you have to do it just as much as in perception research’ (Obrist en Vanderlinden, p. 61-77).[ii]

In terms of public communications Paxton allows for openness of the situation rather than control, it is in the nature of the work he does. The audience is ‘listening in’ with the performers’ movement choices. Choices that, in Paxton’s view, are not conscious choices, that he can remember afterwards. Dancing in this view is pre-reflective; he speaks of riding the flow’ of movement. ‘Maybe we’re finally starting to train perception up to the point where it starts to be able to see more subtle body language’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 9). So to combine both Paxton’s interest in the sensorial exchange, and the introspective experiment, we can say Paxton sees the theatre as a place for (re)generation of our senses: ‘when we leave the theatre, we take leave of our senses as we know them and regain them as they are’ (Paxton, 1990, p. 20).

Perceiving and becoming
‘We cannot talk in terms of the inside and the outside, but in terms of properties and descriptive qualities. If you attempt to divide things up, you suddenly end up with no inside’ (Varela in Obrist en Vanderlinden, p. 61-77). Just as Varela has phrased it (above) speaking about introspection, also in Paxton’s work we cannot make the split between mind and body. The spectator is reading both mind and body simultaneously. He is looking for a way to open up to the pre-reflective, but without excluding the role of the conscious mind altogether. ‘Every now and then it’s very good to have the conscious mind say “go to another light” or “change space” or “start moving because you haven’t moved for a while”, (…) wake up to the fact that you’re on stage’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 7). ‘Thoughts do come and go, so that’s part of the instrument’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 6). If he does work from a particular idea or desire there will be a chain of thoughts and feelings, which he describes as an ‘internal ping pong’. ‘So I make a move and then there’s a rapidly shifting… a lot of reactions, in a way, which are creating as they go to the next move.  So in a way all I have to do is start (…)  and it goes for quite a while, this kind of internal ping pong’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 7). But the conscious mind is not equipped to control the process: ‘So having thoughts and ideas actually is a very slow process. What one is dancing with is maybe a little bit faster. What I would dance with is a sort of witness. There is a conscious mind involved but it’s not doing active duty. I’m trying to turn the action over to other parts. I think they’re our true parts, however’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 4). And finally, only very rarely, there will be moments when it happens. ‘It doesn’t happen all the time. When does it happen? I get about twenty seconds of performance, if I’m lucky. (…) What it feels like, that moment I feel like my body will do anything’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 8).

It would be interesting to know how Paxton accesses these other ‘true’ parts, the pre-reflective. When he describes the use of peripheral vision he formulates a strategy for stimulating kinaesthetic orientation (Paxton, 1981, p. 2). Peripheral vision is a way of seeing that is less controlled and active than conscious looking. He instructs dancers to ‘allow the world to enter’, ‘to witness the action’ without prejudice or conscious intervention, to stimulate ‘watching the internals of movement of the body’ and discover the ‘difference between objective reality and perceptual reality’ (Paxton, 1975, p. 4). At some point he describes dancers as ‘people in animal sense … a bundle of nerves, masses and bones’, without mask. He is not looking for emotionality or psychology, but rather ‘a cool mind, clear perception, sensitive to small events’ (Paxton, 1975, p. 4). It takes detraining rather than training, a relaxed mind, which is an act of will, to be ordinary and matter of fact, to strive for without much conscious effort – ease (Paxton, 1990, p. 19). Not that the mind can prevent one from accident in Contact-improvisation; one has to learn to rely on the body to be able to prevent oneself from injury. The body knows better than the conscious mind how to deal with these situations. One can relate this concept to the idea of ‘body scheme’ of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The body has its own sense of proportion and relations that we do not need to consciously control, for example we know the length of our arms, or the speed and duration of a fall (Paxton, 1975, p. 3).

For Paxton, preparing for a dance is not so much about preparing a score or studying a structure, but an organic process of preparing the body, which may take months to integrate new ways of moving, the body ‘takes a lot of plumbing’ (Eiland). In respect to Goldberg Variations, Paxton says he isn’t listening so much to the music but ‘has to have it in his body’ (Steijn, 1999, p. 8). ‘The music is imprinted on my mind and in my body, from lots of dancing with it.’ Here again Paxton does not make a distinction between body and mind, and gets into a discussion of the self. Paxton defines improvisation with extemporare: out of time, and time as: human experience of duration, who we have become. ‘Dance is the art of taking place. Improvisational dance finds the places’, he says (Paxton, 2003, p. 426). This point of view has consequences for the way Paxton looks at subjectivity and the self in performance. By ‘studying the body, my own, sensory, definition of what I am emerges to my consciousness’ (Paxton, 1990, p. 18). ‘The material that I’ll be dealing with is myself, ultimately, my body and all its other characteristics. (…) The way to change my attention, to produce a new physical palette is actually the concept of the step of changing weight. (…) Important part of improvisation is about finding new solutions. Goldberg was a test of that. Discover there are many solutions’ (Paxton, 1994, p. 24).

For Paxton improvisation has become the main approach to dancing, coming out of his interest in perception in dancing. This has led him to think about the body and performing, about setting the right conditions to access ‘places where the mind won’t reach’. He sees the improvised dance performance as a (re)generative event, a ‘machine of becoming’, a ‘sensory definition of self emerges’ in the process, that can help to train perception, or even get in touch with ‘true parts of ourselves’ that have more to do with ‘primal instincts than explicit codes’. In terms of presentational modes, he invites the audience to listen in with him and make discoveries in the moment of the dance, as in an introspective laboratory.

Stuart: The Exposing Body
As opposed to Humphrey and Paxton, Stuart (1965) speaks about the process of exposure, that has other presentational characteristics. In degrees of giving and showing, stillness and microscopy are conditions for personal exposure; Stuart puts the personal and bodily in public space; she sees the body as a physical narrative, pointing to intense physical experiences as well as social and cultural readings of the body.

Stillness and microscopy, conditions for personal exposure

Meg Stuart is well known for working with near still bodies, minimal movements, the exposing of personal and bodily experience is important for her. The wilful act of exposure expresses an invitation to share the personal and intimate with the public.

In an interview for the BRT Meg Stuart explains her working methods for making Disfigure Study, and No one is watching. By endless repetition she arrives at forms. The repetition of a particular movement informs her not just of the physical movement possibilities but also the sensations that accompany them. Limitation is used in her approach to come to discoveries and intensities of experiences. The whole process was to do with elimination and coming to terms with the fact that there really could not be this “dancey” part. … it is really not material that is important, it is strength of idea’ (Stuart, 1993, p. 10). It has enabled her ‘to dance with unmoved bodies’ (Husemann, 33). The bodies come to near stillness of which she says ‘It’s not frozen, it’s liminal. Liminal is when something is becoming but not quite becoming’ (in Vandenbussche in Husemann, p. 34). It is in this respect that Lepecki speaks about the microscopic, how Stuart and other choreographers are making the spectator look at minute movement in the body, vibrations rather than movement (Lepecki, 2000).

Her interest in stillness is expressed in the way she speaks about time. She speaks about ‘condensing time’ (Husemann, p. 60), that time can be stretched or shortened. In another context she speaks about the creation of ‘over-time’, by slowing down the actions of the dancers, the spectator is given more time to see. ‘Experience of over-time. You see beyond the first and then you are forced to see more in multiplicity, more than form, image, more than one relationship. You start to have association beyond’ (in Vandenbussche in Husemann, p. 61). For No one is watching one of the interests was ‘the moment in between’, when nothing happens, private, unnoticed moments. She is not looking for linear narratives, but rather associative readings, and time that allows for seeing different possible readings of an event

For the performer this approach has consequences for the performance attitude. She is looking for a combination of openness, honesty and awareness and clarity of performance: ‘When the work is good it is meticulously clear – attention – quick shifts, there is honesty, awareness. You are being aware that you are being watched (…) I don’t think you can be casual – intensity and passion has to come out’ (Stuart, 1993, p. p. 7). She expresses a wish to break down the barrier between public and performer, and the expectations of showing off in front of an audience (Stuart, 1993, 7). One way of doing that is by looking at the qualities of performing itself, the act of exposing oneself. ’In the material I am working on now … I am just wearing underwear … I am exposed. I want to go that far, into the embarrassment and the vulnerability and yet just be clear. I know the audience is present watching me. I ask myself what it is that I expect of myself and what it is that the audience expects of me….. I think it is about the exposure of personal experience’ (Stuart, 1993, p. 11). Stuart looks for tension between the dancer as object of attention and performing subject, in command of the performance. The sense of detail is enhanced by the use of extended time, slow actions that allow the public full view into the individual performer’s actions. It also increases the tension between the body’s visual aspects, of the posing and the intimacy of the live performance in front of the audience. The dancer is in command but at the same time allows us a more than usual view of his or her body in positions that are not everyday and often uncomfortable (see also Laermans, 1995; and Lepecki, 2000, p. 362).

The personal and bodily in public space
As in Paxton’s work, there is no more projected body, but material that is generated by the dancer himself. The body of the dancer can be seen as a ‘ready made’ object for a choreographer to work with, especially when personal traits of the dancers become material for the creation of a work. ‘For me, it is interesting how to work with particular people, how to bring out their personal movement, and to connect them to a part of me, to what is on my mind’ (Stuart, 1993, p. 10). ‘Bodily characteristics tell about our lives’ (Alibi). Indeed, one of her pieces does honour Duchamp, adding a next step at the same time, it is entitled No more ready made. There is an explicit continuity between the outside world and the world of art. Her works are often set in locations, or presented as installations. There are no more separations between the personal and the public, the public is made up of the personal, and the personal is situated in the public realm.

Stuart’s motivations for seeking personal exposure in public space also have to do with the neglect of the bodily in contemporary society: ‘I have the impression we are becoming increasingly alienated from our body. At a time when virtual reality is increasing, the sensory basis of life is crumbling. Seen in that light, sweating bodies or two people crawling around on the ground touching each other is more than enough to shock the public. Simply because it’s so physical and – more than in film – tangibly present. Dance, by its very nature, is an exposure of the body, and this is why theatre, as one of the few places where people collectively experience a physical event, can only become more extreme’ (van Imschoot, 1996, p. 24).

She allows space for a multiplicity of readings of her work, and does not aim to control or project a particular reading. But the generating of the images she creates stems from particular physical exercises. This can lead to misunderstandings about how the work should be read, as with Disfigure Study: She said in an interview that the piece was about AIDS, but in reality she never tried to make a piece about AIDS. The dance crossed over into that area, she says, from a physical problem of isolating body parts. It became a narrative that dealt with issues that were around in contemporary society (Stuart, 1993, p. 6). To her critics, this created some confusion in the reception of this work.

Physical narrative

Stuart can be seen as of a later generation, who appreciates and has been influenced by Paxton’s generation, but also moves on to new questions. ‘I also greatly admired and admire Steve Paxton. But I began to wonder what would happen if you didn’t rush over to catch your partner when he fell. What if the flow of the movements were broken, if the contact became problematic?’ (van Imschoot, 1996, p. 26). Where the rebellion of the Judson Church generation against expressionist dance led to the eradication of narrative from dance making, Stuart readdresses narrative possibilities, at the same time departing from the radical movement research that was developed in the previous era.

The body has become a central concern in her work. ‘So I always start from the body. But I put it into situations that imply a problem, that squeeze and constrict, that I investigate for their potential as physical narrative’ (van Imschoot, 1996, p. 26). She calls this ‘asking questions in action’, how, by putting the body in impossible situations, the narrative possibility makes the work stronger. She explains how in a solo she starts out with her own figure and the comments on it, and develops positions, as if she is ‘trying to rescue my body’ (Stuart, 1993, p. 9). The way of working has to do with setting up situations that will generate physical narrative from the experience of moving. Like Paxton, Stuart too is looking for tasks to make the body tell, ‘it has to come from a movement, an image will hit me, stimulate as I am dancing’ (Stuart, 1993, p. 5), and not illustrate, to get beyond self-consciousness. ‘There is always this task, this intention, this ‘have to’ and then the body moves…you just do. Somehow there is this self-consciousness that is removed from the performer in the ideal case’ (Stuart, 1998, p. 291). She is looking for uncontrolled, or involuntary, rather than well-co-ordinated movement.  ‘I am fascinated by involuntary movements and what I call “physical states” or “emotional states” in the body. For me it is related to the question what exactly can be described as dance’ (Stuart, 1998). Indeed, maybe this is what leads her into making dance works that are criticised for being too static (Lepecki, 2000). For Stuart the basis lies in the physical, the narrative is not something that she determines beforehand, it evolves out of the physical experience, the process of asking questions in action. Her approach can be described by combining Elisabeth Grosz’ concepts of “inside out”, where Stuart is looking for intense physical states, and “outside in”, by allowing the spectator to read all kinds of ways in which the body is inscribed by social and cultural contexts (Grosz, 1997).

Stuart feels there is a neglect in contemporary society of attention to the body. She works with stillness, as a form of microscopy that creates the right conditions for personal exposure. She puts the personal and bodily in public space. The body is not an object but she looks at the body as a physical narrative, always loaded with meaning, that can be found in the act of wilfully exposing oneself to the public gaze.


I have proposed using the concept of presentational modes as a tool to analyse shifts in approaches in dancing. From the above descriptions of the work of Humphrey, Paxton and Stuart, it has become evident how differently they think about presenting the body, and how the ways of presenting are related to their different interests in the body, which do not exclude one another, and to some degree are related. Presentational modes can be distinguished in the degrees of showing, and in their directionality: projecting outward toward the spectator, or inward into the performing body, or allowing for a two-directional process both inward and outward. I have chosen to stay as close as possible to the language used by the choreographers themselves. Only in the case of Paxton have I introduced the word introspective. Humphrey and Stuart speak about projecting and exposing themselves. It has become clear how their varying ideas about presenting have to do with ways in which they think about public space and the body in communication. These variations, of course, also have to do with the different historical contexts in which their work developed, that might be additional ground for exploration.

For Humphrey, the frontal projection of intentions is essential for dance as a formal art, a conscious sense of distance is necessary to be in control of attention and to be able to reveal hidden treasures of the body. Paxton and Stuart propose different ways to get access to embodied knowledge, their strategies for presenting the body reveal their different sensibilities. Where Paxton is inviting the audience to look into the practice of dancing, Stuart is sharing embodied experiences. Where Paxton speaks about an introspective laboratory that requires an attentive onlooker, and (re)generating the senses, Stuart speaks about physical narratives and exposure of personal experience. Stuart speaks about being aware of being watched, and about intensity and passion, Paxton speaks about a cool mind and clear perception, the kinaesthetic and synesthesia, and not being aware of what impact the dance has for an audience. Both, however, speak about strategies to come to physical intensity, Stuart about doing tasks, just doing, to get rid of self-consciousness, Paxton about goalless-ness, about perceiving and becoming.

Both Paxton and Stuart speak about the personal, marking a big change from Humphrey’s perspective. There is no more separation between the public and the personal in their view of exhibiting dance in a public space. In some way the dimensions of exhibiting dance have changed to the ‘smaller’ and the ‘shorter’. This is probably the strongest indication of a link with the debate about developments in dance (Spring Dance in particular), how ‘public’ should dance be, or vice versa, in what way do these tendencies reflect developments in society at large? What is clear is that there is friction between the public and the personal in a society where the personal is becoming more and more the organising principle.

[i] ‘In introspection you focus on content to make a certain content explicit. What I have in mind, for example, is something that lots of people might find easy to relate to: an applied form of introspection which has to do with making explicit what you know how to do. Famous example: everybody knows how to tie their shoes, but try explaining how to do it. Extremely difficult. Just do it. You have certain capacities to do a performance’. (Obrist en Vanderlinden, p. 61-77)

[ii] The debate is not very different from previous discussions around the advent of post-modern dance in the Netherlands in the 1970s, when critics complained about the ‘introvert’ character of post-modern dance for example (van Schaik, p. 145).


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