Author: Jeroen Fabius
Language: English
Originally published in: Danswetenschap in Nederland - Deel 6
Made available by: Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek
Themes: Research and Application
Media: article

From the speakers explode, ‘It’s real. It’s a game.’ Everything is both too much and without any further use or application. Not body language, but body sensation is the focus, for the dancer as much as the spectator. … Traditionally distanced spectators are converted into virtually-wired sensors, plug-ins to the mise en scene: the public experiences rather than watching decreation. … Instead of begetting a performance, the public lives it, through ‘skin, brain and hair.’(1) (Boenisch, 2004 p.59)

As staged within western theatre dance, dance, the art of the moving body, is made to be seen. The contradiction here lies in the fact that dance is created through the experiences of moving bodies while primarily accessed visually by its spectators. In the above quotation from Peter Boenisch, writing about decreation (2003) by the William Forsythe company, a bodily experience is described that is not just for the dancers, but for the spectators; not just for the eyes, but for the entire body. How do spectators gain information about movements done by other people, and how does this information give rise to kinaesthetic experience? Kinaesthesia, introduced by Bastian in 1888 (from kinesis, Greek for motion and aisthesis, for sensation), is defined as the ability to feel movements of the limbs and body (Longstaff, 1996 p.34). Choreography has specialised both in training dancers to develop kinaesthetic expertise and in creating formats for spectators to access particular fields of movement experience.

In this article, which is a short version of Seeing the body move: choreographic investigations of kinaesthetics at the end of the twentieth century (Fabius, 2009), I analyse another work of the late twentieth century choreographer William Forsythe, whose preoccupation with kinaesthetics has altered ways of seeing dance. I propose that the preoccupation with the sense experience of the moving body has led to new strategies for choreography, challenging the dominance of visuality in the aesthetics of dance. Forsythe’s work has been described as concerned with an aesthetics of disappearance (Baudoin and Gilpin, 1990; Sulcas, 1991). I discuss a work by Forsythe in order to illuminate his approach to kinaesthetically-based choreography.

William Forsythe: aesthetic of disappearance

Forsythe’s use of kinaesthetics has influenced his dances through the processes of choreographic production. The dancers’ experiences of their moving bodies contribute to the making of the choreography in real time, that is, according to improvised decision making. Here I explore how the choreography of Forsythe presents kinaesthetics as a generative force, focusing on ALIE/N (A)CTION (1994).
After the first moments, calm is established. We see a black floor with white straight lines arranged in all kinds of diagonals, creating a dynamic multi- directionality. Along one of these diagonals a woman is seated on a chair, next to a cupboard, and next to the cupboard a dancer is moving. He gradually moves towards the centre of the space, focusing attention on his figure. His movements are composed of all kinds of swaying limbs. It seems he is repeating movements, but on closer inspection he is not. Every time the timing is just a bit different; he might just step away from the diagonal a little further, or another little movement is inserted between one of the swinging limbs we recognise from a moment before. It is hard to tell whether his phrasing is starting over again, or whether he is floating with a kind of ebbing tide between the diagonal he came from to the centre of the space. The dynamic of the phrasing is unpredictable and there is no way of getting a sense of his trajectory; as spectators we can only go with where he is and where he was.

The range of movement is not totally arbitrary, but seems to hover around particular options, avoiding others. It has to do with the particular dancer’s body, his long arms and legs, his strong erect body that keeps shifting these swaying limbs forward and backward from the diagonal. At the same time the woman on the stool is talking as if she is holding a telephone conversation, leaving gaps for the answers. Shifting attention back and forth between them, one loses track of where they were in their respective processes. The simple opposition of these two activities, the dancing figure and the talking figure, makes one aware that the sound of breathing does not come from her. As it follows the rhythm of the dancing, it is probably the dancer’s breath. Then other dancers join in, and another voice joins the conversation, a process of accumulation happens in which, as Boenisch said in the opening quotation of this article, it is all too much to take in. With every added dancer the unpredictability increases, and the information provided very quickly amounts to overload. The spectator is dealing with a continuous sense of loss, the incapacity to absorb the excess of impressions. From this follows the qualification of Forsythe’s work as embodying the poetry or architecture of disappearance (Baudoin and Gilpin, 1990; Sulcas, 1991).

The sense of disappearance is achieved by the shared contributions of the dancers. Forsythe does not directly determine the event the audience sees; the choreography acquires a degree of complexity one person could never produce or conceive of. The dancers work with assignments or algorithms which produce a choreography that is created in real time. In the case of ALIE/N (A)CTION the algorithm was called the iterative process, in the words of dancer Dana Caspersen:

Iterative algorithm: examining where I was, what I did, re-describing it, and folding the results back into the original material, lengthening the phrases with these inserts and repeating the process several times. (Caspersen, 2004 p.29)

This is what we see in the solo dancer described above. Caspersen’s description confirms it was not random freedom, nor choreographed dance, but decided upon on the spot. This approach has a component of kinaesthetics. In the execution of the assignments the dancers cannot rely on conscious decision making but have to rely on ways the movement of their bodies leads them to the next options. It is a kind of dialogue between the execution of movement and the examining and re-describing the actions of the body, as the iterative algorithm requires. This dialogue has been called ‘thinking in movement’ (Siegmund, 2004). Ann Nugent describes the way it looks for the spectator:

Often a dancer’s gaze is averted or the eyes seem to look inward, rather than beyond the line of the movement, as if thinking is honed to an inner awareness. Indeed, the muscular knowledge, or proprioception necessary in improvised passages, requires concentration and mental acuity, and the making of instant decisions that connect mind to body, or muscle memory to spatial organization. (Nugent, 2007 p.32)(2)

Nugent describes a particular gaze that accompanies this way of working, one that expresses the concentration and state of mind needed to execute the dialogue between physical action and the restructuring of the physical actions. In Forsythe’s work there is no time to watch all kinds of details of the body. The inward gaze is connected to a stream of decision making in action.(3) Boenisch describes this as a process of ‘un-writing’: ‘the fractal texture of the dance undoes the body as projection screen, and destroys, disturbs, detracts, flees, escapes body images’ (Boenisch, 2004 p.61; translation by the author). And for Boenisch this accomplishes a sense of bodily experience for the spectator as much as for the dancer. The central role of kinaesthetics in the production of the choreography has made it impossible for the spectator to cling to body images and has given an immediate sense of kinaesthetic experience.

In conclusion, kinaesthetics plays an important role in the performing of Forsythe’s choreography, delegating as he does the final design of the dance to the engagement of his performers, organized through a range of algorithms. The experience of disappearance for the spectator is caused by the excess of activity and the complexity of the decentred conception of the choreography. And finally, the experience of disappearance can be perceived as a kinaesthetic experience.

Break from the dominance of the visual in choreography

This article has explored the interest in kinaesthetics in a work by William Forsyth. Elsewhere I have discussed changes in choreography by two other late twentieth century choreographers, and investigated how they have changed ways of seeing dance for their audiences, and perhaps for their dancers (Fabius, 2009). I have distinguished three different approaches: first, a conceptual approach by Boris Charmatz, who uses the obstruction of sight to present perception as the central idea of the performance, and allows the spectator room to reflect on the role of kinaesthetics and other senses in choreography. In the work of Meg Stuart a reductive, ‘microscopic’ approach permeates the visual with the sensual, creating what Deleuze calls haptic vision, where sight takes over the role of touch. Finally in William Forsythe’s work the dancers’ application of their kinaesthetic sense organises the dance movement, resulting in choreography that is a product of collaborative production during the performance.

Some observations can be made. All three choreographers combat notions of conventional choreography. Charmatz strives for illegibility; Stuart wants to reduce ‘danciness’; Forsythe explodes ballet vocabulary into an affect of disappearance. One can place these tendencies within a larger historical development: from a more ocular-centric approach to choreography in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to twentieth century developments in which the material experience of the body proposes new notions of subjectivity (see Siegmund, 2005; Jowitt, 1988; Reynolds, 2007; Stüber, 1984). This focus on kinaesthetics has created different approaches to space and relations with the spectator, creating new perspectives on embodiment of subjectivity, less focused on body images, body language, representation and distance but rather on process and the dynamic connections between action and reflection, material and virtual, in a movement such as the Möbius strip where inside and outside keep feeding back into each other.

Finally, the sensation of the moving body, kinaesthesia, is obviously crucial to the art of dancing. But its elusive complexity has contributed to it being neglected as the ‘sixth sense.’ However, as contemporary choreographers investigate its role in human movement, and as they share their findings with spectators, there is a need for greater understanding of the ways in which kinaesthetics contributes to issues such as how movement is perceived and executed, how choreographers see a body move, and how choreographers want the audience to experience bodies moving.

Material Political Bodies

My PhD dissertation considers how the material body contributes to the political significance of theatre dance. My study focuses on developments in theatre dance in the second half of the twentieth century, in particular the Judson Dance Theatre of 1960’s New York and the conceptual dance of 1990’s Western Europe. In both periods choreographers have dealt with the body explicitly as subject matter for making dance, I propose to consider these works as forms of ‘somatic politics.’ I will argue that their work, by avoiding symbolic representation and by making visible the role of proprioception or kinaesthesia in choreography, creates a particular notion of politics that challenges traditional ideas about politics and subjectivity.

Promotor: Prof.dr. Maaike Bleeker, Theaterwetenschap, Universiteit Utrecht 

(1) Translated by the author. In German ‘mit Haut, Hirn und Haaren,’ playing on the expression with skin and hair, meaning the entire body, Boenisch has added the brain in the equation.

(2) In this citation Nugent speaks of proprioception as muscular knowledge or muscle memory. Corinne Jola in her article Begriffskonfusion (Jola, 2006) considers the kind of language that has developed within dance practices as a form of phenomenal language, i.e. derived from the experience of movement. A cognitive psychologist, Jola explores some of these concepts (like ‘muscle memory’ and ‘muscle knowledge’) and argues for a broader understanding of the brain in these processes of movement coordination. This role is perhaps not experienced with the same immediacy by dancers and perhaps that is why more attention is given to muscles than the brain.

(3) Here the discussion about kinaesthetics leads to a discussion of epistemology. The term muscular knowledge can stand for what in other literature is called bodily knowledge or what Varela calls introspection (Varela in Obrist and Vanderlinden 2001). Varela speaks about introspective knowledge as a kind of knowledge that cannot be formulated discursively but nevertheless displayed in bodily activity, as simple like the tying of shoe laces for example.


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