The Missing Bodies in Reading Dancing

by Clyde Smith (1996)

Originally published in Spotlight on Dance, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 4, 7, February, 1996 as “Thoughts on the Missing Bodies in Susan Foster’s Reading Dancing”

Susan Leigh Foster in Reading Dancing (1986) focuses in part on the work of Deborah Hay, George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. In the first chapter Foster develops a model of these artists’ “choreographic projects” in an effort to categorize major aspects of thought and practice affecting their work, including such areas as their beliefs about the “dancer’s body” and the “dancer’s subject.” In developing this model she brackets out “marked changes” in the “careers” of Graham and Cunningham in order to “focus on certain conceptions of dance…that permit a composite or generalized overview of their artistic concerns” (p.3).

Though this self imposed limit seems reasonable, it points to deeper difficulties with Foster’s model. Foster describes Graham’s work changing from the expression of dramatic situations to a collection of Graham’s movement vocabulary. She further describes Cunningham’s work as exhibiting an increasingly “picture-oriented style” and his dancers becoming less distinct as individuals but much better at emphasizing visual design. Simultaneously, Cunningham exhibits an increasingly idiosyncratic style in his own dancing unlike that of his dancers. I believe Foster is unable to account for these changes because they are reflective of the changing bodies of Graham and Cunningham which are missing from her model.

Foster considers the choreographers’ beliefs about the dancer’s body but always as something separate from the creative subject of the artists. However, a strong argument can be made that the choreographer’s approaches to all aspects of dance are indicative of what they have learned through their own bodies. Furthermore, the dance products they create are reflective of their own movement signatures which encompass their individual distinctive movements in space and time.

I believe that in the cases of both Graham and Cunningham, changes in their work occurred as their bodies aged and their own movement choices decreased. Both artists continued to create after they could no longer dance as fully as when they began. Ultimately neither could provide a living example of what the work could be and so would turn to indicating what they could with their limited bodies and words. As time passed, those who embodied their earlier work also moved on and new dancers arrived who understood Graham and Cunningham as established forms rather than living practices. These factors contributed to a vocabulary- oriented approach focusing on shape and form. Cunningham’s insistence on continuing to perform meant that his presence became a sometimes bizarre character role, quite unlike the “old days.” So while all these changes can be accounted for, they become a mystery when the choreographer’s own body is missing from the analysis.

This missing body may be due in part to Foster’s conceptions of subject and body. Foster uses the term “subject” instead of “I” or “self” to “signal a theoretical position that holds that the self is not a natural or fixed entity but rather a process constituted by various cultural and historical circumstances”(p.236). Not only is the subject a construct but so is the body and these both “come into being–through participation in a given discourse, in this case the dance classes, rehearsals, and performances of a particular choreographer” (p.237). So, in speaking of Graham’s subjectivity, Foster uses the term “psyche,” and of Cunningham’s she uses the term “mind,” as distinct from their bodies. In both cases, Foster maintains a duality not unlike Descartes’ famed mind/body split which contributed to a discourse of alienation. Though Foster’s approach is more sophisticated and open to more possibilities, it still allows for the choreographer’s subjectivity to become disconnected from his or her material existence. The irony of this disembodied dance state virtually speaks for itself. As we have seen from Foster’s avoidance of changes in the work of Graham and Cunningham, the study of dance becomes crippled when bodies are “disappeared.”

Work cited: Foster, Susan. (1986). Reading dancing. Berkeley, CA: UC Press.