Theatre/Dance: Movement and materiality in performance research

Jonathan Bollen

PhD candidate, University of Western Sydney Nepean

Theatre / Dance:
Movement and materiality in performance research

Paper presented at
The Scholar and the Stage: a symposium on research in theatre studies
University of New England / WEA Centre, Sydney
29 September 1998

Recent discussions about performance research and recent related policy interventions have emphasised the relations between institutionalised genres of performance practice in the performing arts industry and the structuring of performance teaching, training and research in academic institutions. I am thinking here of the structural alignment whereby theatre departments have articulated a commitment to teaching, training and research that contributes to theatre as a performance genre, industry and profession, and whereby dance departments have similarly articulated their contribution to dance as a performance genre, industry and profession.

I have no doubt that this is as it should be. Nevertheless, the alignment between academic discipline and performance genre casts the question of constructing a collaborative dialogue between theatre research and dance research in quite a particular way. Within this framework, the most obvious site for undertaking collaborative research are those kinds of performance that, in some way, blur the distinctions between theatre and dance. I am thinking here of those kinds of performance that we call ‘physical theatre’ or ‘dance theatre’, that bring together dancers and actors, choreographers and directors, that treat directing as choreography, or that make dancers act, that in some way blur the boundaries between theatre and dance as distinct genres, industries and professions. Now, I want to stress that I would regard such inter-disciplinary research into inter-generic performance as important, interesting and necessary. But there is a risk here that the obviousness of such an approach may overshadow the potential for other kinds of research interaction between theatre and dance. So I would like to draw on some experiences from my own research trajectory to sketch some other possibilities for interface and interchange.

The institutional settings for these research experiences are important, although not necessarily unique to the institutions concerned. As an undergraduate I studied at the Centre for Performance Studies (CPS) at the University of Sydney. In practice, the teaching and research at CPS have had a tendency to focus on theatrical performance. But the approach fostered at CPS does not articulate an exclusive generic alignment to theatre and within its programs CPS has accommodated a strong anthropological and cross-cultural line of inquiry highly sensitised to issues of generic constraint. As a postgraduate I have been studying at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean. When I started at Nepean in 1994, it had separate theatre and dance departments but the postgraduate program in performance research was conducted jointly across both departments and I was given two supervisors, one from theatre and one from dance. Within the program, students researching dance practices and students researching theatre practices are taught together and present their work to each other.

In both institutional settings, the term ‘performance’ has offered some kind of meeting place or milieu for an intermingling of dance and theatre research.
Now, performance is not always an appropriate term where a commitment to genre, industry and profession is important and I am not suggesting that theatre and dance should be institutionally subsumed under a performance umbrella. But I do want to highlight the difference between the experience of doing performance research within an inter-disciplinary and inter-generic milieu and the situation where collaborative research is approached across institutional disciplinary divisions and at the generic interface between theatre and dance practices.

In my experience, the value of studying and researching within these interdisciplinary milieux isn’t just that they facilitate research into inter-generic performance, although they certainly do that. Rather what I have found valuable is how an exposure to both theatre and dance research and an intermingling of both have reoriented my research questions, opened new lines of inquiry and provided access to an array of conceptual approaches and analytical resources I might not otherwise have had. Importantly, these things have happened regardless of what kind of performance I’ve actually been studying (mostly theatre at CPS, mostly dance at Nepean). I want to illustrate this point with a couple of performance research experiences. Some of them now seem kind of banal and obvious; others are quite specific to my research interests. To put a bit of a spin on them, they revolve around what I regard as a core problematic in performance research: the relations between words and action, language and movement, discourse and practice.

In 1993, at CPS I participated in a voice and movement workshop. This is one of my more banal examples but one of the things I learnt in that workshop was that speaking didn’t just happen from the neck up. I recognised that an alignment of speaking with thinking, with the head and with the mind, had occluded what now seemed so obvious to me: that speaking is a corporeal, kinaesthetic practice. Try speaking without moving, I used to say.

Again in 1993 at CPS, I participated in a kathakali training workshop. Kathakali is a narrative performance genre from southern India which separates the enunciation of the text from the enactment of the narrative. The text is sung by musicians, whilst the narrative is enacted as movement by dancers. But the most interesting thing I learnt about Kathakali was that the text functioned as a kind of choreographic score, translated by the dancers into movement, using an elaborate kinesic system for enacting the narrative of the text.

These experiences in movement-research contributed to a shift in the way I viewed text in theatre. I no longer saw text as something that actors just spoke, as something that could be separated from blocking, gesture and action. Rather I began to see the text as a kind of choreographic score and I began to view the processes of actor training and theatre rehearsal as structured by systematic procedures for enacting text as movement. I no longer viewed the question of how a text was staged as a matter of creative intent or artistic license. It became a question about the negotiation of training regimes, about the resourcing of embodied kinaesthetic capacities, and the application of systematic choreographic processes. In a sense, I began to see all theatre as physical theatre. I began to approach theatrical rehearsal and performance in a way which positioned the kinaesthetic capacities of acting and choreographic processes of directing as fundamentally central to what was going on. And I took this approach regardless of whether these capacities and processes were explicitly articulated in discourses on theatrical genre relevant to the performance in question.

Let me explain that last point. I regard the designation ‘physical theatre’ for inter-generic performance as highly revealing. It’s as if regular theatre, in contrast, isn’t physical, or even that it’s kind of metaphysical. And in a sense, that’s right. Western discourses on theatrical genre, actor training and directorial process have often naturalised, internalised and psychologised theatrical procedures for enacting text as movement. In other words, they articulate their procedures for enacting text in terms of inner motivation and intention, psychological and emotional process, creative insight and artistic intuition. In doing so, they render the physicality of these procedures implicit and they offer limited resources for explicitly articulating theatrical performance in corporeal, kinaesthetic or choreographic terms. This is one place where theatre research, even research into the most traditional of theatrical genres, can learn a lot from dance research where resources for articulating the physicality of performance have been much more explicitly developed. This is, in part, what has been going on in the tradition of research associated with Eugenio Barba’s theatre anthropology (for example, Barba & Savarese, 1991) and more recently in the research represented in Phillip Zarilli’s (1995) Acting (Re)considered. In both cases, an emphasis on the kinaesthetic enculturation of training regimes draws this kind of theatre research into close alignment with similar emphases in dance research.

For my part, seeking out resources to articulate movement in performance has led me on a kind of interdisciplinary goose-chase. At the centre of this has been an engagement with the approach to movement analysis and documentation developed from the work of Rudolph von Laban (1966, 1980; see also Maletic, 1987 and Bartenieff, 1980). As far as I can work out, Laban Movement Analysis and Labanotation have a reputation amongst theatre researchers for being overly complex and too dance specific. Laban’s work also carries an association with claims to scientific objectivity, regarded in some contexts as spurious. Nevertheless, my introduction to Laban’s work in a course targeted at anthropology students emphasised how flexible, scalable and adaptable it is as an analytical approach to movement (Williams & Farnell, 1990). I have found the Laban approach useful not because you can use it to record movement in exhaustive and supposedly objective detail but because it offers an integrated array of analytical concepts that draw attention to the scope of differentiation in movement, that allow you to get specific about movement in context, and that demand answers to the question: what is significant about this movement here?

But Laban is not the only approach and I have sought to contextualise and extend my engagement with Laban by locating research in other disciplines that have developed approaches to conceptualising and analysing movement. In addition to the research in theatre anthropology and theatre training I have already mentioned, I have found useful resources amongst the following: research into non-verbal communication by American communication researchers like Ray Birdwhistell (1971) and Edward Hall (1966, 1983); the British anthropological approach to ‘the body as a medium of expression’ fostered in the 1970s by Ted Polhemus (1975, 1978), and a more recent set of movement ethnographies written by American performance-anthropologists like Jane Cowan (1990), Cynthia Novack (1990), Sally Ann Ness (1992), Lowell Lewis (1992), Margaret Thompson Drewall (1992) and Barbara Browning (1995); theorisations of embodiment developed within the corporeal feminisms of Elizabeth Grosz (1994, 1995), Philipa Rothfield (1988, 1994a, 1994b, 1994c), Ros Diprose (1994) and others; theorisations of performative subjectivity developed within the feminist queer theory of Judith Butler (1990, 1993, 1997) and others; time-space analyses of socio-cultural practice in cultural studies and cultural-geography that draws on the work of Foucault (1977), de Certeau (1984), Giddens (1984), Bourdieu (1990) and Lefebvre (1991); and lastly, the poststructuralist, post-colonial and feminist dance research associated with the Australian journal Writings On Dance, with the dance program, headed by Susan Leigh Foster (1986, 1995, 1996), at the University of California Riverside and with the interface between dance research and cultural studies developed in the recent editorial work of Helen Thomas (1993, 1997) and Jane Desmond (1997, forthcoming).

All up, this is a pretty unwieldy and incongruous, inconsistent and often incompatible collection of research. No one of these areas has given me exactly what I’ve been looking for. But I did want to give you an idea of the range of places, some obvious and some not so, where researchers in both theatre and dance can find resources for analysing movement. For me, working across these diverse bodies of research and working in the gaps between them has meant suspending critical judgement when I’m outside my usual disciplinary frames of reference and it has meant risking a kind of inter-disciplinary schizophrenia as I try to draw from them bits and pieces in developing a movement-oriented approach to performance.

In a lot of respects, the development of this approach has been tailored towards my research into the social dance practices performed at Sydney gay and lesbian dance parties, like Sleaze Ball and the post-parade Mardi Gras Party. Within this project, I have sought to articulate the experiential significance and the political discursification of these large-scale, participatory performance events from a position, as it were, on the dance floor, in and amongst the dance practices being performed there. Being able to articulate, in whatever terms I can, the moving consistencies of the dance floor experience, the kinaesthetic capacities of the people dancing there, and the choreographic structures within which these practices are performed, has been important in understanding how these performance events elaborate discourses on sexuality, identity and community.

But this approach to movement in performance has also been useful in participating in the performance research environment at UWS Nepean. One of the things I have been involved in at Nepean is the teaching of a course in performance analysis, designed to equip theatre and dance research students with analytical skills for use in their performance research projects. (Last year I taught the course in a team-teaching situation with Kathy Driscoll from the Dance department at UWS Nepean). Teaching theatre and dance students together in the same class is sometimes hard work but one way of doing it is to structure an approach to performance that’s about bodies moving in time and space; that asks questions like: What is going on in performance? What are you doing when you are training, rehearsing, performing, spectating?; and that seeks answers in terms of action, movement and practice.

Such an approach offers points of intersection where the different disciplinary and generic perspectives of theatre and dance can be brought into dialogue and where students can learn from approaches that are outside their immediate frames of reference. I am not in a position to speak of the value of this for dance students, but I can say this about students doing theatre research. It invites them to engage with theatre, any kind of theatre, at a physical, corporeal and kinaesthetic level. It gives them resources for articulating how ideational effects like motive, character, narrative and genre are constructed in performance through movement, action and practice, through the relational interactions of moving bodies, through corporeal articulations to time and event and through corporeal engagements with space and place.

Why do I think this is a good thing?

Well, to research what is going on in theatrical training, rehearsal and performance demands more than just an analysis in ideational terms. Resources for an ideational approach are precisely what is offered in those discourses on western theatre that approach performance through textual analysis, character development, and psychological techniques for the narrativisation of motive and that view the enactment of text as an internal, intuitive and insightful process which, at its artistic best, broaches the metaphysical. But, as you all well know, theatre is not just about ideas or internal processes, it’s not just about characters and narratives, nor is it just a signifying system or what we used to call a ‘semiotic construct’. Theatre has an exterior, physical and material aspect. It is grounded in the material corporeality of bodies, in their kinaesthetic capacities for action, and in the choreographic orchestration of moving bodies around time and space.

Now dance has had its own ideational discourse and its own metaphysical aspirations, particularly associated with ballet. But for a number of reasons, these have not predominated in dance research. This is partly due to the long and largely feminist critique of ballet, undertaken in both practical exploration and theoretical analyses since the beginning of the century. It is also due to a tradition of anthropological and cross-cultural research in dance and movement, a tradition upon which the development of modern and new dance techniques have drawn. But I would argue that it is the dissociation of dance from language and its association with corporeality that has always kept dance research close to the material. For these reasons, dance research has sustained an orientation towards the materiality of dance practices, towards the corporeal skills and capacities of dance practitioners, towards the kinaesthetic particularities of dance training regimes, and towards a grounding of significance in dance in the differentiation of movement. (This material emphasis may also explain why dance research has had a much closer relation to science than theatre research; a relation that can take some getting used to for theatre researchers firmly located within the humanities.)

In contrast, approaches to theatre that focus on materiality constitute a somewhat smaller counter-tradition in a history of western theatre research dominated by ideational approaches. As far as I can work out, approaches like Brecht’s ‘gestus’ or Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ and an array of corporeal training regimes (like the Delsarte system, Meyerhold’s biomechanics, Decroux’s corporeal mime, like Suzuki training, Butoh / Body Weather and circus acrobatics) have played an important yet largely subsidiary role in the context of ideational approaches to theatrical acting, oriented towards the internalisation of text as motivation, character and narrative. In short, ideational approaches have constituted a dominant discourse in theatre research but, as I have argued, they offer limited resources for articulating the material corporeality of theatrical performance.

In concluding this dialogue about performance research in theatre and dance, I would suggest that it is an orientation towards the materiality of performance that can be developed in such a dialogue, not only at the generic interface between theatre and dance practice (as is clearly happening) but by undertaking theatre research in a context of inter-disciplinary exchange with dance research. Developing resources to articulate the materiality of theatrical performance is, I would argue, an important part of the performance research project. It is important in researching the skills and capacities of theatre practitioners, in researching the corporeal experience and embodied knowledge mobilised in theatrical processes, and in researching how theatrical performance works for both performers and audience.

I would like to thank Adrian Kiernander (UNE) and Sue Street (QUT) who provided the context for writing this paper. I would also like to thank Yana Taylor (UWS Nepean) who kindly listened to and commented upon a draft.

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