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“Eloquent Bodies – Moved Souls” – Christine Thurner Examines Texts from Periods of Transformation in Dance Aesthetics

'Beredte Koerper - bewegte Seelen', book cover; copyright: Transcript VerlagThurner’s study takes a look at the art of movement which is as original as it is enlightening, presenting it as the history of discussing dance rather than just as a chronology of its stage pieces. It is manifestly the case that the more distant the work of art from language, the more fervent the aesthetic discussion.

The history of dance is usually written by reference to its works and their creators – which piece was premiered when and where, who was the choreographer, who was dancing, what music was used and who was in the audience ...? In this way, dance history falls into the general history of events. Works are created along the time axis over the centuries. Knowing them enables one to better understand and analyse contemporary dance.

'Prof. Dr. Christina Thurner'; copyright: privatIn her latest publication Beredte Körper – bewegte Seelen (i.e. Eloquent Bodies – Moved Souls), Swiss academic Christina Thurner proposes a completely different view of the historical development of dance, not enquiring first and foremost about the works in their aesthetic existence, but about the texts written in response to the dance pieces. She reads the textbooks and debates for and against dance since the late 17th and 18th centuries. Thurner has found sources in the features pages of Paris daily newspapers from around 1850 that acquaint us with the reform of Romantic ballet, the time when dancing en pointe was introduced and the ideal of the weightless and immaterial ballerina. She has looked at these dancers’ recollections and has researched the picture these dance history protagonists paint of themselves and their metier.

Writing dance, reading dance

'Balletttaenzer'; copyright: www.colourbox.comThurner’s approach is really quite obvious but it has never been taken before. To a great extent, dance as a whole is accessible to us only through written accounts. Because the works themselves cannot survive and the medium of film has only been available since the early 20th century, all that remains is visual reproductions in countless prints, lithographs and notations, as well as written accounts, of course: descriptions, theory, methodology, textbooks, etc. Thurner’s method may be briefly summarised as follows: if dance remains vivid primarily through written accounts, then valuable insights may be gained into what it was actually trying to do from authors’ methods, preferences and strategies.

Thurner shows coherently at a number of levels and on the basis of three historical epochs that presenting dance as an art of movements, the main task of which is to move the audience itself, is the result of hard work on the part of highly-educated writers. The author, a professor of dance at the University of Berne, is interested in “the paradoxical relationship between the linguistic discussion and the emphatically non-linguistic event.”

Back in the 18th century, a model of stage dance originated in France based mainly on emotion, that is to say setting the audience’s feelings in motion. Dance was intended to have an effect, and that means above all that dance was intended to move. The fact that it should not and may not use any words to do so only increases the need to capture the audience with its gestures, its emotions and, not least, its movements. While dance is the purest form of non-verbal art, its concerns really can only be articulated and communicated via the detour of language.

Emphatic perception

'Balletttaenzerin'; copyright: www.colourbox.comThat is the basis of Thurner’s approach to her extensive reading of historical documents from the 17th to 19th centuries. She also points out, however, that these strategies for “putting non-verbal phenomena into language” still apply today, particularly in the current debates on different aesthetics of dance.

Whether in the official message of greeting on World Dance Day on 29 April, published annually by UNESCO’s International Dance Council, or in contemporary dance critiques, where the value of movement remains the absolute yardstick, “the paradoxical relationship between the linguistic expression and the non-verbal event” remains a bone of contention. Thurner explains this in a chapter entitled Tanzdiskurs und -mythos (i.e. Dance discourse and myth) by stating “... there are two opposing models for defining artistic dance, a semiotic model and an essentialist model. (...) While one focuses on the (...) readable message, the other is interested in the emphatically perceivable effect.” This emphatic perception of dance idealises movement as a “direct means of communication.”

In her book, the revised version of her thesis for her postdoctoral lecture qualification presented at the University of Basle, Thurner impressively demonstrates how one-sided this view is. And she offers a highly enlightening view on dance history as the history of discussing dance rather than as just the chronology of its stage works.

Christina Thurner: Beredte Körper – bewegte Seelen. Zum Diskurs der doppelten Bewegung in Tanztexten.Bielefeld: Transcript 2009, 220 pages.
Franz Anton Cramer
is a dance scholar and writer.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
May 2009

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