Bodily Dance – from the Perspective of Phenomenology
If dance is to be more than a cultural framework, a leisure-time pursuit or an expertise, then it has to touch the heights and depths of human life. Nietzsche, who described the body as “a great intelligence” tells us that “I would only believe in a god who knew how to dance,” and Paul Valéry continues in the same vein: “Only the dancer knows how to walk…”. Dance already begins with the everyday-uneveryday walk. Thus the phenomenology of dance is rooted in a phenomenology of the sensual, mobile, sensitive body.
Bound and free movement
If all our movements were directed towards a fixed target as in the Aristotelian cosmos, then dance would be a mere peripheral phenomenon. This is also valid for the Cartesian nature in which all processes are determined causally up to the so-called free fall. Yet our everyday movements do not follow a fixed plan. There are phenomena such as stumbling, fatigue and accidents in which the gait is impaired. We let ourselves go in aimless strolling, sauntering and walking. There are ancient customs such as acrobatics and tightrope walking which play with balance and create something “that shatters the everyday cycle of the positions in a space” according to the palaeontologist André Leroi-Gourhan. Seurat’s circus dancer and Kafka’s female circus rider come to mind. Contemporary dance art goes one step further by systematically working on the mobility of the body just as the painter works with colour and line or the composer with tones. With Merce Cunningham this leads to experiments with movement particles similar to minimal art. Sporadically, all traditional and narrative aspects are cast aside. Meanwhile, however, artistic dance has found its way back to freely designed scenes.
Dancers perform bodily movements. They are neither master of their movements nor the plaything of causal exterior forces, yet they are participants in the movement. They move in the way that one rejoices. Dancers move and are moved at the same time, yet the two do not coincide. Dance movements take off and then develop a momentum of their own, which surprises the dancers, grips them and sweeps them away. The bodily movement is staged, not produced piece by piece. Just like a sprinter’s start, the dancer’s entry is always a little too early or too late. Only planned sequences are completely up to date.
Forms of movement
Although dance movements are rehearsed, they are not permanently programmed. They take place here and now. They go forward and back, they stop without having reached a goal. They are events without result like the tones of a music piece. They go up and down. Dancers struggle with their own gravity. In the classical pirouettes the foot only touches a tiny point on the ground. “Hercules transformed into a swallow - does this myth exist?” asks Valéry. Yet our living body also has something of a Körperding (corporeal thing). The pull of gravity returns when we fall. This reminds us that walking is tantamount to an impeded fall. Movement also comprises the temporal before and after which slide into each other in the form of hesitations and anticipations. Dancers are never entirely there where they are. Furthermore, movement articulates itself in recurring rhythms. These include, as in modern music, counter-rhythms with which dance foils all too certain expectations. After all dancing with is also an integral element of dance. One dances with partners, in groups or with oneself by doubling oneself. As in playing and listening in a quartet, self-movement and the other’s movement glide spontaneously into one another. From varying forms of approach and distance room for manoeuvre is created. Things are also part of dancing with, for example the chairs in Pina Bausch’s Wuppertaler Café that invite one to sit. Wanda Golonka set the entire Frankfurter Schauspielhaus in motion with her An-Antigone.
Deviation and exuberance
The creativity of dance does not come out of the blue but out of the contrast with the familiar. Deviations are known by the French word écarts and include side leaps and the splits. One dances literally out of line. One cuts capers or cabrioles. Further deviations result from the deformation of the body, from dislocations and distortions which in a piece such as You made me a Monster by William Forsythe go to the very threshold of pain. The body steps forward in all its vulnerability. Like all arts, the art of dance also touches on the impossible - that which exceeds our powers. After all, dance triggers an exuberance of movement. It reminds us that from the very beginning the human being has not only been a creature of deficiency but also a creature of abundance. Our answers are always more opulent than the situations from which they have emerged. If for Plato philosophy begins with a dizzying sense of wonder, then the same must surely apply to the art of dance.
Professor Emeritus for Philosophy at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Author of “Sinnesschwellen“ (1999), “Leibliches Selbst“ (2000) and “Sinne und Künste im Wechselspiel“ (2010).
Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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