More about the project

Dances are puzzling things, assuming they can be described as “things” at all. Materialised in the temporal, ephemeral events of performance, they seems to depend on the body and be constituted by its motion. And yet they can also (arguably at least) be performed again and again, by different bodies, in different spaces, even performed simultaneously in different locations. And they are not “just” movement, but embodiments of ideas and meanings, complex traces of artistic action. Choreographed works – as opposed to the performances which instantiate them – are not physical things: they are not concrete and tangible artefacts that can be picked up, moved around, misplaced or stolen; in this respect, they are unlike (say) paintings or sculptures, though, like the latter, dances are (apparently, at least, and in certain cultural contexts) created, appreciated and analysed as art works. In contrast to works of music (in at least some genres), dances are not routinely notated, yet they seem to depend for their re-performance on the persistence of some sorts of material trace or at least some thickness of presence in the human memory. So, what exactly is a dance?

The project investigates the nature of dances and choreographic works, exploring a range of ontological issues, including:

  • Is there such a thing as a dance work, as distinct from a performance (of that work)?
  • If so, what kind of thing is it? A particular or a universal? Abstract or concrete object? A class, kind, type, or some other sort of entity?
  • (How) are dance works created? Can they be destroyed? What, if anything, guarantees their continued existence? What does it mean for a dance work to be “lost”?
  • What is the relationship between works and performances of those works? How do we know that x is a performance of work y, as opposed to any other dance? When are we justified in claiming that x is not a performance of the work it claims to be? How do we distinguish between more or less authentic performances of dance works?
  • What does it mean to call a dance work a “text”, and does this conception have ontological as well as methodological import?
  • How are the issues of dance ontology bound up with the ideological and political dimensions of dance practice and writing?

The project approaches these questions primarily from the perspective of analytic philosophy of art and mind. But some aspects of ‘continental’ philosophy are also relevant to the project themes. For example, Roman Ingarden’s phenomenological approach to ontology overlaps analytic ontology of art, and exceeds it in interesting ways. There are useful ideas within philosophical hermeneutics (the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas) about the objects of artistic interpretation. Poststructuralist critiques of the “work” and “author” concepts (by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault), dance analysis which treats dance works as texts (Susan Leigh Foster, Janet Adshead-Lansdale) and contemporary critical approaches to performance (e.g. Peggy Phelan, Andre Lepecki) can also be explored in terms of their implications for (and in some cases, opposition to) an analytic ontology of dance.

The focus of the project is theatre dance in the Western tradition, with an emphasis on the period from the early nineteenth century to the present day, though earlier dance is also considered. Exploring the relationship of dance, in contemporary practice, to neighbouring art forms (such as live art, performance art, installation) helps specify the scope of the dance work concept. The cultural reach of that concept is also critically examined, in terms of both its historical development and its content and power in the current dance world.

A key aim of the project is to probe the relationship between philosophical reflection and dance practice compromising neither the rigour of the philosophical analysis nor the specificity of dances. It’s not just that the philosophy is relevant to choreographers, notators and dance writers. The ontological reflection is also guided, in important ways, by practice and its underlying conceptual structures. Unlike natural objects, “works have no independent existence from the very practices that serve to discriminate them from other things” (Lamarque 2010, 9). So ongoing dialogue with the dance professions (choreographers, dancers, viewers, critics and scholars) positively informs the philosophical reflection.

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