Generally, there is a paucity of work within philosophical aesthetics on the ontology of dance, despite a surge of interest in the ontology of artworks and musical works during the last few decades. Why is this?
One reason might be general lack of analytic philosophical treatments of dance, which has traditionally been neglected by aesthetics (see Francis Sparshott 1988 for a general account of this). Those who have written extensively on the philosophy of dance, such as Graham McFee, remain unconvinced of the need for, or value of, ontological investigation though they have paid considerable attention to the question of identity (1992, 1994 and, most recently, 2011) – when are two performances of the same work? when are we justified in saying something is not a performance of, say, Swan Lake or Revelations. Interestingly, the literature on dance identity hasn’t resulted in thoroughgoing examinations of the nature of dance works, in contrast to music where there is now an extensive and growing ontological literature. Philosophers have tended to argue that dance works are types, of which there can be many possible performance tokens. But they have not yet delved much further, for example into competing accounts of what a type is. So, the “dance works are types” claim is only really a beginning of ontological enquiry.
Moving beyond the disciplinary boundaries of academic philosophy, there is a certain – sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit – resistance to analytic-style ontology within dance studies. Since the 1980s, the field has been increasingly dominated by poststructuralist and postmodernist theory, as well as certain strands of ‘continental’ philosophy, which approach the very notion of ontology in a different way (see, for example, Andre Lepecki’s “political ontology” of dance in 2006). Dance analysis (not least, my own early work) has found the notion of dance as text to be helpful and productive: since this model is premised on Roland Barthes’ and Michel Foucault’s critiques of the idea of the “work”, there has been a tendency to focus on unmasking the latter’s ideological pretensions, rather than investigating its scope, parameters and underlying substance. One can argue that it has no such substance, of course, but there is still the challenge of explaining how the concept functions, the extent of its variability, and the limits of its use. And indeed, of seeing how this view stacks up against competing accounts of the nature of dance works.
I think there has perhaps also been a failure within dance theory to distinguish methodological and epistemological from properly metaphysical issues, at least as concerns questions about the nature of dance works and performances. Or perhaps (if you come from a different standpoint) the claim is that there can be no such separation. But rather than rest on this conviction, it seems to me important to look and see if that’s indeed the case. Without at least attempting to develop an account of what a dance work is, can we know that the endeavour will fail?