Parasitic Noisification: A Four-Part Dance Blog by Andre Lepecki, #2

Dance, particularly theatrical dance, and most particularly dance after its modernism, has always had a difficult relation to semiotics. And to theories of communication at large. It is well known the series of statements in dance’s short history as a new art form within the “aesthetic regime of the arts” that have consistently and explicitly removed dance from semiotics: from Isadora Duncan’s “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it” (dance is beside linguistic meaning, it does not pertain to it); to Merce Cunningham’s “It is what it is” (dance is ontologically immanent to itself, it reiterates its being by simply being, it is beside the question of meaning). We can also see how this (modernist) history of a semiotic crisis provoked by dance has always produced one single answer from the part of dance theoreticians. This monomaniacal answer is already an index of how dance gets stuck every time it is pushed back into a semiotic system predicated on the notion of “communication” (of dancing being a channel for communicating something from the choreographer to the audience). John Martin, as early as 1933, considered the (semiotic) problem “modern dance” was bringing to its audiences as an crisis in communication. The question for Martin was to explain to a dance audience (or perhaps to convince it) how dance could still communicate while keeping its being true to itself (for Martin dance’s true being had been discovered only by modern dance and it had found it to be “movement”). In other words, the question for Martin was to sort out how could dance communicate to an audience while being essentially non-narrative, non-symbolic, and true to its essence “which it found to be movement” (Martin). The problem was this: if modern dance was to be essentially non-referential (except to its own movement and to a putatively generic, albeit virtuosic, body of the dancer in performance), then how could it communicate anything other than itself? How could it overcome its (monadic, even solipsistic) condition of being, which in Martin’s expression was “completely self-contained; related to life?” Martin’s answer was simple, and he drew it from the major psychological theories available at the time: non-narrative, modern, semiotically “self-contained” dance communicated its “relatedness to life” through a mechanism of “kinetic sympathy.” This anthropologically stable mechanism, present in “all men” was imaged by Martin through the postulation of the existence of a “little man” inside every human being who would “mirror” the dances presented on stage, even as the spectator hosting this “little man” would remain seated and still. The semiotically sympathetic “little man” would be that universal parasite all human beings would have to host, so that modern dance (ie, movement) could indeed, “communicate.” 70 years later, we may laugh at the apparently naive terms of Martin’s narrative. But we forget it was derived from “top science” in the early 1930s. Its spectacular similarites with current doctrines on “mirror neurons” as explanation of “why” we “like” dance (a history of which has been recently written by Susan Leigh Foster in her book Choreographing Empathy), or how dance “communicates” to its audience, only reveals the extraordinary parasitic force contained in the imperative to “communicate” as the only guarantor of the aesthetic experience and most vividly of the experience of seeing dance.


View all Parasitic Noisification posts. Come back next Friday to read #3!

André Lepecki is Associate Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU. He is the author and editor of many books, including Exhausting Dance (2006); Of the Presence of the Body(2004); Planes of Composition (with Jenn Joy 2010); and DANCE (forthcoming 2012). He works also as an independent curator. In 2008 he received the “Best Performance Award” from AICA for directing and co-curating the redoing of Allan Kaprow’s “18 Happening in 6 Parts”. He was the chief-curator of the festival IN TRANSIT 2008 and 2009 (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin); and in 2010 he was co-curator with Stephanie Rosenthal of the Interactive Archive on Dance and Visual Arts since 1960 for the exhibition MOVE (Hayward Gallery, London).