Dance-making as politics-making

pol1 (1).jpgForeward

In this post I follow a convention of including  – wherever possible – images of key people cited as a reminder that although ideas are memetic and not particular to people, if we are to recognise acts of authorship it is useful to highlight that they are particular people with bodies. (Conventional citation hides gender even) bodies that provide the foundation for their thought. I think it’s important to somehow root their ideas in their bodies or at least try to make clear that these ideas aren’t abstract things floating around a library but were born of particular bodies.

The embarrassing fact is, as you will see, that the citations are almost entirely white men. Whose fault is this – the library’s? the academy’s? the discipline’s? mine? Well I am part of all of these (except the library) to varying degrees so it is my responsibility. This is not uncommon (the norm I think) but is still something to take responsibility for. I highly recommend reading Sarah Ahmed’s post about white men (for her current book she has a policy of not citing any white men). 

So making visible this unsurprising bias is a small first step but the real business is to read more widely, something that probably requires the kind of firm policy that Ahmed is employing since every bookshelf is a sausagefest. So I wonder whether I should post this at all. I think there is something in it but it is undermined by an increasing sense of blinkered parochialism.

Dance-making as politics-making

In his book Ethics Aristotle categorises political wisdom as a particular form of practical knowledge that extends not only to the affairs of the individual or the household but to the city (Aristotle 2011).


Practical knowledge – ‘knowing how’ – is embedded in action and relates to particular circumstances and how to act in them. It is not instrumental; it is concerned with particular intersubjective relations; and importantly it is not dependent on prior theoretical knowledge. In contrast, theoretical knowledge – ‘knowing that’ – relates to seeking facts, building theories and measuring an external reality (Pakes 2009).

Anna Pakes

But since Aristotle’s time, traditional education about politics has increasingly become a matter of theory, whether it is political science and philosophy courses, citizenship education for young people and immigrants, or more popular publications and media analysis. Politicians meanwhile are increasingly criticised for their lack of external experience (for example Prynne 2013), being eclipsed by political science, polling and in the approaching future, by algorithmic governance (Morozov 2014).

Is politics now less about practices of negotiation and more about systems of ideological command? Does the ability to imagine and invent political futures become something disembodied; a privilege of theoreticians or worse still of computers?

Curator Nicolas Bourriaud has described the ultimate aesthetic problem as being “How is aesthetics to be used, and can it possibly be injected into tissues that have been rigidified by the capitalist economy.” (Bourriaud 1998 p169)

Nicolas Bourriaud

Seemingly presenting an answer a decade before Bourriaud’s question, philosopher Michel Foucault coined the term heterotopia to refer to those virtual places where other rules can operate “a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy” (Foucault 1984, p4).

Michel Foucault

His examples include the theatre where, as theatre director Augusto Boal puts it, we can “enter the mirror of a theatrical fiction, rehearse forms of struggle and Michel Foucault 11 then return to reality with the images of their desires” (Boal 1998).

Augusto Boal

But where theatre might traditionally offer alternative playing outs of almost recognisable reality, I wonder if there is a deeper more micropscopic form of heterotopia that is offered in non-representational forms of dance and choreography?

With reference to Aristole, philosopher David Carr has subsequently extended practical knowledge to include art-making which is focussed on practice rather than theory and involves the shaping of present situations and materials rather than hypothetical ones (Pakes 2004).

David Carr

My own practice (including working with other people) of dance-making is a particularly plastic form of practical knowledge. By this I mean it is not concerned with established and discernible forms of movement (although it does have its aesthetic norms and conventions) but allows for different combinations, associations and manifestations through group improvisation, often using scores, directions and instructions (which could be imaginative, task based or even paradoxical and impossible).

However, I believe that this is more than an analogous with political wisdom because if you dig down far enough (and not that far actually) you are dealing with the same component materials. Like political wisdom, artmaking involves sensitivity to the emotional character of situations and attention to intersubjectivity (the relationships between conscious beings). The poetical is choreographic is performative is political.

Geographer Nigel Thrift points towards this writing that, “Dance provides us, amongst other things, with an exaggerated example of these urban skills of expression…Dance in other words, enables us to rediscover and rework the plural, performative skills of the city…” (Thrift, Non Representational Theory p145).

Nigel Thrift

And cultural theorist Andrew Hewitt writes that, “We might think of choreography in 15 terms of ‘rehearsal’; that is, as the working out and working through of utopian [although I suspect he is actually referring to heterotopia here], nevertheless ‘real’, social relations.” (Hewitt 2005 p17).

Below and within the conventional language and discourse of politics lie non-rational, physical, embodied, choreographic, rhythmic currents that constitute human relations. These can be glimpsed through language but there is also a knowledge that is held in the body itself. If politics happens non-rationally (For example the way that power is articulated through space, time and rhythm in architecture, speeches etc.) then it must be understood non-rationally.

Choreography can work with component materials like weight, proximity and care without necessarily having a home in the real world. So below the literalism of the heterotopias we start to untether the link with known political or sociological reference points and enter into something that is possibly, instinctive pre- 16 political, pre-linguistic; unconscious arrangements that defy naming. Liminal spaces that are ‘antieconomical’ and ‘non-political’ (Johnson 2012)

As choreographer Mårten Spångberg says with appropriate obtuseness: “how can the performance in the audience member as an individual produce the possibility for the production of meaning; the possibility for the production of thinking otherwise, which means that the performer is now not dealing with effectivity in respect to language but rather on affect waves of perceptions that are yet to be given a name.” (cast your art 2008)

Mårten Spångberg


Aristotle (2011) Nicomachean Ethics, London: Oxford University Press

Boal, Augsto (1998) Legislative Theatre: Using Performance to Make Politics, London: Routledge

Bourriaud, Nicholas (1998) ‘Relational Aesthetics’ in Bishop,Claire. Ed. (2006) Participation, London: Whitechapel Press

cast your art (2008) marten spangberg – dance art (slow fall) FS7z0o76pMtq&index=1 [Last accessed 5 September 2014]

Foucault, Michel, (1984) ‘Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias,’ Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984): 46-49.

Johnson, Peter (2012) ‘Interpretations of Heterotopia’ in Heterotopian Studies [website] 18 [Last accessed 5 September 2014]

Morozov, Evgeny (2014) ‘The rise of data and the death of politics’ in The Observer, 20 July 2014 accessed 5 September 2014]

Pakes, Anna (2009) ‘Knowing through dancemaking: Choreography, practical knowledge and practice as research’ in Butterworth, J. & Wildschut, L (eds.) 2009. Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader. London: Routledge

Prynne, Miranda (2013) ‘Blair says ‘problem’ with career politicians like Ed Miliband’ in The Telegraph, 29 October [Last accessed 5 September 2014]

Thrift, Nigel (2012) Non-representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, London Routledge.


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