INTERVIEW // Dance as an exploration of the Nature/Culture Continuum: An Interview with Sondra Fraleigh

Photo: Painting by Kat Brown

    Dance is an art that can only exist through continuous embodiment, it’s a living expression of self and symbol that exists in the perpetual present moment. Dance is made through bodies in motion; the body is a biological entity, but the body in dance is also a conceptualized, cultured and intellectual body. The tension between these kinds of bodies underlies the tension present in dance between the somatic and the performative.
    The first question I asked Sondra Fraleigh—dancer, scholar, teacher and founder of EastWest Somatics—was “What is dance?”. The question felt both essential and impossible. She responded by saying that “dance is nothing without the one who dances”. This sentiment gives weight to the somatic element that is present within every dance, even within highly conceptual and performative work. There is always a dancing body present with an internal relationship to the work—this is why understanding Sondra Fraleigh’s idea of the nature/culture continuum is essential in creating a more nuanced view of the performative.
    Fraleigh proposed the idea that nature is a continuum. She says that “dance/movement can give us the somatic means to explore the nature-culture continuum of our human bodily being.” Dance necessarily stretches across this continuum—with the somatic aligning with nature, and the highly performative falling on the side of culture. This terrain is navigated through bodily being and while it’s a spectrum, it’s not linear. The continuum is more of a means to understand the dialogues and relationships present within the dancing body.
    Dance is always a conversation—a dialogue and a relationship. When I’m dancing I experience the somatically rooted dialogue between unconscious experience and perception being embodied through movement, and then that relationship is transmuted through the relationship to the witness. In more performative work this would take on the additional layer of relating to concept as well as to perception.
    I asked Fraleigh how, in a dance world that’s being increasingly informed by somatic inquiry, these lines between the somatic and the performative could be more easily distinguished. She responded by saying that, “The word audience comes from the word audio, meaning to hear, so its interesting to think they are going to listen to us dance, because really in dance all of the senses are at work. I think it’s a matter of context. If you have a theatrical context and you have an audience it’s very different and the expectations are very different from being in a context where a witness is really there to absorb and support. I’m not sure the audience is there to support you, I think they want to understand you, they want to see you, to hear you, to connect with you kinesthetically and to participate in the fullness of what you’ve developed as an artist. That’s not what the witness does, what comes through in somatic dancing is valuable aesthetically, but you wouldn’t necessarily put it on a stage.” I think that what’s essential here is not just context, but also establishing a distinction between aesthetic value and the performative.
    The performative is created through concept, but the somatic can assist in learning to avoid treating the body as a concept, even within the conceptual framework created through the performative space?

*** Link to Sondra’s Website:
For more than 30 years, Professor Sondra Fraleigh has been a leader in the study of movement and dance. She is professor emeritus of the State University of New York, College at Brockport, where she chaired the Department of Dance. Her innovative choreography based in somatics and inspired by butoh has been seen on tour in America, Germany, India, the UK, and Japan. She served as president of the Congress on Research in Dance, and as a Faculty Exchange Scholar for the State University of New York. Her articles have been published in texts on dance and movement, philosophy, somatics, and developmental psychology.

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