According to David Deutsch, the transformation that the Enlightenment brought to modern scientific thinking was not scientific tests (any dumb theory is testable), nor philosophical empiricism (the senses lie), nor a challenge to authority (it had been challenged before), but a tradition of critical investigation. Enlightenment thinkers and scientists finally began “seeking good explanations” over the popularized myths of pre-Enlightenment as well as honoring criticism as a means for improving upon explanations. Thus, our contemporary intellectual tradition has built upon a knowledge based in “conjecture alternating with criticism.”
As contemporary dance has appropriated much of the language of science, in the manner of “researching” ideas and performing “experiments,” I wonder what are the conjectures being proposed by dance, conjectures which could allow fellow researchers to further test and expound, to criticize, and to create knowledge?
The alinguistic character of dance, allows it a certain freedom from the bounds of logical structure and sensemaking, but simultaneously prevents the community of choreographic researchers from expounding upon ideas presented, testing dance conjectures, or reaching any sort of tentative solutions to the questions researched. This is not to say that dance should search for final answers. The solutions, too, are subject to criticism and change when research and a community of researchers show inconsistencies in the conjecture, or when these researchers suggest a newer better explanation of the problem researched.
A valuable counterpoint to Deutsch’s views about the existence of solutions and the creative power of explanation is Tere O’Connor’s associative approach to dancemaking . O’Connor proposes an alternate logic in dance that opposes language and precludes a resignation to the logical rules of language. His latest work Bleed is a collage of images, associations, ideas, shapes, colors, thoughts, and stimuli. “My experience with crafting dances has been a journey away from the exigencies of definition or resolution that might be useful in the construction of ‘cogency,’” he writes in Bleed’s program notes. The repetitive use of movements, the incorporation of human and animalistic gestures, and the hints of culturally associated movements (hip hop, African) suggest a language-like sensibility but stop short of communicating ideas. The repeated appearance of words referencing dance’s evanescence in Bleed’s Choreographer’s Note stresses this value: “ephemeral,” “ambiguous,” “associative,” “indeterminate,” “convoluted,” and “enigmatic” are all words O’Connor uses to describe his work.
Does that make his dances inscrutable? Incontestable? A soliloquy among the dialogic exchanges of dancemakers? Deutsch’s criticism that science, particularly when it comes to the contradictions discovered in quantum physics, has forgotten the creative power of articulation and thinking could be well applied to contemporary dance. In scientific inquiry, the primary necessity for traction within a community of researchers is the desire for expanded knowledge. Experimentation alone is useless if it only seeks to justify a conjecture the researcher has presupposed or the question tested does not seek a truly thorough explanation of its subject. Similarly in dance, without a reason for experimentation, nothing can be learned from the experiment.
Dance toes the line between poetry and body/mind/space/time research. Is it an aesthetic project or an investigation? O’Connor’s Bleed is an aesthetic project, not just because it is beautiful, but because it cowers from attempting an explanation. The dance eschews investigative thinking, offering its amalgam of images and associations as an antithesis to today’s ideology of usefulness and progress.
In theorizing about physical reality, Deutsch mentions that a philosophy that rejects explanation and argument “cannot be easily countered by…argument and explanation—because it holds itself immune. But it can be countered by progress. People want to understand the world, no matter how loudly they may deny that.” Despite Deutsch’s presumptuous tone (I have edited out his use of the labels “bad philosophy” and “good philosophy” ), I do wonder if progress is a measure by which dance can be judged.
For example, if Cunningham’s experiments with chance arrangements were met by choreographic experiments with intentional composition, would we have more information about compositional aesthetics? Of course this would raise questions about what are aesthetics, which could be further tested by dance researchers. Another researcher might use the chance process but apply it to a pedestrian vocabulary. As I put forth these suggestions, I realize they resemble the assignments given to the original Judson group. But I wonder if what these choreographers had, and that dance has since lost, was a certain continuity of experimentation, using the ideas of one dance as a starting point for another dance so as to test multiple variables of one idea and create a wealth of knowledge around it.
Perhaps the Judson group’s legacy is inescapable not because we need to forget it and move on, but because we have tried too hard to forget it and move on. Focused experiments are rare these days in institutional settings. The canonization of Trisha Brown’s movement experiment, like Cunningham’s, only paves the way for choreographers to find their signature experiments for securing their legacies, not for building traction for continued inquiry.
O’Connor’s declarations in opposition to the linear, progressive notions of common rationality (lionized by Deutsch) are inspiring for resisting conformity to modern logic. But they also prevent dance from being dialogic, open to criticism, and interested in improvement.
It is up to the individual, to the artist, to decide whether improvement and progress are values he believes are important to dance. Without them, however, there is no need for talk about a dance community, a state of dance, a generalizable role for dance, or a future for dance. Without them, we are independent actors playing with experiments that have no goal.
Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. New York:
O'Connor, Tere. "Choreographer's Note". Bleed Program. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2013.