When I Think I Dance

Issue #05: Body Social. Body Political.

It is emphatically not the case that dance is the contingent carrier of information or code which can be reconstituted without loss in syntactic language. Rather, dance requires an experiential understanding.

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Making sense with dance an introduction to Jean-Luc Nancy:

In the mid 2000s, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and choreographer Mathilde Monner collaborated on a project that explored the relation between dancing and thinking. Their joint work can help us get over the idea that dance is an object we pick over and dissect in our thinking and writing, and help us embrace a notion of the relation between dance and thinking that is more mutual, where both participate in making sense. This article explores what Nancy means by “when I think, I dance”, where dance is used not as a metaphor but as a literal description of the activity of thinking.

Is it worth even trying to think and write about dance? to begin with, dance itself is not a thought that can be formed in syntactic language. If it were there would be nothing to be gained by bothering to see a performance; thinking would be enough. on the other hand, thought comes with its ready-made linguistic categories of “movement”, “expression”, “tension”, “pace” and innumerable other metaphors and images that seek to convey dance in words, or perhaps to represent it, or translate it, or capture it. or betray it, reduce it, smother it.

The question of whether it is worth trying to think and write about dance already assumes that dance is a “what” rather than, for example, a “how”. It assumes that dance is something that is either happening or isn’t happening to a particular body in a particular place at a particular time, and that this “what” can yield itself up as the content of a thought. Nevertheless, it would be too hasty to conclude from this difficulty of working out how dance and thought relate that we must not think about dance at all, but just “experience” it (as if we could divide thought from experience) or just let it flow over us (as if “flow” itself were not just one metaphor seeking to capture dance in language). No, the encounter between dance and thought is necessary, even if it remains difficult.

The question of how dance and thought can encounter each other in such a way that thought neither translates dance nor betrays it is explored in depth by choreographer Mathilde Monnier and philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy in their 2005 publication Allitérations. Here they discuss their collaborative performance at the Montréal dance festival in 2000 in which Nancy read from a text at a lectern on stage while, as the encounter is described on Monnier’s website, four dancers and a composer sought to “work on the interstices and gaps that arrive when we pass over from listening to a text or to music to the perception of a movement”.

In their reflections on the collaboration, Nancy at one point reflects on why the Nazis had such an aversion to dance. Perhaps because it lends itself to a greater ambiguity than the other arts and therefore less to the sort of simple decision and predictable model sought by National Socialism. this is not to say that dance tells no story, but its story is not to be understood as belonging to the category of the danced communication of information to be found in the natural world, like the ‘waggle dance’ of the bee which indicates the route from the hive to pollen-rich plants in relation to the angle of the sun. In fact, the language of dance is further away from the bee’s waggle than it is from syntactic language. In the waggle dance there is a necessary and calculable correspondence between the movement and the reality it signifies: so many vibrations for such and such a distance. In syntactic language that correspondence is no longer necessary (we say “cow”, not “moo”, and “dog”, not “woof”). Similarly, the language of dance – its posture, energy, rhythm and presence – dispenses with a correspondence to a signified reality; it speaks for itself. So it is far too hasty to say that language is a barrier between dance and thought, and that any commerce between the two must be a translation into or out of language per se. Dance and thought both disrupt the necessary relationship between sign and reality; in this respect what they share is greater than what divides them.

Nancy and Monnier are quick to dismiss the paradigm of translation as an adequate figure of the relation between thought and dance. It is emphatically not the case that dance is the contingent carrier of information or code which can be reconstituted without loss in syntactic language. Rather, dance requires a non-intellectual (or at least a not exclusively intellectual, a super-intellectual) experiential understanding.

This does not mean, however, that language and dance can have no commerce with each other, because dance participates, along with syntactic language, in the medium of sense. To “make sense” with movement is not a metaphor, an image or a translation, Nancy insists, and it is not a question of assigning to each gesture or movement an equivalent in syntactic language, but rather of considering gestures as carriers of sense in their own right. Rather than translating sense from elsewhere, dance extracts a new, other and different sense. We can say that Nancy understands dance as a language here, but only on the condition that “language” itself be understood differently, transformed by its encounter with dance, as Nancy comments on Monnier’s rehearsals:

Your whole work as a choreographer seems to me to be constituted by a ceaseless movement between thoughts, ideas, significations, paces, gestures, spaces, spacings and tensions – without being able to say that it is a ‘translation’ or an ‘interpretation’, and without one register really preceding the other. He notes the prevalence of gestural language in the communication between Monnier and her troupe during rehearsals for their joint production:

I can say that I am very struck, during rehearsal, by your way of speaking: you always point or name obliquely, through images, comparisons or indications which from the start refuse to name, like when you say “No, it’s not that!” – a “that” that you point towards “the thing itself”, towards the “sense” to be produced or touched. I noted down more or less accurately some phrases you used with the dancers: “there, it must be stronger… longer… less broken,” “at this point, I didn’t know where you were”, or again “in that light it won’t do, I lose my bearings”. You point out the identities of place, time and gesture, tiny unities and unities of the whole, but you do not give their significations – or you merely brush past them.

This proliferation of gestural language begins to help us see why it is wrong to assume that gesture and dance form one mode of communication, and language and ideas another. Language, too, dances, and not only in a metaphorical way. We can see this by looking at the educational context. Whereas “instruction” is merely the passage of information, a closed transaction of fixed meanings, Nancy argues that all “education”, insofar as it sets the learner on a path rather than imparting certain pre-packaged information, deals not only in linguistic meanings that signify but also in gestures that signal and mobilise without signifying, just like Monnier’s instructions to her troupe. These gestures communicate no determinate content but they communicate themselves, their energy and intensity. To educate is to pass on a way of going outside oneself with an energy that is open to new significations but that cannot be reduced to them. It is to pass on knowledge, but also to pass on the gesture appropriate to that knowledge: its tone, timbre, allure, manner or inclination. Education is caught up in a gesturing that lends it what Nancy calls its colouration. Don’t we all remember, he suggests, the pacing, the mannerisms and the gestures of some of our former teachers, their ways of moving and holding themselves that became indivisible from the “content” of their teaching? We might continue: and wasn’t it that moving and holding that made the content make sense, that conveyed a love of and curiosity for learning? When we begin reflecting in this way on the inseparability of manner and information we soon find that we have to leave behind the clunky distinction between content and gesture, between the form and content of education. What is more, this moving and holding is no idiosyncratic appendage to the process of education but education’s necessary participation in what Nancy calls “dancerly transmission”. In concrete situations of the transmission of thought and ideas, those ideas are danced in a sense that does not reduce “dance” to a metaphor.

Gestures are communicated otherwise than as information. They are not given to be reproduced in a one-to-one correspondence (even if there is a training of the muscles) but their energy itself is passed on. For Nancy, this passage of energy is figured in terms not of imitation (mimesis) but participation (methexis), the sharing of a habitus (hexis), a disposition to occupy space in a particular way or way of holding the body. This sharing takes place not only between one dancer and another but between the dancer and the location, the dancer and him/herself, the dancer and the choreography and the dancer and the spectator. Dance interweaves a whole series of participations that, while they cannot be reduced to representation nevertheless provide their own “representation”:

We “represent” something by “participating” in it, and we participate through a representation that is not a reproduction but a production, a production of the body as it participates in… in what? In sense, in thought, in being, whatever you want…

Surely, someone might object, can’t dance be imitation too? Can’t it simply tell a story with a sequence of gestures that, like the bee’s waggle dance, have a direct and unambiguous correspondence with the reality they are intended to signify? Nancy does not deny that such dance exists, but he does argue that, even in the case of ostensibly mimetic dance, a gesture is danced before and in order that it be mimed, and the mime does not reproduce the mimed act but extracts its sense or essence from the dance, opening a participation with this essence or sense.

The notion of participation allows us to move away from the idea of dance as referring beyond itself to an (intelligible) meaning, and it allows us to move towards an understanding of dance as producing sense, where sense escapes the difference between the intelligible and the sensible because it precedes their division. Both dance and thought participate in and produce sense, but neither one is its gatekeeper. Indeed, Nancy insists that it is without any trickery or laxity that he can claim “when I think, I dance”.


Read More:

Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, Fordham University Press, New York 2008.