Dance as a Journey: Alterity and authenticity in Education
By Ida Mara Freire
Associate Professor, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina -UFSC
I am proposing a study of alterity and authenticity in dance education in Brazil. The main theoretical problems are to describe how the perception of the self and the other are manifest in dance education in Brazil. This issue comes from my teaching experience with non-sighted dancers. I am not looking for a precise answer to the question ‘What is dance?’ I will turn to phenomenology to define dance through an experiential description, asking another question such as ‘When does dance occur. The notion of body that permeates this proposal to see dance as a Journey is described in the Phenomenology of the Perception. For Merleau-Ponty, the body is the place of the phenomenon of expression, in which visual experience and hearing experience are pregnant one with the other. I present dance as a Journey in Dance Education that makes possible both a contact experience with the new, and the possibility for other experiences. This means that I "know", beforehand, that what I do can be done by an other, as well as that what the other does can be done by me. In the radical alterity in which non-sighted dance presents itself, it is not only a matter of noticing the difference, but, to the contrary, of identifying the co-existence. Therefore, what is treated here is the aesthetic experience that transforms both the dancer and the one who sees him or her. This is an important aspect of dance education: appreciation. I understand that by seeing Dance as a Journey the main element of connection with the audience is not a narrative or autobiography - although it is guided by the lived experience - but the perception of what is being expressed.
Key words: dance education, phenomenology, alterity, authenticity, blindness.
1. a)The act of traveling from one place to another; a trip.
b) A distance to be traveled or the time required for a trip:
2. A process or course likened to traveling; a passage: the journey of life
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. (2007).
There are elements in common between a dance and a journey; Both involve moving in time and in space. My participation in this “Confluences” required many journeys: an obvious one was the flight from Florianópolis in Brazil, to Cape Town in South Africa. However, there were others that are not so easy to see: the internal journeys, to become a dancer, to become a woman, and more recently to become a mother. In fact, all these are just a single journey, a journey to myself. In this journey I discovered that I am not alone. As Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography , after climbing a large hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. So, I am not alone, I am a dancer on a journey to myself. From this perspective, I am proposing to study alterity and authenticity in dance education in Brazil.
Emmanuel Levinas’ proposal of the “phenomenology of alterity” places the other at the centre of ethics. Against the egoism which all traditional ethics and philosophy as grounded, which understands my relation to myself as the primary relation, Levinas maintains that my responsibility to the other is the fundamental structure upon which all other social structures rest. To dance is an expression of freedom, but as Mandela also wrote, with freedom comes responsibilities. We always dance with or for another, in this sense, we never dance alone. Dance is not a solitary activity. To the contrary, it is a movement in solidarity. To dance is a possibility to become one with other.
This raises the theoretical problem of how the perception of the self and the other are manifest in dance education in Brazil. This issue is essential to my teaching experience with non-sighted dancers. Many aspects of dance are discussed during the project including: the importance of dance from the school to the stage, the sacred in dance, contemporary dance and non-sighted aesthetic, - what are non-sighted aesthetics in contemporary dance?; and how can we define authenticity in contemporary dance? Based on these issues, a consideration of the non-sighted dancer's body forces me to review my judgment of what is a body, dance and beauty.
A Phenomenology of Dance
The phenomenological perspective suggests that each time a spectator observes a body in scene , he or she sees it from different perspectives and distances, looks attentively, pays attention to the parts and to the whole and apprehends each detail. The phenomenology of dance according to Dilde Milne ( 1993) is the pre-reflexive search to describe ourselves and our world as we experience it. The phenomenology of dance describes therefore the immediate encounter of the dancer with the lived experience of the dance.
The notion of body that permeates this proposal to see dance as a Journey is described in the Phenomenology of the Perception. For Merleau-Ponty (1996, p. 271), the body is the place of the phenomenon of expression, in which visual experience and hearing experience are pregnant one with the other. My body, according to Ponty, is the common texture of all objects, and it is, at least in relation to the noticed world, the general instrument of my "understanding". It is the body that gives meaningful texture not just to the natural object, but also to cultural objects such as words. Milne (1993) examined the body not as an objective entity but as a lived totality. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “syn-esthesis” implies that the combination of seeing and hearing make it possible to seesound and hearsight., Stravinsky, who composed many works for George Balanchine, referred to this when he said: “To see Balanchine’s choreography of movement is to hear the music with one’s own eyes.”
The concept of body in contemporary dance confronts us with a problem raised by Merleau-Ponty (2000) about our difficulty in understanding: how the movements of a body organized in gestures or behavior introduce us to somebody who is not us? How can we find, in those displays, something other than what we put in them? A possible answer may be found in the perception of the other and in the dialogue that takes place, at the time and space of the dance.
The issue approached in this paper concerns the concept of dance. Many studies have been carried out in this field, but we still need to clarify what dance is. I do not aim to find a specific answer to the question What is dance? I will turn to phenomenology to define dance through an experiential description, by asking another question such as ‘When does dance occur (Sodra Fraleigh, 1998). I can examine this question descriptively from my own dance experience.
Becoming a dancer
In the introduction, I mentioned the journey to becoming a dancer., In her reading of Judith Butler’s theory of gender, Ann Cooper Albright discussed Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement : “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.” Albright argues that the present indicative of the verb “to be” not only destabilizes a continuous process of becoming, but the very notion of the “one” who can become anything at all is rendered a logical impossibility. In the same way, my proposal to see dance as a journey, inspired by Beauvoir, understands that one is not born a dancer, but rather becomes a dancer. It follows that “dancer” itself is a term in process, a becoming, a construction that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end. The “becoming”, in my use of the word dancer, is thus an enactment – a performance of sorts - and as such resists both a biological teleology and a cultural ontology. Butler also sees identity as a “becoming,” a process that is continually in motion, one that can never begin or end. Her interests in this process is the way its ongoingness- the need to constantly reenact an identity- foregrounds that identity’s instability. Albright (1997) concludes that in the experience of dance, cultural representations flicker in and out of somatic identity like a high-frequency vibration, dissolving the boundaries of categories such as self/other, nature/culture, body/mind, and private/public.
Based on phenomenological expression theory (Müller, 2000), I present dance as a Journey in Dance Education that allows both a contact experience with the new, and the possibility for other experiences. This means that I "know", beforehand, that what I do can be done by an other, as well as that what the other does can be done by me. Thus, the other and the world exist beforehand for me as expressed reality. In other words, there are many other fields of presence expressed close to my own. In the radical alterity that the non-sighted dancer presents, it is not simply a matter of noticing difference, but, to the contrary, of identifying the co-existence.
Sodra Fraleigh (1998) argues that: “cultural context arises in phenomenology in terms of ‘the other’, or the ever present understanding that subjectivity is conditioned by our relations to others – intersubjectivity. The very notion of a self depends on the notion of an other separate and distinct self. The concept of culture further assumes that distinct individuals can build relationships and share meaning”. I will examine the question When does dance occur?, descriptively, from the Journey of a dancer’s experiential perspective. What kinds of intentions are involved? Is intentionality in dance education different from intentionality in contemporary dance? The experiential description invites me to pay attention to these aesthetic distinctions and see whether they apply to all forms and cultures.
Alterity and Authenticity in Dance Education
There are too many images, according to Evgen Bavcar (2000), philosopher and non-visual photographer. He argues that the abundance of cliché images in the modern world forms an abstract perception of things that frequently do not exist on their own, but only through images. Tactile proximity is the safest signal of a real existence. In his photographic work that composes light in an obscure space conceived as volume, Bavcar is aware of the separation of the world of the word from that of the image that he is seeking to reconcile.
“We create permanent dichotomies”, writes Adauto Novaes (1997 p.13): “the awareness is the thing, the subject, and the object – brutal divisions that rigorously determine the spheres of the sensitive and of thinking, of what sees and what is seen.” It is in the interval of meanings,” the author continues “that, according to Merleau-Ponty, we can discover that seeing is, in principle, to see more than what is seen, it is to yield to a hidden being. The invisible is the relief and the depth is the visible. Here, the look is not a natural support for the spirit, nor is the spirit the sublimation of vision. What Merleau-Ponty proposes is a retaking, based on the “forgotten” moment, when the thought of seeing substitutes the seeing and makes it its object. Speaking of chiasma or interlacing, he sought to corporally undo the classic distinction between subject and object, flesh and spirit. That is, to describe the carnal relationship of the subject and the object. There is a universality of feeling and it is upon this that our identification rests, the generalization of my body, the perception of the other (Novaes, 1997 p.14)
The memory of the lived body, an idea that Bavcar developed beyond that which common sense and idealism usually use, offers support to choreographic creation. Upon examining the work of this photographer, Adauto Novaes (2000) primarily emphasizes the notion of parallelism, that is the idea that impedes any superiority of the spirit over the body and of the body over the spirit, as we discussed above. Also note that Bavcar’s reflection passes through the body and the senses, and thus responds to Spinoza’s question: What can the body do? This is the question it induces, because it demonstrates that the body goes beyond the knowledge that it has of itself, the same way that thinking goes beyond the awareness that it has of itself. Therefore, it is perceived that the idea of memory of the sensations, which can be seen in Bavcar’s photos, coincides absolutely with the idea of memory expressed in Spinoza’s Ethics, memory is nothing but a certain interlinking of ideas, involving the nature of things outside of the human body. Finally, Novaes, describes this interlacing that takes paces in the spirit following the order and the interlacing of the affections of the human body: “Through touch, through the movement of air that designs the shape of that which it does not see with the eyes, through smell, through heat, Bavcar’s body is affected by exterior objects, creating the memory of sensations and forming figures.” (Novaes, 2000 p. 32)
Many question: Dance with blind dancers? The Blind?!! Dance?!! What kind of dance is that? What movements are they? What body is this? What feelings, sensations, directions? This dance, proposes an existential journey, because it questions a dance expressed in the interlacing between a dancer who does not see and the spectator who sees. The choreography seeks to weave relationships between the dancer and the spectator. It involves a ludic dynamic interplay, which is the creation of the recognition of the other I: the “We”. This awakens a dance forged in the sensibility, in the temporarility of the lived body, in the visible, and in the invisible, in alterity and in authenticity.
The Potlach Dance Group is a project that involves university research, teaching and extension for young people and adults who are blind or have poor vision. The current group includes 4 blind dancers and 3 seeing dancers, as well as students of the Center for Educational Sciences (CED) of the Federal University at Santa Catarina (UFSC). The work has been conducted in the Space of the Body room at CED/UFSC, and at the Santa Catarina Association for the Integration of the Blind (ACIC), in the Saco Grande neighborhood, in Florianópolis, SC. In addition to the rehearsals, the project offers dance workshops at a beginning and intermediary level for the members of ACIC.
Our work seeks to be an experience of teaching and appreciation of dance based on perceptive research about seeing and not seeing. During the dancers creation process, by means of interviews, they describe their daily experiences and corporal memories. The sequences composed are based on improvisation and corporal contact. The object of the project is to learn dance as an aesthetic experience. To do so it proposes to undertake activities that promote non-verbal communication, expansion of the vocabulary of movement and contact with the other. Through this work of perceptive and sensorial research, the purpose of Potlach is to awaken in the spectator an unusual and provocative aesthetic experience about the reception of difference.
“What do I know?” This is a question that Maurice Merleau-Ponty presents in his work The Visible and the Invisible (2000), and that inspires us to create a questioning choreography. This is the alternative response of the philosopher to the affirmation “I know that I know nothing” – which is mired in skepticism and provokes a doubt that destroys certainties. But the commonplace questions are there. For example, I want to know: where am I? What time is it? Questions that evoke a context, someone who asks. Questions that come from our experiences as a “being in the world”. “What do I know?” asks Merleau-Ponty (2000), not wanting to explain what is knowing. Neither who I am but what is? These questions probe our very existence. It was by reflecting on the very existence of blind dancers that we created a choreography that questions the self and the world.
What is of interest to us in dance is the perceptive experience of that which is being appreciated both by the dancer as well as the audience. The exercise of comprehensible sensibility forged in space-time lived in dance. Unlike photography, within dance operates a synthesis that unifies different temporal moments at a single time. An example of this synthesis can be found in the choreographic composition of the work What Do I Know? interpreted by the Potlach Dance Group. When activities began for the year, we spoke with the dancers in the group about their vacations. One non-seeing dancer commented that she participated in another pilgrimage to Saint Madre Paulina. We asked what request she made to the Saint and she said: to be able to see obstacles. Her response sparked our interest and motivated us to create a choreography with gestures evoking the relationship with the Sacred. The conversation with the dancer revealed that “the future, in the experience of ‘spontaneous anticipation’ is like an involuntary recollection, but presents itself complete, coming from another point, like a synthesis that is made as “inactuality”, in this case, unprecedented. Husserl, in his reading of Müller-Granzotto (2007), recognizes that the forecasting of the future is also a passive synthesis of “inactual” profiles. But they are not necessarily empty. They are complete “inactualities”, or that which is the same thing, full of potential. It is this potential, moreover, that appears as a horizon of the future of our motricity. The latter, appears simply to pursue novelties.
The words of the dancer become dance. Their movements are orchestrated by the sound of Hail Mary by Gounod and Bach, and a transparent thread that covers the body. “There is a peculiarity there, which properly distinguishes the motricity from the spontaneous anticipation: for the motricity, everything takes place as if these novelties come ready-made, as if they had been formulated further beyond oneself, a bit before the searching gestures. This requires us to admit, in the case of motricity, a type of future that comes from the past, a complete “inactuality”, but which is inseparable from the other which is void, and from where the first is born that meaning: after understanding the meaning, one no longer sees the words by which it is manifest.” (Müller-Granzotto, 2007, p.61-62)
In a certain way, these episodes make explicit similar questions that are now found in contemporary dance. On one hand, they are very often incomprehensible because new signs are being constantly recreated, which can provoke bewilderment. What dance is this? What movements are these? On the other hand, it is worth raising the question: is dance a form of explanation or description? In this sense, the special perception of one who does not see proposes a dance that does not explain, but which is felt as born from a perceptive body. Or even, a dance conceived by non-visual people, questions more than explains. This possible dancing interrogation demonstrates that the experience between the dancer and the audience can be that of interlocked bodies.
Upon reaching the conclusion of this essay we learn that the experience of an existential journey suggests that an atmosphere of miracle is unveiled in the living time of dance, where knowing is forged with being, incarnating the words of Merleau-Ponty: I and the world are one in the other.
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