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Movement Literacy

When it comes to the enormous, vast, fluid stream of the expressive use of movement, posture, the face and the body, we are thoroughly illiterate (or, as it were, preliterate).

                                                                                                                                Alva Noë, Strange Tools

In his latest work, contemporary choreographer William Forsythe tries to create, in his own words, a “short-term literacy” in his audience. The piece begins without music in order to isolate the individual phrases of movement: “it might be perceived that there has been a subtraction, which would be music. But in fact, dancers being the musical engines behind any dance, their breathing alone causes you to understand the phrase.”[1] The intention is to create a more skilled viewer who is focused on the movements that make up the dance without the distraction of the music. When music and movement come together in a more traditional way in the second act, the audience is, or so is the idea, more literate in what is presented to them: “suddenly, you are able to read.”

This attempt at incorporating an education of the viewer, even if only short-lived, spoke to us. We are both former professional dancers now working on aspects of movement in modernist literature. One of our daily struggles is how to share our kinesthetic knowledge and movement literacy with audiences in our respective academic disciplines—English literature and German literature and thought.

This conversation has been ongoing since we met two years ago via Twitter—Patty tweeted at Meindert after listening to his appearance on the Modernist Podcast series. We co-organized a panel for the 2018 MSA and have been exchanging ideas, discussing our daily struggles with writing about dance, chatting about the dance world, and supporting each other ever since. We are excited to bring some of that conversation to the Process blog and share our thought processes.

Our common struggle in the process of writing on (particular forms of) dance and movement is with language. As we attempt to bring our practical knowledge of dance to our pages, we are aware that we are writing for audiences who might not read dance in the same way that we do. The ballet world has its own way of talking about itself, one that is not largely shared. Words like glissade and attitude conjure up entire patterns of movement for us, but they do not do so for everyone. Hence, because we see so much potential for cross-disciplinary discussions, we want to share our dance knowledge in a language that does not alienate a literary audience. At the same time, however, we want to be respectful of the practical history of dance traditions, of dance scholarship, and of current dance practitioners. We end up with the difficult and exciting task of translating: finding new ways of describing dance movements. The best kind of criticism does just that of course, finding a new way of talking with its own vivid imagery. But writing about dance shows the extent to which we rely on a common language in literary criticism after all. With dance, there seems to be less of a common language to fall back on. Perhaps there is some truth to Alva Noë’s assertion that when it comes to dance and movement, “we are thoroughly illiterate.”

The exciting advantage of not having a common language of movement is that we cannot take any shortcuts. We are forced to look hard and describe harder. Rather than reverting to the names of steps, we must describe what an attitude actually looks like and what it conveys in the specific moment of the choreography. But an attitude to us is not just something we see; it is also something we feel in our bodies. We feel the angle of the leg, the weight/strain/pain in our backs that makes it all happen, all the tiny corrections we would automatically make or try to make (supporting leg straight, back foot pointed, shoulders rotated up and back, etc.), the difference between our imagined ideal attitude and our understanding of our own performance. And even this corporeal knowledge varies. We were trained in the Vaganova Method, which means our attitude is more extended than, and feels different from, that of our colleagues trained in a French style (each training system of ballet might be read as having a different accent or inflection of this language). The attitude has also changed over time to reflect social and gendered conventions. It was long improper to lift the leg higher than the hip, for example. Contemporary ballet dancers have extreme extensions often lifting the leg to 180 degrees from the standing leg.

An arabesque (or leg extension behind) performed quite low, indicative of the more conservative standards of the early twentieth century.
Fig. 1. An arabesque (or leg extension behind) performed quite low, indicative of the more conservative standards of the early twentieth century. Tamara Toumanova and Serge Lifar performing in Swan Lake, ca. December 6, 1936-August 1940. Photo by Max Dupain. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales/Wikimedia Commons.
An attitude performed extremely high, indicative of the advancing athleticism in ballet in the second half of the twentieth century.
Fig. 2. An attitude performed extremely high, indicative of the advancing athleticism in ballet in the second half of the twentieth century. Wilfride Piollet, Swan Lake, Paris Opera, 1977. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Our struggle with language becomes a question of how this corporeal memory of performance can be leveraged to argue or illuminate a point, even if this knowledge is not shared by all of our audience. One might also ask whether this embodied knowledge could interfere with a reading of something like ballet’s proposed effortlessness. The field of dance studies certainly faces similar questions but writing about movement from and for a literary perspective seems to exacerbate these issues and challenges us to find further solutions.

As we share this knowledge, we are cautious not to promote the problematic aspects of the tradition—namely, ballet’s significant issues with racism, gender, sexuality, class, and ableism. Many modernist choreographers (and contemporary choreographers continue to) trouble and draw attention to these issues in their work, but it is true that, as with modernist writers, many did not. Paying attention to movement in modernist literature thus also means paying attention to who is allowed to move, when, where, and in what ways. Which environments are structured to sustain whose movements? Whose movements are resisted, made difficult? Maren Tova Linett’s Bodies of Modernism: Physical Disability in Transatlantic Modernist Literature (2016), for example, offers an important study that considers modernist aesthetics, the body, and disability.

Our struggle with language also leads us to wonder whether print is always the best place for research on movement and dance. If ballet is a visual art, and one that takes place in a specific time and space, how can we incorporate the visual and three-dimensional aspects of embodied practice and knowledge into printed output? In this blog, we can include photos and direct video links, but this is not true for every publication opportunity. The study of dance, performance, and movement is an integral, yet often overlooked, field of study within academia (and especially literary studies). Rather than forcing dance to fit into the contours of what has been deemed “appropriate” or indicative of a certain “intellectual rigor,” perhaps there is an opportunity to show the limits of text-based inquiry when it comes to studies of the body in literature. Alix Beeston certainly does this in In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen (2018) by repositioning the subjects of portrait photography to the center of her study and reading the influence of photography (formally and thematically) on modernist literature. Carrie Preston includes practice-based research methods in Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching (2017).

In our work we also encounter the practical issue of the ephemerality of performance itself, especially concerning primary materials of modernist dance. The nature of performance is that it only exists in one place and time. What did Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring look like at its premiere in 1913? This canonical modernist ballet, whose influence can be read from Djuna Barnes to Ali Smith’s Spring, was only performed a handful of times (Nijinsky’s version, anyway). Notation exists and existed, but a reconstructed ballet—at least before video—is still limited in capturing the movement qualities of the initial performance.

Meindert recently encountered a fascinating example, when he found not just competing, but contrary, accounts of the same performance. American choreographer Isadora Duncan discusses her work in a 1903 speech as connected to the earth and to its waves, as flowing and grounded, and contrasts it to the rigidity and stop-and-go movements of classical ballet. A German critic writing in the same year, however, calls Duncan’s work a string of poses. An incongruity that is both curious and exciting. As a result, we often end up, as Meindert did in his article on Duncan’s speech rather than her work, circumscribing dance pieces through accounts of them, rather than engaging with their contents directly.

Yet, we also wonder whether literature is all that different. Might we not see literature as a performance, too? As contemporary readers, we are excluded from the situation from which the modernist text arose, to which it was addressed, and in which it had its effect. Instead, reading these texts now a new performance is created. This question is not unfamiliar to modernist thinking. In our discussion, Patty pointed to Gertrude Stein’s “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” as an example of the dynamic performance of the written language. The rose is always in process each time it is read. Like movement, Stein’s language moving across the page, is a process and in process. Like choreography, Stein’s staging of the rose is never the same. Can you even understand, Meindert asks, “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” without a body that performs it?[2]

Photo of Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in Le Spectre de la rose, 1911.
Fig. 3. “Rose...” Photo of Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in Le Spectre de la rose, 1911. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Tamara Toumanova and Serge Lifar in Le Spectre de la rose, 1940.
Fig. 4. “...is a rose...” Tamara Toumanova and Serge Lifar in Le Spectre de la rose, 1940. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) in Le Spectre de la rose, Paris, 1911. Drawing by George Barbier (1882-1932), Nijinsky, 1913.
Fig. 5. “...is a rose...” Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) in Le Spectre de la rose, Paris, 1911. Drawing by George Barbier (1882-1932), Nijinsky, 1913. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 “...is a rose”[3]

The dynamics and ephemerality of movement extend to us, too. Because we are no longer training daily, we are compelled to indicate that we are “former” dancers—our bodies cannot perform the way they once could. As we process and develop a language for describing movement, we are relying on (and relaying) memories of movement. Drawing on our memories of dance in print performs an elegy of sorts. The descriptions of these movements become a constant reminder of just how transitory those moments in the studio or on the stage were and are, of how much they have shaped who we are and of how much this corporeal knowledge is also always already fading, covered over by new experiences, movements, gestures, interactions.

Our struggle with language to capture movement mirrors many modernist struggles with form—the struggle to capture the fast-paced, changing, constantly moving nature of not only their modernist environment (technological advancements, changes in the built environment, war) as well as language itself as Stein shows. Their struggles with language, therefore, cannot be separated from their interest in performance. Thus, if we are still illiterate when it comes to movement—and if, as we believe, modernist literature, its rhythms and its contents, engage and unsettle us corporeally—then dance and its performers can teach us a lot about how to further explore these aspects of modernist literature. Dance captures the shape-shifting process of modernism itself, and offers an important way into Charles Baudelaire’s infamous prologue to modernism: “La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitive, le contingent . . .”[4]


[1] William Forsythe speaking about “A Quiet Evening of Dance” in promotional clip: The Shed. “William Forsythe: ‘You need the foundation in order to innovate’ | IN THE WORKS | THE SHED.” YouTube, 21 October, 2019.

[2] Choreographers Sol Léon and Paul Lightfoot have used Stein’s “Shutter’s Shut” for a choreography to great effect.

[3] For a fourth (moving) Rose, see here.

[4] Charles Baudelaire, “Le Peintre de la vie moderne,” in Œuvres complètes, ed. Marcel A. Ruff. (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968): 553.