restricted access Textual Matters: Making Narrative and Kinesthetic Sense of Crystal Pite’s Dance-Theater
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Textual Matters:
Making Narrative and Kinesthetic Sense of Crystal Pite’s Dance-Theater

According to Vancouver-based choreographer Crystal Pite, “A pivot . . . allows for another point of view. It is a turning point, something of crucial importance. It is a repeatable, refinable action that extends our perspective of the possible. The accuracy and focus, in combination with the instinctual, chaotic, and risky nature of improvisation, define both the process and the result” (quoted in Shaw 2006, 14). As scholars attuned to the institutional and ideological genealogies of our respective disciplines, we have become increasingly adept at the discourse of “turns”: we have learned to talk, for example, of the “turn to performance” in theater studies, or the “turn to critical theory” in dance studies, or the “turn to affect and the senses” in both. But we do not spend much time talking about our own individual research and teaching pivots—the small, accretive changes in direction we have made either in sympathetic (perhaps even fatalistic) response to those bigger disciplinary turns or, more provocatively, that collectively may have enabled them in the first place. Nor do we, as critics sensitive to charges of dilettantism when we risk venturing outside our fields of specialty, often discuss the role played by instinct, improvisation, and sheer pleasure in prompting such pivots.

This is all by way of explaining how it is that I, a literary critic by training, should come to find myself presently researching dance-theater. The short answer to that question is that the trajectory of my scholarly career—which has always pivoted around the theater—has tended to mirror my progressive immersion in the performance scene in Vancouver, and the local dance scene in particular. Then, too, it seems important to acknowledge the very strong, almost instinctually, kinesthetic response I have always felt, as a spectator, toward dance-theater as a form, one whose various elements and sensory stimuli come closest, for me, to an Artaudian total theatrical experience. But old habits die hard, and while my own aesthetic tastes skew far more towards contemporary dance than classical story ballet, I find that I am unable—and perhaps also unwilling—to resist reading much of this work within an expressive, and overtly narrative, representational frame. Prompted, in turn, by a renewed attention to language, text, and storytelling in theater, including physical and dance-theater, this has led me to rethink some of the scholarly criticism on the intertwined histories of post-dramatic theater and postmodern dance. As Maiya Murphy (2012) has recently noted, physical theater and postmodern dance in North America, Western Europe, and Australia have evolved in response to many shared points of reference from the mid-twentieth century [End Page 61] onward. One of those shared points is an apparent rejection of the central importance of narrative and story to traditional scripted drama and classical ballet, with the devised theater and improvised dance training that flourished from the 1960s instead emphasizing the role of the performer as co-creator of the work (Murphy 2012; see also Banes 1993; Murray and Keefe 2007). And yet, while physical theater and postmodern dance might in this respect seem to constitute a single unified field of performance via their separate body-based disavowals of the hegemony of language, parallel to these disciplinary experiments there evolved a hybrid genre of dance-theater that distinguished itself precisely through its combining of text and movement, speaking and dancing.

By now, audiences are fairly used to dancers talking on stage. But—and this is no doubt the residual literary critic in me speaking—it seems to me that dance and theater scholars have yet to adequately explain the central historical, political, and affective importance of text as one of the indicative signs of dance-theater as a form. Nor is there much discussion across both disciplines of why, as dramatic text generation came to be regarded as antithetical to the devising practices and communicative goals of theater post-Artaud, scripted and improvised speech became increasingly integrated with movement and dramaturgy in the rehearsal, performance, and documentation processes of many contemporary dance artists. Among the most influential of these artists is, of course, Pina...