- Dancing Across the Page by Karen Barbour
Dancing Across the Page is a monograph by New Zealand author Karen Barbour, a contemporary choreographer and performer with scholarly training in philosophy and the social sciences. As her title playfully indicates, Barbour focuses attention on the interstices between corporeal and scriptural experiences. Approaching the study of dance as a performing art, Barbour views her own writing as a form of dance. Dancing Across the Page brings into relief the author’s choreographed editing practice, displaying both her self-aware creative process and her own critical strategies. She blends scholarly rigor and objectives with a more personal narrative style, presenting dialogues, lyrical passages as well as vivid prose and suggestive imagery. In her distinctive, essayistic manner, Barbour stakes out her theoretical stance and comments on the political aims she has formed through her own life experience as a dancer, dance instructor, academic researcher and author, feminist, woman, mother, and English-speaking Pākehā, the term New Zealanders use to identify descendants of the island’s European colonizers. The variegated roles the author has played in contemporary New Zealand’s cultural context is, to be sure, charged with social significance.
In her writing, Barbour bridges a number of divides, including the opposition between the performative and the textual, and between viscer-ally lived experience and its symbolic representations. Barbour also aims to resolve the tensions between scholarly research and art. In rethinking and reforming these practices, Barbour invokes the notions of “embodied knowledge” and what she terms “autoethnography,” two concepts that allow her to reconcile conventional binary oppositions such as language vs. body, science vs. imagination, and objectivity vs. subjectivity. Inspired by the work of phenomenologist Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1999), Barbour investigates how movement can become a strategy for developing new ways of thinking about knowing (89). These reflections undergird her notion of an embodied knowledge that fosters intrinsic bodily intelligence, which is quite different from traditional notions of disembodied mind and spirit. Barbour’s concept of embodied knowledge is necessarily constructed and thus complicated by subject-formation and knowledge-making, both of which processes, she argues, demand a holistic approach to understanding. Barbour’s concept of “autoethnography” involves a highly self-reflexive “writing about the personal and its relationship to culture” (23) that highlights the act of writing as a culturally encoded and embodied practice. In a series of “narrative vignettes” that frame each [End Page 172] chapter, Barbour calls attention to the corporeal aspects of the scene of writing with its body postures, pains and pleasures and the excitement that follows the successful articulation of ideas. Barbour’s feminism also turns the practice of writing into a political act aiming to produce change in the world.
In her “Introduction,” Barbour explains that her main objective is to inspire the reader “to engage kinaesthetically and empathetically” (17) with the author’s experiences. She takes issue with the doctrine of aesthetic disinterestedness, which, she argues, suppresses the reader’s lived persona and engages only disembodied observation. Barbour seeks to elicit a readerly empathy, stirred by suggestive images and bodily representations, which induce the reader to “undertake creative action in the world” (22). Whether or not the reader is inclined to respond to this call, the reader’s embodiment, she claims, is already encoded in the text, since reading and interpreting another person’s lived experience requires drawing from the resources of the reader’s personal world.
In her first four chapters, Barbour stakes out her position as a dancer and dance choreographer, feminist and professor. She identifies her main sources of inspiration in contemporary dance, contemporary feminist theories and postmodernism. Methodologically, these chapters focus on various connections between artistic performance and academic research. Here, Barbour explores the possibility of adopting a viable alternative to the pursuit of scholarly “objectivity.” The approach she favors allows the narrator to speak in a personal voice and to search for new ways of also representing the authentic voices of others. The substantive focus of these chapters is the question of identity. In particular, Barbour considers the ways in which contemporary...