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Engaging Bodies

The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality

Ann Cooper Albright

Publication Year: 2013

For twenty-five years, Ann Cooper Albright has been exploring the intersection of cultural representation and somatic identity in dance. For Albright, dancing is a physical inquiry, a way of experiencing and participating in the world, and her writing reflects an interdisciplinary approach to seeing and thinking about dance. In her engagement as both a dancer and a scholar, Albright draws on her kinesthetic sensibilities as well as her intellectual knowledge to articulate how movement creates meaning. Throughout Engaging Bodies movement and ideas lean on one another to produce a critical theory anchored in the material reality of dancing bodies. This blend of cultural theory and personal circumstance will be useful and inspiring for emerging scholars and dancers looking for a model of writing about dance that thrives on the interconnectedness of watching and doing, gesture and thought.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press


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Engaging Bodies

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

Although it represents a quarter-century of writing on dance, this collection evolved over a period of two years. It began during the time I was working on a contribution to a special issue of Dance Research Journal focused on critical reappraisals of dance and phenomenology. That piece, “Situated Dancing: Notes from Three Decades in Contact with Phenomenology,” traces ...

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Introduction: Situated Dancing

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pp. 1-17

I began to study philosophy at the same time that I began to study dance, at college in the early 1980s. Both of these choices surprised me at first, as I had originally planned on studying politics and becoming a civil-rights lawyer after college. I see now that these two areas of inquiry were routes towards figuring out how to bridge the divides between my academic self ...

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pp. 19-21

I first started to write dance reviews for a small community newspaper in Philadelphia. Later, as an MFA student at Temple University, I persuaded the chair to let me launch a departmental newsletter called “Dance Dialogues,” which included interviews with guest artists and short reviews of local performances. When I moved to New York City ...

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1. Pooh Kaye and Eccentric Motions

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pp. 22-24

Pooh Kaye uses “play” in her performances with conscious intent. In a recent interview, she stated, “Play creates an emotional and immediate response which requires a different way of looking at dance. If the critics were to deal with it seriously, they would realize it is a radical, political notion—a challenge to traditional ways of structuring art.” In the evening of dance ...

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2. Johanna Boyce

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pp. 25-26

Johanna Boyce’s Raising Voice, a brilliant revisionist version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, opens with a “family portrait” of a group of diverse women: construction worker, preppy businesswoman, East European peasant, East Village New Yorker. Although their body sizes, hair styles, and clothing preferences differ markedly, these twelve women are joined in a ...

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3. Improvisations by Simone Forti and Pooh Kaye

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pp. 27-30

There is a finish on most dancing these days. Highly aerobic, polished, and preened, bodies flash across the stage and then are gone—finished. Watching this kind of spectacle may be visually exciting to some, but it rarely moves me. What did move me last fall and winter was a handful of performances by a three-generation lineage of dancer/choreographers. There is something ...

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4. Song of Lawino

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pp. 31-32

There is an intriguing, almost eerie mesh of self and other, community and dissent in the dance/theatre piece Song of Lawino. As I walked from the lobby, which was filled with people greeting, hugging, and chattering away, into the darkened theater, the flood of community feeling dissipated as I stared at the laundry line hung with brown braids and various hair pieces ...

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5. Joseph Holmes, Sizzle and Heat

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pp. 33-35

I went to the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater’s January 24 performance at the Ohio Theater in Cleveland with two goals: I wanted to enjoy some high-powered dancing, and I wanted to start to think about the connections between the genre of modern jazz and the politics of a marketing strategy that focuses on the “sheer sizzle” and “heat” of this “multiracial” ...

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6. Performing across Identity

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pp. 36-39

Who am I? is a complex question for minority performance artists working amid the cultural rubble of the late twentieth century. Splayed between different communities, these artists must negotiate a minefield of strategic allegiances and shifting identities. Although “ethnic” forms of artistic and performative expression are finally being supported by many arts foundations ...

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7. In Dialogue with Firebird

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pp. 40-43

With its powerful combination of visual and romantic subtexts, the pas de deux is the cornerstone of classical ballet. Traditionally, this duet sequence is marked by an elaborate attention to the ballerina. The male dancer partners the female dancer so as to display her technique; his steady hand helps her extend into an arabesque and his lifts help sustain the illusion of her ephemerality ...

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8. Dancing Bodies and the Stories They Tell

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pp. 44-49

The one, overwhelming image I have of La La La Human Steps’ multimedia extravaganza is of Louise Lecavalier flying through the air like a human torpedo. She gets caught by another dancer, thrashes around with him for a while, then vaults right out of his arms and halfway across the stage, only to rebound back into his face. Two minutes and who knows how ...

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9. Embodying History: The New Epic Dance

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pp. 50-54

Garth Fagan and Bill T. Jones are both African-American choreographers working within a genre of contemporary performance that I think of as the “New Epic Dance.” Garth Fagan’s Griot New York and Bill T. Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land are two evening-length works that explore various facets of their own cultural heritages, refiguring ...

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10. Desire and Control: Performing Bodies in the Age of AIDS

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pp. 55-59

At the post-performance discussion of choreographer Elizabeth Streb and her company Ringside’s recent performance in Cleveland on January 19 and 20 at the Ohio Theater, an audience member asked the dancers what their physical training regimes consisted of. Actually, the question went something like this: how did you get so built-up? Now, Elizabeth Streb and her ...

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pp. 61-63

This section contains some of my earliest theoretical writings in which I read late twentieth-century dancing through the lenses of feminist film theory and feminist literary criticism. These critical perspectives on language and image taught my generation of dance scholars to move beyond traditional analyses of movement style or compositional ...

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11. Mining the Dancefield: Spectacle, Moving Subjects, and Feminist Theory

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pp. 64-75

In her film The Man Who Envied Women, Yvonne Rainer steers clear of a troublesome pothole in feminist film theory—that of imaging a female body—by simply removing the visual presence of her main female character. Trisha appears to the audience through another kind of presence—that of her voice. Sometimes her voice is the film’s conscience—a sort of distant ...

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12. Writing the Moving Body: Nancy Stark Smith and the Hieroglyphs

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pp. 76-91

In 1980, when I was taking dance classes in Paris at the Centre International de Danse, I remember we had two sorts of accompanists. One was a wonderfully eclectic musician who would come in with all sorts of ethnic and homemade instruments. He sat on a stool in the corner and arranged a strange assortment of sound makers in a half-moon shape around him. The ...

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13. Auto-Body Stories: Blondell Cummings and Autobiography in Dance

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pp. 92-114

How does this statement, written near the end of her autobiography, reflect on the lively account of art and love that Isadora Duncan has given her reader? Faced with the daunting task of creating a coherent literary account of her life, Duncan tries to tell her story only to realize (some 300 pages later) the impossibility of such an attempt.1 She claims, instead, that were ...

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14. Femininity with a Vengeance: Strategies of Veiling and Unveiling in Loïe Fuller’s Performances of Salomé

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pp. 115-137

In a move that seems to be universally interpreted as a big mistake, Loïe Fuller produced her own version of the Salome myth in 1895 and cast herself in the title role. This création nouvelle was billed as a “pantomine lyrique en deux actes,” and ran for less than two months at the Comédie-Parisienne. Most critics panned the play. Jean Lorrain, who had previously ...

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pp. 139-141

My first brush with dance history was learning that my mother took Duncan dancing classes at Bryn Mawr College—an all-women’s college with a long history of modern dance—where both she and I went to school. Although I did not want to dance like Isadora Duncan, reading her autobiography My Life and seeing old college photos of young ...

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15. The Long Afternoon of a Faun: Reconstructions and Discourses of Desire

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pp. 142-147

Given the panels and discussions during this conference entitled Dance Re-constructed, it is perhaps absurdly redundant to begin this paper with the claim that dance is a historical phenomenon. Yet it is precisely in this conference that the self-evident logic of this statement has raised important and sometimes even disturbing questions. What constitutes the dances we are so ...

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16. Embodying History: Epic Narrative and Cultural Identity in African-American Dance

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pp. 148-174

These questions guide my reflections on a genre of contemporary performance that I call the “New Epic Dance.” Over the past seven years, I have witnessed full evening-length dance/dramas by choreographers as diverse as Garth Fagan, David Rousseve, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and Bill T. Jones. These works explore various facets of African-American cultural heritages, ...

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17. Matters of Tact: Writing History from the Inside Out

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pp. 175-187

Long before I became a committed academic, long before I was a college professor teaching dance history, long before terminal degrees and professional titles, I chanced upon an exhibition of early dance photographs at the Rodin Museum in Paris. I bought the small catalogue, and from time to time I would page through the striking black-and-white images searching for ...

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18. The Tanagra Effect: Wrapping the Modern Body in the Folds of Ancient Greece

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pp. 188-207

At the turn of the twentieth century, to put one’s body on display as a spectacle and still claim subjectivity onstage was a difficult and complex balancing act for a female performer. Equally difficult for a woman was claiming authority as “writer,” particularly if she had been known as a performer.1 Resisting the societal strictures of “appropriate” behavior for women, Colette, ...

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pp. 209-211

Contact improvisation is one of the main reasons I devoted my life to dancing. I took a series of contact classes during my college days and was immediately hooked. The range of physical possibilities combined with the improvisational impulse in this form of kinesthetic partnering spoke to my desire for feisty, anything goes, movement. In addition, the ...

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19. A Particular History: Contact Improvisation at Oberlin College

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pp. 212-217

As I write this, I am sitting in the middle of an empty wooden space, the smell of which is intensified by the heat on this summer afternoon. Today the space feels like a big attic—old, woody, slightly airless—one whose contents have evaporated over time so that only the dust, memories, and ghosts remain. This large, brown, hollow gymnasium has at times reminded me ...

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20. Open Bodies: (X)changes of Identity in Capoeira and Contact Improvisation

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pp. 218-229

These two descriptions of movement duets—that meeting an “other” in motion—map out the genres of physical encounters I discuss in this essay. The first passage is a moment within contact improvisation. The second is a moment within capoeira. On the surface, these forms represent disparate cultural histories and very different dynamics of physical interaction. After ...

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21. Present Tense: Contact Improvisation at Twenty-five

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pp. 230-236

When people ask me how CI25 went, there is one moment I love to describe. It is when I walked back into the main dance studio in Oberlin College at 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning and, much to my delight, saw over sixty sweaty people dancing in the space, with another fifty-some bodies scattered around the periphery of the dance floor chatting, singing, playing music, ...

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22. Feeling In and Out: Contact Improvisation and the Politics of Empathy

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pp. 237-245

In his poetic short essay on Rembrandt’s paintings, art critic John Berger traces the differences between the artist’s drawings and his paintings, particularly the late portraits. Whereas in his drawings Rembrandt is a master of proportion, in his paintings this realistic perspective is radically altered. Berger asks: “Why in his paintings did he forget—or ignore—what he could ...

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pp. 247-249

I have always tried to be thoughtful about my teaching, which spans a wide range of theoretical and practical classes both in and out of the academy. As reflected in most of the writings collected here, I have spent much of my life intentionally drawing connections between our physical experiences and (meta)physical responses, recognizing that ...

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23. Dancing across Difference: Experience and Identity in the Classroom

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pp. 250-262

This is a description of a dance performance that took place as part of a senior dance concert at Oberlin College in May 1992. The duet grew out of a contact improvisation class taught in the dance department during the spring semester. The dancers were a student and a professor. This essay is committed to understanding what that particular confluence of identities and bodies ...

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24. Channeling the Other: An Embodied Approach to Teaching across Cultures

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pp. 263-269

The potent intersection of dance theory and cultural studies has contributed to a much needed theorization of embodiment (the processes by which cultural values are internalized and represented by social bodies), and has led to an increasingly sophisticated elucidation of cultural difference within the dance field. This discourse of difference has helped dance scholars and ...

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25. Training Bodies to Matter

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pp. 270-277

This essay traces three different pedagogical situations in which I try to shift what I see as the negative corporeal dynamics of our contemporary moment, one body at a time. Drawing examples from my experiences with the body-to-body interactions of contact improvisation—the dance form that first brought me into dance thirty years ago—Bridging the Body/Mind ...

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This section’s title comes from that of a folder on my computer where I store presentations, papers, articles, book reviews, and essays that I have produced for very specific occasions. These could be an invitation to write something for an anthology, or a request that I speak at a conference, or contribute to a thematic issue of a journal. These pieces are ...

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26. The Mesh in the Mess

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pp. 281-287

These paragraphs describe three movement events. The first traces the opening few minutes of Kei Takei’s solo in the latest section of her ongoing dance saga, Light Part 20 and 21. The second describes a brief duet sequence in Pooh Kaye’s dance, Wildfields (1984), and the third recounts an episode from an afternoon of watching the sand box in Washington Square Park. ...

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27. Through Yours to Mine and Back Again: Reflections on Bodies in Motion

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pp. 288-291

Twenty years ago, most dancers, when asked what the medium of dance is, would probably have replied “movement” or perhaps “movements of the human body.” In those heady days of abstraction and anarchy, the body was recognized as a wonderful source of movement possibilities. The 1970s reification of abstract movement and the notions of choreography as formal ...

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28. Physical Mindfulness

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pp. 292-293

The first year I realized I would be dancing for the rest of my life was when I was a junior in college. I was living in Paris for the year and searching for a dance studio where dance was more than a form of body-toning exercise. Although I was not very fluent in French yet, I knew I was interested in what the French called danse expressive. It seemed like a pretty old-fashioned ...

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29. Researching Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality

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pp. 294-296

Movement Research was founded on a tension. A tension that has remained embedded in this organization for most of its twenty-five-year history. At times, this tension has been incredibly productive; but it also has been frequently ignored, like an irksome old injury one hopes will go away on its own. Thinking about what I might contribute to this issue of the journal ...

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30. Strategic Abilities: Negotiating the Disabled Body in Dance

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pp. 297-317

What do you see? A back? A backless wheelchair? A woman? A nude? Do you see pain or pleasure? Are you in pain or pleasure? How do you see me? Most likely you do not see a dancer, for the combined discourses of idealized femininity and aesthetic virtuosity which serve to regulate theatrical dancing throughout much of the Western world refuse the very possibility of this ...

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31. Dancing in and out of Africa

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pp. 318-320

The photograph was striking, no doubt about it: a black man in profile, his eyes squinting into the sun, his mouth open, his dreadlocks spouting out of the ponytail on top of his head. The bareness of his neck and shoulders, combined with the urban trendiness of his coiffure placed him as the synecdoche for the ninth International Festival of New Dance in Montreal (FIND) ...

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32. Rates of Exchange

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pp. 321-324

On January 18, 2004, my father died. I begin this essay by evoking his death, not in order to gain sympathy, nor even to create a personal and rhetorical bridge to the question of burial in Antigone, but rather to provoke a reflection on the limits of visibility. As anyone who has ever lost an important figure in their life knows, the shock of someone’s absence draws out the ...

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33. Moving Contexts: Dance and Difference in the Twenty-first Century

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pp. 325-334

It is a balmy summer evening as I emerge from The Sensuous and the Sacred exhibit of Chola Bronzes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. These ancient bronze images of deities call forth my memories of sacred statues and richly decorated shrines in the south of India, where I traveled to teach and lecture in January 2003. From India to Cleveland; from Cleveland to India....

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34. Three Beginnings and a Manifesto

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pp. 335-337

It is mid-August and I am sitting on a porch by a lake in Maine. I am here at Bearnstow—a dance retreat run by Ruth Grauer and Bebe Miller in the good old modern style of combining nature and art. The sun has just come out after two days of heavy rain; interrupting my thoughts on the history and future of dance studies with the seduction of a fresh day. I catch myself ...

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35. Improvisation as Radical Politics

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pp. 338-342

If Richard Bull and Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull (that is, Cynthia Novack) were both alive and dancing these troubled days, they would no doubt be responding to the current political crisis by staging an evening of improvisational dance at their Warren Street Performance Loft in downtown New York City. Maybe their traditional Saturday-evening performance would be ...

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36. Space and Subjectivity

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pp. 343-347

In her seminal essay, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Bodily Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality” (1980), feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young connects female bodily uses of space and force to women’s social status. Attending to the intricacies of embodied experience, Young identifies three traditional modalities of women’s physical being in ...

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37. Strategic Practices

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pp. 348-353

Improvisation is an elusive subject. Despite much late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century dancing being deeply intertwined with a variety of improvisational practices, there is a regrettable paucity of books dealing with this slippery and yet seductive topic. Even though there has been a veritable explosion of dance scholarship over the past three decades, ...

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38. Resurrecting the Future: Body/Image/Technology

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pp. 354-359

I feel compelled to begin with a confession. I am, by nature, a technophobe. Physically addicted to moving in real time and space, politically committed to supporting live performance, I tend to resist screens of all kinds. I mean it: I am so bad I still write first drafts with a pen and paper. When I began my book on Loïe Fuller, little did I imagine that the research for the last chapter ...

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39. Falling

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pp. 360-366

By the time she wrote these words as part of an editor’s note for the fall 1979 issue of Contact Quarterly, Nancy Stark Smith had been practicing falling for seven years. From 1972 and the beginning performances of contact improvisation at the John Weber Gallery in New York City until 1979, her body had learned to experience the momentum of a descent without ...

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40. The Tensions of Technē: On Heidegger and Screendance

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pp. 367-369

I entered the Screendance network from a slightly oblique angle. On the one hand, I was more unschooled in contemporary examples of screendance than many of my colleagues, and I certainly was much less addicted to You- Tube searching and my computer in general. On the other hand, I came to the table with a curiosity about the historical and theoretical intersections ...

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41. Falling

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pp. 370-377

Falling is predicated on a slippage through time and space. Marked by the trajectory between up and down as well as before and after, falling refers to what was while moving toward what will be. This is true whether you fall on ice or fall in love. Crossing over literal and metaphoric states of being in the world, falling opens a threshold between the past and the future. Falls ...

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pp. 379-380

This collection of my writing is dedicated to my students. In the two decades that I have been teaching at Oberlin College, the students in my classes have jumped on me, rolled over me, pushed me, and resisted my weight in ways that ultimately supported the direction of my academic career. Throughout courses new and untested, or tried and true, they have always been accepting ...


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pp. 381-382


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pp. 383-391

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About the Author

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p. 392-392

A dancer and scholar, Ann Cooper Albright is Professor and Chair of Dance at Oberlin College. Combining her interests in dancing and cultural theory, she is involved in teaching a variety of courses that seek to engage students in both practices and theories of the body. She is founder and director of Girls in Motion, an award winning ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780819574121
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819574107

Page Count: 408
Publication Year: 2013