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  • Paradoxical Body
  • José Gil (bio)
    Translated by André Lepecki (bio)

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Figure 1.

Henri Matisse, Danseuse Acrobate (Female Acrobat Dancer), lithograph series, 1931-32.

(©2006 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)

We know that the dancer evolves in a particular space, different from objective space. The dancer does not move in space, rather, the dancer secretes, creates space with his movement.

This is not too different from what happens in theatre, or on other stages and in other scenes. The actor also transforms the scenic space; the gymnast prolongs the space that surrounds his skin—he weaves with bars, mats, or simply with the ground he steps on relations of complicity as intimate as the ones he has with his own body. In a similar way, the zen archer and his target are one and the same. In all of these cases a new space emerges. We will call it the space of the body. [End Page 21]

It is a paradoxical space on many levels; while different from objective space, it is not separated from it. On the contrary, it is imbricated in objective space totally, to the point of being impossible to distinguish one from the other. The transfigured scene where the actor performs—is it not already objective space? Nonetheless, it is a scene invested with affects and new forces—the objects that occupy it gain different emotional values according to the actors' bodies; and although invisible, the space, the air, acquire a diversity of textures—they become dense or rarified, invigorating or suffocating. It is as if they were enveloping things with a surface similar to the skin. The space of the body is the skin extending itself into space; it is skin becoming space—thus, the extreme proximity between things and the body.

We can perform the following experiment: let's immerse ourselves completely naked in a deep bathtub, leaving only our heads sticking out of the water; let's drop onto the surface of the water, near our submerged feet, a spider. We will feel the animal's contact on the entirety of our skin. What happened? The water created a space of the body defined by the skin-membrane of the bathtub's water. From this example we can extract two consequences pertaining to the properties of the space of the body: it prolongs the body's limits beyond its visible contours; it is an intensified space, when compared with the habitual tactility of the skin.

The space of the body is not only produced by gymnasts or by artists who use their bodies. It is a general reality, present everywhere, born the moment there is an affective investment by the body. It is akin to the notion of "territory" in ethology. As a matter of fact, it is the first natural prosthesis of the body: the body gives itself new extensions in space, and in such ways it forms a new body—a virtual one, but ready to become actual and ready to allow gestures to become actualized in it. Let's consider the simple fact of driving an automo-bile: if we can pass through two walls without touching them, or turn left without running over the sidewalk, it is because our body partakes of the space and the contours of the car. Thus we calculate distances as if they referred to our own body (at the front of the car, it is my body that risks running over the sidewalk). In a general manner, any tool and its precise manipulation presupposes the space of the body.1

The dancer presents that particular characteristic of apparently not needing any kind of object, or any kind of body, in order to form his or her own proper space. All dancers, choreographers, and thinkers who refer to the space of the body have always described it as emanating from a single body that is surrounded and made autonomous by the space of the body.

Rudolf von Laban conceived the space of the body in the shape of an icosahedron; that is, in the shape of an invisible polyhedron with 20 faces whose points...


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pp. 21-35
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