- Geography: Art, Race, Exile, and: My Body, the Buddhist
We are dying. We think we are not.—Deborah Hay
Daily are the doors of fear.—Ralph Lemon
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In physics, certain thresholds mark the point of transformation, or transition, of a substance from one physical state to another. These thresholds are known as a substance's critical point. At these points, a substance does not endure any essential transmutation, but it gains a totally different physical form. Within the spectacularly long tradition of choreographers writing on their work, on dance in general, and on the many intersections of art with life, one can identify a similar condition. The pendular oscillation between writing and dancing that choreographers have been performing since the very foundations of Western theatrical dance, their consistent exchanges between the realm of the word and that of gesture as means of expression, mark so many of these critical points in the history of dance—those moments in which dance moves, while keeping its substance, from one state to another. In these critical thresholds of material transformation one can distill the fundamental stances of a period's choreographic imagination.
Western theatrical dance has been as intrinsically linked to writing as it has been to movement. Books written by choreographers abound. But how is it that one approaches these books on their own, in their expressive autonomy? The thematic specificities of this genre (if one may call it that), its ubiquitous presence throughout different historical periods and dance movements, and its nature and stylistic force are yet to be fully explored. What can provisionally be argued is that writings by choreographers provide us with a different form of choreography's substance: that of always reflecting and refracting forces that shape behavioral and ideological structures of subjectivation and subjection. More radically, one could propose that Western theatrical dance only discovers its conditions of possibility once it claims writing as privileged partner, once it pairs writing with Western dance's other two foundational "substances": the body (as estranged matter of continuous re-articulation and refinement), and movement (as autonomous aesthetic category and ontological imperative). [End Page 165]
Thus, the role of the letter in the formation of Western theatrical dance is inextricably bound to dance's ontology. I am not referring here to the various forms of "dance notation" techniques (techniques that, since Raoul-Auger Feuillet's seminal treaty Chorégraphie ou l'art de décrire la danse, par caractères, figures etsignes démonstratifs [Choreography, or the art of describing dance with demonstrative characters, figures, and signs, 1699], have found in the graphed page a trusted memory-extension). I am referring specifically to a choreographic impulse toward writing, even a compulsion to write. From Thoinot Arbeau's musings in the 16th century, through Pierre Rameau's pedagogism; from Jean-Georges Noverre's famous letters, to Isadora Duncan's inflamed proclamations; from Vaslav Nijinsky's still misread diaries, to Martha Graham's Jungian visions; from Mary Wigman's intriguing books so filled with the shadow of death, to the prolific Rudolph von Laban, a whole drive toward the word can be traced. Significantly, these choreographers' writings (and the list can be expanded ad nauseam to include also Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn, Merce Cunningham, Simone Forti, Bill T. Jones's devastating Night on Earth...), have always been deeply concerned with narrating uncharted thresholds, those critical points of formless exchange between life and art that choreography, as persistent exploration of the body in time, brings so well to the fore. In that sense, every dance book maps a geography of forces under which dance explores and becomes its many potential states.
An uncanny exploration of bodily thresholds and of physical and cultural transformations is certainly present in the two books under review. Both volumes can be...