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  • Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance by Susan Leigh Foster
  • Brandon Shaw (bio)
Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance. By Susan Leigh Foster. London: Routledge, 2010; 286pp.; illustrations. $120.00 cloth, $55.95 paper, e-book available.

Although early modern dance critic John Martin used the term “kinesthetic empathy” early in the 20th century to describe an immediate, incontrovertible bond between dancers and spectators, the term has recently come to the attention of scholars. While a host of contemporary studies research kinesthetic empathy through partnering dance scholars with neuroscientists,1Choreographing Empathy supplements such investigations with Susan Leigh Foster’s genealogical analysis and use of critical theory. Foster handles a staggering range of material with aptitude and charity while mounting her case that choreography should not be considered as sealed off from political, scientific, and philosophical representations and uses of the body. Instead, choreography reflects and informs changing views of anatomy, self-perception, and the structure of empathy.

Drawing from news reports, books on manners, maps, advertisements, and close examination of notational scores, Foster investigates the development and political import of the terms “choreography,” “kinesthesia,” and “empathy” predominantly in England and the US from the 16th century to today. Over the course of four chapters, Foster exposes how choreography ascribes to and resists contemporary understandings of the body and the physiology of empathy.

The first chapter, “Choreography,” draws upon Foster’s broad notion of choreography: “a structuring of movement, not necessarily the movement of human beings” (2). Through analysis of illustrations in Raoul Auger Feuillet’s Chorégraphie (1700), Foster demonstrates how this [End Page 177] notational system reflects the colonialist drive to categorize, universalize, decontextualize, and usurp and export. Instead of depicting his dances as taking place in an identifiable social setting, Feuillet inscribed his scores upon an abstract grid that could be anywhere. Feuillet’s notation claimed dances and subsumed them to an aesthetic that honored virtuosity and newness over community and tradition: “Dances became authored for the first time. They moved from city to country across regional and national boundaries, entering a new economy of self-fashioning based on hierarchies of sophistication, urbanity, and inventiveness” (30). Yet the early 19th century’s shift toward an emotionally expressive female chorus conveying a narrative through balletic pantomime rendered a notational system devoted exclusively to the lower body obsolete. As such, “Dance was severed from the symbolic system that had given it materiality and parity with the other arts. Without that system [...] dance was reframed as the most feminized and trivial of accomplishments” (42–43).

Developments in representations and conceptualizations of the body produced notable shifts in choreography, particularly in American choreography. Martha Graham’s emphasis on the body’s expression of pan-cultural passions and Doris Humphrey’s attention to the ubiquitous pull of gravity are representative of the universalism that dominated early American modern dance. Under the influence of the Judson Dance Theater of the 1960s, American choreography became less centered on a specific choreographer’s technique and moved toward collective efforts. Dancers increasingly came from diverse social, national, and ethnic backgrounds, bringing expertise from a variety of dance forms and fields such as martial arts and gymnastics. Even into the late 20th century, an industrialist adulation of efficiency and versatility is reflected in release technique, which seeks maximal economy of movement, and the expectation that dancers possess facility with a number of dance styles.

In “Kinesthesia,” Foster documents the evolution of the term in medical and psychiatric history. Coined by neurologist Henry Charlton Bastian in 1880, “kinesthesia” denoted a sense of muscular effort and position. Kinesthesia is integral to J.J. Gibson’s perceptual psychology, where it works in tandem with the vestibular system to inform the upright, mobile perception of human beings. The articulation of post-Galenic understanding of the body as a machina carnis (84) or composed of geometric globules (83) is reflected in pulley-based exercise equipment and the geometrically perfect illustrations of Per Henrik Ling’s Swedish Gymnastics (1885). This confluence of body and machine becomes increasingly fluid in the 20th century. Foster draws a fascinating parallel between increasingly hybridized representations of the body and transformations in cartography, culminating in the thoroughly disembodied...


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pp. 177-180
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