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  • Improvisational Artistry in Live Dance Performance as Embodied and Extended Agency
  • Aili Bresnahan (bio)

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My aims in this article are twofold: (1) to provide an account of improvisational artistry on the part of the dancer during the course of live dance performance, and (2) to show how Andy Clark’s embodied and extended mind theory can flesh out the cognitive and physiological basis for the agency involved in this improvisational artistry (see Clark 2011). Clark is a philosopher of mind who holds the view that "mind" should refer not just to the brain and neural system, but to the body and to those components of the world outside of the body that become part of our thought process through a system of complex and engaged interactions. My claim is that "improvisational artistry"—that sort of thinking-while-doing that all dance performers engage in during the course of live dance performance that is not limited to any particular forms of improvisation—can be elucidated with respect to this theory. I do not go so far as to say that improvisational artistry is "thinking," but make the weaker claim that it can be construed as a type of "agency" that can benefit from Clark’s philosophical framework without making a commitment to any theory of what counts as "mind" or "thought."

Clark does not specifically address dance improvisation or style, so what I propose here is an extension of his views on dance. First, I will provide a general overview of current theories of dance improvisation in order to show how my account supplements those theories. I will also discuss expression and style as an important aspect of the type of broad-based improvisational activity that I will develop in this article, which I will describe as a kind of body- and environment-involved agency that includes all the style-informed ways that a dancer moves in response to the contingencies and needs of the performance environment and artistic purposes of the dance. Second, I will outline the basics of Clark’s embodied and extended mind theory, as well as set forth how the standard theory of mind differs from it and in some ways contradicts it. The purpose of considering it in light of the standard theory of mind is to show why I have chosen Clark’s theory as a good fit for the minded agency I will describe that takes place as improvisational artistry rather than having recourse to the standard theory of mind. Third, I will present a theory of improvisational artistry in live dance performance that makes use of Clark’s theory by considering his features of "mind" as part of the agency of the dance performer.1 My purpose in doing this is to expand the idea of what counts as "dance improvisation" in philosophical aesthetics by both updating it with current [End Page 85] theories of improvisation in dance studies and by adding an "embodied and extended" dimension to these theories.

I define agency here in a broad sense—as the control and intention the dance performer has to move in a certain way, whether cognized specifically or not. Agency would include almost everything pertaining to a dance performer’s intentional movement, including neuromuscular awarenesses and responses. The limiting feature on this agency, which otherwise might be so broad as to lack value, is the dancer’s training in learned and individual styles. The dancer is not free to just do anything, but has a repertoire of learned and instinctual movements from which to choose that affects his or her dance performance in artistically relevant ways. How this works, precisely, will be discussed more fully below.

Dance improvisation has been a neglected topic in philosophy publications, although dance studies, dance history, dance anthropology, and other fields of dance scholarship routinely discuss improvisation as a major part of dance innovation, practice, and performance.2 In 2000, a full issue of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism was devoted to the question of improvisation in the arts. In that issue, Curtis L. Carter provided the sole article on dance, with the majority of the articles...


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