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Reviewed by:
  • The Choreographic by Jenn Joy
  • Megan V. Nicely (bio)
The Choreographic. By Jenn Joy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014; 234pp.; illustrated. $24.95 paper, e-book available.

The Choreographic is a journey. Flying, falling, and all the while desiring, Joy weaves a complex landscape of philosophy, critical theory, and contemporary art landmarks that extend beyond her anchors in dance and sculpture. Reception is at the heart of this book, as is the further travelling it stimulates. Artworks serve less to foster debate on disciplinary boundaries than as approaches to experience, and encounters with them inspire embodied thinking, a phenomenon that is a part of what Joy means by “the choreographic.” The proposition is that we do not just look at art, it also looks back, and by recognizing art’s “sensual address” (1), we open a space for dialogue where we might see, organize, and write our experiences differently. This proposal is an important one not just for art history but also for dance studies. Indeed while Joy’s writing traverses discourses in both fields, dance is where this book makes its strongest contribution. The Choreographic poses a “different economy of attention” (168), to use Joy’s words, one that reveals the often intangible but nonetheless felt register of the movement of thought. [End Page 175]

The text opens with a question: “Why choreography now?” (1). What might it offer as concept and practice in a historical moment marked by wars, natural disasters, and political and economic crises? Joy seeks answers in the invisible, irrational forces that accompany responses, despite our conscious intentions, such as laughter and violence. The ability of uncontrolled physical eruptions to seep between and stall the progression of logical thought is another aspect of the choreographic, which is understood to work “against linguistic signification and virtuosic representation; it is about contact that touches even across distance” (1). This distance is crucial to the cerebral and corporeal project that Joy undertakes. The choreographic moves into spaces of longed-for connection where language cannot go, yet language also continually reveals itself in its own beauty, necessity, and disappointment. Likewise, the choreographic is a felt sense of “something else,” not dance but of dance in the ways it charts a profound course of poetic human experience. By bringing these realms together, Joy is able to bridge the ongoing challenge in dance scholarship between the kinesthetic and its written articulation.

Joy enters the conversation on art as critical encounter at the mid-’60s moment when minimal sculpture elicited a visceral viewer response, postmodern dance overturned the rules of choreography, and arts writing engaged these conceptual shifts in heated critique. Importantly, the role of the viewer was at stake, as Michael Fried’s charged response to sculpture’s durational theatricality (1967) and Yvonne Rainer’s assertion that “dance is hard to see” (1966:271) made clear. Joy identifies such spaces of discomfort as generative of new ways of thinking and ultimately writing. This opening chapter, titled “Precarious Rupture: Lessons from the Landscape,” gains further traction from Georges Didi-Huberman’s counter to 19th-century art-historical assumptions that visible representation is legible. Instead, he poses that there are gaps in the image where other forces enter. Joy adopts a similar approach to history as a kind of philosophical wandering. She employs the refrain, “Come. Walk with me. Let’s get lost,” which serves to both interrupt the text’s linear control and also to tell the reader how to receive the text—as a kind of dis- and re-orientation through art discourses and projects critically engaging the natural landscape, such as those by Francis Alÿs and Robert Smithson.

Subsequent chapters extend this nonlinear thought landscape to explore affective phenomena in dance performance. Joy identifies the choreographic in works by contemporary experimental choreographers working between New York and Europe, which she further explicates via the thinking of Henri Bergson, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Georges Bataille, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Luc Nancy, Gilles Deleuze, and many others. The number of sources can be dizzying at times, until the reader realizes the task is less about grasping each idea than witnessing how the temporary encounters allow Joy to traverse visual, felt...


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pp. 175-178
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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