Dancing ‘round a tipi: research into the life and work of Reginald and Gladys Laubin

This text was originally a conference paper, presented at the American Studies Association conference in 2008. Since then I have been working on other publications, but am returning to this material (and my work on the appropriation of Aboriginal dance in Australia) for a larger book project looking at appropriation in dance across the US and Australia.

Dramatic splashes of red and black radiate out from his serious, dark eyes. The colour rolls down over his high cheekbones, disappearing into black hair, fastened in plaits that drape over a boned breast plate that rests on his powerful chest. A long black and white feather is tucked behind his right ear; it announces tribal rank and affiliation. His tort abdomen ripples above a leather breech-clout. A hunting knife hangs from a leather thong, resting on his muscular thigh. Bronzed hands move deftly through the sign language of the Sioux.

In his white-fringed buckskin, with red trimming, he squats by a fire next to his dark haired female companion. He signs the story of “The Battle of the Washita River”, a story of a Kiawa boy's encounter with General Custer. At the end he empties his smoking pipe onto the fire, which flares. Male and female chanting voices rise with the flames and the camera pulls away to reveal a row of T-pees in the snow.

This man is the image of serious concentration, smouldering power constrained by deeply held regard for nature. He is noble, savage, elemental; a man of the land. Some years earlier the same warrior had been captured in an ecstatic jump on a poster encouraging adventurous, post WWII Americans to ‘Go West’ for their holidays. He was a young man in his prime in feathers and fringe, with a dark tan, a painted face, long dark plaits, this time his 'ancestral breach-clout' exposed his fine legs, all the way to his waist. He was a portrait of honed, constrained but volatile masculinity and...he was a complete fake.

Reginald Laubin had made a career out of what what Rayna Green and Philip J. Deloria have each called “playing Indian”. With his wife Gladys, Reginald had ‘played’ Indian for prestige and (some) profit for almost 70 years.

Interviewed in 1946 for a radio program called Dance Horizons, Reginald was asked by Hazel Lockwood Muller (Supervisor of Lectures and Dance programs with The American Museum of Natural History) how he first became interested in “Indians”. Reginald replied:

I guess it all started when I was a bit of a boy. I asked my Dad for a cowboy suit, but my brother Al chose an Indian suit. When Dad brought the suit home, there was a nice bow and three arrows with the Indian suit [….W]hen I saw all the feathers and fringe and the bow and those arrows I didn’t want any more cowboy suit.”[i]

So the young Reginald, always handy with his hands, set about making his own Indian outfit.

I got feathers – white turkey feathers they were – from the Swift Packing Co. and painted their tips with Indian ink so that they would look like eagle feathers. Oh, I tell you, that feather bonnet was a beauty! And then I made my first drum from Mother’s wooden chopping bowl, covered with an old parchment diploma I found in the attic. It had belonged to a minister but now was an important part of my savagery. Soon after that, I learned my first dance steps from a couple of Indians who came to town with a motion picture show. That dancing thrilled me so that I made up my mind right then that I was going to be an Indian, and I’ve been one ever since.”[ii]

Reginald met Gladys at art school in Detroit. “He was always drawing and painting Indians,” said Gladys, “and after school he would practice shooting with his bow and arrow. I used to watch him shoot [….] one of his arrows must have belonged to Cupid.” Muller asked: “Did Reg use Indian music to help Cupid along Gladys?” “Yes” was the reply, “and the neat of the drums got into my blood I guess.”[iii]

Together Reg and Gladys felt they embodied “the true spirit of the old-time Indian.”[iv] Reginald was very proud of the fact that he liked living in a tipi. He had been making his own since the 1920s and wrote a book on the subject: The Indian Tipi: its history, construction and use (1957). “I have lived in a tipi at least a part of every year since I was ten years old, something that not even the oldest Indian today can boast”, said Reginald.[v] Gladys felt equally proud of her life choices too: “I was always interested in people who were downtrodden and misunderstood. When I was a little girl I wanted to be a missionary. Now the Indians tell us that we are missionaries from the red to the white race.”[vi]

As Walter Terry, a dance critic and fan of the couples work, told his readers in 1953, the Laubins had "broken ice on great North Western rivers for a winter swim”. They had “hunted with bow and arrow [and] passed sub-zero nights in a T-pee [sic]”. They had “learned an alien tongue” . They had ‘become’ Indians and they were, Terry confessed, “in the fortunate position of being objective about the very culture of which they are now part” (New York Herald Tribune, October). For this critic, and to the Laubins other supporters, they were much more and yet much less Indian than the Native American people they chose to emulate. They were, to quote Terry again, “more Indian than the Indian in dance authenticities” (New York World Journal Tribune, Feb, 1967), however, not being Indian at all, they were also spared from, what they themselves denoted as, the ‘artlessness’ of Native American peoples and the pollution that their contemporary state would visit on the proposed purity of their idealised history.

It really bothered the Laubins that American money was used to bring the dance of Asia, Russia and Europe to American audiences, and yet no one saw fit to finance the important work with which they were engaged. Even as early as the 1950s, although it would not become a real problem until the 1970s, the Laubins conceded that they would need to “move aside” when a younger generation of Native Americans were able to take up the challenge of knowing and presenting Native American dance for the world. But until then they (and their supporters) saw no problem with their appropriations, and they also felt that someone, somewhere should fund their work.[vii] Stated Reginald:

[I]it just seemed to Gladys and me that here, right at home, was an art too beautiful to be allowed to die. It was part of America. It belonged to us all. We decided to do something about it. Since the Indians had never regarded their dancing as art and few, if any of them, had caught the vision of it as such, we decided it was up to us to call it to the attention of the public. We decided it was time to take the Indian out of the third and fourth grade, out of the Wild West show, out of the mire of prejudice and misunderstanding. Nearly everyone said that what we wanted to do was impossible. No one could present authentic Indian dances to a civilised audience and have them well received. No one could assimilate the traits and characteristics of a foreign culture thoroughly enough to interpret it with authority.[viii]

They found their first academic support for this project with the anthropologist Dr Frank O. Speck from the University of Pennsylvania. It was Speck's rationalisation that: “We have expected Indians to become as white men. There is no reason to think that white men cannot become as Indians.”[ix] Having been one of the few “authorities” to encourage the pair, the Laubins were gratified when Speck eventually saw their performances and declared: “Reg and Gladys you are no longer white. You are now Indians.” Reginald also expressed particular pride in the fact that Speck introduced them to his friends as “assimilated Indians”.

The Laubins had an exceedingly long career as performers. They practiced their appropriations in the shadow of various shifts in race relations across the early to mid 20th century. They were intent on preserving a way of life that fascinated them. Their right to reproduce the dances, songs and stories of Native Americans did not remain unquestioned throughout their career, and they did find legitimisation through direct contact with and acceptance from some Native American, but their credibility as dancers also relied on their status as outsiders, part of the dominant group through which value could be conferred and assessed. They also had a very particular idea about what it was that deserved preservation.

When the Laubins met their first chief, Chief One Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota people, Reginald remarked on his “prominent Roman nose [...] brown leathery skin and faded grey eyes”. Although Reginald seemed relatively impressed by Chief One Bull’s physical features, features that marked the latter out as nobility, this Native American elder did not look like a ‘real’ Chief. When the Laubins were confronted with the material reality of life on One Bull’s reservation – the blankets, the dogs, the dirt – they were pointedly disappointed. But they knew how to rectify the situation: they returned to visit One Bull a few months later, bring with them a fine, white, fringed buckskin outfit and long feathered head-dress. After helping the old man into their ‘costume’, they were very pleased with the outcome. One Bull was transformed. His regalia now matched his sage profile. The Laubins went home happy with their conversion/intervention. Later, as Paul Christopher Eells (2009) and Star West Jones (2000) explain, the Laubins were ‘adopted’ by One Bull and his family. But, as Clyde Ellis (2008) suggests: “[t]he adoption story quickly became the Laubin’s most important promotional tool; it became a permanent part of their public performances [and] took on increasingly grand proportions over time” (p.17) 

As others have also suggested (Ellis, 2009), even the most discerning of performance critics were captivated by the potential of the Laubins’ appropriations. Writing for the New York Times in 1944 John Martin had this to say about these dancer/choreographers/ethnographers:

Theoretically there is little to be said in defense of dancers who go about doing “authentic” dances of other races, whose cultures and very psyches are alien. Why the same, indefensibility does not attach itself to the Laubins it would be difficult to say, but it definitely does not. When Reginald Laubin dances (and to him falls the greater responsibility here, of course) there is no sense what ever of a white man pretending to be an Indian [...] he simply presents the Indian in his own art. (April, 2nd)

Martin's inability to articulate exactly why the Laubins could not, at least for him, be accused of what in other circumstances would have been indefensible (the appropriation of the performance practices of a culture not your own), makes a little more sense when we place John Martin in his wider context as a dance critic and champion of American dance modernisms.

John Martin was a great supporter of Martha Graham and, to a lesser vigilance, Doris Humphrey. He applauded the rebellions of these famous dancing women who were both former Denishawn students and performers, pupils of Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn. In the late 1920s Graham and Humphrey had sounded the death knell for the exotic pageantry of the Denishawn Orientalisms. For this generation of American dancers, borrowing from the performance practices of other continents no longer served a purpose. They wanted to “dance America [...] from the inside out”, to quote Humphrey. Martha Graham’s early work showed a concerted effort to replace imitation with a dedication to the universalising principles of modernism and an early, considered association with Native American culture. She traveled to New Mexico in the 1930s and produced her ‘Primitive Mysteries’ from this experience. In 1932 she used a Guggenheim fellowship to travel and study Indigenous culture in Mexico. During the formative years of her development as a choreographer and her eventual embodiment of American dance modernism, Graham saw her work as “masculine and creative, rather than imitative” and believed that America's great gift to the arts would be rhythmic dance “rich, full, unabashed [and] virile.” (Graham in Koritz in Morris, 2005, p.86) Perhaps John Martin recognised a similar search for, and attention to, an American way of dancing in the appropriations of the Laubins. Their performances, as opposed to simply what they said about their performances, bore a similar intention to those of their modern dance contemporaries, the attempt to capture place through motion, not only to represent it but to be of it, through a universalising, masculinist but locally derived embodiment.

In her book The people have never stopped dancing: Native American modern dance histories, Jacqueline Shea Murphy (2007) expresses a similar sense of bewilderment in relation to the Laubin’s work, a bewilderment not unlike that expressed by John Martin some 60 years earlier. During the research for her book on contemporary Native American choreographers, companies and dancers, Murphy came across the Laubins’ 1977 book Indian Dance of North America and “pondered the oddity” of Gladys and Reginald. (p.2) The puzzlement these dancers inspired in both writers comes from the ambivalent response their life and work inspires in us all. They were not Native American but were supported as ‘Indian’ dancers by white New York critics and Native Americans alike. They came to their task with an abiding sense of altruism. Their intentions were noble, their zeal of missionary proportions. Reginald and Gladys dedicated their lives to the preservation, recording and conservation of Native American dance. Their appropriations came from a deep sense of appreciation. Their actions are defensible and indefensible, they are strangely appropriate and exceedingly inappropriate and this mix does not only come from looking back from the standpoint of our contemporary sensibilities.

Unpacking the shifting fortunes of appropriation, the source of Martin’s puzzlement and Shea Murphy’s bemusement, is at the core of my current comparative research project in which the Laubins are one couple among a selection of artists who presented Indigenous dance work (within post-colonial, settler societies) without being indigenous. Others to be examined include Ted Shawn, Ena Noel, Rex Reid and Beth Dean.

When you sift through the Laubins’ communications in the University of Illinois archives (and these dancers were prolific hoarders keeping not only every letter they received but also a carbon copy of every letter they ever wrote) you can trance the tension and continuous rhetorical gymnastics of the outsider wanting in. This need to find roots for their displaced national selves becomes apparent in this statement of intent made by Reginald to his biographer West Jones (2000): “I think that’s what so many of us are hoping to find – something bigger than life, bigger than ourselves” (p. 5)

As I move through the stages of this research, I continue to be enthralled by the disconcerting strangeness of acts of appropriation. Coming to terms with the life and work of Reginald and Gladys Laubin, juxtaposing their rhetoric with analysis of their dances (which exist in a series of films from which my opening descriptions were drawn), comparing their experiences and dance work with other acts of appropriation in dance across other continents, will contribute to the development of new ways of thinking about the way place – our disconnection from it, and our attempts to represent it and our post-colonial need to belong to it – fuel the ambivalence at the heart of local relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous inhabitants of colonised, settler, immigrant societies like America, Australia, and parts of Africa.

[i] Laubin, Reginald, Transcript “Indian Songs and Dances" – Dance Horizons series, American Museum of Natural History 1946, pg 1& 2, located at New York Performing Arts Library MGZMT 5-910.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Laubin, Reginald, “Teaching Indians to be Indians”, Reginald and Gladys Laubin Papers, 1862-1996, Record Series 15/34/50, Box 12, University of Illinois Archives

[v] ibid.

[vi] op. cit. “Indian Songs and Dances”

[vii] Laubin, Reginald and Gladys, “Why we Play Indian”, May 6th 1950, Reginald and Gladys Laubin Papers, 1862-1996, Record Series 15/34/50, Box 12, University of Illinois Archives.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] ibid.


the 'sciencing' of dance?

This paper was presented at the Australasian Drama & Performance Studies Association (ADSA) conference in Sydney (June 2015) and at the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies Friday Seminar series, (August 2015)

Hallelujah (2015) by The Rubens (watch this video to begin)

This single is from The Rubens’ second album Hoops. Featured in the clip is Sydney based dancer and choreographer Martin del Amo.

There are some interesting elements in the clip, and I want to mention, and then dispense with, one or two right up front.  The whole aesthetic is what I had been calling derro chic, that was until I discovered it is actually called hobo chic. Hobo chic is defined in the urban dictionary as “looking like a bum. Synonymous to dressing in 'boho chic’.” Boho chic is:

a fashion trend that is part bohemian and part chic. It is tied to the vintage phenomenom in fashion where the trend was to bring back vintage styles for the modern era. The trend is said to have been started by actress Sienna Miller in 2005. She wore bohemian-style clothing in the movie Alfie and continued to sport the garb regularly in London. People began to imitate this style, and fashion designers took notice. Boho chic may be hot now, but it'll be dead by 2007. (Urban dictionary

If that is true, someone should tell our late 2015 hipsters who congregate in Bondi.

There are probably other things you noticed in the clip as well. As one self styled reviewer commented on YouTube:

That chair in the opening scene is one of the best props I have ever seen in a video. A stark dichotomy is created between 'home' and 'homeless' as the excessive cushioning and reclining features of the chair beautifully juxtapose the hard surfaces and sharp geometric industrial environment. The pale colouring allows…

…and on it goes… . An (unkind) responder quipped: “somebody has their English HSC exam in a few months”.

Others were touched by the “the abiding mystery of the slowly-stripping tramp.” Some were a little confused as to whether Martin del Amo was a real ‘homeless dude’, and asked what this ‘weird’ dance style was. Could you call it ‘interpretative’ dance?

But putting the social, aesthetic and stylistic aspects of the Hallelujah clip to one side, I want to concentrate on what its like to watch the video. I want to talk, briefly, about the movement … the dance; to explore for a moment Martin’s flinging arms, his thrusting chest, his ricocheting head, and jiggling ribs, and the affect that they had on me when I first saw the clip.

I watched it at home and then I strode up to the bus stop on my way to work singing (to myself) “I’m saved, hallelujah, hallelujah” and itching to expand my chest, fling my arms in that open-shoulder kind of way, roll my ribs and release my head in the manner of Martin. It made me want to dance, fling myself about, throw myself around. This was of course enhanced by the music which was in turn emphasised by Martin’s well-chosen actions. The driving hums at the beginning, Zaac Margin or William Zeglis’s guitar strokes, and Scott Baldwin’s hard drums, and the phrasing of the songs words sung by the Sam Margin were made real, for me, through Martin’s actions.

When interviewed at the singles release, Sam Margin said that the lyrics for Hallelujah are “about people trying to force their […] beliefs or ideas upon you, and in the process destroying what it is they’re plugging.” This has some resonance with the other word in the title of this paper: ‘sciencing’ (which is of course not really a word but it serves my purposes here).

There has been a lot of interest, over the last 15 years in the relationship between science and dance, and there is a history to that interest.  I’m not going to talk about all the pairings between these two fields of practice. What I will concentrate on here, is one form of these current pairings: that between dance and neuroscience. The main things I want to ask are: why are those in the dance field so attracted to those who work in the neuroscience field and vis versa? Why do these artists and sciences want to collaborate? Why do they need each other? What attracts them to each other?

Basically, from my survey of the field, there seem to be two forms of collaboration between neuroscientists and dancers. One group of studies are interested in how what a dancer does ‘makes’ a dancers brain, and, by association, what sort of affect dancing has, or could have, on the human brain. Some interesting work has emerged in this area – particularly as it has been applied to beneficial health outcomes regarding the symptoms of some diseases. One example of this is American choreographer Mark Morris’s support for research into the affect that organised movement can have for those with Parkinson’s disease. 

The other group of studies examine bodily reactions within expert and non-expert audiences when watch dancing. These projects search for the impact of movement on others and, ultimately, seek an explanation for empathic reactions, or the lack there of, in the watcher for what the doer is doing. One famous study in this area was done by Calvo-Merino, Grèzes, Glaser, Passingham and Haggard (2006): "Seeing or Doing? Influence of Visual and Motor Familiarity in Action Observation"

Many of these collaborations are looking for a link between neurons and behavior. When such a link is located, the scientific and dancerly collaborators attempt, often very cautiously, to  speculate on inter-subjective moments between humans. I borrow this term, inter-subjective, from Australian philosopher Philipa Rothfield. Rothfield differentiates between what she calls intra-subjective experiences and inter-subjective experiences. Both emerge from the experience of moving. The intra-subject, is defined as “a pleasure that circulates the body of the individual”, a “pleasure in moving”. The inter-subjective is related to the intra- but is “a connective possibility” based on “the existence of at least two bodies”, and “arise[s] through a corporeal connection between” bodies as one watches another move, a bit like my explanation of watching Martin move in the Hallelujah clip. Rothfield then borrows the idea of “corporeal connectivity” from Maurice Merleu-Ponty, who attributes the connectivity between ourselves and others as that which “makes a sense of one’s own body possible” (Rothfield, 1994, 63-64)

When scientists discovered mirror/motor neurons they thought they had located the material source of this affect, the source of empathy. If you have never encountered this work before, the NOVA programme Mirror Neurons explains the early findings of scientists like Giacomo Rizzolatti, and is an interesting (often amusing) explanation to watch.

As the NOVA team suggest, the main discovery by Rizzolatti and his team was not only that one area of the brain registered activity when a monkey reached for a peanut, but that there was also activity, or ‘firing’, in the same area of the brain when someone else reached for a peanut and the monkey observed the action. As the NOVA programme shows, it doesn’t take long for scientists to get excited, and move from monkeys to humans and from firing neurons to a claim to have discovered the source of our empathy. Once this was established, researchers leapt to work with expert movers in order to test their theories. They began to put dancers under anatomical and neurological scrutiny. Many scientists did this, during the first decade of the 2000s, by placing dancers under observation, hooking them up to devises:  functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fMRI) machines, and/or electroencephalography machines (EEGs) (the Calvo-Merino experiment was one of these). 10 years later, in their summary of the interest in the relationships established between dancers and science, Karpati, Giacosa, Foster, Penhune, & Hyde (2015) suggest that: “Taken together [these] studies point to the critical role and plasticity of the premotor cortex in dance observation.” (p. 141)

The […] EEG studies add to the fMRI evidence of functional brain differences of the action observation network in dancers, particularly in terms of temporal brain dynamics in motor and temporal regions.

PET (positron emission tomography - a special camera and a computer to help evaluate your organ and tissue functions), fMRI and EEG "findings point to a network of brain regions implicated in various aspects of dance performance, in particular the superior temporal gyrus, superior parietal lobule, frontopolar cortex, and middle temporal gyrus.” (Karpati, F. J., Giacosa, C., Foster, N. Penhune, V. B., & Hyde, K. L., 2015, p. 142)  

So, this all sounds well and good…but what I am interested in are the motivations for these studies? Dance and dancers are interesting, and dance and dancers are interested in what they have to offer a world interested in them. We are all interested in finding out how we are similar and how we are unique.

From the science side: “[d]ance provides a unique model to investigate how the brain integrates movement and sound as well as the development of motor expertise combined with artistic creativity and performance”. Dance also “offers a unique window to study human brain plasticity and the interaction between the brain and behavior”, (Karpati, F. J., Giacosa, C., Foster, N. E., Penhune, V. B., & Hyde, K. L. (2015), p. 140). Dance is, to quote Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011), “a useful tool […] in the search for understanding the functional properties of equivalent neurons in the human brain” (p. 19).

And of course, it is a way toward making things knowable because, as Kaufer and Chemero (2015) suggest, for some researchers: “[m]ind-world interactions […] are no more mysterious than program-world interactions: very complicated, of course, but not unknowable.” (p. 173) Such scientists want to bridge “the gaps between abstract theorizing and concrete data that can be gathered in the lab”.

In a 2012 edition of the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences (11, no. 1), the editor, Ivar Hagendoorn, stated the obvious:

Of course one may ask whether there is any point […]. Does it matter, in any way, what happens where in the brain when one watches dance or learns a dance phrase? How does this knowledge enhance our understanding of dance and choreography? Who cares whether it is the insula rather than the amygdala that is activated in a particular task? This might be of interest to neuroscientists, neurologists and neurosurgeons, but why should artists and audiences care about these findings? (Hagendoorm, 2012, p. 1)

So…if ‘so what’ then why?

I’ll speculate here on three possibilities. The first is money: science has it and artists need and/or want it.

I can’t blame us – it's a seductive road. I remember myself being lured down this kind of yellow-brick-road-following-the-cash when all this 'sciencing' of art first hit the fan. I was working for the One Extra Dance Company. Dancer/choreographer Michael Whaites, who had been a dancer with ADT in Adelaide, Twyla Tharp in the US, and Pina Bausch in Germany, had returned to Australia with the hope of making his own work. Michael and I worked together in the early 2000s. We did Achtung Honey! and Oysterland (2001) and Waiting for Michael (2004). One day, some time in between 2001 and 2004, we were driving from the city to Sydney’s western suburbs, discussing how to get more money to finance the making of more work. The question came up: how could we get in on the ground floor of this burgeoning interest in science and dance? What about an association with the Institute of Sport, someone said. They have machines that measure speed, action, etc etc in cricket players…batters and bowlers…perhaps we could do something with them, about speed, action, reaction, dance and dancers? We got all excited – back and forth – we could do this/do that/do something else. Then we both stopped…looked at each other and said: what for? What for? …for the money…and we decided to talk about something else

The second answer to ‘if so what they why’, could be explained through an examination of a well-developed inferiority complex.

Scientists have shown an interest in dance. Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011) want to “facilitate[…] and promote [an] understanding of dance as a sophisticated practice demanding highly developed perceptual, cognitive and action systems.” (p. 261) This sounds great. Dancers don’t get a lot of respect, and even when they do, it is often a confused appreciation of extra-ordinary physical capacities at the expense of an acknowledgement of intellectual abilities and the rigour it takes to produce and maintain both. So, when someone wants to offer you the status of expert, it is no wonder dancers move forward to occupy that space. Some dancers don’t do it very well, others, like British choreographer Wayne McGregor, are experts at it. McGregor has created a space for himself where he, as an expert mover and creator of movement, works with scientists and academics in a multitude of fields, on projects that attract a lot of attention and money. (Miller, 2010)

Another explanation for this collaboration between dance and science is a little more Orwellian.

Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011) are convinced that we need to, in their words, “explain the very individual responses [people have] to one performance?” (p. 18). If we do that, we then might, as Karpati, Giacosa, Foster, Penhune, & Hyde (2015) suggest, “find methodological solutions to enhance the ability to measure […] valid dance performance” (p. 143). The data produced, to return to Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011), could be “analysed quantitatively [and] posted online and distributed at theatres” (p. 33).

The implications are clear. If the illusive source of kinesthetic empathy could be tapped into and tamed/defined/catagorised through measurement, then artists could make art that would be accepted by, of interest to, stimulate empathetic responses in, audiences – the magic formula could be known.

Lets take this to its logical conclusion. If this is our brave new world, then theatres could ask/encourage/provoke/insist/cajole artists, explicitly or implicitly, into making work that brings in punters. Why not? If we know what works, we can make work that ‘works’ more of the time.

This idea reminds me of a work done by Gideon Oberzanek in 2002 for his then company Chunky Move. It was called Wanted: Ballet for a Contemporary Democracy.

The Sydney Morning Herald critic Jill Sykes thought this work “could have been subtitled Gideon's Revenge”. The research had been carried out through a survey. A questionnaire was sent out to dance enthusiasts, sourced through the dance advocacy agency Ausdance in each state and territory, asking what dance audiences liked and what they didn’t like in the dance they saw.

To quote Sykes: “The survey questioned them closely on dance styles, structures, steps, moods, music, costumes and sets. Their answers were grouped by age, gender and state to provide a voice-over script for Wanted”.

Flexed feet (compared with pointed) and erratic and spasmodic movement are among the least wanted. High legs and partnering get much higher scores. Everyone wants [things to be] ‘expressive’ […]. Nobody, it seems, wants the fashionably expressionless faces that suggests a lack of engagement with an audience. Tight clothes are preferred to revealing costumes, though modest[y] is the overall preference. 

As Sykes concluded: “The result is often very funny, but underneath the laughter there is the awful knowledge that most of what his eight dancers are performing has been selected by dance goers as their favourite aspects of dance.”  (Sykes, SMH, 28 April 2003)

I saw this work and I must say I got a few laughs out of it, initially, but I also became a little tired of watching it in the end – as Sykes did too judging from her review. This was a one-joke work, and the joke was a bit of an insider’s one at that, but I do think you get the point, even if you were not there. Gideon was complaining about the very thing that could emerge from the kinds of experiments that have been going on in these dance/neuroscience collaborations. If we take source and production of kinesthetic empathy as given, what sort of work will we end up being given?

To be fair, even the scientists and dance scholars have their concerns. Reynolds, Jola and Pollick (2011) worry about how they can get any authentic data on audience experience when the mode of collecting that data is so intrusive, so cumbersome, so invasive on the experience itself. But they do not entirely despair in relation to the potential of this mode of inquiry. They hope that the future will bring more and more subtle machines or processes of collecting quantitative data, modes that, in their words, can match the quality of their qualitative collecting systems (surveys, interviews etc etc).

But my biggest problem with this research – qualitative or quantitative – is the underlying assumptions about what an audience is and how an audience should arrive at, be with and exist within a theatre/performance experience. As an audience member I don’t want to be catered for. I don’t think I should be that important.

It seems to me that this kind of relationship between cognitive science and art making promises to trivialise the developing and developed expertise of artists. I am not interested in someone finding out what makes my neurons fire, whether I am dancing or watching dancing, and then providing me with something that caters to those firings (or the firings of homo sapiens like me). I go to see dance, or at least I go to see the dance I like to go to see, to be offered someone else’s vision, an expert’s take on what a body can do. I want to ask “what the hell is/was that?” I want to be baffled, weirder out, challenged, provoked, made to feel, made to think...not catered for.

This is why I find Martin del Amo’s work so stimulating. It rattles me. His chest expansions, rolled into flung shoulders and responding arms, juxtaposed with a roaming head – as seen in The Rubens clip that began this paper and even more acutely expressed in his live solo works – Severe Insult to the Body (1997-2012), Under Attack (2005), Never Been this far from Home (2007), It’s a Jungle Out There (2009), or his solos for others Anatomy of an Afternoon (2012) and Slow Dancing for Fast Times (2013) – leave me searching for a way to articulate their impact.

I know as a former dancer I have the access, the background and the competency to see the action, but the mood that it generates in me can only be described as something akin to…for want of a better word…freedom. And the struggle to articulate these reactions in words is, I would contend, far more illuminating to me (and potentially to others) than all the articulation of firing neuron responses in the world. Referencing the actions and reaction of my frontopolar cortex does not, will not, reveal anything more than a functional association between stimulation and action, missing all the experiential reactions that are produced through engagement. All this ‘sciencing’ of dance, particularly in relation to empathy, kinaesthesia, artists and audiences, is just a weird kind of project to my way of thinking. My state, my mood, is created by the research, the practice, the expertise of an artist whose competency in this arena far outstrips my own. It is my role, my goal, my obligation as an audience member to work with what I am given, to be as open as I can to the offering, and then…grapple with that on my way home.  

Selected References

Hagendoorn, I. (2012). Introduction to the special issue on dance and cognitive science. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11(1), 1-3

Jola, C., Ehrenberg, S., & Reynolds, D. (2011). The experience of watching dance: Phenomenological–neuroscience duets. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11(1), 17-37

Karpati, Falisha J, Chiara Giacosa, Nicholas E V Foster, Virginia B Penhune, and Krista L Hyde. (2014) "Dance and the Brain: A Review." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, No. 1337

Käufer, S., & Chemero, A. (2015). Phenomenology : An introduction. Polity Press.

Reynolds, D et al (2011). Dance research electronic-introduction dance and neuroscience-new partnerships . Dance Research: The Journal of the Society of Dance Research, 29(2), 259-269

Suggested further reading/watching

Foster, Susan Leigh (2011). Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance, Routledge

McGregor, Wayne (2012) "A choreographer's creative process in real time" TED.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2011). Movement and mirror neurons: A challenging and choice conversation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1-17

Brolga 36, June 2012 (journal dedicated to an exploration of the research, development and presentation of Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon


on taking up space

I'm in the final stages of completing a new journal article on dance, women and taking up space. This article emerges out of my long engagement with the work of Iris Marion Young and her much quoted article "Throwing like a girl". I took these ideas out for a spin earlier this year with my review of Kate Champion's work Nothing to Loose (2015) .

These are the opening paragraphs of what I am calling, at the moment, "Taking Up Space: women, dance and embodied freedoms".

Just when you think the Iris Marion Young article “Throwing like a girl” must have had its day, someone finds another circumstance with which it resonates, loud and clear. In mid 2014 the American documentary film maker and photojournalist Lauren Green (2014) teamed up with a North American manufacturer of menstrual pads and panty liners, Always, for their #LikeAGirl campaign. Green made a video in which she asked girls and women, boys and men across a range of ages to run, throw and fight ‘like a girl’. The result, a three minute clip on Youtube, has had 59,173,965 views, 207,437 likes and 22,443 dislikes to date. Calling this a “social experiment”, Green found that girls under 10 reacted quite differently to her provocations when compared with women and men in their teens and early twenties. When asked to ‘run like a girl’, the latter group flapped about – they kicked up their heels with knocking knees, flicked their limp wrists, giggled and tossed their hair. The limp wrists returned when this same group were asked to mime throwing ‘like a girl’ or fighting ‘like a girl’. The other group, girls under 10, ran, threw and fought quite differently – their actions had intent. For this group their imagined balls flew across the room, they ran to win their ‘race’ across the film studio floor, and one little girl crunched up her face as she mimed punches that were definitely intended to have an impact. Interestingly, a younger boy who appears in the video replicated the behaviour of the older participants, but when Green asked him “So do you think you just insulted your sister?”, he replied emphatically “No” but then got a bit confused and added “Well yeh, insulted girls, but not my sister.” What amazed Green, and confounded the experiment’s older participants, was the revelation that for them ‘like a girl’ was pejorative even if they were girls. But as the young boy articulated, this was about ‘girls’, not about a 'real' girl – his sister. Equally, for the older female participants it was about being ‘girly’ not about who or what they are or were, or how they behaved in the world. The reaction of all participants displayed that this understanding of girl-ness was not only separated from everyday experience, or ideas about ourselves as beings in a world, but its manifestation in parody or reality was learned behaviour; learned, it appeared, in our teens.

The Green experiment and its outcome were not an isolated incident. In August 2014 Eric Anthematten, a philosopher at Fordham University New York, was bemused by the media reaction to the achievements of a 13 year old baseball player who plays for the Taney Dragons in Pennsylvania: Mo’ne David. With a 70 mile an hour fast ball Mo’ne was attracting a lot of attention, not because of the speed of the pitch, or the player’s age, but because she is a girl. In an attempt to historicise this reaction to the hype he encountered, Anthematten quoted Iris Marion Young’s by now 24 year old article at length.

I first encountered Iris Marion Young’s essay “Throwing like a Girl: a phenomenology of feminine body-comportment, motility and spatiality” as an undergraduate enrolled in Women’s Studies at the University of Sydney in the early 1990s. It was a revelation, not because I recognised myself in Young’s description of the pathologies of normative female body comportment, but because I did not. Of course I knew people who moved in just the way Young described – they were sitting, walking, running all around me, and a lot of them weren’t girls. These people did not claim space for themselves. Their bounded actions offered them very little purchase on the world, but their habits were not my habits. I had been taught to take up space.

As an undergraduate, what I particularly recognised in Young’s article but had never had a term for, was the notion of phenomenal space. This mode of experiencing space was explained with great lucidity through Young’s introduction to the work of the existential phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. With a history as a ballet and contemporary dancer, a practice that I had, by then, ceased to practise, Young’s work with Merleau-Ponty’s ideas made a lot of sense to me, her article named what I knew ‘in’ my body. I understood the reality and possibility of the idea of phenomenal space through my own experience. I had been trained to carry with me and to recognise in others an understanding of how we might take up space and how that taking up is not only an actual experience, but also a potential. It described the possibility of spatially, around, in front, below, behind and above me and how it was a potential carried with me all the time.

This paper attempts to unpack and explore the utility of this facility. It images how the notion of phenomenal space, as experienced through dancing (in this case the very stylised practice of classical ballet) might counter the inevitability of Young’s description of normative feminine body comportments, with their potential for “ambiguous transcendence”, “inhibited intentionality” and “discontinuous unity” (Young, 1980, 143). My paper speculates on the role of structured movement vocabularies in promoting an ability to take-up-space automatically, or when and if we require and desire to do so. In part it adds my voice to the accumulating scholarship on the way in which movement can affect, or can be thought of as the site of, our understanding of who we are or can be in the social circumstances we find ourselves. It also counters an exhausted critique of classical ballet and thinks through how this kind of movement practice can offer an embodied, counter-experience to the still alarming pertinence of Young’s description of female body comportment in Western, post industrial, English speaking, representative democracies. As Green's experiment and Anthematten’s comments show, Iris Marion Young’s essay “Throwing like a girl” still describes a real stereotype which affects how we consider women in the second decade of the 21st century. This essay is my attempt to suggest that dancing can change (y)our life(world).