Dance & Intellectual History: Considering the Body of Thought

Christina Gonzalez Gillett in The Seldoms, Power Goes Photo by Bill Frederking

Christina Gonzalez-Gillett gives audiences the “Johnson Treatment” in The Seldoms’s Power Goes. Photo by Bill Frederking.

considering the body of thought in the seldoms, power goes @ mca chicago, 20-29 March 2015.

Over the past two years, I have worked as dramaturg and historian with The Seldoms Dance Company on their new work, Power Goes, which uses Lyndon Baines Johnson and the protests of the 1960s as a springboard for an exploration of how power relates to social change. The piece appears as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s MCA Stage program from March 20-29, 2015. Here is an essay that arose out of this engagement: “How To Get Power.”

One claim The Seldoms make is that choreography has something “to say” about pressing issues of our times, that one might even be able to mount an argument in movement. For historians, as with most audiences, this makes for unusual territory. We are far more used to language and text—and perhaps, for some, images and visualizations—as the domain of interpretation. Performance that is centered on the body and gesture demands of us a broader repertoire of what counts as an argument, how evidence is wielded, and how positions are conveyed. Performance Studies scholars are comfortable on this terrain. Despite many nods in the direction of history of the body, historians have a way to go.

The Seldoms Power Goes Ensemble Photo by Bill FrederkingThe Seldoms in Power Goes. Photo by Bill Frederking.

What’s the point? This is often asked of performance, particularly when it appears in more experimental and daring veins. Of course the irony is that the question itself refers to gesture. The point is to point out ideas, concepts, perceptions, emotions, contentions  that cannot be reduced to language alone. The point (befitting in this case of a work about power) is to expand the power of argument by widening its avenues of articulation. What interpretations can be contained in a fist raised in the air or shoved into the ground? What comprehensions of power lurk in bodies that move in unison? How does conflict or persuasion or social transformation begin with something as mysterious as someone tugging on someone else’s hair?

Language falls short here (note again the language of gesture!). New ideas about argument, fresh understandings of long-running questions about how change happens (or doesn’t) erupt from the interplay of dance, speech, set design, lighting, sound collage, music, and video design in Power Goes. These are at once evocative and provocative modes of expression, capable of doing things that words alone cannot.

Dance possesses a deep history of its own, of course, but it also might become a compelling part of intellectual history methods. Bringing dance’s physicality into play with language, placing its capacities for new kinds of comprehension and communication within intellectual history’s mix of evidence and interpretation, form and content, positioning and reasoning—this can only extend our ability to understand thought in all its dimensions. The ideas of bodies should join the body of ideas.

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