Essay: Performance

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published: 9 September 2015*
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  • Words: 1,065 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 5 (approx)

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Those who ever performed on stage could never forget their first time, as it is memorable for varied and numerous reasons, regardless of its being a successful or an embarrassing experience. However, for me, as a former dancer, the most memorable and powerful moment occurred before the actual performance. It was rather when I first entered the rehearsal room full of girls and boys of my age, evidently sharing the same feeling of excitement and anticipation of something new and compelling. From the very first moment, when our instructor made us sit in a circle on the floor and started to teach us a beautiful song from the hundreds of years old Hungarian village of M??ra to ease the tension and comfort us with his soft and calming voice, I knew that this was the group I belonged to with my whole heart. The steps, the motifs and other elements of movement we started to learn later that night along with the traditional folk music accompaniment made this feeling even deeper, and I knew that this room with the old wooden floor and the mirrors all around would be my second home. From that night on I have always felt that without the knowledge of this ethnic tradition in music and dance and the actual practicing of it, my ‘Hungarianness’ would not be round. Besides our unique language that can hardly be related to any other language in the world, this heritage makes me feel truly Hungarian.
I was drawn to this present project by my personal experience and the interest towards the ways in which the ethnic identity of cultural groups other than mine is articulated and formed through the preservation and recreation of traditional movement patterns. This paper is also inspired by the fascination I feel about dance, let it be ethnic, modern, concert, folk or classic. In addition, dances that combine elements from different genres, thereby representing various human categories, always bring great awe and provide the richest field of research in historic, social and aesthetic sense, and this is another reason why I chose to research into how Black tradition in dance ‘ African and Afro-Caribbean – contributed to the formation of African-American ethnic identity in the 20th century.
The universality of dance has long been recognized by scholars and artists, however for long dance was only considered from a theatrical and entertainment point of view. The comparative analysis of its different forms and its significance historically, sociologically, biologically and psychologically only emerged in the mid 20th century when it became the subject of interest to anthropologists, ethnologists and psychologists. This essay wishes to contribute to the field of dance research within the discipline of cultural studies by pointing to the social and artistic significance of dancer-anthropologist, Katherine Dunham’s Caribbean research.
Both the original recordings of Dunham’s fieldwork and her choreographies demonstrate the ways in which the elements of movement patterns produce cultural differences that contribute to the articulation and construction of Black ‘diaspora’ identity in dance. On the one hand, these dance pieces are a presentation of her fieldwork findings as a trained anthropologist and the preservation of a rich heritage; on the other hand, they are fascinating pieces of visual art by which, along with her own dance technique, she contributed to the Modern Dance idiom in the United States. Besides the fact that Katherine Dunham’s talent as dancer and choreographer was outstanding, her work seems to be the perfect choice to serve as primary source for my research, because between 1937 and 1945 Dunham established a ‘research-to-performance’ method to which her first dance company was exposed. She used this method of scholarly inquiry as a means to recreate the memory of regional dances among her dancers and a variety of audiences in North America and abroad.
As Anthea Kraut asserts Dunham’s work helps to illuminate how dancing bodies participate in historical change. It has widely been accepted that the body is the primary locus for construction of identity, thus dance studies has become a highly valued academic discipline. Placing dance forms and practices center of investigation of changing formulations of racial identity has historicized dance as a cultural practice.
In this thesis I read the Caribbean bodily movements and the choreographic pieces as social text to understand how social identities are signaled, formed and negotiated through dance, as well as to analyze how these social identities are codified in dance styles. My approach is based on Jane Desmond’s theory on movement style as an important mode of distinction between social groups.
In the first chapter I give a brief overview of the history of Dance Studies as a separate arena along with its main approaches and research methodology. I will argue that this palette can be extended to different methods that were established to serve analysis in Cultural Studies. I will indicate to what extent Erwin Panofsky’s three-tiered analysis is appropriate to close read dacne, as it was originally developed to analyze static pieces of art.
Chapter two discusses the problem of African-American dance in the framework of expressing black identity. Based on Desmond’s claim that movement and performance styles are denotative of social/ethnic relations by tracing the history of dance styles and their spread from one group to another, we can uncover ideologies attached to movement patterns.
Chapter three will put the theory in chapter one into practice. I will look at Katherine Dunham’s choreography, L’Ag’Ya to isolate elements of black tradition ‘ African and Afro-Caribbean – and to explore how Black ‘diaspora’ identity is articulated through this choreography based on the Caribbean tradition. I adopt the analytical approach developed by Erwin Panofsky; specifically, his three-tiered method of analysis (iconology), in order to understand how certain movement patterns negotiate and construct African-American ethnic identity in L’Ag’Ya. The first stage is the ‘pre-iconographic’ interpretation , which is the perception of the work’s pure form without any added cultural knowledge. The secondary or ‘iconographical’ interpretation connects artistic motifs or groups of motifs identified generically in the pre-iconographic analysis with traditional themes and concepts. Finally, the tertiary level or ‘iconological’ interpretation considers social and cultural history. Knowing cultural history and background of different social groups and their distinctions is crucial for understanding the dance expression. I look at this piece not as isolated incidents but as evidence of a historical, cultural environment.

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