The Canon. Reading Dancing. By Susan Leigh Foster

November 19, 2009

Reading Dancing enjoys somewhat emblematic status as a core text in the young discipline of dance studies. Published in 1986, it argues vehemently against the notion that dancing - and by extension, the role of dancers or choreographers - should be regarded as a mute, idealised form of bodily expression. Hitherto, the study of dance had been dominated by aesthetic and biographical accounts of concert dance, or by anthropology's emphasis on sacred or communal values in non-Western dance.

Adopting a savvy use of semiotic analysis, Foster suggests that dancing can be "read" like other texts as an organised semantic structure. Thus, the dancer's body becomes a sign within a system of representation that varies between choreographers and historical periods. She proposes that each choreographer's syntax may be interpreted by examining combinatory elements, including dance technique, expressive concepts, bodily presence and subjectivity, as well as specific forms of rhetorical address to the audience, such as allegory, mimesis, pathos and irony.

Beyond advocating an analytical approach to choreography, Reading Dancing examines the historical corpus of American modern dance, a field that gave the expressive body canonical status in the US and an international influence over dance developments. Notably, Foster rejects traditional accounts of Western dance history that placed ballet at the apogee: and her transhistorical account sweeps widely from Renaissance court ballet to postmodern dance.

Through a synchronic interpretation of choreographic form, she went radically against the grain of received histories in dance scholarship. Reading Dancing was therefore both a denaturalising and a new historicist project that aimed to relocate choreographic practice as social and world-producing.

Given these critical frameworks, the book became influential in the emerging field of performance studies because the editors of leading journal TDR/The Drama Review regarded it as an "unprecedented study of dance representation ... in a field where aversion to theory is widespread and long-standing". However, in his review, performance theorist Philip Auslander argued against Foster's privileging of the aleatory, improvisational methods of postmodern dance, understood through the embodiment of the dancer running, and called for a more transgressive politics of representation.

And yet, the book sets out a new theorisation of the relationship between bodies, subjects, history and culture. No other dance book had posited an alternative aesthetic and historical framework beyond its own disciplinary content. In advance of the turn to the body in social theory, dance therefore became a major contributor to the rethinking of history advanced by new historicists, and an art form that could be "read" within the context of history and politics.

Foster dedicates the book's final chapter to "writing dancing", a deliberate echo of Roland Barthes' reader as active spectator. The critic's embodied role in deciphering dance accordingly becomes key in expanding the status of dance and dancing as scholarly discourse. Although dance studies is a growing field for undergraduate studies, its critical status depends on texts such as Reading Dancing that can be debated more widely.

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