History, Philosophy, and Dance Blog

by Michelle Buckley

Are you doing Philosophy when dancing?

By Michelle Buckley | 10 January 2021


Throughout my professional career I have had the opportunity to work with choreographers who have required inhibitions and even known dance vocabulary to be left outside the studio in order to fully explore new ways of moving. Over a thirteen-year period I have continually returned to work with choreographer, Julia Gleich, and in this time, a particular comment rings out above all others, in the context of both rehearsal as well as class — don’t anticipate the movement. These words, and essentially this challenge when rehearsing or repeating a step for the millionth time, potentially answer the question — are you doing philosophy when dancing?

In the first half of the century, there were a number of creatives who pushed the boundaries of the dance artform by creating a schism in western dance theatre which had become defined as classical ballet. One could compare this melting pot of movers to Raphael’s masterpiece, The School of Athens. The fresco depicts philosophers from antiquity, and when reflecting on the evolution of dance throughout the 20th century, one could imagine a similar pictorial representation in the dance studio. Raphael placed the fathers of two schools of philosophy as the central figures. Firstly Plato, with his hand turned upward to the sky, could represent a number of 19th century choreographers who created ethereal works filled with formations and otherworldly beings. Next to him stands Aristotle who points toward the viewer. Could he be Mikhail Fokine or Isadora Duncan who looked upon more natural movements of the human body and saw the beauty in an individual's expressiveness rather than a perfectly synchronised corps de ballet? The father of geometry, Euclid, is perhaps embodied by Rudolf Laban with his work in dance notation which led him to create his own, known as Labanotation . Potentially a similar comparison could be made with the many other schools of philosophy and their founders, depicted in The School of Athens, with the pivotal dance practitioners who assisted in the progression of western dance. Somewhere around the turn of the last century, dance evolved from a physical exertion and expression of classicism for the purpose of entertainment, into a profound vehicle of philosophical study.

It is in the passion of experimenting with the body — the shapes it can create, the actions it can perform, the obsession in its refinement as well as its deconstruction — which leads one to believe that dance is not simply a series of movements but a physicalised question that is being asked continuously. The specific questions asked can change within each new work or reenvisioning of an already existing work. The same question can be repeated endlessly, not just for the hope of a different answer, or performing a step more efficiently, but the hope for a new answer, which leads to a new self discovery or to yet another new question. If the movement is anticipated, then the chance of discovery is diminished because one is already assuming that the step or movement has already been defined; it exists in a specific way only and can never again be renewed. It is the continual challenges put on both body and mind which causes the dancer to reflect on their own practice. And it is the movement itself, within a practiced codified technique as well as a set choreographic work, that always leads the dancer down a new path of inquiry. Amusingly, the question — ‘are you doing philosophy when dancing?’— was in some way even asked by Hollywood as a response to the evolution that was taking place in dance at the time.

The 1954 holiday classic, White Christmas, is a film which may lack an engaging complex plot, but it does possess a number of song and dance sequences edited together in a vaudevillian fashion which is still lightheartedly entertaining and visually striking. No substantial questions are asked in the choreography of each sequence, created only for holiday entertainment; except for one number titled, ‘Choreography’. The musical score was written by the famed American composer Irving Berlin, and it is in this number where various changes in theatre are listed. His lyrics have a particular focus on choreography, or dance in general. It begins with the comical Danny Kaye, dressed in beatnik attire, who is joined by a chorus of women performing a short sequence invoking the Martha Graham technique and style.

The theatre, the theatre, what’s happened to the theatre? Especially where dancing is concerned? Chicks who did kicks aren't kicking anymore, they're doing choreography…
Irving Berlin, 1954

As he sings, Danny Kaye’s voice even reflects a shift from a more serious tone to a playful one. Berlin’s words aptly describe this seismic shift which had begun around fifty-years prior to this film in varying corners of the western dance theatre world.

American-born Isadora Duncan did away with the classically structured forms of the ballet vocabulary to dance freely, playfully and barefoot. She claimed ballet to be 'an expression of degeneration, of living death' (Homans, 2010: 294). By the turn of the twentieth-century, Duncan had left the United States for Europe where she honed her distinct style and developed a large following of admirers. Inspired by Duncan’s freedom of movement, the choreographer and dancer Mikhail Fokine looked upon the works of great visual artists and philosophers to question the dance he was raised and, so vigorously, trained in under the watchful eye of Imperial Russia. Fokine would go on to become a driving force behind the Ballet Russes, a collective of dancers, artists, designers, and visionaries who changed the European ballet landscape under the directorship of Sergei Diaghilev. The glitterati of Paris would be stunned by a number of the touring company’s productions over their twenty-year existence. Audiences dressed in their finest would be expecting tiaras, tutus and choreography demonstrating the values of classicism such as symmetry and harmony, instead experiencing primitive movements set to discordant musical scores. 'Behind all of this lay a new twentieth-century urgency. It was no longer enough to create entertaining novelties: the point was to invent whole new worlds of art' (Homans 2010, 339). Because of the various practitioners of the 20th century, such as the few listed here, the point of dance became to reflect on one's practice, to question its history and to challenge its conception, so that now, possibly more than ever before, you are doing philosophy when dancing.