The second DANSOX summer school was a triumph. Delivered remotely in the middle of a pandemic that has driven theatrical and academic activities online, it was a wonderful opportunity for an international audience to enjoy seven pre-recorded lectures on dance by practitioners, early career researchers, and a leading dance critic. The programme fell into two halves: a two-lecture memorial to Paul Taylor, followed by five lectures investigating the inter-textual and interdisciplinary nature of dance, and a concluding live Webinar on Zoom chaired by Professor Sue Jones.

Alastair Macaulay’s opening lecture was actually the last talk to be uploaded after which it was well worth returning to listen again to all the lectures in their correct order: Macaulay’s talk prepared the ground, sowing seeds for themes that the other speakers, whether by accident or design, picked up upon, including modernism and post modernism; the corporeal and abstraction; musicality; classicism; the visual arts, and the choreographer as dramatic poet.

Paul Taylor, his company and his choreographic works are relatively unknown in the United Kingdom, despite their huge influence on dance in North America. Macaulay described how Taylor looped in and out of the mainstream, creating 147 works over the course of more than sixty years. Parisa Kobdeh, a former Paul Taylor dancer and the second speaker, noted that what drew her to Paul Taylor was the variety of his output. The company had so many, and such varied works in its repertoire, that in any one evening there would be something to suit her mood, and you never saw the same programme twice. Kobdeh analysed Taylor’s style, explaining use of contraction from the back, and how the hours that he had spent in the pool as a swimmer before he turned to dance enabled his loose upper-body movement. She described his choreographic process; his way of moving dancers around the studio to build a section of movement, and how sometimes he would simply look at the dancers until they somehow felt compelled to move. The music, she said, was almost always a surprise.

The lectures that followed reflected on dance and music, literature, history, philosophy. Marcus Bell’s lecture on Pina Bausch and tragedy took Nelken (1982) as his exemplar and considered Bausch’s exploration of the suffering of collective trauma, loss, mortality and pain in the context of state controlled violence, and her use of confrontation between dancer and audience. His talk provoked several questions for the Webinar, leading to discussion about the relationship between feeling and meaning in performance, whether they are separable, and the idea that if meaning sits between the performer and the audience it is a construct of that particular relationship.

Next, Joseph Kay examined the similarities and differences between dance and music notation, the former usually originating as a descriptive record of the choreographer’s work, the latter more often part of the composer’s creative process. Notation becomes prescriptive when it is used as the score, or text, of a work in performance, and Kay argued that both music and dance notation are prescriptive of bodily movements. Kay had hoped to develop his research in a workshop, in which dancers would use music notation to create dance, which could then be notated in dance notation that musicians in their turn would use to create music, raising the possibility of an eternal creative cycle. This practical experiment was not possible during the pandemic.

Susie Crow’s investigation of the ballet class was a practical illustration of her unique and original methodology for capturing and analysing an activity that is ephemeral and usually private. Crow is a dancer, teacher and choreographer, who has found new ways to articulate, describe and critique the processes involved in making dance and becoming a dancer. Taking the specific example of a class recorded in 2014, which she had used as the pilot for her doctoral research, she revealed its complexity and limitations, and discussed how the daily class can be more than physical conditioning, and become an opportunity for reflection and practice as research.

Gabriela Minden’s paper on W.H. Auden’s The Dance of Death (published 1933) linked the ‘total theatre’ of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes with the development of twentieth century poetic drama through the influence of the hitherto marginal figure of Rupert Doone. Minden’s investigation of Doone’s rôle, and the parallels she drew between Auden’s work and Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table (1932) shed light on the origins of this new literary form and underlined the importance of dance scholarship to the wider humanities.

In the final lecture, Megan Smith talked about John Haskell’s The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts (2017), and the way in which writing about ballet can change the approach to theorising literature. Her interest in deconstructing parallel narrative and inter-text was a reminder of the first lecture, and Macaulay’s description of Paul Taylor as a ‘triple thinker’ who created works that contained several levels and ambiguities within a formal structure.

It is a delight, thanks to the online format, to be able to return to particular lectures and listen again, and not be completely dependent on personal notes and memories.[1] On the other hand there were losses. Dance is a corporeal activity, even if it is theorised, and it is very sad that the workshop based on Kay’s idea for notational exchange and substitution could not take place. It is perilously easy for dance to become a utilitarian asset for use by scholars of other disciplines, and DANSOX has kept hold of the fact that dance has value in and of itself, even when considered in relation to other arts and disciplines. Although a practical workshop was impossible this year, DANSOX has a strong record of furthering the understanding of dance as an embodied art form. Since lockdown and the cancellation of most live performances, professional, student and amateur dancers have danced at home, often in solitude. Crow proposed that it is still possible to study dance and develop deeper artistic understanding alone and without mirrors, while the theatres and studios are closed. The act of dancing matters, and the dancer’s own way of moving is intrinsic to the art form: Kobdeh noted that a Paul Taylor audition always required dancers to walk across the floor, because the way someone walks is like their finger print, unique to them. Dance communicates through movement and ultimately, dance is all about dancing.

Maggie Watson

1st August 2020

[1] There were some technical problems. The decision to pre-record most of the talks in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building maintained the look and feel of last year’s summer school, but made some of the illustrative dance footage hard to see. Macaulay’s commentary on some of the rare dance recordings that he had gained permission to show was almost inaudible, until I tried listening with headphones. On the other hand the format allowed both Susie Crow and Alastair Macaulay to demonstrate dance movements on the stage. Parisa Kobdeh’s recorded talk, apparently delivered direct to her device, was the easiest to watch and hear.

Available to view on the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building’s YouTube channel