The third annual DANSOX summer school was a scholarly investigation into the relationship between dance and inscription.  It treated both concepts in the broadest sense: ‘dance’ encompassed Western movement styles ranging from the Baroque to the contemporary; ‘inscription’ embraced not only the written word and notation, but also the traces preserved in art, photography, film and the dancing body itself.  The format was hybrid, with a small socially distanced audience present in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, and a recorded live stream for external participants.

Alastair Macaulay’s opening lecture looked at literary sources of inspiration for dance and the role of notation in protecting, preserving, and challenging our perceptions of works.  Macaulay’s wide ranging discussion, liberally illustrated with film clips and photographs, raised themes developed in the subsequent lectures and dance workshops.  He noted the subtle ways in which choreographers such as Merce Cunningham have drawn on a literary sources, and cited Pam Tanowitz’ interweaving of dance, music and poetry in her Four Quartets.  Macaulay also discussed the ways in which dances change over time; the problems and inadequacies of recordings; the significance of context, and the readability or otherwise of notation, whether that of Vladimir Stepanov or Vaslav Nijinsky.

Readability became a recurring theme, picked up first by Gabriella Minden in her lecture on Rupert Doone, and later by Megan Smith and Anna Chamberlain in presentations on gestures in Shakespeare ballets, and photographic records of Hilde Holger’s Ausdruckstanz.  Minden described how Rupert Doone’s choreographic work for W.H. Auden’s Dance of Death escaped censorship in the 1930s, because movement recorded in the prompt book was not included in the text, and so unseen and unreadable to the Censor.  The work was only readable when taken in its entirety.

Smith reported on her research into Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet The Winter’s Tale looking at links between the written and choreographic texts.  By focussing on a small number of specific movements she showed how gesture can represent complex interior emotion, and become a bodily inscription that enables the audience to access the meaning held within the dramatic text.  In discussion afterwards, Dr Susie Crow pointed out that gesture is contextual: Hermione’s gesture of supplication resembled that of the Faune in Nijinsky’s ballet (which Macaulay had shown earlier), but conveyed a very different meaning.

Chamberlain also addressed the question of context, offering a skilful reading against the grain of photographs recording Holger’s dancing, taken in the 1920s.  Examining the photographs both as physical objects and as inscriptions, alongside the ideology of the radical free dance movement, she demonstrated that the culturally encoded messages they conveyed about freedom and the Körperseele were, paradoxically, only accessible through the (unnatural) intervention of the camera.

Dr Jennifer Johnson drew on her research in the visual arts to propose a conception of inscription that extends beyond that of a representation or record, to include physical residues.  Johnson’s examples included André Masson’s method of creating works by throwing sand at glue, resulting in both randomness and material traces of his actions.  The resulting work’s meaning exceeds its ostensive subject matter, and the inscription becomes the fossilised remains of an event as well as the mode of artistic expression.  Inscription in this sense enables events to resonate across generations.  Marcus Bell discussed gesture as notation, citing the work of Dimitris Papaioannou (who was a visual artist before he became a dancer) and Damien Manivel’s film Isadora’s Children, which culminates in the gestural embodiment of grief by a bereaved mother.  Bell proposed that dance repertoire is embodied memory through which gesture bridges the space between past, present and future.

Lucia Camacho Acevedo’s presentation on George Balanchine’s ballet Agon examined the way that combining choreographic analysis with musical analysis opens up additional layers and patterns, which contribute to making the work more than its constituent parts.  Acevedo mapped intra-musical and intra-choreographic relationships between Igor Stravinsky’s music and Balanchine’s dance, theorising that the audience holds both music and dance in duality and this subliminal understanding contributes to the magical chemistry that makes the ballet more than the sum of its parts.

For dance, notational inscription usually follows the act of creation, rather than being part for the creative process, as can be the case for music.  The dance notator generally records someone else’s work either as or after it is made.  The three open workshops turned this idea on its head. Musicians Professor Eric Clarke (violin), Bruno Guastalla (cello) and Joseph Kay collaborated with dancers Thomasin Gülgeç and Estela Merlos using different forms of inscription as both inspiration and record.  Dancers and musicians used a short piece of Beauchamp-Feuillet notation (which none could read) as a creative starting point and reflected on the way in which it encouraged them to structure their responses.  In the first workshop, Clarke and Guastalla improvised in accordance with the trajectories that the notation suggested to them.  Gülgeç addressed the extract from the point of view of a dancer, responding in the moment to the musicians, as if the music and dance were in dialogue.  After the first improvisation, Professor Sue Jones invited dance historian Moira Goff, who was in the audience, to explain the notation’s meaning.  It turned out to be a brief but complex combination of steps from a courante.  Goff noted that although Gülgeç does not read Beauchamp-Feuillet notation his improvisation seemed to reference Baroque dance in the way he moved his wrists.

Kay recorded Clarke and Guastalla’s live performance during the first workshop, for use in the two following sessions, in which he developed layered compositions by superimposing different versions of the musical recordings one on top of another.  In the second workshop, Gülgeç and Merlos developed movement ideas from the image of the notation itself, also drawing on suggestions from the audience that spiralled back to the fossils and sand discussed during Johnson’s lecture that morning.  The dancers spoke of recycling energy, feedback loops and the permeability of the process as they responded to each other and to the audience.  The final workshop was a showing of their work, performed in an atmosphere of extraordinary intensity, which seemed to gather in and physically capture ideas developed over the course of the summer school.  The embodied movement, understood within its proper context, conveyed meaning that exceeded the movement itself.  As Merlos commented, we all carry residues in our bodies and keep walking on the traces of what has gone before.

Maggie Watson

18th August 2021

You can view sessions from the Summer School on the DANSOX YouTube playlist here

Find out more about DANSOX (Dance Scholarship Oxford) here