Diane Oatley

Commentary on Study Programme & Plan for Skolen for Samtidsdans By Diane Oatley

The most obvious benefit of working with dance in a time where there is a focus on body-related issues in a number of fields, is the inherent potential of dance to exceed and challenge current perceptions of the body itself and correspondingly, embodied, gendered and “ethnic” identity. The dancing body has an innate potential to work through in practice and representation other ways of being/knowing. This potential, however, has been frequently misunderstood in writing about dance, in the manner of dance transmission (educational programmes) and media profiling of dance as an art form. The study plan and programme for Skolen for Samtidsdans on the other hand fully exploits this potential, taking responsibility for the development that has taken place within contemporary dance over the past 20-30 years. The programme/plan verbalises what has been for the most part unarticulated knowledge within the field of dance, and implements practices and theories about movement and the body, which have long been in circulation but for the most part in a highly fragmented and random manner – the study plan and programme has thus succeeded in creating a comprehensive and consistent system which attends to these developments, attends to the complexity of dance as an art form and the dancer not only as an artist but as an embodied subject in the world with all this would imply.

The study programme/plan is as such a product of the incredible evolution that has occurred within dance as a field in Norway over the course of the past twenty years. The criteria for acceptance to the programme outline this clearly. Applicants are expected to have: “interesse for dialogisk og prosessorientert arbeid og interesse for å reflektere over hva dans som praksis av kunst kan være”. The very fact that the dialogical, processual and reflective abilities are outlined as fundamental to dance education at the school expresses the underlying premises for the programme’s understanding of dance as an art form.

As a whole the programme at all levels seeks to develop dance artists with an integrated understanding of both themselves as dancers and of dance as a field not only within a context, but also in a larger socio-cultural perspective. Such perspectives have not only been lacking within the general public’s understanding of dance as an art form, but also to a large extent still within dance studies and advanced theoretical perspectives, and in the training of dancers. As such the programme represents a valuable contribution to the field of dance studies, in that it seeks not only to train dancers in the manner of technical virtuosity but also to reflect upon the significance of what they are doing in a larger context. This is a dimension that will inevitably serve to bring dance as an art form out of its “elitist” closet and closer to its public, to open up dialogues between dance as a tradition and other art traditions, as one will be training dance artists to value and communicate the particular knowledge they possess as dancers, both by way of their art and in terms of speaking about their own practices.

The focus of the study programme is not on “how can I best adapt my body to a particular dance tradition or genre” (as is the traditional manner of thinking about dance education) but rather, “what can dance give me? How can I in dialogue with other artists within and in relation to a larger socio-cultural context interface and converse with that society through my art and otherwise contribute to the development of dance as an art form?” Such a vision may sound lofty and overly ambitious to those outside of the field, but in fact is wholly connected with more recent micro-traditions and practices that have been implemented within the field of experimental theatre and new dance for 20-30 years. The aspect of process for instance, has for a good 20 years been a central dimension of the creation of a wide range of dance productions; the traditional role of a choreographer who plays god to his/her dancers and dictates all artistic decisions, with the dancers serving as willing and obedient puppets is in this context obsolete − instead it is the dancer’s own experience and contribution in the creation of a dance performance/situation that is central and the creative process itself highlighted. As such the resulting expression is more immediately connected to each of the dancers’ own personal history and development, to his/her own embodied subjectivity as a dancer.

Finally, the range of expertise that dancers will acquire through the study includes how to function within and administrate the cultural sector at a practical level. This implies that those responsible for creating the programme are thinking pragmatically and dialogistically at all levels, thinking of dancers as participants within a society and in relation to a labour market, with something unique and significant to contribute. This is also a perspective which has been absent in the perception of dance/dancers in general, where more traditionally speaking they are still perceived as something of an oddity, dance itself as a somewhat peculiar form of expression, a luxury item which only the initiated can truly understand and/or benefit from.

The objectives of the programme for its students are hereby situated far from the more conventional and outdated perception of the dancer as a beautiful object with a sole purpose of creating entertainment, spectacle and/or diversion, of the dancer as a charismatic performer who on the basis of technical virtuosity alone is equipped to enthral and enhance, perhaps even create a few hours of dance art which has a higher meaning but which somehow has little connection to life as we know it otherwise. Here the dancer is obliged to take responsibility for and make those connections at every level and throughout every phase of their development.

Theoretically speaking the programme undercuts a number of still prevailing assumptions within the field of dance studies and dance theory: on the basis of this alone it is providing a unique point of departure for those artists fortunate enough to take part in the programme as part of their professional development as dancers. The Cartesian thought/dualism which is so pervasive within Western philosophy continues to remain a solid fundament also within educational programmes working explicitly with the body and movement-related practices. There has long been an understanding within dance and related art forms of the kinaesthetic dimensions of dance transmission and for the most part we can all agree that the (dancing) body communicates through a number of different visceral levels and sensory channels. What does seem to inevitably get lost however in attempts to defend dance as a practice and in its transmission is the fact that such “bodily knowledge” is not more or less true than − nor even to be neatly distinguished from − the workings of the intellect. It is in fact the very physicality of knowledge that dance as an art form is grappling with. Here too the programme has done its homework, as it states: “begreper som sannhet og autnesitet erstattes av fleksible posisjoner, utsabilitet og kontekst (…) Dansens uttrykk faller ikke lenger nødvendigvis sammen med forventninger om å være vakkert, inderlig eller ekte. Det er i et spenn mellom modernisme og de fleksible og ustabile kroppene som er tematisert i postmoderne dans, at det er mulig å overordnet skissere den tidsepoke samtidsdans i dag finner sted i.” Epistemologically speaking such a position is also based on a perception of the body as the ”lived body”, stemming from the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and dance theorists who have implemented his ideas as another manner of understanding the body (e.g. Susan Fraleigh, “Dance and the Lived Body”). This organic manner of thinking about an embodied subject’s manner of being in the world is mirrored by the programme’s ongoing focus on reflection and evolution in the dancers themselves certainly, but also within the curriculum of the programme itself. There is a rigorous consistency throughout the programme, with regard to vision, implementation, objectives and follow-up.

This implies openness also with regard to how one defines dance as an art form, the intention behind it, what it shall represent and where and how it shall take place. By way of the study plan and programme’s perception of dance as an art form… “Kunsten blir en ytring og nye form og nye publikum skapes”. Students are hereby encouraged to challenge the very conventions surrounding dance and to think about dance as an organic process that takes place in relation to the world at large.
Dance studies as a field remains without a discursive tradition that adequately addresses the full implications of an embodied aesthetics. Bodily knowledge is shifting, diverse, unpredictable, and as the study plan and programme makes evident, implicated in a wide range of discourses. Dance education has consequently no other alternative than to incorporate all the implications of the complexity of embodied subjectivity in dance methodology. In my opinion this study plan and programme has succeeded in a consistent, well-informed, and pragmatic manner, in doing just that. This is a remarkable accomplishment and the work involved in translating complex, theoretical concepts about the body and knowledge, about dance in general into a practical educational curriculum is visible here on every page. One discovers in the programme a reflected, well-considered integration of the perspectives cited here, to the extent that they become self-evident, a fundamental process for the formation of dance artists who are not only physically capable of creating interesting movement patterns, but doing so with a sense of responsibility for their art and in relation to culture and society at large.

Diane Oatley have her education from University of Maine, Farmington, Maine (USA) – English Major (Sept 79-Dec 81), University of Oslo – Comparative literature major and Minor in Women’s Studies: gender and culture (Jan 82 – May 90). She completed her Cand. Mag / Bachelor of Arts in December 1986. She have further education from University of Oslo – Masters of Arts in Comparative Literature (1987 – 1990); Women writers from the Scandinavian and Anglo-American traditions / French feminist theory, expressions of the body in poetic language / Thesis: “Gender issues and structures of desire in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood”. She completed her Cand. Philol. / Masters of Arts degree in May 1990.
Diane Oatley is Member of CID – International Dance Council & The Norwegian Critics Association and Section for Dance and Section for Literature & Norwegian Translators Association (NFFO). and screen readers

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