This essay discusses
the manner in which the appreciation of fitness for function can be applied to
dance aesthetics. Drawing on Allen
Carlson and Glenn Parsons’ work, the essay considers the problems of
indeterminacy, translation, and dysfunction as they pertain to the appreciation
of dance movement. It then argues that
fitness for function can be used to critically assess post-modern task dances
and contemporary dance works that do not rely on the execution of codified
dance, fitness, function,
Carlson and Glenn Parsons have argued that appreciating function can enrich the appreciation of natural objects and artifacts that are encountered in everyday life. This essay develops that
approach as it considers the manner in which dance movement can be
seen as fit for manifesting a
particular choreographic approach to movement. This discussion sets up an
issues that arise in discussions of fitness for function, including the problem of translation,
the problem of indeterminacy,
the aesthetics of dysfunction. Further, fitness for choreographic function
can be used to critically evaluate the post-modern “task
dances” discussed by Sally Banes and Noël Carroll
and contemporary dances more generally.
1. Fitness for function, dance
movement, and choreographic style
The extension of
fitness for function to dance aesthetics bears consideration before
proceeding. Carlson and Parsons focused
on the appreciation of everyday artifacts and public architecture and, although
they briefly discuss sport, do not consider whether fitness for function is
relevant for dance appreciation. This
leads one to ask whether it is appropriate to apply aspects of their approach
to dance movement since it is unlike a hammer, automobile, or building. It will become clear, however, that dance
movement can be viewed as intentionally designed to realize choreographic ends
and can be aesthetically appreciated as being fit for realizing such ends.
Still, one may
insist that the analogy between the fitness of an artifact and the fitness of
dance movement is tenuous since construing fitness as a dance value entails
viewing a rather fleeting process as contributing to something even more
intangible, namely, a broader choreographic approach to dance values. It is much easier to see how a shovel is fit
for digging than it is to see how a dancer’s movement is fit for choreographic
function since the shovel is a physical object.
However, beyond philosophical convention, I see no reason why the
ontological difference between an object and a series of actions justifies
restricting the appreciation of fitness for function to the former for, in
either case, an organic relationship between part and whole can be
appreciated. It will become clear that
one can readily appreciate that relationship even if neither part nor whole is
a physical object.
With these points made, we can begin by noting that the kind of functionality
that is the subject of this essay can be appreciated in two interrelated ways. First, the body of the dancer can be viewed as
being fit for function since dancers generally present bodies that are
efficient at executing a wide range of movement: bodies that are visibly
strong, flexible, and otherwise athletic.
Following Carlson and Parsons, “looking fit for function” entails that the object under
consideration falls within a particular category that is characterized by standard and variable features indicative of
functionality. The standard features that characterize the human form are necessary for the appreciation of functionality since a body that includes such features can demonstrate the fullest range of movement and thereby indicate the body’s general kinetic potential. Further, the body that looks fit for dance also
features that are indicative of dance movement. For example, a broad frame is
indicative of the dancer’s presentation of movement to an audience, long supple
limbs signify the ability to fill space with movement, and muscular legs are
indicative of the ability to jump and bear weight. Hence, one can appreciate the dancer’s body
as looking fit for function if it exemplifies the general human form and exhibits
variable features that are suggestive of dance movement.
Considering the body alone does not get at the heart of
the appreciation of functionality in dance aesthetics since athletes of many
varieties exhibit standard and variable features of the human body that are
necessary for the completion of their sports.
Further, if their sport is geared toward performance, then they may also
exhibit variable features that are akin to those of dancers. Many gymnasts and ice skaters have bodies
that are characterized by variable features that are necessary for performance:
broad frames, long limbs, muscular legs,
and so on. This points to the fact that, in order to
further develop an analysis of the appreciation of function that is particular
to dance, one must go beyond the appreciation of the body and consider the
relationship between dance movement and a broader choreographic approach.
A global aesthetic property arises when controlled and efficient movements are exhibited within the context of a somatic practice that takes a clear stance on dance values. Not unlike the athlete’s movement, the dancer’s movement is indicative of a
outlines the kinds of movement that are
necessary for the realization of its ends. In
athletics, these ends include achieving specific goals that are necessary
for successful competition. The
wide-receiver’s leaping catch is indicative of the goal of moving the ball
downfield to score points and can
be seen as graceful if it successfully manifests the economy of
realizing that goal.
any movements that are contra-standard to manifesting that particular economy
will appear unsightly since they often
to realize the relevant goal.
Dance is distinct
from sport in that it generally
is not oriented toward competition. However, the dancer’s performance can similarly
appreciated if it does not include
uncontrolled actions that detract from the clarity of movement sequences necessary for a given dance. In order to say something more about the standard
or contra-standard features that pertain to the appreciation of an economy of movement, we
must briefly consider dance styles, since such categories outline particular
stances on dance values that inform the development of their respective
economies of movement.
As David Best noted, dance movement can be appreciated without being aware of
relevant categories of
dance but, in order to fully appreciate the manner in which movement articulates a choreographic approach to movement, a dance
be situated within its relevant stylistic context. One
can appreciate the
movement presented by a classical Indian
dance as one attends to the flowing manner in
articulates complex hand
gestures and as she moves easily from one difficult sculptural pose to the next. However, to
fully appreciate the choreographic approach that her movement contributes to, one must understand how those movements are indicative of the style
of Bharata Natyam.
one may consider the
manner in which traditional ballet outlines how posture,
carriage, and spatial orientation should be presented on stage.
The tradition is known
for its frontal orientation and its emphasis on
maintaining an erect torso and the precise movements of the limbs. This orientation is captured in standardized positions
such as the arabesque, basic movements such as the pirouette, and movement sequences such as the glissade, jeté, and bourreé that are demonstrated in classical
ballets. This stance frames the appreciation of ballet movement, as it
clearly outlines the movement qualities that are necessary
for realizing the balletic approach to dance movement. This can inform one’s appreciation
of fitness for
function, since the dancer who succinctly articulates ballet’s characteristic
movement qualities will manifest ballet’s distinct
choreographic approach and, consequently, will be
as fit for performing ballet movement.
Similarly, the style of Bharata Natyam emphasizes the
dancer’s frontal orientation, erect torso, and articulate use of limbs. It advocates a clear presentational approach
that is codified in specific postures (karanas)
and elaborate hand gestures (mudras),
and the movement sequences that are used to connect them. This style is distinct from ballet, however,
in that it generally emphasizes a low center of gravity that is used to draw
attention to the body’s connection to the ground. The Bharata Natyam dancer’s movement can be
appreciated as fit for expressing the choreographic approach that characterizes
the style if the dancer is capable of presenting codified postures, gestures,
and movement sequences.
Ballet and Bharata Natyam exemplify the relationship between the
fitness of dance movement and a choreographic approach to dance movement since
they both present codified systems of
bodily presentation that include assumptions
about the nature of the performing body, the utilization of performance space,
and the purpose of dance technique.
With this said, it should be noted that the
current stylistic categories of dance are not as hard and fast as they once were. There are repertory
companies that focus on particular dance styles and traditions. However, many contemporary dance artists and choreographers draw from a wide range of dance traditions and styles as they study, perform, and create dances. The
appreciation of fitness for function in dances that do not present codified
movement systems will be discussed at the end of Section four.
2. The problems of translation and indeterminacy
Carlson and Parsons noted that two criticisms are commonly leveled against those who argue
that fitness for function is a valuable aesthetic property: the problem of translation and the problem of indeterminacy. It is worth bringing these objections into the discussion
at this point as they reveal an important difference
between fitness as it pertains to the appreciation of artifacts and the
appreciation of dance movement, and because they encourage us to consider the
issue of proper function as it pertains to dance as an art form.
problem of translation centers on the observation that awareness of an object's
function can alter the aesthetic qualities that the object is perceived to
have. Carlson and Parsons noted that
"it is unclear how awareness of, and attention to, a non-aesthetic
function can alter or influence aesthetic judgment." When something is functionally good, it
entails that the function of the object somehow “translates into” the
perceptual experience of the object. It
is difficult to say how this translation takes place, however.
Roger Scruton articulated the problem of
translation by focusing on the aesthetics of architecture. With the functionalists who emphasize that architectural form should follow function, Scruton asked how function translates into architectural
example, a strainer arch—the
arch that is used to keep two walls from leaning toward one another—may look fit for the function of
a substantial load,
but it is
notoriously difficult to explain exactly how.
point out that it looks fit for function since it does not exhibit
defects that would
its functionality but, nonetheless, it
say which aesthetic properties
of the arch express
functionality. This observation led Scruton to assert
that function is a confused notion that obscures a
clear understanding of the aesthetics of architecture.
The problem of
indeterminacy centers on the observation that
it is often difficult to distinguish between the proper function of an artifact and the ancillary function(s) that
it can perform. For example, one
can say that the proper function of a hammer is to drive nails but a
hammer can be used to perform any number of
tasks, including cracking walnuts, bracing open windows, and scratching initials into
wood. The hammer can be viewed as being
fit for fulfilling
any of these tasks, and
is left wondering how the
can clearly inform an
aesthetic of artifacts if it is difficult to
say which function should
attended to. In order to avoid
problem, the advocate of
appreciation of functionality must articulate an account that is able
demarcate the proper and ancillary
function(s) that the object performs.
When considering functionality within the context of dance appreciation, the problem of translation misfires.
Since the medium of dance is the human body, and since movement is generally a characteristic feature of that medium, fitness for function can be directly manifested and appreciated as the dancer performs. This points to the fact that the problem of translation arises when one considers artifacts, such as strainer arches and hammers, that utilize media not
clearly connected with the functions performed by the artifacts that they constitute. However,
aesthetic properties presented in human
movement, such as fluidity
indicative of the body in
that they demonstrate aspects of its general kinetic potential. Indeed, dance can be viewed as an art form
that continually explores and presents the manner in which the kinetic
possibilities of the human body can be developed and refined so that they may
be rendered aesthetically significant for an audience.
The problem of
indeterminacy turns attention to the question of proper
function in dance. I have suggested that
dance movement can be viewed as being fit for realizing choreographic
ends. Is this the proper function of
dance movement? What is the relationship
between choreographic function and other ends that dance movement can
achieve? Indeed, does dance as an art
form have a proper function in the manner of a hammer or bridge? Carlson and Parsons argued that the proper
function of particular works of art, such as buildings, can be determined but
they also noted that it is quite difficult to nail down the proper function of
an art form writ large. But
doesn't one need to be clear on the proper function of dance in order to be
clear on the manner in which dance movement can be appreciated as fit for
I think not. Dance allows for the appreciation of choreographic
ends, including the aesthetic properties of movement, the expression of
internal states, the development of themes and narratives, and so on. Such factors, in turn, contribute to the
appreciation of artistic and social ends that characterize a given dance as a
whole. This essay focuses not on such
ends but instead on the appreciation of the means that are necessary for the
realization of those ends. In order for
artistic and social ends to be realized, a successful fusion of the dancer's
movements with choreographic structure must take place since the dancer who
cannot successfully execute choreography will invariably undermine the
development and appreciation of any narrative or thematic content.
The fusion of movement and
choreographic structure can readily be observed in "pure movement"
dance work, such as that of Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Ranier, and Trisha Brown, that
often intentionally presents choreography devoid of clear character roles,
emotional expressions, or narrative content.
One's attention is readily focused on the relationship between movement
and choreographic structure since no internal states or narrative content is
presented. However, one can appreciate
the manner in which choreography is skillfully executed in, say, a romantic
ballet that includes theatrical character roles, emotional content, a
particular narrative, and so on.
Cunningham's work draws attention to the relationship between particular
movements and an overall choreographic approach to movement but this
relationship exists in any dance that advances a systematic approach to
Is this fusion of a dancer's
movement with a choreographic approach the proper function of dance? My examples demonstrate that it is
wrong-headed to answer in the affirmative since doing so would be to ignore
choreographic intent and important differences between dance styles and
traditions. One can say that it is
proper to view Cunningham's work in terms of the organic relationship between
movement and a broader choreographic approach, but one hesitates to say that
one should primarily view Swan Lake this
way since to do so would entail missing the appreciation of the romantic values
that characterize its choreography and overarching narrative. Again, one can appreciate how a particular
dancer's movement expresses the choreographic approach to the ballet, but
solely focusing on that relationship would be to miss something essential to
Hence, we can say that the
kind of fitness that this essay considers can be appreciated and is necessary
for the realization of ends prized by many dance audiences. However, we cannot say that it is the proper
function of dance, since to do so is to ignore the wide range of artistic and
social ends achieved by many dances. At
the same time, I believe that it is clear that the fitness of dance movement
for executing particular choreography can be appreciated even if it is not the
proper function of dance and, more generally, if the proper function of dance
cannot be nailed down. The rest of this
essay will demonstrate the details of such appreciation.
3. The aesthetics of choreographic dysfunction
Carlson and Parsons noted that an aesthetic that
emphasizes fitness for function must say something
about the issue
of dysfunction. If fitness for function is a valued aesthetic property, then how do we assess those
instances in which the object under consideration does not fulfill its function?
Because they are manifestly unfit,
are such objects necessarily aesthetically poor or unsightly? With regard to dance, is movement that
is not fit for
choreographic function always aesthetically poor?
In order to answer this question we must consider the ways in which
dysfunction pertains to dance performance.
on the points made above, we can note that movements that do not realize
well-known choreographic standards will be viewed as unfit and, consequently,
as aesthetically poor. The movement of
the ballet dancer that does not successfully manifest ballet's canonical
movements will be seen as aesthetically flawed.
As discussed, this can, in turn, hinder the development of other ends
that are important for the development of the piece as a whole. Hence, in this context, dysfunction is
necessarily an aesthetic flaw since the movement is not fit for realizing well-known
what of work that does not rely on such standards? There are many modern and post-modern dance works that appear dysfunctional in that they present fragmented choreography that often
produces feelings of uneasiness and disorientation in viewers. In such cases, one cannot appreciate the
relationship between movement and well-known choreographic standards. Further, the movement that is presented is not
characterized by pleasant aesthetic properties, such as grace and elegance, that
characterize the movements of more traditional dance forms, such as ballet and
ballroom dance. For example, Troika Ranch’s
Loopdiver (2009) is a
contemporary dance work that features dancers who repetitively perform movement sequences that
were choreographed using computer software. The observer finds the piece uncomfortable to watch as the dancers appear to be stuck in repetitious loops composed of awkward movements that often require a great deal of energy to perform.
On further reflection, however, dances like Loopdiver only appear dysfunctional since the dancers who
perform in such pieces learn the relevant movement sequences, rehearse them, and perform them for each showing of the piece. Indeed, true choreographic dysfunction, in
this context, would entail that
a dancer make a grave error that would threaten the realization of the choreography, such as tripping, falling, or otherwise getting seriously injured. But if
to succeed choreographically and thematically, then these kinds of errors must be avoided. Viewed in terms of a functional aesthetic, Loopdiver includes a particular
movement vocabulary that
manifests qualities of movement that inform its systematic approach to movement.
The movement qualities that characterize the repetitious and fragmented movement
sequences often produce a sense of
discomfort but they can,
nonetheless, ground a sense of
function since one can view
dancer’s movement as being fit for expressing the general
choreographic approach of the piece, and as being fit for
realizing the thematic content of the work. Loopdiver
demonstrates that particular movements that are not aesthetically pleasing may
be appreciated as fit for choreographic function if the choreography of the
piece is characterized by a systematic approach to disjointed, fragmented, or
even grotesque movement. That is, one
may appreciate the functional relationship between movement and choreographic
approach even if the particular movements produce a sense of discomfort.
As another example, Tom Johnson’s post-modern dance Running out of Breath (1976) is
intriguing in that it intentionally presents genuine choreographic
dysfunctionality. The original performance of the piece featured a solo dancer who
performed basic running with unpredictable changes of
a performance space. While running, the
dancer recited a “text-score” from memory
described the process of getting tired, of trying to conserve energy, and, ultimately,
of being unable to continue
Johnson noted that:
If due to a cramp, injury, or
complete exhaustion, the performer is unable to finish the dance, he/she should simply
“I’m sorry, that’s
far as I can go,”
exit. The dance will then
end in defeat rather than
triumph, but its most important feature, literal truth,
will be preserved.
The piece is designed to end in failure and yet presents the dancer’s running
commentary on the process of trying not to fail.
This focuses the audience’s attention on the manner in which
dance performance generally
prizes the successful execution of
technique and conceals the physical struggle that often lies behind it. Running
of Breath highlights
choreographic dysfunction by presenting a dancer who gradually becomes less fit for completing the
Is the lack of fitness that
is presented in Running out of Breath aesthetically poor? It seems not.
The dysfunction is intertwined with the aim of the piece because Duncan’s
growing inability to continue performing succinctly focuses attention on a widely-held expectation concerning dance performance. This works well for Running out of Breath since the end of
the piece facilitates the realization
Johnson’s intention. However
as discussed above, for any dance that did
not stress this particular stance
on the audience’s expectations and could not be completed, the dysfunction would consequently be viewed as an
aesthetic flaw. Hence, it is not the case that dysfunction in dance performance is necessarily an
but that most dances will be negatively affected by such
dysfunction since it would
undermine the realization of the overall choreographic
approach and can, in turn, hinder the development of artistic themes and narrative content.
and Carlson argued that dysfunctional artifacts are always aesthetically flawed
since they are incapable of realizing the ends that they were designed to
procure. It is generally the case that
dysfunctional dance movement is aesthetically flawed, but we find that a
choreographer may intentionally incorporate dysfunctionality into a dance work
in a way that draws attention to the very manner in which dances are generally
designed and performed by dancers. This indicates
a self-reflective post-modern approach to choreography that we will discuss
further in Section 4.
4. Task dances, function, and choreographic normativity
In this section I will consider the post-modern task dances of the 1960s that
draw attention to the functional fitness of everyday movement. This emphasis on the value of everyday
movement brings the normative force of fitness for function into relief by
demonstrating that appreciating fitness for choreographic function is often
contingent on the normalization of movement since normalization is necessary
for the realization of choreographic standards.
This will then lead to a discussion of alternatives to such
and Banes have argued that the post-modern task dances present ordinary
movement as an object of aesthetic appreciation. Pieces such as Yvonne Ranier’s Room Service (1963) and Trisha Brown’s Rulegame 5 (1965) demonstrate how
working bodies must adjust muscles, angles, and the distribution of weight in
order to move, navigate around, and assemble cumbersome objects, such as bed
mattresses, wood planks, ropes, gears, and pieces of steel. Carroll and Banes suggested that, if such
dances are performed correctly, “there can be no question of superfluity of
expression over the requirements of practical purposes, because the raison d’etre of the pieces is to
display the practical intelligence of the body in pursuit of a mundane,
goal-oriented type of action.” The subject of such dances, they continued, is
“the functional economy of movement.”
dances present the economy of movement that characterizes everyday actions in a
way that opens them to aesthetic appreciation of fitness for function. They draw attention to the movement
vocabulary that is most often unreflectively utilized as individuals walk to
work, assemble furniture, shop for groceries, and so on. The movements that characterize task dances
are fit for the function of manifesting a pedestrian choreographic approach in
the same way as the professional dancer’s movements are fit for expressing the
choreographic approach that characterizes a particular style of dance. The features of movement that are cultivated
with dance training are not necessary since the economy of movement that
characterizes everyday activities generally does not require specialized
movement skills. For this reason, some
post-modern choreographers have gone to the extent of incorporating individuals
who have little or no dance training into their task dances. In a self-reflective fashion, choreographers
such as Rainer and Brown encourage audiences to consider how their everyday actions
can be aesthetically appreciated as fit for function.
dance theorists have stressed that the roles and thematic content that
characterize dances in many styles of dance are explicitly normative in that
they cast the dancer in a particular framework of cultural values. With regard to gender, we find that classical
ballet and many works in the canon of modern dance are hetero-normative in that
they portray a particular stance on gender identity and gender relations. Other theorists have noted that race can also
be a factor, as non-Caucasian roles are often portrayed as alien others who act
as a foil for Caucasian heroes and heroines. In general, many works that fill the canon of
ballet and modern dance, as well as Bharata Natyam, express the values of the
culture from which they came, values that many contemporary dancers,
choreographers, theorists, and audiences find problematic.
post-modern choreographers take this a step further as they argue that normativity can also be problematic in a non-thematic way since appreciating the relationship between
particular movements and a
general choreographic approach can be a
That is, even if the cultural values that
and Bharata Natyam could somehow be
avoided, the styles require bodies capable
of producing the specialized movements that
necessary for the instantiation of their respective choreographic
Dance styles carry normative weight because they are contingent upon a
movement that encourages the classification of dancers in terms of their
ability to perform movements that fit within the choreographic system and, more
generally, ignores any of the dancer's kinetic uniqueness that does not.
Task dances and
other post-modern dances avoid gender
roles, problematic thematic content, and codified choreographic systems by presenting the body simply as a source of
As Banes noted, the early post-moderns can be seen as striving to
create a democratic approach to dance that avoids
cultural values and
the normalization of dance
movement, and that
is accessible and practicable by anyone who is willing to invest time and energy in dance:
In the sixties, the impulse
of the post-modern
choreographers was to deny virtuosity and to relinquish technical polish, literally
to let go
constraints and inhibitions, to act freely, and
also, in a spirit of democracy, to refuse to differentiate the dancer’s
body from an ordinary body.
One may argue that such an
approach is extreme, and quite possibly aesthetically limited, since the normalization of movement that is essential for the development of dance styles has produced a vast array of artistically significant dances. To put this
point another way, normalization through the cultivation
of dance technique is necessary
as it allows for the clarification and refinement of
creative energies. Spontaneous actions are converted into artistic
expressions when they are channeled through a medium that has been tempered by technique. With
regard to dance, the human body is converted into a medium of expression when it
is disposed to succinctly manifest qualities of
movement so that they may be appreciated by an audience. If
this is the case, then
is difficult to
see why capitalizing on
natural capacity to express various qualities of movement is an inherently problematic affair.
may agree that
values that arise
in many dances are
problematic but one can go on to argue that the normativity that characterizes the cultivation
of dance technique is a different affair. It is one thing for a dance to manifest questionable cultural values, and it is another for choreographers to
seek out dancers who can perform
the movement qualities that they value
so that the appreciation of fitness for function and other artistic ends can be
This is because there appears to be
logical connection between cultural
values and qualities of movement.
For example, a
low center of gravity and powerful muscular movements may be
used to express particular cultural
values, but one
imagine dances that would utilize such features for different ends. Habit
and culture lead
the association of
particular qualities of
movement with specific
but a survey of
world’s dance traditions produces many variations on this theme. For
example, one can contrast the variable qualities of traditional ballet that grew out of the French royal court with those of
the Kathak tradition that
prized by the Mughal courts of
We generally find a high center of gravity in the former and a low center
articulated by grand or demi-plié stances that are held for substantial periods of
time, in the latter. That these royal courts emphasized different dance values indicates that the dancer’s relation to gravity is largely a matter of cultural convention.
The advocate of
post-modern dance may
reply by arguing that since axiological and functional normativity have been associated
for so long, the best strategy is to create dances that avoid or explicitly draw attention to both forms of normativity.
since it rules out the appreciation of
fitness for function that
is generally necessary for
appreciation of other important aspects of dance performance, including the advancing of
thematic or narrative content.
Banes noted that the post-modern choreographers of the 1970s and 1980s became aware of these limitations and
away from the minimalist program of the 1960s as
they began experimenting with social dance, multi-media technologies,
improvisation techniques, and by parodying virtuosic performance. Such
strategies allowed them to avoid issues of functional normativity yet allowed
them to explore artistic options that went beyond the restrictions of task
dances that present pedestrian movements that can be appreciated as fit for
function. More recently, one can point to
the work of contemporary choreographers who have
intentionally drawn on an array of dance traditions to create their own
unique choreographic approaches. As discussed
at the end of Section One, the polemics that were used
to strongly differentiate modern dance from
ballet, post-modern dance from modern dance, and Western from non-Western dance are
largely relics of the past; the lines between dance
styles are no longer so starkly drawn. Consequently, dance artists now have the opportunity to study a wide range of
dance traditions; such training allows for a pluralism
in dance values and a pluralism
of movement. In turn, this allows for
an appreciation of fitness for function that does not implicitly sanction
questionable social values or rely solely on traditional choreographic
work raises an important question concerning novelty and the appreciation of fitness
for function. One can readily appreciate how dance movement
appears fit for choreographic function if it is contextualized by a
well-defined choreographic system. However,
such appreciation is not as readily available when one views dance from an
unfamiliar tradition or if it is produced by a contemporary choreographer who
intentionally veers away from established dance traditions. I would like to conclude this essay by
discussing a dance that illustrates how contemporary work can avoid the de-personalized
normalization of movement that characterizes established dance traditions and
demonstrates how fitness for function can be appreciated when one encounters a
novel choreographic approach to movement.
5. Babel (Words)
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is a Belgian-Moroccan dancer and choreographer who began dancing at the age of fifteen, inspired by music videos and popular music. He entered a national dance competition at the age
of nineteen and won
a solo that mixed vogueing, hip-hop, and African dance.
he enrolled in Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dance school in Brussels, and in
the prestigious Belgian-based dance company Les Ballets C de la B.
He began presenting his own choreography in 2000 and his work
has won critical
acclaim around the globe.
I believe that Cherkaoui’s work
charts an intriguing middle-ground
minimalist task dances and
contemporary post-modern dances that make no attempt to develop
a unified movement
vocabulary. With regard to the latter,
some contemporary choreographers present work that juxtaposes movement sequences drawn from various
dance styles in
order to explicitly draw attention to stylistic conventions. This is aesthetically significant since the observer is continually surprised as the dancers shift from one dance style to the next. Since the dancers in such
pieces must be able to execute a wide range of movements, one can appreciate their virtuosity. However, the qualities of movement that they present do not coalesce into a distinct choreographic
approach, and the appreciation of fitness for function is hindered.
work avoids the limitations of minimalism and pastiche since it presents an
array of dance styles and approaches to dance but incorporates them into a
coherent movement vocabulary. This seems
to be because Cherkaoui’s work often centers on the theme of
cross-cultural dialogue, and because
he often draws on the experience of dancers who present
a range of dance styles, physiques, ages, and nationalities. This is
explicit in Sutra (2008), which features Buddhist monks from the Shaolin temple in China and, more
recently, in Babel (Words) (2010), which features an international cast.
name implies, Babel (Words) draws on the myth of the tower of
Babel that is presented in the Bible. Briefly, the myth holds that human-kind built
a massive tower in
an effort to reach the heavens and, in response,
God created many languages so that divisions and conflict would arise between the constituents of
the newly formed language-groups. Cherkaoui considers the idea of a universal human language and how language informs cultural diversity and
perceptions of cultural difference.
In Babel (Words),
the audience observes individuals from a range of cultures encountering otherness
as they cooperatively execute complex dance sequences and create towering structures out of
Antony Gormley’s set pieces. They divide into factions, strive to exert power and control over one another, and search for reconciliation and common ground.
a wide-ranging movement vocabulary that draws on his dancer’s experience.
The observer catches glimpses of
modern dance movement, hip-hop, break-dancing, and
kung-fu movement, along
with aspects of flamenco and Orissi dance. The
piece’s movement vocabulary includes intricate hand-gesture phrases that are executed in unison by the entire cast; acrobatic sequences that are used to
human conflict; complex pedestrian movement sequences where the entire cast manipulates large
set pieces; and
fluid duets where partners deftly combine energies in
order to draw attention to
how cooperation and personal intimacy can be achieved.
The viewer begins to realize that the
piece’s general choreographic approach is grounded in the notions of gestural
communication, physical cooperation, and aggression, which are expressed in a
wide array of movement sequences. The
fitness of a particular movement sequence can be appreciated as one gains a sense of
it presents a general choreographic approach to the subject of
the piece. For
example, the complex hand-gesture phrases that are performed in unison by the
entire cast are part and parcel of a movement vocabulary that repeatedly
explores how the body can be used to communicate without the use of spoken
language. Chekaoui consistently explores
how the body can be used to express meaning without the assistance of spoken
language as his choreography explores hand gestures and cooperative duets that
utilize the entire body. For this
reason, the viewer can appreciate how such movement sequences contribute to a
general choreographic approach to the subject matter.
choreographic approach avoids the normativity
an established dance
since it is a pluralist approach drawing on a wide range of
dance traditions to create a
Cherkauoi takes hand mudras
and kung-fu movements out of their traditional context and reconfigures them to
help develop the piece’s thematic content.
For this reason, it is not appropriate for the viewer to view hip-hop
movement sequences in Babel (Words)
as fit for expressing the economy of movement that characterizes hip-hop as a
style. Those sequences are used to
create percussively rhythmic and sculptural tableaus that facilitate the ideas
of cooperation and aggression that are often revisited in the piece. In this way, Cherkaoui draws on the aesthetic
quality of hip-hop movement but re-contextualizes it so that it can contribute
to the piece’s overall choreographic approach.
I believe that this explains, in part,
the fascination of Cherkaoui’s choreography.
The observer cannot rely on
familiarity with a particular style of dance in order to contextualize the movement qualities presented by the dancers but must actively figure
out how Cherkaoui re-contextualizes them in a way that allows for a novel
appreciation of fitness for function.
The dancer’s hip-hop movement is not viewed as being fit for hip-hop as
a style but as being fit for a pluralistic choreographic approach. The viewer gains a sense of the work's
choreographic approach as movements and movement sequences are performed,
repeated, and varied as the piece unfolds.
This essay demonstrates that
appreciation of fitness is an important
component of dance aesthetics.
One can view dance movement as being fit
for choreographic function as one appreciates how movement manifests a
particular choreographic approach. The
problems of translation and determinacy were addressed as well as the issue of
choreographic dysfunctionality. A
discussion of these issues demonstrated a key difference between appreciating
the fitness of artifacts and the fitness of dance movement. The problem of normativity that is addressed
by post-modern task dances was then discussed and this set up a consideration
of a more refined account of appreciation of fitness for function that focuses
on dances, such as Babel (Words), that draw on a plurality of
dance styles in order to advance a novel choreographic approach.
Eric Mullis is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Queens University
of Charlotte. He specializes in philosophy of the body, performance
theory, and Confucian Ethics. He has recently published essays in
Dance Research Journal, Teaching Philosophy, and Journal of Aesthetic Education.
Published January 17, 2014.
Glen Parsons and
Allen Carlson, Functional
Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
I view fitness for function as only one component of dance appreciation. Further, this essay does not attempt to define dance in terms of
fitness for function for,
as I will explain, appreciating fitness
function can arise when observing a wide range of somatic
practices, including sports,
gymnastics, martial arts,
Chi, and so on.
For Carroll and Banes' article, see “Working and Dancing:
Response to Monroe Beardsley’s
‘What is Going on in a Dance?’” Dance
Research Journal 15,1, (1982), 37-41.
aesthetics presents the possibility of appreciating fitness for function that
does not rely on objects since one can appreciate how a particular organism’s
existence and behavior contribute to the overall balance of an ecosystem. When this occurs, the action is appreciated
as fit for contributing to a dynamic and holistic environmental system. For more on this, see Allen Carlson, “On
Aesthetically Appreciating Human Environments,” Philosophy and Geography 4, 1, (2001), 9-24. Also see Glenn Parsons, “Natural Functions
and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Inorganic Nature,” British Journal of Aesthetics 44,1, (2004), 44-56.
and Carlson (2008), pp. 90-100.
performed by disabled dancers hinders the general appreciation of fitness for dance movement
since the disability
limits the appreciation of
the general kinetic potential
the human body.
as I will explain, the movements
a disabled dancer may be incorporated into a
such that their movement helps contribute to a graceful economy of
movement. For more on
dance and disability, see A.C. Albright, Choreographing Difference: The
Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), pp. 50-66.
For more on
the similarities between athletes and dancers, see David Best, “The Aesthetic in Sport,” British
of Aesthetics 14:3
Also see David Carr, “Thought and
in the Art of Dance,” British
Journal of Aesthetics 27, 4, (1987), 351-352, and Parsons
and Carlson (2008), pp. 62-89.
For more on Bharata Natyam’s history and approach to
dance values, see Janet O’Shea, At Home
in the World: Bharat Natyam on the Global Stage (Middletown: Wesleyan
University Press, 2007).
For more on the balletic approach to dance values, see Susan
Leigh Foster, Reading Dancing: Bodies and
Subjects in Contemporary American Dance (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1988), pp. 76-88.
It has been pointed out to me that one can ask whether the body or the movement that it performs is what one
appreciates as fit for choreographic function.
The question is based on a conceptual distinction that can readily be
applied to art forms that rely on inert media for their creation but is
difficult to apply to dance. One can
conceptually distinguish the body of the dancer from the actions that it
performs in the way that one can distinguish between paint and the act of
painting, but this does not accord with the phenomenological experience of
dance appreciation. Since the body is
the medium of dance, the "the body executing movement" is the subject
of one's appreciation. A follow-up question
asks whether this lack of conceptual clarity undermines the appreciation of
fitness in any way. That is, if we can't
conceptually distinguish the body from the movement that it performs, then is
our appreciation of fitness necessarily a muddled affair? I don't see why, since "the body
executing movement" is a perceptual gestalt
that is the foundation of dance creation and performance. I will continue to refer to
"movement" as being fit for choreographic function but acknowledge
that dance movement cannot be conceptually separated from the body that brings
Parsons and Carlson (2008), p. 46.
Scruton, The Aesthetics
of Architecture (London: Methuen and Company, 1979), pp. 40-41.
Also see Parsons and Carlson (2008), pp. 45-49. Also
and Architecture,” British Journal of Aesthetics 29, 1, (1989), 248-257.
Scruton (1979), p. 41.
Parsons and Carlson (2008), pp. 49-57.
See Parsons and Carlson (2008), pp.
"selected-effects" reply to the problem of
One can continue this line of thought by noting that the
dance movement can directly appreciate its aesthetic
quality since she is an embodied being who has intimate experiential knowledge of the body. For more on
subject see G. Rizzolatti and L.
Craighero, “The Mirror Neuron
System,” Annual Review of Neuroscience 27, (2004), 169-192 and V. Gallese et al., “Action Recognition
in the Premotor
119, 2, (1996), 593-609.
For applications of
this topic to aesthetics, see Barbara
Montero, “Proprioception as an Aesthetic Sense,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64, 2, (2006), 299-317.
and Carlson (2008), pp.
To frame this point differently,
appreciating fitness for function is a cognitive affair since one must have a
basic knowledge of the function that the object or action is intended to
perform. Knowledge of a broader
choreographic framework allows one to appreciate how individual movements are
fit for realizing it. But we must note
that appreciating dance also has non-cognitive components, such as the
expression of emotion, that are valued by dance audiences.
position is consistent with the pluralist spirit of Parsons and Carlson's
selected-effects approach to the function of art. For their account, see Parsons and Carlson
(2008), pp. 216-222.
See Parsons and Carlson (2008), pp.
What is Dance? Readings in Theory and
Criticism, eds., Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp.
dance can draw attention to disability and audience expectations
concerning able-bodied dancers in the manner of Running out of Breath by intentionally presenting dancers with disabilities. The
contemporary choreographer Raimund Hoghe achieves this by choreographing movements on his body,
which is characterized by a severely
crooked spine and a large hump, and by contrasting it with movements executed by ballet dancers. A
disabled dancer may not present the standard
features of the human body but he or she may dance in a piece that presents movement
qualities that are produced through the kinetic fusion of the human body with
prosthetics and wheelchairs. AXIS dance company performs a wide
range of work that presents movement articulated by dancers in wheelchairs. These pieces do not call attention to the lack of
standard features, in the manner of Raimund Hoghe’s
work, since they present a unique movement
economy that encourages audiences to consider how a
context can render movement
as fit for function. For more on this approach, see Adam Benjamin, “Cabbages and Kings:
Dance, and Some Timely Considerations” in The Routledge Dance Studies Reader,
eds., Carter and O’Shea (2010), pp. 111-121. For pictures and video of Hoghe’s work, see
http://www.raimundhoghe.com/ [accessed: 6/14/2013]. For more on AXIS, see http://axisdance.org/
and Banes (1982), p. 37.
Ballet movement and pedestrian movement can both be
viewed as fit for choreographic function but can it be argued that one is
better as dance than the other? Strictly
speaking, one cannot answer this by solely appealing to fitness for function
since both kinds of dance allow for the appreciation of the global aesthetic
property that is the subject of this essay.
One has to consider the broader ends that such movements and
choreographic approaches are intended to realize and then assess which ends one
believes are more valuable. Hence, if
one believes that dance should be a democratic art form that should avoid the
elitism that characterizes much of the history of Western dance, then one will
agree with the post-modern approach and conclude that task dances are better
dances than, say, romantic ballets. To
do so would be to go beyond fitness for choreographic function by accepting an
essentialism in dance that holds that dance has a clear proper function. As discussed above, I am not prepared to
argue for such an essentialism. I am
grateful for the anonymous referee of this journal who pointed this issue out
See Bruce Nauman, Juan Dominguez, Xavier Le Roy, “Masculinity, Solipsism, Choreography,” in Andre Lepecki, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics (New York: Routledge, 2006),
Also see Sally Banes, Dancing Women: Female Bodies Onstage
(New York: Routledge, 1998).
For example, see Susan Manning, Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race
in Motion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
Sally Banes, Terpsichore
Post-Modern Dance (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987),
p. xxvii. Also see Sally Banes,
Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theatre 1962-1964
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).
For more on this process, see John Dewey, Art as
Experience (New York: Perigree, 1934), pp.
Kothari, Kathak: Indian Classical
Abhinav Publications, 1989) and
Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (New York: Random House, 2010), pp. 3-50.
(1987), pp. xxix-xxxiii.
See Copeland and Cohen (1983), pp.
For Parsons and Carlson's discussion of the appreciation
of novel functional objects, see (2008), pp. 80-84.
I would like to thank Sybil Huskey, Caitlyn Swett, and
the anonymous referee of this journal for their comments on earlier drafts of