Monday, September 28, 2015

Dance as social research

In "Seminar in the City" we've started a three-session section called "Arts as Social Research." That is of course one of the catchphrases of J's and my understanding of New School history: we think the turn to offering courses in and on the modern arts in the 1920s and 1930s was anything but mission drift on the part of a "New School for Social Research" which had lost its founding focus. "Social research" is a capacious term which embraces the study of the social dimensions of all phenomena (diachronic as well as synchronic) as well as new ways of understanding these dimensions in times of change. In the current class we're looking first at movement, then at image, and finally at sound in this way.

Our class readings were by two people who taught Modern Dance or about it at The New School in 1931, John Martin and Doris Humphrey,

and the current experimental dance program at Lang: quite a leap!
But it worked, in part because the Director of the Dance Program came to help us make sense of things. I got a better sense of what animates the current program, and I think he gained a new sense of historic resonance. But the students? They came in excited but skeptical about so apparently non-academic a venture as dance and left, perhaps, persuaded that it could indeed be a form of social research.

The case for dance as social research was made clearly in the entry John Martin, the nation's first dedicated dance reviewer, contributed to the great New School-based Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. (The course described above was given after he wrote this.) What is dance?
It's being described in an encyclopedia of social sciences because of this supra-individual character. Indeed, in the ensuing historical account of forms of dance in ancient and modern societies (including lots on dance and religion) it seems a quintessentially social thing, not just marking social experiences but giving crucial expression to them. For that matter
dance forms can teach us things about social changes before other forms of analysis appreciate them. The modern movement in dance (of which Humphrey was a leader) is more than just a reflection of changing times, however. Like other modern artistic movements it understands itself as offering a distinctively intentional experience of what Humphrey called the drama of life in its moment. I believe that the dancer belongs to his time and place and that he can only express that which passes through or close to his experience, Humphrey wrote. The one indispensable quality in a work of art is a consistent point of view related to the times.

Fair enough, but that was a long time ago. Does anyone still see (modern) dance that way? Does anyone at The New School? The current program in Dance at Lang is distinctive among college dance programs in many ways. One is a suspicion of canonical ways of understanding dance, in general or in its modern and contemporary forms. As the program director explained, the New York location enables them to invite practitioners of all sorts of techniques and understandings to teach: students get to be part of an ongoing experiment. Is it social research? The program doesn't use that phrase but its courses frame dance making as a series of investigatory acts, an arena for research and discovery: close enough! At the New School dance is still a way to think about the world.

John Martin, "Dance," Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences,
ed. Edwin R. A. Seligman and Alvin Johnson, vol. IV (Macmillan, 1949), 701, 706
Doris Humphrey, New Dance: Writings on Modern Dance,
ed. Charles Humphrey Woodward (Hightstown, NJ.: Princeton Book Company, 2008), 5-6

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