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Judith Chestnut (Australia)

Dance as a habitat for human development and a product of human activity

Chestnut, Judith (Australia): "Dance as a habitat for human development and a product of human activity", 18th International Congress on Dance Research, Argos, 3-7/11, 2004.

  1. 1.Abstract

Dance can be as much a habitat for human development as a product of human activity. While the practical considerations necessary for dance stabilise both the habitat and product, attitude, specific skills and broad knowledge will encourage sustainable development. The preoccupation with dance as a product might result in the neglect of dance as a habitat and attention to the concept of dance as a habitat might overlook the contribution of the individual and the benefits of interaction and collaboration. With so many elements to consider it is reasonable to expect problems and shortcomings and the diversity of dance is often confusing. However, dance is a habitat that can be resourced and serviced with its own products, which is a strength that deserves to be highlighted and is the topic of this report.

  1. 2.Introduction

The most valuable asset that dance has is dancers and when they have access to training and resources, their contribution is enhanced. If that contribution is directed toward dance in general then they are able to enrich the habitat of dance and influence the products of dance. A positive cycle for human development is nurtured. For the cycle to remain dynamic and productive: networks are utilised and individuals are challenged and rewarded. When interaction and collaboration occurs dance is able to remain in step with concerns for human development.

Interaction and collaboration does not involve the compromise of identity but it does require confidence and a common ground for discussion and activity. Sometimes confidence is needed to find the common ground and other times confidence is a result of finding a common ground. The order in which these are acquired is not important, but the influence of the acquisition is. There are many ways in which a dancer can gain confidence and the learning and performance of dance offer a common ground when those activities are supported with research and practical development.

This report is not about the values or characteristics of dance or the significance of interaction and collaboration to the ecology of dance. The importance of dancers to dance is obvious and the provision of training and resources is a requirement for all aspects and all types of dance. However, the acquisition of confidence and a common ground for training and resources can be elusive, an element that encourages ambivalence. If dance is to include best practices for human development and productivity, then ambivalence should be replaced with certainty through activities with tangible results. This report is about some of these activities.

  1. 3.Place, taste and tradition

                  

Habitats of any type are usually multidimensional, which facilitates diversity and active networks; human settlements and communities are examples. Interaction and collaboration occurs when there is communicate within, over and through boundaries that might exist because of place, taste and tradition. As an artist goes about the business of making art, networks are formed for the continuation of that process. Materials are acquired, a work area is found and activities are initiated to facilitate the creative process. The activities of artists are building blocks for settlements and communities, as are governance and administration. A value can be given to those activities when they become subjects for study and this value will be relevant to the habitat when objective systems of recording and analysis are employed. Place, taste and tradition will become components of the study and can be used to find or form a common ground. Once that common ground has been recognised, the continuation of the processes of recording and analysis will identify the qualities that are necessary for that activity to continue and contribute to the confidence of individuals and useful networks.

Bernard Smith writes of how during the establishment of a settlement, art is part of a need for construction that eventuates in industry, which is then followed by scientific thought. With examples from the early European settlement of Australia, Smith states how the wattle and daub huts built by convicts could not be considered architecture and how the bullock tracks formed by settlers were not town-planning [1]. The structures of the early settlers were foreign to the Australian landscape and Aboriginals of that time and the industry of construction replaced traditional networks for human development. The consequences of that as well as architecture and town-planning are now subjects for study at various levels in an attempt to; restore lost confidence, facilitate communication for cohesion and encourage and preserve cultural diversity.

4. Indigenous knowledge

Place, taste and tradition might be reflected in architecture, town planning and the studies of cultures, but indigenous knowledge is the result of immersion in all aspects of a settlement and is intangible. Indigenous knowledge reflects the qualities of place, taste and tradition but is not reliant on these qualities for identification. Such knowledge can be essential to the search for a common ground, however its intangible quality can be a problem for recording and analysis unless it is realised in some way. The products that result because of that process are integral to the symbolic language of indigenous knowledge and this is something that has been included in human development since the beginning of time. Carl Jung stated in a book edited by him that symbols may become familiar in daily life but that they possess specific connotations, which may be vague or unknown. [2] By forming an image, an artist offers a service for human development because that image becomes an object for something that is elusive. The image is a visual language for ideas that cannot be defined or fully comprehended. [3]

Dance is not only a visual language for ideas; it is a discipline that encapsulates human understanding, which is why it is both a habitat and a product. Dance is a way of retrieving and communicating indigenous knowledge: it is inherently ambiguous, which adds poetry to its utilitarian quality. The products of dance can become utilities with day-to-day use and/or icons through association and both are entities that can be assessed and valued. When these processes occur in an informed environment, they are more likely to be equitable and beneficial to that environment and that is when dance is the most useful to human development. If ambiguity and iconography are elements found in dance that can be measured for assessment and valuation, then they are elements useful to the understanding of indigenous knowledge.   Ambiguity and iconography are only two of the qualities of dance and knowing how to use them is a valuable asset to dance.

  1. 5.Ambiguity

5.1 The traditional dance  

Recently (September 2004), an American Indian tribe performed a traditional war dance to bring attention to their concerns about the expansion of a dam in their locality. [4] Although such a dance has not been performed for over 100 years, the dance represented the combined knowledge of the indigenous people. For the dance to achieve its purpose it must be evocative and such a quality is built on experience and human understanding. The certainty of the indigenous knowledge is encapsulated in the dance as it becomes a symbol of the uncertainty the tribe is experiencing. The tangible quality of the dance is a foil to the intangible character of the message it carries.

William Empson recognised the advantages of defining ambiguity to contribute to the evaluation of the multidimensional nature of human experience. He has written of seven types of ambiguity that he has recognised and the fourth type can be applied to this war dance. Empson writes:

‘An ambiguity of the fourth type occurs when two or more meanings of a statement do not agree among themselves, but combine to make clear a more complicated state of mind in the author.’ [5]

These seven classifications of ambiguity can be used to evaluate dance demonstrating that dance is at least as significant to human activities as other forms of communication including sight. But dance is more than an example of a visual language, it is the codification of human development, and this is a value that must be given substantial and sustained consideration.

5.2 The corroboree

Indigenous knowledge for the Aboriginals of Australia was traditionally encapsulated in the corroboree. Robin Ryan describes a corroboree as both ceremony and entertainment that facilitated barter and social intercourse. [6] One article that was found suggests that Aboriginals did not dance but instead presented stylised movements that replicated events. [7] This article however, might be a better example of the need for more research into dance than an explanation of indigenous knowledge but it is useful to consider the concept of metaphor and eventual ambiguity.

Whatever the activity was that was being demonstrated through movement at a corroboree, it was replication not the event itself. Perhaps older members of a tribe were teaching hunting skills or younger members were telling stories. If these movements cannot be considered dance they are at least more than random movements. The activities of interactions and collaboration during a corroboree change these movements into ritual or language with choreography and in fact, a corroboree is the collection of various choreographies.

A single collection of movements that resembles an animal looking for food could be described as including an ambiguity of the first type. The detail of the human movement mirrors the detail of the movements of the animals and the observer must compare the two. Empson describes this as a ‘…dramatic ambiguity of judgement which does not consider the character so much as the audience…’ [8]

The corroboree as a collection of choreographies becomes an umbrella for activity and cultural festivals have essential characteristics of corroborees. By using Empsons’s classifications a corroboree could be described as including the fifth type of ambiguity:

‘An ambiguity of the fifth type occurs when the author is discovering his idea in the act of writing, or not holding it all in his mind at once, so that, for instance, there is a simile which applies to nothing exactly, but lies half-way between two things when the author is moving from one to the other.’ [9]

Within the collection of the corroboree there are many ideas and as the participant moves from one idea to the next he or she is experiencing this fifth type of ambiguity.

It is not necessary to consider the other types of ambiguity at this stage, to understand that this is a useful tool for dance and its associated activities. A single dance can have a value that is different to a collection of dances and a collection can exhibit various values. However, it is the activity of chorography and interpretation of that choreography that includes these values in dance. Dance offers the space for thought and the time for evaluation and the activities of the dancers of choreography in that space and time are components of human development.

Empson writes:

‘The human mind has two main scales on which to measure time. The large one takes the length of a human life as its unit, so that there is nothing to be done about life, it is of an animal dignity and simplicity, and must be regarded from a peaceable and fatalistic point of view. The small one takes as its unit the conscious moment, and it is from this that you consider the neighbouring space, an activity of the will, delicacies of social tone, and your personality.’ [10]

It is the small activity of thinking of time as a conscious moment that links to the concept of iconology, which cannot be classified as easily as it can be counted. The considerations of space, activity of will, social tone and personality produce icons and these are relative to the larger unit of human development.

  1. 6.Iconology

6.1 The tutu

Ballet is more than tutus and point shoes, but for those who are not familiar with this form of dance, that might be the first image that comes to mind when the word ballet is mentioned. The making of a tutu is a skill that must be learnt with patience and effort, just as the skill of ballet is learnt in the studios of many dance schools. However, when someone sees a tutu they might not automatically recognise that skill or the effort that has been required for its production. The tutu is an icon for ballet and is one small part of the multidimensional habitat of dance but a very convenient one for this discussion.

Materials and labour go into the making of a tutu as does design, colour, shape, size, texture and other qualities. All of these components can be valued and when they are combined in the final product their total value is often exceeded. A tutu can be worn, exhibited, stored, copied and changed; it is a useful resource for dance. If a tutu is given attention and care, it will serve dance well for many years and this applies to other products of dance and those who make them.

In 2002, The Australian Ballet commissioned designers to make tutus that could be worn by the company’s dancers in a special performance. The project was extended with an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria – ‘Tutu: Designing for Dance’. [11] The exhibition featured eight tutus from the original project, along with four from the archives of The Australian Ballet. This project promoted ballet in an innovative way and most likely resulted in other useful projects for dance. The tutu as an icon of ballet could be counted and taken to new places and the result was an expansion of the audience for dance and active participation from individuals not usually associated with dance. However, unless the results of the project are documented and held by and for the field of dance in general, the results remain intangible. The indigenous knowledge of the members of the Australian Ballet that was gained because of this activity becomes ephemeral and dance as a habitat for human development is impoverished because of that.

6.2 The straight arms of Irish dance

If the act of dancing is a product of dance, then the movements of dancers could be regarded as an iconic language. The arabesque of a ballet dancer or the promenades of a couple in square dancing are components of the iconic language of each dance style. In some cases, the lack of movement is part of the iconic language of a dance style, and the straight arms of Irish dance are an example of this. However, this is a recent addition to the language of Irish dance and John Cullinane explains that in the past, hand movements were frequently a necessary part of the dance. [12]

Straight arms held close to the body is a contemporary icon for Irish dance but not its essential element and certainly not its quintessence. Deirdre Mulrooney describes Colin Dunnes’s research of Irish dance and writes that ‘[i]f Dunne develops a new dance language in this meticulous process of self-interrogation, all the better for the development of the art form…’. [13] Perhaps Dunne’s quest is not so much about developing a new dance language but about questioning the icons of his chosen genre and that should be seen as a valuable contribution to dance in general rather than a deconstruction of a tradition.

An icon is a visible reference to the invisible world of ideas and to understand iconology requires knowledge of the grammar and semantics of that language. To wonder about the relevance of grammar and semantics to dance is the first step toward that knowledge and dance itself can initiate that sense of wonder. Gombrich describes how the process of wondering about something conjures up phantoms of visual reality. [14] When dance is seen to be a marvel that is when it is the most persuasive, and the icons of dance can contribute to that but then, according to Gombrich, so can the intangible. The visual reality for dance can be the act of performance and that is an interactive and collaborative event. The phantoms of dance are the ambiguity of performance, and that is the intangible marvel of choreography.

  1. 7.Choreography: from the intangible to the tangible

Choreography has been described as ‘…a synthesis of intuitive and rational knowing…’. [15] The examples that have been discussed in this report demonstrate how dance and its associated activities can represent indigenous knowledge, be qualified according to types of ambiguity and be quantified by its iconic references. And this is only considering the small scale thinking that Empson describes. What would happen if the large-scale thinking were applied to dance where the choreographer would consider not only the present but the past and future? How could a choreographer bring into focus the concept of life today being a demonstration of the events from the past and an influence on the future? The answers to these questions are not elusive but are a matter of interpretation and the following description of a choreographic project that occurred in 2003 will illustrate this idea.

7.1 Concept and intent of the choreography

The idea was to choreograph a dance for a group of dancers that participated in weekly dance classes. The ages of the dancers ranged from 4 to 50 years and the level of experience was from beginner to experienced performer. This group did not belong to any formal association for dance. The weekly fees that the dancers paid for their classes financed the project and each dancer was responsible for their own costume, which has remained in their care. The type of dance that this group was to perform was not locally recognised as a contemporary genre. The indigenous knowledge held by the group was not aknowledged and its members were considered marginal performers. The original aim was to develop their skills as dancers rather than performers and the intent of the choreography was to:

  1. To bring together dancers of various ages and abilities in a performance suitable for a community based event.
  2. To demonstrate how traditional Irish dance steps can be presented in a context that communicates a story.
  3. To add a capricious quality to an event that has a predetermined expectation not necessarily concerned with dance.
  4. To involve the dancers in the choreographic process as much as possible in order to reinforce components taught in their usual dance class.
  5. To provide an opportunity for beginner dancers to dance with experienced stage performers to facilitate skills development.
  6. To link fundamental components of choreography to the concept of teaching dance through the notions of goal-based scenarios.

7.2 The goal and theme for the project

The goal was to present the dance at the Central Coast Eisteddfod in 2003. This is an annual event and offers dancers an opportunity to perform at the local theatre. The eisteddfod is organised by volunteers and is financed by entry fees from the competitors and sponsorship from local businesses and service organizations.

The theme was inspired by the image presented in the painting ‘The Peasant Dance’, c1562 by Pieter Bruegal the Elder. [16] The earthy colours and variety of movement illustrated in the painting were transcribed for contemporary dance.

7.3 Stages of development

  1. A date was set for the completion of the dance and the beginning of the rehearsal period, which would culminate in the performance of the dance.
  2. The basic steps to be used in the dance were researched using videos and technical notes.
  3. These steps were taught to the dancers who were at this time segregated into classes graded by age and ability. One class learnt the most fundamental of the steps, another the fundamental steps plus more complex combinations and the most experienced class learnt all the selected steps. This part of the process took approximately 10 weeks of weekly lessons of 1 hour in duration.
  4. Music was researched, edited and divided into sections based on the criteria of the musical arrangement and the ability of each of the groups of dancers.
  5. The number of bars in each section was counted and this information was used to formulate the choreography using the traditional steps that had been learnt.
  6. The dancers remained segregated but now began learning the choreography that was formulated to suit their ability. Consultation with the dancers continued during this part of the process. Some elements of the choreography were influenced by the input of the dancers.
  7. A workshop for costume design was organized for the dancers and other family members.
  8. The groups were now brought together by combining the classes during the 4 weeks designated for rehearsal
  9. Transitions in the choreography and groups dynamics were crucial factors to work with during this time
  10. Costumes were taken from the workshop stage to full production and were designed to enhance the choreography and reinforce the intent. These costumes were not replicas of historic dress but were designed by each dancer based on a set of criteria formulated during the workshop process.
  11. The capricious quality that was part of the original intent of the choreography was added through costume design and movement modifications
  12. In keeping with the notion of a tableau, the choreography was predominately made using linear formations, which were intended to flow across the width of the stage.

7.4 Outcomes

  1. All dancers that registered for the event were able to take part in the choreographed performance.
  2. The choreography and artistic presentation was vastly different to the other examples that were displayed at the same event.
  3. The group was awarded 1st place in the competition. However, it must be noted that this was not part of the original intent.
  4. The choreography can be adapted for other events and venues.
  5. The dancers enjoyed the process of making the dance and gained confidence from the performance.
  6. Attention was drawn to the importance of having a staging rehearsal and the need for the event producers to facilitate this if they wished to achieve their own objectives of presenting a marketable spectacle.
  7. The organizers did not choose the performance for a special gala evening, which was held the next week because the costumes did not provide the spectacle they wished to present.

7.5 Evaluation

This project has been documented and the performance was recorded on video. Each participant received a ribbon and a copy of the adjudicator’s remarks and a trophy is displayed on the top of a bookcase. But the true value of this project is that it was devoted to dance and that everyone who registered for the project had a role to play and did that with enthusiasm. For the duration of the project, the dancers had a common ground for participation and that gave them the confidence to perform and offer their personal best in an environment that was unfamiliar to some of the dancers. Ambiguity and iconology did make an appearance at various stages of the project as did other qualities associated with human activities, but the project has a large-scale value beyond these elements. The history of dance was used to shape the contemporary choreography and always there was a consideration of the eventual outcome. Each dancer had a personal goal and was encouraged to reflect on that throughout the project and each understood that the common goal was to participate in a public performance and that consideration influenced the level of enthusiasm in varied ways.

  1. 8.Summary

This report has considered elements that are present in dance as a habitat for human development and as a product of human activity. Ambiguity and iconography have been discussed as qualities that could assist with evaluation and a choreographic project has been described as a way of communicating a variety of concepts. If the details of dance can be thought of as small-scale thinking then considering dance in general is large-scale thinking and is a peaceable point of view.

Performance in dance is diverse and dynamic when it is the result of interaction and collaboration while being useful to human development when it is supported by research. If performance is the most recognised form of dance, then as an icon it is the most influential. Performance can inspire wonder and the skill of the choreographer is relative to that. Anne Loxley states that performance interrogates perceptions and preconceptions and because of its use of the body it establishes a direct relationship with the viewer. [17] Performance is the most visible way to challenge the ideas of place, taste and tradition and because of that it is the most easily recognized evidence of indigenous knowledge as the codification of human experience and a significant resource for dance in general. When individuals understand this concept that is when dance is enriched.

Endnotes

  1. B, Smith. 1979, Place, taste and tradition: a study of Australian arts since 1788, South Melbourne, Oxford University Press, pp 25 – 26.

‘Every new colony has meant a re-birth of art, and, before that, a re-birth of the conditions necessary for the existence of art.

  1. London, Picador, p. 3

‘What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us.’

  1. The Associated Press. 2004, Tribe uses war dance against Calif. Dam: expanding the site could destroy tribal areas.

Available at http://msnbc.msn.com/id/5998754/ [Accessed 15 September 2004]

‘As darkness fell across the crescent-shaped Shasta Dam, eight barefoot Winnemem Wintu warriors armed with bows began the tribe’s first war dance since 1887.

Members of the tiny American Indian tribe began the four-day protest Sunday night to stop a potential expansion of the Shasta Dam, which would destroy sacred sites that had survived its original construction.

“The war dance itself is a message, a message to the world that we can’t stand to put up with this again,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco.’

‘The particular functions and the cosmological and other meanings of corroborees varied from place to place, as did the music and dance involved…’

  1. ‘The Aborigines did not dance. They held corroborees in which there were elements of music, song and movement that imitated or replicated animal movements, hunting prowess, battles or ceremonies of initiation that had been conducted for thousands of years. Corroborees are part of Aboriginal culture. They were not simply dances, but were highly significant events and belong to the Australian Aborigines.’ Available at http://www.crystalinks.com/aboriginals.html [Accessed 26 September 2004].
  1. Tutu: designing for dance. 2003, Available at http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/tutu/ [Accessed 27 September 2004]
  1. Ireland, England, New Zealand, North America and Australia, Ireland, Cullinane, p. 107.

‘…in much of our older dances hand movements were not only permitted but were frequently a necessary part of the dance. In conclusion, then, we must keep in mind the fact that the present rigid positioning of the hands is a recent introduction.’

[Accessed 28 September 2004]

  1. Oxford, Phaidon Press, p. 7
  1. London, Dance Books, p. 5
  1. Paintings by Pieter Bruegal, The Elder, Web Gallery of Art, available at http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/bruegel/pieter_e/painting/ [Accessed 30 September 2004].


Bibliography

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Available at http://msnbc.msn.com/id/5998754/ [Accessed 15 September 2004]

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Jung, C. ed. 1964, Man and his symbols, London, Picador.

Loxley, A. 1994, ‘Written on the body’ in Art Quarterly, v32, no. 2, Sydney, Fine Arts Press Pty. Ltd., p.198.

Mulrooney, D. 2003, Colin Dunne: deconstructing Irish dance in Dance Magazine, available at http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1083/is_11_77/ai_110266508

[Accessed 28 September 2004]

Paintings by Pieter Bruegal, The Elder, Web Gallery of Art, available at http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/bruegel/pieter_e/painting/ [Accessed 30 September 2004].

Raftis, Alkis. 1991, Dance in poetry: International anthology of poems on dance, volume 1, Paris, International Dance Council, UNESCO.

Smith, B. 1979, Place, taste and tradition: a study of Australian arts since 1788, South Melbourne, Oxford University Press.

Tutu: designing for dance. 2003, Available at http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/tutu/ [Accessed 27 September 2004]

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Ms Judith Chestnut

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