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Diane Oatley

Blissful thinking. Towards a poetics of dance.

Oatley, Diane: "Blissful thinking. Towards a poetics of dance", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.

1. Preface

The first piece I wrote that began to approach bliss was commissioned. An editor called me and asked could I do this thing, could I write an essay that was about dance, and about writing about dance, and about dancing (dance). I couldn’t believe the gift, that they actually wanted me to write one essay from all of those positions, one essay that was all of those things. An essay that glittered. I said, yes I could do it and did not ask her to say it again, did not ask for confirmation because if there was a misunderstanding I did not want to know about it. I said yes and chose to believe it, and hoped like mad that she would not change her mind.

That’s how my first blissful piece of writing came into being, which was also the birthing of this very page. And it is bliss that has led me to commence writing what I have chosen to term, however ambitiously, a poetics of dance. I have begun to see such a poetics as a necessity now for dance studies, one which goes hand in hand with a corresponding necessity within the arts to transgress in practice former boundaries between theory/fiction, language/movement, nationality/inter-nationality, between the various artistic genres - to work towards a type of discourse or expression which explicitly implements the movement and activity at work – between histories, stories, modes of entertainment, religion, cultures, national identities, literary genres and performance art. The most compelling writing is greedy in this sense, restless, inquisitive. A nomad. It begins as a poem, transforms into poetics, dances, historicizes, contrasts dance as a tradition, dances from east to west, tells of a man selling newspapers and bang rediscovers poetry.

Only this kind of writing can begin to address the violent developments of our contemporary worlds, our contemporary subjectivities, can begin to address the full span of the new art being produced that is sometimes the ongoing rejuvenation of ancient practices, and the rubbing up against each other which all the various forms are effecting, their frictions, their frissons, the new texts bursting out of this electricity. This implies a practice of both implementing everything I know and at the same time the greatest degree of ignorance, because the conclusion is not given at the outset. It is produced as a process of coming to know. One has to become both very small and at the same time boundless. Vulnerable. Attentive. What story is being written, has been written on the stage, in the newspapers, on the street, on television? What stories are in me?

2. Theory in practice

At the base of the foregoing “mission statement” is a theoretical framework, born from a specific project on my part, involving an interrogation of the innovative potential of bodies in movement within a range of dance practices currently taking place in the west. Such an interrogation aligns itself with a relatively new tradition within dance studies that has developed over the past 15-20 years, in part as a natural consequence of the expansive circulation of post-structuralist theories focused on the body and language. In such a theoretical context it was only a matter of time before the focus on the body was inevitably directed towards that form of expression which holds the body itself as is its tool, that of dance. While postmodern theories on writing and the body have been successfully implemented by a wide range of scholars in mapping out issues on the body within a dance context, it is my working premise here that they often fall short when addressing the dimensions specific to a dancing body and its own manner of creating meaning, its processes of representation and of (re) defining itself. The potential inherent to dance, that of exploring and producing innovative conceptions and positions of the body as body – with consequences for our understanding of embodied identity, powerfully reflects and highlights a number of discourses – political, historical, gendered - at work in today’s society. This potential remains latent, an unspoken vista, and an unarticulated but nonetheless present form of knowledge. It is on the force of its silence that it remains subject to mystification, much like the field of dance itself.

This is point illustrated simply by looking briefly at phenomenology and the work of Maurice Merleau Ponty. Phenomenological perspectives are an example of a theoretical direction that takes us a certain distance with this project, to the extent that these allow us to take the moving body as a starting point for the development of new hermeneutic practices and to build upon already existent theory. Susan Horton Fraleigh in her book Dance and the Lived Body, A Descriptive Aesthetics illustrates one means of implementing phenomenology in the context of dance studies, as she incorporates experiential data into her theoretical theses. She attempts in this book to address the body as lived, as crucial to the creation of knowledge not solely as an external instrument for the use of the mind, to be interpreted and translated into “sense”, but rather through the body’s given capacity for other bodily forms of knowledge.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty maintains that a dynamic between extremities characterizes the way in which we in our bodies address the world. He perceives the body as both subject (doing) and object (receiving, being done to), in the body’s capacity for double sensation. This implicitly defines the body as dynamically divided, as both spectator of /viewer of the other/dancer and as subject/doer of the dance, the other doing. And it is this very fluctuation of the body between these two extremities that characterizes the nature of all movement, as an action that both informs and creates meaning, intermingling the simultaneous information of different positions. Beyond the divide of a subject/object opposition, however, I would maintain that a number of potential positionalities are initiated on the part of both the dancer and the viewer receiving a dance expression. Further, that such models of opposition (body vs. mind) not only fall short in addressing this potential, but perpetuate an outdated perception of the body as an authentic, somehow orignary, holder of truths that the mind itself can only access with great difficulty.

Dance inherently, and to varying degrees according to the individual expression, plays upon a number of sensory channels. As such, what the eye sees is always further enhanced, subverted, jarred or framed by what the ears hear, what the body registers kinesthetically or as tactile response. My starting point is therefore that dance as expression opens for a number of (knowledgeable) positions on the part of both the dancer and spectator. This point is of supreme importance in my view when writing about dance. To the extent that one is addressing a range of such sensory channels and in consequence thereby, meaningful discourses, at work between dancer and spectator, the act of evaluating the dance expression itself must find a voice for these positionalities in writings about dance. The kinesthetic body as I would call this potential explodes the parameters of a subject/object model, and while not invalidating it as an observation of importance to dance reception, disclosing its limitations.

3. Textual vs. contextual bodies

Another concrete example of the limitations of theory, in this case specifically with regard to postmodern theories on the body and language, is the work of the French literary theorist and author Hélène Cixous. Cixous has not only written extensively about the (feminine) body in language, but written also about that same body in and for the theater. In her article “From the scene of the unconscious to the scene of History” (1989) she locates the theater as the space of The Other. What becomes clear when one reads this article however, is that Cixous arrives at this place through writing, as a poet/theorist become playwright. Writing is the path of her arrival. She talks a lot about this particular process in the article, but in spite of the fact that so much of her theoretical work and writing project in general has been about the (feminine) body and its potential to create new meanings, to disrupt and transform a dominant discourse, this poetic, inspiring article in no sense grants us any access to the actual processes taking place on stage, of concrete bodies in movement in space.

For Cixous the stage is a place where all difference has the opportunity to run free. For her the act of writing is in itself a performative act, a point that in itself is well taken here on its own merit in my analysis. The actual physical body in movement in performance, however, the “contextualized” body – where context refers in a very real sense to a body in a concrete setting - is clearly not her concern.

Cixous’ article implies that performance is something taking place “outside” oppressive, non-body-friendly discourse and that this place outside is in effect the location of all difference, of the feminine, of the Other. Mark Franko, dancer, choreographer and dance scholar from the University of California, in his article “Mimique” reads Stéphane Mallarmé’s reflections about dance against Derrida’s treatment of play and dance as metaphors in writing. “Mimique” (1995) represents an attempt to clarify precisely those dimensions concerning the moving body that postmodern theories on writing and difference do not address. Franko refers to Derrida’s contention that: “The play of dance occupies an impossible outside. Its impossibility however is significantly situated in a possible outside, “outside” the possible. As Mark Wigley has written: whatever philosophy places outside, is still inside precisely because it is placed. (p. 205, Franko).

For my purposes here this serves succinctly to explicate a basic premise, that the problem lies not with the “elusiveness” of the body as such, but rather with a theoretical framework which is incapable of addressing that body on its own terms. As Franko maintains in his article, science is not able to imagine any other kind of knowledge or integration of knowledge than that which is purely intellectual. He refers, for example to “the palpability and concreteness of differences” which disappear in Derrida’s concept of trace, but which are very much present in a dance production. And if dance is attributed to the site of the other, as the very embodiment of “difference” itself, how can it communicate anything whatsoever? Franko sums this up concisely when he asks, simply: "How can difference signify difference?”

What is wanting is a complementary theoretical framework and writing practice which addresses “the palpability and concreteness of difference” or the concrete aspects of dance arising in a context particular to its own form of expression. This returns us to the diverse range of sensory channels that are activated whenever one dances or witnesses dance. And again, the discovery of a limitation does not immediately invalidate a theory in its entirety. The strength of the work of Hélène Cixous in this regard lies in the open-ended structure of her theories on writing the body, which encourage the incorporation of not only other theories on the body, but also the inclusion of experiential perspectives, crucial to any project combining theory with practice as here. As such her work does allow us an opening through which one can build beyond such limitations with regard to the study of dance. Indeed, I derive much inspiration from her writing practice, with its intent to articulate other forms of knowledge, in my attempts to arrive at a dance poetics. What this implies for me is a response to what I experience as a need to address dance practices in writing from a variety of perspectives – through creative language use that may better come to grips with the subtleties at work in such practices, and that enable a divergency on the part of the critic/researcher/dancer as author. Such a writing practice seeks to explore the many levels at work as dancer and viewer of dance, located not in a neutral vacuum-like space, but always implicated, as an embodied subject in a political and personal context.

Any study of movement must also be attentive to what I would describe as the body’s inherent precariousness, its open, dynamic indefinably, rather than striving to cement a definition, to position movement as one thing once and for all. It essentially becomes obvious that a hermeneutics of dance must also be mobile in its underpinnings. It is my contention that a study and writing that is attentive to this mobility and incorporates experiential data, can lead us to confront a wide range of issues on the body, such as instrumentality, self-perception, identity and gender. With regard to the practice of Oriental Dance in the west, a primary focus of my work, the significance of this embodied and experiential mobility is further emphasized – to the extent that it enables exploration of such issues as the relationship between the West and Middle East, questions of Orientalism, perceptions of women in both cultures, centuries of interactions and current events with global implications, that can lead to new discoveries and attitudes concerning ourselves as political and cultural beings.

One of my main objectives in my work with Oriental Dance specifically in its influences, practices and stagings in the west, and as part of a larger field of contemporary dance in general, has thus become the development of such a hermeneutic writing practice or poetics of dance that recognizes the importance of allowing dance the space to create the starting point for any analysis. Or, precisely: practice inspires and informs theory rather than theory defining practice. Certainly, working with a dance practice that is not, culturally speaking one’s own, further underlines the importance of open-ended interpretative tools, if one is at all interested in the possibility of other forms of knowledge, rather than purely a cementation of own cultural biases. One of the most crucial and exciting aspects of working with dance in a time which is overtly focused on issues of the body, is precisely the potential of dance as an art form to exceed and challenge current theoretical perceptions and help us to redefine them through the practice itself - the potential on the part of a dancing body to work through in practice and as symbol/sign, representation other ways of being/knowing. Theory in such a context must then always be positioned as in brackets, as hypothesis, which the practice of the dance itself will prove, disprove, qualify or enrich.

4. East of Me

It is at that precise point that I begin to hear it again, to hear the east calling me. I have not always wanted to hear it, have instead kept turning away – from this creative force and its urgent beckoning of my selves. For if I succumb, if I succumb and go running to it, running to this place that is as immediate as it is far, it will surely only elude me, never relinquishing itself to me as something to be held and cherished. That is not its way. You have but to be in it, to be in your east and let it envelope you, permeate you spread its smoke through your dreams until you begin to exhale. Its smoke.

The thought alone exhausts me. The thought of running there and running and maybe not finding that most precious thing, all the while being in it and dying, deeply, in some small part of myself in happiness over just being in it, being close to it, being able at long last to breathe - its chaos, its complexity, its scents, its intensity, along with all the tiny pockets of it that I do not understand and how much I want to stay away, turn my head and not listen, not hear its calling, not feel it pulling like some forgotten nervous twitch in my stomach.

But then the desert rushes up again to meet me far and fast, passing right through my face, out of reality, quickly flying from something outside, something seen to that place and I am in it, Oh so fleeting, so fast, so high, so dry my stomach plunges and then it’s over, passing through my face and back into dreams. Into memory. It awaits me. Waits to see if I will hear. If I will do. Bliss.

Stretching, reaching to remember. A condition of almost transparency. An awareness of the voices of others masquerading as my own, trying out my face, my formalities, my gestures. A writing that is not about anything, a writing that is. The kind of writing that makes you want to write yourself, like love’s labor lost and suddenly rediscovered – inexplicably, abruptly in another face, voice, modality. It lives. This is the radical edge of faith. My heart. Bleeds. Bleeding – a hundred times. Broken glass recalls Sufi rituals and the self-badgering brutality of existence. What it costs to remember to believe, but even more to forget. How terrifying dance is, how exhilarating, its supreme broken instants of recognition. Flashes of light like movement into a fractured mirror smashed beyond sight, beyond recall. Where the eye of the snake looks away, indifferent.

And again the east calls me. Insistent. This place or places stranger to me than the most strange, the most disparate but then that’s not quite true. For somehow I know it, too. Better than all the other countries I have seen or even Scandinavia my second, third home, where I have lived now for 20 years. I know it as a mistake – an implant in myself, an irreducible entity that cannot be explained or eradicated. It has its own logic, which I both understand and find incomprehensible. In Orientalism, [DO1]Edward Said has termed this Imaginative geography, speaking of how “…space acquires emotional and even rational sense by a kind of poetic process, whereby the vacant or anonymous reaches of distances are converted into meaning….For there is no doubt that imaginative geography and history help the mind to intensify its own sense of itself by dramatizing the distance and difference between what is close to it and what is far away” (p. 55, Said). Perhaps I am performing a highly ethnocentric act in my longing for the east, by furnishing that longing with deserts and Arabic music and architecture and Oriental Dance. With heat. Perhaps it is a means of putting bliss away far away in another place where I might yet approach it from a safe distance. Perhaps it is the distance itself that predicates the fascination, all my ashes released across the Sahara, dark velvet powder, thick, rich lost into the greater good. A spell at long last unwinding, the release of its deepest, most luxurious scent.

5. But I cannot, do not stop at this

Longing. And I can’t help thinking that the east has stories to tell me, stories that are not mine and others that are mine, too. That I can come close to it in a way that will not reduce it to something other than what it is, in a way that will prolong its beauty, allow it to emerge, intermingling with my own stories, telling me things about bliss that I would otherwise not be able to know or perhaps more precisely about ways of knowing. The multiplicity of contemporary urban society tells me this.

Oriental dance tells me this. An ancient dance tradition intermingling in its practices the full contradictions of being: low with high culture, base yearnings with elevated, vulgar with visionary, erotic with the Divine, mysticism with the banal. This is not how Oriental Dance is always perceived. For some, a dirty deed requires a gauze curtain, partly hides partly reveals another ongoing scenario. Why the need for the illusion? Why that woman posing and mincing? Sadly, it goes without saying that if one presents solely phallic-heterosexual eroticized elements in a shiny package, you will almost inevitably overlook any inherent complexity. It becomes about performance. Predefined: so we know exactly what is going to happen. Erotic elements are inevitably underscored and railroaded into a pornographic showcase.

This happens when I dance this dance, even as I consciously start out in another direction. This stubborn barrier makes itself visible in my movements. At the very least I have begun to see it now when my entire body, face, shoulder, hip, thigh, toe slams up against it. But what if that body began in another direction and was able to continue, ignoring this expectation and so slowly, so gradually that the dance unfolded differently, and became about something else, about the many other things that it promises, telling all those other stories.

This is interesting. This is generosity. And suddenly bliss fills me like a wind burst exploding out of the ground. Fills me and it’s so powerful that I feel certainly that it will throw me, throw me far, fills me with a feeling of exhaustion and powerlessness. This kind of longing appears to be more than my body could survive. And this alone leads me to believe in the rightness of it and to try and find the strength or courage to survive it – to dare to be thrown, to be thrown far and wide in a knowledge that is again equally uncertainty. Ignorance of where it will take me. This is the kind of longing that keeps me trying to follow the inside of this dance, follow it to where it is certainly meant to be, to where the spirits will fly out and sexuality will be made visible as the grounded, life confirming channel to the deepest, most precious parts of our selves that it can be.

A body in movement against a field of vision shimmers like words spoken and then gone – but not gone too. How my dance, how the dancing of a dance initially not my own – which I still, after ten years of learning, come to in humility, as a novice - how it nonetheless both reproduces something ancient and foreign and speaks in tongues as contemporary as they are profound. It locates itself here with many of us, in the unsituated, in the spaces between words, between traditions, between countries as dance will do. It is a hybrid breed, a mixture of many peoples, music’s, longings. My dance breathes purple, yellow, white fire or rivers from each pulse, each beat both itself and something other always initiating the rudiments of a starting point, as act, as passage, as being. It is the distance between us that makes this possible, the leap itself, of this vibrant gap, gasping, cut off mid-sentence but as such creating poetry, speaking nonetheless. Not silenced. Invisible from a pornographic stance but all the more alive for this and traveling through the shimmering heat of a spring body in remembrance of innocence. At times in contact with the currents of light feeding in and out of darkness. Spinning there. Bellowing. They shudder and collapse, misplaced again and again but rediscovered with surprise with all the certainty of a lover’s voice returning to me in the darkness of a sleepless night.

6. Prayer

I find myself reaching, striving both in dancing and in writing for the replication of body rhythms or the body mirroring some external condition seeking to disappear into it so as to make visible winds or thunder or clouds gathering. To make them visible as a forgotten necessity. Sometimes I stop moving so as to better locate movement itself, like summoning trout to roam in a fish bowl. How our travel, too, paradoxically pinpoints space, isolates it, fracturing time in the marking of distance, which is at the same time its absolution. Solitude. Discovery. Challenges present themselves and then turn away to return to anterooms back stage but continuing this treatment of yearning, a scarlet rope twisting and thick between my two hands – a manifestation of hope and the turning of the tides inward and then outward again. Beckoning but as much from within. From distant lands. Foreign tongues offer themselves and are known both distant and near. Do not tell me I have to choose a position.

This is about walking into the same view, which will be for many invisibility. Like X-ray vision. The body transparent now. A visual echo. Sight proves both dense and elusive, virtually audible. I hear it pounding, rattling, slithering through me like a parallel presence that is actually the thing itself, actually my self. This is what movement does, how it communicates, on the force of this presence. While vision predicates longing, it is only one small fraction in the equation. And Oriental Dance moving, being moved, moves you at levels you don’t anticipate, coming to as after effect to be confused with a memory that is actually the thing itself. History proves to be also your immediacy, coming to with another face body rhythm gesture. And as the East both beckons and confounds me, I cannot cease seeking this dance. Each probe at knowledge, each attempt to contain, encompass define will most certainly fail in the fulfillment of the initially intended journey, but along the way it reveals new dungeons and caves and deserts and skies. Oh yes – and love, too.

The organic and inherently creative nature of movement discloses its secrets among these, reveals the impossibility of surmounting this peak of centuries of bodies in movement in different tongues propelled by desires and lamentations estranged from your own, but yours all the same. And it is on the strength of this too that I write - as a poet, dancer, viewer of dance, literary something or other: all of these things are the tools of me but more than that, beyond that I write always in the face of something that does not at the outset see or hear me, that does not in any sense acknowledge my presence. Because it can only see in terms of itself, is only capable of reproducing itself. This something has a supreme investment in its own anxiety. That is what one is up against when writing bliss.

I am also a body with a personal history - a scar on my surgically reconstructed knee, cigarette damaged lungs, myopic vision – and a scattered semi-neurotic consciousness. Mine is a body implicated in culture and history, trying to span too many cultures trying to absorb as much as possible with each passing hour, day, year, failing miserably most times to process and digest and reflect sufficiently, but still, a greedy body person. I want more. Bliss is there waiting to happen – and it is born with longing, a longing which must perhaps always at some level involve a projection of the self. This longing is necessary as we must at least be able to envision the possibility of the involvement of, a reaching for, the deeper, more inaccessible, extraneous parts of that self – those voices or tongues or dances that can not sense a resonance in their outside, and as such have remained repressed. Unwritten.

With such a longing, in allowing it to play itself out, the dancing body becomes shifting states of semiosis. Always. A potential body, embodied potential. It is precisely through this longing which leads one to contact with an other genre, language, culture, identity, history, temporality that dormant layers will be awakened, shaken out of sleep, struggling out from under the blanket, wiping sand out of the corners of eyes still half-slumbering, a consciousness still located in the stratosphere of dreams. Saying half in and half out, I remember. The writing reflects this stumbling passage, both the remembered states and the states only just coming into being; origins and geography become thus but one parable along with the possibility of greater fictions, personal history and location of self but long-winding threads of narrative that with each phrase, each verse, each page, each movement, seeks to be open to its own expansion, explosion, subversion, rerouting. Writing the intangible.


Cixous, Hélène: “From the Scene of the Unconscious to the Scene of History” in The Future of Literary Theory. Routledge, NY and London. 1989.

Fraileigh, Sondra Horten: Dance and the Lived Body. University of Pittsburg Press, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. 1987.

Franko, Mark: “Mimique” in Bodies of the Text. Dance as Theory, Literature as Dance (Ellen W. Goellner & Jacqueline Shea Murphy, eds.). RutgersUniversity Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey. 1995.

Merleau-Pontry, Maurice: The Phenomenology of Perception. London. 1962.

Said, Edward W.: Orientalism. Vintage Books, New York. 1979.

The author

Diane Oatley (born 1960 in the United States) has lived in Norway since 1982, and works with literature and dance in a number of capacities, among these as a poet, dance and literary critic, and performer/teacher of Oriental Dance. Expressions of the body represent an ongoing focus in her dance practice and writings, the latter in the form of essays, criticism and poetry published in a range of newspapers, periodicals and anthologies in Norway, USA and Great Britain. She holds a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Oslo.

Diane Oatley



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