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Gregory Sporton

A degree of confusion: Does Higher Education in the U.K. understand dance just yet?

Sporton, Gregory: "A degree of confusion: Does Higher Education in the U.K. understand dance just yet", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

1. Abstract

This article takes as its starting point the formulation of a national research council from the development of the Arts & Humanities Research Board, and makes a series of observations about the situation and evolution of dance in the curriculum in higher education in the UK. Touching upon undergraduate and post-graduate study, it examines the prevailing value system and questions whether this will prove adequate in the new environment. The role of practice is discussed in relation to structural and epistemological challenges for the subject, as well as a clear invitation to uncouple the performance of dance in artistic contexts, work that is simply called ‘performance’ in this context, from dance as a more universal practice. There are three main strands of this argument: the first is the domination of educational dance by contemporary dance, the second is the overvaluation within contemporary dance practice on choreography, and the third is the oblique role performance takes in determining the structure and content of degree courses as a reflection of the values of lecturers.

2. A degree of confusion: Does higher education in the UK understand dance just yet?

The Arts & Humanities Research Board (AHRB) is to become a funded Research Council in the United Kingdom [1]. A Government White Paper has proposed this, and it seems unlikely that anything dance lecturers, as a small subject grouping inside a range of arts and humanities disciplines could do that would make any difference to that process. Many of us support the move. It should release substantial funds and access to crucial support for research in dance. It should allow entry and application into a substantial range of schemes and funding programmes. However, if this development, this certainty, is to be an opportunity for dance as an artistic practice within the scope of Higher Education in the UK, a different kind of attention needs to be applied to that crucial question about what it is we think passes for knowledge in our subject. Some further questions quickly follow; what passes for research? What is the role of practice? How do we deal with the legacy of the academic development of dance in Higher Education in a new environment, where the practice of dance may stand for knowledge about it, and its intellectual, or intellectually pretentious, adventures are no longer a sufficiently persuasive argument in themselves for the presence of the subject in the University? Until recently the teaching of dance in the HEFCE (that is, the public university sector) didn’t claim dance as a practical demesne, [2] and those values found themselves embedded in the structural realities of curriculum development, research, post-graduate awards and staff appointments. A new environment leads to a very serious question about the epistemological development of the subject; How ready are we to operate with a critical faculty and a practical subject?

I want to deal firstly with the inadequacy of the academic framework for dealing with practice, mostly because this is not a problem unique to dance but one which arises in many creative practices. It does, however, manifest itself in its own particular fashion in a dance context. The current predispositions within the realm of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), Arts & Humanities Research Board (AHRB) or the National Qualifications Framework [3] that relate to dance belong to ideas that cannot credibly be described as unargued or unrepresentative, but nonetheless look defensive in relation to practical performance work, whilst at the same time assiduously inclusive of it, and this requires further discussion. I will then move to look at more dance-specific issues, in particular the problems with over-rating choreography as the locus of creativity and the difficulties of developing an adequate critical framework for treating the substance of a performance. The struggle for academic structures to comprehend what happens in the face of new developments in performance cannot be resolved by elaborate reworkings of existing systems [4]. I then want to propose some principles that attempt to shift the focus away from seeing dance as an homogenous field and towards an accounting for its differentiation. Indeed, in relation to practice-based research, and to dance performances in general, I am going to argue that instantiation as the means of understanding and experiencing dance has a better of chance, and a longer history, of allowing us to engage with a performance on its own terms. Better, that is, than importing concepts from the visual arts, film, music or literature. Finally I am going to argue that what we currently treat or describe variously as artistic dance, dance as art, the artistic account of dance (a favourite phrase of the author), actually belongs to a different demesne called performance, where the body, as a time-based media, presents itself in critical and thus aesthetic contexts. What, ultimately, is the value of turning to an academy that doesn’t understand you?

For practitioners in many creative fields, a spell on the graduate programme of a Higher Education Institution looks to be a possible safe haven. The public rewards of qualification and decent working conditions are on offer as well as access to resources, technical support and critical feedback. The structured requirements of a degree programme mandate someone else to have a vested interest in the success of the work, and the security and collegiate nature of being part of an institution are attractive to applicants in most creative fields. There is, however, a difference between the rewards of being an academic, or being enrolled on an academic programme, and being an artist. Artists can, if they choose, please only themselves, but whatever they choose the public’s encounter with their work rarely has formal consequences. The success of any artists’ work in the public demesne is difficult to gauge, but crucially for the purpose of this essay it is the moment when the artist’s proposition meets with the realm of broad critical engagement; a public which will potentially produce a multiplicity of views about the validity of the work in relation to the form. In other words, the possibility of the work is determined not by its assertion but by its reception. I will return to this point later as it has some important resonances for performance.

Academic frameworks, by their nature, reduce the scope of exploration to their curriculum, which must of necessity accommodate a number of students and invariably reflect value systems and decision making on the part of the curriculum designers. This has become more true as the nature of HE has become focussed on Learning Outcomes in the global sense of outlining the framework of student achievement from the outset in terms of a bit of teaching. Quite often this value system is best seen in what is left out, and it is clearly correct to say all curricula are political, as academics reading this can no doubt attest. Within the examination framework will come assessment that will usually be determined by published assessment criteria. Rather than seeking critical engagement, examination panels for postgraduate work invariably use their critical perspectives to seek validity within the terms of the criteria: is the work a valid response to the task? Secondly, and in a manner increasingly banal, comes the question of whether the process of the work is sufficient explicit. This component of the work is asserted as part of the value of reflective practice, though it never seems quite clear who gains by this reflection. There seems something slightly patronising about practitioners good enough to be accepted for postgraduate study to have to be so literal, and usually literary, about the development of work, as if they haven’t already reduced a process to a form. There are better and worse ways of conducting or formulating this process, however its validity within an explicit process seems rather unclear, given that one of the chief values of modern or post-modern art is originality, and it no doubt appears in the criteria for many a postgraduate degree. If the process looks like someone else’s isn’t it just being derivative? Where originality can be argued and accountability asserted as justification, the more difficult tension of academic processes in creative practices is reached. Creative practice is not an intellectual process carried on by other means, but the evidence we collect and the form it takes often implies that this is so.

In postgraduate degrees there is also, conventionally, an evaluative stage, where the student demonstrates the effectiveness (or not) of the process in the assessable form of the work for some kind of audience, often a ‘target audience’. Whilst acknowledging this kind of thing is the stuff Arts Council’s dreams are made of, such planning seems to encourage the kind of managerialism that again presupposes the result before the beginning of the process. Many a work or an artist has discovered very different audiences, and for very different reasons, than those they sought in the first place [5]. It seems illogical to think that this could be said to undermine the validity of the work. Of course, an evaluative process appears to be what is required for qualification to seem sufficiently rigorous. In doing so it deflects attention from the possible audiences and the potential of the work in its development, its life as a work of art.

The difficulties do not all come from institutionalising or quantifying creative practice. As regularly as tutors in areas of creative practice find themselves consoling students about the limitations of the academic framework, there are practitioners who, through bad luck, bad timing or just mediocrity, seek validation of their work from the academy to justify their practice, boost their self-esteem and rationalise their investment in time, energy and money, often over many years. This is especially true in a field like dance where external resources are scarce, audiences small and public acknowledgement of achievement rare. Sometimes such students thrive in the certainties of the qualifications framework; able to reflect back the values they see in the curriculum, able to create work that is good enough, and to quantify their process adequately. In itself this is not much of a result or an advertisement for postgraduate study, and suspicion of the meaning of practical postgraduate qualification is redolent in the creative industries. Worse is the hostility of students who believe it is the role of the institution to promote their work, or who expect assessment to be a means of acknowledging their quality. If the best answer to the question ‘what did you get from your MA Choreography?’ turns out to be ‘a distinction’, then there are serious problems.

Having raised some issues about the goodness of fit between creative practice and qualification, I want to turn now to some underlying structural prejudices within dance-based education and scholarship. Whilst acknowledging an expansion in experience and practice within the public HE sector, I want to assert that the sector’s dominant practical form is contemporary dance. A survey of SCODHE members’ courses will pretty much confirm this [6], though there is a definite attempt by most courses to offer some breadth, and contemporary dance cannot be seen as a monolithic practice given its variations. I want to suggest an important thing about this: if ballet, say, has a hold in the public mind as to what constitutes dance as a legitimate performing opportunity, and clubbing or leisure represents the extent of the public’s practical experience of dance, then contemporary dance is its educational form, dominating as I have suggested, the structures of dance teaching practice in the higher secondary levels, and especially so within Higher Education in the UK. I would go slightly further in making an association between contemporary dance and education, and in doing so make an observation about both: contemporary dance is an educational practice, and that is one of its fundamental aims. It is rarely populist, often considered puzzling or obscure in performance, yet it retains legitimacy within educational environments. Its security in one field could be accounted for in a number of ways, though I am going to suggest just one. The success of contemporary dance in capturing the educational sector in the areas where it counts (higher secondary levels, higher education) is because it has offered itself as dance’s intellectual form. Experiential and cognitively educational things apparently happen when engaged with contemporary dance. The function that makes this possible for the practice is the primacy of choreography in the value system of contemporary dance.

This assertion of choreography as the major value of contemporary dance, or indeed of most accounts of educational dance experiences whatever their form, has provided the underpinning for an important principle of dance scholarship. Choreography becomes the equivalent of a text about which scholarly debate can be held. Evidence of ideas and experiences are found within such a text or object. However, I want to argue that, without needing to deny the existence of choreography, the historicising of dances as texts or objects in such a way gives too much credit to choreographers, and lacks a respect for what occurs in the life of a dance. Choreographers do have an influence, and it may be a decisive one, but there are features of a performance of which such a view takes no account.

The first is the historical: Arbeau (1588) tells young Capriol that the dances of thirty years before would bore him; texts as canonical as ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Giselle’ are subject to countless revisions; Balanchine’s ‘Apollo’ is in five major versions in his lifetime; Cunningham’s observations about the differences that emerge when dancers other than his company or from a different generation do his work; the different filmed versions of ‘Troy Game’. Dances, it seems, simply wear out unless they are subject to regular revision, and a definitive version does not exist.

The second is working method. Whilst we can broadly agree on what choreography is and what performers do, it is not clear what is meant by ‘choreographer’. The variation in influence and practice over the resultant work means that metaphors drawn from other art forms, as Wollheim (1968) would do, have little validity in the face of dealing with the creation and development of a dance for performance. The information that we get from the word tells us little about the relationship of the person to the performance, and it remains the discretion of the choreographer to credit or not the contribution of the dancers.

The third, and probably more important to scholarly accounts of performances, is that dances are, mostly, made to be seen once. According to Nijinska (1981:473) it was this that prompted Diaghilev to drop ‘Rite of Spring’: ‘a ballet must be well received today and tomorrow, otherwise it is doomed to obscurity’.

It becomes easy to connect a cerebral cast of mind to the educational value of choreography: the decision making process looks to be the stuff of learning and scholarship, but rather what is offered here is an alternative account of the locus of meaning. As Hanstein (Overby & Humphrey, 1989: 143) says, The choreographer’s ideas are transformed into dancers dancing. It is this performance, not the choreographer’s intentions, that constitutes the work.’

I would add here that increasingly we cannot be certain that it is the choreographers’ ideas that we are seeing in action, given the range of working methods that would lead us to ask what would pass for authorship if we are in no position to dispute ownership. Within the scope of this paper, a comment like Hanstein’s does more than lead us away from the intentionalist fallacy of judging a work by its successful embodiment of the aims of the choreographer. It tells us that there is a meditative space between choreographer and audience that is truly occupied by the dancer, and the meaning of this moment, or its potential meaning, is crucially in their power.

I want to draw together these two major arguments; that creative practice and academic programmes are less than a perfect fit and the tendency within HE that posits choreography as the centre of purpose and meaning in dance. There is, as Redfern (1983:16) suggests, a different value system to this at work in performance, and the wider ramifications of my position are considerable. Creating a longer term framework for performance in the academy requires considerable shifts in epistemology. Some of these are located in practical areas, others in a change in what passes for knowledge about dance and how we acquire it. Partly this is based in an urgent need to uncouple performance from dance as a universal field. This is, of course, a political position; within the scope of the AHRB dance only has a future as an art rather than as one of the humanities. The fact that it appears to be homogenised as a cultural practice, especially in the demesne of research, is counter-intuitive for the expectations and assumptions that surround dance as artistic practice, or performance as is promoted here, or its shape within academia. Whilst this may alarm some, it ought to force forward structural change and develop a more competitive field of ideas about performance as well as encouraging different models of practice in the HE sector.

I have suggested that, by and large, the new reality for dance in higher education has acknowledged the practice of dance as legitimate field of enquiry, but not the centrality of practice to study and research in dance. I have also argued that practice in dance in an artistic context ought not to focus exclusively on choreography as the arguments that make choreographers the equivalent of authors are unconvincing in relation to the making of meaning. Certainly within the scope of the visual arts, where there is an increasing interest in the body and its possibilities as an artistic medium, there is less tension evident in the overarching principles; the benchmarking statements, the RAE descriptors are very clear about what passes for authority and understanding in Art & Design without becoming prescriptive. Indeed, Unit of Assessment 64, Art & Design, includes performance, and this may turn out to be significant in the longer term.

3. Endnotes

[1] The UK Government’s White Paper is available online at

[2] Adshead-Lansdale (ed.), (1988, p.6), ‘What is to count as knowledge and how this is to be evaluated is of vital concern, not in order to achieve ‘academic respectability’… but to be seen as academically viable (her italics) and publicly accountable.’

[3] These are available at

[4] I am thinking here particularly of collections like Adshead-Lansdale,(ed.), (1999) or Seigel (1996).

[5] This is also true of a shift in meaning. Works as diverse as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling or Frankheimer’s ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ acquire different meanings as they progress through history and their reception is affected by historical events.

[6] To compare the content of courses, see the SCODHE (Standing Conference on Dance in Higher Education) website,

4. Reference List

Adshead-Lansdale, J. ed. (1999). Dancing Texts: Intertextuality in Interpretation. London: Dance Books.

Adshead-Lansdale, J. (1994). Dance Analysis in Performance. Dance Research, 12, 15-20.

Arbeau, T. (2002). Orchesography. (1967 ed.) New York: Dover Publications.

Cunningham, M. (1985). The Dancer & The Dance. New York: Marion Boyars Inc.

Department of Education & Skills (2003). [On-line]. Available:

Nijinska, B. (1981). Early Memories. London: Faber & Faber.

Overby, L. & Humphrey, J. (2003). Dance, Current Selected Research.

Redfern, H. B. (1983). Dance, Art & Aesthetics. London: Dance Books.

Seigel, M. (1996). Visible Secrets: Style Analysis and Dance Literacy. In G.Morris (Ed.), Moving Words ( London: Routledge.

Standing Conference on Dance in Higher Education (2003). SCODHE Website. [On-line]. Available:

Wollheim, R. (1968). Art & Its Objects. (1996 ed.) Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

5. Biography & contact information

Gregory Sporton is Head of School for Performance & Moving Image at the University of Central England. Dr. Sporton trained as a dancer at the VictorianCollege of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia, and subsequently had a substantial performing career in ballet, contemporary dance, opera and performance art. He has an MA from the University of Warwick and a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Sheffield. Prior to his appointment at BIAD, he was Head of Research & Graduate Studies at Laban Centre London, and his recent work has included papers on subjects as diverse as South Asian dance in modern contexts, technique as technology and the body as a design element.

Dr. Mr. Gregory Sporton




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