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Moving in Medias Res: Towards a Phenomenological Hermeneutics of Dance Improvisation

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Publication date13/06/2019
Host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of Improvisation in Dance
EditorsVida Midgelow
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780199396986
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This is the first publication that explores the relationship between dance improvisation and phenomenological hermeneutics in particular rather than just phenomenology in general. In does so in such a way as to advance philosophical understanding of different approaches to improvisation in dance, and stems from my own field research with some of the practitioners who are discussed as well as the close examination of the practices of others.

This essay considers how dance improvisation involves processes of interpretation that are fundamental to human experience. To do this, I evolve an understanding of psychosomatic performance through the phenomenological hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) and, to a lesser extent, Hans Georg Gadamer (1900–2002). By psychosomatic performance I mean approaches to performance that depend on some kind of relation between an external ‘score’ (e.g., choreographed phrases, sequences of physical action) and an internal ‘underscore’ (e.g., a subtext of stories, personal associations, poetic images, or sense impressions).

I use Ricoeur’s critique of the idealist phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) as the basis of a critique of well-known psychosomatic performance practices (viz. those by Feldenkrais, Grotowski, and Hijikata) that, in effect, reduce the relation of intention and action to an idealized essence in order to achieve a state of self-presence. Through exploration of Ricoeur’s concepts such as distanciation, appropriation, conversation, and occasion, I then argue that improvised dance in general, and the butoh of Marie-Gabrielle Rotie and the site-specific environmental dance of Jennifer Monson in particular, offer an alternative approach to psychosomatic performance that exemplifies Ricoeur’s phenomenological hermeneutics. By such means, I grasp dance improvisation as a practice in which the moving body unfolds the world – particularly the natural world – of which it is already a part by relating to it through a subtext that it interprets kinaesthetically.