Traces of Dance: Inscribing the Impermanent

          Laurence Louppe writes in her essay “Imperfections in the Paper” of the growing necessity and yet undeniable difficulty of documenting the act of dance—improvisational acts in particular. She writes: “Though it may be analyzed or qualified, it can never coalesce from a determined stock of lexical elements which would furnish its texture or definition” (9). The impermanence of movement is its very essence, and thus is also responsible for its lack of historical documentation. The process of archiving becomes problematic when the object of documentation denies traditional methods of classification. As Louppe writes, “dance, and above all contemporary dance, does not produce definitive figures. It provokes acts” (10). She goes on to say that “movement is most certainly readable, but its phrases are to be grasped flush with the organic and perceptual tissue that gives them birth.” I love Louppe’s image of dance as an “endless journey beyond inscription” (10); it seems to imply that movement is legible in an alternate mode of comprehension, accessible only through a conscious shift away from traditional methods of perception.
                    I am reminded of the self-proclaimed archivist Julie Tolentino, who offers up her own body as a living chronicle of other artists’ works of dance and performance art. Though the human body is technically at odds with all that we hold true about the traditional archive (it grows, changes, moves through the world, is subject to nuances of human error, and ultimately dies and is forgotten), Tolentino’s system of documentation could add new significance to the nature of the archive—one that would more completely match the needs of movement itself.
            But Louppe’s focus in this essay is on those methods of dance notation that have survived; those little-known and often short-lived systems are secret languages that have drifted in and out of the public consciousness. As Louppe says, “Aside from the Baroque period, at the hinge-point of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it must be recognized that dance notations have never been the object of official interest, and even less of institutional interest” (19). She notes that dance notation has not been embraced by the dance community, and even holds a certain mysterious power, because for the dancer, the art lies in the nuance of emotion, energy and creative urgency in the moment, all of which the notation system crowds out. Louppe states that “what comes about in danced movement . . . is linked to its pure emotional and physical actualization, which no sign has even the right to inscribe as a definitive event in the annals of human time” (20).
          The very definition of improvisation is that it occurs in the moment, free from rehearsal and with the individual and unrepeatable stamp of its own unique instant in time. This kind of freedom appeals to some deep human need to experience unplanned, spontaneous works of the subconscious, and yet is essentially frightening. I believe that the human tendency to shy away from those things that are not readable, quantifiable, and easily documented is due to an ingrained fear of our own ephemerality. One of the reasons the field of dance and movement studies has been largely ignored by the Academy is its denial of permanence; its transitoriness only serves as a reminder of our own undeniable and eventual ends. Though these efforts to fit dance into the sphere of written documentation are of value, there may also be advantages to embracing the essential qualities of movement itself and seeking alternative methods of documentation that try to recognize its unique demands as an art form.

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