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Friday 06/05

(Temporary) Collection of Ideas around CHOREOGRAPHY: Heather Love

Cover Image:

Lawrence Halprin and Associates, Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, Oregon, 1970

Gender studies scholar Heather Love shares her perspective on the term “choreography” in the second of seven successive contributions from artists, choreographers, curators, dancers, and scholars for the Six Degrees series “(Temporary) Collection of Ideas around CHOREOGRAPHY.” As part of a daylong symposium in February initiated by the R&D Seminar participants, Love presented a short talk wherein she explored choreography vis-à-vis her own work. The participants of the Seminars asked Love to develop her public presentation in tandem with this short text.

Love is currently working on a book about practices of description in the social sciences and arts in the postwar United States. She is interested in challenging accounts of the human sciences that regard them as inherently dehumanizing. In the following examples, Love explores choreography as a productive site from which to reinterpret crossings between the social sciences and art, politics, and public life.

Choreography combines the Greek words for dance (choreo-) and writing (-graphy): it is writing for the body, by the body, in the body, and between bodies. There are many styles of notation for choreography at different levels of abstraction. Choreography can imply a choreographer just as writing implies an author. In the field of dance, choreography can refer to the pattern of movements executed in performance or to the design and inscriptions of those movements. However, since the medium of choreography is bodies moving in time, dance always exceeds its script.

The ritual form of Greek dance has given way to a modern definition of dance as an aesthetic practice, yet the practice of choreography is not confined to the theater. It spills off the stage, blurring into the spaces of everyday life: ballet, modern dance, opera, tango, cake walk, the hustle, Pilates, Crip Walking, flash mobs, cocktail parties, Occupy Wall Street, assembly lines, group therapy sessions, agility training.

Choreography as expressive movement pushes the boundaries of genre, institutions, and disciplines. Playwright and poet Ntozake Shange blurred the lines between dance, song, theater, and lyric in her 1975 choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. A series of twenty separate poems choreographed to music, Shange’s work was published as a book, presented as a theater play, and adapted into a film. Choreographer and dancer Marilyn Wood sought to “choreograph the city” when staging her “Celebrations,” intermedia performances in which dancers took over public spaces, building on ancient festival forms. “Celebrations” included iterations at New York City’s Seagram Building in 1972 and Lincoln Center Plaza in 1974. In turn, sociologist William H. Whyte cited Wood’s “Celebrations” in his 1980 book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Whyte traced the social ecology of New York City plazas through the microanalysis of gestures, interpersonal spacing, and verbal interaction.1

Along with people and architecture, the actors in such scenes may include plants, nonhuman animals, technology, language, and sensations. In an essay discussing the relations between bodies, discourse, desire, instruments, and technicians in the context of fertility clinics, feminist science studies scholar Charis (Cussins) Thompson defines the term “ontological choreography” as the “constant ontological exchange between ourselves and our environments.”2 In Donna Haraway’s recent work on relations between humans and animals in technoscience, she adopts the term “ontological choreography” to describe “the dance of being as a verb.”3

With its implication of embodied knowledge, interdependence, and complexity, choreography blurs the distinctions between animate and inanimate objects, chance and order, flesh and information. Choreography disperses individuals—into body parts, gestures, and movements—and reassembles them into groups, patterns, systems, and worlds.

Heather Love is the R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She has also taught courses at Harvard University, New York University, and Princeton University. She is the author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard University Press, 2007) and the editor of a special issue of GLQ on the scholarship and legacy of Gayle Rubin (“Rethinking Sex”).

ADDITIONAL MATERIALS

Rudolf Laban (1879–1958), a Hungarian dance artist and theorist, developed “Labanotation” (or kinetography) in the 1920s, one of modern dance’s primary movement analysis and notational systems.

For a brief account of Laban’s life and work—from his ethnographic impulse to notate Native-American dances to his rejected choreographic proposal for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, an event infamous for its role in Nazi cultural propaganda—see “The Art of Movement” in Cabinet’s “Friendship” issue from 2009/2010. In this essay, Christopher Turner contrasts Laban’s reputation as a bohemian and choreographer of ecstasy with the system of choreographic notation that he developed, disseminated, and used in practice.

As New Museum Seminars participant and Research Fellow Alicia Ritson noted in a session that she organized on Laban during the CHOREOGRAPHY semester last fall, the book Choreutics, first published in 1966, “gives a sense of Rudolf Laban’s points of reference and tone, serving as an introduction to his movement analysis and notation. This text was mostly written in the 1930s and should be approached first and foremost as a historical document. Laban was a product of Central Europe of the early twentieth century, where an increasing political interest in the general health and happiness of populations was a way to ensure the health and security of nations. Theorists, intellectuals, and artists considered various esoteric and spiritual influences on the relationship between body and mind. There was also a turn away from restrictive, calculated movement and expression and from the suppression of sexuality. Choreutics alludes to this new free thinking, but one also detects an almost utopian impulse in Laban’s language and his appeals to universal descriptions, ideas of harmony, etc. In developing his system of notation he makes comparisons to other pure or elemental languages and systems, including certain numerical combinations, primary colors, and acoustics.”

The entirety of Ritson’s session and the syllabus and bibliography created by the Seminars participants can be viewed here.

Near the turn of the century, the capacity for film to document the motion of industrial operations opened up new possibilities for choreographing the social. Sometimes these films were studied to understand the mechanisms and efficiency of workflows in order to better expropriate labor. Frank B. Gilbreth, a pioneer in the fields of motion study and scientific management, was an early advocate of scientific management.

A video of some of the films created between 1910 and 1924 that Gilbreth used for study can be found on the Internet Archive here.

In addition to William H. Whyte’s 1988 book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, mentioned above, his examination of the movements and gestures that inhabit popular public spaces also took shape in a companion film of the same name.

Whyte’s 1988 film, which was influential in architecture and planning, can be viewed on the Internet Archive here.

Anna and Lawrence Halprin, a dancer and an architect, respectively, developed the RSVP Cycles along with architect Jim Burns in the late 1960s. A design principle and methodology for creative urban planning through collaboration and consensus, this set of scores for process-oriented events to enable design originated from attention to human scale and movement. Lawrence Halprin describes this method in a documentary by the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Parts 7, 8, 9, and 10 of this documentary, which details the Halprins’ collaborative work, can be accessed on YouTube here.


1 William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (New York: Project for Public Spaces Inc., 2001) 58–9.

2 Charis Cussins, “Ontological Choreography: Agency through Objectification in Infertility Clinics,” Social Studies of Science 26.3 (August 1996): 575–610, 583.

3 Donna Haraway, “The Birth of the Kennel,” lecture, August 2000, European Graduate School, accessed Jan. 27, 2015, http://www.egs.edu/faculty/donna-haraway/articles/birth-of-the-kennel/.

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