Monday 06/08

(Temporary) Collection of Ideas around CHOREOGRAPHY: Shayna Keller

Cover Image:

Shayna Keller, lecture as part of “New Museum Seminars: (Temporary) Collection of Ideas,” 2015. Keller, to illustrate her point of how kinesthetic capabilities can generate awareness, described an interaction with a hawk that soared above her while she was hiking. Keller remarked that, by observing the lady hawk’s wingspan and subtle grazing through the air, she felt her own position and space, air, and wind anew without relying on visuality. Image: Travis Chamberlain

Dancer and choreographer Shayna Keller shares her perspective on the term “choreography” in the third 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, Keller presented a short talk wherein she explored choreography vis-à-vis her own work. The participants of the Seminars asked Keller to develop her public presentation in tandem with this short text.

I propose that choreography is the act of revealing relationships to underlying ecologies—whether formal, architectural, cultural, social, political, or historical—and altering the body within these ecologies, so that our surroundings are made visible.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “Metaphysical Exposition” of space itself posits that objects reveal themselves to us through the senses and that our reality is the result of experiencing an object as “being in time.”1 According to Kant, human perception allows us to experience two spatially and temporally designated categories: reality and negation. For Kant, darkness is a negation; it is the absence of light and cannot be perceived or understood without prior knowledge of its opposite. Similarly, we understand the concept of space, which is infinite, by imposing limits upon it. This allows us to conceive of its boundlessness in opposition to the bounded, “real” forms we see and sense. Formally, this concept of space and objecthood places a unique importance on negative space and its edges.

Also useful for grounding my definition of choreography is Kant’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful involves the definition of bounded form and behaves as though it were a measurable quality of an object. The sublime, on the other hand, involves the transgression of all sensible limits. An experience of the sublime forces its witness to glimpse into the possibility of the infinite, generating both pleasure and discomfort. The sublime, as such, is characterized by the absence of defined form.2

Through the choreographic act, an act which makes known underlying ecologies of the human perceptual world, the performer departs from bounded form—from the notion of a distinct ontological self and from the body (in a physical sense) as distinct from its environment. In Kant’s terms, this blurs the limit between the physical body’s reality and negation and pushes dance into the territory of the sublime. Somatic practices, such as dance, can dismantle the dichotomy of interiority and exteriority and expand the edges of the real. I would posit, as well, that choreography should be considered a methodology through which we formally reconfigure our environments to expose a set of alternative worlds or potentials. In my practice as a dancer and choreographer I think quite often about how choreography reveals Kant’s negative space and its edges, while also considering how this term resonates beyond the field of dance as a methodology that, rather than rely primarily on visuality, draws upon kinesthetic capabilities to generate awareness.

Shayna Keller is a current MBA candidate at the Yale School of Management and has held leadership roles at multiple California-based arts service organizations, including the Dance Resource Center and Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles. Keller’s work as a choreographer has been presented throughout the US, and she has performed with Jmy James Kidd and the Sunland Dancers, as well as Pedro Alejandro, Rachel Boggia, Katja Kolcio, Alexx Shilling, Hana van der Kolk, and Lailye Weidman.


For the exhibition “Made in L.A.” at the Hammer Museum in 2014, the choreographer Jmy James Kidd installed a stage on the museum’s grounds entitled Gold Stage. Throughout the exhibition, this platform was not only activated by formal events such as performances and lectures, but also by casual exchanges and everyday social interactions. For the performance Friend, the dance collective the Sunland Dancers improvised a work that was conceived of specifically for Gold Stage and that foregrounded the interpersonal dynamic constructed by the dancers and the relationship of the performance to the space inhabited. The Sunland Dancers was formed by Kidd in 2013 and includes Keller and Kidd, as well as Olive Blackburn, Perin Hailey McNelis, Jil Stein, Lisa Wahlander, and Alexa Weir.

Documentation of the performance, including interviews with Kidd and one of the dancers, can be watched here.

As part of a weeklong residency at the New Museum supported by the Seminars, Kidd developed and performed Gateway, a solo dance piece. While in residence, she led a Seminars session based on her work establishing group structure and dance spaces, which addressed the development of both James Kidd Studio and Pieter. The entirety of Kidd’s session, titled “Soft Round Mound,” and the rest of the syllabus and bibliography created by the Seminars participants can be viewed here.

In her text, Keller references feminist scholar Elizabeth Grosz’s in-depth account of the relationship between negative space and the feminine, particularly regarding the architectures of absence. See Grosz’s “Architecture of Excess,” in Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space, which specifically addresses the coincidence of Western philosophical conceptions of both space and the feminine as empty ground for the establishment of the masculine subject.

Grosz’s book Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001) is available in its entirety online here. The chapter “Architecture of Excess” can be found on pages 151–65.

For a philosophical investigation of the notion of dancer as activating the potential of the human body and the surrounding environment, see Australian cultural theorist Claire Colebrook’s “How can we tell the Dancer from the Dance?: The Subject of Dance and the Subject of Philosophy” (2005).

In this article, Colebrook draws from a Deleuzian notion of praxis as the actualization of becoming, rather than as work towards an end. She argues that, because the activity is the realization of the thing itself, in dance the human “becomes a work of art…life appears in dance as self-creation and self-realization—a self-causing movement, rather than a movement produced by some external cause.”

1 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996), 76–79.

2 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987).

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