Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Practising Research, Researching Practice: Thinking through Contemporary Dance

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Practising Research, Researching Practice: Thinking through Contemporary Dance

Article excerpt

I have always found the central drama in the activity of dance making to be the futility of solidifying something. It's like setting up a house of cards in a hurricane and then walking ten feet back to get a better look only to find it is gone.

Tere O'Connor1


'Practice-as-research' is now an accepted mode of participation in university postgraduate culture but debate over the precise meaning of the term continues. So do questions around how it might challenge or confirm traditional academic, methodological, presentational and examination procedures.2 The concept of 'practice-as-research' does not necessarily suggest that practice is research. The term might point to approaches and activities potentially embraced by the academy, which are nevertheless heterogeneous to it and to conventional understandings of research. I take up the question of contemporary dance practice-as-research by asking not 'what or how is this research?' but 'what does it mean to really practise?' My discussion may appear somewhat wandering at times, but it embodies values I am seeking to make tangible.

Dance is not your typical university discipline. It is one of those things that, historically, universities have been defined by excluding. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the twentieth century, concurrent with the invention of modern dance, dance gained a presence in tertiary education first in the United States, then in England (primarily when Rudolf Laban and his followers fled there from Germany) and subsequently in Australia.3 Dance in Anglophone institutions of higher learning has, however, been present as physical or vocational education (including teacher training) rather than as a 'thought' among the wider scope of the humanities.4 For dance artists, the outsider status of dance in the academy was not necessarily to be deplored. Elizabeth Dempster has argued, discussing her experience in Australian tertiary institutions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that there was 'power and authority, however constrained and transient', in this position.5 In some Australian universities during the 1970s and 1980s, interest in dance grew when cultural studies, philosophy and other scholars were involved in the poststructuralist 'turn' to the body.6 Then, in the late 1980s, following the Dawkins reforms, 'many dance and performing arts programs and courses offered in Australian colleges and institutes of technology were propelled into new university environments' and, as Dempster has noted, the 'pressure was on to create a research culture, where perhaps none had existed before.'7

I'm still not convinced that the university is where dancers belong. But I do sympathise with some dancers' hopes that the university might provide them with the kind of critically oriented, process-friendly environment that is lacking in the now largely entertainment-oriented performing arts sector. Some dancers have turned to universities for intellectual validation and a form of patronage. Throughout the country at any one time there is a small but significant number of students studying for a higher degree in contemporary dance practice. The arrival of practice-as-research, not only in contemporary dance but in all the arts, seems, paradoxically, to have coincided with an era of increased instrumentalisation of university-based learning and research. With its audit culture and relentless demands for ever more narrowly defined research products,8 the contemporary, expanded 'knowledge economy' now comprises an undisguised fusion of education with capitalism.9

Setting aside well-justified complaints about the current dominant models of higher learning, I return to the question of dance practices having a broader resonance and relevance than simply among dancers-though I certainly do not want to suggest that there is anything particularly or potentially redemptive about 'dance', dancing or contemporary dance culture. My discussion here is aspirational, as much for dance practices as for how any work is undertaken in universities more generally. …

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