Polemic: “vocabulary”

The idea that performance work is based on a “vocabulary” of movements or gestures may be useful in some contexts but is also problematic and fundamentally misleading.

Technique is not language. Technique shares some similarities with language, but using language as a metaphor for embodied technique (as many people do) leaves out a huge aspect of technique and collapses the essential differences between performance and writing.

I am not blind to the advantages of the language metaphor and I think I can see why so many theorists (and even artists) have described their work with living bodies in terms of vocabulary, signs, and text. But like any metaphor, this only goes so far.

Language is a specific area of embodied practice. The essential power of language is that it is physically easy to produce very complex differentiations in symbolic meaning. In other words, a very small difference in embodiment produces a very large difference in signification. This is the defining feature of language and what makes it so powerful.

Embodied technique can be said to “signify” in a related way, but there is a huge and crucial difference in that the actual physical production of the signs varies tremendously on a material level.

Illustration: It is not more physically difficult to say the words “ten feet” than to say the words “ten miles.” It is simply a question of moving the lips and tongue in a slightly different way. Anyone who can say “ten feet” can also say “ten miles.” This is why those phrases can be called “signs” or “words” in a “vocabulary.” Precisely because they are easy to produce.

The difference between running ten feet and running ten miles is of a completely different order. Not everyone who can run ten feet can run ten miles. Furthermore, a dance in which a performer runs ten feet is completely different from one in which a performer runs ten miles, not just at the level of “signs” or “text” but also at the level of material reality, the body of the performer, the training and stamina required, the experience of the action, and the physiological results.

This is an elementary example. But the performing arts is fundamentally based on hundreds of details of embodied practice that are much more physically demanding, and physically demanding in different ways, than the articulation or writing down of words. The metaphor of language reveals a certain aspect of embodied practice, its symbolic aspect, but it is absolutely unable to account for all those aspects that have to do precisely with the materiality of embodiment.

Language may be a type of embodied technique, but embodied techniques do not fall within the purview of language.

Ben Spatz
Artistic Director
Urban Research Theater
MR-AIR 2010-2012

COMMENTS (3)

  • Urban Research Theater
    8:04 pm
    July 4, 2011

    Dear Ann,

    I’m sorry that I did not have notifications turned on and so did not see your comment until almost a year later! Your issue is a common one as academia, especially in the US, has only recently begun the process of integrating embodied practice.

    In addition to journals focused on theatre and performance art, like PAJ and TDR, I would suggest taking a look at two new journals called “Theatre, Dance, and Performer Training” and “Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices.” In general, you will find academia in the UK to be more open to experiential work than in the US. If you’re interested in talking in more detail, please contact me directly.

    Best of luck!

    Ben

  • Hello ,
    I am a physician, theologian/ethicist, and ball-room dancer.(!) I am interested in developing an articulation of “body” that would contribute to expanding beyond the medical understanding of body as a mechanism (of disease). I come from an experiential base of 30+ years as physician, and a few mid-life years of exploring the body experientially through dance. I want to proceed in a rigorous academic manner(PhD?) without losing the experiential piece. Can you possibly direct me to journals of dance and expressive movement? I love your essay on dance and vocabulary.
    Thank you
    Ann Sirek

Leave a Reply

join our mailing list

upcoming classes & workshops

see all classes & workshops ›

upcoming performances & events

  • No Upcoming Performances or Events
see our performances & events ›

movement research feeds