Dancing Elusive Knowledges Across the Research Terrain

By Associate Professor Cheryl Stock AM.

The narrative of knowledge is almost always underpinned by the cognitive but how we know the world is often through the experiential. Whilst we have moved a long way in redefining knowledge in research terms to include the processes and outcomes of our practices (artistic, creative, professional) and importantly have privileged the artist’s voice as the expert in this recasting of what a knowledge claim might look like, some art forms prove more problematic than others in this endeavour. What if the artist’s voice is embodied thought, articulated through movement, and not text or image or code? For dance artists our narrative of knowledge resides with and in the body.

The dancing body is highly trained and for those who do not ‘live in their body’, it can seem an esoteric language outside the realm of their experience, apart from its visual, aesthetic and affective connection and the pleasurable (or otherwise) sensation of movement.  If one cannot emulate that experience or understand its ontology, how can it be shared and indeed create the transferable knowledge which research requires?  Perhaps it is a question of translation – the development of a nuanced language in order to capture the visceral, kinaesthetic, sensory and spatio/temporal qualities that, although partaking of it,  do not lie predominantly in the cognitive realm. This translation process is one way live dance research can tell the stories of the body and bypass representations via description or illustration, including the traditional two-dimensional digital reductive versions of the original.

Dance is arguably the most challenging art form to generate research through practice . . . In its most abstract and purest form, it inherently courts the danger of narcissism in examining and exploring its own moving being with no apparent external material referent

Dance is arguably the most challenging art form to generate research through practice for these reasons.  In its most abstract and purest form, it inherently courts the danger of narcissism in examining and exploring its own moving being with no apparent external material referent. Even a choreographer making dance for other bodies, works in a collaborative world that requires profound understandings between bodies, with an accumulated knowledge of a finely tuned and deeply experienced movement practice. This allows the dancing researcher to make discoveries through the body, rather than the more conventional framework of discoveries about the body. So if practice led research contributes original knowledge to the field through its practice and that practice is not easily accessible, how do we translate its processes and findings so they can be disseminated and shared, without falling into self-referentiality?

It is helpful and indeed crucial to frame the research practice through exploring and documenting/analysing its context, its making and doing processes, and its potential for meaning-making with the aid of discursive and propositional text. This is a valuable part of dance research and moreover, much - even most - dance is not merely about itself but a vehicle for exploring other concepts and ideas outside dance per se. But in terms of what it uncovers as a knowledge claim through the act of making and dancing can only be revealed via an interpretation of its embodied experience. I suggest that research findings can be approached in at least two ways. The first is through an accumulation of multi-modal digital representations from diverse perspectives, including images and voice in a non-textual equivalent of ethnographic ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973). The second (together with a digital documentation of the practice/process) encompasses a text-based illumination of the experiential nature of the research through non-discursive, perhaps poetic, language that approximates its symbolic, metaphoric, allusive, ephemeral and affective dimensions. Whatever its specificities, as a valid form of research, we must be able to articulate, albeit indirectly, a contribution to advancing embodied knowledge as revealed through dancing.     

There is a largely unexamined myth around the extended timeframe allowed in a research project and a correlating improvement in the outcomes of the practice. In dance, in particular, that myth extends to claiming that more time is spent in practice, but in reality it mostly means more time is spent in thinking about, reading about and researching practice rather than practising.

Such research foregrounds what Melrose refers to as ‘practitioner expertise’ (2006) and herein lies a problem rarely discussed in academia but which I have raised in a previous publication – the unresolved tensions between industry-based artists and academic artists. For those artists undertaking research degrees it has been my experience, both as a supervisor and examiner, that there is a largely unexamined myth around the extended timeframe allowed in a research project and a correlating improvement in the outcomes of the practice. In dance, in particular, that myth extends to claiming that more time is spent in practice, but in reality it mostly means more time is spent in thinking about, reading about and researching practice rather than practising. Academic dance artists often have less access to studio space and working with professional dancers than industry-based dance artists who tend to work on a project basis to strict and shorter deadlines, requiring a greater focus on actually dancing and experimenting in the studio. There are obvious advantages in prolonged time for reflection and slowly building momentum to create/perform a work but there is also a danger that ‘practitioner expertise’, reliant on continual studio practice, may diminish if ‘talking’ takes over ‘doing’.

Practice-led research higher degrees are becoming a growth industry in an arts sector that is contracting, at least in the frequency of opportunity, and in academic settings in the erosion of conservatory training which places practice at its core. Finding a balance between these two crucial approaches through cross sectoral industry and academic partnerships may arguably prove as important in sustaining our sector as focussing our energies solely on research outcomes, important as they are.  

 


References 

Geertz, Clifford (1973) Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 3-30.

Melrose, Susan (2006) ‘Not yet, and already no longer’: loitering with intent between the expert practitioner at work, and the archive, Performance as Knowledge Symposium, Centre for Research into the Creation in the Performing Arts (ResCen), London, May 2006, http://www.rescen.net/archive/PaK_may06/PaK06_transcripts4_1.html (Accessed 4 August 2016).

Stock, Cheryl (2010) Aesthetic tensions: evaluating outcomes for practice-led research and industry, TEXT Special issue No 8 October 2010, Symposium: Creative and practice-led research—current status, future plans, Oct. 2010 http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue8/content.htm (Accessed 4 August 2016)


A/ Prof Cheryl Stock, PhD, AM has worked as a dancer, choreographer, director, educator, researcher and advocate. She is currently Head of Cultural Leadership at NIDA, as well as serving as Secretary General of World Dance Alliance and Adjunct Professor in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology, where she previously held positions as Head of Dance and Director of Postgraduate Studies. A recipient of the Australian Dance Award's Lifetime Achievement, Cheryl was founding Artistic Director of Dance North and currently Artistic Advisor. She has created over 50 dance works as well as 20 collaborative exchanges in Asia. Her publications and practice encompass interdisciplinary and intercultural site specific performance, contemporary Australian and Asian dance, and practice-led research.