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The Human Situation on Stage: Merce Cunningham, Theodor Adorno, and the Category of Expression

  • Carrie Noland

Where is expression in Cunningham's choreography? Are the moving bodies on stage expressive? If so, what are they expressing and how does such expression occur? Several of the finest theorists of dance—among them, Susan Leigh Foster, Mark Franko, and Dee Reynolds—have already approached the question of expressivity in the work of Merce Cunningham. Acknowledging the formalism and astringency of his choreography, they nonetheless insist that expression does indeed take place. Foster locates expression in the “affective significance” as opposed to the “emotional experience” of movement (1986, 38); Franko finds it in an “energy source … more fundamental than emotion, while just as differentiated” (1995, 80); and Reynolds identifies expression in the dancing subject's sensorimotor “faculties” as they are deployed “fully in the present” (2007, 169). Cunningham himself has defined expression in dance as an intrinsic and inevitable quality of movement, indicating that his search to capture, isolate, and frame this quality is central to his choreographic process. As a critical theorist (rather than a dance historian), I am interested in expression as a more general, or cross-media, category and therefore find the efforts by Cunningham and his critics to define expression differently, to free it from its subservience to the psyche, refreshing, unconventional, and suggestive. I have become increasingly convinced that Cunningham's practical and theoretical interventions can illuminate more traditional literary and philosophical discourses on the aesthetics of expression and that they have particular resonance when juxtaposed with the approach to expression developed by Theodor Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory of 1970. Similar to Cunningham, Adorno complicates the category of “expression” by shifting its location from subjectivity, understood primarily as a psychic phenomenon, to embodiment, understood as a function of locomotion and sensual existence (in Franko's words, “something more fundamental than emotion, while just as differentiated” [1995, 80]).

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Dance Research Journal
  • ISSN: 0149-7677
  • EISSN: 1940-509X
  • URL: /core/journals/dance-research-journal
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