Dance Research Journal, Volume 42, Number 1, Summer 2010, pp. 46-60 (Article) Published by University of Illinois Press DOI: 10.1353/drj.0.0063
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Photo 1. Merce Cunningham in his Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1952). Photographer: Gerda Peterich.
Dance Research Journal 42 / 1
The Human Situation on Stage: Merce Cunningham, Theodor Adorno, and the Category of Expression Carrie Noland
here 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). 1 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.2 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 Carrie Noland is the author of Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology (Princeton University Press, 1999) and Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture (Harvard University Press, 2009). Her taste for interdisciplinary work has resulted in two collaborative ventures: Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement (Palgrave, 2009), co-edited with Language poet Barrett Watten, and Migrations of Gesture (Minnesota University Press, 2008), co-edited with Sally Ann Ness. She teaches French and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, and is an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Anthropology, a fellow of the Critical Theory Institute, and director of Humanities-Arts, an interdisciplinary undergraduate major combining the practice and analysis of art. Dance Research Journal 42 / 1 summer 2010 47
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]). Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, at once rough around the edges and sparkling with insights, is arguably the most important book on aesthetics since Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1835), the two works that...