Dance and Visual Arts


published 5 January 2017
When I last spent time with British choreographer Rosemary Butcher in July 2014, two years before her early death in 2016, she spoke of the risk of losing dance to the visual arts. Referring in particular to dance in the UK, she expressed concern about the limited documentation and writings about dance, suggesting that this contributed to an impoverished understanding of dance as a contemporary art form that is capable of addressing the cultural issues of the times we are living in. She compared this situation to that of visual arts and the much greater level of discourse that surrounds its practices. figures series – as part of a larger groundswell in UK dance – aspires to respond to Rosemary’s concerns through writings and through choreographic works. figures series is dedicated to the memory of Rosemary Butcher.

figures series is a choreographic project. The activities of figures series sometimes involve dancing – and sometimes involve activities that we might not call dance. figures series includes writing that is sometimes a choreographing – such as written choreographic scores – and writing that is sometimes about choreography. figures series belongs in an expanded field of choreography in which dance and choreography are not always entwined, a field that acknowledges choreographer William Forsythe’s statement that dancing and choreography are “two distinct and very different practices.” This distinction explains the choreographer whose background is dance and who makes work that is informed by movement and the sensibilities of the dancer but without – necessarily – dancing bodies. The distinction between dance and choreography also enables the non-dance artist to identify their work as choreographic. The recent call for proposals from The Jerwood Choreographic Research Project states that application is ”open to all UK-based artists and creatives who consider their work to be choreographic.” Is this invitation a harbinger of Rosemary’s concern that dance is already being lost to the visual arts? Or a useful ‘call’ to acknowledge the longstanding shared concerns of contemporary artists working in the not-always-distinct fields of dance and visual arts?

In the course of figures series, the various articles, interviews, reviews and scores will rub up against this question of the ‘not-always-distinct fields of dance and visual arts’ as it operates in the choreographic. figures series will probe the histories and potentials of choreography in an expanded field, will identify converging moments and shared concerns between dance and visual art practices and will begin to articulate what’s ‘special’ about a dancerly sensibility as it operates in the choreographic.

This first article indicates some ground by looking at: choreography and an expanded field; scores and some histories; the choreographic as a term in flux.

Choreography and an expanded field
The notion of an expanded field of choreography has been introduced fairly recently. Marten Spångberg has been and remains an enthusiastic proponent of the term. He organized the conference ‘Expanded Choreography. Situations, Movement, Objects …’, at MACBA Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, in March 2012, which was I believe the first gathering organized under the term. But we can trace choreographic works that expanded the idea of dance – works that presented movement other-than codified dance steps, works that set the human body in relation with material objects and works being presented in visual art spaces – at least back to the 1960s with the post-modern dance movement in the USA. Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions are an example of this. Histories of American post-modern dance and of Judson Dance Theatre, of which Forti was a fore-runner, have been extensively written and so can be accessed within dance discourse. This history can also be appraised (and re-appraised) in the light of contemporary practices, its influences can be identified and contemporary contexts for arts practices can be understood and developed in relation to historical precedents. As part of this Judson Church is regularly cited as an influence on developments in continental European dance from the 1990s – including by Ramsay Burt and Andre Lepecki..

In contrast to this set of circumstances for American dance there is a lack of writing – as noted by Rosemary Butcher – about dance in the UK. The British new dance movement, from the 1970s through 1980s, questioned what dance could be and sought to stretch the boundaries of the form. Works were performed in and beyond the theatre space, in public space and galleries. There was the magazine, New Dance, with articles interviews and reviews of works. But the history of British New Dance is almost – though not entirely – forgotten. In 2012, as part of Dance Umbrella London, Jonathan Burrows and Ramsay Burt co-curated Remembering British New Dance with a series of seminars. For those who still remember, who have seen the magazines or who gained insight through these seminars, traces of connection from the concerns of UK dance artists of that time can be found in the current move to expanded choreography. These traces include collective ways of organizing and of making work, a questioning of the political dimensions of dance and choreography, interdisciplinary approaches, a sense of shared interests with visual arts, with contemporary performance and with live art. And perhaps most evidently, in the light of the comments from Rosemary Butcher, the assertion that choreography is a contemporary art form that addresses the political and cultural concerns of its time.

While the specifics of British New Dance differ from that of Judson – for example, unlike Judson, some British New Dance was associated with dance theatre – within the context of this reflection on expanded choreography there are similarities. In particular these relate to the breeching of discipline boundaries towards interdisciplinary ways of working and the insistence on dance and choreography as speaking to contemporary cultural concerns. So I want to acknowledge here what has gone before and so suggest that the practice of expanding choreography beyond the field of dance is not entirely new – even in the UK.

At this time the untwining of dancing and choreography is now largely an accepted – although not an absolute – feature of expanded choreography. I’ve noted that other features include interdisciplinary ways of working and the intent to address the times we are living in. Within this, aspects that are currently being given particular attention include choreography’s place in museums, galleries and public spaces; participatory practices that question the relationship between audience, performer and art object and the materiality of the body alongside other material objects. These various aspects, and the interdisciplinary nature of them, will run through the interviews and articles of figures series.

Scores and some (brief) histories
figures series – now at the beginning of the project – anticipates twelve scores. Ten of these will be written scores – with one published each month. Two will be performance scores – for performances in 2017. All of the sores are for public use. The written scores can be carried out by anyone. The performance scores are also for public use with calls to participate going out late 2016 and 2017. Each written score gives instructions for doing something …

Many artists working in dance and choreography have presented scores in written form. Some examples are Yvonne Rainer’s instructional task based scores in Work 1961-73 (Rainer, 1974) which contains scores of previously performed works; Deborah Hay’s written score No time to fly written after her performance of the work as a score for other’s to use (Hay, 2010); Nancy Stark Smith’s Underscore, primarily a score for practice and developed through her long years of teaching contact improvisation; the collection Everybodys Performance Scores (Alice Chauchat & Mette Ingvartsen, 2010) containing a diverse range of scores (some of previously performed works, some propositions for action) by thirty-one dance artists gathered following an open call for contributions and my collection of scores in Perception Frames (2014) which work with framing attention as a generator of movement actions.

Artists working outside of dance and choreography have a long history of presenting instructional scores in written form. Allan Kaprow, acknowledged as a pioneer of performance art, created numerous instruction based scores from the 1950s. Sharing Kaprow’s interest in blurring the distinction between art and life, the international and interdisciplinary Fluxus artists of the 1960s and 70s (such as George Brecht, Alison Knowles and Yoko Ono) are know for their event scores, in the form of written instructions, many of which are presented in the Fluxus Performance Workbook (Freidman, Smith & Sawchyn (eds) 2002). More recently there is the ongoing (from 1995) collaboration between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Independent Curators International, which invites artists to contribute an instruction that others can use to create an artwork. Many are collected in Obrist’s publication do it: a compendium (2013) including scores by choreographers Anna Halprin, Ezter Salamon and Xavier Le Roy.

In common with the scores mentioned above, the scores of figures series are in the form of written instructions. My desire is that the scores will be accessible and usable by those with, and those without, particular knowledge of dance and choreography. Many of the scores may be interpreted through forms other than movement. Some may blur the distinction between life and art. Some may invite expansive dancing – or minimal movement – depending on how you interpret the instructions. Although each score has specific instructions – there’s no one right way to do those instructions.

The choreographic as a term in flux
If dance artists who aim to address contemporary cultural concerns position their work within the notion of expanded choreography – which is innately interdisciplinary
if choreographic work can be in the form of written instructions for anyone to do
if the choreographic is a term that artists beyond the field of dance now utilize to describe their work
in what ways might choreography and the choreographic remain associated with dance? And would it matter if this association dissolved?

Choreography is a time-based art form. It involves movement. Movement involves space (and time). Choreography also involves relations: for example the way that time, space and movement are organized in a work puts time, space and movement in relations. The organization of relations may also be between objects and/or people involving a social dimension. William Forsythe has described choreography as “a curious and deceptive term. The word itself, like the processes it describes, is elusive, agile, and maddeningly unmanageable.” It’s within the processes of choreographic works, within the experiences they offer, that we might discern the sensibilities that have informed them. The materials that the dancer works with, and has a highly attuned perceptibility towards, are body, movement, space and time. My hunch is that it is the perceptual awareness to these materials and to their plasticity at an experiential level that may inform the approach of the choreographer who comes from dance – and which may distinguish that work from choreographic work made by an artist from an art form other than dance.

In continuing to pursue this hunch through the writings of figures series I hope to respond to Rosemary Butcher’s concerns – as mentioned at the start of this article – about the risk of losing dance to the visual arts. It’s not about ‘saving’ dance or reclaiming a boundary for dance. It’s about positioning dance alongside visual arts as an ‘equal’ contemporary art form. It’s about acknowledging what’s shared, including interdisciplinary ways of working. And maybe it’s about identifying the particular things that a dancerly sensibility (which may not be the exclusive facility of the trained dancer!) brings to the making of choreography and how this might offer particular ways of speaking to/with the times we are living in.

Resources and links referred to in text

… the choreographic, choreography and an expanded field
Rosemary Butcher’s website
William Forsythe’s essay Choreographic Objects
Jerwood Choreographic Research Project Call 2016
Conference at MACBA on Expanded Choreography 2012
Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions at MOMA
Ramsay Burt (2006) Judson Dance Theatre: Performative Traces, Abingdon: Routledge
Andre Lepecki (2006) Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement, Abingdon: Routledge.

Scores and some (brief) histories
Deborah Hay’s written score No time to fly
Nancy Stark Smith’s Underscore, is in the book Caught Falling (Koteen & Stark Smith, 2008)
Everybodys Performance Scores
About Perception Frames
About Allan Kaprow:
Fluxus performance workbook
Hans Ultich Obrist (2013) Do It: The Compendium, New York: Independent Curators International

The choreographic as a term in flux
William Forsythe’s essay Choreographic Objects

Image: Rosemary Butcher Dance Company,a 2014 work at Kunstbau at Lenbachhaus Munich sourced from

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