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A Conceit of the Natural Body: The Universal-Individual in Somatic Dance Training


Under the influence of regimens broadly known as "Somatics," late 20th century contemporary dancers revolutionized their training. They instituted biological and mechanical constructs of the body as the logic for dance classes, claiming to uncover a "natural" way of moving. By doing so these dancers saw themselves as rejecting preceding models such as Graham technique and ballet, which they felt treated the body as an instrument trained to meet the ideals of an aesthetic tradition. Convinced of the importance of their intervention, practitioners of Somatics initially worked with meager resources forging transnational alliances of pedagogies and aesthetics. Yet by the end of the 20th century, the training had found its way in the worlds most venerable dance education programs. A handful of choreographers, who initially experimented with Somatics in a small community, ultimately ascended within a transnational circuit of large concert houses. Educational institutions consequently saw value in Somatics, and implemented its pedagogy based on the conceit that focusing on the natural body provides dancers with the greatest facility for performance, while fueling broad creative possibility in choreographic processes.

In contrast with Somatic rhetoric, this dissertation traces how dancers used the idea the idea of nature to tackle changing social circumstances. A conceit of the natural body endured throughout the last 4 decades of the 20th century even while its ideological underpinnings underwent change, visible in shifts seen in studio procedures, the look and aptitudes of the dancing body, and the modalities of concerts. Dancers constructed what they saw as essential bodily truths by combining scientific metaphors, with non-Western practices that they represented as ancient and mystical. Through this combination they felt they retrieved lost corporeal capacities that they believed were still evident in children, animals and supposedly primitive societies. By the 1970s, a community of practitioners had synthesized what they felt was a comprehensively inclusive body that engendered an anti-hierarchical collective dance culture. Somatics therefore lined up with other subcultures of the era that turned to nature in search of personal authenticity as a source for liberation. Bodily "truth" purported to resist outdated gender ideals and authoritarian training, an idea that fueled the rapid transnational uptake of Somatics. As the approach established itself in Britain, Holland and Australia, it disseminated and naturalized key principles of American post-war liberalism; dancers across the network believed they were reclaiming an inherent right to individual creative freedom by displacing modern and classical aesthetics with dance based on the natural functioning of anatomical structure. In the 1980s, artists largely jettisoned the emphasis on collectivism; yet as they became entrepreneurs in line with the new economic culture of staunch individualism, the rhetoric about nature endured. Using signature choreography, and emphasizing the uniqueness of different Somatic-informed pedagogies, they pursued careerism, even as they often contested rampant conservative cultural agendas. Despite the political critique launched in the 1980s, by the close of the 20th century, Somatics had achieved institutional status, embodying new corporate ethics. The creative autonomy that dancers had won in previous decades now recalibrated itself through demands made upon artists in education and the professional field to prove capitalism is constituted by boundless innovation despite diminishing arts resources in an age of austerity. Throughout all these changes Somatics continued to cultivate a canonical body as an invisible category of nature, which purportedly accounted for ontology, yet marked difference and enacted exclusion from its supposedly universal purview.

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