Dances with theory and power

Inta Balode

The article was first published in Latvian in the music magazine “Mūzikas saule” on September 2015. Translation into English by Ilze Millere and Inta Balode

I decided to think about who dances, who thinks and who has power. Power in quite broad sense as influence, superiority and authority often holding hands with financing, visibility and fame. Power that relates also to the education system not as the one stimulating wisdom but as the one keeping the order.

What are the relations between the theory and practice of the contemporary dance? How big is the influence of well-established wise thought on the importance of the work of art? How much power belong to those that have the knowledge and pass it onto others, and how do these processes work in formal and informal education? And what’s happening in the field of the lately very popular process of artistic research, where the theory and practice dissolves into one another? And what in general is a theorist and practician in art?

Let me begin with a very personal story. Once upon a time I was studying culture theory at the Latvian Academy of Culture. I was very fond on thinking about various matters that are theoretically very hard to grasp – I wrote my bachelor thesis on death, and my master’s thesis on emptiness. My course mate told me not to overdo the thinking part, or otherwise my back will hunch over and my eyes will bulde, just like those of Jean Paul-Sartr. After the lectures me with my crooked back and a jealous look in my eyes used to pass the hall where the choreography freshmen used to study (dance). Their backs and eyes were looking fine, and they were also successful at their theory subjects, their diploma had a XXX, and they are good at thinking, too. Us, theoreticians, used to console ourselves that we’re smarter than the students of acting and dance but that didn’t help much with the oneness of mind and body. When during the final exams of my master’s degree I had an episode of seeing myself from above, I decided I need to get back inside my body again. I began to attend dance classes. The world changes. I was still buying and reading theory books but now I had decided that if I were to further research emptiness I would only do it in the context of dance. I wanted to only do my doctoral thesis in a program where I could combine theory and practice. Back in 2003, I only found such a program in Australia. Pretty far away, so I remain without a PhD for now. All this time, I’ve been connected to dance, I continue to write about dance, and sometimes I practice dance, so I often contemplate about the impact that theory and practice have on one another. Lately, these processes have increasingly often been connected to the status, “the true art”, and thus also with power and economic profitability. Perhaps I’ve been hearing too much about the direct impact of capitalism even where it’s been drastically criticised in theory. Yet I see a critical presence of market laws and inequality in places where the power of theory, knowledge, wisdom, and intellectual superiority play a big role.


The ones that don’t know teach those who don’t know, either

In august, portal DANCE.LV organized the third festival/seminar “A new dance in a new place” in Saldus Art School. And for the third time, Finnish philosopher and art theoretician Max Ryynanen ( delivered intellectually stimulating and provocative lectures. Dance critics from nine countries were present, thus the lately so popular multifunctionality of the people in the art world also got discussed. Due to pedagogical considerations, Max finished his first lecture in twenty minutes; well, he actually only said a couple of things and left all the time for reflections by yourself. I’m still reflecting.

Mr. Ryynanen started by saying that in a situation when real quality presence in a field is only possible if the person has many jobs, the status of knowledgeable experts is very doubtful. We are all amateurs. Yet this drawback is rather a chance to review the system of education and thus also the systems of power and authority. These ideas were mentioned already back in 1987 by the French philosopher Jacques Rancière in his writing The Ignorant Teacher (Le Maître ignorant: Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle) on teachers and future teachers. Rancière quoted the “intellectual emancipation” and teaching methods, described by the early 19th Century French education philosopher Joseph Jacotot. Intellectual equality should be a starting point, not the aim, therefore the teachers should stop their rhetoric on saving from ignorance. Instead of a knowledgeable teacher leading its students towards a predispositioned future, Rancière writes about the teacher being a channel that can foster intellectual growth in virtually unlimited directions. Besides, the teacher doesn’t have to be an expert in the subject: Jacotot had good results in teaching Flemish without speaking it himself. It’s based on the presumption that everybody is equally intelligent, therefore every collective educational exercise that is based on this principle can give insights that form the basis for accumulating knowledge. Anybody can lead, and the oppressed needn’t feel stuck or dependent on experts regarding their intellectual emancipation. Jacotot believed that an ignorant person can teach another ignorant person. Rancière expanded this idea by saying that every time that an intellect is being subordinated by another intellect, interest is lost, and that anybody who teaches without emancipation only makes its students stupider. By taking into account the alternating situation of the education system due to availability of information, these ideas become more and more meaningful. What good is retelling years and numbers when all that information is just a click away. The main contribution of the teacher should be stimulating will, raising interest.

This theory can, of course, be disputed yet the notion that in a true democracy everybody is equal by default and isn’t made equal by somebody smarter (better, more proper) is very pleasing. explaining the order of things and processes, as opposed to arousing will and interest, is an arrogant position of power that only causes an adverse effect. A good example for the idea that anybody is able to obtain knowledge by being taught and explained (just like a kid learns its native language) is the project One Laptop Per Child where children in developing countries – where the access to phone and electricity is scarce, and illiteracy rates are very high – are given laptops. In Ethiopia, children without any adult support mastered the laptops so well that in a six month period where able to hack into the Android operating system.* Besides the ability to teach oneself is not just the privilege of the young; I know some very smart folks that have succeeded even in an academic environment despite only having obtained junior high school diploma.

Of course, such type of education is based on the trial and error method. Formal education gives knowledge without that method. Avoiding mistakes is perhaps needed for approbated medical procedures but even in medicine one needs trial and error, e.g., experimenting, to get to new discoveries. If the teaching is done through the position of power, the student is basically withheld from doing experiments and is thus constrained to the framework of the existing knowledge and pattern of thought.

Back in elementary school, I knit a scarf with buttons (it required less effort as it didn’t have to be that long, plus I found that to be a very practical solution: no lose ends, so I could easily button up my coat). Did I receive any praise for knitting this experiment? No, I was advised not to invent the bicycle again. Why not? I’ve heard openly minded teachers say that first, one needs to teach how things are, and only then one can teach how things are not.

So we’ve come back to idea that instead of education one is put into a certain framework according to the existing order of the world. To make things stable and recognizable, they must also be restricted and controllable. Is that based on the notion of the man being an immoral anarchist who must be framed and tamed? And who will then decide what is the “correct” frame?

Back to the experiment and permitting errors in art – in the seminar “A new dance in a new place” we also discussed on what is a “good” artist, a “good” critic, a “good” viewer. Interestingly enough, during the first day, while discussing art critics, there were several opinions voiced that a good critic is an artist him/herself, working like a “true” artist and creating something new, not just serving somebody else. On the second day, the liberty to make mistakes was mentioned among the qualities of a good artist. Yet nobody was ready to say that a good critic can also afford mistakes. Apparently, critics are only allowed to be critics if they are all-knowing. Maybe that’s the reason why there’s so much talk regarding the problems in art criticism yet nothing really changes. The reason lies in the unwritten rule of not making mistakes. An innovation is treated like play, something marginal, avoiding to call it criticism. Perhaps writing or blogging about it but definitely not serious criticism where only experienced professionals who know the truth.

No mistakes means no experiments; no experiments means lack of quality change and discovering something new. How would the world change should experimenting be made the basic method of education? Somebody would still remain more equal than others, for sure, but meanwhile there is no doubt that even in the arts, the explaining and commenting is done from the position of power and authority. And that is welcomed and respected because how else us, laymen, would understand the complicated world around us. That can be witnessed, for example, in the respect and piety that is paid towards the academic environment, towards universities as the sole places of becoming a professional. If you don’t have a diploma in music, you’re not a musician. Well, you are allowed to think you are but you can’t receive public funding. Alas, that would lead to anybody thinking they can. Ordnung muss sein.

Quite often the practicians, including the dance practicians, work and inspect much more intriguing and complicated matters every day yet they bow their heads before theoreticians even if they don’t know or don’t understand that is that they do. Similar to my experience at the Latvian Academy of Culture: while I was watching the dancers, I thought that they can do more; perhaps the dancers were watching us thinking that we know more. It’s not unusual to have parallel study programs in universities that actually research one another yet never really come to cooperate. For four years I tried to imagine what it feels like being on the stage, but all it takes is an experimental project or workshop where I can get the answer to my question in a much shorter period of time.

Yet it is the high and almighty academic discourse that possesses the astonishing ability to instill the feeling of inferiority. Or is that the revenge of those, who tend to overthink, towards the practicians, who get to experience the oneness of mind and body on their own skin? Or is that the consequence of both proletarian ideology followed by cultural space that has been influenced by quick money? If I have neither money, nor riches, nor the skills of a plumber, perhaps I can still feel the power by using my brain? Both art practitioners and theoretics know that the real power is in theory possessed by the money givers, but that doesn’t stop them from dreaming about the power division among themselves. And this dreaming in dance theory and practice has recently brought some shifts in power.

Those who know have power but they lag behind

If theoreticians are above practitioners due to the traditional education system and due to the notion that power belongs to the knowledgeable, then they also put effort into maintaining their position. Especially now, in the times of new media, idea democracy, and blogging, when anybody can take the floor, find information, and thus theoretically take the position of power. The researcher is safe is he/she studies some tangible, existing or, even better, vanishing theme, because the researcher will be needed both for history and the collective memory. Thus anthropological behavior applies not only to researching primitive tribes but almost anything and anybody that is “researchable” and “of interest” and wouldn’t reflect much on itself. Superiority of whites as access to knowledge and through that violation of intellectual emancipation demonstrates itself also when I am writing review about a dance performance where I explain and interpret what is seen and felt there.

Besides, I’m in the power position both in comparison to the author, who’s often not put IT there, and in comparison to the viewer, who often finds NOTHING there. Still, the fact that us ourselves are writing about and commenting dance in Latvia, not the Americans or the French, separates us from the primitive tribes who might also have fascinating art, yet don’t reflect much about their art and don’t try to explain to one another, what IT or NOTHING means.

From the position of superiority of whites it would be good to educate them so they can research themselves and through that approach the ideal state of equality where colonizer is not needed anymore. Following if we have dance theory in Latvia it means that the gap between those who knows and those who don’t know is already narrowed. The next step on this path is lately so popular practice of artists themselves commenting and explaining their practice. Emancipation continues – there are no more the outside ones who know and who will tell what processes happen. Artists do that themselves. In conceptual arts and also dance there are no more works as things, sometimes there are even no more works as experiences, there are only or “only” ideas and comments. One can say that artists step by step take over the power position of theoreticians and themselves become theoreticians without practice. However, if the battle field of any artist is the whole world and the aim of the art work is no smaller than changing the world then practice now is the whole world and life. There are no borders anymore, technically we are back to the life of primitive tribes before the started to be researched.

Getting back to theoreticians and their confusion, and victory walk of artistic research against formal research. I have heard a good critic saying that performance is really good because it is accessible through semiotics. Let’s leave semiotics in peace but just to remind that formal education doesn’t allow experiments (it allows experiments with known outcome, so why they are called experiments), critic is not allowed to make mistakes no matter how big artist he or she is. No surprise that the ones who want to be academic fights only with existing methods. No surprise that it is not easy to justify new practice with existing methods. As a result, art work becomes like a door for which it is impossible to find a key. If you can’t find a key, then you cannot unlock, and the door loses the function of the door so this is not door at all. This approach is not vary valid in changing arts situation, some new solutions would be useful.

Even if theoretically it is possible to understand that theory not always manages to follow practice, clear connection between the two we see in case work is explained after the fact. But while some tendency is perceived, described and justified it is not new anymore. This is why theoreticians in a sense are always lagging behind. Work of a researcher is also not a very social one, they are lonely and loneliness makes to close up and at the end dance, music or theater analysed by researcher always stays behind the glass. He or she is even little ashamed because of watching artists. It is understandable that there are people who want to be researchers but don’t want to be lonely (as I was dreaming about PhD as at least a duet). So they found their place within a practice. Words describing this process are “dramaturg” and “artistic research”.

Lately dance theoreticians are very strong so they actually create practice, it is not easy to distinguish what was first – theoretical idea or artistic experiment. Critics, philosophers and other thinkers when collaborating with practioners are called dramaturgs, and they comment, justify and create artistic processes together with artists. In this sense the topical theory coincides with topical practice. In dance field already since middle of 80ies philosophers, literature theorists, dramaturgs and experts of other fields hand in hand with choreographers create culture space of contemporary dance. Because of that theoreticians researching processes from outside become less and less. If they exist then their influence is not so strong anymore, following one could think that the power center moves. In those relationships between artist and dramaturge we can see the embodiment of the ideas of “Ignorant Schoolmaster by Ranciere – it is allowed to teach and research something you don’t know, something you don’t know yet. On the other hand, the fact that dramaturgs often have solid academic training is a sign that the knowledge is still located within certain formal even if the frame gets doubted.

History keeps the known

Sometimes they say that the art work itself tells the researcher what research method would fit the best. If that’s true then why not to create art work and its research method simultaneously during the collaboration between artist and dramaturge or researcher? Theoretically it would provide better matching and through that better access to the truth and objectivity that is aimed in serious science. But here is another problem and also possibility.

In case the work is created at the same time with its analysis and explanation then certain art work per se not always can be seen as a bright example demonstrating change in history of art and thought. The performances are already created through artistic research, they aim to research a specific issue. Following also the description of the performance, information about it makes this work a special and unique, a turning point in the history. In a while the fact will enter academic world where idea about the possibility of neutral, objective and truthful research and evaluation is very important. And that despite flirting with impossibility to understand dance is true. Even about this ethereal art form it is possible to speak in motivated and scientific way. Part of the performances becoming regular research objects are turning points but it is worth to keep in mind that the selection of facts and data, and belonging to certain cultures and information spaces are unavoidable.

Art works that are not easy to be saved in material or other strongly accountable form, became often used examples because of the researchers who belong to certain culture space and have seen performances available there.

Today we have access to performances that are chosen by festival curators, and because of that their motivation is often discussed. So it is possible to say that within the center of attention of theory is work created by curators, following once again the market forces have won. Even those who know bought something sold by those who know how to sell. Still it is not so bad because lately there is a tendency where also critics and theoreticians become influential curators. They create programs because most likely there is a reason to believe that it is not enough anymore with distanced commentary. One should act actively, create, discover reality at the same time explaining why this is the reality of criticism of reality that deserves being taken out into the spotlight. In May 2015 I attended a seminar led by theoretical, dramaturg and curator Andre Lepecki. The experience was special because initially seemingly formal lectures more and more turned into initiation into his world of thinking and experiencing art. The way he explains art works make them very special. The eyes full of admiration when we approach some art work can be easily created by theory, especially (which is the case quite often) if it was just one showtime, separate action impossible to document in any other way as only through interpretation. Every description is also interpretation. This is the reason once again to remember about the crucial role of documentation – if there were no photos of Trisha Brown “Roof Piece” I doubt it would be mentioned so often. Of course, mythology can be created also about something nobody has seen but everybody knows about but it means there was a storyteller, theoretician, critic who told about it. Reviews written by John Martin about rise of modern dance helped art form a lot.

What is morals behind this article about power and theory dances? Let’s respect ourselves! Let’s research, justify, document, tell, interpret, work together with artists, work as curators if it feels needed. Let’s do everything we don’t know how to do and let’s teach others to do the same. And let’s overcome the issues with lack of selfconfidence so often seen in us by foreigners.


Jacques Ranciere. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987, tr. 1991)

Nicolas Negropointe “TED talks”


Image from lecture-performance “Duncans – prophets or weirdos” by Dance Anatomy and Inta Balode. Photo by Inga Surgunte

*This text is written within The Writing Movement Network that The Writing Movement Network is supported by The Nordic-Baltic Mobility Programme for Culture Short-term network scheme.

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