Dance as Historical Discourse: Forsythe, Foucault, Brecht, and the BBC

On Wednesday 28th January, Dr Helena Hammond (Senior Lecturer in Dance at the University of Roehampton) gave a very interesting paper entitled ‘Dance as Historical Discourse: Forsythe, Foucault, Brecht, and the BBC’ as part of the Futures of History: cake and theory seminar series held by the Centre for the Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University. Twickenham.

See here for an interview with Dr Hammond on performative histories.
dr-helena-hammond-23Beginning with, and responding to, Historian Robert Rosenstone’s comment that:

“While professional historians continue, with but a few exceptions, to write in a highly traditional manner, some little-known filmmakers and videographers have begin to create a kind of history that we can truly label postmodern, producing works that provide a distinctly new relationship to […] the traces of the past.” (Rosenstone, 1995, 201-2)

Dr Hammond’s paper investigated dance as a possible alternative praxis for historical representation. Helena explored how William Forsythe’s ballet Steptext, performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in 1997 just before its closure for renovation, generated new strategies for exploring or reading the relationship between the Royal Ballet and its institutional home at the Royal Opera House.

After showing an 8-minute clip of the BBC recording of this performance of Steptext as an introduction to the work, Helena outlined the theoretical framework she would use to explore the relationship between the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House employing some of the key ideas of Foucault, and notions of Brechtian critique. She then explored how Forsythe, influenced by his reading of Foucault has over the past few decades worked “to reconceive ballet as the vehicle for staging a certain kind of new, iconoclastic history” (Hammond, 2013, 125). In particular she argued that Steptext, through its narrative rupture, worked to unsettle and disturb ballet’s embodiment of institutional history.

Helena discussed how Steptext and also the BBC’s coverage of the 1997 performance worked to dismantle the tradition of ballet and audiences’ preconceptions through a juxtaposition of the performance of Steptext with footage of the pre-show ceremonial performances by the front of house staff and audiences, and images of the cranes that were poised to begin the remodeling of the Royal Opera House. Helena then went on to explore why the Royal Ballet, rather than the Royal Opera was so suitable a vehicle for staging such a Brechtian critique of a quintessential British institution. In answering this question Helena argued that it was the highly feminised identity and liminality that has been imposed on the Royal Ballet in a post-war British arts culture that meant that it was able to fulfill such a role. She contended that although the Royal Ballet was certainly an integral part of the Arts Council cultural establishment its feminised or subaltern status enabled it to be read as analogous to the marginalized, female characters who articulate estrangement in Brechtian theatre. She then outlined a new feminist history of post-war British ballet through this perspective focusing on how despite being financially self-supporting (unlike its sibling the Royal Opera) the Royal Ballet was, to a large extent, perceived as marginal and subservient to the Royal Opera, to the extent that the artistic director of the Royal Ballet although answerable to the Royal Opera House’s board of directors, was excluded from discussions. The ballet toured extensively, yet were excluded from the decision-making process to the extent that scheduled ballet dates were frequently changed.

After the paper there was an interesting discussion followed by tea and home made cakes.

For those interested in the topic, there are a number of suggested books for further reading:

Robert A. Rosenstone “The Future of the Past: film and the beginnings of postmodern history,” in Vivian Sobchack (ed.), The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, (London: Routledge, 1995) 201-18.

Helena Hammond, “Dancing against History: (The Royal) Ballet, Forsythe, Foucault, Brecht and the BBC,” Dance Research 31.2 (2013), 120-143.


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