EMBODIED INTERPRETATION in Choreography
written by Melissa Kieffer, December 2020
„As dancers, we hold both place and space in our awareness as we work, rooting us in the moment and opening us to unseen dimensions“ as Andrea Olsen wrote in her book „The Place of Dance“ in 2014 [Olsen 2014: Intro xvii].
The above mentioned unseen dimensions are of a great interest to me as well as how dancers can, through their embodied interpretation of research contents, make those dimensions visible and perceptible. Since humans became more and more disembodied throughout the past decades, it is unignorable to consider this fact as one of the most massive negative symptoms that we have to cope with right now [Walsh 2016]. The distinction that was being made collectively between the body and the mind or the self, causes deep trouble in society. Human beings are disconnected from themselves, from each other and the planet. Are dancers capable to address the trouble that is being caused by disembodiment? By overcoming vagueness in their movement language when they interpret various research questions or works of choreographers, they have the ability and power to „merely transpose, or encode, mental substance into the physical substance of art.“ [Lavender 1995: 26]. In the text below, the discussion is focused on the term „embodied interpretation“ which can be of various meanings. In this particular context around which the text revolves, the term has a meaning of the ability of a dancer to translate something abstract into „a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality or feeling“ [Lexico 2020]. To achieve this, it is of an essence to interpret the abstraction through their „associations, emotional sentiments or feelings of pleasure/displeasure that arouses in them“ [Lavender 1995: 26]. That moment when the interpretation of a dancer becomes deeply embodied, it generates the images and aesthetics that are perceived as coming to life through their awareness. The latter is contained in the physicality of a dancer.
First of all, it is important to point out what differentiates the term „embodied interpretation“, from interpretive dance according to my vision. There are surely parallels in outlining the meaning of those subjects, but in my eyes, „embodied interpretation“ does not have any underlying specific style. Being a term that is rarely used in contemporary dance, it describes – in my point of view - the dancers‘ capacity of deeply understanding and embodying the dance in rehearsal and on stage. Therefore it does not necessarily tell a specific story. The dancer looks for narratives in his or her immediate physical response and movement material to the given task or research question and has „…to be able to accept and criticize at the same time and in the same movement.
[Thus,] the dancer becomes the author of the interpretation [which means that he or she] not [only] decodes the poem, but makes it”. [Lavender 1995: 25]. In order to create a poem through the performer’s own movement language which will be later seen and interpreted by others, it is important for them to have an access to their own intuition. The underlying factor of intuition is clearly the level of trust in their own embodiment that dancers gained throughout their life span as human beings and as dancers in the professional field. Even though „it is hard sometimes to be intuitive when you’re overwhelmed by choice“ [Burrows 2010: 2], the dancer should be able to access the „freedom to work at the speed of a thinking body and mind and to follow the impulse and the intelligence of the moment“. [Burrows 2010: 24]. Thus, the capacity of responding to a research question with intuitive and intelligent improvisational skills is crucial for the body to become an independent work of art that stands for its own – be it in a solo work or as a strong element in a group piece. Thereby it is clear that every interpretation that a dancer does, comes from their „past experiences and culturally determined perceptual pre-dispositions“ [Lavender 1995: 26].
The moment the dancer becomes aware of the above mentioned, their freedom and choices are significantly enriched. The freedom to consciously decide against pre-formed physical responses and the choice to go deeply into what is of real interest and essence of the dancers’ quest to express their physical interpretation of given tasks. Thereby, at times, it is important to free oneself from the perceptions that form a certain idea of a good dancing, [Burrows 2010: 72] in order to be able to follow the curiosity and the potential of the moment so that something completely new and innovative can unfold in the dancers’ movements. An important factor regarding the subject of „unfoldment of something new and innovative“ is that the dancers at research must have time and space and the possibility to become still sometimes in the process. This stillness is important for our bodies because „As dancers, we understand the sense and rightness of a movement or posture proprioceptively, by feeling it in our spine and muscles, without translating it into conceptual linguistic terms…“ [Lavender 1995: 26].
This very unique capacity describes the „embodiment“ when dancers do the interpretation. Furthermore, the final interpretation of researched subjects is beautifully described by Kaelin in 1989: „The dancers body attitudes and movement qualities, may be experienced…as deepening into specific images and ideas. For example, the movement motif built around the raising of an arm may be experienced…as suggesting or representing a greeting – … the raised arm motif has deepened into the image of a greeting, in much the same way that a series of vertical and near-vertical lines in a painting may deepen into a representation of a forest.“ [Lavender 1995: 29]. Consequently, the “embodied interpretation” describes an active exploration of the capacity to find movements, images, gestures and expressions that „deepen“ the understanding of life codes in the dancers themselves and the viewer. Through the dancers’ physical language and embodiment, the viewers’ mirror neurons and kinesthetic responses are being triggered which effects their neurobiology and changes and enrich the way they can perceive reality [Hyman 2012].
To conclude, I would like to point out that I see a high potential in the dancers‘ work of embodying life and human codes through the work of interpreting tasks of choreographers or themselves, research questions or general subjects that emerge from global and societal matters. Because they have the gift to be able to work with their bodies, dancers have the possibility to sharpen their senses and their inner landscape to address the problems that are caused by disembodiment. As Andrea Olsen writes in her book „The Place of Dance“ in 2014: „experiential knowledge of body is essential in this time of disembodied rhetoric and environmental destruction“ [Olsen, 2014: Intro xix], I feel a huge responsibility in the dancers‘ work to overcome vagueness and invest in deep „embodied interpretation“. Embodiment is more than body awareness. Through embodied interpretation, dancers really learn how deeply humans can get involved with subjects that create movements in their bodies on an emotional, mental and neurobiological level. Consequently, they allow themselves to be moved, and touched by their environment, by the choreographers’ quest to express what’s important to them, other people and themselves again. If dancers don’t cope with embodiment, who else?
Olsen, Andrea 2014. The Place of Dance. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut.
Lavender, Larry 1995. Understanding Interpretation. Dance Research Journal. Available online: https://www.academia.edu/19486045/Understanding_Interpretation
Lexico. Powered by Oxford 2020. Embodiment. Available online: https://www.lexico.com/definition/embodiment
Burrows, Jonathan 2010. A Choreographer's Handbook. Routledge, Abingdon.
Walsh, Mark 2016. Interview: What is being “embodied”?. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3yuDEihmE0
Hyman Ph.D., Ira 2012. Listening to Music and Watching Dance Using Mirror Neurons. Available online.