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ReConstructing and RePresenting dance: Exploring the dance/archaeology conjunction

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photo: Gumarang Sakti Dance Company, TIM, Jakarta 2004 in a reconstruction of Api Dalam Sekam (Fire in the Husk) originally choreographed by Gusmiati Suid in 1998 but restaged by her son Boi G. Sakti in 2004.


This book has been growing over the past five years, through papers already published in journals, conference presentations and seminar discussions. Some of those papers are now being rewritten -rePresented - as chapters, expanding them and changing them substantially as to bear only some resemblance to their "original". I am recycling them this way because I feel they need to be reassembled as part of a whole, for they constitute threads of an emerging discourse and map a transdisciplinary formation.

The idea of exploring the dance/archaeology conjunction has its roots in my previous work, published under the title Prambanan: sculpture and dance in ancient Java (White Lotus: Bangkok, 1997) which was about investigating the representation of movement in sculpture and the techniques/methodologies devised by artists to solve this representational problem. This led to attempting a performative reconstruction of the sculptural representation. It was only half way through the endeavour that it dawned on me that the process of dance reconstruction was simultaneously an archaeological reconstruction and an imaginative construction of dance knowledge firmly located in the present. It was also the exploration of a dance archive through embodiment.

The dance past is fragmentary: dance reconstruction is based on reassemblages of fragments and traces of the dance past and interpretation of these. The dance past translates into a notion of dance heritage, often posited as both value and conflict–free, and predicated on authenticity and purity. Dance reconstruction involves engaging with issues of dance representation and documentation. The documentation of dance is itself a form of dance representation. The documentation of dance is inevitably partial and based on classifications which are not meant to reflect a definitive order of things, but are conceived as flexible tools of understanding. Representation changes its object, thus representing dance is not about capturing its ‘authentic essence’ but about transformation; documentation of dance is about capturing (and transforming, through interpretation) fragments of the dance experience.

This online book brings together dance and archaeology, engaging with body knowledge, understanding archaeology as a corporeal way of knowing.

But why online rather than hard copy?

For a number of reasons: this is work in progress and I wish to start making it available as I am writing it, hoping to reach as wide a readership as possible (the global community of internet users keeps on growing by the minute). I also wish to complement the writing with images, video-clips and web links to interesting sites, something that would lack immediacy if it were done on paper. However, once the project is completed, I plan to make the book available in .pdf, text only.

The chapters of the book explore dance reconstruction and dance representation through a series of case studies drawn from Asian performance practices, with which I have engaged for nearly two decades. I first discuss the text based bharatanrithyam dance devised in India by Padma Subrahmanyam, juxtaposing it with classical bharatanatyam of today and exploring issues of dance purity and authenticity. I move on to consider odissi dance from Eastern India, its refashioning, its classicization and the translation of the notion of classicism in a non-western context, in this instance, India (1). I then consider the creation of a system of dance/movement analysis and dance documentation and representation applicable to Asian dance forms, first elaborated by Indian scholar Kapila Vatsyayan, a system achieved through reinterpreting ancient textual and iconographic sources and amplified by marrying semiotics with a phenomenological approach. There follows a discussion of the reconstitution of dance movements based on the dance reliefs of the Central Javanese temple complex of Prambanan and the simultaneous archaeological engagement with the site, in what becomes a site embodiment and a choreographic endeavour. I revisit the notion of representation and re-presentation of the dance experience, focusing on a dance performance remake and, in my final essay (or chapter), I take a look at dance photography, in my view one of the most perfect instantiations of the conjunction of archaeology and dance - here, mindful of archaeography, another Metamedia project, I acknowledge that there is a triangular relationship in the way dance relates to photography, photography to archaeology and dance to archaeology. The dance experience, moreover, involves visuality and performativity and it is through photography that the visuality of dance is fully realised - and, through this representation, dance is further transformed.

The case studies thus foreground the process of dance reconstruction, dance recreation and its representation. This book uncovers the political in accepted notions of dance heritage and questions the rhetoric of preservation of many dance heritage bodies.

Writing about dance is not only a partial representational mode of the act of dancing but also, following Susan Leigh Foster’s articulation, in the 1990s, of how notions of corporeality and embodied knowledge relate to the act of writing, a choreographic act (Leigh Foster 1996). This book is being choreographed in cyberspace, the reader will thus begin to experience the dance through the dance and technology intersection, mindful of current explorations of embodied technology as seen, for example, in the online, UCLA based journal Extensions.

I also wish this book to be interactive and would like to receive comments, as you read my chapters, through the ‘Add comments’ facility. The Conclusion will be based on such comments, which I am truly looking forward to receiving.

Table of Contents




Forward to: 1. Introduction. The dance/archaeology conjunction

Alessandra Lopez y Royo, London, January 2006

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