A Practice as An Other


By Anna Leon

Parallax: “The apparent displacement of an object caused by the actual movement of its observer. This figure underscores both that our framings of the past depend on our positions in the present and that these positions are defined through such framings.” [1]
1700. The French dance master Raoul Auger Feuillet publishes his Chorégraphie, ou L’art de décrire la dance par caractères, figures et signes démonstratifs (literally “Choreography or the art of describing dance through characters, figures and demonstrative signs”). This book elaborates a system of dance notation, referring to Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie et traité en forme de dialogue, par lequel toutes personnes peuvent facilement apprendre et pratiquer l’honneste exercice des dances (1588), but pushing the notational project to an unprecedented level of precision and analysis. It proposes a method allowing the graphic representation of social and theatrical dance of the baroque period through a series of signs encoding the positions of the feet, the path followed by the dancers in space – as seen from above –, the steps performed on this path, as well as their type of execution (in plié or élevé, in jumps, etc). It provides extensive tables including the notations of most important steps and their possible variations, as well as a collection of notated dances – compositions by Feuillet himself and by Guillaume-Louis Pécour, to whom the book is dedicated – accompanied by their musical score.

The system proved to be extremely popular; it was translated multiple times, used for the publication of further collections of notated dances and employed by dance masters in several European countries. It significantly contributed to the circulation of dances across social and geographical contexts and allowed exchanges between dance masters that played an important role in their establishment as a professional community. [2] Feuillet’s book also includes the first occurrence of the term “choreography” which, at the time, literally signified “writing dance”. In what follows, I shall use “choreo-graphy” to indicate the notational practice and “choreography” to refer to dance masters’ and contemporary choreographers’ habitual activity as well as the general practice of arranging movement. In this article, through a – possibly preposterous [3] but hopefully productive – confrontation of the Chorégraphie with contemporary choreographic ideas, I would like to propose that despite the evident contextual and conceptual discrepancies choreo-graphy and contemporary “expanded” choreography can provide valuable insights into each other.
Feuillet and dance
Feuillet’s system was based on previous work by Pierre Beauchamp – leading to a dispute over its paternity – who had been asked by Louis XIV to develop a method of dance notation; a request set against the background of the creation of the Académie royale de danse, founded by the king with the explicit goal of avoiding “abuses” in dance practice. [4] The Académie was the institutional expression of a project of control over dance, defining how it should (not) be practiced and establishing a monopoly over its production by imposing the institution’s validation as a prerequisite for the public presentation of new dances. [5] After the decline of burlesque ballet and the liberties it might have allowed in noble circles, the foundation of the Académie served to standardise and institutionalise dance practice under the auspices and the control of the king. [6] The notation therefore constitutes part of a process directed towards the fixation of dance within the limits of a centralised, normative practice.

This normativity of practice cannot be understood in abstraction from the wider framework of late 17th, early 18th century French noble society under Louis XIV, where baroque dance largely developed: a society following, in all its manifestations and activities, a highly choreographed “form of life” [7]. In Nathalie Lecomte’s account, life in court followed an etiquette which “like a choreography, implies for every one, in accordance with their rank, such or such type of gesture to carry out, such way of presenting oneself, of moving, of saluting, etc. That is why [...] this formal ceremony can be conceived as a magnificent ballet of which the whole of society would be the corps [literally: body], the king and his family the principal soloists” [8]. This formal choreography of life extended to wider parts of noble society, for whom strict etiquette rules and a regulation of public affect participated in an elaborate performance of the self, in which each and every act or expression played their part in social organisation. [9] In the context surrounding the Chorégraphie, actions were conceived in terms of their representation in a “social choreography” [10] – a contemporary theoretical construct used as a tool for thinking of the organisation of the social in movement-, body- and performance-related terms and considering dance as only one object of choreographic ordering among others.

While the normativisation of dance in the framework of which Feuillet worked appears as an element of a wider social choreography, it also participates in the progressive compartmentalisation of a specific type of movement as (artistic) dance through a qualitative separation of dance from other forms of movement and other arts; indeed the dance Académie was created “following the example of those of painting and sculpture” [11], thereby also establishing category boundaries between disciplines. This categorisation and the control of the social body alluded to above can be interpreted as being related: for Mark Franko, “under the guise of arguing dance’s aesthetic autonomy from the other arts – most notably from music – the Letters Patent [the king’s text establishing the Académie] actually ensured against the return of any ideologically destabilising burlesque performance”. [12] This disciplinary – in both senses of the word – placing of dance in a specific category was concomitant with its gradual professionalization and detachment from the social world in which it had developed: while in Feuillet’s time dances of the bal and ballet still formed a single continuum, the notation appeared in a transitory period in which – especially after Louis himself gradually stopped dancing in ballets from 1670 onwards [13] – theatrical dance would become separated from social dance, with movements becoming increasingly technically demanding when used in theatrical dance. [14] The Chorégraphie’s decontextualised analysis and codification of dance steps can be read as part of such a tendency positing the art of dance as an autonomous object of expert knowledge.

The interrogations emerging from the Chorégraphie’s particular position between the artistic and the social, between dance as an autonomous object and a generalised social choreography, find echoes in a contemporary, expanded conception of choreography that is not construed only in terms of its relationship with dance, but can be understood as a potentially independent discipline, applying to a field wider than (theatrical) dance. In a 2007 corpus survey [15] asking dance professionals to define choreography, several respondents underlined the function of choreography beyond the arrangement of specifically “dance” objects. In striking continuity with what was observed about Feuillets world above, Chris Haring noted that “The artificiality of a (stage) dance can only arise from the choreography of everyday life”; while for Christine Gaigg “‘Choreography’ […] is a term as far-reaching as ‘gesture’. […] the relation to dance movement is just a tiny special case in the thought space of choreographing”. Feuillet existed in a universe in which “choreo-graphy” did not yet mean “choreography”. His universe was, however, crucial in the development of “choreography” as pertaining to a theatrical, professional, artistic type of dance and therefore as distinct from other forms of movement. The Chorégraphie’s world thus forms a territory for the interrogation of the limits of what is marked “as choreography” – and of the ways in which these limits distribute practices and movements in demarcated categories and draw attention away from choreographed aspects of non-dance activities and from dance’s formatting of the social body. Expanded choreography today seems to be questioning these very same limits.
Feuillet and the body
Feuillet’s analysis pushes dance towards an abstraction to which the body – transformed into points indicating its successive positions on the dance path in a geometrical, decontextualized space – has to adapt. The page becomes a spatial reference: Feuillet meticulously explains how one is to turn without changing the orientation of the book, which takes precedence as an organiser of space over the actual space in which one is dancing. [16] Having to project herself into the format of the notation, adopting its bird’s eye view and integrating a spatial point of reference found outside of the body, the dancer is forced to adapt her kinaesthetic sense to the representation. [17] In effect, the kinaesthetic information contained in Feuillet notation is minimal at best. The system allows no representation of flowing movement; it is a foreigner to notions of physicality, momentum, energy; it focuses on the feet and contains hardly any information about the torso, which is generally assumed to stay upright; it doesn’t seem to grasp the ideas of dance’s corporeal presence and subjective incarnation.

Despite apparently forcing the body to adapt to its abstraction, the Chorégraphie didn’t have a clear, direct relationship with the body: it was neither an independent compositional tool putting the body in motion (although it was used to transmit compositions), nor a notation in the contemporary understanding of the term, fixating an ephemeral bodily movement in written form in order to archive it for posterity – Nicole Haitzinger underlines [18] that this understanding of notation is particular to modernity. The scores produced using Feuillet notation do dictate a dance sequence to the body, but assume previous knowledge of how the body and its movements have to be moulded in order to enter the dance correctly: if one tries to learn baroque dances by reading Feuillet today, it is highly improbable that she will grasp the details (often left out of the notation, especially in what concerns arm movements and exact timing with the music) and style of the belle danse. Indeed, as Marie Glon points out, while the Chorégraphie’s full title states that the system allows one to “easily learn all sorts of dances by oneself”, the notations were mainly accompaniments to dance masters’ teaching [19] – which can be considered to have contributed in shaping the body and its practice more than the written choreo-graphy, that provides a translation of already codified and practiced dance steps.

On the other hand, Feuillet’s work did indirectly contribute to the formatting of embodied dance practice by allowing the construction of new steps and by playing a possible role in formulating subsequent dance training [20], posing the bases for ballet technique. The Chorégraphie’s intermediary position between representing and forming practice can be grasped in a fascinating passage towards the end of the book, in which Feuillet advises prospective notators that if they cannot notate a step, they can simply examine it to decide what type of step it is, then refer to the corresponding table in order to find out its notation. [21] In other words, an experienced or talented notator can break down the step into the constituent parts that will compose its notational symbol, but a less able one can simply represent the name of the step by a sign provided in the book: the Chorégraphie offers both the translation of previously named steps into signs and the possibility of using graphic forms – a remediated [22] version of dance movements – in order to make up new steps, dances, ways of putting the body in motion. The book is therefore positioned between a pre-existing discursivisation and codification of dance that it graphically represents and an embodied dance praxis to which it contributes. [23]

The Chorégraphie’s ambivalent relationship with embodiment is further reflected in the form of the notations. On the one hand, the system does not directly represent the body itself (like for example Labanotation), but rather provides an iconic representation of the dance (its steps, its path in space), in which the body is inserted: in Kellom Tomlinson’s Feuillet-based The Art of Dancing Explained, dancers are literally drawn onto Feuillet notations [24], illustrating how the body is to be projected into the graphically rendered dance. On the other hand, Feuillet’s system does partly introduce the body as a factor in the representation of dance, formulating step signs based on the positions of the feet and the transfer of weight from one to another. [25] In other words, while the Chorégraphie is a graphic, remediated image of the dance itself, it also provides some tools for understanding the dance in terms of the body. This double aspect suggests that a simple dichotomy opposing the writing of choreography in the form of choreo-graphy and the embodied, lived practice of dance might not be sufficient in order to apprehend the complexity of the object that was the Chorégraphie. Instead of construing dance as a fundamentally embodied event that the notation is incapable of fully grasping, it might therefore be productive to consider Feuillet’s dance as expressed, manifested, but not essentially residing in its incarnation. In his preface, Feuillet argues that his system would allow to send dances in a letter, like musical scores [26]: despite its being practiced by bodies, dance can similarly exist independently of its instantiation, it can – in a way that sounds surprisingly familiar to contemporary ears – reside in the page [27].

This challenge to dance’s fundamental incarnation is reflected in contemporary choreography’s interrogations of its relationship with the body, questioning the extent to which choreography is to be concerned with a practice residing, essentially, in corporeality. In the same corpus survey [28] discussed above, Milli Bitterli argued that “[choreography] can do without inscribing into the body and even can take place in the absence of a body”; Ric Allsopp considered that choreography could “go beyond the composition of purely bodily movement”; while Patrícia Portela replied that “[…] it cannot be only about the human body. Choreography is also about the movement that surrounds us, the planets, the stars, the cities, the rocks, the winds […]”. Contemporary expanded choreography is moving towards a disincarnated conception of its practice while at the same time, as Chris Haring concludes, “[…] it will be hard leaving the body behind us”: an ambivalence Feuillet might not have been a complete foreigner to.
Feuillet and contemporaneity
Feuillet’s system proposes an internal taxonomy of dance steps, his signs allowing the classification of the movements making up dance practice. His analysis of dance is based on its reduction to elementary constituent units: dance is broken down into steps and steps are broken down into a basic alphabet of movement units which can then be recombined to form the entirety of the dance language. [29] Feuillet’s taxonomy can thus be understood as potentially exhaustive and universally applicable in the manner of the classical episteme. [30] The notational language resulting from such a taxonomy can be (and was) applied to steps of various regional dances, translating them in terms of a single vocabulary. Jean-Noël Laurenti underlines how this uniformisation was associated with a desire to impose a specific dance style abroad – a desire which Susan Foster considers akin to a colonialist project of cultural dominance [31] – despite the existence of geographical variations. The Chorégraphie did allow the creation of new steps through re-combinations of movement units; these potential re-combinations were, however, also limited by the notation’s specific vocabulary.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Feuillet notation gradually fell out of use when dance practices changed and no longer corresponded to the notational possibilities of the system: its popularity didn’t last much longer than the mid-18th century. In other words, even if the Chorégraphie can be understood as participating in a process of definition of what is to be possible in dance practice, the system was eventually outdone by practice: despite – or rather because of – its “universal” language, Feuillet notation only corresponded to “a” universe. The system’s structure and the range of movements that it can signify – the range of movements that can exist within it – allow us to understand what was (not) possible in this specific universe. Much more than a simple archive of baroque dances, Feuillet notations also provide a graphic image of a way of thinking about dance that goes beyond the dance object itself. Apart from an instrument of control of what is possible in dance, Feuillet’s book also appears as a culturally specific product illustrating its danceworld’s thinking and action modes – and limits. [32]

This cultural specificity is highly representative of Feuillet – a notational system notoriously adapted to no other dance practice than the one it was initially used for [33] – and his project remains an “other object” that cannot be easily assimilated to choreographic forms of other periods. Despite this fundamental particularity, I have tried, in the course of this text, to identify the ways in which the Chorégraphie as an object and its universe – and not the dance of its time – could be relevant to a contemporary expanded choreographic mentality. As an object appearing at a pivotal point in the articulation between a wider social choreography and a compartmentalisation of artistic dance; and participating in as well as graphically representing choreography’s ordering of the body, the Chorégraphie occupies a particular position that seems crucial to the interrogations of contemporary expanded choreographic practice and its own shifting position in relation to embodied dance forms.

The possible connections between choreo-graphy’s universe and our own are bi-directional: while it might not have been possible to form the view of Feuillet that I have tried to develop here without appealing to contemporary concepts developing in response to an expanded understanding of choreography, the Chorégraphie also invites us to consider the possibility that a physically-bound model of dance and a conception of choreography solely in terms of dance might not be absolutely adequate to characterise contemporary practice either. It is by putting into question a model that conceives of choreography and dance as inherently linked and that opposes a necessarily embodied, physical understanding of dance to a written form of choreo(-)graphy that possible connections can appear between Feuillet and a contemporary expanded understanding of choreography. Choreo-graphy and contemporary expanded choreography might be closer than they seem; and this closeness is not only a way of reducing the possible perceived otherness of the Chorégraphie but also a way of asking what our own choreographic practice is an Other to.
[1] Foster, Hal: The Return of the Real. The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996, p. xii.
[2] These functions of choreo-graphy are analysed in the works of historian Marie Glon: Les “Danses Gravées” du XVIIIe siècle, ou la mobilité des frontières des arts de la scène. In: Martin, Roxane & Nordera, Marina (ed.): Les Arts de la scène à l’épreuve de l’histoire. Les objets et les méthodes de l’historiographie des spectacles produits sur la scène française (1635-1906). Paris: Honoré Champion, 2011, pp. 253-260; Ce que la Chorégraphie fait aux maîtres de danse (XVIIIème siècle). In: Corps 7, 2009, pp. 57-64; The materiality of theory. Print practices and the construction of meaning through Kellom Tomlinson’s The Art of Dancing explain’d (1735). In: SDHS Proceedings, Paris, 2007, p. 192.
[3] Cf. Bal, Mieke: Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
[4] Louis XIV: Lettres patentes du roy, pour l'établissement de l'Académie royale de danse en la ville de Paris, 1663. Digitised version: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k76291j/f1.image, pp. 4-6. (2015-06-08)
[5] Ibid., clause 8, p. 19.
[6] Cf. Franko, Mark: Dance as Text. Ideologies of the Baroque Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, see in particular. pp. 108-112.
[7] Cf. Leibovici, Franck: Des formes de vie. Une écologie des pratiques artistiques. Paris: Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers/Questions théoriques, 2012.
[8] Lecomte, Nathalie: Entre cours et jardins d’illusion. Le ballet en Europe (1515-1715). Pantin: CND, 2014, p.145, my translation.
[9] Cf. Elias, Norbert: La Société de cour. Paris: Flammarion, 1985 [1969].
[10] Cf. Hewitt, Andrew: Social Choreography. Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement. Durham-London: Duke University Press, 2005, p. 5.
[11] Louis XIV, Lettres patentes, p. 13, my translation.
[12] Franko, Dance as Text, p. 110.
[13] Lecomte, Entre cours et jardins d’illusion, p. 175.
[14] Ibid., p. 232; see also table p 411.
[15] corpus theme: What is choreography?, 2007. http://www.corpusweb.net/tongue-7.html. (2015-06-08). The respondents here don’t necessarily refer to a “social” conception of choreography but to a construal wider than dance.
[16] Feuillet, Raoul Auger: Chorégraphie, ou L’art de décrire la danse par caractères, figures et signes démonstratifs, 1700. Digitised version: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b86232407/f1.image.r=feuillet%201700.langFR, pp. 33-34. (2015-06-08)
[17] Foster, Susan Leigh: Chorography and choreography. In: Haitzinger, Nicole & Fenböck, Karin (eds.). Denkfiguren. Performatives zwischen Bewegen, Schreiben und Erfinden. Munich: epodium, 2010, pp. 69-75; Foster, Susan Leigh: Choreographing Empathy. Kinesthesia in Performance. New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 25-26.
[18] Haitzinger, Nicole: Vergessene Traktate – Archive der Erinnerung. Zu Wirkungskonzepten im Tanz von der Renaissance bis zum Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts. Munich: epodium, 2009, p. 15.
[19] Glon, Ce que la Chorégraphie fait aux maîtres de danse, p. 62; for a different reading see Tomko, Linda: Dance Notation and Cultural Agency: A Meditation Spurred by Choreo-graphics. In: Dance Research Journal 31: 1, 1999, p. 3.
[20] Cf. Foster, Choreographing Empathy, p. 43.
[21] Feuillet, Chorégraphie, p. 103.
[22] Bolter and Grusin define remediation as “the representation of one medium in another”. Bolter, Jay David & Grusin, Richard: Remediation. Understanding new media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999, p. 45.
[23] This idea was proposed by Nicole Haitzinger, to whom I am thankful for her insights.
[24] Tomlinson, Kellom: The Art of Dancing Explained, 1735. Digitised version: https://archive.org/details/artdancingexpla00tomlgoog. (2015-06-08) On this point see also Foster, Chorography and choreography, p. 74 and Glon, The materiality of theory, pp. 190, 193.
[25] On the organisation of Feuillet’s system in terms of weight transfers and the way in which this idea might have influenced Labanotation, see Louppe, Laurence: L’Espace gravitaire. Interview with Paul Virilio. In: Louppe, Laurence (ed.): Danses Tracées. Dessins et Notation des Chorégraphes. Paris: Dis Voir, 1994, p. 51.
[26] Feuillet, Chorégraphie, unpaginated preface.
[27] For an example of a dance possibly not having existed in embodied form at all, see Glon, Les “Danses Gravées” du XVIIIe siècle, pp. 258-259.
[28] corpus theme: What is choreography?
[29] Cf. Foster, Susan Leigh: Choreographies and Choreographers. In: Foster, Susan Leigh (ed.). Worlding Dance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 102.
[30] On this point see also Pouillaude, Frédéric: D’une graphie qui ne dit rien. Les ambiguïtés de la notation chorégraphique, 2004. http://www.cairn.info/revue-poetique-2004-1-page-99.htm. (2015-06-08)
[31] Laurenti, Jean-Noël: La Pensée de Feuillet. In: Louppe, Danses Tracées, p. 108; Foster, Choreographies and Choreographers, pp. 103-104.
[32] This idea was developed upon reading Thomas Lehmen’s reflections on his project Schreibstück (self-published, 2002).
[33] Cf. Tomko, Dance Notation and Cultural Agency, p. 2.