A Life Between Us:Celebrating 21 years of Unitec Dance.

A Life Between Us:Celebrating 21 years of Unitec Dance.  

Michael Parmenter


It has been described as one of the defining moments of modern dance. Isadora Duncan stands alone in her studio, waiting for the spirit of dance to arise from the deep wellsprings of her being: "For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breasts, covering the solar plexus..... I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement" [1]. Dance, for Duncan, begins in the dark region of interiority and rises to the surface as rhythmical movements that emanate out to the world. 

Since its inception, in the pioneering work of exceptional innovators such as Duncan, Mary Wigman and Martha Graham, modern, and then contemporary dance has been understood as the creative expression of an individual life. The rise of the solo dancer and the constant quest for an individual vocabulary of movement affirm the belief that modern dance finds its source deep within the body of the isolated creative artist. Even from within the encampment of iconoclast Merce Cunningham, dancer Carolyn Brown, a long-time collaborator, asserts that the only real tradition of contemporary dance is "to begin everything again out of one's own resources." [2] In contrast to the hierarchical structures of the ballet world, which represented the similarly stratified 19th century society during which it flourished, modern dance represented the autonomous life of the person and was to be discovered deep within the body of each individual.

This recourse to radical interiority finds its source in an identification and an opposition: firstly, dance equals life, and secondly, life is the very antithesis of societal and cultural norms. Duncan, under the influence of a 19th century definition of life as an ‘inner milieu' and the subsequent life-philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson, called her studio the "Studio of Life". Seeking a dance that would break free of the artificiality of social convention, Duncan equates the return to nature with a voyage into the interior realm. In her 1909 essay "Movement is Life" [3], she describes ‘movement imposed from without" as being antithetical to the spontaneous movements of nature found within the human body.

The French poet Paul Valery, writing contemporaneously and under the same influences as Duncan in his highly influential essay "Philosophy of the dance", affirms that dance, "is a kind of inner life." [4] This understanding of the interiority of life gives Valery permission to state categorically that for the dancer there is no outside: "the dancing body seems unaware of everything else, it seems to know nothing of its surroundings. It seems to hearken to itself and only to itself, to see nothing as though its eyes were jewels...lights that serve no purpose." 

Such ideas about dance still prevail today. A question to our first year students upon their arrival at Unitec as to why the want to study dance, invariably brings the response, "I want to express my inner feelings". Nor are such ideas restricted to the dance studios of Christchurch or the North Shore. For the currently reigning master of French thought, Alain Badiou, dance is a ‘metaphor for thinking' for the very reason that it has no engagement with alterity: "dance frees the body from all social mimicry, from all gravity and conformity." Every gesture and every line of dance must present itself, notes Badiou, "not as a consequence but as the very source of mobility." 

Unitec dance students, living and studying together for three years, soon discover however, that dance is never free from the social engagements, alliances and networks that constitute any social or political entity. In fact they quickly come to learn what science and philosophy has taken much of the 20th century to discover, that living entities are far from autonomous, are never free from sources of mobility imposed from outside, and therefore any opposition between ‘life' and ‘society' is artificial. If Isadora Duncan maintained an identification of dance with ‘life', and let's not be too ready to dismiss all her revolutionary insights, then it must be recognised that ideas about ‘life' have changed radically throughout the last century. Life is more often understood now by its relationship to an environment and to other living entities, than by notions of isolated interiority. Societal structures, even our penchant for technology, are seen to be natural developments of, not radical departures from, this primary biological relationship to otherness.

It has taken contemporary dance some time to come to terms with these new conceptions of life and society. It wasn't till the 60's, with the Judson Church revolutionaries, that many of the individualist presuppositions about dance performance were radically challenged and till the 70's, with the emergence of new forms of training and practice like contact improvisation, that dance training began to entertain the possibility that the isolated individual might not be the ideal starting place for an education in dance.

From its inception however, the dance programme at Unitec has been a thriving, and sometimes striving, example of the understanding of life as linked, networked and always in a symbiotic relationship with its environment. The history of dance at Unitec, with its struggles and its flourishings, is the story of the collective life of  innumerable visionaries, managers, teachers, a multitude of associated artists and the gallery of very resourceful and often inspired student dancers who have constituted the amorphous body of this living entity. All those who have passed through or had anything to do with the collective vitality that it UNITEC DANCE have contributed to and been marked by what, in the hindsight of this celebration, can be recognised as "a life between us."

[1] Isadora Duncan, My Life, New York 1927, p. 75.

[2] Carolyn Brown, quoted in Laurence Louppe, Poetics of Contemporary Dance, Alton, 2010, p.23.

[3] Isadora Duncan, The Art of Dance, New York, 1928, p. 78.

[4] Paul Valery, "Philosophy of the dance" in Copeland & Cohen, What is Dance?, Oxford, 1983, p.65.

[5] Valery, p.61.

[6] Alain Badiou, Handbook in Inaesthetics, Stanford, 2004, p.58