Semiotic perspective on mediating dance

Notes and reflections on mediating dance, body as medium and dance as a language emerging after reading the article „Is Sound Recording like a Language?“ by Alan Williams and the works of Valerie Preston Dunlop, an aknowledged dance researcher.

Main questions concerning language in the context of dance films are:

How material becomes organized, structured, articulated medium (or language, signifying practice)? Discovering the (formal) characteristics or techniques that make a creative choice possible – instead of automatic recording the author has a choice between different ways of representing (like in case of a film image – choice of distance, angle, movement etc). To what extent these possibilities have “modeling capacity”, i.e the capacity to transform/impact the information mediated by it (or to assign a “way of seeing” to the world which is represented).

Material of whatever art work becomes organized, in case there is structure: you can point out certain elements. Amounts of organised elements and hierarchial relations between those form a meaningful text in every medium, as without organisation a meaning is hard to find or point out. Even in non-figurative art where there are only irregular shapes and illogical lines, organisational aspects still exist. They are simply emerging from the realm of colour or from references to previous work (through the title or similar patterns in lines and overall structure). In a given language or sign system, exists a minimal unit, which can be percieved as the smallest distinctive unit or element. The position of a subject, a reciever can also both be seen and constructed. Every element aquires meaning only while related to others – this kind of structural relation lies at the basis of semiotics and semiological (structural-lingvistical) research according to Ferdinand de Saussure.

The most common possibility to see this articulation is usually montage – how the pictures, scenes (in performance or film), sounds etc are combined lineary, what’s the order of appearance, do they become a pattern, is there any repetition or synchronizing used. Extending the aspect you can also see montage in an art exhibition, in the ways how curator has divided the works and positioned them, in what order does the member of audience see them. You can choose the amount of concrete elements or motives in one text, you can choose the order, the way they are presented – and this proposes a question about the dominant of the text. The sender/author can stay on a neutral position, without explicitly giving or stressing  his or her own viewpoint. In literary studies for example, different narrator positions can be found: author can express a certain „voice“ with distinctive characteristics and attitude towards the subject. Viewpoint is constructed, it does not just happen and its equivalent in art and film can be angle of the camera or the artist gaze. Here we notice the aspect of direction, how the focus is directed and controlled.

Text can be organized on ideological, political, religious level, or have a viewpoint of gender issue. By different means of organising, a genre within a field is created. The reader/spectator has, as a member of culture, means to decode the message, and by doing it, the reciever also submits to a certain code that is presented. The way of representation is interesting to analyze in a situation where it’s something to do with the attitude towards a certain characteristics, group or a certain attitude towards a theme. For example the meaning construction and ways of representation in showing issues connected to holocaust. There are concrete symbols that are used an varied together with changing of the medium. The same goes with gender issuesthe „male gaze“ in cinematography and how it is constructed via montage, angles of camera, the way scenes are built up etc.

All these  form an apparatus that definetely has a modeling capacity as it presents only one possibility to percieve the world, only one perspective which can lead also to similar interpretations while recieving the text.

Hereby, I would like to illustrate this subject by describing the formation of dance language and descrbing the mediational aspect of dancing. In dance you can, in my opinion, find two different approaches: the body as medium or the movement as medium. Through composition and creation of choreography body and its movements as material form an organized and structured shape, which can be seen as a dance text (in semiotical sense).

Rhythm, Body, Space, Movement – I would make this kind of apportioning while analyzing dance as a text and bringing forth mediums used to convey meanings. Space and rhythm give a kind of overall frame for the moving body, which is body and movement combined. The abovementioned aspects can be seen as somatical/kinetical mediums. So basically, dance is formed by body that executes rhythmical movements in a given space.

Movements are organized into movement phrases or movement clasters that while binded together, form a dance performance or dance text. Movements can be organized on body level – for example, whether we are seeing a movement in legs, hands or torso. These can also be seen as patterns that choreographer may use to create canons, to play with repeating, echo and synchronicity. You can vary the rhythm, the intensity of movement, the relaxation and tension as contrasting means of mediation. By doing this, different connotations are rising in spectator’s consciousness.

Contemporary dance is related to overall cultural context and its tendencies. In the field of performing arts the synthesis of human body and technology has become a popular method which is applied more and more, especially in technological theatre. Human body acts as a medium that states meanings through bodily expression. While used together with other mediums for example screens, computers etc, a question how the meanings are given in this new complex whole and what becomes the main medium (if there are one that dominates others) is arised. It is also connected with a perspective that takes human body as an instrument, a machine, a concrete and structured system.  Postdramatic and postmodern paradigm has lead into situation where body itself is mediated during different performances, and the notion of body has changed (the performative body might also be a robot or a projection instead of a real-life dancer).

Preston Dunlop, a well-known and widely ackknowledged dance methodologist, reearcher and choreographer has offered her distinction: dance consists of four mediums: movement, performer/dancer, sound and space. These four aspects combined, a dance piece or dance text is formed. That is the medium of dance as an art form. (Preston-Dunlop 1998:1-6)

In a dance performance, she distinguishes 4 semiotical levels, that is 4 ways of how the meaning can be expressed. First type of meaning comes from rehearsal process, the second meaning is carried by mediums (a kind of an inside, preceeding meaning), the third is changing/moving meaning (different in every performance), the fourth is meaning in the spectator. (Preston-Dunlop 1998: 23-24)

In this case, when we are talking about mediating some information or meaning, the aspect of medium’s own internal meaning is the most relevant. It makes a difference whether we watch a moving body through camera lens or live on stage. By mixing and using different frames we can show the movement and the human body as an object in itself (objectify it), as a sign referring to content or separate it and take it only as a medium that carries messages (like a vessel).

In semiotical context, semantical, paradigmatical and syntactical aspects can all be identified and they have a role in creating meaningful texts from any sign system or language, like in this particular case, film and dance.


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