Somatic discourse in contemporary dance: Embodiment, criticism and political aspirations

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Master's thesis
Degree programme
Master’s Programme in Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Art
The thesis is devoted to a bodywork approach called ‘somatics’ in its relation to contemporary dance and critically explores it as an epistemological and ideological project. ‘Somatics’ is an umbrella term that describes a field of alternative body-mind therapies and creative practices that have been developing in the West since the end of the 19th century, and at the same time, a conceptual bodywork approach that favors the practitioners’ experience of perceiving their own body from within over the external observation. Since its emergence, somatics has been frequently crossing paths with the art of dance through education, research and writings, sharing with it such prerequisites as the belief in the agency of the body, the importance of the kinetic experience and the desire to search for ‘authentic self-expression’ through the internalized bodywork. Although first and foremost somatics plays a practical role in dance education being part of dance training and a tool to prevent professional injuries, in this research, it is critically investigated as a specific type of discourses that manifests particular ideas, values, and ethical stances. The work concentrates on three types of discursive sources: the writings of the ‘founders’ of the most well-known somatic methods (Thomas Hanna, Moshe Feldenkrais), the periodic literature on contemporary somatics, and the critical discourse of dance studies on somatics. It is equally based on the authors' observations from dance classes that she's been collecting through years of working as a dance researcher, as well as on artistic examples and comments by contemporary choreographers that use somatic methods to create dance pieces. The purpose of this approach is to work against the undertheorization of somatics in dance studies and unveil dogmatic and ideological prerequisites that play a dominant role in the field. The criticism unfolds around three essential narratives which are called the ‘promises’ of the somatics: 1) autonomy of the subject; 2) ‘liberation’; 3) proximity beyond language. Each of the narratives is analyzed as problematic and at the same time as carrying the potential for being politicized. The thesis reveals the ways in which practices that promise inclusivity and liberation tend to get shut in creating a normative body and exclusive spaces, but at the same time, charts possible ways for it to move towards situated political choices and discussions. The work suggests that contemporary dance, together with other adjacent art practices, can be a domain of material-discursive negotiation, a field of more creative and politicized application of the somatics — that is beyond the purpose of personal efficiency, and promotion of endless ‘better versions of the self’.
Ryynänen, Max
Thesis advisor
Largacha, Maria Villa
somatics, contemporary dance, discourse analysis, epistemology, ideology, embodiment, choreography
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