Susan Leigh Foster improvises for enthralled audience

In the last of the lectures from the Perspectives on the Humanities series, Swarthmore alumna Susan Leigh Foster ’71 spoke on the history of choreography and the choreographer. Foster is a writer, a dancer, and a professor at UC Riverside, where she founded the first PhD program in dance history and theory in United States.

She started her lecture by reminiscing about her time at Swarthmore. She recalled a formative conversation with the Swarthmore provost, who told her that “dance is a non-cognitive activity and therefore has no place in the university curriculum.” Foster already disagreed, seeing the dance studio as a scientific laboratory and dance itself as a form of theorizing. “Dance, like writing, is both theoretical and corporeal…it can comment on itself,” explained Foster, and “Much of my work has endeavored to prove the provost wrong.”

Another more positive formative experience was a course called “Methods of Inquiry” team-taught by professors from different disciplines in which each professor questioned their own discipline. Foster had the insight that “there are many ways to examine any given subject… it all depends on how you conceptualize dance.” Dance can be seen as a form of writing, as a reflection of cultural values, or even as a producer of cultural values.

In the late seventeenth century, Louis XIV put out a call for somebody to “put dance on paper.” Raoul-Auger Feuillet not only coined the neologism “choreography,” but created the first system of dance notation adopted throughout Europe. His notation “highlights the path of the dancer’s body and the actions of their feet, reducing movement to a set of possiblities.”

Fourier also discussed the relationship of the dancer to the page, recommending that the top of the page always stay oriented to the top of the room. His meticuluous instructions to orient a dancer to “True North,” “erased the locality of dance steps in order to place all dancing on the plane of pure geometry.” According to Feuillet, this “synthesis of pure space and absolute geometry… undergirded the colonial project.”

The term choreography was abandoned by end of 18th century, but by the 1920s and 1930s the term returned at the Bennington dance workshop, which split classes into technique, composition, and choreography. By requiring students to audition for choreography workshops, Bennington constructed choreography as an elite form of dance, as the highest outcome of the creative process, and as an individual rather than collective act.

“In the early 18th century you learned to dance by learning dances, but by the 1930s universal principles of motion were seen as the foundation for all dance movement,” summarized Foster, “where Feuillet used axes and metrical time to mark movement, we saw space as the void into which the body projected and time as whether that happened quickly or slowly.”

Foster spoke about the harmful assumption that black dancers were expected to produce natural and spontaneous movement, and also the unspoken requirement that blacks were required to show “their” values and concerns on stage while whites were able to experiment with newness.
The result of this was that “modern dance” came to belong to one race and one class.

Modern dance also secured a special place for dances authored by a single artist rather than the popular and social forms associated with “ethnological dance.” This distinction was made in the 1930s and carried forward for many years afterwards. Foster paused to recognize Sharon Friedler here at Swarthmore, who “has integrated the two in a visionary way.”

In the 1970s choreography experience again another set of modifications. There was a new interest in “found movement” and thus the decentering of authorial genius. Dances were “conceived by” or “arranged by” rather than “choreographed by.” This shift reconceived of the artist as craftsperson rather than genius and repositioned the artist as a laborer and collaborator.

In the last six months, Foster noted, we have seen yet again a proliferation of ths term. Examples such as “choreographing movements in Iraq” and “choreographing street lights for best traffic flow,” suggest an underlying reference to “the masterminding of social behaviors” that reflects choreography’s earlier connection to colonization.

Foster then treated her audience to an improvisation of her own. While dancing about the front of the Schuer Room, it became clear that “even my improvisation has choreographic content… I have preferences for a disjointed sort of movement… I try to scare you with which body part I’m going to use next.” Even though Foster was trying to do pure improvisation, “these are decisions I can’t help but make in the moment.” According to Foster, her decisions as a performer and her decisions as a choreographer “demand different sets of skills and engage different but overlapping meaning-systems.”

Foster ended her lecture by bringing the audience into the discussion, saying “I continue to think it’s helpful to tell dancer from dance and choreographer from choreography… but I don’t know, what do you think?”


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