The word dances

Edward Scheer: Antistatic 99

I remember when I started as a lecturer at Macquarie Uni in 1990 coming across some research on the effectiveness of the lecture format which informed me that students on average retain around 10% of what is said in a lecture, more (around 30%) of how it is said (intonation patterns, delivery, timing…) and much more (around 60%) visuals (how the lecturer looked, their gestures, what images they presented etc). This underscored what I’d always thought about the lecture format, not just that it had to be performative, but that it was, in the eyes of its audience, already a type of performance and that those of us who were going to engage in lecturing as a mode of transmitting data were also (perhaps even more so) to be engaged in mobilising a perceptual framework about performing that we needed to take on board.

Jump forward 9 years to Susan Leigh Foster’s 2 recent Sydney gigs (lecture performances or the other way around) and I found a thoroughly planned and impressive model which responds to this very dynamic. Anyone present at these events at TPS on March 28 and UNSW’s School of Theatre Film and Dance on the 29th was forced to confront the lecture space as a kind of pedagogic mise en scene where the lecturer’s words were interrupted by sudden though rehearsed movements and gestures which sometimes underscored a discursive point and sometimes undermined it, manifesting a playful irresponsibility of language to its objects and of the authority figure to their underlings in the crowd. Irresponsible because the response is not obvious, only a hybrid response will do justice to the performance. A simple registration of the data will not help in understanding what is at stake in this type of lecture. One must enact a creative response of one’s own. I find this a very generous style of communication not least because the lecturer has placed their own physical capacities on display, but because a plurality of focus points emerges depending on the specific concerns of each spectator. There was plenty to look at and to think about even if you were losing the thread of the argument.

Other receptions of these pieces were not as enthusiastic. Some argued the obvious point that it was hard to just listen to the words, others said the words were too prescriptive of the moves she made (and presumably that she shouldn’t have been speaking at all), others said it was comical, “like John Cleese lecturing on movement while doing his silly walks routine”, others said the movement was too technically precise and that while the pieces were exploring a hybrid form their choreographic elements paradoxically served to reinforce traditional modes of moving which were unemotive, detached, purely formal displays of technique. In my view one shouldn’t begrudge Professor Foster her training and in any case, the variety of moves she made suggested something other than pure formalism, eg moving through an audience and taking pens, bags and personal objects from the spectators then redistributing them throughout the space. Neither was the text purely discursive. Often language was used in an explicitly performative sense. In the TPS lecture the audience was asked to stand up, run on the spot, stand close to someone, stumble, stretch, duck, balance, pose, run stealthily and touch someone’s hand…nor was it possible to ignore the generous spirit with which she engaged with the varying audience reactions to her work, reactions which sometimes verged on the bloody minded not to say bizarre.

In her 2 performed pieces in Sydney, she presented the performance of knowledge as something more than a bombastic parading of facts or a bewildering discharge of concepts; as an embodied array of learned and unlearned behaviours which seem to permit more freedoms than they constrain. In this model spectators can choose elements of the mise en scene to focus upon, and elements of the text to listen to, triggering a sense of lightness in the learning situation, rather than the weighty, dour and humourless lecturing styles which we have all been exposed to and wish to forget. In short it is a knowledge performance which expresses a desire to animate debates, a crucial pedagogic task in the age of the info-byte.

Middle Ear: Susan Leigh Foster, Kinaesthetic Empathies & the Politics of Compassion, Antistatic, The Performance Space, March 28

Choreographer, dancer, writer, Susan Foster is Professor of Dance at the University of California campuses of Davis and Riverside. She is author of Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance, and Choreography and Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire. She is also editor of Choreographing History and Corporealities.

RealTime issue #31 June-July 1999 pg. 10

© Edward Scheer; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 June 1999