Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body"

Book Review

Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body
by Mark Franko
Revised Edition
published by Oxford University Press, 2015

The relationship between dance and text is a predominant theme in today’s choreographic/performance arena. It’s everywhere – in Dance Theater, interdisciplinary collaborations, mixed media immersions, classical ballet and contemporary dance. But of course, the interconnectedness of these two fields is by no means a new phenomenon – in fact, the conversation between movement and language may be one of the oldest dialogues there is.

In his book, Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body, scholar and author Mark Franko tackles this vast subject by looking at a particular period in history and a specific genre of choreography: French Court Ballet staged between the late 1500s and the late 1600s. By analyzing actual examples from that era, Franko unlocks the deep communion between dance and text during that century, while simultaneously making a connection to the present day.   

Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body impresses on many fronts. If French Court Ballet is a new subject for you, as it was for me, by the time you reach the end of the book, it will no longer be unfamiliar. In its five main chapters, along with a prologue and epilogue, Franko covers the topic with curiosity, breadth and plenitude. From the literal architecture of geometrical dance (where bodies spelled words and patterned narrative symbols) to a more deconstructed treatment of choreography and gesture as textual metaphor. Franko’s commentary on Burlesque Ballet includes the genre’s distinct physical vocabulary as well as the messages it was attempting to convey within a theatrical container. Both subtle and overt messages of sexuality, identity and gender fluidity; statements that brought to light the socio-cultural realities of the time. Chapter five takes us to the late 1660s where Franko shares a number of concurrent and related developments in dance and text: a move toward institutional/syllabus-based ballet, the rise of the comedy-ballet and a rethinking of the dance interlude in performance structure (his discussion of this last one is especially affecting and thought-provoking). The epilogue, titled “Repeatability, Reconstruction and Beyond”, brings a dance dramaturgy perspective to the table. While an interesting manner in which to close the book, some of the ideas posited in these last twenty pages are less convincing. But they do get you thinking, to be sure. And even though Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body focuses on choreography and narrative, Franko also manages to relate the two disciplines to the evolution of music composition in these hundred years - fugue versus single melodic voicing, harmony versus dissonance and much more.

Some structural components of the book deserve special mention. Because Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body focuses on language and physicality in French Court Ballet, there are a number of French quotes and literary excerpts throughout. I loved how Franko included the original French followed by an English translation. It not only gives atmosphere and context, but also helps transport the reader (at least this reader) to that time and place from so long ago. Also, amongst his thoughtful discussion and analysis, Franko cleverly unpacks terminology commonly used in dance studies - terms like avant-garde, burlesque, baroque, discourse, practice and theory. He provides a more comprehensive understanding of their meaning and intent, and encourages the reader to think differently and more broadly about these themes and concepts.

Another important achievement of Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body is that from the very beginning of the book, Franko draws a parallel between French Court Ballet and present-day performance. How can baroque court ballet speak to today’s choreographic endeavors? While it may not be the main thesis of the book, the connection Franko makes between the past and the present is undeniable. Even separated by hundreds of years, commonalities abound – a blurry border between art and life; an active approach to immersive viewership; performance art as a means to solution; a porous line separating the performers and the audience. I was particularly struck by how Burlesque Ballet of that period sounded very much like today’s Dance Theater.

Last point for potential readers. Dance As Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body is one of the most academic texts I’ve read, perhaps geared towards graduate level students in dance and performance studies. Much of the language is thick and heavy; knowing that ahead of time may be helpful.

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