Archives are usually considered institutional places of storage for public records and documents in which historical knowledge and forms of remembrance are accumulated and preserved. We store information and collect documents and objects to pass them on to other generations in the hope that they may later reveal significances and values that we are not yet aware of. However, the notion of the archive has been re-visited and re-examined by philosophers, historians, scientists, curators and artists, whose approaches have reconsidered them as dynamic places, rather than static, and in a state of becoming. These thinkers have also problematised who has the power to build archives, and who and what these institutions include or exclude. Dance scholars tend to agree that to perform, discuss or write about dance, we always need to refer to some form of archive regardless of whether this is the dancer’s incorporated memory, the viewer’s visual and kinesthetic memory or one of the available media used to record dance. These observations contributed to providing an additional understanding of the role and the function of different forms of archives in relation to a dance tradition, a dance technique, or a choreographic work.

The French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss in his Techniques of the Body (1973 [1935]) showed that physical habits – ranging from running to eating and from sleeping to dancing – are shaped by culture and society even though in many circumstances they are performed, transmitted, and perceived as if they were natural. Mauss defined body techniques as bodily actions that are “effective” and become “traditional” through imitation, transmission and social interaction. Mauss’ analysis and classification of body techniques proved revolutionary because it introduced the idea that the body is a repository of its movement history. From this perspective, the body is seen as a reservoir of specific physical forms, gestures and movements that are used in everyday life and are distinct in every culture and society. These actions and physical forms are re-activated and renewed each time they are transmitted, re-incorporated, and received. Dance is also considered a technique of the body, as suggested by Mauss, and the (dancing) body an archive and a site of memory, as much as movements could also be considered tools for archiving and sharing archival processes.

In Archeology of Knowledge (1972 [1969]), Michel Foucault offered one of the most radical reflections on the archive as “the general system of formation and transformation of statements” (130). This perspective produced a significant shift from the understanding of the archive as an object or an institution to its procedural, performative and relational nature. For the field of dance studies, this concept has been particularly influential because it revealed that the body is an archive and choreography is a dynamic system of transmission and transformation useful to turn abstract concepts, verbal statements and written documents (including choreographic scores) into corporeal actions and kinetic events. On the heels of Mauss’s and Foucault’s theories, Inge Baxmann in The Body as Archive. On the Difficult Relationship Between Movement and History (2007) and later André Lepecki in The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dances (2010) strengthened the role of the dancing body in preserving knowledge and memory, transmitting and making them accessible. The metaphor of the “body as archive” or the “body archive” refers to the idea that the body can be understood as a “storage place” of corporeal documents and therefore of incorporated knowledge. Through this lens, the body retains sensory, emotional and cognitive experiences that are accessed as movements, gestures, patterns and rhythms.

According to a widely-accepted misconception in Western societies, dance is considered ephemeral. What is ephemeral does not leave traces, resists permanence and defies becoming part of history, because it is difficult to store in a traditionally understood archive, which is based on written forms of performance remains or conventional modes of representation. The notion of the body as an archive challenges the understanding of dance as ephemeral, as it proves that the body has the capacity to store and transmit knowledge allowing a dance technique or a choreographic work of the past to survive through time. The body also has the power to affect other bodies kinesthetically and preserve the memory of this sensation. This is how dance, as a practice of embodiment and transmission, and as a medium for memory to be represented, restaged and revived, persists in time. More recent empirical studies in cognitive psychology and neuroscience suggest that learning and performing, but also adapting (dance) movements to a specific choreography, rely on various cognitive processes and operational procedures that integrate physical actions with working and procedural memory (Bläsing, Puttke and Schack 2018). The combination of these processes is what scientists, referring to dancers, metaphorically define as embodied archives of complex motor action.

The artistic practice of revisiting and animating the archive is a process of actualising and questioning the past. Artists engaged in dance reenactments (often hosted inside museums and galleries) offer active and generative approaches to historical material by identifying as yet unexplored possibilities or valuable reproducible experiences in past works. This way of accessing dance heritage through the body unlocks and actualises a work’s past and places the relationship between the multiple temporalities of past, present and future at the core of reenactment. Last but not least, explorations by dancers and choreographers can result in politically subversive actions towards archives as institutions because they offer alternative knowledge of counter-memories.

To reenact a dance piece, it is necessary to combine traditional and material documentation with other forms of evidence of the past that artists and scholars are more sensitive to recognise as valuable. This issue becomes even more relevant, for example, in the case of companies with a single choreographer who after his/her death must find new balances in the management and transmission of the repertoire and the preservation of their archive. In the case of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, the designated heirs after Bausch’s death in 2009 created the “Laboratory of memory” in which the incorporated memory of the dancers and spectators is preserved as much as the videos and other tangible remains of performances. The preservation of the works of the past is strictly connected to the daily work of the company and consists in the transmission of the repertoire through its practice. In other cases, such as that of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the choreographer (who passed away the same year as Pina Bausch) arranged for the dissolution of his ensemble and the dissemination of the repertoire to other companies, subject to compliance with a protocol of use, including a minimum number of documents and procedures deemed essential to the rearrangement of individual pieces. These are two instances of choreographic authority, authoriality and institutional control that expose issues of originality and failure in the re-activation of the choreographic and body archive.

Discussing or writing about dance also requires an active memory, just as much as spectators retain in their kinesthetic memory different forms of their experiences of a dance or choreographic work. For this reason, a dance performance transforms its spectators into dynamic archives in motion, committed witnesses and potential storytellers who carry the “response-ability” to ethically and aesthetically co-archive dance together with the experiences it produces.


Baxmann, Inge (2007) The Body as Archive. On the Difficult Relationship Between Movement and History. In: Gehm, Sabine; Husemann, Pirkko and von Wilcke, Katharina (eds.) Knowledge in Motion. Perspectives Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. pp. 207–216. 

Bläsing, Bettina; Puttke, Martin; Schack, Thomas (eds.) (2018) The Neurocognition of Dance: Mind, Movement and Motor Skills. London: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel (1972 [1969]) The Archeology of Knowledge. Translated from the French by A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon.

Lepecki, André (2010) The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dances. Dance Research Journal, 42(2), pp.28–48. doi:10.1017/S0149767700001029.

Mauss, Marcel (1973 [1935]) Techniques of the body, Economy and Society, 2(1), pp.70–88. doi: 10.1080/03085147300000003.