The meaning and operational modes of individual and cultural memory have opened up new research horizons in the humanities, transforming our understanding of the way we remember dance, maintain and represent what we remember of it (Assman, 2011). For instance, the much debated ephemerality of dance and the death of the last dancers and choreographers of a particular dance tradition produce the need for archiving experiences and memories related to this form of living heritage, and for introducing new narratives, technological and performative formats to transmit them. The expansion of media and communication technologies in transmitting and archiving dance techniques and cultures sheds new light on the storage and transmission of memories at risk of disappearance, raising new issues in the fields of (dance) preservation and digitalisation. In Transmission in Motion: The Technologizing of Dance (2016) Maaike Bleeker explores to what extent new technologies and networked media tend towards accelerated forms of temporality, simultaneity, and, last but not least, quick obsolescence.
Memory is a central issue for dance, although only in recent times have artists, scholars and scientists focused on practical and theoretical in-depth explorations. We tend to think about memory as the passive recalling of images and experiences of the past, but we should rather reconsider it in dance as a vital force that is always active in the movement of the bodies perceiving and performing it. Remembering is also central to the learning of dance and neurophysiologists, who inquire about the cellular mechanisms of memory and neuronal networks, have shed new light on what is defined as the embodiment of dance and the kinesthetic reception of a choreographic work through memory. Recent investigations in neuroscience have further revealed to what extent memory exists as the result of embodied experiences and empathetic and kinesthetic responses to other people’s presence and the surrounding world. Cognitive psychologists and psychoanalysts have also developed models that dance and cultural studies scholars can refer to, proving that even the oldest memories travel with us continuously in our brain tissue, always accompanied (and altered) by new impressions and experiences. In other words, our memories are faulty and what we remember changes each time we recall a specific event. In the same way we remember our memories, once we embody, restage, and transmit a dance it changes despite the assumption of its authenticity, as confirmed by Bettina Bläsing and Pil Hansen in Performing the Remembered Present. The Cognition of Memory in Dance, Theatre and Music (2017).
Phenomena of migration and diasporas, as well as postcolonial and global approaches to culture, have stimulated new debates on the circulation of dance forms, techniques and cultures challenging the “traditional” boundaries between the social and the staged, the ethnic, and the aesthetic. The deconstruction of the idea of continuity in transmitting dances of the past has contributed to rethinking dance history as ramified, fragmented and dynamic. By considering individual and collective memory as discontinuous and taking into account slippages, removals, or different forms of oblivion, artists and scholars have started questioning canonical genealogies of masters and pupils, and dance traditions. This assumption has also contributed to the discussion of embodied and disembodied ways of transmitting and archiving (dance) knowledge. A large part of this debate concerns the distinction between material/immaterial forms of knowledge, and tangible (physical artefacts produced, maintained and transmitted intergenerationally in society) and intangible cultural heritage (skills, knowledge, expressions, representations, practices). In 1992, UNESCO introduced the Memory of the World Programme, which called for the preservation of cultural products and processes from all over the world. It also aimed to reconstitute missing or displaced documentation of heritage and to increase its dissemination. These debates influenced the way we are accustomed to conceiving the notions of dance legacy and dance archive. They also stimulated the development of the concept of body archive as a repository of individual and collective knowledge and memory to be preserved and transmitted. Together, this research has led to a profound rethinking of dance history and its narration by focusing on plurality and difference instead of homogeneity and similarity.
The recent emergence of reenactment as a new anti-positivist approach to dance history contributes to imagining different ways of engaging with the dance’s past. (Dance) reenactments offer an alternative to the notion and practice of reconstruction to return a past dance work to what and where it was at the time of its creation precisely by activating collective and individual, oral and embodied memories. Unlike reconstructions, reenactments aspire to make visible the often incompatible (written or embodied, factual or fictitious) memories that coexist and address them. The need to make memory the core of the study of the past is also sustained by visual artists and scholars who resist collective amnesia, neglect, and deliberate destruction of minorities or marginal communities. Moreover, museums no longer aspire to any totalising synthesis of the past and are being transformed from heritage sites into memory forums for communities. In Mediating Memory in the Museum: Trauma, Empathy, Nostalgia (2013), Silke Arnold-de Simine argues that museums should be considered places of recollection, driven by performance and narratives rather than objects, and that they need to follow the ethical imperative to remember and to preserve diversified memories and controversial histories. Their role is crucial in transforming living memory into commemorative practices that are constructed and sustained institutionally. Dance, as an embodied practice, offers the ideal tool to identify through physical co-existence with formerly marginalised or silent communities, to adopt their memories, or empathise with their stories. On the one hand, dance can contribute to democratising communication between the museum and the public. On the other hand, and precisely because of its capacity for carrying and transmitting (embodied) memories, dance, as a direct experience, is of great help in developing a transhistorical curatorial approach to art that aims at transcending the particular frame of reference within which it was produced, and finding the links and influences between the inextricable past and present. From this perspective, dance allows us to look at works and communities we already know from a different perspective, and continually discover something new in them.
Assman, Aleida (2011) Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bleeker, Maaike (2016) Transmission in Motion: The Technologizing of Dance. London and New York: Routledge.
Hansen, Pil and Bläsing, Bettina (2017) Performing the Remembered Present. The Cognition of Memory in Dance, Theatre and Music. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Silke Arnold-de Simine (2013) Mediating Memory in the Museum: Trauma, Empathy, Nostalgia Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.