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Dancing Machines

Reviewed by Odetta Norton

McCarren, Felicia. Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. 254 pages. ISBN: 0804739889

In my work, I move from creative writing to academic writing to dance practice and theory. An editor and mentor once told me that he despised dissertation titles. Wordy, stuffy, overstated, the academic title too often tries to bear more weight than it can handle. In the case of Felicia McCarren’s second book I would have to agree with this mentor. Harking back to Walter Benjamin’s famous treatise, McCarren’s Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is too big a buffet. The colon between Machines and Choreographies is a poor substitute for a proper digestif between courses. The actual work inside follows in this manner; a bloated text, much to this reader’s dismay. But once sifted out, the kernels of scholarship that McCarren presents still make some tasty food for thought.

In McCarren’s first book, Dance Pathologies: Performance, Poetics, Medicine, the author reveals the ways in which Romantic poets such as Stephane Mallarmé and Théophile Gautier define feminine subjectivity in mid-nineteenth century ballet. Dance Pathologies considers how these definitions of subjectivity depended largely on the visibility of the ballerina in the public sphere. It is also in this first work where McCarren investigates the relationship of concert dance to medicine and science.

In the more recent Dancing Machines, McCarren takes a related but still distinct point of departure. Here she considers the relationship of modern dance to the technologies of writing and film. The author begins again by looking at Mallarmé, citing his “famous formulation” of dance and explaining that “dancing is a form of writing, but writing itself–books–will, he claims, one day be replaced by cinema” (51). According to McCarren, books were not the only things replaced by cinema. She argues effectively that “cinema spectating followed dance spectating” though remains uncertain whether “spectators chose film, or film, becoming a resolutely mass art, chose larger and larger audiences” (58). For McCarren, habits of spectating that were built largely around live performance are transformed significantly with the advent of film and other machine technology.

McCarren further examines the mutual influences of writing and dance by citing Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Oscar Wilde. In Wilde’s work, for example “the dancer stands for art and artifice, sexual freedom, resembling Wilde’s version of the Baudelairean dandy” (73). In Salomé, a play named after the dancer whom many portrayed through Romantic literature and painting, Wilde included a dance but left no stage directions. McCarren argues that this dance is a “black hole in the text–a theater revolution” (73). Where dance is a form of writing for Mallarmé, it is for Wilde a potential revolt against the written or spoken word.

Shifting her focus, McCarren also considers how modern dance is influenced by the machine, particularly in its constructions of feminine subjectivity. In modern dance, physical stage expression becomes filled with intention and is less associated with sexual fantasy as it is in the Romantic ballet. According to McCarren, modern dance concerns itself with mechanics, movement and mobility in general. Regarding the work of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, for example, McCarren argues that “Isadora’s dance embodies a nineteenth-century view of the machine, the human motor, and allies itself with a nineteenth-century romantic science that continues to play a role in the twentieth-century conception of a ‘dancing machine’”(67). That Duncan died in an automobile accident gives an ironic and tragic dimension to the metaphor. Riding in a convertible, her long scarf blows in the wind. The scarf catches in the car’s wheel, choking her to death.

Later in the book, McCarren re-examines the machine metaphor that inspires her dance history. She briefly considers popular movement forms such as hip-hop, dances from African-American and Latino urban cultural landscape, as well as avant-garde dance traditions led by choreographers such as Merce Cunningham. She also makes a quick reference to Donna Haraway’s theory of science and technology, which suggests a breakdown of distinctions between human, machine, and animal. It is her wide range of references to writers and philosophers – from Henri Bergson to Haraway to Benjamin – that makes Dancing Machines an interesting if stuffy read. It is encouraging to see a scholar moving beyond traditional dance history. At the same time, however, there may be an important perspective that gets lost; a perspective in which the dancers, themselves are viewed as scholars. Barbara Browning in Samba: Resistance in Motion is one of the few to position the dancer in such a way. Of course, Katherine Dunham sets the standard as both dancer and scholar.

In the last of six chapters, McCarren explores the career of dancer and film actress Josephine Baker. She concludes that “Josephine Baker, on film, dances not only for Paris but for posterity, for an audience that did not yet entirely exist” (190). The notion of posterity is intriguing. McCarren traces the history of modernism to build a strong and consistent argument for dance that addresses machine culture even as machine technology may usurp dance audiences. But inDancing Machines, the history of the audience takes a back seat to her analysis of performance and aesthetics. Aware of this lack of research on audiences themselves, McCarren leaves the reader, or at least this reader, hopeful that she or other scholars will explore this direction further.

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