A Life Between Us Essay

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A Life Between Us

Michael Parmenter
Independent Choreographer, University of Auckland, l‟Université de Paris-1 (Panthéon/Sorbonne), UNITEC School of Performing Arts

Part One - Life as Interiority It has been described as one of the defining moments of modern dance (Franko, 1995, p.1). Isadora Duncan stands alone in her studio, waiting for the spirit of dance to arise from the deep wellsprings of her being: „for hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breasts, covering the solar plexus…I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement‟ (Duncan, 1927, p. 75). Dance, for Isadora, begins in the dark region of interiority and rises to the surface as rhythmical movements that emanate out to the world. The radical nature of Isadora‟s gesture can seem diminished to us, accustomed as we are to the very personal and individualized nature of our various contemporary dance practices but, for most of its European history before Isadora, dance had been social and communal, embodying collective rather than individual identities. Isadora, however, seeks a dance that would break free of the artificiality of social convention. The return to nature is identified with a return to the interior realm. In her 1909 essay, „Movement is Life‟, Isadora decries „movement imposed from without‟ (Duncan, 1977, p.77) as being antithetical to the spontaneous movements of nature found within the human body. Certainly, the emphasis on subjective experience was prevalent in the thinking of the time, especially in the work of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche, who in particular had an enormous influence on Isadora Duncan (LaMothe, 2006). However, Duncan was searching for something more than merely a subjective source of movement, and we need to reach back a little further, into the philosophical biology of the early 19th century, in order to discover the degree to which Isadora Duncan‟s recourse to the experience of interiority draws upon prevailing tendencies in the understanding of biological life. There is no doubt that Duncan, who called her studio the Studio of Life, understood her waiting – „do you not feel an inner self awakening deep within you‟ (Duncan, 1927, p. 76) – to be an attending on the arrival of the very essence of life itself.

© 2011 Michael Parmenter In Time Together: Viewing and Reviewing Contemporary Dance Practice


Science and vitalism From the late 18th century, thinkers, in France in particular, reacted against the mechanistic tendency in the biological sciences of the period and attempted to understand life in terms of some vital force that transcends the physical-chemical order. The glimmer of a firefly, the eye of a cat, the „flare‟ in the eye of a person motivated by a strong passion were seen as manifestations of an „inner fire‟, the vital force that guarantees the continued survival of the organism. In response to this resort to spiritualist explanations, the French biologist Claude Bernard in his 1861 work, Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (Bernard, 1966), endeavoured to account for the autonomy of living things whilst remaining within the fabric of physico-chemical causation. Bernard wanted to find a reconciliation between scientific and vitalist tendencies in the comprehension of life. His most famous articulation of this reconciliation was the notion of the milieu intérieur, the internal environment. According to Bernard, science till then had only been able to conceive of an exterior realm, but, he noted: „life does not run its course within the external environment, but within the internal fluid environment‟ (Bernard, 1966, p.146). The organism sustains itself through a self-created and controlled interior milieu constituted by liquids, gastric juices, blood, lymph where cells and tissue bathe. The maintenance of a stable fluid interior, directed uniquely by each living being, frees and protects the organism from the unpredictable