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Movement, dance and embodied syntax – Workshop

November 3, 2023 @ 12:30 pm - 5:30 pm

Workshop on ‘Movement, dance and embodied syntax’

Friday, 3 November 2023, 12.30-5.30pm
Birley Room, Hatfield College, North Bailey, Durham

Professor Rob Barton (Anthropology): please RSVP to r.a.barton@durham.ac.uk
Professor Andy Byford (MLAC)
Professor Zanna Clay (Psychology)
Dr Irina Sirotkina (MLAC, Visiting Scholar)
Dr Roger Smith (Independent Scholar)

The purpose of this informal interdisciplinary workshop is to bring together academics and performers with interests in how the human capacity for combining elements into complex sequences underpins and is manifested in movement. Through the collaboration of the sciences, the humanities and the arts, we will explore the concept of ‘embodied syntax’ – the bodily manifestations of a more general cognitive and sensory-motor capacity that is distinctively human. We see dance as a prime example of a universal human capacity that embodies complex sequences and that raises fascinating questions about psychology, learning, sensation, embodiment, movement, kinaesthesis, health, and the evolution of aesthetic cultural practices.

The workshop is supported by the Institute of Advanced Study, a prestigious ideas-based interdisciplinary research institute which aims to develop innovative ideas with potential to lead to ground-breaking research programmes. In particular, the workshop paves the way for the IAS Major Project on ‘Syntactical Structures and the Evolution of Mind and Culture’* that will run in October-December 2024, and that will explore the syntactical organisation of human cognitive capacities, activities, artefacts, technologies, cultures and artistic forms, contributing to the development of embodiment theory by grounding cognitive and cultural processes in sequences of physical actions. This will include the consideration of the learning, production, and aesthetic appreciation of physical sequences across multiple domains, including, notably, dance.

The present workshop will bring together scholars across disciplines, including the sciences and the humanities, with dance practitioners and choreographers, to scope ideas for future collaborative explorations. We are very fortunate to have the agreement of Professor Nicky Clayton, a comparative psychologist and dance practitioner, and her collaborator, Mark Baldwin OBE (former Artistic Director of Rambert) to attend. Crucial to the workshop will be the participation of dancers and choreographers from the leading development organisation for dance in the North East of England, the Newcastle-based Dance City. Other expected participants include Durham scholars with affiliations to different departments and institutes, including Anthropology, Psychology, English, Modern Languages and Cultures, Sports Science, and Medical Humanities.

The workshop will begin with a brief presentation by the organisers of the core workshop themes, including the aims of the 2023-24 Major Project, and the relevance of dance to it. This will be followed by introductions and the sharing of potential contributions from all the participants. The core of the workshop will be a round table discussion aimed at identifying promising ideas, themes, and activities for future collaboration, notably in the context of the 2023-24 Major Project activities. The workshop space will allow for small-scale movement demonstrations in the context of discussions.

12.30-1.30:       Arrival and buffet lunch
1.30-1.40:         Welcome, introduction and aims of the workshop
1.40-2.30:         Syntactical structures, embodiment and dance: IAS Project team presentation
2.30-3.30:         Workshop participant introductions and links to the theme
3.30-3.45:         Tea/ coffee
3.45-4.45:         Nicky Clayton FRS & Mark Baldwin OBE: Dance, memory & sequences
4.45-5.30:         Roundtable: research questions and activities for the Major Project

Themes and Questions:
We venture the following remarks in an open-ended way, to prompt discussion:

* In relation to the IAS Major Project running in 2024, we ask participants to consider the role of sequencing of movement (improvised and/or choreographed), in terms outlined in our project proposal:

“Underpinning key defining traits of the human species – such as language and technology, mindreading and causal reasoning, cumulative culture and aesthetic creation – is a remarkable ability to produce and process syntactical structures. While the concept of syntax has been developed foremost in the study of language, we propose that language represents but one manifestation of a more general capacity for syntax, from organising our day, to explaining events and predicting consequences, from understanding a narrative, to composing or appreciating music, learning a dance and constructing cultural artefacts.” (IAS Major Project Proposal)

But what are the limitations of framing dance as a series of sequences? To what extent can flowing movement and the sense of movement be broken down in this way, and how does this differ between choreographed and improvised dance? What role does explicit sequencing play in learning a dance and how does this vary between forms, styles, and individual performers?

If movements in actions precede and shape the psychological world, then the ordering or arrangement of movements, and the sensory world to which they contribute, will shape other psychological processes, including language. The ordering of pre-reflective movements may shape the ordering of language central to meaning, that is, syntactical structures. It may be possible to understand the choreographing of movements in dance as non-verbal ‘syntax’ creating movement as meaning. (Whether there is scope for systematic dance analysis and dance notation, in terms of ‘syntax’, we do not venture to say.) If so, this suggests that knowledge of sensed movement might in a significant way contribute to knowledge of ordered language. Clearly, that is a matter for research. Radically interpreted, the suggestion gives epistemological priority to knowledge of movement and performance activities, inverting the traditional academic order regarding language-based knowledge as the institutional basis for ‘studies’ of all kinds.

There is ubiquitous contemporary emphasis on the embodied nature of psychological processes. This has significant implications across the sciences-humanities-arts divides, nowhere more so than in relation to the sense of movement. This ‘sense’ includes conscious kinaesthetic awareness and largely non-conscious sensory-motor control processes of proprioception. Historically, accounts of the feeling of movement preceded, and contributed to, the emergence of the emphasis on embodiment. There are reasons to think the ‘sense’ foundational in evolutionary and developmental terms to sensory and cognitive life, as well as for movement and hence animal life in general. It also has a large place in individual human perception of reality, identity, and agency. Current thinking in embodied cognition points to enacted processes, or relations, in the world, rather than events or states in ‘mind’ or ‘body’ as the conceptual framework for analysis of psychological life. This suggests that the sense of movement, as the subjective experience of enacted processes, should be a focus of scholarly attention. This attention is evident in a rapidly expanding contemporary literature.

The interest in attending to the sense of movement also comes from movement practices of many kinds, most obviously in sport and dance. The contemporary enthusiasm for movement in health activities and in the arts is overwhelmingly evident. Movement therapies and dance cultures flourish. There is scope for elaborating the grounds for this in movement. Collective research into sensed movement offers a path to bring together scholarly interests, public enthusiasms, and a social concern with well-being.

Suggested pre-workshop reading:
Taylor, J. (2015) Understanding the learning process in dance

Grafton, ST (2009) What Can Dance Teach Us about Learning?

Beatriz Calvo-Merino  et al (2006) Seeing or doing? Influence of visual and motor familiarity in action observation. Current Biology 16. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982206019981


November 3, 2023
12:30 pm - 5:30 pm


Birley Room, Hatfield College


Professor Rob Barton (Anthropology)

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