The Effervescent, Grotesque Body

by MT

Anna Halprin (1921-) is a choreographer whose work represents a shift in modern dance toward theatrical contents and openness of composition. Unlike the highly prescribed score of her predecessors such as Martha Graham, improvisation and spontaneity is a key in her exploration of movement. There is a lot to say about the theatrical contents in her scores. For now I will limited my notes to the openness of scores, the meaning of the body, and its political implication in the 1960s.

“.… Halprin preferred that movement has its own meaning rather than stand as a symbol for something else. And the way one arrived at this meaning was through guided improvisatory work.” In her teaching of child dance, “her first choreographic goal was never the movements themselves, but rather imparting to the dancer the tools for unlocking movements within oneself.” [Ross, 2003b: 43]

The obsession of body as both a medium and symbol is characteristic of the generation of dancers at Halprin’s time. As early as 1952, in the debate over the meaning and interpretation of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Harnold Rosenberg pushes the argument that Pollock’s paintings, which Greenberg called Abstract Expressionism in his formalist analysis, are in fact “action paintings.”

“The apples weren’t brushed off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and color. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the art of painting. In this gesturing with materials the esthetic, too, has been subordinated. Form, color, composition, drawing, are auxiliaries, any one of whichor practically all, as has been attempted logically, with unpainted canvases can be dispensed with. What matters always is the revelation contained in the art. It is to be taken for granted that in the final effect, the image, whatever be or be not in it, will be a tension.” [26]

In a long footnote of this paragraph, Rosenberg elaborates his view on painting as action itself:

“With regard to the tension it is capable of setting up in our bodies the medium of any art is an extension of the physical world; a stroke of pigment, for example, ‘works’ within us in the same way as a bridge across the Hudson. For the unseen universe that inhabits us an accidental blot or splash of paint may thus assume an equivalence to the profoundest happening…” [27]

A decade later an extension to this focus on body and its movement is the discourse of body as site for political resistance. In her analysis of avant-garde performance in the 1960s in Greenwich Village 1963 (1993), Dance historian Sally Banes proposed what she called the effervescent body and equate it to the concept of grotesque body proposed by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin and British anthropologist Mary Douglas:

“The term grotesque … derived from the fifteenth-century identification of postclassical, Romanesque art the mixes human, animal, and plant forms in ornamental imagery.” [283]

“The simultaneous affirmation of the body’s substance and the metaphoric refiguring of it as a series of contraries, added to the wide-ranging exploration of its social meanings and possibilities, signal the extraordinary confidence and power that Sixties artists invested in the body. In their hands it became an effervescent body that exuded what they saw as the amazing grace of fleshly reality.” [191]

[exude: make apparent by one’s mood or behavior]

“The grotesque body ‘is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world . . . This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body, the link in the chain of genetic development, or more correctly speaking, two links shown at the point where they enter into each other . . . It is an incarnation of this world at the absolute lower stratum, as the swallowing up and generating principle, as the bodily grave and bosom, as field which has been sown and in which new shoots are preparing to sprout’ ” (Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin, trans. Helene Iswolsky, 1968.) (quoted in Banes, Chapter 6, note 8 [this is a very long but fabulous note] ) [283]

Mary Douglas also mentioned that organic process ─defecation, urination, vomiting, etc.─ and their products serves as a pejorative sign for formal discourse of social intercourse. [skip quote] [284]

[pejorative: expressing disapproval]

A tentative conclusion:

“[T]he effervescent, grotesque body challenges the ‘new bodily canon’the closed, private psychologized, and singular bodyof the modern, post-Renaissance world of individual self-sufficiency. For it speaks of the body as a historical as well as a collective entity. ‘The grotesque conception of the body is interwoven not only with the cosmic but also with the social, utopian, and historic theme, and above all with the theme of the change of epochs and the renewal of culture.’ ” [194]


rem: make a tighter argument between Anna’s work and Banes theory.

things to check: grotesque in Italian and English gardens