Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Nothing sounds like feet but feet"

At the TLS, Paula Marantz Cohen on the Fred Astaire Conference held recently at Oxford:
Refuting the conventional wisdom that Astaire’s musicals are cinematically undistinguished (a myth based perhaps on his famous remark: “either the camera dances or I do”), the film and television historian Patricia Tobias demonstrated Astaire’s technical astuteness, showing how he made sure that camera tracking always complemented bodily movement and kept the dancing figure within the central third of the frame; editing was done with such subtlety as to be practically invisible. The dance historian Beth GennĂ© used video clips to show how Balanchine had incorporated Astaire’s fluidity and posture into his repertory for the New York City Ballet (in one, the former Balanchine prima ballerina Maria Tallchief was seen telling two young dancers to “make it more Astaire”).
I find myself very interested in these questions about techniques of the body that can't really be passed on through a written tradition but have to make their way from one body to another by way of personal contact. I am uniquely ill-suited to writing a book about stand-up comedy, for instance, since I loathe comedy clubs and have only seen a tiny fraction of even a beginner's library of filmed comedy, but after reading Steve Martin's excellent autobiography I was consumed with the desire for a really good book about bodies and comedy and performance, sort of a grand physiological and psychological and philosophical theory of everything to do with how one gets this sort of effect with one's body and how and why such effects are transmitted to onlookers. (You know, sort of Adam Smith meets William James meets Samuel Beckett meets Richard Pryor?!?) Possibly this book exists already, only I am not well-versed in the field of performance studies and it seemed to me I might have to educate myself so as to write it myself!

This is a good opportunity to dig up a lovely passage out of the chaotic e-mail inbox, courtesy of dissertation-writer and fellow triathlete Lauren Klein. It's from Marcel Mauss's "Techniques of the Body" (1935), in Techniques, Technology and Civilization (hmmm, I am torn between a desire to write my next academic book on very pure basic-research bread-and-butter questions about how novels work - a more elegant book than any I have yet managed to write - versus a much more demented project that would be about bodies and culture and the way things like swimming and acting work, but written in a mode like a sort of hybrid of Sebald and magpie collector of interesting things):
First, in 1898, I came into contact with someone whose initials I still know, but whose name I can no longer remember. I have been too lazy to look it up. It was the man who wrote an excellent article on 'Swimming' for the 1902 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, then in preparation. (The articles on 'Swimming' in the two later editions are not so good.) He revealed to me the historical and ethnographical interest of the question. It was a startingpoint, an observational framework. Subsequently - I noticed it myself - we have seen swimming techniques undergo a change, in our generation's lifetime. An example will put us in the picture straight away: us, the psychologists, as well as the biologists and sociologists. Previously we were taught to dive after having learnt to swim. And when we were learning to dive, we were taught to close our eyes and then to open them under water. Today the technique is the other way round. The whole training begins by getting the children used to keeping their eyes open under water. Thus, even before they can swim, particular care is taken to get the children to control their dangerous but instinctive ocular reflexes, before all else they are familiarised with the water, their fears are suppressed, a certain confidence is created, suspensions and movements are selected. . . . [H]ere our generation has witnessed a complete change in technique: we have seen the breaststroke with the head out of the water replaced by the different sorts of crawl. Moreover, the habit of swallowing water and spitting it out again has gone. In my day swimmers thought of themselves as a kind of steamboat. It was stupid, but in fact I still do this: I cannot get rid of my technique. Here then we have a specific technique of the body, a gymnic art perfected in our own day.

3 comments:

  1. I did my dissertation on Civil War reenacting, and spend a good part of a chapter reviewing how reenactors recreate marchine, from the individual up to a large unit maneuvering on the battlefield. So I'm interested in how knowledge of movement is passed on, and I have a background in performance studies. Thanks for an idea I can run with; and let me know if you want to collaborate.

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  2. I, for one, am rather glad to know that swallowing water and spitting it out again has become passe. Icky!

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  3. If you don't know it already, you might be interested in A Dictionary Theater Anthropology, which explores the subtle art of performance.

    I'm feeling too lazy to write a summary of it, so I'll quote from Howard Rheingold's review, "A true how-to book on practical magic. Education, friendship, courtship, parenting, politics, art, commerce, warfare all depend upon a strong element of performance. This book is a treasurehouse of astonishing and useful lore about how performers perform, everywhere in the world, illustrated by a profusion of equally astonishing and useful photographs and drawings. Mudras, minuets, masks, ritual, biomechanics, draumaturgy, rhythm, staging, improv, semiotics, footwork, make-up, choreography, mythology and other phenomena that reflect different aspects of the full spectrum of human performance are examined with attention to spiritual, communicative, social, and aesthetic meanings of each variety of performative behavior."

    cheers!

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