At the talk-back session following last night’s performance of Kidd Pivot’s The You Show at the Cultch (which I reviewed in its Shadbolt Centre workshop phase back in October), Crystal Pite brought up once again the notion of kinesthetic empathy that she has been using in most press around the show to explain why she cast the four duets that make up the evening-length presentation in the second person. As Pite explained, when her dancers reach their arms behind them, or torque their bodies backward, or fall onto the floor, she is hypothesizing that, in witnessing those actions, we will feel something similar in our own bodies, whether as a result of our own storehouse of corporeal memories the dancers’ movements trigger, or by virtue of imaginatively simulating those movements ourselves. In the first and last pieces (“A Picture of You Falling” and “A Picture of You Flying,” respectively) she provides additional verbal cues in the form of spoken text that, through direct address, invites a further layer of identification of what we are watching.
Needless to say, this “resonated” quite powerfully with me, especially as I have just finished reading Susan Leigh Foster’s Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (2011) in connection with similar physical and affective processes at work in dance-theatre generally, and Pina Bausch’s repertoire more specifically. Drawing on Foster (whose work I’m convinced Pite has read), I’m interested in asking what the relationship is between physical motion, emotion, and social movements. I pose this question not just in the ideal terms of what action-oriented group formations and mobile politics the choreographed display of the first two terms in the equation might conspire to incite, but also, on a quite literally pedestrian level, in how the corporeal foundations of dance and theatre can get us to think more muscularly about the ways we move beside each other in the world.
In this regard, I find singularly instructive the research of Foster, who in tracing the parallel and entwined histories of kinesthesia and empathy (in neurobiology, psychology, aesthetic theory, and dance criticism) from the eighteenth century to the present suggests that choreographed dance (and movement-based performance more generally) is an especially useful critical and cultural lens through which to discuss a—by no means fixed, unmediated, or transhistorical—notion of fellow-feeling. From the influential modern dance critic John Martin’s early theories of “kinesthetic sympathy” and the spectator’s inductive muscular transference of the emotional intention of a dancer’s movement (what he first termed “metakinesis” and later “inner mimicry”) to Vittorio Gallese’s recent influential research on “mirror neurons” and the mutually resonant physical and emotional relationship between enacting, observing, and simulating movement, Foster considers the ways choreographed dance makes all the more apprehendable a notion of kinesthetic empathy that Gallese, for one, sees as foundational to human social interaction.
Foster poses the relevance of such inquiries not just to the politics of the body, but to the larger body politic, at the outset of her book: “Are there ways in which a shared physical semiosis might enable bodies, in all their historical and cultural specificity, to commune with one another?” Like Foster, I do not yet have an answer to that question, but I do think dance-theatre as emotionally and physically complex as that composed by Pite might help us reflect upon it.