Set in the context of contemporary dance this thesis investigates how improvisation practice and performance making participate in a critical rethinking of age(ing). Advancing the notion of an age critical dance practice, the research draws on the theoretical frameworks of age studies – a multidisciplinary field of critical inquiry informed by, largely speaking, feminist and poststructuralist theories. The age critical dance practice developed in this thesis, in turn, enters into conversation with the discourses established in age studies and dance studies as a way to incorporate age critique into dance.
The thesis is a Practice as Research project consisting of a written thesis, two solo performances (The Fountain of Youth, premiered 2013, and The Fountain of Age, premiered 2015), and employs immersive dance based research methods such as the development of a Solo Partnering practice (as documented on DVD). The research also remodels the method of qualitative interviewing into a performative method that allows the participating expert practitioners to tap into their unique improvisation and performance expertise when addressing their particular understanding of age(ing).
Through the development and analysis of improvised practice and performance making, alongside in-depth performative interviews, the findings of this research point to ways in which improvisation and performance embody age critical potential. The long-term, open-ended and agentic artistic processes that improvisation experts develop all share a range of characteristics that serve to challenge the established youth-orientation in dance and constitute an implicitly critical position to dominant understandings of age(ing) in dance. Consequently, the thesis argues that improvisation practices ‘do’ age(ing) in ways less prone to dualistic stereotyping and reiterations of (self-) discriminatory age(ing)-as-decline narratives that dominate our culture as a whole. The research also suggests strategies in performance making that enable representations of age(ing) in ways that collide with, resist, or complicate normative expectations on age(ing). The dance works presented in this thesis allow the dancer to articulate shifting perspectives and experiences, creating ambiguous meanings and disjunctive narratives of age(ing), and thereby making explicit a critical position towards the grand narratives of age(ing).
In conclusion, this research argues that specific approaches to a long-term, open-ended dance practice, alongside critical images and new imaginations of age(ing) in performance, allow dance to evolve as an age critical arts practice.
My PhD research engages with the premise that Western artistic dance can be seen as holding an interesting multi-layered position in relation to age(ing). On one hand, it most often focuses on youthful physicality and therefore takes part in an unquestioned marginalisation of ageing bodies, which, according to critical age studies (Woodward 1999, Gullette 2004, Lipscomb/ Marshall 2010), pervades Western culture as a whole. On the other hand, it is a potential site of experiencing and presenting human bodies in new and unexpected ways. Therefore dance may also enable ways of appreciating our bodily being beyond a narrow focus on athleticism and an attractiveness, which is commonly assured by youthfulness.
My research focuses on improvisation-based dance making. My main argument is, that improvisation-based dance forms and their specific working methods may offer ways of practicing and performing dance that have the potential to challenge previously unquestioned understandings of age(ing) in the field of dance and possibly beyond.
The research unfolds from the hypothesis that it needs an in-depth engagement with the practice of improvisation-based dance and the working conditions negotiated in the practice to reveal if and how such an age-critical potential might be realised. My research approach, therefore, uses artistic practice as the primary mode of enquiry, interacting with and framed by an analysis of other artists’ approaches and the theoretical insights of critical age studies, which challenge dominant representations of the ageing body, a stereotypical understanding of the life course, and a gendered bias in regard to the social impact and consequences of getting older.
So far my research, approached as an evolving embodied Practice as Research mode of enquiry in dance, is realised by actively intertwining three distinct but interdependent modes of research engagement.
1. Modes of Artistic Enquiry
I have developed ‘Solo Partnering’ as a long-term improvisational studio practice and ‘Performing Age(ing)’ as a specific choreographic process. Both practices grapple with the theme of age(ing) creatively whilst further offering propositions for re-thinking working methods/ structures for mid-life dance artists.
2. Modes of Documentation
Through a detailed written practice logbook and video documentation of my working processes and performances I have implemented documentation methods that trace the practice and allow me to reconstruct and reflect the steps taken in my practical enquiry of Solo Partnering and Performing Age(ing) in the written part of the thesis.
3. Modes of Contextual and Theoretical Reflection
The development of a critical, reflective position towards my research subject allows me to articulate the presumptions, creative strategies and age critical potential inherent in/ developed by my artistic practice. This critical position is gained through examining critical age studies, other artists’ approaches, relevant literature on dance, as well as through interviews with acclaimed older dance makers, participant observations and the on-going drafting of ideas and questions arising throughout the research process.