The Voice of the Dancing Body

Bojana Kunst

– First published in: Frakcija, Zagreb, 2009.
– Shortlink:

I. Introduction

In The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan tells the legend of St. Christine of Tyre, who refused to yield to her father’s demands and venerate pagan idols. For this reason, her father had her tongue cut out after many torments, but this did not stop St. Christine from »speaking more and more clearly of divine matters« (Pizan, 1999, 287). When hearing her speak, her father reproached the executioners for not having cut out her tongue enough. “So they pulled at her tongue and cut it out at the very root but Christine threw the tongue into the tyrant’s face and gorged out one of his eyes. Then, she said to him more clearly than ever before: ‘What good is it to you, tyrant, to have my tongue cut out in order for me to bless the Lord no more, for my soul will bless him forever and yours will forever be damned! You are rightly blinded by my tongue because you did not believe my words’” (Pizan, 1999, 287). St. Christine’s is one of a number of stories where the birth of a woman’s voice coincides with her having her tongue cut out (Philomel, Lavinia). As Carla Mazzio finds, classical literature usually depicts the loss of man’s tongue as the loss of his ego whereas women are also able to speak without their tongues because, oftentimes, a voice speaks through them (Mazzio, 1997, 53–80). The female body seems to resist the concept that various functions or actions should be located in individual, static parts of the body. This is why the female body is able to talk even without the tongue. On the one hand, this brings up the old phantasm of the uncontrollable fluidity of woman’s body, of the displacement of her body as characterized by incapturability and fluidity. On the other hand, the moment when St. Christine speaks out also testifies to her voice being subordinate to the power of the Other. Her voice is namely that of witness, who, moments before her death, testifies to the power of the One she represents – that of God, in whom she believes. Therefore, the voice of her insides represents both autonomous power and pure automatism; it stands for the power of the resisting body and at the same time, for the “recorded” voice of the Other. The philosopher Mladen Dolar claims that every birth of voice is marked by ambivalence because “the one who transmits the voice is not only the ruler, but as a transmitter, also a serf/subject”.1 According to Dolar, not only does the voice influence the insides of the listener (St. Christine literally blinds her father) but also itself comes from the insides of the body and exposes those insides to the Other. The Self actually yields to the Other and gives him power over him/herself (before her death, St. Christine speaks only as a witness of history; the power of her voice testifies to the power of the One she believes in).

It is not coincidental that our reflection on the relationship between the dancing body and its voice is prefaced by the legend of woman speaking with her voice without her tongue. The discovery of the voice of the body and the listening to the insides of the body, which is no longer in harmonious relationship to the regulated and textually placed hierarchy, represents one of the essential discoveries of 20th century contemporary dance. It is at the very centre of the forming of this new artistic genre and its breaking up with the traditional ballet conventions of the dancing body. As we know, one of the most important conventions of the ballet body is its dancing voicelessly, gliding along and challenging the limitations of gravity without any sound. The breathing of the body must be silent, its physical efforts inaudible. The body dances as if it did not produce any sounds at all, gliding along the dance floor, flying in the air and touching its dance partner in silence. This kind of absence of voice, the paradoxical silence of the active body, is not only a consequence of the strict disciplining of the body, but is also forms part of the complex technique of subjectivisation and establishment of the early modern body. In ballet, the dancing body suppresses its chaotic and unforeseeable voice in order to be able to become speech. As is well-known, it is precisely through the dancing body of ballet that the material power and rule of language (speech) is established – in other words, the rule of the (speaking) authority and the (linguistic) visibility of the modern subject.2 Paradoxically, when dancing as language – that is, articulate and civilized language – the body actually goes silent. It no longer listnes but becomes sheer obedience; it becomes alive because it is woken to life by the vocality of language. To put it differently: when ballet dance establishes itself as speech, the body shuts its mouth. More even, the absence of spoken text or its fragments and essential components (e.g. breathing, sighs, the sound of the words), becomes the main code of the representation of the dancing body. The body goes silent because it is hit by the sound of language from the outside. It is language that represents the basic dispositif through which the dancing body is observed, and is also the basic matrix of reading the body. It is not coincidental that many early modern ballet textbooks describe the birth of the body as the awakening, revival of the inactive body, where the chaos of nature gives way to the spiritual nature of listening. This revival or awakening is connected with the voice that comes from the outside – the voice of the sonorous power of language, which literally ‘sets the subject straight’ and furnishes it with the strength and self-discipline necessary for the cultivated, civilized and obedient life of the modern subject.3


20th century dance breaks up with the aforementioned convention of the silent body, i.e. that of the body dancing quietly and without sound. It seems that 20th century body discovers that other side of St. Christine’s voice and sonority, the true power of the voice coming from within, regardless that the body may no longer possess the actual speech organ (deteritorialisation of the body). Not only is this kind of voice connected with the fact that the dancing body opens its mouth (and speaks out), but especially with the abolishment of the kinaesthetic hierarchy of movement, which stands for a different temporality and autonomy of the moving body. “1900. I could stand completely still for hours on end, with my arms folded on my chest, covering the solar plexus (…) I have searched for and finally found the central source of all movement.”4 This is how Isadora Duncan describes her discovery of the body (along with the discovery of the new century). This is a discovery that greatly differs from the early modern image of the inactive body, which needs to be revived through dance. In this new image, the dispositif through which the dancing body is observed, gets profoundly changed: the sonority of the body concerns the body from within. The body listens to its own self (and at the same time, stands still rather than dances). We can set the hypothesis that the modernity/contemporarity of dance can be found precisely in the resistance against understanding dance as listening and against the obedience associated with that notion. Now, movement as the basic substance of dance resists against receiving its initial impulse from language. It resists against the sonority of language being the trigger of movement, i.e. against the body getting its auftakt in this way, against the sonorous command received through the ear to put the body in motion. But this does not mean that the listening disappears; quite the contrary, the ear of the dancing body gets directed towards the inside. It is the discovery of the voice of the body, its embodied insides which establish themselves and are revealed through the process of the body’s movement, rhythm, breathing, sounds, arrhythmic and complex perception structures that cut into the convention of the ballet body so deeply that the new contemporary dance genre is established as a fully autonomous discipline (also educationally and institutionally separated).

It is precisely within this relationship between the body and the voice that we need to seek the core of the new artistic body discipline which gets established at the beginning of the 20th century, or the core of the body dispositif that divorces the body from language. The invisible insides of the body seem to get externalized; only in this way are they exposed to the Other and its gaze. The resistance against language, the listening to one’s own self and the establishment of the autonomy of movement also cut deeply into the traditional relationship with the observer as well as into the relationships of power in the dispositif of dance. The sonority of language, in turn, is no longer a command from the outside but is strongly connected with the insides of the voice. The discovery of the inner sonority of the body, of the autonomy and transmission of its voice seems to me that more intriguing. It is namely not only about an aesthetic strategy but can also be read in a wider sense – as a demand for the acquisition of voice, as an articulation of the body’s audibility, or as a disclosure of the voice of a different corporeality. (And it is not a coincidence that contemporary dance in its beginnings was exclusively in the domain of female dancers). The audibility of the body in contemporary dance and art is namely closely connected with the emancipatory stance towards the body and subjectivity and also extends to the field of the political. The discovery of voice can thus be connected with what Rancière, in his philosophy of politics, calls the difference between speech and noise. At the beginning of his book Disagreement, Rancière defines his understanding of the political as “a conflict regarding the existence of the common scene, as a conflict regarding the existence and status of those present on it…Politics exists because those who do not have the right of counting as speaking beings achieve to be counted as such…”5 Politics takes place precisely in the field of the division of the sensible (partage du sensible), where continuous conflicts and negotiations take place between those »who can be seen and those who can not be seen«.6 For Rancière, however, visibility is neither intelligible, rational visibility nor territorial visibility in terms of placing bodies into space; visibility is actually the consequence of audibility, the way of listening which ultimately turns noise into speech (in public). The division of the sensible thus takes place as the division between and reallocation of those who truly speak and those whose voice only imitates articulate voice in order to express pain or pleasure. For Rancière, political activity is therefore an activity which “transfers the body from the place it has been assigned, or changes the purpose of the space (…) it is an activity causing what has previously only been heard as noise to be understood as speech.”7 This relationship between speech and noise can also be connected with the discovery of the voice of the contemporary dancing body: what was previously only noise is now heard as speech. The emancipatory discovery of the voice of the body is therefore tightly connected with how political and cultural visibility is entered into by the body, a body which is no longer an object of the inscription of language power, or an object of civilizing and reallocation of social power relations. When dancing, the contemporary body is no longer silenced by the overwhelming power of the language of the Other. It is now a noisy, gravitational, heavy, loud and also fluid and elusive open body. The body acquires a voice of its own; it no longer imitates the articulate voice (in Rancière’s terms), but demands a voice in order to truly speak out.8 The body finds a voice of its own because it reveals itself as a multitude of possibilities and virtualities of action, separated from the power of language and divorced from objectivization. The dancing body breaks up with the harmonious relationship between the body and subjectivity and, in this way, also reveals the determinations of the inside such as soul, spirit and thought as an arbitrary multitude of autonomous decisions of the body. Or, as the American choreographer Trisha Brown describes it quite aptly – The Mind is a Muscle. Affects, events of the body, the memories of its muscles and skeleton are no longer recognized just as noises through which the pain or struggle of the body shows, but as speech that can be heard. More even, it becomes the representative speech of the new artistic genre and at the same time, profoundly changes the ways in which the body enters 20th century performing art.


Nevertheless, the emancipatory power of voice, as can already be shown by St. Christine’s story, is actually deeply dubious. By ‘getting voice’, St. Christine gets enormous power, but at the same time, speaks out as pure automatism – ‘something speaks out of her’. Immediately on becoming audible, the voice tips the stability of the transmitter; something breaks and opens in the image of that person; something most intimate turns into something alien – in Lacan’s terms, extimate. We all know how the experience of us listening to our own voices (e.g. to recordings on answering machines, on the radio, etc.), can be something quite disturbing and unpleasant. Our own voices seem unusual to us; it is hard for us to believe that they are truly ours. Our voices return to us as something alien and strange, which is reflected by the Slovenian dancer and choreographer Irena Tomažin in her performance Caprice (Re)lapse (2006):

You need my voice – need my voice – because you can no longer hear your own – you can no longer hear your voice – you can hear yourselves no longer – you would like to hear– you would even more like to be heard – most of all you would like to be heard out – you can no longer hear yourselves because you are too umumumum obedient (gerhorsam) – you are too obedient – oooo – you will be heard out by my voice – which is only oooooh – a mirror of your voice – my voice will always be too much or too little for you – it will be better for you – it will be easier for you if you are deaf.9

In repetitive staccato speech, Irena Tomažin recites these words in the course of her performance Caprice (Re)lapse (2006)10. Then, she sits on one of the big white cubes placed on the set. A voice is heard over the speakers and, after a while, the author stands up and starts shouting:

I do not like my performance, I don’t like my performance, can’t stand it, it’s ugly to me, this is my solo, this should be my dance debut and I should not be singing and playing around, with this, with this voice, which is totally bezerk, totally bezerk, this should be a dance performance.

And then, as if something came over her from the outside, as if she were struck by something, she sings with a high voice: “my voice is so yooours, my voice is so yooours”, then again shouts: “This set is ugly, too big for me, I hate this set, it’s ugly,” and starts throwing parts of the scenery over the stage. Caprice (Re)lapse is conceived as a dialogue with Irena Tomažin’s solo dance debut, Caprice (2005), and takes place on three different sound levels. It combines the sound materials discarded in her first performance (created in collaboration with Mitja Reichenberg), the Dictaphone materials recorded by Tomažin herself (including the creative process notes from her first performance), and her live stage voice and speech. Through the discovery of voice, the dancing body shatters in its foundations, reveals itself and ventures into the unknown. The voice gets emancipated and radically opens the medium of dance itself; dance as such no longer exists. Who is actually Irena Tomažin? A dancer? A singer? A choreographer? And what is it that we are witnessing? A dance performance? An opera? A theatre performance? A concert? The artist prepared her dance debut, which should inaugurate and present her within the contemporary dance genre; however, instead of dancing in this piece as expected, she sings throughout. “I should be dancing” – which is why she shouts angrily in Caprice (Re)lapse, conceived as a unique dialogue and confrontation with her debut – “rather than playing around with my voice”. She is, however, caught in her own desire as well as the spectator’s; immediately afterwards, she is namely interrupted by the voice. She become some sort of automatism put into the dance mode), saying: “my voice is so yours – my voice is so yours”.

The performance by Irena Tomažin very intriguingly points out the ambivalence of the voice, which, in her case, refers to the audibility / obedience of her own artistic voice. Through the disclosure of her voice, dance reveals itself on the one hand as a complex process of desubjectivisation and disembodiment, and on the other hand, as an affirmation of the demand for a name and body. Tomažin’s own voice not only returns into her as something alien but also as something that comes from the deepest insides of the body but nevertheless depends on the desire of the Other (in Tomažin’s case, the spectator). With the disclosed voice of the insides, the subject fundamentally exposes itself to the Other, yields to it, opens the entrance for its desire and phantasm. The voice of the insides of the body is therefore the ambivalent emancipatory power, which, when becoming speech, simultaneously shatters the fundamental of the speech subject itself. It literally takes away its name (am I still a dancer if I sing?), medium (is this still dance?), body (I am only led by a torn voice), work (I hate this performance). The case of Irena Tomažin is not so much about requestioning the dance medium through the self-reflective critique of performing (like in a great majority of contemporary dance performances of the late 1990s), but about requestioning the problematic autonomy of the intimate position, the possibility of an intimate act and the consequences of the disclosure of the insides.


Intriguingly, the voice in the body only gets heard after dance actually gets divorced from language. It is heard at the moment when language loses the status of the reigning materiality and the moving body refuses to be speech. Therefore, the voice is not something that calms the body down and leads it towards a harmonic discovery of the insides or the Self (what may still seem to be the case in the utopian and pioneering attempts of early contemporary dance), but as something that mercilessly places the dancing body into the gap between movement itself and what the movement represents (denotes). With the discovery of voice, the dancing body shatters the harmonious relationship between its presence and representation. There is no more harmony between the inside and the outside of the body; the body becomes visible and audible precisely within this gap, when the harmonious relationship between the movement of the body and the spectacle of its subjectivity has broken down. When the veil of the harmoniousness and magic of listening to the body’s insides (which many utopian and emancipatory early 20th century dance events have been surrounded by) is removed, then what speaks out inside the body is actually something most alienated from the body – its innermost and also its outermost. The voice coming from the body might as well be that of a ventriloquist; it makes the speaker uncanny and at the same time, takes away that person’s power and authority. The one who speaks with his stomach stands for power and a clown at the same time. The voice coming from the body namely always takes us by surprise; although located in the body’s insides, it is in conflict with the body – disclosing, weakening and doubling it. The doubled voice of the body is strongly inscribed into the ontology and presence of the contemporary dance body, and at the same time, brings to mind numerous cases of cultural and social bodies which likewise testify to the instability of the body representation precisely at the moment when the discovery of the voice is made.11 Also, the innermost voice of the body expels the body as something unstable, abject even. In the process of listening to the invisible insides, the movement of the body occurs which, interestingly, frequently resembles the description of the movement of the body found in Freud’s descriptions of the uncanny.12 Freud connects the feeling of the uncanny inside of him with maladapted, sudden, surprising gestures of the body and says that the feeling of the uncanny is a consequence of the movement that occurs where it should not occur. The body, which should be still, is suddenly seized by movement, in inappropriate rhythm, with strange intensities and at inappropriate times. Freud’s short essay abounds in cases of movement that cut through the established dynamics of the body and, as such, resist reading, classification and systematization. What is uncanny about the movement is precisely its resistance to purpose, i.e. the fact that something happens because of movement itself. Although, at first sight, Freud’s understanding of the uncanny seems close to that first treatise on ballet, where the dead, inactive body is animated, it is actually a lot closer to ‘movement for movement itself’, which is at the centre of divorcing the dance body from language in the 20th century. This is the way that the core of the new dance phenomenon is described by the first contemporary dance critic and theorist, John Martin, in his famous 1934 essay: “the discovery of the actual substance of dance, which modern dance has found in movement”13. The uncanny is namely not so much a consequence of the reanimated spirit of the dead body, but especially that of the deadliness of the living body. The body is interrupted in its flow, in its aliveness. Something that is alive stops for a moment; the body seems dead, which means that it is only its reflection, and what seems present to us shows itself as absent. In movement for movement itself, there is a fundamental change in the way meaning is constituted. The body can no longer be ‘read’, pinned down to language grammar, it can no longer be seen and arranged into a structured text. Meaning enters the body accidentally; in other words, it is the body that shapes the meaning, which is always arbitrary and always accidentally appears on the borderline between the inside and the outside of the body. Meaning takes us by surprise, stops our gaze; it moves or begins where there should be stillness, and is still or quiet where movement is supposed to be. It is therefore not about the concept that, by means of listening, dance would be entered by the psychological body as the narrative insides which bring dance closer to theatre (in other words, that the modern soul would be revealed through movement), or about the fact that the dance body would be expressing something. What happens is exactly the opposite: every inside, soul, becomes fully dependent on coincidence, on the coincidental, visible, and at the same time, elusive activity of the body. Created between the inside and the outside of language is language as an arbitrary sequence of body gestures and movements, something that is inexpressible and iconic at the same time. Meaning is therefore not constituted as transfer, as reshaping of the inside into the outside, but as trace of signs, as inability and arbitrary coincidence. The rise of meaning is therefore a consequence of the complex juxtaposition of the body and its voice, which never fuse into a unified frame.

In other words: the dancing body resists listening because it no longer wants to be represented through the command of language. At the same time, however, this resistance to listening and the redirection of the listening towards the outside reveals the body as a complex site of instability, duration in time, the arbitrariness of meaning. We could say that, in this way, voice also shatters the stability of dance itself as a dynamic and kinaesthetic phenomenon of modernity.


The expulsion of the body into something uncanny, abject, into something that has its foundations shattered by means of voice, is also interesting from another important perspective. When finding voice, the body fails to successfully deal with the unheimlich dimension of the voice. Having voice is only the beginning of a difficult and conflicting political process of how to get from noise to speech. This perspective is also interesting for the history of contemporary dance, which was a woman’s domain in its beginnings. Many female artists seem to have found contemporary dance the emancipatory field through which they have been able to open different modes of body being, problematize the issue of their own identity and connect it with the issues of presence and representation. At this point, let me briefly concentrate on the Slovenian contemporary dance history, which actually shares the fate of many similar histories outside the institutional visibility of contemporary dance. Politically, it is about countries of former Eastern Europe, where the history of contemporary dance exists as a multitude of fragments, private and individualized practices – predominantly of female artists, their private dance schools, often operating in private apartments. Affective histories of teachers and their students, emotive histories of survival, vision and idealism, affective interchange and development of their political voice and constant conflict with the audibility of that voice in public. In contrast to the belief that the history of contemporary dance does not actually exist in the East, most of the artists there have created a very special contemporary dance history – on the margin of cultural and political visibility, without institutional support, as a kind of permanent resistance of the body, which has only been recognized in public as noise. The history of contemporary dance in the East of Europe is a history of the ways the dance artists, in Rancière’s terms, have not been allowed to participate in speech. The Slovenian choreographer and dancer Maja Delak reflects on the invisible or inaudible status of female dance artists in her performance Expensive Darlings, pointing out the current status of female representatives of contemporary dance, whose (economic, cultural, social) position has not only been marginalized, but increasingly dependent on the flexibility of contemporary manner of working, which has encroached on the material practice of their lives in a very specific way.14 There is also a very thorough and critical requestioning of the emancipatory potential of the voice of the body, especially in relation to the changed cultural and economic circumstances, in which contemporary dance artists create. The insides, solipsism, a different history, the body not equalling subjectivity – all these articulations which can be connected with the discovery of the inner voice, are also closely connected with the economic marginality of such arts practices. In her text written about the process of work for the performance Expensive Darlings Maja Delak writes (with the help of Jean Baudrillard and his text Ecliptics of the Sex), that the danger for the conteporary dance in slovenia can be compared with the danger of sexual revolution for women. The problem is that this political process is to often closed to the only structure, in which it is condemned to the negative discrimination, when the structure is powerfull, or to the minor succes when the structure is strong. What Maja Delak is writing about is a difficult political process of subjectivisation, of taking the place in the speech. The problem is profound, since the institutionalisation and visibility of the voice in the contemporary world of possibilities and numerous political actualisations today can to often come as a kind of automatism, however subjecting the one who finally speaks to the margin of cultural and political importance.

The emancipatory demand for voice needs rethinking precisely because, today, our own voices all too frequently strike us as automatisms; we have taken the aliveness of our own voices as an indisputable fact, like that of putting the ballot into the ballot box. It is important to disclose how the fragile intimacy of our own voices and their relationship to language (voice always brings the experiential dimension into language) is connected with the joint space of imagination, as well as with the listening to the fragile voices of others. It may now be the time to reconsider at least two emancipatory syntagms of the visibility of dancing (woman’s), which both touch upon the territory of the inside: famous (territorial) Virginia Wolf’s demand for a room of her own should also be added a temporal auditory dimension – that of having a voice of her own.


1 Mladen Dolar: “Uvod v tišino”, in: Pascal Quignard, Sovraštvo do glasbe, Ljubljana: Študentska založba: 2005, p. 211. Also cf. Mladen Dolar: O glasu, Ljubljana: Analecta, 2003.

2 This has been discussed in great detail by Mark Franko and Andre Lepecki.

3 The first choreographic instruction manual, Orchésographie, written in 1589 by the Jesuit priest, mathematician and dance teacher Thoinot Arbeau, contains a dialogue between the dance teacher and his student, a young lawyer named Capriol. Capriol approaches Arbeau in search of dance knowledge; only in this way will he namely be able to be successful in society and will not be labelled as someone “who has the heart of a pig and an arse instead of his head”. The meeting between the dance teacher and the student could not have been more meaningful. This first choreographic treatise presents a priest who trains the body of a lawyer. The priest Arbeau wakes Capriol’s body into life and furnishes it with a soul. Described in this instruction manual is therefore a complex of endeavours of the Jesuit priest and the lawyer, who, at the beginning of modernity, ‘set the body straight’ as the body of the subject. Getting shaped through the dance rules is the Self, which will ultimately be allowed to enter the social network of subjects as an equal. If we paraphrase an old lawyer saying: the teaching endeavours are directed precisely towards the fact that the body of the subject is no longer a dead letter on the paper, but is ‘set straight; it becomes the language through which the law becomes alive. Thoinot Arbeau: Orchesography: A Treatise in the Form of a Dialogue Whereby All Manner of Persons May Easily Acquire and Practice the Honorable Exercise of Dancing, New York: Dance Horizons, 1966

4 Isadora Duncan: My Life, New York: Liverlight, 1927. p. 75.

5 Jacques Ranciere, Nerazumevanje, p. 42.

6 Jacques Ranciere, Nerazumevanje, p. 43.

7 Jacques Ranciere, Nerazumevanje, p. 45.

8 It is not a coincidence that the demand ‘to have a voice’ also represents the basic metaphor of contemporary political activity.

9 In many languages, there is a strong etymological link between listening and obedience. The English term “to obey” comes from the French expression “obeir”, which comes from the Latin word “ob-audire”, a derivative from “audio” (“to hear”). The German word “gehorchen” developed along similar lines. The word “gehorsam” is derived through “horchen” from “hören” (“to hear” or “to listen”). According to Dolar, the etymology hereby follows an inherent dimension, where listening is the start of obeying. Cf.: Dolar, O glasu, p. 112.

10 The performance Caprice (Re)lapse by Irena Tomažin saw its premiere in 2006, produced by Maska Ljubljana.

11 A demand for visibility does not mean power, Peggy Phelan says in Unmarked…

12 Sigmund Freud: “Das Unheimliche”, in: Das Unheimliche, ed. Mladen Dolar, Ljubljana, Analecta: 1994, pp. 1 – 36.

13 John Martin: “Značilnosti modernega plesa”, in: Teorije sodobnega plesa, ed. Emil Hrvatin, Ljubljana: Maska, 2001, p. 87.

14 From this perspective, we can also analyse the entire position of professions in the sphere of culture, more specifically in non-profit cultural organizations, largely organized through flexible, poorly paid, utopian and idealist work of women.


Author: Bojana Kunst