index.html  “Flesh of glass:” Choreographic Body and Intermedial Sense

Notes on an Intersemiotic Issue [1]


Cristina Righi
Università di Bologna







This paper focusses on how the dancer’s body — the choreographic body, as we will be calling it — is being represented in audiovisual and more advanced technological media in relation to the modifications that it must undergo, from an intersemiotic point of view, in the course of the transference process from one medium to the other. This will lead us to face some semiotic problems connected, on the one hand, to the procedure implied by the literal embodiment of sense in the actors[2] bodies of live performance and, on the other hand, we will be led to compare how this live embodied sense is translated in non-live environments in which the intermedial dimension alter the essence of the body on both the semiotic plans of expression and content.

Among the current, diversified landscape offered by contemporary performing arts, since we will be talking of the choreographic body, we implicitly set ourselves within the dance field, though dance here is to be intended, in a rather broad sense, as choreographed movement, definition which would not exclude arts that maybe would not be strictly defined as dance but to which the idea of dance is not, for us at least, completely extraneous[3]. Therefore, our discourse will mainly be carried on trying to point out what happens within the dance medium -as the proper live medium for dance- and some of the modifications that its components go through when a dance is manipulated in non-live environments, thanks to the modern audiovisual and digital technologies.

In doing so, since we will face semiotic issues associated to the body and to how the body makes sense in live performance, this will also bring us to mention some of the problems connected with the semiotic status of the body, and the difficulty we experience in having to refer to it either as a subject or as an object also by means of a verbal language that only seems to offer us these two linguistic possibilities[4]. Even before being a dancer’s body, a dancing body is the body of an individual. It is also a “social body”[5] and it is inevitably a “cultural body”[6] too, since bodies are set in social and cultural contexts (actually being today more of different multi- and inter-social/ cultural contexts). The social, political and cultural dimensions in which bodies live and act make them therefore historically bound, and this worldly background is responsible for the production of what Foster (1996:8) thinks of as the force of the physicality of dance, articulated in a true choreographic intelligence, which –she says- only becomes evident when the dancing bodies act close to bodies shaped by other cultural occupations because this is the way in which the dancing body can become meaningful. The environment has its influence and, as Foster (1996:25) points out, makes the body not only reflect experience but also be affected in terms of the representational procedures that each medium makes of it. Corporeality, in its multifaceted aspects, appears therefore central to our semiotic discussion, especially because we are focusing on the sense effects produced by means of those intermedial gaps that are created between live and non-live choreographic bodies by the current technological media[7].


We live indeed in a more and more technological world where the media put forward their “promises of a presence”, a “disembodied presence” which, according to anthropologist La Cecla (2006:109)[8], is one of the main features of our contemporary society. So it would make us sort of anachronistic if we denied legitimacy to technologically modified choreographies and dance, and it would make us technological analphabets if we failed to (semiotically and/or choreographically) take into account the alternatives set by technological media to live corporeality and performance text. Significant modifications have been undeniably introduced in the realm of choreography and in the handling of the choreographic body. It is true, for example, that these new technological possibilities virtually make more traditional ways of choreographing almost obsolete in terms of, for instance, the need of physically rehearsing with dancers to create, develop and arrange new choreographic material[9]. It is also true that a choreographer can choose to set him/herself at different degrees along the continuum that extends between the two extremes of a choreography which is only and fully manipulated by technology, and a choreography that does not use technology at all. And this is the side of the problem that deals with the creative process from a practitioner’s point of view because the choreographer, directly or indirectly, has to make a statement about his/her own way of practicing choreography (so bringing the whole process up to a meta-choreographic level of reflection), but also has to clarify his/her own approach to the new technologies for choreography, which may have different priorities and goals for everyone[10].

On the other hand, from a semiotician and an external observer’s point of view, it is not maybe a matter of making any artistic choice nor of choosing a position in favour or against the choreographic employment of technological media. It is rather a matter of observing a phenomenon, analyzing its features, sense effects and textual strategies, in order to give account of the new range of signs that contemporary performing arts and dance have lately been creating and developing, but it is also a matter of developing new and more suitable semiotic textual analysis procedures. Performance and movement arts, as well as many other art forms such as music or visual arts, seem to be moving, indeed, in a direction that has been privileging more and more a textual contamination in which not only different artistic fields are combined but also live events are often being juxtaposed, overlapped or mixed with previously recorded ones, so creating hybrid live and non-live performance texts which challenge and fascinate us with their semiotic complexity and the need for new intermediate, liminal and transitional set of analytical categories.


It is a fact that new media technologies, offering truly captivating possibilities for dance manipulation, give dance practitioners crucial creative advantages in terms of available choreographic options at the same time bringing about for semioticians, if not practical choreographic problems, at least major semiotic theoretical questions that basically involve the way in which all the elements of the dance medium are semiotically processed because of technology. Actually the choreographic body, being in itself one of these elements, has significant relationships –that is to say relationships that make sense- with all of the other components, and all of them can be technologically manipulated to some extent.

Major intermedial manipulations, in the shift from live to non-live performance, are those   involving the way in which, for instance, space and time as fundamental dance dimensions, are altered. Michèle Noiret (Menicacci-Quinz 2001:183) says that technologies reveal new images which work as new forces of perception, and this perceptive extension makes us question space and time modifications. Technologies, Noiret goes on, are not substitutes for the choreographer but they rather complete his/her compositional work (p.184) and this can explain why someone like Cunningham believes that technology can amplify thought so much (Vaccarino, 1996:134)[11]. Semiotically speaking, therefore, as regard to the function of a choreographer, technologies can be said to act as object-helpers[12] for the choreographer’s narrative programmes -the choreographic projects of a dance. Computers act, then, as object-auxiliants, tools that assist the choreographer in their creative job never, however, replacing him/her in the conceiving process[13]. In all this, the issue of the body is always central.

Choreographer Jean-Marc Matos (Menicacci-Quinz 2001:209) points out that both dance and technologies are involved in a relationship based on a common physical experience which integrates them. Therefore, he says, it is much better to think of connecting the two by considering dance with technology and not just dance and technology, because there cannot be any true experimentation without any physical, corporeal experience. A multisensorial body must then find its own space in spite of the fact that technologies keep pushing towards a virtual “one-way de-bodilization” (p.204)[14] that makes the technological space a site for a subjectivity made of multiple personalities. Fortunately, there is also a counterbalancing tendency with strong projects that go towards a “re-bodilization” in which the body regains its sensorial and sensible nature and where a real integration between body and image is pursued (p.205)[15]. That is why a true “body pedagogy” is needed (ibid.)[16].


As Vaccarino (1996:121) appropriately underlines, dance and technologies have always been connected and technologies are always said to be new according to their epochs. Quinz (Menicacci-Quinz 2001:325) also observes[17] that informative technology has only enhanced certain ways of manipulating texts using techniques of de-centralization and procedures of multiplied perspectives which have been inherited from the avant-garde in their basic principles. The very concept of environment, which has situated performers and spectators in the same space, has revealed itself as one of those plurality strategies that have disrupted both linearity and frontality altering, in so doing, the sequential order of the spectacular organization (pp.319-321). Therefore, when the hypertext came up as a non-sequential writing procedure, its modality had been in the air long before the technological revolution happened, simply bringing on the surface already existing concepts which maybe had not been truly recognized yet (p.325). We think that one of the most interesting transformations, that has an impact at a semiotic level and has been brought about by the new kind of creative actions allowed by the new media on performance and performance texts, is exactly the way in which screen entities can have a semiotic fluctuating existence condition and be either subjects and/or objects in media environments, in ways that can be very different from what their original condition in the real world was. What kind of subject/object then?

Interestingly enough for our discourse on intermedial dance and bodies, Quinz (p.329)[18], apparently insisting more on practice and operational features, defines the subject inside interactive machines as a “core of activity”, whose existence is based upon action/reaction modalities that produce a difference in the system. Wondering, however, if this may be considered a true subject, he says that the interface environment is a site where hybrids, partly subjects and partly objects, interact (p.332). For him, this is the main difference with the real world environment, inhabited on the contrary by subjects, having definite identities and histories, who interact with each other on inter-subjective bases (ibid.). We agree with Quinz’s interpretation and we do have his same perplexities when it comes to talk of subjects in the context of technological media texts, especially when dance is concerned. We find it hard to think of true subject-dancers within technologically created environments, and we do think that the screen entities may seem to behave like subjects within the context of filmed and screen performance texts. In other words, we believe that, although there cannot be any subject-dancer inside the screen environment, there can be icon-dancers (objects) acting as if they were subjects and, by saying that, we are also trying to implicitly recognize how difficult it can be to keep things apart when having to do with the very ambiguous kinds of relationships established by some advanced interactive environments, where real and virtual worlds can even too easily be confused[19].


Since such a lot seems to have to do with the definition of the active (subject) / passive (object) status of the body in live and technologically modified non-live conditions, we think it may be useful to identify some of the main modalities through which the technological dimension alters the semiotic existence of the performer’s body when it is represented by media that can so strongly manipulate the nature of its manifestation. Technological environments change indeed the semiotic nature of the performer’s body, first of all because they change its constituting substance matter and, secondly, because its performance abilities can be considerably altered. We would like to point out, then, that the technological media make it possible to manipulate the choreographic body movement at least at two important moments, among others, of the creative and compositional process.

The first is the production stage, when the syntagmatic choreographic chain can be manipulated by operating at the level of the functional production of movement sense, made manifest through the mere kinetic and syntactic level[20]. The second is the post-production stage, when a dance piece can be manipulated in its textual structure by acting on its overall choreographic organization, included the narrative dimension. Therefore, and partly as a consequence of the post-production manipulative actions, the alterations induced by the technological media manipulation will also affect the semantic level of the textual production of sense exactly because –as Dusi (Dusi-Spaziante 2006:101) reminds us- the new forms that the audiovisual strings can be given and the degree of transformation they undergo, always concern both the content and the expression semiotic plans.

From a dance point of view and from a semiotic one as well, the new technological media potential open the choreographic body to unlimited possibilities of movement performance and the reason why they can do it is because they basically produce empty choreographic body forms which only are simulacra of living bodies or, as Ferraro and Montagano (1994:20) describe them, are pure shapes artificially built, synthetic images built by figures and calculations (ibid). The reduction of the bodies (all of them, not only the dancers’ bodies) to mere icon-objects (in a figurative and informative sense of the word) is then a consequence of the media representation of the choreographic body, and it makes it much easier to manipulate them on the screen than on a real stage. On the whole, it can be observed that these icon-bodies are often technologically manipulated in terms of a magnification of their physical movement potential or in terms of a body features distortion, basically by modifying their relationship with all the fundamental elements of the dance medium, in order to allow them either to overcome the natural, physiological limitations of the human corporeal body and/or to escape from the laws that govern the ordinary appearance of the body image. What is especially altered are, then, the space and time dimensions in which the body moves in live environments, which also entails the possibility of manipulating the body submission to the law of gravity. So, gravity can be completely eluded in audiovisual and digital environments, space and time can be deeply modified, and the way the body looks and moves can be completely subverted as well.



Choreographic body and intersemiotic differences of medium


Since we have been talking of the dance medium it may be worth spending a few words on this concept, also because we will keep referring to it, implicitly or explicitly, as long as we try to set some of the most significant semiotic differences that the choreographic body undergoes when dance texts are intersemiotically (and inter-medially) translated from live performance into other non-live and technological media supports.

To begin with, it must be recalled that the field of Choreological Studies has dealt a lot with the notion of the dance medium defining its constitutive elements in terms of four strands -namely performers, movement, sound, space- to which other sub-strands (visual, kinetic and aural) are to be added (Preston-Dunlop 1995:531). Another set of analytical categories, associated with Laban’s studies and widely used by dancers and dance scholars, is the one related to the four motion factors which identify spatial, temporal and force aspects in weight, space, time and flow (Preston-Dunlop 1995:223). We will keep this in mind when discussing the changes that these, and other dance categories, go through when they migrate from live to non-live media performance environments but, first, we need to point out that, from our semiotic perspective, we consider the choreographic body (the “performer” strand of the dance medium) as the substance matter in which the choreographic movement is manifested on the expression plan[21] and therefore we make the body belong to the level of the formal substance of dance, considering that we are dealing with a body whose primary modality of expression is manifested through visible choreographic movement. This, of course, does not mean that live choreographic bodies lack kinetic content in their movement, as we will discuss later, nor that they fail to convey semantic content through their dance. The body actually does strongly participate to the multi-layered sense of dance movement.

Our interest in the body, especially in its live existence but also in its non-live form, is urged by the special attention that contemporary semiotics has been attributing to the body in recent times, but also by the spreading of those contaminated forms of arts that contemporary dance has more and more been presenting as half live and half non-live performance, often hybrid forms made of living and pre-recorded dance performance material. This may have to do with what Fanti (2003:10)[22] calls the “thin body” of certain contemporary dance that presents a general weakening of the meaningfulness of the body in performance which, she thinks, is characteristic of a new generation of dancers who “don’t dance anymore”. If, as Fanti (2003:11)[23] observes, live contemporary dance tends to privilege the presentational aspect of the body, “the mise en présence instead of the mise en scène”, we would like to point out that, for us, non-live environments, lacking the real presence[24] of the body on stage, realize their innovative approaches to performance mainly on the plan of re-presentation. This can be done by means of the various new media up to computerized simulations which, as Weissberg (Ferraro-Montagano 1994:47) says, have brought the image autonomy to its extreme consequences.


The contrast between presentation and representation modalities of the body belongs with full rights to the debate around the “electronic body” (Meneguzzo 2006) and the notion is characterized by a certain fluctuation concerning the very modalities of existence of this informative body. As Meneguzzo (2006:32-33) points out indeed, in the ‘70s, when the video began to spread, it was considered a medium of immediacy, compared for example to the cinema, and therefore suitable to be considered more a means of presentation than a means of representation. Agreeing with Fanti, we will consider live performance environments as the privileged context for the dance body presentation, whereas we regard audiovisual and technological environments as contexts where representation of the choreographic body takes place. However, as said before, we also recognize the existence of a hybrid, half-way zone between these two, where live and non-live conditions merge together in those liminal interactive environments that characterize the most advanced and up-to-date dance digital technology, in which real bodies and virtual/simulated ones can dance next to each other, making bodies presented and represented at the same time in space and/or places.




(live performance)


(interactive environments)



(audiovisual, digital and other technological modified environments)

Place/space of the choreographic body presentation


Place/space of the choreographic body presentation and representation.


(Place ?)/space of the choreographic body representation.


Figure 1. Modalities of (re)presentation of the choreographic body



Although there may be those who believe that the interactive mode of some advanced technological media can realize virtual texts as a form of simultaneous presence in a screen space which involves, at the same time, both audience and performers, we must admit that the matter still makes us rather doubtful. This is because it seems to us that those interactive computerized environments, though maybe to a minor extent in comparison to non-interactive audiovisual contexts, are nonetheless still characterized by the fundamental lack both of the body presence and of  authentic interrelationships between subject-interlocutors, although we recognize that there may be forms of subject-object screen interaction. Having corporeality as our main parameter, to us the screen, even when interactive, does not seem capable to set truly inter-subjective relationships mainly because the subject-observers outside the screen cannot have any real interpersonal contact with the icon-objects moving on the glass surface[25] even when they are dancers’ bodies. As we see it, the two spaces, as well as the relationship dimensions, only develop as parallels each one following the rules of its proper existence conditions without really share their spatial conditions.

From this point of view, there are still two space areas, one inside and one outside the screen, which is enough to make space not a truly shared element because performers and spectators are not actually included with their bodies in the same area. Therefore, even though an interaction –or better, a “promise of interaction”, to borrow La Cecla’s words (2006:23)- through technology may actually happen in real time (so making time a shared dimension), it does not certainly happen either within the same space nor on the inter-subjective basis which are distinctive traits of the live performance communication circuit. The observer/spectator watches the screen from the outside in a form which, if it can be considered participative, it may be such only if it is thought of as a sort of projection, and so in some reduced way if compared to the fully integrated and inter-subjective participation that characterizes live performance. However, we must say that, as far as our understanding of them can go up to now, we are inclined to make an exception for technologies such as the IVE stage or the Dancespace[26] projects, when they are practiced in the form of actualized events in front of a live audience.


The same, but amplified aspect of intersemiotic and intermedial gap is found, and to a greater extent, in the other systems for live dance representation, older and more traditional than the recent audiovisual and digital media, and still coexisting next to them instead of having disappeared as quite obsolete. Their common acceptance as established means of dance reproduction and/or documentation makes languages such as photography, sculpture, painting/drawing or written notation still widely in use, setting them as complementary to the most advanced technological media and stating once more their diversity, in intersemiotic terms, as far as the embodied substance matter is concerned. Because of their specific ways of representing dance, it is possible, from a semiotic point of view, to grade them along a continuum in which different degrees of intersemiotic distance, from the starting point of live dance performance, can be established upon intermedial basis up to the final and more sophisticated grade of the most recent audiovisual and digital recording media, as suggested below.




                                   _________non live representational languages/systems_______


                live dance             symbolic                               static iconic                          dynamic iconic

                performance        languages/systems             languages/systems             languages/systems



Figure 2. Degrees of intersemiotic distance from live to non live dance representation systems




Trying to logically organize these non-live dance representational systems, we suggest a diagram (Fig.3) in which we have set some of them, according to the categories identified above. The hybrid interactive forms, which act in real time as a combination of live and non-live/pre-recorded body movement seem to belong, as we explained before, to an in-between class, which would deserve a deeper discussion that we will not enter here, therefore it has been left out from the chart. Neither have we included the oral practice -dance practice has a strong oral component as one of its main  transmission modalities- because we think it can be compared to what La Cecla (2006:3)[27] calls a  mythological narration whose condition of actualization happens in praesentia making it, as it seems to us, just another kind of performance event in which the performing body of the dancer merges with what La Cecla calls the “narrative body” through a dance practice which is discursive and experiential at the same time.




Organization Chart


Figure 3. Non-live representational systems/media for the choreographic body




In the light of what we have been saying, the expression “flesh of glass”, which is part of the title of this paper, should now be able to explain by itself why it has been chosen.

We have actually borrowed it, as an imperfect quotation, from Paul Valéry (1934:15)[28] who, in a writing of his[29], talked about the “flesh of glass” of some jellyfish he compared to dancers, describing their movement as it appeared to him on a screen. To us, the expression seems extraordinarily suitable to sum up, in the poetical way that suits dance verbalization so much, the very issue about the substance matter of the choreographic body when it is translated in audiovisual and digital media, since the performer’s body is but an icon on the flat glass surface of a monitor or television. In this sense, the expression could then also be extended to the other representational media so we could speak, for instance, of a flesh of paper for photography, or a flesh of marble for sculpture up to that “synthetic avatar” which is a “body made not of flesh but of information”, as Menicacci (2001:363)[30] defines the body of the digital environments. So bodies are no longer made of flesh because they absorb the same substance of the technological medium they are represented by[31].

The representation of the choreographic body in media others than the live dance medium, therefore, unavoidably entails a problem of intersemiotic and intermedial translation which directly addresses some of the key-issues related to the specific status of the live dance performance. Traditionally, dance has always been given definitions that stress its indefinable essence. Jean Marc Adolphe (Fanti/Xing 2003:12)[32] says it is “an indefinite object, […]” but dance can also be thought of, as Hubert Godard (Menicacci-Quinz 2001:371)[33] does, as “more a modality of relationship to the sensible than the production of a specific object”. Both definitions, among the many that could have been chosen to exemplify the concept, focus on what has never been neglected to be underlined in dance studies literature, namely the elusive character of dance as an ineffable and impermanent object, which is impossible to duplicate and replicate since each dance performance exists as a unique event. This is fundamental intersemiotic question, related to the bigger semiotic issue about replicating practices[34], which becomes such a challenge when it comes to technologically modified dance.



Intermedia modifications: choreographic body, dynamics, space


The transference modalities used by media other than dance to represent dance and especially the dancer’s body, must somehow take into account the peculiarity of the nature of the choreographic body itself. We will say that the choreographic body is the outcome of a fusion between a natural body and a body that is somehow artificial because it has been trained for dance. The choreographic body can be defined, then, as a dance body capable of articulating movement in a peculiar way and having its foundations in the dancer’s doing, which is essentially a physical practice. In the context of this physical practice, the choreographic body becomes the fundamental actor of the dance medium in choreography, a framework where movement has aesthetical purposes and is organized according to compositional strategies typical of the poetical discourse. In the doing of the choreographic body as a practice, what the dancer does is important, but even more important is how the dancer does it, since the qualitative and dynamic variations of movements depend a lot on how the choreographic body articulates its functional, kinetic and syntactic sense in order to produce meaning at the semantic level too[35]. The doing practice of the live choreographic body takes shape as the acting mode of a subject (or an object) located at the crossroad of a multidirectional inter-subjective (and/or inter-objective) relationship network, since it comes into contact with the other actorial forces involved within the theatrical/performance communication frame. These other dance actors are:

§     the environment (space)

§     other subject-actors (in addition to the dancer: other dancers, choreographer/s, costume designers, technicians, musicians, spectators, etc. …);

§     other object-actors (in addition to the dancer: other dancers, props, costumes, make-up, the scenery, technical machinery, etc. …).


If the body is the privileged actor of movement, the choreographic body is the privileged actor of dance, that is to say of movement when it is organized for aesthetical purposes. In live environments the signifying capacity of these two occurrences (tokens) of the Body-type is provided by the combination of natural/ordinary body aspects and artificial/extra-ordinary aspects of the choreographic body, where artificial means that we are dealing with a body that has been built and reshaped thanks to dance techniques and practice.




natural body         


technical dance body




Anthropomorphic shape (no distortion)


Human body





Artificial = built through dance techniques


Anthropomorphic shape, de-antropomorphic and/or distorted shape  (according to the plastic-eidetic-dynamic configurations assumed)


Technical body (de/super-humanized)


Subject and/or object (subjective/identitarian body vs  reificated body)


Figure 4: Main traits of the performer’s live body



So, on the one hand the performer can count firstly on his/her ordinary body, the natural anthropomorphic human body belonging to a mundane individual who has a subjective identity and will. On the other hand, the performer works on his/her natural, anthropomorphic, human body, artificially conditioning it by means of dance practice and techniques and so greatly enhancing its capacity of changing its anthropomorphic appearance and making it capable of assuming all possible non-anthropomorphic or de-humanized shapes and forms while dancing. This possibility of de-humanizing or super-humanizing his/her performing body, boosting its performance capacity, also gives the dancer’s body the possibility of being either a subject or an object, underlining in such way its unique, subjective, identitarian features or, on the contrary, emphasising  its object-like characteristics. It is the combination of these two body natures in a compound significant cluster that makes the dance body of the live performance a multi-layered signifying dynamic text[36] within the textual form of a dance choreography. Amplifying its proper natural dimension into choreographic abilities, the body can expand some of its natural and biomechanical features. An example of this enhanced capacity of movement can be found in those body articulation modalities which may be acted out according to two macro-structuring procedures focused on the easy (creative) constraint of handling the movement of body parts.

On the one hand, the choreographic body can pursue a form of clustering articulation through which it seeks coordinated, harmonic movements involving more body parts at a time so to create an organic effect of wholeness. On the other hand, the body can aim at an isolating disarticulation of movement, which is obtained when the dancing body tries to emphasize the independent movement of single body parts. When the choreographic body moves as a whole, morphologically coordinated unit, it appears as a unique actor acting on behalf of a unique actant[37]. On the contrary, when the choreographic body moves in a morphologically disarticulated modality, it presents itself rather as a metonymic organization of actors acting on the behalf of a unique actant. In this actorialization process, involving either the whole choreographic body or its parts, it is as if the human body reificated itself and its own segments, becoming objectified in something other than itself and other than its body parts.[38]


A core device of contemporary choreography, this way of manipulating the dancer’s body features could be named “anagrammatic”, as Gerald Siegmund (Fanti/Xing 2003:83)[39] has defined Xavier Le Roy’s body because of the way the dancer plays with its parts, displacing them as in an anagram in which, as Jerome Bel specifies, boundaries and functions are indefinite. As Bel (ibid) continues, this “multiple body” can be considered the essence of the post-modern body compared to a modern body which was essentially interpreted as mechanical. The definition is suitable, since Le Roy (p.88)[40] himself says to have been committed for long to working on fragmentation, deconstruction and reconstruction in order to explore the constraints derived from his own body. Non-live audiovisual and advanced digital environments strongly affect this live performance situation.

The technological dimension emphasizes the condition of artificiality (which is already to be found in the choreographic body as a body technically built upon natural bases) representing an icon-body  in which the traits of its technical construction through dance practice are amplified when it meets the possibilities of technological manipulation allowed by the medium. In so doing, the dancer’s subject-body is completely eliminated for the benefit of a body that, on the screen, is nothing more than an object among others. In this way, the original flesh-body[41] is nothing more than a simulacrum, completely disengaged from the body that originated it[42]. The technological dancer’s body can be manipulated so far to make it become unnatural both in its appearance and in its behaviour. Its look can be made anthropomorphic but also non-anthropomorphic or de-anthropomorphized according to the choreographer’s creative needs or wishes. The body’s lack of flesh-substance makes it light and easy to be moved and displaced around the screen and, by the same easiness by which is can be acted upon, the choreographic body appears as fully objectivated in its full detachment from its owner’s subjectivity.




Technologically altered / manipulated / modified (=>unnatural)


anthropomorphic / non anthropomorphic/ de-anthropomorphized






completely disengaged from the subject (débrajé)


Figure 5. Features of the non-live choreographic body



This is a very different semiotic situation from live performance and entails dynamic and spatial manipulation too. Among the actorial forces related to the physical condition that the choreographic body experiences in live environments, a very important role is the one played by space, since the body must behave in the choreographic space according to its specific rules and conventions in terms, for example, of shapes, design, projection and other ways of choreographically exploiting the relationship with the spatial dimension.

Video environments, as Vaccarino (1996:19) points out, entail various other possibilities to handle space: it is possible to use more cam-recorders at the same time to record images, also bringing in shootings taken in different places; images can be modified, for instance in shapes and colours, and the direct perceptions of the live performance can be altered as well; multiple screens can be used so to have a different image in each screen or different images in each screen area. Most appropriately, Bench (AAVV 2007:203)[43] indicates the “media’s ability to dis-articulate bodies from the spaces in which they are embedded” which, according to her, also entails the possibility of installing dance in any place with basically no limits. To this, we would add that non-live environments allow manipulating perspective, placing objects in unusual positions on the screen in contrast with the common placing possibilities of subjects and objects within the live stage space. Technological media also allow extra-stage manipulations, such as image overlapping and/or import, having a strong impact on the observer’s modalities of vision[44], which can be pushed up to the introduction of any other special effects supported by the medium.


As Philippe Quéau (Ferraro-Montagano 1994:87)[45] observes, our empirical perception of the world is upset by what produces spatial illusion, especially in terms of man vs image interaction because human bodies can simply be “inserted” in the abstract space of symbolic models and this, of course, changes our relationship with the body itself. Saying that the electronic space is not a “place” or a “set” but has the structuring and active role of an entity in relation with others, Quéau (p.92)[46] reasserts the idea of space as an active element as also valid for screen space. This way of interpreting the dance medium element of space already belongs to the dance studies as applied to live space performance and it meets as well the semiotic idea of an actorialization of space. So, in both contexts, live and non-live media environments, space never proves to be an empty and passive factor but a very active one, which dancers and choreographers must relate to, having to come to terms with in order to efficiently interact with it. However, it is true that, as Bench (AAVV 2007:206) says, “where the space of dance is ‘no place’ and the ground of dance is repositioned as a background, dance can appear in any place but belongs to none”. So, it seems possible to us to say, about the spatial dimension as in the media, that if we still have to do with a matter of space, we seem to have no longer to do with a matter of place.

The freedom of movement that is produced on the screen allows the icon-bodies to disregard gravity and move freely in any area of the screen space, also where they would not usually be allowed to move in real space (i.e., the aerial space zone) if not by means of some mechanical devices. Another possible advantage, as Matos (Menicacci-Quinz 2001:211) sees it, is in the possibility for the body of de-materializing itself in digital spaces because this would open new spaces of interaction in which space ubiquity and time deconstruction would allow us to re-build them according to our tastes. Wondering –as he does (p.214) -if such in-corporeality would strengthen corporeality, it seems to us like wondering whether something could be regained by means of its loss. Not being able to suggest an articulated answer yet, we only limit ourselves to observe that in non-live environments, the “anagrammatic” and “multiple” displacements of the choreographic body segments, as a body already technically trained to move in a fragmented way, can be further manipulated by deconstructing and/or reassembling body parts in ways that might want to emphasize, for example, incongruous body re-compositions, which produce not only artificially created body versions but even unnatural bodies by mismatching and re-combining body parts not necessarily in a realistic way[47].


Coming now to the use of energy as related to body movement, from a dance point of view Blom and Chaplin (1982:72) describe it as “the muscle flow of the dancer’s body”. From a semiotic point of view, Fontanille (2004:197)[48], talking of movement and what he calls the “wrapping body”, says that we are in front of an interaction of forces and substances, energy and matter, by which forms are produced, and his interaction between matter and energy originates the semiotic principle of the “eidetic conversion” (p.198)[49]. These two descriptions of energy, among the many others we could have referred to, should be enough to highlight the need for dancers and choreographers of successfully mastering also the energy exploitation process in the relationship between the choreographic body substance, its movement and all the other elements of the dance medium. Energy is, indeed, a relevant and composite actorial element whose dynamic characteristics strongly affect the quality of live dance. Using energy and force appropriately has also to do with successfully handling body weight, which reveals itself as another significant ability in live body movement management and which has basically to do with controlling gravity.

In live environments, (dance) movement is basically produced by changes in the relationships between body, space and time (Hutchinson, 1954:15)[50] that is to say, in semiotic terms, at the moment of the dance discourse actualization, during the enunciation process which happens at the moment of the (movement) performance (event), in contrast with the utterance status[51]which follows. This interrelationship between body, space and time manifests itself in physical actions proper of the body muscular doing, which entails modifications at the tensive level, creating inner and outer tensions and counter-tensions in the body which also affect dynamics and therefore are responsible for variations at the kinetic and expressive content levels[52]. Changes in the use of energy produce a dynamic[53] variety that gives a poli-rhythmic[54] articulation to the flow of ever-changing sequences of eidetic-plastic-dynamic configurations[55] that the choreographic body takes on when smoothly changing its forms through its fluid shaping and re-shaping during a dance.


Variations in dynamics (and/or each of its components) are responsible for meaningful differences both at the kinetic-syntactic level and at the semantic level of dance movement because, more than other movement and choreographic features, they modulate actions and their kinetic contents in a qualitative way, so making them stronger from the expressive and semantic point of view of interpretation. Dynamics, indeed, affects the choreographic sense in much the same way as paralinguistic traits do in language discourse.

In technologically modified media environments, dynamics and its factors undergo some further significant modifications. The icon-bodies/simulacra of the screen are, first of all, freed from the limitations given by the live body weight so they are free from the limiting action of gravity too. This means that the degree to which the editing process can manipulate dance body images can go far beyond any expectation of movement likelihood as it is on stage. The screen icon-bodies have the levity and handiness of picture-cards which can be made flow in a space without resistance, no matter how heavy and strong the movement is when performed live. Effort[56] traits, such are those of heaviness and strength for instance, which constitute part of the kinetic content of dance movement, have therefore no pertinence at all within the screen environment and loose their meaningfulness because the audiovisual and digital choreographic body replicate live shapes but not live matter so, not having to handle the effective weight of real bodies, it cannot consequently replicate what real movement is made of. This is not to say that recorded dance movement lacks dynamics. What we are saying is that, from a semiotic point of view, a recorded dance represents a semblance dynamics which is basically empty of its own dynamic content, a “surrogate” (La Cecla 2006)[57] dynamics which, though being able to trace the visible path of the movement dynamic flow, cannot replicate its kinetic substance properties and, therefore, the sense effects produced are also altered.


Because of this basic emptiness, in terms of kinetic content of screen movement dynamics, another important difference affects live and non-live environments from the reception point of view. When the audience watches a live performance, their mirroring capacity for feeling some muscular and emotive empathy[58] is triggered out by the very presence of the dancing bodies on stage. In non live environments, the perception of the movement from a space which remains fundamentally external, together with the lack of flesh-weighted bodies on the screen, may make it more difficult for the spectator to get into a deep kinaesthetic empathy because of the somatic distance from the live performance situation.

Technological media providing an iconic-dynamic representation of dance, make the impact of a kinaesthetic identification not completely absent, though weaker, especially if the spectator watches a video performance which he/she has at least once experienced in live conditions[59]. Iconic-static representational media on the other way, conveying the sense of movement by a fixed image, seem less suitable to make the observer resound kinaesthetically since they fail in reproducing a sensible muscular and empathic echo in his/her body. Hubert Godard (Menicacci-Quinz 2001:374)[60] calls the kinaesthetic phenomenon as mediated by technological media “exproprioception”, considering it in terms of the visual bit of information that replace proprioceptive information in advanced technology, like motion capture systems, in which sensations are mediated by visual or aural channels. This seems to us to further reinforce the idea that an outer, external dimension is what most seems to characterize the choreographic media body and dance environment.

Will we, then, still call technologically modified choreography “an intimate act”[61]?







Bench, Harmony, “Dancing at the Surface: Digital Media and the ‘No Place’ of Dance”, in AAVV, Proceedings of the Society of Dance History Scholars Thirtieth Annual Conference, Co-sponsored with CORD, Centre National de la Danse, Paris, 21-24 Juin 2007,  pp.203-207

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Dusi, Nicola – Spaziante, Lucio (eds), Remix-Remake. Pratiche di replicabilità, Roma, Meltemi, 2006

Fanti, Silvia/Xing (eds), Jérôme Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Myriam Gourfink, Kinkaleri, MK. Corpo sottile. Uno sguardo sulla nuova coreografia europea, Milano, Ubulibri,2003

Ferraro, Angela-Montagano, Gabriele, (eds), La scena immateriale. Linguaggi elettronici e mondi virtuali, Genova, Costa&Nolan, 1994  

Fontanille, Jacques, Figure del corpo. Per una semiotica dell’impronta, Roma, Meltemi, 2004

Foster, Susan Leigh, Coreografia e narrazione. Corpo, danza e società dalla pantomima a Giselle, Roma, Dino Audino Editore, 2003 (or.tit. Choreography and narration, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1996)

Greimas Algirdas, J., Del senso, Milano, Bompiani, 1996 (or. tit. Du sens, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1970)

Greimas Algirdas, J.-Courtés, Joseph, Semiotica. Dizionario ragionato della teoria del linguaggio, Paolo Fabbri (ed), Milano, Bruno Mondadori, 2007 (or. tit. Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage, 1979-2007).

Hutchinson, Anne, Labanotation or Kinetography Laban. The System of Analysing and Recording Movement, Theatre Arts Book, 1977 (The Dance Notation Bureau, Inc.1954, 1970)

La Cecla, Franco, Surrogati di presenza. Media e vita quotidiana, Milano- Paravia/Bruno Mondadori, 2006.

Marrone, Gianfranco Corpi sociali, Torino, Einaudi, 2001

Meneguzzo, Marco La scoperta del corpo elettronico. Arte e video negli anni 70, Milano, Silvana Editoriale, 2006

Menicacci, Armando-Quinz, Emanuele, (eds), La scena digitale. Nuovi media per la danza, Venezia, Marsilio 2001

Preston-Dunlop, Valerie, Practical Kinetography Laban, London, MacDonald&Evans, 1969

Preston-Dunlop, Valerie, Dance Words, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995, (1998 2nd printing)

Preston-Dunlop, Valerie, Looking at Dances, Verve, 1998

Righi, Cristina, Semiotica e Danza. Il senso coreografico, unpublished doctoral  thesis, Research Doctorate in Semiotics,  University of Bologna (Italy) – Dept. of Communication Sciences, 2000

Righi, Cristina, “La traduzione coreografica. Riflettere sul tema del ‘passaggio’ nella Danza”, in AAVV, Ricostruzione, ri-creazione e rivitalizzazione della danza, proceedings of the 1st Congress of AIRDanza- Italian association for dance research, Museo di Roma in Trastevere, 26-27 April 2003, pp.136-153. (also at )

Righi, Cristina, “Coreografare site-specific. Luogo che plasma, danza che trasforma”, in E/C online journal of AISS- Italian association of semiotic studies, special monographic issue Riscrivere lo spazio: pratiche e performance urbane, Nicola Dusi-Elena Codeluppi-Tommaso Granelli (eds); also at www.

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[1] An early working draft of this paper was presented in April 2008 as a lecture for the training workshop on Contemporary Audiovisual Languages at the Department of Communication Studies - Degree in Semiotic Disciplines at Bologna University. I would like to thank Lucio Spaziante and Federico Montanari, responsible for the workshop, for their kind invitation. The questions and comments that came out on that occasion have been extremely valuable to me and to the further developing of this essay.

I am the sole responsible for the English translation of quotations when coming from the Italian books I have referred to. This has been signalled in endnotes.

Quotations have been put between “ ”.  Italics has been used for emphasis (when not differently indicated).

[2] In this paper, the terms actor and actorialization are used in their technical semiotic meaning according to the definition given in Greimas-Courtés (1979:20-22).

[3] We are thinking, for instance, of contemporary circus companies such as Le Cirque du Soleil, where a strong emphasis  is put on choreographed movement, spectacular and theatrical ambience. We also think of those dynamic installations in which the visual element is more and more combined with sound and movement, resulting in a special kind of performance event, and we are thinking of martial arts too, because of the strong choreographic element present as part of their training, especially in some fixed, codified more ancient styles (Thai Chi Chuan forms or Karate katas, for instance).

[4] From a linguistic point of view, we are facing here an interesting, but somewhat problematic, issue which has to do with the fact that we can refer to the choreographic body in terms of a subject or an object and this entails the use either of the personal pronoun he/she, or it. The choice is not obvious and, above all, it has some interpretative consequences. By using the personal pronouns he/she as referred to people, it seems to us that it may be suggested a tendency to consider the choreographic body as a gendered persona, a male or female dancer who always acts as a subject because he/she is first of all an individual human being acting according to his/her will. On the contrary, by using it, we feel that it can be implicitly suggested to consider the choreographic body as an impersonal object, a sort of tool or instrument trained for dance in a way which makes it almost to be seen as detached from the subject-individual whom is part of. Unable to offer an absolute solution to this problem, we will adopt a relative criterion using  he/she when we want to emphasize the subject within the choreographic body, but using it when we prefer to emphasize the choreographic body being more object-like, depending on how the effect of actions is felt, either as almost autonomous and independent from the subject, or as perfectly integrated with a subjectivity. Our discussion will go around this subject/object issue more than once. A very articulated distinction, which takes into account this kind of different aspects that can be attached to the human body, is the one set up by Fontanille (2004), where the body is described as flesh, proper body, wrapping, etc. As semioticians, we recognize that these kinds of classifying categories are useful for semiotic analyses, since they provide an articulated vocabulary for verbalizing descriptions of phenomena which would be otherwise very difficult to describe. Nonetheless, as dance people, we cannot help feeling a bit unease when faced to the unavoidable proliferation of ideas of the body that an analytical ranking seems to produce and in which we risk to loose the basic assumption by which live performance essentially presents the human body as a whole but multifaceted entity which can either subjectify or objectify itself according to the choreographic intentions, purposes, techniques and interpretation.

[5] We borrow the expression from Marrone’s title (2001). Engl. ours.

[6] See Combi (2000: 47-65) for the cultural dimension of the body.

[7] See Righi (AAVV, 2003:136-153) for a discussion on dance bodies in the context of the intersemiotic translation occurring between dance notation and live choreography.

[8] ours.

[9] See, for example, what Myriam Gourfink (Fanti/Xing 2003:115-118, 119-124) says about her way of choreographing by computer. See also what Merce Cunningham says about his own approach to computerized choreography (Vaccarino, 1996:134-137).

[10] Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe can well exemplify the different interests a choreographer can have in using technologies in his art. (See Vaccarino, 1996:121 and following).

[11] Interview with Merce Cunningham.

[12] For a definition of the semiotic terms helper and auxiliant see Greimas-Courtés (1979:2, 23).

[13] See Vaccarino (1996:121-154).

[14] Engl. tr. is ours.

[15] Engl. tr. is ours.

[16] ours.

[17] About hypertext and intertextuality.

[18] is ours.

[19] We are comforted by what La Cecla (2006: 56-57) says about interactive television, namely that the definition is a perfect contradiction. In fact, he says television was born in the ‘50s during a time when the Western society was going through a crisis of subjectivity.

[20] See Righi (2000) for an exploration of  the kinetic-syntactic and the semantic levels of the choreographic sense.

[21] See Righi (2000).

[22] is ours. In her introduction, Fanti explains that the title of the book is a tribute to the brasilian musician Arto Lindsay and his most famous album titled O Corpo Subtil, but she says it is also referred to the medieval tradition which called thin body one layer of the being, a reduced version of the physical volume of every person.

[23] Engl. tr. is ours. French words are in italics in the Italian text.

[24] We think, as Davide Sparti does in his afterword (La Cecla 2006:162 and following) that body and presence are so much linked that the one cannot be given without the other.

[25] Some people might not agree with us on this.

[26] See Menicacci -Quinz (2001) for these two research projects.

[27] ours.

[28] Valery’s passage has extensively been discussed in Righi (2000). ours for the Italian “carni di vetro”.

[29] “Degas Danza Disegno” ( First published in 1936 than re-published in 1938 (Gallimard).

[30] ours.

[31] Ferraro and Montagano (1994:20) say the same about screen simulated objects: they think they “seem to have absorbed matter”. ( is ours).

[32] is ours.

[33] Quoted. is ours.

[34] See Dusi – Spaziante (2006) on this topic.

[35] See Righi (2000) on this topic and on other themes connected to the dancer’s body .

[36] See Greimas (1970:69 and following) about gestures. Issue first approached in Righi (2000).

[37] See Greimas- Courtés, (1979:17-18) for a definition of actant  and actantial role.

[38] See Righi (2000) for the actorial and actantial role of the dancer’s body and its possibility of articulating and disarticulating itself in dance.

[39] Quoted. is ours.

[40] Quoted.

[41] See note 4 above for Fontanille’s semiotic description of the flesh-body. We are not getting into the deep speculations entailed by Fontanille’s multifolded view. More simply, we just refer to a body made of flesh as its substance matter in live performance.

[42] See Righi (2007) for a short discussion on the disengagement modalities (débrajage) allowing the performer to pass from a subject condition to an actorial role, approached from Fontanille and  Schechner’s points of view.

[43] Bench’s perspective is very specific. She thinks of the ‘no place’ for dance not in terms of cyberspace nor electronic space, screen space or virtual space but as the ‘no place’ of dance, established in Western dance history since as early as late 1600s with Feuillet’s notation system who cleared a space for dance which was basically abstract because it was pure geometry. Starting from this logic and applying it to digital media, Bench argues that “if bodies exist in no place in particular, they can easily move into any place whatever.” (2007:203).

[44] It must be remembered, though, that the way in which vision is practised differs from one culture to another, as La Cecla (2006:88-89) says, hence the importance of the context in which the reception practice happens as well as of the contest conditions.

[45] is ours.

[46] ours.

[47] On this matter, it seems to us very interesting what Pozzato (Dusi-Spaziante 2006:241-257) says in her essay about the use of the morphing technique in Robin Williams’ videoclip Radio, with regard to the manipulation of the singer’s body through the overlapping of Bacon’s figures of distorted bodies.

[48] ours. S.L.Foster (1996: 188) says that 1700 bodies gave forms to space whereas in 1800, training methods and a new dance vocabulary gave the body volume, a body conceived as limited by the skin. We see her definition of the body as being not far from Fontanille’s idea of the body as wrapping.

[49] is ours. Italics is in the Italian text.

[50] See § The nature of Movement, p.15. The book by Hutchinson is also a valuable reference for other aspects on movement analysis.

[51] See Greimas-Courtes (1979: pp.102-107 for definitions of enunciato (utterance) and enunciazione (enunciation).

[52] See Righi (2000) for a choreosemiotic exploration of dynamics and tensions.

[53] See Preston-Dunlop (1995:269) for definitions of dynamics.

[54] Not only a rhythm based on time but also other kinds of rhythm, like those created visually (i.e. spatial rhythm).

[55] We first called them “eidetic-dynamic configurations” (Righi, 2000). Now, we prefer “eidetic-plastic-dynamic configurations” as a suggested choreosemiotic definition for what are commonly called  forms, figures, poses, steps etc. that are performed by the dancer. Eidetic refers to the figurative aspect of the choreographic body in its flowing of shapes (also when they are less recognizable and therefore can be better described as figural instead of figurative shapes); plastic conveys the reference to a movement which is tri-dimensional; dynamic refers to dance modulation of the movement energy which articulates expressive variety.

[56] As referred to Laban’s Effort/Shape Theory.

[57] ours.

[58] Our reference here for the recent development of the mirror-neurons theory is the work of Rizzolatti-.Sinigaglia (2006).

[59] These observations are purely based on empiric and personal experience of competent dance spectators.

[60] Quoted. ours.

[61] The reference here is to the well known title by Blom-Chaplin (1982) The Intimate Act of Choreography.


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