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Dec 2022 /Jan 2023


Dec 2022 /Jan 2023

NANCY’S LEGACY: a morphological derivation blossoming in gesture

Gestation, meant as the advent of the gesture, the body happening as a corporeal being here and now in this world, has always been a key element, if not pivotal, of Nancy’s entire work, outlining the path and the evolution of his philosophy.

Jean-Luc Nancy passed away about a month ago and it seems impossible for me not to put my fingers on the keyboard of my computer to sketch a breath, a hint, a parabolic impetus with respect to the contribution he made in order to design a philosophical strategy that can give word to dance, to something that seems to deviate from any syntactic reference, to say the visceral logos or to create a new one that does not try to move the ranks but rather favours the pen to the gesture.


Is it possible to conceive a verb that responds to the movement of the fingers by imitating the unspeakable alphabet of a dancing gesture?


This has been Nancy’s challenge for years and it is possible to say that certainly he unearthed the plots and laid them bare, took the body and ripped his veins, causing the flesh to reclaim its primitive role, or rather its original spatiality that manifests itself in the concept of entre.

Since there is no other evidence for Nancy, the whole existence can only be explained as an exposure of the body. This way of thinking has called into question some of the cornerstones of the phenomenological current, since the concept of essence has somehow been shattered in order of a mere act of existence.

The body as the last spirt and as such the first and only, an existence that can be recognized in its being exposed but does not accept the possibility of an inversion.

This conception is very close to Heidegger’s “being-in-the-world” but nevertheless subtly diverges because there is no other option than worlding and the world is exactly the body since there is no world without it.

If existence is conceivable only as a bodily exposure, then the thinking will have as its object the body and the touching experience, the institution of meaning in the extension and vibration of bodies, the only evidence of a sensible logos, an incarnated one: to this thought inscribed in the corporeality exposed to the world is linked the nakedness of existence devoid of metaphysical anchors, orphan of foundation and transcendence. The body understood as a single image, as a trait of experience, an essential surface since being is made of this, or layers of surfaces.


Such a conception of the body as the only possible affirmation of meaning builds pyramids of meaning with regard to pure gestural emanation, the first act of stopping and exposing oneself, a body in tension and pulsating, that means the dance.

The body taken as the protagonist is obviously the Artaudian inorganic body.

A body understood as a pure flow of movement, an existential surface, whose flesh, chreon, has its root in cheir, or hand, which therefore experiences through the act of touching. Because the body as a line that tickles the being by revealing its existence finds a place only in its relating to what surrounds it and above all through alterity. Being naked means exposing oneself on the surface and there is no nudity without the existence of another body, the experience of alterity finds its apex on the skin, in the act of sextistence, through which every being becomes sexed.

As can be seen endlessly in the 1992 text Corpus, everything smells of existence for Nancy, a real trans-ontology, nothing is deducible, all evidence of this world passes through the experience that the body makes of it. It is therefore a trans-ontological conception of the body and of its being in the world, that has found various connections with some of the first intentions of some choreographers and dancers and also with real artistic movements that have placed the movement and therefore the gestural act as an essential element of research.


This worlding of the body, this intrinsic and inseparable belonging to the world, this existence as the only possible way of being, a continuous experiment of my staying, has a lot in common with the research carried out for several years by the American dancer Steve Paxton, who reaches its culmination in the very delicate text Gravity, 2018. For Paxton a dance solo cannot exist because the dancer is always in contact with something, even with the ground he/she tramples. Paxton between 1960 and 1970 developed a practice he named Small Dance which consisted solely of the act of staying.

At the basis of this practice was the study, carried out as it cannot be otherwise analyzed, of the force of gravity and of the relationship with the ground, of the way in which the earth influences our movements. Paxton supported this research by accompanying body exercise to scientific study, investigating ever more deeply those imperceptible movements, neither definable as voluntary nor involuntary, also found in children, generated by our relationship with the soil. This study was also shared by Yvonne Rainer and resulted in the creation of a videotape, entitled Fall After Newton, created by the American dancer together with Nancy Stark Smith, Lisa Nelson and video operator Steve Christiansen, documenting eleven years of contact improvisation ranging from 1972 to 1983.

It is impossible not to find a connection between the whole Nancy’s conception of alterity, mentioned above, and Paxton’s idea of ​​a dance duo or a collective dance. For Paxton in fact in a dance duo the weight of one is given to the other and never possessed, a game made up of experiential gifts and surrenders, through which we witness the birth of a third unknown: the connection with the text Being singular Plural by Nancy, first published in 2000, is immediate.

The territory thus delineated is dictated by the interior, it is traced step by step through the experientialization of the two bodies and is imbued with a radical solidarity. This making of the dance moment by moment, this taking shape along the way has a rhythm totally in tune with Nancy’s idea of ​​the body, the proscenium becomes the place of the cessation of the secret, the place where the Word before the word materialises, according to what Artaud said, where the body reveals itself in the moment of the experience of its act.


Ugo Mulas, Rehearsal for Rauschenberg’s Spring Training (Steve Paxton) 1964–65



Still from Contact Improvisation documentary, narrated by Steve Paxton,
follows the development of Nancy Stark Smith dancing with Steve Paxton and others from 1972 – 1983


Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, in a Contact Improvisation performance at Thornes Market in Northampton, Massacusetts, October, 1980.
In the background are Lisa Nelson, Daniel Lepkoff, and Christie Svane. Photo credit: Stephen Petegorsky




Act after act, gesture after gesture, this is the pristine and autarchic incipit from which the Grand Union Dance Company started, a bold expression of the postmodern dance movement, whose genesis is inspired by the emblematic performance of Yvonne Rainer Continuous Project – Altered Daily.

What is praised is improvisation as the only possible dance, this does not mean that only an improvised dance can be defined as a true dance, but that only a dance that responds to the non-canons of a flow of pure act in the moment in which it is performed can be said to be such. You come, we’ll show you what we do recites an expression of a 1973 contact improvisation tour, what happens is done when it happens, the gesture is gesturalized in its gesturing, the event is a real event.



Grand Union at Walker Art Center, 1975


Doodles by Steve Paxton. Reproduced from Contact Quarterly, Winter 1976




A decoding, therefore, of the dance that creates its semantic non-codes moment by moment and then destroys them since there is nothing to say but the gesture.

Here, then, dance follows dance and language follows dance that follows dance. So, should language make a double run? The race of language is a fatigued race. If dance can come to coincide with Dance and in that case fulfill its task by giving itself as Dance, absolute nudity, language will always remain its follower. However, albeit hidden, there is the possibility of providing a compositional language, a writing that hints at the parameters of the movement, that hints at the gesture that speaks with dance’s voice.


This aspect of fundamental importance in the relationship between thought and dance was addressed by Jean Luc Nancy through a collaborative experiment he did with the choreographer Mathilde Monnier in 2002: Allitérations.

In 2000, on commission from the Montreal Dance Festival, Nancy wrote a first text about dance, Séparation de la danse, which he commented as follows: “This text was rather a description of what the experience of how it works was for me, simultaneously. the thought, the experience of birth, of my own birth, and the experience of dance, of what I myself have felt – since, as I often say, everyone is dancing at one time or another, everywhere and in all cultures, while not everyone does not sing and, obviously, not everyone draws “.





Claire Denis, Jean-Luc Nancy, Erik M, ICI-CCN Montpellier, 22/02/03 © Marc Coudrais


Jean-Luc Nancy, Mathilde Monnier, Claire Denis, ICI-CNN Montpellier, 22/02/03 © Marc Coudrais






Once again it is clear that for Nancy the experience of dance is something natural and first-born as it is the first thing a body – of which the proscenium is the altar – experience.

Allitérations was based on the reading of this text, made by Nancy himself from a lectern, and accompanied by four dancers and a composer, who tried to work on the interstices and gaps that one encounters when one passes from listening to a text or to music to the perception of a movement.
With respect to this aspect of the investigation, Nancy’s position regarding the concept of dis-orientation is also relevant, which he was able to clarify during a debate on Laurent Chétouane’s KHAOS performance in 2016 and which is referenced in both approach to a disoriented dance but also to a disoriented language that finds its meaning by laying down the movement.




Sketch “KHAOS” by Laurent Chétouane, © Thomas Aurin





For Nancy the disorientation should be thought as openness of non-given meanings, as the inherent moving force of the present because disorientation is not only an actual question but the very meaning of the present.


The key issue turns out to be the language that finds its encounter with dance in the gesture through a morphological derivation process. Language and dance certainly share a knot of meaning, however recognizing the meaning of dance does not mean looking for something that metaphorically approaches syntactic language.

Dance by its nature is characterized by a dazzling simplicity and therefore can only be explained through itself, the gesture itself must be considered as a bearer of its own meaning. This possibility of closeness is seen by Nancy in the gestures of speaking through which the meaning of the saying acquires its entirety and finds its communicative energy. Gesture does not express a determined contentment but rather expresses itself, however, giving an indication of the manner and in this way passing the information mode without being reduced to it.


This way of conceiving the gesture as a fundamental communicative passage was also very important for the American musician and choreographer Robert Ellis Dunn, who spent most of his life using his words, his voice, his gestures transmitting the fundamentals of dance to his students and who also tried to draft a writing that can define its parameters, considering this intention as an endless process.


The Legacy of Robert Ellis Dunn (1928-1996)
Spring 1997




Also the entire work Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion made as a duo and independently – concerning the connection of language to movement, the possibility of a score for dance, the not obvious connection between music and dance, rhythmic speech and movement, the relationship between sign language and pure gestures – has an encyclopedic importance in this sense.


So everything is pursued, everything finds its form in the act of forming, of existing, a morphology in the making, this was the signal launched by the Grand Union Dance Company, this is Nancy’s worlding Corpus, this is the development of the contact improvisation, this is what gesture does, this is what a language that wants to get close to speak dance can do. A morphological derivation, therefore the birth of a new saying that step by step is spoken by gesture, disintegrating itself as movement concludes its parable, revealing neologisms and then creating others while going hand in hand with existence.




by Emiliano Aversa






Cover image: Steve Paxton, Contact Improvisation Workshop, 1980 with a sketch extract from Notes by Rosemary Butcher