Rule-making and rule-breaking: discipline and indiscipline in American dance and music

deadline for submissions: 
January 28, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
French Association for American Studies

Rule-making and rule-breaking: discipline and indiscipline in American dance and music

AFEA annual congress, University of Nantes, France, May 21-24 , 2019

The history of modern music has progressed via indiscipline and rule-breaking. Richard Wagner’s chromaticism stretched the fabric of tonality almost to the breaking point, and Arnold Schoenberg began to compose in such a way that would “emancipate the dissonance,” thus creating atonal music. In the United States, Charles Ives incorporated discord and scraps of popular songs into his compositions, and Henry Cowell invented dissonant “tone clusters” and played the piano directly on the strings. John Cage raised the practice of sonorous indiscipline to a higher register, with his percussion compositions, his use of chance methods, his invitation of ambient sounds into the work, his experimental instruments and his disciplinary border crossings into theater and the other arts. His indisciplined “disciples,” the artists associated with Fluxus, pushed this exploration even further. Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and others continued to investigate the potential of sound beyond traditional rules and limits.


And yet at the same time, not only did these composers maintain a certain discipline in their compositional work, but sometimes accentuated the rigor of their new self-imposed discipline to the point of obsession. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method used series of twelve notes organized in polyphonic variations to construct a rigorous new kind of counterpoint. This logic was extended by Pierre Boulez and other post-war composers toward a very disciplined form of general serialism. Cage, for his part, who had said that he no longer felt the need for musical structure, imposed new rules and complex configurations on his compositional method as he invented ways to incorporate chance. His compositional technique is most-often based upon what we might call “rule-making.” Even his most open work, 0’00” (1962), paradoxically emphasizes discipline; its score is made up of a single sentence: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” Cage would say in 1978, “Most people who believe that I’m interested in chance, don’t realize that I use chance as a discipline” (Conversing with Cage, 2002, p. 17). Perhaps discipline, when kicked out the front door, comes back in through the back.


This situation has a parallel in modern dance. In her famous 1903 speech “The Dance of the Future,” Isadora Duncan takes a stand against the tradition of classical ballet and its strict discipline which stifles the dancers’ bodies and creativity: “The school of the ballet today, vainly striving against the natural laws of gravitation or the natural will of the individual, and working in discord in its form and movement with the form and movement of nature, produces a sterile movement which gives no birth to future movements, but dies as it is made.” Duncan therefore proposes to create a new school of dance where indiscipline would be the founding principle of the young dancers’ learning process; she refuses to impose upon them any rigid technique and encourages an individual and organic approach to movement: “In this school I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements, but to make their own. I shall not force them to study certain definite movements; I shall help them to develop those movements which are natural to them.” Duncan’s rebellious and revolutionary approach strongly resonates in the American choreographic tradition: her descendants (the Denishawn School, the New Dance Group, Graham, and even Forsythe or Cunningham) reflected throughout their lives upon their relation to discipline and indiscipline, from rejection to reappraisal – or even subversion – of the classical technique, and they all tirelessly worked to renew and rejuvenate the discipline that is dance. “Freedom may only be achieved through discipline,” Graham would tell her dancers; as this famous phrase recorded in “A Modern Dancer’s Primer for Action” shows, it is by observing a strict discipline that the dancer allows his/her body to move more freely, just as a musician practices everyday to maintain his/her agility. Only through discipline can discipline be transcended. Many American choreographers share Cage’s complex relationship to discipline and indiscipline, for example Cunningham and his work with random patterns and repetition. But this “disciplined” relation to indiscipline can also be found in the combination of styles in Robbins’ or Balanchine’s neo-classical ballet.


This combination of different styles sometimes verges on the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, from dance to musical theater, from drama to opera or dramatized dance. What kind of discipline can be associated with happenings and performances? Are these necessarily examples of indiscipline? In this panel, we will investigate the relations and tensions between discipline and indiscipline in the fields of music, dance and forms of interdisciplinary theater like happenings, performances and musical theater. How do American choreographers and composers tackle notions like discipline and indiscipline in the creative process? How do they reconcile freedom and rigorous discipline (or not)? Another possible lead could be the relation to discipline and indiscipline in the learning process of American dancers trained in the many schools that were created in the wake of Duncan’s revolutionary school: Denishawn School, the Martha Graham Company School, and Black Mountain College. How is a company’s artistic identity shaped, between discipline and indiscipline? The connection between discipline, indiscipline and modernity could also be investigated: is modernity necessarily undisciplined? Is discipline necessarily stifling, as Duncan professed? How can the complex relations between randomness and discipline in avant-garde artistic productions be understood? These are a few of the questions that this panel will discuss.


Submissions (200-300 words + bio) should be sent to Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau ( and Danielle Follett ( before January 28th, 2019.