Movement and Progress: Beyond, Ahead, and Post- in American Dance and Music

deadline for submissions: 
February 5, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
French Association for American Studies annual conference

Movement and Progress: Beyond, Ahead, and Post- in American Dance and Music

Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau (Université Clermont-Auvergne) and Mathieu Duplay (Université de Paris)


The American ethos of movement and progress, the constant desire to go beyond what is known into undiscovered territories, is deeply rooted in the history of American dance. From the European exile of the first American dance pioneers – Isadora Duncan and Loïe Fuller, who, like Gertrude Stein or F. S. Fitzgerald found in Europe a fertile ground where American modernism could blossom – to the relation to the American topography in the works of Martha Graham, Ruth Saint Denis, Ted Shawn or George Balanchine, the founding mothers and fathers of American dance have always associated choreographic creation to going beyond the Frontier (the literal Frontier, in the eponymous ballet by Graham, or metaphorical frontiers, anything they perceived as limitations to the development of indigenous American movement). This particular relationship to American spaces attests to a refusal to stand still and a desire to consider creation as perpetual motion; for Gertrude Stein, this refusal of fixity and the constant preoccupation with going beyond, moving forward, is typically American (“it is something strictly American to conceive a space that is filled with moving, a space of time that is filled always filled with moving”, The Making of Americans). We therefore invite papers which interrogate the connection between the dancing body in motion and an ever- changing geographical space – in the works of the pioneers of American dance but also in more contemporary productions, such as Michael Cunningham’s Summerspace, which focuses on entrances and exits, or Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing, for example, which is danced to Dan Deacon’s America.

Interrogating “Post-America” also leads us to wonder what it means to dance “after”: after Duncan, after Balanchine, after Forsythe, after the great social and political changes – dancing post- feminism, dancing and choreographing (and managing a company) after the #metoo movement, dancing after the Civil Rights movement, ... – or after major historical events (after the two World Wars, after 9/11, ...). How did American dancers and choreographers engage with these events or their predecessors’ works? How can the very notion of after, of aftermath be understood and staged choreographically? Another possibility is to consider this question from a technical standpoint: what is post-movement? What happens after the choreographed gesture, after the steps? How are transitions integrated in a dance piece? What about music? Dancing on the music is a major imperative in dance, but what happens when choreographers try to think about dancing after or before the music? How are the moments before and after the dance integrated in certain pieces – the silences, the moments when dancers catch their breath, what lies within or beyond the margins of the stage?

American music is also notable for its complex relationship to the question of the aftermath. The reasons for this are, first and foremost, chronological. Successive waves of immigrants all brought along a wealth of musical materials taken from well-established traditions with long histories in their countries of origin; American composers, performers, and audiences retain close ties to this rich past. In 19th-century New York, Walt Whitman enjoyed Italian opera; a close collaborator of Felix Mendelssohn and an influential supporter of the Bach-Renaissance, the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind introduced American music lovers to artistic practices popular in the leading European capitals; at the turn of the twentieth century, Enrico Caruso – a Neapolitan tenor – became the cultural ambassador of Little Italy, where he was seen as a spokesperson for Italian music; and the 1893 work known as the New World Symphony was actually written by Anton Dvořák, a Czech composer who drew inspiration from the tunes sung all over the Midwest by newly arrived immigrants from Slavic countries. In the mid-20th century, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg settled in California where they trained several generations of promising young musicians. Meanwhile, Kurt Weill fled the Nazis and took up residence on Broadway, where his impact was considerable. To this day, European influence remains perceptible; a poll carried out in 2010 by the League of American Orchestra reveals that there is not a single American among the ten composers whose works are most frequently performed in the United States (unsurprisingly, the list includes Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms, leading representatives of the Classical and Romantic traditions). This continuing preoccupation with the past may, to some extent, account for the nostalgic tone that characterizes several major works of American music, latecomers to a world filled with unquestioned masterpieces of a much older vintage. Vanessa (1958), Samuel Barber’s opera to a libretto by his Italian-born lover Gian Carlo Menotti – itself based on a story by the Danish writer Karen Blixen – is a case in point: in the final scene, the characters sing their endlessly protracted goodbyes in a Gothic mansion haunted by the ghosts of a past they feel unable to leave behind.

On another level, American music is frequently preoccupied with a sense of belatedness in that many important compositions are modeled after famous precedents, which may include literary works, paintings, movies, etc. (cf. Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art). Without leaving her Paris studio, the French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger trained successive generations of American composers, from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass; and Schoenberg’s influence gave rise to a school of American serialism whose main representatives include Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, and Mel Powell. Other musicians enjoy parodying European models in order to develop a style of their own; John Adams adopted this attitude when he gave one of his compositions, the neo-tonal Harmonielehre (1985), a title ironically borrowed from Schoenberg, a pioneer of atonal music. Others try to get rid of the entire heritage of European art music, for instance John Cage who proudly claimed to have done the exact opposite of what Schoenberg advised him to do – a radical gesture of defiance, or a paradoxical form of imitation, depending on one’s point of view. Yet others unwittingly innovate while seeking to follow established models, for instance the Broadway composers who gave birth to the modern musical as they tried to emulate the runaway success of The Merry Widow (1905), Franz Lehár’s classic operetta. A similar logic underpins all forms of adaptation, especially in the case of vocal music where the literary (pre)text plays a complex role.

It is useful to recall that belatedness (Nachträglichkeit) is also a psychoanalytical term; as such, it can designate the aftershocks of a historical, political, and/or aesthetic trauma which initially leaves witnesses dumbfounded and therefore needs to be interpreted at a much later date. American opera did not truly come into its own until the 1970s, and it is noteworthy that many of the major works in that now flourishing tradition are explicitly concerned with the historical past; Philip Glass’s Akhnaten (1983) is set in ancient Egypt, and John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West (2017) evokes the California Gold Rush. These operas seldom rely much on suspense; the point is not to work out what is about to happen – audiences usually know the answer long before the curtain rises – but to meditate on what happened a long time ago, and the goal is to make sense of an event hitherto rendered incomprehensible by its shocking nature and/or by its inadequate treatment at the hands of historians (thus, Girls of the Golden West focuses on mid-nineteenth century Californian women, about whom conventional accounts of the Gold Rush have relatively little to say). As operas of this kind become increasingly common, it is tempting to suspect that history in its totality, and in particular American history, are experienced as a succession of traumas: America belatedly becomes conscious of itself, via music theater, as the protracted, belated aftermath of its own founding.

Lastly, it is increasingly relevant to inquire about what comes after American music, whose emergence was long awaited by many but whose disappearance is already being heralded, if not treated by some as a fait accompli. Toni Morrison once stated that African-American music has lost its unique function: it no longer expresses the unique character of black culture now that it has been enthusiastically adopted by the whole of American society; as a result, it befalls literature to take up a task that music no longer fulfils. A similar suggestion could be made about American music in its totality, considering that Beyoncé is now a global icon and John Adams’s music is beloved of European audiences. What other artistic disciplines are about to take up the task no longer performed by the formerly “American” music, and are forms of “post-American” music already emerging in the United States?

Abstracts (300 words max) must be sent both to Mathieu Duplay ( and Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau ( along with a short bio before February 5, 2020.