“Question from a contributor” is a series of posts with topics posed by readers of this blog. Ask your question here. ps: I need more contributions!!
…what about the role experience plays in the effectiveness and authenticity of a performance when the dancer has not “lived out” the life of a character s/he represents?
For example, I rehearse and perform various Chinese ethnic minority dances. I have never been to, much less lived the life of someone in, Inner Mongolia. Nor have I visited the home of the Yi people in the Yunnan province. (I fully intend to do so someday.) I conduct a great deal of research – the cultural and social history of the region, daily life, the effects of Chinese unification, etc. in order to more richly convey the culture of these peoples. Otherwise, the product is merely a series of steps and movements with no spirit.
That said, does the lack of ‘relevant life experience’ make this kind of performance inauthentic? What does ‘authentic’ really mean, and how does experience play a role in this?
What do dancers reading here think?
I would like to address the notion of authenticity. To say that anything is authentic has been debated by academics and others for a long time. In our particular context we could just ask, for example, are we talking about the authenticity of the dance genre itself (classical ballet and its various schools of technique, or as Susan asks – a particular ethnic form of dance)? Or are we exploring the authenticity of the story that is being told through the dance?
From an anthropological viewpoint, I would like to identify two scenarios in which authenticity is often claimed. The first scenario considers assertions of authenticity in the domain of political power and associated political identity formation. This area is relevant to ballet however, strays from Susan’s question too far. The second scenario examines authenticity claims to tradition in the roles that they play in establishing value and worth in the commercial system of consumption. This is perhaps a more manageable discussion for this post.
Because of the high cost of presenting large scale ballet productions, it is safe to say that ballet has to exist in the world commodity system. In the commodity system there are many actors including the commodities producer (ballet companies, dancers, choreographer, and the rest); its consumer (audiences, critics, media); and the marketing and ticketing agents in the supply chain (Appadurai 1986:42-43). Each of these actors have an affect on the interpretation of knowledge that accompanies the commodity with regard to its origin, quality and any other attributes considered important. Both the producer and the supply chain agents usually determine the knowledge that accompanies this information and they do this bearing in mind what they think the market wants. However the consumer has a significant role in re-interpreting this data at the point of consumption (Spooner 1986:198). The commodity emerges as an object that appears as a ‘sign in a system of signs of status’ (Appadurai 1986:45).
With the consumer in view we can see how the criteria of authenticity enters into the debate. Different consumers at different levels of the market question authenticity depending on their perceived needs for the genuine article and their own drive for ‘becoming an aficionado’ in its consumption (Spooner 1986:197). In this system, value and exchange become linked through politics of authenticity (Appadurai 1986:57). Consumers seek authenticity that is projected onto objects as a form of expression and for security in the grounding that this provides. The process of authenticity takes on an ascribed existentialist role in as far as it satisfies the need for individuality in a complex world (Spooner 1986:226-228).
In summary, the producers and others in the market draw on the symbols of past traditions to construct consumer products with images that consumers reinterpret as genuine, thereby ascribing authenticity on the objects of their gaze (Spooner 1986:199-201, 219).
I think this goes some way to answering Susan’s question “What does ‘authentic’ really mean”. With the idea then that tradition and authenticity is culturally constructed, I would answer Susan’s other questions “does the lack of ‘relevant life experience’ make this kind of performance inauthentic?” and “how does experience play a role in this?” depends very much on who the audience is and what their expectations and understanding of authentic are.
Appadurai, Arjun 1986, ‘Introduction: commodities and the politics of value’, Arjun Appadurai (ed.) The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Spooner, Brian 1986, ‘Weavers and dealers: the authenticity of an oriental carpet’, Arjun Appadurai (ed.) The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge