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Philosopher’s Book on Dance Lands Award

‘The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance’ Earns National Kudos

Nov. 30, 2012

Focused on danceworks that are artworks, philosopher Graham J. McFee’s latest book, “The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance” (Dance Books, 2011) has landed a national award from the American Society for Aesthetics.

The Society recently recognized McFee, lecturer in philosophy, with its Selma Jeanne Cohen Award, a biennial prize for the best monograph on the philosophy of dance.

McFee joined Cal State Fullerton’s faculty in 2005, teaching an aesthetics course based around literature and film and other philosophy courses each fall. He has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English and a master’s degree in philosophy form Keele University and a Ph.D. in philosophy from University College in London.

His research expertise centers on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the philosophy of sport and dance.

His published work includes “Artistic Judgement: A Framework for Philosophical Aesthetics” (Springer, 2011), “Truth, Ethics and Knowledge in Sport Research: An Epistemology of Sport” (Routledge, 2010), “Sport, Rules and Values” (Routledge, 2004), “The Concept of Dance Education” (Routledge, 1994), “Understanding Dance” (Routledge, 1992) and "Much of Jackson Pollock is Vivid Wallpaper: The Epistemology of Aesthetic Judgements” (University Press of America, 1978).

“Graham McFee is a terrific contribution to the philosophy program here at Cal State Fullerton,” said Mitch Avila, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “We are fortunate to have someone of his caliber and range of philosophical interests teaching in our program. He is gifted in not only aesthetics, but also the philosophy of sport. This might seem unusual for an ordinary language philosopher like Graham, but those of us who appreciate his interest in Wittgenstein understand exactly why these pursuits are so interesting. Graham is highly regarded by philosophers of art, and our reputation as a center for philosophical aesthetics has certainly benefited from his association with us.”

In “Aesthetics of Dance,” McFee explores the making of dance, the distinctive role of the dancer and the understanding and appreciation of dance performances, as in this excerpt:

An article in the L.A. Times, entitled “Five things I hate about ballet,” included the suggestion that ballet “. . . falsifies its present” (Segal, 2006 p. E36), by presenting as ‘the classics’ what were really new works:

. . . the so-called traditional versions of Swan Lake danced by the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre were premiered more recently than the radical Matthew Bourne modern-dance adaptation — the one with the male swans.

In part, this author’s critique is that what one takes for traditional danceworks — the standard fare of these big ballet companies — are in fact far more modern, having “premiered ... recently.” As a result, the danceworks one sees are “. . . compromises between the look of then and the technique of now” (Segal).

One aspect of this author’s objection to the state of ballet today is directed as the repertoire of many ballet companies today — really a way to criticize some of the stale or outdated material still performed. It is easy to sympathise with these complaints especially — as I first wrote this — with another Nutcracker season in prospect! But two points set  a stronger course. First, many of the criticisms of ballet apply equally to modern dance companies; and especially, say, Martha Graham’s (at least in some of its moments). So the culprit is not really ballet as such. Second, at any time, most of the dance being performed and being choreographed, is not good — as most of the painting or poetry at any time is not good!

So are works performed as ‘the classics’ really new, as our author implies? To answer, one really needs a clear sense of what is and what is not a particular dancework (say, Swan Lake). This question might seem easy to answer. But any clear basis for resolving what is and what is not the very same dancework faces difficulties, given the diversity among performances which are still of Swan Lake. For one performance of Swan Lake can differ from another, without the second becoming the performance of a different dancework. What changes here (say, to cast, costume or staging) are consistent with our (rightly) still seeing that same dancework? And, which go too far? On the face of it, no clear reply is forthcoming. So, one cannot readily identify dances in the way our author assumed. But, without resolving such issues, it seems difficult to comment accurately on the properties of particular dances. When did I see that dance? And when not? Hence, the real and abiding topic concerns when the performance one observes is a particular dance (say, Swan Lake). Further, these issues arise whether one thinks about staging a particular dance; whether our concern is with appreciation (or, more generally criticism) of a particular dancework; or, again, whether one seeks to ‘reconstruct’ a dancework from the past. Each of these contexts will be addressed in this text, since this is (among) the stuff of the philosophical aesthetics of dance. ...

This text’s argument shows that the issue is not centrally theoretical; not a problem for ballet (nor for dance), but only a problem for ballets or for ballet companies. Those who pursue the topic in practice can resolve whether or not such-and-such a dance is being performed in so-and-so (putative) revival — or anyway have a public, reasoned debate about it. These matters cannot typically be open, or arbitrary, despite the difficulty in resolving them. For (at least primarily) the difficulty in resolving the issue really resides in assumptions about the form taken by such a resolution: theoretical worries disappear once it is recognized as case-by-case, at best, rather than exceptionless. But a great deal of discussion is required to establish such a conclusion. And, of course, that leaves the practical issues of having the debate about this dancework, and staging the work, in this context, with these resources.

As such cases suggest, the interest in dance here is localized to those danceworks that are artworks — these will usually be performed in theatrical context (such as theatres or other auitoria), and typified by ballets and works of modern dance. No doubt there are many other kinds of dance, not considered here; and this sketch does not draw our boundaries very closely. Still, a rough (and temporary) account here identifies the danceworks that concern us here as “ballets and similar-ish dances,” setting this topic aside for later.

Excerpted from “The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance” by Graham McFee with permission from Dance Books Ltd. and Princeton Book Company.

By: Mimi Ko Cruz, 657-278-7586

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