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The Avant-Garde’s Alternative Ways of Knowing
Dance Chronicle  (IF),  Pub Date : 2019-01-02, DOI: 10.1080/01472526.2018.1517556
Joellen A. Meglin

Ever since I studied motor learning, I have wondered why dancers, in their facile condemnation of mind/body dualities, have pounced on science as a culprit. Were dancers actually to study neuroscience, they might be surprised to discover how integrated scientists imagine body and brain to be. Marvels of mindbody integration include specialized nerve receptors enabling exquisite kinesthetic sensation and rapid motoric response; sensory and sensorimotor integration facilitating balance control in a changing environment; and—in what is known as an ecological view of the nervous system—motoric action (i.e., agency of the subject) figuring into perceptual acts. We speak of the arts and the sciences as the ultimate model of liberal education, but in practice: Never the twain shall meet! At least, one senses this dichotomy in dance departments across the United States, with faculty members eagerly seeking collaboration with other artists in performing arts or fine and performing arts colleges, but sheepishly avoiding any mention of their historical roots in physical education departments. Margaret H’Doubler: Who was she? So the title of a recent Bloomsbury Methuen Drama book, The Sixth Sense of the Avant-Garde: Dance, Kinaesthesia and the Arts in Revolutionary Russia, piqued my curiosity. When I read the background of the authors—Irina Sirotkina, a researcher at the Institute for the History of Science and Technology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Roger Smith, an emeritus reader in the History of Science, Lancaster University, United Kingdom—I thought, Hooray! We will see some bridges built between the arts and the sciences. I imagined a chronicle of discoveries about the kinesthetic sense and the nervous system, and how they may have intersected with the experiments of dancers and other artists in the Russian avant-garde. However, that is not how things happened—at least according to The Sixth Sense. The book begins with the premise, restated toward the end, that the Russian avantgarde understood “the sixth sense” in a manner that “ambiguously” conflated “muscular feeling” with “embodied intuition and emotion” (p. 159). In other words, kinesthesia—as perhaps the least understood sense—became a metaphoric catch-all for that which could not be explained in human pre-reflective, land-on-two-feet (righting reflex) capability, in what we understand today as balance control and motor learning, in tacit knowledge and hands-on skill. The repressed, mysterious aspect of this most intimate of the senses made it a new frontier for artists of all walks in revolutionary Russia, from painting and poetry to dance and drama.