Printer-friendly format  Article citation        


Introduction: Performance in CirculationExploring Activity, Artistry, and Itinerancy

Jonathan S. Marion and Emily Wilcox


This project began shortly after the 2009 American Anthropological Association's (AAA) annual meeting in Philadelphia, as the authors began to think about how our respective areas of ethnographic research and fieldwork would lend themselves to the theme of the 2010 annual meeting of the AAA—'circulation.' Jonathan Marion had been working for several years on the international dancesport circuit for competitive ballroom dancers, and Emily Wilcox had just returned to the United States having completed her doctoral dissertation fieldwork with dancers in state-sponsored performance troupes in the People's Republic of China. Since the most obvious overlap in our research was the broader topic of 'performance,' we decided to convene a panel with the title "Performance in Circulation."

     Determining specifically what we meant by 'performance in circulation' was, of course, the more difficult task. We agreed that some anthropological attention had already been paid to the circulation of performance forms and related aesthetic practices, as well as to the types of hybrid and dynamic entities that emerge out of such circulations (e.g., Browning 1995, Imada 2004, Kendall 2009, Nijhawan 2009). At the 2009 AAA meeting, there was significant discussion of how transnational circulation of works and artists impacts the production and experience of performance. In one exemplary paper, Yolanda Van Ede (University of Amsterdam) showed how, in the cultural milieu of female flamenco dancers in Tokyo, the strong, passionate female image portrayed in flamenco dance takes on new meanings and forms when it is embodied by Japanese women in a cosmopolitan urban dance school. The questions of how circulation impacts the 'liveness' of performance (Auslander 1999), how it shapes the emergence of racialized, gendered, and national identities and subjectivities (Burt 1998, Desmond 1997, Goldstein 2007, Reed 2010, Shea Murphy 2007), and the very problem of universalism as an underlying ideology of 'Western,' 'modern' performance in global circulation (Kowal 2010, Foster 2009) all form important themes in the scholarship on performance in circulation more broadly and in the anthropology of dance specifically.

     As we shared more of our own research interests, we realized that there was yet another very important dimension of performance in circulation that neither of us had considered in depth before: the significance of transnational and transcultural travel as an inherent part of the lifestyles of performers and the interesting consequences these movements have for performers' lives. Wilcox reflected on the ways in which professional performers in China had, for centuries, been relegated to low social status in the Chinese popular imagination because of their lack of a 'stable' home and limited access to conventional family relationships and social roles. Marion spoke of the interesting connection between travel and prestige in the international dancesport community, in which the more global 'appearances' one could make, the more connected, successful, and important one seemed to become. It occurred to us that many types of performers, for reasons related to their specific occupational circumstances (such as their reliance on the physical body as their primary source of capital and skill or the need to be seen and to be known) are artist itinerants, and the activity of their circulation is a topic of some relevance to broader anthropological inquiry. Building on such realizations based on our own research, we began to organize a panel of speakers for the 2010 AAA meeting. The panel would examine what it means for dance performers when being 'away' (from home) is not the exception but the rule. In other words, the panel would explore circulation as a way of life in the context of performance, including how and why circulation is an important aspect of professional performers' mundane lives and their professional identity and prestige, as well as an inherent part of the creative process for making performance. This led to the second part of our title: "Exploring Activity, Artistry, and Itinerancy."

     The articles in this issue have been developed out of the 2010 AAA conference papers. They explore what happens when practitioners' work requires them to be on the go constantly, especially when professional value is inextricable from such circulation. Often labeled 'vagabonds' in various contexts, such performers and other itinerants have historically occupied the margins of society. Such floating groups have developed their own forms of social belonging, however, including unique ways of experiencing place and space, and special economies of relationship and value. While the papers in our session each concerned different forms of dancing, ultimately the issues in question have applicability for a far broader range of performers and live-performance artists as particular kinds of itinerants—pop stars, circus performers, musicians, stage actors, athletes, and politicians, to name just a few. As anthropologists interested in human movement within cultural and social contexts, it is imperative that we consider not only the circulation of human movement forms but also the reshaping of human lives that occurs as a result and makes such circulation possible.

     The five articles in this special issue present three of the four original papers and two commentaries by the discussants for the panel, Brenda Farnell and Helena Wulff.1

     In the first article, "Dancers Doing Fieldwork: Socialist Aesthetics and Bodily Experience in the People's Republic of China" Wilcox contests Katherine Verdery's notion of the "authoritative discourse" of socialist cultural production (Verdery 1991: 429–31) by arguing that dancers in the People's Republic of China experienced a kind of open-ended creative practice in state-sponsored fieldwork experiences that involved extensive travel and an existential process the dancers call "entering deeply into life."

     Eleni Bizas's paper "Navigating Trans-Atlantic Flows: New York's Senegalese Sabar Teachers, Pedagogies, and Notions of Being" draws on Arjun Appadurai's notion of luxury goods as a "specific 'register' of consumption" (1986: 38) to show how the inaccessibility of an actual Senegalese context in New York Sabar dance classrooms leads to the commercialization of such a context. This impacts who teaches, the pedagogical techniques used, and even the content of the dances.

     In "Circulation as Destination: Considerations from the Translocal Culture of Competitive Ballroom Dance," Marion examines travel as a means for making and marking membership in the translocal world of international dancesport, in which visibility is key to success. He adapts William Skinner's regional systems-based 'principles of mobility' (1980, 1985) in order to analyze the mobility of dancers, whose skills and knowledge—the object of their economic exchange—is contained in their physical bodies.

     Although dealing with quite different topics, together these articles provide a coherent conversation on the theme of 'artistic itinerancy.' Each presents a highly original analysis based on deep ethnographic engagement, the result of which is often surprising. Reading them, we discover that artist itinerants are not the people we thought they were—people without homes. Rather, they are people for whom what it is to have, to leave, to seek, or to make a home takes on a range of meanings, both unexpected and diverse.

     The commentaries by discussants Brenda Farnell and Helena Wulff that follow offer a wider dialogue and critical reflection on issues such as belonging and alienation, the problem of dynamic embodiment, agency in movement, and 'circulation' as a paradigmatic shift in anthropology. Further questions that these articles raise include the following: Are performances expected to be constant even as their participants move from place to place, facing different social and cultural contexts as well different levels of personal comfort and belonging? Do technologies involved in the creation of performance spaces diminish differences of place, minimizing the effects of circulation even as they are often extreme? If so, how? How do itinerant performers negotiate relations involving family, identity, and citizenship? Does the product of a performer's labor—which is inseparable from the performer's own life and flesh—grow in demand (and therefore 'value') the more he or she circulates? What impact does this increased value have on the social or cultural status of the performer in this same scenario? What emergent surplus value or possibilities of transcendence does the life of circulation offer? How do practitioners manage the contradiction entailed in an itinerant lifestyle, since performers often gain marketing or commercial appeal by 'hailing from somewhere,' while 'home' is likely to be or become somewhat fictional or at least temporary?

     We hope that these issues will continue to be explored across broader domains of anthropological activity. We note that, while the February 2011 issue of Anthropology News focuses on "The Circulation of Knowledge and Culture" in general terms, we believe the articles published here demonstrate that focusing on the circulation of actors and their activities represents another stream of valuable anthropological inquiry—one that will only become more significant in the face of performance artists' expanding mobility and circulation.


1 The fourth paper was "Choreographing Exile: Festival of Lies and the Democratic Republic of Congo" by Ariel Osterweis Scott.

References Cited:

Appadurai, Arjun
1986. Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value. In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (ed. Arjun Appadurai). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 3–63.

Auslander, Philip
1999. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Browning, Barbara
1995. Samba: Resistance in Motion. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Burt, Ramsay
1998. Alien Bodies: Representations of Modernity, "Race," and Nation in Early Modern Dance. London and New York: Routledge.

Desmond, Jane (ed.)
1997. Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press.

Foster, Susan Leigh (ed.)
2009. Worlding Dance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Goldstein, Joshua
2007. Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870–1937. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Imada, Adria
2004. Hawaiians on Tour: Hula Circuits through the American Empire. American Quarterly 56(1): 111–49.

Kendall, Laurel
2009. Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kowal, Rebekah J.
2010. How to Do Things with Dance: Performing Change in Postwar America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Nijhawan, Amita
2009. Excusing the Female Dancer: Tradition and Transgression in Bollywood Dancing. South Asian Popular Culture 7(2): 99–112.

Reed, Susan A.
2010. Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Shea Murphy, Jacqueline
2007. The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Dance and Modern Dance History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Skinner, G. William
1980. Marketing Systems and Regional Economies: Their Structure and Development. Paper prepared for the Symposium on Social and Economic History in China from the Song Dynasty to 1900. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Beijing, 26 Oct.–1 Nov. 1980.
1985. Presidential Address: The Structure of Chinese History. Journal of Asian Studies 44(2): 271–92.

Verdery, Katherine
1991. Theorizing Socialism: A Prologue to the "Transition." American Ethnologist 18(3): 419–39.



Content in Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (ISSN 1940-7610) is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.
© 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Terms and Conditions of Use.