The Choreography of Space: Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe in Context

Stanger, Arabella. 2013. The Choreography of Space: Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe in Context. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis takes the work of Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe as case studies for a socio-historical analysis of choreographic space and, in so doing, develops a sociology of dance around the qualitative study of spatial aesthetics. By locating the spatial innovations of these artists in the social space of their practice and in the light of spatial models inherited by each, it argues that the choreography of space can express ideals of human relationality produced in and productive of its broader societal landscape. Drawing from Henri Lefebvre’s contention that ‘the space of a (social) order is hidden in the order of space’, the thesis takes classical ballet as a primary example of how political ideals come to be embodied in spatial aesthetics and uses the ‘classical model’ to coordinate a sociologically orientated dance-historical context for these artists.

The thesis is structured around four case studies that together form a context for understanding Cunningham’s and Forsythe’s spatial practices. These are: firstly, a sociopolitical history of harmony in courtly expressions of classical ballet from fifteenth- century Italy to late Imperial Russia; secondly, an analysis of George Balanchine’s and Martha Graham’s respective choreographies of the ‘American geographical imagination’; thirdly, a comparative study of Rudolf von Laban’s and Oskar Schlemmer’s theories of space and technology in their pre-war German contexts; finally a contextualisation of John Cage’s 1952 event in relation to Marshall McLuhan’s ‘electronic age’ and John Dewey’s ‘democratic’ social space.

The final two chapters weave these spatial models into comparative frames for measuring the socio-historical specificity of Cunningham’s and Forsythe’s choreographic spaces. Cunningham’s ‘no fixed points’ aesthetic is understood as producing a coexistent space commensurate with McLuhan’s electronic paradigm and Dewey’s democratic individualism. Forsythe’s fluctuating space is understood as producing a ‘space of flows’ emblematic, for Manuel Castells, of a late twentieth-century ‘digital age’.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


merce cunningham, william forsythe, dance, choreography, spatial aesthetics

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Theatre and Performance (TAP)


April 2013

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

24 May 2013 07:58

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 11:20


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