Seeta Chaganti. Strange Footing: Poetic Form and Dance in the Late Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 304 pp.
Review by Kélina Gotman
This is an improbable book in many respects. The title lets us know we are dealing with the late Middle Ages, but the cover image boasts a photograph of contemporary dancers—a 2017 performance at the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival featuring dancers of the Marika Brussel Dance Company. At every step of the way, Seeta Chaganti sets us onto a “strange footing”—an uncanny hop or glide between modern, premodern and contemporary, disorienting—in the best possible way—any expectation the reader might hold as to which period or genre illustrates which. Does contemporary “theory” illuminate the thirteenth century? Poetry dance? Or vice versa? And that is the point. For Chaganti, “strange footing” describes a way of “[disrupting] ordinary structures of time and space” (p. 13). Dance is not “comparable” to poetry; poetry does not “illustrate” or “explain” dance. Rather, terms she introduces to describe the work of critically disrupting modernist concepts of dance and poetry—including virtuality, ductus, and narrative reenactment—emphasize ways in which poetic form in the late Middle Ages already embodies dancerly experience. Conversely, dance takes place in visual representations such as danse macabre iconography; this does not mean that the painting merely represents a dance event, but rather that, as she argues, manuscript pages and fragmentary wall paintings equally enact the virtuality of the dance, its way of always gesturing towards another space or time, another world.
Drawing on Brian Massumi’s work on virtuality (among others), Chaganti shows how movement is not a genre to be depicted, but a compossible force that occurs in the interval. Reading a contemporary choreographic work by Lucinda Childs, Dance (1979), Chaganti remarks how the integration of bodies, film, music and light produces an experience in which “the audience perceives virtual forces both between bodily movements and among media” (p. 111). Though this work does not explain medieval danse macabre, for Chaganti it enables a methodology, a juxtapositional force of theorization by which one work illuminates the other in a process of “narrative reenactment.” As she puts it, “Dance will reveal danse macabre to be dance by virtue of its premodern virtuality” (p. 111). Looking at Dance, the contemporary critic may attune to slight variations in phrasing, repetition, and patterning that reveal virtuality in the interstice between live and filmed dancers connected (or separated) by a translucent scrim. Although this is not a danse macabre per se, this work highlights the material conditions of the performance, and movement as a set of “interacting forces,” following Susanne K. Langer’s terminology (p. 115). Childs’s work offers a “ductile” performance between filmic representation and live enactment, so that the choreography takes place “in the interstitial forces between movements rather than emanating from the movements themselves” (p. 116). This is not just like danse macabre iconography but allows premodern virtual temporalities to highlight the poverty of modern conceptual categories. If we believe “dance” may be one (live) type of work and “painting” or “poetry” another, Strange Footing helps set this right.
Chaganti’s examples proliferate; in attending to alternate alignments in prosody which “render strange” poetry’s time, paying close attention to “minor and incidental alterations” including poetic carole—also one of the most common forms of medieval round dance—Chaganti shows how “habits” and “memories of kinetic perceptual experience [move] into the textual encounter” (p. 248). One could say the poem dances, or more subtly, as she shows, that the medieval dance’s virtuality, enacted in the irregular meter and stanzaic structure, performs the difficulty of sacrifice (this is the case in “A child is boren”). In a sense, the poem’s ductus—its way of enacting participatory engagement, of moving the artistic and formal object and event along—can be taken not only as a written allegory but as a performance form. In many respects, Strange Footing contributes to conversations on formalism such as that articulated by Caroline Levine. It also contributes vitally to performance history and theory and historiography in the work of Rebecca Schneider and R. G. Collingwood, among others, for whom reenactment does not merely rearticulate a historical event but calls forth the historian’s critical self-awareness in the present. As Chaganti puts it, “reenactment exhorts the reenacted spectacle to accommodate critical self-awareness concerning the spectacle’s mediations across time and subjective experience” (pp. 32–33). This fairly sums up Chaganti’s own contribution to performance and dance history and theory, poetics, and late medieval literature as well as literary, dance, and performance historiography. The book itself continually performs “strange footing,” self-consciously crossing boundaries between methods and perspectives to render strange temporal and generic delineations. In this way, it enacts a premodern critical aesthetic, employing ductus and virtuality perpetually to posit a translucent scrim between contemporary ways of gazing at performance and the temporally and spatially ductile ways late medieval poetic forms integrate cross-temporal experience into and across media. If intermediality itself is premodern, Chaganti shows how far contemporary critical theory can still go to move the form of its scholarship along.