Dance, Hermeneutics and Reconstructionism

Etienne Jules Marey, jump with the perch. The movement, 1894. It is one of the first examples of chronophotography, a photographic process in which a sequence of 12 frames is displayed, made with a special tool, the photographic rifle.

In “L’outil photographique et l’étude de la danse antique” (, 2013) the French researcher Audrey Gouy illustrates a method of investigating, the “Reconstructionism”, (thanks to a particular photographic techniques chrono-photography) by putting the individual postures of ancient Greek dance in the right sequence, it is possible to reconstruct the whole dance with a good approximation. The comparison from the reconstruction is contemporary classical dance. The thought process consists of comparing similar postures, both ancient and contemporary. This method allows the scholar to visualize the phases that precede or follow the moment in which the dancer’s gesture is fixed in the image. The postures represented in Greek figurative art – A. Gouy states – are considered reproductions of reality, and the photographic instrument appears as the experimental means used for the analysis of the ancient choreographic movements and the reconstruction of dance”.

The first to apply the reconstructionist theory to the dance was the French scholar Maurice Emmanuel (La danse grecque antique d’après les monuments figurées, 1896). The starting point of Emmanuel’s theory is that the intuition that the choreutic movements represented in the ancient works of art are the same that characterize the contemporary French classical ballet. Germaine Proudhommeau (La danse grecque antique, 1965) continued the master’s work by going into detail on the gestures and movements of the Greek dance, elaborating a wide typology totally free from any chronological reference and making a systematic comparison between the ancient figurative movements and the lexicon of modern ballet.

In 1970 T.B.L. Webster was among the first to express doubts about the retraining method. According to Webster, the procedure developed by Emmanuel and refined by Proudhommeau, however attractive, “carries with it the obvious danger that the modern steps belong to a completely different dance tradition which may be largely misleading” (The Greek chorus, 1970), introduction, xi).

In 1997 the reconstruction method was also questioned by Frederick G. Naerebout who judged it “a somewhat confused account of the positions, steps, and gestures of the ancient Greek dance” (Attractive Performances: Ancient Greek Dance: Three Preliminary Studies, Amsterdam, 1997, page 62).

In the 1990s Marie-Hélène Delavaud-Roux was the author of some important essays on dance in the ancient world (among many: “Les Danses en Grèce antique”, 1998) to distance herself from her predecessors, she introduced a comparative approach that has opened the way to new interpretations of dance movements and functions.

For A. Gouy “the use of contemporary classical dance as a reference point for understanding the postures of Greek dance seems risky. Associating and correlating two types of dance so distant temporally seems to be an anachronism. A dance belongs to the culture that produces it and can only be understood in its context “(Gouy, 2013).


palazzo della ragione 2
Palazzo della Ragione (Bergamo, late 12th century), capital of a pillar in the portico. In-line dance scene performed by male figures dressed in long robes. For the Archeology of Knowledge the starting point for an analysis of the most ancient dance documents is a procedure that consists in recovering in the studied object a knowledge that is partly already available to the knowing subject. For example, this dance scene from Romanic age shows non-random analogies with the dances that are still part of the repertoire of popular tradition, and with similar representations of prehistoric times. So this document is a fundamental tool for understanding the development of a certain type of Western dances.

Over the last few years, I have often wondered how it is possible to understand Greek dance by noting a formal correspondence between the bodily movements of ancient dance images and a photographic sequence of modern ballet movements. I tried to analyze the question in the light of the ‘Archeology of Knowledge’, the cognitive criterion to which the Blog danzadelleorigini aligns itself, finding in tune with the observations of A. Gouy. In fact, according to the criteria of the ‘Archeology of Knowledge’ *, the most important aspects of reconstruction make it difficult to understand the objectives for which it was designed in the first place. The idea that the analysis of ancient dance can be performed outside a chronological context is incorrect, because we would be forced to accept an inexplicable cognitive vacuum of about two millennia between the historical periods we are comparing. Secondly, an excavation of Archeology of Knowledge, like all excavations, has its starting point in the countryside plan. On the contrary to the reconstructionist method which takes into account a similarity criteria that develops entirely at the anatomical and bodily level, between the two choreutic schemes, ancient and modern. There is an exclusively aesthetic connection that, taking place outside of space and time, does not take into account the archaeological layers that separate the only two levels considered. The ‘Archeology of Knowledge’ also adopts a comparative method but has at least for the moment a few but clear rules. In fact we get a greater understanding if analiser and the object being analyzed are part of the same macro-horizon. Furthermore I see no comparison between the anthropomorph adorant of alpine rock art (4th millennium BC) and the so-called “squatting figures” of the American Indians or the “frog figures” of the peoples of Oceania (Pericot Garcia, Lommel, Galloway, 1967). A comparison between such spatiotemporally antithetical horizons is destined to produce unconvincing results. The path that, starting from the gestures of the celebrating priest in the revealed religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), would be more walkable, would come down to identify the analogies found in the gestures of the adorant between the Greco-Roman antiquity and the protohistoric age.

* An excavation of Archeology of Knowledge is a hermeneutical process that starts from the inside as a form of knowledge in which the subject who knows and the known object (at least in part) come to coincide with the approach to the “text” that you want to know (an image, a script, a dance, a piece of music) is possible because in the studied object there is still a core of knowledge that is shared. Even if only in partial form and mediated, with the subject analyzing. Interpretation is the act by which, through the recovery of the lost code, the meaning is returned to a historical fact that our cultural memory has not yet been completely removed. Once the object of our investigation has been identified, we can trace back in time, from one historical junction to another, until the moment in which it is reunited with the controls, we can then judge whether or not, to the cultural reality that he produced it. But the identification of the interpretative code is only possible if a map of it is still available in the pre-understanding that our historical-cultural tradition has made available to us.

Autore: Gaudenzio Ragazzi

(English). My name is Gaudenzio Ragazzi, a long time ago I graduated in Philosophy with a master in History of Theater. To realize my thesis on the "origins of dance", a theme that still today boasts only two or three specialized researchers in the world, I became a scholar of Prehistoric Iconography. In the last thirty years I have not been able to escape the responsibilities of life. So, after the death of my father, I led the family artisan company that produces tailored shirts. A few years ago I decided that it was time to resume my studies and complete the research I had started as a young man (that nobody else had yet completed). Good luck Gaudenzio! Mi chiamo Gaudenzio Ragazzi, molto tempo fa ho conseguito la laurea in Filosofia con specializzazione in Storia del Teatro. Sono diventato uno studioso di Iconografia Preistorica per realizzare la mia tesi di laurea sulle "origini della danza", argomento che ancora oggi vanta nel mondo solo due o tre studiosi di una certa levatura. Negli ultimi trent'anni non ho potuto sottrarmi alle responsabilità della vita. Così, dopo la morte di mio padre, ho guidato l'azienda artigiana di famiglia che produce camicie su misura. Alcuni anni fa ho deciso che era arrivato il momento di riprendere i miei studi e di fare da vecchio quello che non ho potuto fare da giovane (e che nessun altro nel frattempo aveva completato). Buon lavoro Gaudenzio !


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