Dance and sensualism in eighteenth-century France

The eighteenth-century philosophy of Sensualism changes the way contemporary critics think about the arts, including dance. More than a philosophy, Sensualism is a zeitgeist which explains some of the issues underlying contemporary artistic debates. The rise of the ‘danse en action’ owes something to the prevailing interest in a putative ‘langage d’action’, the first primitive, gestural language early man would have used, and which modern man can still call upon to enrich artistic expression. Criticism of ‘la belle danse’ seems often to share its underlying principles with Sensualism. Diderot, Noverre, Du Bos and Marmontel assume it is important for the figures in a dance to ‘signify’ something, as if dance could be made up of proto-linguistic symbols like ‘le langage d’action’. They think that it is important for dance to cause the spectator to ‘feel’ something, for there to be an empathetic bond, rather than be only ‘for the eyes’. Dancers must not be automatons, or else they realise the greatest fear of Sensualist thinkers who are sometimes dangerously close to turning man into ‘l’homme machine’ of materialist thinkers. There are numerous ways, like these, in which Sensualism contributes to an understanding of eighteenth-century dance, but there is a notable exception: Chabanon in 1779 takes Sensualist dance to its logical conclusion, proposing that dance, like music, evokes a ‘vague’ sensation, and therefore ‘signifies nothing; it is only a feeling. To my knowledge, there are no parallels to this idea in contemporary dance performances, and yet the potential for a fully Sensualist dance is tantalising.

Edward Nye
Symposium Title: 
Dancing Exploded - 2002
Author affiliation: 
Lincoln College, Oxford