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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Barbara Browning

Interview with Barbara Browning (2002)
Barbara Browning is Associate Professor in the Performance Studies Department at New York University, where she previously was Chair. She received her Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral degrees in Comparative Literature from Yale University. In 1983 she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the study of popular literature in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Browning’s first book, Samba: Resistance in Motion (Indiana University Press 1995), was the winner of the De la Torre Bueno Prize for an outstanding work of dance scholarship. She is also the author of Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture (Routledge 1998) and two ficto-critical novels, The Correspondence Artist (Two Dollar Radio, 2011, short-listed for The Believer Book Award) and I'm Trying to Reach You (Two Dollar Radio 2012). Her articles have appeared in anthologies, as well as such publications as Dance Research Journal, TDR, Dance Chronicle, and Women & Performance. She serves on the boards of directors of both the Congress of Research on Dance and the Society of Dance History Scholars. Browning is also a member of the editorial board of Women & Performance and the advisory board of the Dance Research Journal. Professor Browning is also trained as a dancer and for several years performed and taught Brazilian dance in Brazil, the United States, and Europe. In recent years, she has focused on intermedia performance/criticism, blurring the boundaries between musical and dance practice, performance theory, and criticism.X

Diana Taylor: Well, today we are speaking with Barbara Browning who is Chair of Performance Studies [at New York University] and who has done a great deal of work on, especially, dance and possession rituals, I guess you would call them, in Brazil and in other parts of the African Diaspora. So Barbara, could you tell us a little bit what you think of as performance studies? How would you define it?

Barbara Browning: Well, I always find it kind of easiest to begin to get at the question by narrativizing it, telling a little bit of a story. So, I usually talk about the development of the field of performance studies in relation to a kind of signal period in Richard’s—our colleague Richard Schechner's—career when he began to collaborate with the anthropologist Victor Turner. And, you know, it’s interesting to look at the theatrical work that Richard produced at that time, but also to look at the intellectual collaboration. And to think about what it means to have collaboration across disciplines. And of course, as you know, Richard subsequently wrote a very interesting book called Between Theater and Anthropology
Schechner, Richard. 1985. Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
, which marks one certain kind of crossing of a disciplinary boundary. 

And when I was teaching, for example, the Introduction of Performance Studies, I found it interesting to sort of raise that little story to talk about that collaboration, which was not just about someone within the field of theater taking some information from an anthropologist, but actually trying to methodologically incorporate some of the ethnographic techniques and ways of thinking into theatrical practice, just as Turner also was interested in incorporating theatrical practice and technique into his ethnographic fieldwork methodology. And so I asked people while I was at the beginning of, for example, this introductory course: Where do you find yourself? What are you between? And, of course, you get a broad range of answers what people are between. But both at the level of what they are trying to do intellectually, but often times in terms of people’s personal histories and what brings them to the field of performance studies, I think you often hear these stories of people who find themselves sort of between things, trying to straddle two things or at least two things, and to find a way to bring them together in a way that was not just, sort of chunking them together, but actually trying to learn from the methods and to learn from the ways of thinking of two different kinds of disciplines and bring them together.

So, certainly, interdisciplinarity doesn’t quite express that kind of real exchange of methodologies and ways of thinking. For me, when I answer that question, it sort of developed over time, but I think that my own feeling is that possibly my work is... well, I would place it between medical anthropology and dance studies, or dance and music studies—specifically African diasporic dance and music studies. And I can say more about that, but you certainly hear a broad range of answers. People who are trying to kind of straddle things that seem very, very distinct in terms of institutional structures. And I think that’s one of the reasons the kinds of work that get produced in the field of performance studies are often not just interesting, but have a certain power and a political edge to them. Because of course once you begin to move across those boundaries you begin to interrupt disciplinary boundaries. Victor Turner happened to be a theorist of not just ritual, but liminal ritual, rituals of liminality—places where people were crossing borders—and as he very well theorized these are often very fraught and interesting places, when you’re in between things.

So I guess the other thing I would say about the field of performance studies is that when I sort of begin to talk to people who are curious about it, don’t know that much about it, and want to think about it, I… not just narrativizing it, but also maybe beginning with very simple structures and then very simple sorts of categories or boundaries, and then hoping to show ways in which those can be disrupted or that they disrupt each other. For example, in the introductory course I begin—maybe it’s my passive-aggressive personality there—I begin making things look very, very easy and simple and sort of divide things into generic categories: we are going to talk about theater, and then ritual and social spectacle; and then we’ll talk about music, and then we’ll talk about dance. But through the process of going through these different sorts of—what are often configured as “aesthetic categories,” sort of genre categories—to demonstrate ways in which actually once you begin to examine the functions of these things, the categories really become very, very blurry. So that by the end your notion that there is something distinct, that you can identify a social spectacle, for example, or a political protest, as your work often points to...For example, I think it is very interesting to look at some of the actions of ACT UP in the context of thinking about theatrical history; to think about Aristotle and what Aristotle had to tell us about the proper theatrical technique in the Western tradition, and what could be demonstrated on a theatrical stage, and what couldn’t. That there was something about death, for example, that couldn’t be presented on a stage. And then what happens by the time you get to, for example, a die-in—you know, an action by ACT UP in which actually it is not just the theatrical representation, but the actual presentation of death as a spectacle—what that does to disrupt your way of thinking about theatricality; and vice versa: how Aristotle really informs the way that you understand the power of that action. So, the ways in which we can blur those categories, that has a lot to do with what we are trying to do as a field at large.

“For me, it’s very important to really engage with oral histories, with popular narratives of musical genealogies, dance genealogies, the relationship of musical and dance genres to the history of the nation. And often times those oral narratives get sort of debunked… If you really pay very close attention, they tell you a very important part of the history that has been written out.”

Diana: Well, I think you have spoken very eloquently about the interdisciplinarity, perhaps—or trans-disciplinarity or however you want to call it—of the work we do in performance studies. How do you think it contributes to cross-cultural or international work? For example, I was thinking about your work in Brazil.

Barbara: Well, when I said that my work… I am kind of inspired by or I am very much influenced by certain kinds of medical anthropology. It partly has to do with my sort of recent interests in configurations of dance, African diasporic music and dances, something that can be contagious, and ways in which that gets configured in relations to disease and healing… so that’s part of it. But also, medical anthropology in recent years has really moved into a very interesting terrain in terms of methodologies, fieldwork methodologies, and ways of listening to people about how they talk about their own wellness or illness, and ways in which medical anthropology—politically engaged medical anthropology— has brought out the importance of actually listening to those narratives very carefully and doing a very careful analysis of the plausibility, in many cases, you know, the real plausibility of some of those narratives has very much influenced the way I think about doing fieldwork, doing research in African diasporic music and dance. So, for me, it’s very important, for example, to really engage with oral histories, with sort of popular narratives of musical genealogies, dance genealogies, the relationship of musical and dance genres to the history of the nation, and oftentimes, in a kind of… oftentimes those oral narratives get sort of debunked or they’re sort of thought about as kind of popular beliefs that don’t really have to do with the actual literal history. But if you are really going to engage with the kinds of figures of speech and the discourse in them, often times they tell you a much… a very, very interesting story. And sometimes it is not even expressed through language: sometimes it is expressed through polyrhythm, or certain kinds of choreographies that, if you really pay very close attention, tell you a very important part of the history that has been written out.

Diana: Right. It seems to me that’s one of the things that we can do that perhaps other fields don’t do, is look at those other systems of transmissions that are not oral or rhythmic… it’s very much a part of your work.

Barbara: Very important… right. Well, certainly polyrhythm in particular is something that I am very interested in, in terms of ways that it can help us to think, you know, more complex ways about historiography itself. Because polyrhythm is really layered timelines and, of course, historiographies—sort of normative historiography—lays things out on a linear path. So many things get left out, but it's not just what gets left out. It's also at a conceptual or theoretical level people live with the past—whether that gets configured as living with the past because of the presence of ancestors’ spirits, which might be made present in so-called “spirit possession ceremonies,” or whether it is configured in other ways. Polyrhythmic music actually is a kind of interesting model for thinking about ways in which the past is made present all the time. And people live with the past, so those layered timelines, musicological layered timelines, can tell us a lot about ways that we might think in more complicated ways about history.

: Thank you very much.

Barbara: Thank you.

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