In the Beginning Was Dance: Workshops in the Humanities and the Contemporary Supported by NYU Curricular Development Challenge Grant (2014-2015)

Mahnaz Yousefzadeh

That the case for the Liberal Arts is made more effectively and powerfully outside of Liberal Arts departments is significant.  Key sectors, financial as well as scientific – which are typically posited as competing with humanities or as replacing the logic of the humanities pushing it into the so called “crisis”– are recognizing a renewed role for an education in the arts and philosophy. Yet this demand is articulated at the same time that, in a context of the high costs of education and the need to provide employable skills, humanists are “digitalizing.”   In the Beginning Was Dance, departing from the logic of “digital humanities,” adopts a practical and experiential approach akin to that of G.B.Vico, the father of modern humanities, to situate and re-embody the literary insights and philosophical concepts in real life contemporary institutions. As the capstone workshop Epigenesis: Between Science and the Humanities revealed, an education in the Humanities not only builds character but, through its characteristic methodologies, has direct bearing on scientific discoveries in “dominant” fields such as evolutionary biology. The theme of beginning (origins) and change (learning) were investigated across philosophy, biology, dance, museology, and theatre.  In each workshop, specific assignments were created to ‘re-embody” the philosophic and scientific insights and concepts practically. Website with a record of the assignments and edited video of each event is under construction.  Below you will find a synopsis.

This project, which materialized as a series of four workshops, was a success intellectually and institutionally: The design of In the Beginning made it possible to navigate through NYU’s complex institutional network and bring its many different component together. The workshops brought into a productive working collaboration a) faculty from different disciplines and global sites; b) administrators at different levels from budgeting and operations to Deans and site Directors; and c) students across two different NYU global sites.

The central themes of beginning (origins) and change (learning) were investigated across philosophy, biology, dance, museology, and theatre. In each workshop, specific assignments were created to “re-embody” the philosophical and scientific insights and concepts practically; each workshop involved the participation of faculty, students, and invited experts from NYC and London. The last workshop which took place in London was open to the public and welcomed students from Goldsmith college in addition to NYU students attending.

I have created and managed an accessible website with a record of the assignments and edited video of each event. You will find a synopsis below.

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Eros, Mimesis, and Poesis (Casa Italiana, October 2014 with Courtney Escoyne and Martin Reichert) investigated the three key notions in Plato’s philosophical texts through dance practices.   It established that dance was included in the Platonic Academy’s curriculum, as well as in the education of the guardians because, according to Plato, it is through dance that one learns to recognize measure, numbers, and what is rational.   In that privileged text of the Liberal Arts, Plato’s dialogue on justice, The Republic, Plato discusses the importance of an education in dance for a just and well ordered social and political life. The curriculum introduced the students to a philosophical world view where the mathematics of music and dance were fundamental to understanding the system of universals. Dance, through a mimesis, or an imitation of the movement of the heavenly bodies, teaches men the “lore of one and two.” Thus by embodying the communal dance of the cosmos, measure itself, which includes rhythm, numbers, calculations, rationality–the very possibility of thinking—emerges before us.   In the beginning was Dance, because for Plato thinking — that is, the knowing of the most abstract concepts — begins with movement of the celestial bodies and their imitation in communal dance. Dance belonged to the platonic curriculum, because it prepared the student for thinking, for recognizing measure and all that is rational.  All forms of knowing — scientific, rational, conceptual — in fact had their origin in dance. The class examines the ways the second and third terms of the trio — eros or love and poesis or creation — are intimately related, and are discussed in Plato’s Symposium. After a lecture and close reading of the original text of Plato, two movement and dance exercises that I created in close collaboration with Courtney Escoyne (a former student and Tisch Dance major) translated these abstract concept into a practical workshop. Thirty students attended.

Epigenesis: Between Biology and Philosophy (London April 2015 with Valerie Wells and Yulia Kovac) This capstone workshop approached our fundamental questions concerning origins and change, mimesis (repetition) and poesis (creation and change) through an exciting interdisciplinary dialogue between humanities and the natural science. This workshop presented the latest discoveries in evolutionary biology and epigenetics, with new readings of the “system of epigenesis of pure reason” in the work of German Philosopher Immanuel Kant. The seed for this workshop was sown two years ago, when as a visiting professor in London I accompanied Professor Valerie Wells on a student trip to the Eden Project in UK, immediately after I had heard a lecture on Immanuel Kant by Catherine Malabou — who has recently claimed that “we are living in an era of cultural epigenetics.” Yet I realized that in order to understand how the moral philosopher Kant was using the word epigenesis, I had to understand its origin in biology, since he was using a biological metaphor to explain the working of transcendental reason. While this type of questioning comprises the beginning for any serious interdisciplinarity pursuit, the workshop addressed deeper questions as well: what are the consequences of the latest discoveries in evolutionary biology or genetics for philosophy and the teaching of philosophy? What does it mean to say with Antonio Damasio or Malabou that philosophy “pre-figures” or anticipates science? Our discussion of these questions pushed the ideas of simple analogy and metaphors between philosophical concepts and scientific discoveries, to demonstrates significantly that in fact methodological character of the humanities, such as hermeneutics, are crucial to understanding and making sense of scientific discoveries. As in the previous workshops, these difficult and yet fundamental concepts and methods were translated into practical assignments and exercises conducted during the workshop. The response from this well-attended workshop (55 students) was marvelous; students stayed 50 minutes past the two-hour workshop to discuss this issues further.


The Visual and Sonorous (NYU Washington Square. October 2014) with Julia Pascal) presented the ideas of origins, repetition, and change in St. Augustine’s Confessions, Rumi’s Reed Flute Song and in theatrical techniques developed in avant garde theatre. Given that contemporary culture privileges the visual and the visible over the sonorous, images over words, we examined the aesthetic qualities and the ethical stakes of the sonorous.   In the 11th and the philosophical chapter of his Confessions, St. Augustine, that other staple of an humanities education, examines the origins of the world and elaborates what might be called one of the most enduring and consequential, not to mention, poetic theories of the emergence of time. If God lives in eternity, where there is no time, how did he speak when he created the world? How did he say, “let there be light?” St. Augustine says that, by speaking, God initiated human and historical time and nature as such. Words or language do not happen in time, but constitute time. This aesthetic and ontological quality becomes the foundation for an ethics of listening. Sound, singing, and listening to song allow one to be in time and present in history, and get a glimpse of eternity and timelessness, in moments of “revelation.”   For St. Augustine Truth is “revealed” (read visual) through listening or hearing. After a close readings of relevant passages, both St. Augustine and Rumi, elaborate these concepts.  Julia Pascal reading from her play Woman In The Moon,  related Greek Philosophy and German Marxist theatre, exemplifying the power and the danger of the sonorous during the Nazi period. Responses from the students during the interactive component of the workshop was extraordinarily moving, and are included in the edited video.

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Curating Culture (London February 2015 with Pita Motture and Julia Pascal) highlighted the differences between the academic and museological approaches to arts education, specifically intended to place the students in the position of understanding their own learning process. Guest Speaker Peta Motture, Senior Curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, gave a detailed presentation of her first-hand involvement in the work undertaken to and curate the new Medieval and Renaissance wing of the museum. Students got a glimpse into the work behind the scenes of exhibitions and glass showcases, which often “hide” the very process of culture creation our students are called upon to engage with. Students come to appreciate that far from being a ready-made product, the museums are creative, ideological, and economic spaces of production and problem solving. Students had visited the galleries prior to the lecture and were invited to draw upon their own experience at the museum, therein to reflect upon the origins and legacies of the texts they encounter in the classroom. That they had an expert who revealed the financial, logistical, political and organizational limits and framework which created the iconic images they encountered at the museum was illuminating: the process denaturalized education as a product, while at the same time it provided the means to creatively critique the tradition.I end with a note from a student, which expresses the stakes for our students and faculty of these workshops:

My name is Nira Martinez and I was a student of yours last spring for CFIII and had the pleasure to be a part of your workshop yesterday here in London regarding epigenetics. After leaving the liberal studies program, I have been pursuing my chemistry and public health major and have not been able to take any other classes that were not science, but when I heard you and Professor Wells, my current biology professor, were giving this talk I was very excited. It was very refreshing to learn about the philosophical questions epigenetics and other potential scientific advancements raise, and while my own thoughts and ideas are still not very well developed, I immediately felt very energized to be thinking about my scientific learning in a new angle.

I just wanted to thank you for the engaging workshop that has left me with a lot of questions, from whether random exists to how one could ever quantify how actions affect others…even though my questions and ideas seem like they belong in a science fiction novel, I think it is important to still ponder because it might say something about me and my own beliefs in today’s world.

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