The incentive for this research came during the Covid pandemic. The imposition in many countries across the world a “state of exception”[1] or state of emergency initially triggered my interest to explore dance through the perspective of politics. State of exception is a situation of an exclusive danger to the society, always subjectively judged to be such, which allows for the “normally” operating juridical order, the norms which regulate the functioning of a democratic society, separation of powers, civil rights and freedoms, agreed upon in The Social Contract, to be suspended for a certain period of time while direct emergency measures are prescribed and implemented exclusively by the executive authority. A very fragile no man’s land between the legal and the political which could put in danger the democratic procedures, while addressing а global danger (like this of the pandemic), under the pretext of a justifiable cause. To what extent are people sensitive towards this kind of ambiguity and uncertain point of imbalance which can be easily and imperceptibly transgressed towards the realms of authoritarian rule? What keeps the democratic paradigm uncompromised and society reflective towards its own practices, institutions, norms and values?

The crisis of the pandemic served as a catalyst for the aggravation of the social and economic situation the of the artists which strikingly manifested the precariousness of their state pointing to the marginalized position they have in society. It became urgent to reflect on their art and practice through a perspective which would highlight their agency to renegotiate the socio-political order, the established structures and hierarchies.  And also, to instigate a sense of community, a community which will raise a unified voice to demand proper working conditions, adequate support, etc. during the time of crisis. And last but not least to become aware of the potential of their art to provide tools and to be a tool by itself for sensitizing people to the world they inhabit, to its ways of functioning and their own role and responsibility.

Let us go back to one of the points of departure of this research – the notion of crisis. We can easily refer to the situation that we are all palpably immersed in for quite some time now as an overwhelming crisis, the dominant notion we can describe the recent times with. Health, social, economic, ecological, political, in the broadest sense a crisis of common living and shared values at national, international and global level. And to name just a few: the financial crisis, the migrant crisis, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas, the turbulent presidential elections in USA in 2016 and the unprecedented division between people, Black Lives Matter, post-colonial protests, terrorist attacks, the war in Syria, the refugee crisis, Brexit, then came the Covid pandemic and last but not least the appalling reality of the full-blown war in the heart of Europe, a kind of war that everybody thought impossible.

I am haunted by the dark feeling that we are living the end of days. One cannot continue making/thinking about art without acknowledging what is happening in/with the world around.  More than 10 years ago the historian and political thinker Tony Judt described our times as the “age of fear” when we feared, as he put it, “that some stranger would come and drop a bomb”, referring to the terrorist threats, without even imagining that some 12-13 years later the fear would be that not a stranger but a well-known politician would pose a threat of using nuclear weapon. When the world is shaken with so much fear, hatred and instability, in times of huge disruption at so many levels of private and public existence, inevitably the realms of politics and the political as mechanisms for regulating and negotiating common living come to the fore. And all other areas of human activity, including the performing arts and dance, which function within this larger picture of the common order, insist on being thought through this perspective, imperative in conditions of crisis.

I started working on the relationship between dance and politics and its various instances only to discover that not only dance is not politically indifferent or apolitical as is traditionally seen, not only that it has a serious political potential, but that it is actually immanently political. We can distinct three major modalities of co-existence of dance and politics[2] – on the level of content (what is said, explicit engagement with political and social issues on the level of content), of form (how it is said; Judson Church Dance Company as Vujanovic writes: “practiced an emancipatory politics without saying a word on political themes”. It was clearly engaged in democratization, individual liberation, and emancipation in the spirit of the 60s by the problematization of inherited images of dance, body and techniques and by offering alternative to them, by introducing for example pedestrian bodies and movements which were inclusive (“democratic”) and non-virtuoso”[3]; and modes of work/production – shifting collaborations, constant networking, living/working in a permanent nomadic regime and flexibility, multi-tasking, and as Vujanoć writes “responsible for turning the artists’ lives into an increasingly precarious existence”. But beyond these functional modalities lies the intrinsic constitutive connection of dance and politics, or in broad sense – to the organization and governance of the life of the polis.

Crisis not only evokes the focus on politics and the political, but also is at the heart of the political itself. I make a distinction between the notions of “politics” and “political”. In Chantal Mouffe’s understanding, politics is the set of practices and institutions through which order is constructed and coexistence is organized in the context of inevitably conflicting positions. And the political is the field of power, conflict and antagonism. In her view, the antagonistic dimension is constitutive of human societies[4]. Liberalism, with its yearning for consensus, has deprived people of the possibility of residing in an “agonistic pluralism” in which “clashes will be a struggle not between ‘enemies’ but between ‘adversaries’, since all participants will recognize others’ positions in the dispute as legitimate”[5].

The idea of a deliberative democracy, that all points of view can be reconciled in a reasonable dialogue by reaching a universal consensus, takes away the recognized platform of difference, which exactly the political should be. As a consequence, we transfer this difference to other planes – moral-ethical and aesthetic and “different” becomes bad, ugly, stupid and evil, which automatically turns the other/the “antagonist” into an “enemy”, this is the notion of the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe[6]. American reality of democrats vs. republicans is a “good” example of this phenomenon. As the political scientist Ivan Krastev recently said – the politics of citizens converted into a politics of fans.

For some theoreticians (Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas), the political is the space of free expression of positions and public deliberation resulting in reasonable consensus. For others it is a field of opposition and conflict, of the assertion of different positions that cannot be reconciled. In this sense, power, violence, conflict, the ‘insolubility’ of the question of justice and the various forms of subordination and exclusion of otherness cannot be isolated in a democratic society, indeed they are indispensable to its healthy existence. That is to say, we can assume that crisis is at the heart of the political itself.

The Bulgarian philosopher Boyan Manchev, deriving from the Greek word “krisis”, which means a turbulent, turning point as well as a decision, choice, judgment, solution which the situation requires, in his book “The Logic of the Political” defines crisis as the initial status of the political: both in the sense of an “insoluble” situation as well as a “solution” that this situation necessitates[7]. So, the situation of crisis evokes the theme of the political and at the same time stands at its base, like a snake biting its tail.

This figure can also be referred to the relationship between dance and the political as this relationship has always had two aspects: on one hand dance can function as “politics” in terms of facilitation and affirmation of the regulation and order of the community (the function of control – choreopolice in the terms of Andre Lepecki), and on the other hand it can be “political”, articulating gestures that challenge the social order and its mechanisms (choreopolitics[8]). According to Jacques Rancière the political act is taking part in the common living in order to reorganize the relations in a society and question the established structures, hierarchies and positions of power and democracy can only exist thanks to the dissensus (the disruption of consensus) these political acts create. Rancière compares politics to aesthetics, and he argues that what art and politics have in common is that both are fields of “sharing and (re)distributing what is perceived with the senses.” Politics is the set of institutions and practices that make certain things, people, hierarchies, arrangements, attitudes socially, culturally, politically ‘visible’, tangible, legitimate. A political gesture is one that aims to provoke these arrangements, to disrupt these hierarchies, to illuminate/express new/different meanings, to give voice and visibility to things that are in the blind spot of politics. This is precisely the field of art, and to a very large extent of contemporary dance – “redistribution of the sensible”[9].

As the dance scholar Mark Franko writes “Western dance begins in the realm of politics”[10]. Dance in the second half of the 17th century reached an unprecedented importance both socially and politically. The theatre and court ballets of the 17th century especially in France “reflect the diplomatic manoeuvres and ideological aims of the monarchy. At the center of these early modern media that exerted control over the territories of early nation-states was the body of the monarch: a privileged space of interaction between dance and power”[11].

In one of the earliest texts on dance, Toineau Arbeau’s study of late sixteenth-century French Renaissance social dance of 1589, known as “Orchésographie”, it is clear that the purpose of dance is to regulate social relations, that it is “an essential part of a well-ordered society, and the leitmotif of the importance of dance to a “well-ordered society” runs throughout the book. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries in France there was a significant boom in books that proposed ways and systems of recording dance (dance notations), the most famous of these being Raoul-Auger Feuillet’s “Choreographie” of 1700. The emergence of the notion of choreography or the idea of recording dance coincides with the breaking out of the problem of “government” in the 16th c. as a sustainable rationalization. According to Michel Foucault enormous literature on government explodes in the middle of the 16th century and extends until the end of the 18th.  Feuillet’s book appeared during the reign and with the blessing of Louis XIV, the Sun King also called “the dancing king”. King Louis XIV used dance as a political tool to ensure his absolute authority and to celebrate the prestige of France among the other European countries, to keep in control the nobility and to express the glamour and strength of the French monarchy. The power of the monarch and the power of choreography are “two new technologies of action-capturing, as André Lepecki calls them ‘apparatuses of capture’[12], which express the monarch’s and the choreographer’s respectively ruling over the actions/movements/bodies of the people/performers.

In general, dance and choreography appear to be immanently political, being directly linked to the ideas of creating and controlling order, be it within a monarchy or a republic. In 1661, Louis XIV founded the Royal Academy of Dance in Paris, and dance was an important part of the culture and social skills of all the subjects and especially of the aristocracy who had some relation to the court and the king’s rule (like fencing and riding for men; playing, singing, needlework for women). Dance is “an instrument through which to symbolically enact and represent power”[13]. The body of the monarch “guarantees the stable relationship between power, knowledge and legislation”, it is the founding body that is transcendent and immanent and at the same time represents the union between the nation-state and its members, it stands at the centre of society’s constant need for stable foundations. “The transcendent body of the king is an extension of the divine will, and the body of the dancer is an extension of the imaginary embodiment, which the king represents, of the social and the political”[14].

The development of the modern nation-state can be explored alongside the development of modern dance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where the relationship between dance and politics can be traced in its ambivalence – dance as ‘politics’ and as ‘political’. In relation to politics (the set of practices and institutions that constitute order) dance has a very powerful tool, as Mark Franko puts it, “to make and unmake identities”[15]. The moving body and choreography of modern dance are instrumental for the creation and reinforcement of national identity.

Some modern choreographers openly and consciously support political and national ideologies, one of the strongest examples being Mary Wigman, who supports with her art the fascist ideology and the construction of the image of the Aryan race, especially in the gigantic ensembles of thousands of bodies lined up, manifesting, subordinated to the choreography and ideology, hailing the Führer.

In modern dance of Germany and North America in the early XX century “the body in motion became a choreographic touchstone of national identity”[16]. Dance chooses themes and subjects, and constructs body types, always with “racial overtones”, as Mark Franko writes, that “celebrate the national idea”. The great American choreographer Martha Graham is one of the emblematic choreographers to choose national identity as the field of her choreographic explorations of American territory and history – constitutive features of national identity (Frontier, 1935; American Document, 1938; Appalachian Spring, 1944) without, of course, the ideological intentionality and ominous shades of Mary Wigman’s collaborativeness.

In regards to the “political” facet of modern dance: the development of the modern industrial nation-state coincides with the emergence of modern dance. The organization of production (so-called Fordism) is based on a scientifically researched kinesthetic experience that aims to maximize the instrumentalization of the body’s movements in order to derive maximum economic benefit from them. The free, non-utilitarian movement that characterizes early modern dance provides an alternative to the efficiency and calculation of kinetic practice behind the factory doors, thus giving expression to its critical reflection on the established institutions and rules of industrial society in the face of Fordist production and the utilized body.

According to some theoreticians (Randy Martin, Janet Wolff) the political potential of dance is only activated when the self-critical dimension of dance and body appear which they identify in the postmodern dance. “Dance can only be subversive when it questions and exposes the construction of the body in culture.” (Janet Wolff)[17] Postmodern dance has begun to achieve this, and thus to use the body for the first time in a truly political way. Self-criticality opens the way to politicality. Maybe postmodernism in dance marks the beginning of the second modality of the interrelation of dance and politics focused on the medium of dance performance itself, its materiality, form, organization. And the contemporary dance elaborates the third modality of this interrelation – the modes of work/production.

Some brief historical overview of the Bulgarian case – the relationship between dance and politics – which again shows how dance is very much embedded within the political.

Modern and contemporary dance originated in western European and American social and cultural contexts where individualistic societies of free will and freedom of expression were established (modernization of the classical ballet paradigm started with the aesthetically “rebellious” work of Ballets Russes which found its favorable contexts in Paris). Emerging as an artistic practice of the free (democratic) societies modern and contemporary dance have always required a vital civil environment. This kind of dance could not exist in societies which repress individuality and would not allow for critical attitudes (aesthetic or political) to be articulated. Which once again proves the ontological connection between dance and the realm of politics.

In the totalitarian society which Bulgaria was until 1989 human identity was reduced to “an element of the public super-organism”. The collective body in its various hypostases (party structures, workers’ unions, local party organisations, etc.) was hostile to all manifestations of personal corporeality – distinguishable appearances, sexual or emotional preferences or personal tastes. The nation was the “virtual socialist body”, which was not interested in individuality, but encouraged unification and large-scale formations – the working class, the intelligentsia, collective bodies which could be controlled and manipulated much easier. The individual body that broke from the prescriptions of the regulative authorities and gave expression to its personal desires and intentions was perceived as a threat to the norm. “The Body has been opposed to the “social corpus” as a source of noise which interferes with the normal information flow in society”. It was only in the 1980s, which were marked by the loosening of the state’s ideological grip that the idea of the individual body with its free will of expression was revisited. The collapse of the socialist utopia in 1989, viewed as a disintegration of the modern project of socialism, brought changes to all spheres of social and artistic life. It generated an overall change in attitudes towards the body.

The practice of contemporary dance in Bulgaria dates back only to the beginning of the democratic changes in 1989. It has its roots in the neo-avant-garde theatre and visual art movements from the late 80s in which articulation of social and political critique just started to appear. Up until the 1980s dance in Bulgaria was identified mainly with classical ballet and folk dances – collective dance forms which subjugate the personality and individuality of the dancer. Ballet and folk dance rely on the disciplined body which “correctly” reproduces the structure, the choreography, the ideology, thus expressing not itself, but a larger “official” community and truth. Both genres are based on strictly codified systems in which the bodies (unified, anonymous bodies, not individuals) are mobilised to reproduce the exact formula – each time rendering the same general ideas and values, which acknowledge the belonging to the larger community of the nation (folk dance) and the Bulgarian-Soviet comradeship which was as important “as the sun and air for every living creature” (ballet). These dance forms were the pivot of the socialistic choreopolice.

Contemporary dance is an aesthetic phenomenon of liberal democratic societies in which the ideological discipline and the totalising discourse of identification are no longer valid. As a result of its liberation from the oppression of the disciplines, the (non-instrumentalised) body is re-valorised and turned into a constituent part of the contemporary subject. “The body is no longer something else, res extensa, a hollow substance and it is already identified with the subject and the personality. Body is not anymore something repulsive and shameful or a mechanism, it reflects the human essence in its depths” (Lipovetsky) Contemporary dance is the art which corresponds to the new freedom of the individual with a body – to experiment, to express personal and natural impulses which are not subordinated to discourses of discipline, to belong to many communities through different identification procedures. The notion and practice of contemporary dance arose with the liberalisation of the Bulgarian society and the new opportunity for free expression and belonging to various communities.

The repression of corporeality inherent in the communist ideology, the severely discredited language and doubts in its ability to name the truth after being manipulatively used for 45 years led to the perception of the body as almost the only ideologically pure substance. In this sense, the freedom of the body to act seemed sufficient proof that it was not part of the old totalitarian order.

This body-revisit was precisely what opened up new territories for dance. After the long period of stagnation of individuality, sensuality and corporeality, deliberate attention to the body, plastic expression and movement could be spotted in the theatre practice as early as the beginning of the 1980s. This was a kind of a political gesture to smuggle the notion of freedom through the moving body as opposed to the disciplined and ideologically fraught language which was heavily discredited due to its longstanding abuse to convey the “right” and “truthful” ideas of the ideology of the state and the soc realism.

Thus, from the very beginning the emergence of contemporary dance in Bulgaria is very much connected with the political developments, and the political potential of dance was realized and utilized not only by the totalitarian regime but later also by the artists to articulate their political gestures and try to “redistribute the sensible”.

After the democratic changes the art and dance in particular had to catch up all the aesthetic trends and movements of the European avantgarde which had its natural occurrences in the beginning of the century in sync with the European cultural developments, but were interrupted by the imposition of the communist regime in 1944 with the kind support of Russian. Due to the long years of ideological and political instrumentalization of art, the art after 1989 needed to emancipate from its involvement with the political and therefore it was rather engulfed into aesthetic experiments, trying out and adopting new ways of expression, new forms, new aesthetic paradigms (new for Bulgaria, old for Europe and America). I detect four major reasons for art and dance in Bulgaria to not be so much consciously connected to its political potential – the modernistic legacy of the socialistic art when it was either totally apolitical to escape the censorship or opportunistically political (of course there were subtle attempts, starting in the 60s in the theater, when people outside the capital, away from the center, were trying to articulate political gestures, for example using Brechtian theatre innovations – who was a communist, so somehow acceptable – through his fundamentally different technique from Stanislavsky’s idiom, the alienation effect and epic theatre, new forms and subjects were smuggled); the second reason I recognize in the post-socialistic escapism into the aesthetic realms, third one being – the fragile civil society which needs fostering and further development; and fourth – the notion of contemporaneity (in society and arts), which derives from an emancipated civic presence which also affects the artistic presence and art work (as Jean Luc Nancy writes: “contemporary work is one that makes us aware of the contemporary world and the situation of the individual in the world”), so this notion is pretty much overshadowed by retrograde conservative predispositions and traditional attitudes, which is a fashionable trend all around Europe I am afraid and which influences art policies, the kind of art that is funded, etc.

The inherent political aspect of dance is also based on its potential to negotiate/escape the control of choreography – the dominant will, structure, institution, society. This is the ontological resource of dance for critical reflection towards the existing social and political structures and apparatuses, because of which Andre Lepecki identifies it as an emblematic “practice of contemporaneity”[18]

Gerald Sigmund calls the essence of dance slipping out of the control of choreography “the conflict of choreography”. If choreography can be described as “a technique made to capture actions and give them extreme tangibility”[19], then it is both a means of control and politics in the sense of “distributing the sensible”. That is to say, choreography generally arranges bodies and organizes movements in space, thereby making some things/meanings visible, audible, rationally and emotionally tangible. At the same time, the body, subject to this choreography, in live performance, with its particular movement that can never be repeated (as trajectory, rhythm, energy), despite the prescription of the choreography, escapes its control and produces dissensus. Because of this, Gerald Sigmund describes “choreography as a conflict between bodies and rules”. The notion of choreography as a principle for creating compositional structure is often replaced by the view of choreography as a conflict between structuring principles on the one hand and the physical impulses to move the body on the other. This conception is based on the notion that the body can never be identical to choreographic instructions. “There is always a distance and a gap between the body, its material nature, its energy, its infinite possibilities for movement, on the one hand, and the abstract sets of rules derived from linguistic conventions or symbolic instructions that produce dance, on the other”[20]. Herein lies dance’s immense resource for resistance, for offering alternative forms of thinking and being in the world, beyond the regulations or system of the market, beyond the regime of representation.

Constitutive characteristics of contemporary dance, which inform its political potential, are critical reflection, dismantling the norms, forms, hierarchies and mechanisms, subverting the representation, exiting the established routes of subject/identity creation, focusing the public attention towards important (but underrecognized) social, cultural and political issues of the contemporary world in which it is inscribed.

Contemporary dance, which is based on the freedom of the body to produce “subjectivity” outside of standardized modes of the codification and commodification of the body, of sensation, of thinking, of emotion in the socio-political and economic global order, bears the potentiality for resistance. It works with the metamorphosis of the body, that does not derive from a particular function or from an exchange commodity; it proposes transformative counter-operation to standard modes of production of subjectivity, and in its essence of concrete bodily movement, inevitably escapes the control of choreography. So, it proves to be extremely viable – in a socio-political context – offering different ways of being in the world, thus producing resistance and dissensus, suggesting alternative ways of thinking and acting that can go beyond the artistic realm and infiltrate the social fabric, strengthening the democratic practices and values.

Mira Todorova is a freelance theatre and dance critic. She holds a PhD in Theatre Studies. Initiator and artistic director of DNA – space for contemporary dance and performance. She has worked as a curator, researcher, editor, dramaturg and manager of various artistic and theoretical projects, and has published extensively in the specialized art and culture media in Bulgaria and abroad. This text is part of her research project as a Fulbright visiting scholar in New York, 2022.    


[1] A concept of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, University of Chicago Press, 2005

[2] According to the summarization of Anna Vujanović, Notes on the Politicality of Contemporary Dance in Dance Politics & Co-immunity, ed. Gerald Siegmund and Stefan Hölscher, p. 181 – 193

[3] Ibid. p. 188

[4] Chantal Mouffe, On the political, Routledge, 2005, p. 9

[5] Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, „Iztok-Zapad”, Sofia, 2013, p. 76

[6] Ibid. p. 98

[7] Boyan Manchev, Logic of the Political, „Iztok-Zapad”, Sofia, 2012, p. 16

[8] Andre Lepecki, Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: or the task of the dancer


[9] Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015

[10] Mark Franko, Dance and the Political. State of Exception/2006 in Dance, ed. Andre Lepecki, p. 147

[11] Ibid.

[12] Andre Lepecki, Choreography and Pornography in Danjel Andersson, Mette Edvarsdsen, Mårten Spångberg (eds.), Post-Dance, MDT, 2017, p. 68.  According to Lepecki cinema is the third such technology.

[13] Gerald Siegmund and Stefan HolscherDance, Politics and Co-Immunity,introduction, p. 9

[14] Ibid., p. 10

[15] Mark Franko, ibid. p. 146

[16] Mark Franko, ibid. p. 145

[17] Cit. in Mark Franko, Dance and the Political: States of Exceptions in Dance Research Journal Vol. 38, No. 1/2 (Summer – Winter, 2006), p. 6

[18] Andre Lepecki ed., Dance. Documents of Contemporary Art, The MIT Press, 2012

[19] Andre Lepecki, Choreography and Pornography, p. 69

[20] Gerald Siegmund, What is choreography?