Finally Foucault


The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole. (Foucault, 1995, p. 200)

Talking about power in relation to the ‘visible choreographer’, I cannot not refer to Foucault and his writing on Betham’s Panopticon. Semple explains,

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. (…) The name is also a reference to Panoptes from Greek mythology; he was a giant with a hundred eyes and thus was known to be a very effective watchman. (Semple, 1993, p.152)


Comparing the set up of the Panopticon to my work of the ‘visible choreographer’, there is a clear difference in regards to power and the individual. Foucault states,

The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen. It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. (Foucault, 1995, p. 198)

Here it is about the visibility of the one to be controlled and the invisibility of the one in power. It is not about the individual in control as he/she is replaceable. Power gets disindividualized, as Foucault calls it, and the increase of power relays on the invisibility of the one in control.


The idea of the ‘visible choreographer’ works with the opposite – it is about the individual in control and making her visible. Being visible therefore weakens her power and highlights aspects of vulnerability and doubt. Reading Foucault makes me understand that not only the unpredictable aspect of working with improvisation weakens the power position of the ‘visible choreographer’ but also the ‘individualization’ of power. The subjectivity of the creative process within dance, which is never linear and made of personal decisions and social interactions, emphasizes the ‘individualization’ of power.

Looking at the architectural set up of the Panopticon highlights another difference to my work. With the Panopticon the person in control is located in the center of the building whereas my spatial position is variable and each position changes my position of power. My desk on one side of the performance space where I sit and direct from increases my power. Here is a clear division between dancers and ‘visible choreographer’ and I am less visible – the dancers and audience can hear my voice of giving instructions but can read less through my body language.

Since 2012 I am varying my position in the space and do not only stay at the desk. The change of my power depending on where I place myself becomes tangible and there is a clear shift of power towards the dancers the more I move into the center of the performance space. When working in New York with the dancers of Lindsey Drury we discovered a main difference between our works. Drury stays on the outside of the performance space and sits in the dark and only her ‘demanding’ instructions are audible to the dancers and the audience. The frame of her work is constant; all the focus is on the dancers and their vulnerability when responding to the tasks but she stays invisible, retaining control.

One similarity to the Panopticon is the visibility of the one being controlled. When given a specific task their thought processes and their dealing with the task become visible to the audience. This varies depending on the instruction method I use, ranging from verbal instruction amplified by the microphone being, which makes the thinking most visible/audible and the whispering into the performers’ ears as least visible/audible. The difference here is that by working with improvisation their position can change to being in control. They can change the direction of the creative process and take control over it. The use of ‘wild cards’ inspired by John Zorn (1984) increases these opportunities, offering the dancers the opportunity to initiate ideas without having to wait for an instruction by the ‘visible choreographer’.


Goldman refers to the later Focault by stating,

Still interested in the wide range of power relations present in human relationships, ranging from politics to family life to romantic affairs to pedagogical situations, Foucault argued that power relations are ‘mobile, reversible, and unstable’. This glimpse of mobility is where Foucault’s thinking applies to improvised dance. (Goldman, 2010, p. 143)

This describes well the work of the ‘visible choreographer’ and the instability when working with improvisation and live direction.

When I was working on Before I decide (2011) I saw the shift of power/control between the company and I as a

binary segmentations of the social field (as for instance in dualism of dominant and dominated). (Fuglsang and Soerensen, 2006, p. 5)

A year later during our R&D weekend (June 2012) I realised that there are much more facets than the two. Depending on where I place myself in the space and how much vulnerability I show there are moments where the company and I have equal power, where the power shifts between different company members or where the shift of control is not the main focus of the performance.


‘Before I decide’ (Leeds, 2012)

The work in New York (2013) offered even more facets of power due to the dancers’ ability to take control. At one point one dancer even commented her concern of them taking over so much that they were possibly bullying me. Fuglsang and Soerensen describe this as

the multiplicity of the social, (…) the process of the becoming of the social itself. (Fuglsang and Soerensen, 2006, p. 6)

Another similar aspect of the Panopticon and the ‘visible choreographer’ is the position of the observer, or audience. Foucault explains,

This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. (Foucault, 1995, p. 200)

Here the observer can see the one being controlled but also the one in control. The ‘visible choreographer’ can be observed by the audience how she instructs/controls/plays with the creative process and the responses by the dancers. Whereas with the Panopticon the division between the person(s) in control and the observer(s) can become blurry, with the ‘visible choreographer’ the audience always is just the observer. However, in New York I asked an audience member to play the jukebox for a dancer and therefore gave him some control over her movement but one could argue that he therefore became a performer and was not part of the audience anymore.

Looking at the role of power in both concepts shows that for both it is not about the execution of power itself. Foucault states,

The Panopticon […] has a role of amplification; although it arranges power, although it is intended to make it more economic and more effective, it does so not for power itself, nor for the immediate salvation of a threatened society: its aim is to strengthen the social forces – to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply. (Foucault, 1995, p. 201)


Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Here lies a great difference between both concepts. Whereas the aim of the Panopticon is to increase production within economy, the ‘visible choreographer’ highlights the cracks, the not so smooth and functional process when being in the position of power. It offers a view inside the choreographer’s and dancers’ mind and illustrates the non-linearity of creative thinking, highlighting the vulnerability on both sides within creative decision making processes. These ‘cracks’ then also highlight the individuality, the personality of the choreographer, of me. How do I struggle when not being in control? How do I cope with the challenge? How can I find a playful sense of being in the present moment, reacting to changes without holding on to my pre-planned decisions? (blog post from April 2013: ‘Yoga and the visible choreographer’)

Looking at the shift of control/power within Before I decide (2011-13) in relation to productivity I believe that the work (as a product) benefits of different performers taking control and influencing the creative process with their ideas/thoughts. So far I have always seen the shift of control as a challenge for the choreographer’s role, the confrontation of unpredictability and vulnerability it can cause, but I have never viewed it in relation to increasing productivity. Foucault states that

the productive increase of power can be assured only if, on the one hand, it can be exercised continuously in the very foundations of society, in the subtlest possible way, and if, on the other hand, it functions outside these sudden, violent, discontinuous forms that are bound up with the exercise of sovereignty. (Foucault, 1977, p. 201)

As I am working with the shift of power I do not keep the power in ones hand and it is therefore not exercised continuously. The shift of control can sometimes be subtle (especially when all performers know each other very well) but I am more interested in the moments of disruption – when a dancer takes control and shifts the work in a new direction, when I get confronted with unexpected changes. However, Foucault explains that the Panopticon (if successful) could be so embedded in society that it gives an illusion of being empowered to the one being controlled (Foucault, 1995, p. 202).


‘Before I decide’ (Leeds, 2011)

This refers back to the discussion I had with my company during the R&D weekend in June 2012 when Daliah mentioned that the shift of power is only a ‘farce’ as I have the super-power (Klien, 2008) and I can always direct it back. Or were the performers not brave enough to place me in a position without control? The performers in New York (2013) showed that as dancers they can be completely in control without me being able to interfere, like for example when they directed me at one point to dance with my eyes closed. I do not think that these questions can be answered but they raise interesting discussions in relation to authorship, vulnerability and decision-making within creative/performance processes.



Bentham, J. 1787. Panopticon, or the inspection-house, &C. In: M. Bozovic, ed. The Panopticon Writings. 1995. London: Verso, pp. 29-95

Foucault, M. 1998. The subject and power. [online]. [14.01.2014]. Available from:

Foucault, M. 1995. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 195-228

Fuglsang, M. and Meier Soerensen, B. ed. 2006. Deleuze and the social. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Goldman, D. 2010. I want to be ready, improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press

Klien, M. et al. 2008. Framemakers, choreography as an aesthetics of change. Limerick: Daghdha Dance Company Ltd

Semple, J. 1993. Bentham’s Prison: a Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 152


Photos by Josh Hawkins and Ulrike Heuer

Images taken from:

This entry was posted in Practice-led Research. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.