Professorin Dr. Susanne Foellmer

Alfried Krupp Senior Fellow
(Oktober 2022 - September 2023) 

  • Studium der Angewandten Theaterwissenschaft an der JLU Gießen, Promotion an der Freien Universität Berlin
  • Professorin in Dance Studies am Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) der Coventry University, UK
  • Dramaturgin, u.a. für Meg Stuart und Jeremy Wade; Gründungsmitglied des Dachverband Tanz Deutschland (2004); aktuell im Vorstand der Organisation Coventry Dance sowie Mitglied im Projektbeirat für die Konzeptionsphase eines Hauses für Tanz und Choreografie, Tanzarchiv und Tanzvermittlungszentrum Berlin

Fellow-Projekt: „Protest-Bewegungen: Choreografie als Instrument zur Gestaltung und Analyse von Dynamiken in aktuellen Situationen von Widerstand“

Choreographie wird traditionell als das (Auf-)Schreiben von Bewegung oder Gestalten einer tänzerischen Arbeit verstanden. In jüngster Zeit etabliert sich ein erweiterter Begriff von Choreographie, auch in Bereichen, in denen die strukturierte Anordnung von Bewegungsphänomenen relevant ist: in sozialen und ökonomischen Feldern wie Arbeitsorganisation bis hin zur Zellbiologie oder organischen Chemie.
In politischen Kontexten kann Choreographie zugleich als Praxis- und Analyseinstrument dienen, um Dynamiken etwa in Situationen von Widerstand neu zu gestalten und zu verstehen. Das heißt: Choreographie ist einerseits Mittel zum Zweck, Proteste zu strukturieren, so in getanzten Flashmobs, oder auch Hilfsmittel um Kundgebungen in Zeiten von körperlichen Versammlungsverboten wie einer Pandemie zu ermöglichen. Andererseits können Aspekte des Choreographischen Machtverhältnisse identifizieren, die sich im Spannungsfeld der Opposition zu staatlichen Organen, aber auch innerhalb von sozialen Bewegungen selbst ergeben. Das doppelte Verfahren des An-ordnens von Bewegung spielt also eine zentrale Rolle. Dabei wird auch evident, wie aktuelle Proteste im öffentlichen physischen und im digitalen Raum sozialer Medien miteinander verknüpft sind, als weitere Gestaltungsebene politischer Anliegen. Choreografie erwirkt dann wiederum ein ästhetisches Momentum in der Verbreitung von sozialen und politischen Forderungen.

Ergebnisse des Fellowships

Letzte Generation, blockage of a crossing in Berlin city centre, 24 April 2023. Photo: Susanne Foellmer

In my project "Protest Movements. Choreography As a Tool to Create and Analyse Dynamics in Topical Situations of Resistance", I was interested in the (power) dynamics specifically brought about in the embodied structures of current social movements, particularly in situations of protest: How do moving (or non-moving) bodies act as agents of resistance, how do they relate to counterforces, and how do they cope with assembly in times of restricted public movement (such as in lockdowns assigned in pandemic times)? While social movement studies usually investigates the contents or aims of political struggles and campaigns (see, for example, Klandermans and Staggenborg 2002, Dellaporta and Diani 2015, Fahlenbrach, Klimke, and Scharloth 2016), it yet misses out on the methodological means to identify and explain how exactly moving bodies gather on the streets, how agency develops on a corporeal level, and how assemblies relate to media distribution.

In general, movement in the public sphere can be regarded as organization of conventional or exceptional arrangements of bodies or objects in motion – such as the regulation of urban traffic or the restriction of pathways in front of a stadium’s entrance before a well-attended football match, for example. Hence, choreography – as the arrangement and assignment of movement in space and time (see Butte, Maar, 2014) – can serve in an expanded sense: as an appropriate instrument to understand the set-ups and changes of such structures and its dynamics. In situations of resistance, this often comes down to questions of power dynamics between the various groups involved in protests (for example, activists and police officers or disagreeing citizens). Also, choreographic means can serve to initially design and arrange a protest when, for instance, obstacles such as the recent covid-19 pandemic do not allow for the excessive spatial motion common in conventional rallies and protests.

In the course of my fellow year, I have revisited the research already done in the field: for example, Foster (2003) positions choreography as a mode to train bodies to endure situations such as non-violent sit-ins to put pressure on politics to act for one’s cause. Also, Hewitt’s term “social choreography” (2005), coined to understand the impact of choreographic set ups on societal structures (by way of, for instance, social dancing serving as a model for negotiating social behaviour) was helpful to understand the relations between aesthetic and social spheres. In the realm beyond dance studies, especially Lefebvre’s concept of Rhythmanalysis (1992/2013) proved to be a helpful model to understand moments of disruption (“arrythmia”) in everyday urban life.

Initially, I was looking into how choreography (often involuntarily) serves as a tool to facilitate protest within a restricted mobile environment (due to the recent covid-19 pandemic). I concluded that here, the narrative of protection dominates, that is, on the one hand, protecting the right to protest by, for example, letting people just stand on one spot and keep the prescribed physical distance, on the other hand – and with these very measures – protecting people from catching the virus, complying with health and safety regulations. I argued that in these specific circumstances, such immobile protests create powerful images conveyed on (social) media, and thus extend activism from the physical into the online public sphere. Even more so, such arrangements facilitate protest in the media sphere in the first place, that is: Standing immobile on one spot outdoors, with the necessary physical distance and no one else watching or passing by, though (or thereby) creating powerful visual (photographic) impressions that defer protesting into the media sphere almost entirely, finding its modes of distribution in this realm. The Black Flag protests in Tel Aviv and the initiative Leere Stühle (Empty Chairs campaign; both April 2020) served as examples to make this point.
See S. Foellmer: “Don’t Move! Choreography as a Means of Arranging Protest in Times of Curfew.” In: Forum Modernes Theater 34(1) July 2023, pp. 18-31(double blind peer-reviewed).

The connection between the onsite and the online public sphere was also an initial focus of investigation of the so-called “Fahrradstern” (a star shaped of bicycles), a rally of the ADFC NGO (Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrradclub; German Bicycle Association) in June 2020. It was designed out of physical distancing needs, to replace the annual Sternfahrt, a circular ride to and in Berlin to campaign for cycling every first weekend of June. Being forced not to move expansively, the organizers prompted participants to use the real-time app Critical Maps in advance to choose a spot on which to stand with the bike on the street, and, thus, to co-create a star-shaped image of bicycles on site while, at the same time, watching the static star formed of bicycles grow on the app online. When I revisited this rally in which I took part myself, I was initially interested in how choreography serves as a tool to connect the on-site and the online sphere to gain public attention. However, re-investigating the example, I realized that the more prominent issue lies in the feeling of desertedness and loneliness that occurred during the action (each bike rider had to stand 100 meters apart from each other). Thus, the question arose about what it needs to feel that one is protesting, shifting the analysis to the realm of affective involvement (or not). Laban’s model of movement analysis and the body’s “kinesphere” (1966) – encompassing the reach of the body’s limbs, and in (pandemic) need of expansion in 2020 – proved to be an important key to understanding here.
See S. Foellmer: “Feeling Dis/Connected: Interweaving Protest in the Online and On-site Public Sphere.” In: Kritika Kultura 40 2023, pp. 130-153 (peer reviewed; open access).

The question of affective involvement in protesting began to increasingly draw my attention. Plessner’s The Limits of Community (1924/1999) provided a deeper understanding of political and emotionally driven group formations – but also exposed its theoretical limitations when applied to contemporary times. Mühlhoff’s, Slaby’s and von Scheve’s investigations into Affective Societies (2019) where fruitful, particularly with regards to the emotional, or rather, affective dynamics of social movements’ incentives and, at times, the aggressive opposition with which they are met, and which shifted into the focus of my investigations.

Surveying most recent social movements, I made contact with Letzte Generation (Last Generation) in Germany, and here particularly in Greifswald and Berlin, activists campaigning for urgent political action to halt climate change. I attended their lectures and meetings, participated in a one-day protest training, and had the opportunity to observe the activists’ actions during a week of campaigns in Berlin (April 2023), such as blocking roads by supergluing one hand to the ground, group assemblies, and marches on the streets of Berlin’s city centre. In the context of the various protest activities, I also had the opportunity to talk to individual police officers on duty.[1]

Especially the exploration of these particular kinds of protests have led to my observation of communal choreographies (Choreografien der Gemeinschaft), an argument that shifts away from Hewitt’s idea of “social choreography” and into the realm of affective entanglements. On the one side, the concept of communal choreographies describes the emotional involvement in the cause (the threat of being the last generation before climate disruption becomes unstoppable) as well as the appreciative culture with which activists interact. On the other side, counter communities do occur, citizens feeling disturbed and outraged by the activists’ non-violent campaigns, hence causing confrontation especially in situations of blocking traffic, at times creating an unforgiving atmosphere.

Here, the concept of non-violent action became key and, with it, the question why authorities harshly crack down on such protests regardless, even assessing, for example, blockage actions as “extremist” behaviour. Looking into previous acts of civil disobedience and direct action, such as the sit-ins undertaken in the context of the US civil rights movement (in the 1960s), I argue that (even) non-violent action is prone to radical counteraction by the state, particularly on the grounds of protesters claiming the right to remind politics of their own failures and violations of constitutionally guaranteed rights (that is, the fight against climate change and the right to live an unharmed life). In this regard, I also aimed to understand if and how the dissensus created by these affective communities hampers or enhances democratic engagement.

I have written up the results of my investigations in an article entitled “Communal Choreographies. Re-Creating Democratic Dissensus in Recent Climate Activism.” (planned submission in November 2023 to the journal Art & the Public Sphere; peer-reviewed).

Another aspect that played an important role in my research was the question of power dynamics in these protests, as initially sketched, and where choreography in particular serves to detect these. In the above article, I reflected upon non-violence and the allegations of coercion as well as the interplay between both, when activists are feeling powerless (sitting in front of cars) and empowered at the same time (doing something to induce climate action). In this regard, I also critically revisited Butler’s idea of bodies’ alleged passivity (2015). Within another case of campaigning that is instigated by daily life experiences of violence, I was focusing on the gendered dynamics still prevailing in the annual flash mob One Billion Rising, which protests violence against women globally (on Valentine’s Day). I was exploring examples in which this danced flash mob put men into the front row (again) while women were (somewhat passively) dancing behind, in the back. Initially meant as a gesture of solidarity, this gendered choreographic set up proved to reproduce the (structural) power relations it was actually aiming to protest against.

I had the opportunity to present these ideas at the colloque Gender im Fokus (Focus on Gender) in the context of the Interdisziplinäres Zentrum für Geschlechterforschung (Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Research; IZfG) at University Greifswald: 
S. Foellmer: “Umringen, Einkreisen, Aufreihen: Gegenderte Einsätze als Spiel-, Kampf- und Tanzzonen in Protesten.” (Surrounding, Encircling, Lining Up: Gendered Engagement as Play-, Fight- and Dance Zones in Protests). Paper presentation, 28 April 2023.

Also, I was looking into protests of the Black Lives Matter movement (in 2020), exploring the utopian potential within the power relations of conventionally antagonistic groups (activists and authorities). I explored a situation in which protesters and police shared the danced space of hip hop (Elgin/USA, June 2020), thus meeting on the playful ‘battlefield’ of this art form. Individuals of both groups were moving on the same grounds, on eye level so to speak, in a brief and seemingly emancipatory moment that, however, turned out to follow hierarchical (and partly stereotypical male dominated) structures of, in this case, the ones of hip hop dancing.
See S. Foellmer: “Still Moving, Nevertheless. Questions About Utopia in Our Contemporary Moment.” In: Foellmer, Susanne/Ernst, Wolf-Dieter/Szymanski-Düll, Berenika/Wagner, Meike (eds.), Utopia und Performance. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, forthcoming (2024).

Last but not least, I had the opportunity to make a case for dance studies’ theoretical and methodological potentials to understand the corporeal dynamics and power relations in recent social movements in a broader public realm beyond academia, and published an article in the locally produced (and nationwide distributed) Katapult magazine.
See S. Foellmer “Choreografien des Widerstands.” (Choreographies of Resistance)
In: Katapult. Magazin für Kartografie und Sozialwissenschaft (Magazine for Cartography and Social Science), 30 2023, pp. 60-65.

Prospects: What’s more to do?
Particularly my investigations into how choreography interconnects the onsite and online public sphere – in carrying over protest to the digital realm of, especially, social media during the recent pandemic – met some limitations. To investigate how (photo-, video-) images of protests gain momentum and thus, efficacy in campaigning for a cause and how such engagement would be choregraphed online, I would need a better understanding of the algorithmic dynamics in the online public sphere as well as further insights into media event analysis and -distribution. An additional quantitative approach might be helpful to collect and analyze the data necessary to further evidence such dynamics. These questions, hence, call for a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach, employing a broader team of experts and which would be available in the format of, for instance, an ERC Advanced Grant (European Research Council/Horizon Europe). I am currently investigating this opportunity.

Apart from my activities within the research project reported above, I could benefit from the offer to conduct workshops at the Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg. I used this opportunity to initiate and facilitate a “Retreat Tanzwissenschaft” (Dance Studies’ Retreat), especially geared towards academics from German speaking countries. The aim was to discuss the challenges as well as potentials of a so-called “small subject” discipline in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, to find ways to support each other across career levels, and to enhance the visibility of a discipline that has much to offer in a transdisciplinary sense, placing body and movement at the centre of its research and teaching.

30 scholars, ranging from PhD students to full professors met for one day in a hybrid format (onsite in Greifswald and online) and debated the interrelations of “theory” and “practice” in dance studies at universities and art schools, laid out the current state of dance studies with regards to departments, roles, and job opportunities as well as sketched first ideas about how to lobby for dance studies in the German speaking academic environment.

In the end, it was commonly agreed that this very productive exchange should continue, with the next meeting scheduled in Cologne from 26-27 October 2023 under the title “Zukunftswerkstatt Tanzwissenschaft” (Workshop on the Future of Dance Studies; on the eve of the annual conference of the Gesellschaft für Tanzforschung/Society for Dance Research).

[1] Note on ethics: I have identified myself as a researcher to activists and police, informing about my research on choreography and protest.