School of Arts
Middlesex University
Trent Park Campus
London N14 4YZ

Virtuosity and Performance Mastery

A symposium held on 31 May and 1 June, 2003


Performing Arts at Middlesex University held a two-day symposium on 31st May and 1st June 2003 for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff.

" ...one cannot teach virtue as one can teach how to memorize a poem, but virtue consists in understanding the abstract rules that govern technique."

J-M Rabate (on Socrates), The Future of Theory, Blackwell 2002.

The starting point for the symposium was the observation that while relatively little has been published in recent years dealing explicitly with questions of disciplinary mastery in performance, arts practitioners are registering across the country for higher degrees in performing arts practice (in Music, Dance, Theatre and Performing Arts). The symposium addressed questions and issues relating to expert/creative meta-practice and academic writing: that is, to research into/through disciplinary mastery (and the evaluation of performance) in the higher degree context. Indicatively:

Performing Arts in the School of Arts at Middlesex brings together researchers in Music, Dance and Theatre Arts. The Symposium programme included Keynote Presentations, short papers and discussion groups at the Trent Park site of the University. The event was informed throughout by the notion that the performance-making processes of expert practitioners in arts-disciplinary fields are rarely addressed in university-linked published material, except in anecdotal terms or with reference to the work of a notorious named practitioner or company. We noted, secondly, that where performance writing is published, it tends to be produced from the writer's position (literal and metaphoric) as 'expert spectator', which by definition is revealed after expert practitioner decision-making processes have been suspended (at least as far as the current 'instantiation' is concerned).

As a researcher and writer, arguing for the notion that certain expert or disciplinary arts practices might themselves already 'be research' - were we only able to argue for them as such - I also wanted to propose a number of notions that seemed to me to be key to the ways in which professional-creative, arts disciplinary practices might be better placed in the context of the university. Some of these concern what I have called the 'knowledge-status' of professional-creative arts-disciplinary practices, in comparison with the status of traditional writing-based and writing-productive research activities with which many in the university are more familiar. I remain convinced that some of us, particularly where we have ourselves been trained in the application of certain critical-theoretical or cultural theoretical traditions to arts practices, tend to see what the former enable us to see, and in so doing to overlook instances of - as well as the qualities specific to - performance-making mastery.

That old 'hermeneutics of suspicion', of which Ricoeur once wrote approvingly, tends to blind some of us to - typically - the '(institutional) logics of expert production', upon which performance efficacy however, when it is signed Ariane Mnouchkine, or Robert Wilson, or The Wooster Group, or Forced Entertainment, or DV8, in significant part depends. Some of us are blinded, similarly, to the ways in which performance excellence (however this might be identified) is achieved, even though it remains the case that in the majority of instances of work we introduce to our students, the affective investment, the aspiration to excellence, and mastery of the means to achieve it, have played a significant role in their production. Many of us in the university are skilled in and teach the (democratic and inclusive) arts of expert spectating, rather than those specific to a performance production in terms recognised by and funded within the wider arts communities. Many of us, under the heading of interdisciplinarity, have been encouraged to overlook that (or those instances of) disciplinary mastery, upon which a future in the performance professions may well depend. Many of us, in my experience, find that the discourses we have available, and teach, enable us to find any work at all, once displayed, to be 'of interest'; whereas few of us are able - or willing - to provide a discursive model whose application will permit us to determine whether or not work is either 'good', or 'of professional standard'.

Alongside these critical observations, I wanted, in addition, to suggest that many of us concerned with expert, arts-disciplinary practice as research might benefit from observations and the terminology emerging from what has been called "practice theory" - despite the evidence that few "practice theoreticians" seem to have concerned themselves with professional art-making practices. I wanted to propose that we adopt from "practice theory" the notion that in some instances at least, performance-making processes could be identified in terms of epistemics, which is concerned with the construction of formal models of perceptual and other processes - such as we can identify in the workshop and rehearsal activities of each of the 'signature' practitioners I have named above - through which knowledge and understanding are achieved and communicated.

Together, we wanted to call for a change to the ways in which 'expert spectators' approach 'the show', approach 'process' and 'practice', approach the institutions of expert practice, and approach the 'knowledge status' of the expert practitioner's ongoing and internally differentiated research engagement. It follows then that we invited speakers/presenters to "Virtuosity..." on the basis of their strong record of engagement with arts-disciplinary or expert practices. Some are based at Middlesex, but others pursue expert or disciplinary practice and process on a wider national scale. The collected material presented here, in a different format, needs to be reviewed, systematically, in terms of the framework set out above.

When we looked back at the material presented and the material recorded here in e-PAI, what we discovered was that some material seems in conventional 'academic register' terms to be self-explanatory; whereas some material seems to need an introduction - as though to underline its epistemic status. In some instances I have written a brief introduction or conclusion, which may be judged to be superfluous by readers/viewers who share the expertise of the presenter. In all instances, the practice-as-research material presented itself signals a pause in the research undertaking, producing a momentary instantiation which should not be taken for the research 'itself' (which is actually ongoing and self-transforming). In some instances the material has emerged from a particular enquiry by a professional practitioner, and should from that perspective be viewed as material driven by a number of imperatives - a creative imperative, a professional imperative, and a research imperative, to use the language of the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise.

We have included visual data wherever possible, in part as a gesture toward 'signature', supposing that the contribution of the researcher-persona to the research is not insignificant, even when the research practice is writing-productive, the professional practice of an academic and teacher, rather than 'creative' in more conventional terms. In terms of editing the material presented here, our assertion is that the visuals inserted in or juxtaposed against the written material are rather more than illustrative: they extend the research enquiry, suggesting, however badly, that research activity in the arts at least, in terms of pragmatics, is always relational. It has a context (or contexts), a situation (or situations), an institutional setup (or setups), present Actors in dialogue, whose present activity is ghosted by the traces of other work; and it tends to have an audience (or audiences), for whom 'the work' will in fact be non-identical with what the researchers themselves continue to find 'in it'.

This 2003-2004 edition of e-PAI is edited by Susan Melrose with editorial support from Renate Bräuninger. Photographics and web-design are by John Robinson and additional visual material is from Hannah Bruce.

We welcome your feedback: you can contact us at

Professor Susan Melrose
Performance Arts
School of Arts
Middlesex University
Trent Park
Bramley Road
London N14 4YZ

Click here to read the Introduction to the presentations ...

The presentations

The presentations are detailed below in the order in which they were presented at the Symposium. Where full documentation is available, click on one of the links to bring it up in a new window. Close the new window to get back to this page.


Susan Melrose

Who Knows - and Who Cares (about performance mastery)?

If we were to start from the premise that traditionally, most (published) research-active academics are professional or expert writers and educators, then (professional) arts practitioners entering the university higher degree programme might be better placed than they currently are to ask: "How do you do what you do - and according to what sorts of criteria?" Universities are conservative institutions, in the best as well as the worst senses of the term. It can be hard not only to institute change within them, but to admit to our own often internally contradictory value systems, to what regulates our own judgements of taste and value. According to a number of fin de siècle (late 20thC) writers and analysts, some of those values - particularly when it comes to the theoretical writers who have figured in academic training in cultural studies - were derived from a close relationship with and sympathy for the 20thC avant-garde. Now, sympathy for the avant-garde is a demanding mistress for those of us who also inhabit, and reproduce the (conservative and scriptural) values of, that major institution of cultural life that is the university.


Nick Till

For Your Own Good: Discipline and its Virtues

In this paper I consider the relationship between virtuosity and virtue, suggesting that it derives from the original meaning of the concept of "virtus" - a term that implies strength of character, will and application, attributes that are ably demonstrated in artistic virtuosity. The construction of the virtue of virtuosity is also charted in relation to changing valuations of labour from the 18th to the 20th century, which inflect the shifting fortunes of the virtue of virtuosity itself. The second part of the paper undertakes an analysis of Chopin's Scherzo in C# minor to demonstrate how in this piece Chopin stages a confrontation between different modes of pianistic virtuosity at the beginning of the 19th century.


Richard Gough

Dancing with Joules: The Transformation of Performance Knowledge

From extraordinary video footage of food preparation techniques on a street in Thailand to combat in the kitchen between Chinese Master Chefs, this audio and video presentation will explore virtuosity in performance by first raising issues to do with skill, competence and ability. Working through aspects of training, apprenticeship and mastery by considering a few of the great world traditions of theatre/dance; Beijing Opera (China), Kabuki (Japan) and Kathakali (India), the functions of form, stylistic conventions and continuity begin to emerge. Aspiration to and attainment of the virtuosic is questioned and problematised in the light of other approaches to notions of individual and collective creativity and questions of how composition, notation and performance scores can enable, nurture or prescribe virtuosity are advanced. The transformative power of the performers energy will be witnessed (on video) and the presentation will consider how performance knowledge is transmitted from a Bharata Natyam dance guru, through Meyerhold to Grotowski. Finally, speculation and provocation are made on current training practices, the reflective practitioner, performance knowledge and the passing and surpassing of skill.


Alessandra Lopez y Royo and Ni Madé Pujawati

Researching Lègong: somatising Balinese ideas of bodily discipline, mastery and virtuosity in a non-Balinese context

The presentation focused on research-in-progress about Lègong dance and its multiple representations throughout its 20th century history and today. Outsiders have taken Lègong as an epitome of female grace and have used it to essentialise Balineseness: Lègong has thus become indexical of Bali. To the Balinese Lègong, a tari lepas or virtuoso dance, is the means by which the female dance body is disciplined, through what constitutes a process of becoming. Among the questions which sustain this research effort there are two which were relevant to the theme of the symposium: 1. How Lègong is taught and a particular somatisation of bodily discipline, encompassing ideas of femininity, is achieved through dance 2. How the dancer-researcher, and the dance-teacher understand dance and training, including processes of discipline and dialogue. These were instantiated by the process through which a highly experienced dancer, knowledgeable about Lègong and accustomed to training Balinese children and adults, copes with and explains the differences of working with a non-Balinese female adult in a non-Balinese setting. The presentation unfolded following a dialogic model, involving dancer-researcher, dance-teacher and audience.


Kim Brandstrup with dancer Jonathan Poole and in conversation with Susan Melrose and Renate Bräuninger

Sketches of Motion

Kim Brandstrup holds an AHRB post-doctoral creative and performing arts fellowship at Middlesex University, and is Artistic Director of Arc Dance Company.


Mary Nunan and Ferenc Szucs


The presentation will begin with a performance of a work-in -progress. After the performance we will both speak about aspects of the work and the research, which began in January 2002. This research is on-going because the process continues to reveal questions that relate to our individual research interests. When we began the process we each brought to the collaboration insights from our own specific tradition, classical music performance and contemporary dance performance. The emergent material has been strongly influenced by these traditions. However as we continue the research process it is becoming increasingly about creating a work which is both grounded in these traditions but which also resonates with and expresses our sensibilities as creative artists. We will speak about some of the issues we encountered in the creative process to date and the decisions which have informed the content, composition and performance of the current work. Additionally, we will then speak about our research to date on our individual research areas. Minding the Body in the Choreographic Process. The Importance of Not Knowing what you are Doing and 'Reclaiming Virtuosity': The Musician as Creative Artist in Performance Practice.


Signy Henderson

XXX, Virtuosity, and the Abjection of the Performer

The paper discusses the relationship between production, performer, and audience in XXX by La Fura dels Baus (2003). It first considers the effect on the audience of extensive pre-publicity, and the influence of the expectations created through this publicity on virtuosity as a feature of the performances. It then goes on to consider how this production offered the audience an experience of abjection, with specific reference to Kristeva's development of that term, and asks who witnesses the abjection, who is abjected, and whether in this case virtuosity is denied to the performers as part of the process of rendering them abject.


Renate Bräuninger

Virtuosity in George Balanchine's Work

Balanchine created some of his most important works without the input of highly trained virtuoso dancers. Did this mean he was able to create something like a faked virtuosity in which he could set almost any dancer in the right light? If so, how did he manage to achieve this? He was interested, however, in working with highly trained virtuoso dancers and they were definitely a source of his inspiration. His works still represent great challenges for dancers, but they also seem to survive the dancer whose work is not suited to them. This leads one to ask: can there be something like virtuosity in the choreographic work itself? How has Balanchine's work been performed and how does it perform itself between those notions of virtuosity?


Ralf Nuhn

Naturalistic Inquiry as Audience Feedback

The starting point for this presentation is my artistic practice which revolves around interactive mixed reality environments which seek to establish and explore relationships between screen based virtual environments and the physical domain. Besides broader physico-philosophical considerations my work is motivated by issues regarding human computer interaction as well as social interaction within computer assisted ecologies. I am therefore very interested in how audiences receive and interact with my installations, and I am using naturalistic inquiry methods to evaluate this aspect of my work. I will argue that this research is not an abstract academic exercise but instead has become part of my artistic programme and informs my practice.


Raenelda Mackie

Individuality and Regional Characteristics in Spanish Performing Practice from 1860

The most illuminating clues we have to the individuality of performance style in Spanish piano music, lie in the piano-roll recordings of Granados himself and the later recordings on Ensayo of Federico Mompou, playing his own compositions. The notation of the Spanish Dance no 5 by Granados implies a regularity of rhythm, characteristic of the cante jondo which, with its insistent rhythmic idioms, may easily degenerate into a tiresome stylization. Musicians accustomed to dependency on the notated score for achieving the musical work do not immediately understand Granados' rhythmic buoyancy in his performance style. The same principle applies to the interpretation of Federico Mompou, who, while being the natural Catalan successor to Granados, notably in the development of melody and modulation, reveals in his recording a departure from notation in his search for simplicity and synthesis; maximum expression with the minimum of means being his expressed aim.


Ildi Solti

The Mirror-fallacy: mimesis, realism and a new concept of virtuosity in the theatre

In today's theatre, more often than not virtuosity is conceived in terms of 'truthfulness' of story and character, almost invariably meant as a consistent narrative and realistic personality. Quite anachronistically, these views of (predominantly) 20th century realism tend to be authorised by appealing to Shakespeare and particular to his views on acting and theatre, supposedly voiced directly by Hamlet in the 'advice to the players', exhorting theatre makers to 'hold a mirror up to nature'. Oddly enough, as I would like to argue, the play itself appears to puncture the view that theatre is a consistent reflection of the world at every turn, especially when they are put to use by Hamlet in the 'Mousetrap scene', 'to catch the conscience of the King'. In the presentation, I will reconsider the mechanism of this scene as a performance instrument, and will question the traditional separation of performance Text and Space in the process of performance and therefore, also in analysis. I argue that the goal of the designed interference of the mechanisms of Text and Space is to produce a new, dynamic phenomenon, which is enabled by, but is inexplicable only in terms of, these two constituents. In reconceptualising the performance process, I will enlist some help from an unlikely quarter, using 'intelligent learning' in a study about mathematics in the primary school.


John Dack

Virtuosity and the Virtual

Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) the "founder" of musique concrète referred to "virtuosity of the ear rather than the hand". Musicians often have an ambivalent relationship with instruments. Nevertheless, they are the necessary means by which the abstract and concrete elements of musical languages are communicated. Real musicians, interacting with real instruments in real-time: these "prerequisites" have been called into question by the recording process and analogue/digital technology. I will discuss how acousmatic (or tape) music only appears to disregard the physical nature of source and player. In reality, it encourages a critique of the "instrument", "performance" and "virtuosity".


Kit Poulson

An obsidian mirror - A true and faithful account of what passed between,for many years ...

'We must be wary of art, it is often mere virtuosity' (Eric Satie). My presentation will be an introduction of my work as a painter and live artist, alongside a description of the attempts of the Elizabethan philosopher Dr Dee, to establish a pattern in the wide knowledge he accumulated, through the examination of a stone mirror. I will look at my position as a producer of objects and consider how this has led me to an interrogation of my practice and the undertaking of a research degree.


Jayne Richards

Beyond the Archimedean Point (3.9 microlectures on performance process (with apologies to Matthew Goulish)

Can we note an historically persistent proclivity to "theorise" performance from the singular viewing point of the spectator-critic in terms of what can be defined, concretised or identified by its shared features and generalities? Can we argue that the processual nature of contemporary performance operates within logics that exceed the largely spatial and substantialist frames of discursive practices inherited principally from the perceptual mechanisms of an outdated but persistent metaphysics? If so, how do we (and why do we) write about performance?


Kate Flatt with Bernadette Iglich

The Space Between

An attempt to reveal the experienced dancer's skill at interpreting the Choreo­grapher's suggestions, half-formed ideas, instructions and requests. The relationship between dancer and choreo­grapher takes many forms. In the generation of new solo dance material two imaginations are at work in arriving at a result which often reflects the choices of both. Working from imagery the presentation attempts to reveal the experienced dancers skill at interpreting the choreographers suggestions, half formed ideas, instructions or requests and providing what may be missing.


Jackie Smart with Marianne Sharp

Between eloquence and articulacy

The presentation explores the verbal structures and patterns of two interviews with practitioners (Tim Etchells and Wayne McGregor) in terms of what these reveal about the relationships between practice and speech, and between speech and writing. It proposes that the time-space inhabited by the interviewer/interviewee is multiple and has a chaotic structure, akin to that of the creative working process; it goes on to ask what is lost and what is gained in the process of translating that into a coherent written articulation of ideas.


Peter Fribbins

Virtuosity in Musical Composition

In music, the term virtuosity has many connotations and associations, most obviously in the context of performance, and especially in nineteenth century music. But can it ever have a meaning when applied to the production of music independent of its execution? Can there be a sense in which a composition may be viewed as virtuosic?


Mike Bridger

Virtual Virtuosity...

One of the qualities admired in virtuosic performance in any art is something akin to "superhuman-ness", whether manifested in strength, velocity, dexterity or some other characteristic depending on the art form or genre involved. Inevitably, such qualities can easily shade into the "machine-like", and in this short presentation some examples of this in music and electronic music are considered in the context of speculation about an aesthetics of the artificial. There is, of course, a fundamental paradox here, since human expressivity and mechanically created sound or images are likely not to be in a state of natural harmony. However, works of art are themselves artefacts, which prompts consideration of the notion of what might be termed "cyberaesthetics".


Tammy McLorg (choreographer) and Mavin Khoo (transcultural dance practitioner) in dialogue

"I'm going to be speaking with Mavin Khoo and asking him a little bit about his work. I really respect Mavin's work and I find what he is trying to do, and where the work is going choreo­graphically very exciting. Mavin was described in The Guardian by Judith Mackrell as 'half god, half tart'. I think we'll come to that a bit later - it's a very interesting description, because Mavin comes from two very different cultures. His upbringing and his training and the work he has been doing, involve two very different [dance performance] styles - Baratha Natyam and classical ballet - that on the surface are difficult to put together."

Photographs copyright © 2003 John Robinson .

Background image Mary Nunan and Ferenc Szucs, Work in Progress .

Video frames by Hannah Bruce.

Page last updated 4th September 2004.

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