Auto_Bio_Graphy as Performance

A Field of Dance Historiographic Innovation

Li Cunxin: Mao's Last Dancer (Penguin Group); Isadora Duncan: My Life (Liveright); Misty Copeland: Life in Motion. An Unlikely Ballerina (Aladdin); Martha Graham: Blood Memory. An Autobiography (Doubleday); Stiftung SAPA: Interview mit Noemi Lapzeson; Stiftung SAPA: Interview mit Ursula Pellaton (Katrin Oettli); Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods: Hunter (Iris Janke); La Ribot: Otra Narcisa (Vacío Studio)

Direction: Prof. Dr. Christina Thurner

Team: Dr. Elizabeth Waterhouse, Dr. Julia Wehren, M.A. Nadja Rothenburger, B.A. Claudio Richard (until 2023), B.A. David Castillo (since 2023)

This SNSF-funded project examines autobiographical testimonies from dancers and choreographers from a dance history perspective (19th–21st century). As personal records of knowledge and experience, these sources offer unique and frequently alternative perspectives for dance historiography. The specific status of dance autobiographies as sources has not yet been systematically studied and warrants further reflection.

Auto_Bio_Graphies, i.e. individual’s (auto), descriptions (graphy) of their lives (bio), are here understood according to a performative view of the constitution and empowerment of the/a 'self'. The focus is twofold: first, a broad spectrum of autobiographical sources elaborating upon dancers’ lives will be gathered, thematically examined and historiographically evaluated in context; second, the relationship between these autobiographical testimonies and the existing dance and historical discourse will be considered to (re)describe and (re)write history.

The following questions motivate this study: How should dance scholars treat the ‘personal testimonies’ of dancers with regard to their understanding of dance, as well as the (dance) historical, phenomenal and medial contexts? How are ‘dance experiences' presented within autobiographical description? What new findings can be derived from these sources, with regard to writing dance historiography and autobiography research?

The goal is a dance studies-based formulation of this topic. The project builds upon interdisciplinary autobiography research while focusing on its own broad corpus of dance- relevant sources. This makes the research productive for the discipline of dance studies and while also being interdisciplinarily relevant. The project consequently develops and innovatively expands previous historiographical and discourse-analytical research.

Consisting of three subprojects, these aim together to revise dance history and the writing of dance history. They span analysis of dancers’ autobiographies in written form (as books), as well as statements that are spoken (oral history conversations with contemporary witnesses) and performed (pieces, performances and choreographies). The research always takes into account each source’s distinct medium and epistemological potential.

The project thus creates a field of dance research innovation—excavating new materials, sharpening methods and establishing autobiography research as a branch of dance historiography. In the course of the four-year project (1.9.2020–31.8.2024) several publications are planned in print, open access and digital forms. Public workshops will also be offered on the relationship between disciplinary and interdisciplinary autobiography research, as well as the topic of memory and archiving processes in dance.

Subproject A (C. Thurner): Auto_Bio_Graphy as a Source for Dance Historiography
Subproject B1 (J. Wehren): Telling Memories. Oral History Methods in Dance
Subproject B2 (E. Waterhouse): Autobodyography: Our Dancing Bodies
Subproject C (N. Rothenburger): Auto_Choreo_Graphy


Prof. Dr. Christina Thurner (Project Director)
M.A. Nadja Rothenburger (Doctoral Student)
Dr. Elizabeth Waterhouse (Postdoc)
Dr. Julia Wehren (Research Assistant)
B.A. David Castillo (Student Assistant, since 2023)
B.A. Claudio Richard (Student Assistant, until 2023)


Research Forum Auto-Bio-Graphy, Walter-Benjamin-Kolleg, University of Bern
Prof. Dr. Gabriele Rippl, Department of English
Prof. Dr. Michaela Schäuble, Institut für Sozialanthropologie
Prof. Dr. Peter J. Schneemann, Institut für Kunstgeschichte
Prof. Dr. Bénédicte Vauthier, Instituto de Lengua y Literaturas Hispánicas

International Partners

Prof. Dr. Marina Nordera, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis
Prof. Dr. Susanne Franco, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia
Project Group Mnemedance | Memory In Motion

Institutional Cooperation Stiftung SAPA/Swiss Archive of the Performing Arts