Ethos Formula: Liturgy and Rhetorics in the Work of Ted Shawn


  • Alexander Schwan Institute of Theater Studies, Freie Universität Berlin



Agamben, ethics, potentiality, Ted Shawn, choreography, Daniel Sibony, law and dance, modernist dance


Beginning with Giorgio Agamben’s alignment of ethics and potentiality, this essay questions the ethical dimension of gesture in the field of dance as an eminently potentiality-bound art form. This draws on Daniel Sibony’s concept of law and dance, according to which the body simultaneously repels and longs for the law as a nexus of heteronomous structures. I frame this through a revision of Aby Warburg’s rhetorical concept, pathos formula, into the corollary term, ethos formula, as the encoded movement patterns of ethical attitudes or comportments which are motivated by decision-making rather than emotional content. Do gestures and their citation in dance bear an ethical dimension similar to the encoded transmission of emotions through movement?

This new concept of ethos formula finds an excellent example in the work of the American choreographer Ted Shawn (1891–1972). His strikingly hybrid use of ethos formula from the 19th century Catholic theorist François Delsarte and his parallel practice of quoting liturgical gestures from Protestant church services, pursues the ambiguity and uncanniness of modernity itself. For Shawn—like many other protagonists of modernist dance—argues on the one hand for freeing the body from the boundaries of classical ballet in the name of individual expression, and on the other hand for an instrumentalized body that still clings to principles of taxonomy and normativity.

Author Biography

Alexander Schwan, Institute of Theater Studies, Freie Universität Berlin

Alexander Schwan is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Institute of Theater Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Prior to this, he studied Protestant theology, Jewish studies and philosophy in Heidelberg, Jerusalem, and Berlin, as well as theater directing at the Academy of Performing Arts, Frankfurt/Main. His dissertation, Correlations between Dancing and Writing in the Work of Trisha Brown, Jan Fabre, and William Forsythe, was awarded the 2016 Tiburtius Award. In his current book project, Alexander researches theological implications in the works of modernist choreographers such as Ruth St. Denis, Mary Wigman, and Martha Graham, as well as the reception of German and Austrian expressionist dance (Ausdruckstanz) in British Mandate Palestine. In the fall term of 2017, Alexander will be a visiting scholar at Harvard University.


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How to Cite

Schwan, A. (2017). Ethos Formula: Liturgy and Rhetorics in the Work of Ted Shawn. Performance Philosophy, 3(1), 23–39.



Special Section: Towards an Ethics of Gesture