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Robert Abrams
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Reflections on Cultural Differences in Perception of Facial Expressions and Possible Application to Approaches to Understanding and Reviewing Dance Performances

by Robert Abrams
March 22, 2008
A study by Takahiko Masuda from the University of Alberta that appeared in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ("East and West Part Ways in Test of Facial Expressions", Eric Nagourney, New York Times, 03/18/2008 p. F5, and Dr. Masuda's research paper) found that when presented with drawings of a group of people, some of which showed all of the people with the same facial expression and some of which showed mixed facial expressions, and asked to rate the mood of the central figure in the drawing, Western study participants tended to answer based on the central figure alone, while participants in Japan also took the mood of the background figures into account when making a judgement about the central figure's mood.

What does this have to do with dance?

There is a view among some dance critics that a performance should be judged solely on its own merits. According to this view, overstating the argument a little, one should describe what one sees and keep one's own opinion to a minimum. While there is some merit to this view (for example, reviews that are mostly rants are problematic, although, in my opinion, not necessarily because they are opinion but because an excess of emotion tends to lead to analysis that is shallower than the critic himself or herself might actually desire), this research shows that different groups of people can interpret the same images very differently. Thus, if there were a dance in which the dancer at the front of the stage were dancing in a manner that suggested happiness, while the dancers at the back of the stage were dancing in a manner that suggested sadness, it would be a plausible hypothesis to predict that Western audiences and Japanese audiences would interpret this dance differently.

More fundamentally than simply finding differences in interpretation, this research suggests that the experience of a dance is inseparable from the audience. Dance can not exist without an observer. It follows from this construct that a review of a dance must take the audience into account if it is to provide a complete analysis.
Image used in Dr. Takahiko Masuda's study. Foreground and background characters are all happy. University of Alberta.

Image used in Dr. Takahiko Masuda's study.
Foreground and background characters are all happy.
University of Alberta.

Photo © & courtesy of Takahiko Masuda


Image used in Dr. Takahiko Masuda's study. Foreground character is happy, but the background characters are unhappy. University of Alberta.

Image used in Dr. Takahiko Masuda's study.
Foreground character is happy, but the background characters are unhappy.
University of Alberta.

Photo © & courtesy of Takahiko Masuda

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