Saturday, February 11, 2017

Thoughts on Dance

I have been going to dance performances, both ballet and modern dance, and also everything else, quite regularly and frequently now over 15 years, and with still a great deal I am trying to understand, I have some thoughts I wanted to write down.  

Dance is an art form which uses the human body in sequences of postures and movements.  

To the extent that the bodily movements are almost inevitably gestural, it is conversely nearly impossible to strip a dance movement of mimetic expressions.  An arm raised may beckon, yearn, spurn, menace, explore, or hope, as the case may be; the expression is varied and made more specific in combination with the turn of the shoulders, neck, elbow, wrist, hand, and fingers, not to speak of the legs, the torso, and the rest of the body.  Every part of the body, singly or in combination, expresses a purposeful action by default, allowing the dancer infinite possibilities of expression.  Conversely, then, to choreograph a dance that is non-representational is nary impossible.  

Still there are dance forms that can be seen as movements for the sake of movement.  Tap and Irish step dance come to mind; but as with many forms of folk dancing, they do express joy of movement contagiously.  So, when a child spontaneously starts to jump up and down and twirl round and round, it is expressive of joy.  A temper tantrum is perhaps a form of dance, if lacking in rhythmic control. 

George Balanchine, who rejected the description of his work as abstract, rightly pointed out that if you put a ballerina with a male partner on stage, you have a story.  His more abstract dances are best described as plotless, in contrast to the classical story ballet; but they are still figurative.  The works of Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham, and Mark Morris, are all by and large overtly mimetic. 

The works of Merce Cunningham, as with the music of John Cage, with whom he closely collaborated, is perhaps noteworthy for their abstraction, dance as dance, in some of the works he choreographed.  He invented postures that made it difficult to be read as gestural.  John Jaspers in an conversation spoke of the “value of embodied knowledge” last fall at BAM; in my mind I paraphrased the statement as “the celebration of non-verbal communication,” that is to say, making the body speak in place of words, of events, memory, and knowledge.  Dance, in short, uses the body as an expressive vehicle of emotion and meaning, without words but still inevitably with mimetic imagery.  Many choreographers in modern dance seem intent on achieving “pure” dance by abstracting the movements.  Totally purged of imagery, bodily movements become gymnastic; there is much to be admired in the dynamism per se, such as speed, strength, energy and endurance, as well as the postural complexity and the geometry of the ensemble dancing.  It may be left to the audience to read into the abstract movements whatever expression it chooses.  But, of course, there is always music that defines the meaning intended. 

Analogy exists in abstract expressionism, as of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Pierre Soulages, and Helen Frankenthaler, in whose works expression consists of shapes, colors, and, above all, gestures as traces.  They are non-figurative but mimetic, albeit minimally.  The works of Agnes Martin strike me as totally non-mimetic and yet expressive. The artist explained herself:  
When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery 
of life. It is not in the eye it is in the mind. In our minds there 
is awareness of perfection.
The ideal expressed in this statement and in her magnificent paintings finds its counterpart in the best of Balanchine’s more abstract dances.  The movements may not be entirely free of mimetic suggestions but don’t insist on them; they may be abstract but not devoid of emotion.  But, above all, the dancers’ efforts are persistently directed toward the expression of beauty embodied in the lines as stipulated by the Classic Ballet. What Balanchine achieves at his best is poetry.

Cunningham, pushing further into the realm of abstraction, similarly achieves poetry by directing the dancers’ movements away from sheer athleticism toward expression of a certain difficult-to-define yet unmistakable ideal beyond physicality, perhaps even more like Agnes Martin.

With my thoughts on dance I am explaining to myself why, for me, Cunningham and Balanchine stand at the acme of achievement in dance.

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