WRITING ABOUT DANCE

Most cultivated people are able to respond sensitively to and can discuss in a reasonably informed manner most or at least some of the fine arts. Yet when it comes to dance (Redfern, 1975) they seem totally lost. Two traditions have had something to do with this unusual state of affairs. In the remarks that follow, I discuss these traditions briefly, offer an introduction to dance (with an emphasis on modern dance), and provide a few hints on writing about dance.

1. Dance Criticism

We notice that the tradition of dance criticism is weaker than those of such fine arts as art and drama. Few writers in the field of dance have produced the "evocative criticism" we expect from writers like Donald Tovey (d. 1940) or Bernard Berenson (d. 1959) or F.R. Leavis (d. 1976), that is, criticism which catches and conveys something of the flavor of the work and is itself a work of art in its own right. In this regard, it was Clive Barnes, the New York based critic, who set the standard during the late 1960's and the early 1970's. Today, we look to Anna Kisselgoff, who writes for The New York Times, and Robert Everett-Green, who writes for the Globe and Mail.

Until recently (of course) the materials for appreciating dance have not been not available in an easily accessible form. The proliferation of films and video-tapes devoted to dance, not to mention televised performances, make a difference here.

2. Education Policies

In the past, the educational policies of high schools and universities have concentrated on the study of masterpieces in art, literature, drama, and music. Today, the notion of a "cannon" is itself suspect.

However, the proliferation of dance programs of the past three decades, together with the increasing availability of dances, on film and on tape, for example, has fostered the serious study of dance. These programs have shifted their emphasis slightly; instead of concentrating on performing work, they also encourage the practice of evaluating works. Most directors (of dance programs) strive to establish a balance between performance and appreciation: they believe that the one enriches the other. After all, the sort of appreciation that is possible during the dancer's performance is quite different from the appreciation that is possible for the spectator. Obviously, dancers cannot be aware of the work as a whole. For example, they cannot see what takes place behind their back.

An Introduction to Dance

Many people think of dance as human communication at its most basic level. Some form of dance can be found in every culture, regardless of its location or stage of development. It is easy to see that dance is a natural, universal human activity. Scholars tell us that dance sprang from religious needs; they say that the theater of ancient Greece developed out of that society's religious, tribal dance rituals. How is dance unique?

Normally, music accompanies dance; now and then, however, dance makes up part of opera.

Basic Movements

Modern dance (the focus of my remarks here) utilizes four basic movements or activities: bend, stretch, twist, and rotate. To add weight, dancers accentuate movements in terms of space and time. To add color and texture, dancers accentuate movements in terms of ebb and flow. Via these movements, then, dances suggest mind, feelings (emotion), and body.

Subject Matter

Dance is an art of time and space. It utilizes many of the elements that can be found in other arts.

  1. Dance takes as its subject matter abstract motion, i.e., shapes and patterns.

  2. As well, dance takes as a pervasive subject matter feelings: you might say that this is what dance is all about. The body exhibits feelings less abstractedly than music, i.e., the feelings are "embodied."

    Our ability to identify with other human bodies is very strong; the dancer exhibits feelings and we in turn experience those feelings. The choreographer--who creates the dance--interprets the feelings for us. In this way, we understand these feelings--and ourselves--with greater insight.

  3. Dance also explores states of mind. Feelings, such as pleasure and pain, are relatively transient; however, states of mind, such as attitudes, tendencies that engender feelings, endure for a longer period of time. For example, jealousy involves a strong feeling, which can be described as passion (p. 297).

    The serial structure of the dance provides just the vehicle needed to interpret these enduring states of mind. What is revealed is not so much why things happen as the inner reactions to the happening (p. 298).

  4. Narrative provides a subject matter for many dances. We think of Robert Helpmann's ballet, Hamlet, which takes Shakespeare's play as its subject matter. It interprets the inner life of a tragic drama.

Form

Dance takes as its subject matter moving visual patterns, feelings, states of mind, and narrative, in various combinations. The form of the dance, the details and the parts as they work together to organize the structure, gives us insight into the subject matter. However, the details, the parts, and the structure are not as easily perceived as they are in painting, sculpture, or architecture, because the dance "moves on" relentlessly through time (pp. 298-99).

To enjoy the dance, we have to develop a memory of those movements. We do this by noticing the repetitive movement and the variations on those movements. We notice how the dance builds tension--by withholding movements we think should be repeated. Thus, repetition or the lack of it serves as an important "shaping" feature of the dance (p. 299).

We can identify a number of formal qualities:

1. repetition

The repetition of movements might be patterned on the repetition in the music. The musical structure of A-B-A is common. Often, the movements performed at the beginning are developed, enlarged, and modified in a later section, and then are repeated at the end, so as to help the viewer understand the full significance of the development.

2. balance

Choreographers employ a number of techniques to give their dances balance. First, the dancers balance themselves across the space allotted to them. Second, they might give the dance centrality of focus, so that we see an overall shape. Third, the most important dancers take up center stage. Thus, we detect balance in terms of the relationship between the main dancers and the subordinate dancers and between individual dancers and the group.

Appreciating dance involves developing an eye for the ways these movements combine to create individual works. Modern dance develops a slightly different vocabulary.

Modern Dance

The origins of modern dance can be traced to Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, who rejected the stylization of ballet, with ballerinas dancing on their toes and executing the same basic movements in very performance (pp. 311-12).

Duncan preferred natural movement; she danced bare footed, wearing gossamer drapery that showed her body and legs in motion. Also, she insisted on placing the center of motion just bellow the breastbone--the solar plexus. In this way, Duncan (d. 1927) and her followers infused a new energy into the dance. She based her dances on abstract subject-matter, especially states of mind and moods, and expressed her understanding of them via her movements. Her works tended to be lyrical, personal, and (often) extemporaneous. Her movements tended to be on-going; they rarely came to a complete rest (pp. 312-13).

Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey, and other innovators who followed developed modern dance in a variety of directions. For example, Graham created dances on themes of Greek tragedies, such as Medea (p. 313).

Martha Graham

Graham (d. 1991) studied with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (at the Denishawn School), who pioneered instruction in Oriental and primitive techniques. It soon became clear that classical ballet was not for Graham; she preferred the uncharted terrain of human passions as translated into angular movements, flexed (not pointed) feet, and rhythmic "contraction and release" breathing. Graham became a virtuoso dancer.

In 1926, she organized her own company and school (in New York), where she developed the "Graham technique," which is reminiscent of ballet in its rigor and discipline. Graham's contraction is a common movement: this is the sudden contraction of the diaphragm with the resultant relaxation of the body. This movement builds on Duncan's emphasis on the solar plexus, but adds to that emphasis the systolic and diastolic rhythms of heartbeat and pulse (pp. 316-17).

At times, Graham's dances have been very literal, with narrative pretexts (as in ballet). In Night Journey, she interprets Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the dance accentuating the emotional links between Jocasta and her son-husband Oedipus (p. 317).

Life magazine selected (in 1991) Graham as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century.

Graham performed until she was 76. To many, she has made the greatest contribution to modern dance. Graham has been compared her to Picasso and Stravinsky. She created 181 dance altogether, ranging from Greek dances to collaborations with composers, e.g., Copland and Stravinsky. Most of the major choreographers in the USA have studied the Graham technique, including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp. Many actors have studied this technique too: Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Eli Wallack, Joanne Woodward, Diane Keaton, and Woody Allen. In an interview (1985), she said:

  • To me, the body says what words cannot. I believe that dance was the first art. A philosopher has said that dance and architecture were the first two arts. I believe dance was the first because it's gesture, it's communication. That doesn't mean it's telling a story; it means it's communicating a feeling, a sensation to people.
  • Dance is the hidden language of he soul, of the body. And it's partly the language we don't want to show. As Auden says: "We all have places where shy humiliations gambol on sunny afternoons."
  • I don't believe in imitating the street on the stage. Why should you go in off the street and see the street on the stage. I believe you're going in to see gods and goddesses.

    Twyla Tharp

    Tharp has developed a style pleasing to serious critics and dance amateurs, including a playfulness that seems appropriately modern. She has taken advantage of the new opportunities for showcasing dance on television, e.g., the Dance in America series. She has been particularly successful in adapting jazz of the 1920's and the 1930's to dance, e.g., "Sue's Leg" (1976), which features the music of "Fats" Waller (p. 321).

    A few Hints on Writing about Dance

    In writing about dance, we share our insight into the artfulness of a work; our task is to identify the artistic qualities which make up the work in question. This means helping readers perceive the form of the work, and thereby appreciate its content. Much more is required than such expressions of personal taste as: "I don't know anything about dance, but I liked it" or "I didn't like it."

    Of course, the ephemerality of dance makes reviewing three-dimensional moving images exceptionally difficult.

    1. A rather good place to start is to consider the title, as a device for directing or mis-directing the attention of the audience.

      For example, Kurt Jooss's The Green Table features a Dance of Death in eight scenes (first performed in 1932): the movement of the figures (dressed in formal attire: top hat and tails) around a very long board-room table covered with regulation green cloth represents the endless and futile conferences of European politicians during the inter-war years, i.e., mobilization, combat, war profiteering, movement of refugees, and so on. All the time Death is featured in the background dancing out the rhythm of the ballet.

      We should not forget that a dance comes across all at once, that is, it is fully comprehensible, no matter what we as observers bring to it in terms of concepts, interests, and so on.

    2. Program notes, which may or may not outline the origins of the work, the choreographer's intentions, methods of presentation etc.

    3. Technical aspects, such as the costumes, lighting, accompaniment, and so on.

    4. Sculptural features, that is, the movement itself in terms of developing shapes and patterns. Notice how the "chase" shapes many films, especially westerns.

      Dance is one of the most difficult of the arts to appreciate because, as Henry Moore argued, many people are blind to form. Moore claimed that, although many people attain some accuracy in the perception of flat form, they do not make further intellectual and emotional effort to comprehend form in its full spatial existence (quoted in Redfern, 1975). Moore argued that sculpture is probably the most difficult of the arts to appreciate.

      A case might be made for the following argument: dance poses an even greater challenge, i.e., dance too exists in three-dimensional space: moving shapes and transient patterns unfold from one moment to the next.

      Again: the basic material out of which dancers shape their works is movement, i.e., in terms of bending, stretching, twisting, and rotating movement, to express their minds, emotions, and bodies. Individual movements vary in quality, according to the space in which they are executed, the time taken to execute them, and the weight given them.

      In other words, movements acquire color and texture according to whether they ebb or flow, whether they are bound or unbound. Such patterning as the straight line/chorus line say or the circle (cf. Martha Graham) shape movement in unique ways, i.e., giving it solidarity or wholeness as opposed to the sense of fragmentation no patterning at all might convey.

    5. It goes without saying that different dancers bring different qualities to their performances. Think of the unusual qualities Merce Cunningham brings to his work, e.g., flexibility and fluidity.

    6. The piece as a composition: this means "getting inside" the dance.

      We think of choreography as the primary impulse behind what we see. At this level of perception a language specifically relevant to dance is needed, one that includes technical terms and the language of "physical reality." In other words, as reviewers we must become involved in what we see: we must describe what we see and feel and think.

      In conclusion: Every writer who writes about dance faces the following problem: what we cannot describe to ourselves tends to pass us by as part of the formless unknown: what we do not notice we cannot attend to. Engaging in criticism of any kind helps us--as performers as well as spectators--to discipline our perceptions.

      Sources

      Barnes, C. "The Function of a Critic." In Visions, ed. M. Crabb. Toronto: Simmons and Pierre, 1976, pp. 76-80.

      Coton, A.V. Writings on Dance, 1938-69. London: Dance Books, 1975.

      Osborne, H. The Art of Appreciation. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

      Martin, F. David, and Lee A. Jacobus. The HUmanities through the Arts. 5th Edn. New York: The McGraw-Hill Comanies, Inc., 1997.

      Redfern, B. "Developing Critical Audiences in Dance Education." In Collected Conferences Papers on Dance. Warwick: University of Warwick Arts Centre, 1975, ii, 59-76.

      Taplin, D.T. "On Critics and Criticism of Dance." In New Directions in Dance, ed. D.T. Taplin. Toronto: Pergamon Press, 1979, pp. 77-91.

      Wigman, M. The Language of Dance. London: MacDonald and Evans, 1966.

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