Monday, May 16, 2011

Dance World

Winter Gloves--"Dancing My Heart Out" (mp3)

Almost by accident, I have become something of an aficionado of modern dance. For the past 8 years of one or both of my children have been involved in modern dance programs, with somewhere between 2 and 4 performance viewed during each of those years. So I've seen the shows, put my time in, and, most of all, really come to enjoy them. That isn't something I ever expected to happen.

And, since the start, I've had to know something about modern dance because I had been expected to know something. After each performance, my older daughter demands that we retire to an eatery (usually the Friendly's in Mt. Vernon, Ohio) to break down the performance. I get the club sandwich and the rasberry tea.

But I had to be able to critique, so I trained myself. First, I figured out that some of the pieces were just silly, like the girl birthing herself as a chick from a shell, and that it was okay to realize that. Like modern poetry, modern dance can allow for the self-important to get carried away. I also discovered, because of my ballet training, that I had a pretty decent sense of what good dancing was and what wasn't (and by 'ballet training' I mean my years as a ballet dad before the modern dance years). The modern pieces use the precision of ballet, at times, but incorporate direct acting and a world dance catalog that leads to a lot of cross-cultural pollination. Finally, I guess like a viewer of modern art, I tried to develop an appreciation of technique over substance. I didn't have to understand the dance to appreciate it (though I didn't every fully accept that premise).

To be a casual aficionado, you don't need to ramble on and on. I guess you could, to establish your aficionadacity, but you don't have to. All you need are a couple of talking points. And, after a number of concerts, you have benchmarks and bases for comparisons anyway. Last weekend, after my daughter's last Kenyon dance, I had these two things to tell her: 1. "That was the most gymnastic dancing I've ever seen you do (a compliment!)" and 2. "I've noticed something about choreography--if dancers don't have anything to do, they shouldn't be on the stage; otherwise, they kill the energy." I remain pretty confident in those opinions.

Here's the fascinating part of the experience, at least for me. Humans love narrative, especially English teaching humans. Modern dance tends to eschew narrative. If it tells a story, the story will not be the point. If there is something linear about it, it will veer wildly from that pattern. Nor will it even help you much with what it's about, not even with the title of dance itself. The last two pieces my daughter danced in were titled "Enotrope" and "Monarchs of a Permeable Kingdom." Those sound more like songs from Yes albums in the '70's than titles that would help to focus an audience on what they're about to see.

And so, when I watch a dance, I create the narrative in my head, or, if not a fully-fleshed out story, at least some reasons for why the dancers do what they are doing. I may not understand the title of the dance or the purpose of the music, but I do look for some resolution in the behavior of the characters.

Over time, though, I've reached an unusual place. I've started to think of modern dance as a world, a world that transcends any individual piece, a world that runs parallel to our own, but with a different set of rules. I call it "Danceworld."

In Danceworld, human speech is almost unnecessary. Certainly, it is not needed to negotiate interactions with others. Sure, there are random utterances, chants, overlapping recitations, and even, at times, statements of purpose shouted to the heavens (or to the blackness above the stage), but mostly mouths are about exhalation, about exertion, about breathing to stand still, to maintain yourself, after some colossal endeavor. My daughter was in one highly-regarded piece that used a lot of language to critique societal expectations of women, but that is the exception.

To catch others attention, you merely meet their eye, touch their shoulder, hoist them, roll with them, climb through them, over them, mimic them, join in kinesethic agreement with them. Their interest, more than likely, will be transitory, as soon they must move to their own spots, their own places or towards others who will do different things with them. But conversation, as such, will transmit almost exclusively through bodily languages. They will travel with you part of the way. You may end up together, but there is no sense that you will stay that way.

Isolation and monogamy are both ultimately tragic, as bodies must touch to talk, and energy travels from person to person like God's imminent contact with Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Isolation, rather than being pitiful, seems self-indulgent, the stage being too large for just one person for very long. To dance with just one partner, well, that happens back in Balletworld. Here, in what is often a dark, difficult world, there is a definite strength in numbers, an implied misery loves company, a need to reach many bodies. And bodies leave the stage quickly and often return randomly, leaving dancers to sort out the awkward reconnections after their foreseeable indiscretions.

Danceworld is about falling, getting up, falling, getting up, falling perhaps from being pushed, getting up perhaps with the help of someone else, or slipping or being overwhelmed by circumstance. It is a world where human contact is like a car crash, a battering ram, a sleepover pillowfight, a game of dominoes. It is a cosmic game of chase and catch, catch and release. Bodies fly around like electrons, each following a charted course, but destined to collide, or at least to navigate around each other.

Most of all, Danceworld is about desolation, or at least sparseness. It is life stripped bare in ways that we are, perhaps, unwilling to confront, unless forced to. Though the dancers wear costumes of one sort or another, the costumes move through the context they imply, getting instead only the barest of sets. And even then, rather than the costumes suggesting characters, they tend to show us various kinds of partial selves. We see creatures and travelers, but we are never quite sure of the reasons for the baseness or the destination.

To observe this world, to lean into it from the close rows, is to remind ourselves that there are violences that we cannot prevent, attractions that we cannot deter, mysteries that have no solution. For modern dance never, ever answers a question, and often obscures even what the question might be. Against that unfathomable backdrop, we sit and watch the endeavors of others, hoping that they, and we, have rehearsed enough to be able to make some kind of way with grace.


Billy said...

Your post has forced me to write something totally different than originally intended for tomorrow. Damn you and your Danceworld.

Bob said...

Seriously? You're into modern dance, too? There's a show down at UTC we've got to go see together.

troutking said...

1. Heart of the Sunrise seems like a good modern dance. The Wurm not so much.

2. Love Will Find A Way should have been on 90210 instead of Big Generator.

3. In NY and VT they now require all menus to include calorie totals for each item. I can tell you from my recent experience that Friendly's is much less enjoyable when you know how many calories you are ingesting. I've probably consumed my last Fribble.

troutking said...

90125 not 90210. I always confuse Luke Perry and Trevor Rabin.