Friday, September 19, 2014

Essay: Approaching Dance, Part I

The Fine Art of Approaching Dance
by Kallee Lins (Charlebois Post Dance Editor)

Introduction: Writing and talking about dance is something that intimidates a lot of people.  As a performance scholar (who is going on a lot of dates these days), I am often met with blank stares at the inevitable response to inquiries about my area of study.  Even worse, my conversational counterpart will attempt to hypothesize what the study of dance entails, asking something like, “PhD in dance? Is that mostly routines or do you look at historical and social context too?” 

Setting aside the fact that such a statement is reductive of both dance and academic inquiry, what these exchanges have taught me is that, in the eyes of many people, dance does not seem to function as art in the same way other disciplines do.  We expect art to speak to us, to tell us something about the world, to communicate something that cannot be articulated in more mundane ways. Why would artists spend years learning the conventions and techniques of their discipline and fostering their own aesthetic, and then sink weeks, months or even years into rehearsal or studio production if what they had to say could be articulated in an essay or press release?  And yet, observers continue to believe (whether they acknowledge it or not) that if what happens on a stage, canvas or screen cannot, in turn, be stated in words, then it does not have anything to say.  Dance, with its chronic underfunding and lack of visibility in schools compared to music, drama and the visual arts, is particularly susceptible to this fallacy.

Dance always has something to say, and there is always plenty to say about dance.  We just don’t know how to say it.  

The following is the first of a three part series suggesting ways to approach dance, particularly for those who want to write about it.  Of course, these are only suggestions based on my own experience and most reflective of contemporary dance.  It’s also important to keep in mind that each performance demands something different of its audience.  This is simply a starting point.  And please, let me know if you have suggestions and amendments.  We need to keep building a community of dance-talkers. 

Task 1: Look, look, and look again

“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover there is no reason.” – John Cage
  • Be present. Even though I’m starting straight at the stage, I often miss the first five or ten minutes of a show because transit on the way to the theatre left me frazzled, I’m worried about an impending deadline, or curious about the email that popped up on my phone as the lights went down. Worrying about life outside the theatre can completely blind you to what is happening inside it.
  • Watch the movement. Ask yourself simply 'what' are the dancers doing?  Are they running in a circle? Are they performing intricate footwork en pointe? The more movement you notice, the more you’re able to talk about, so be as specific as possible in identifying what you’re seeing.  I always try to pick out a few specific movements that stand out to me as indicative of certain sections of choreography and force myself to describe them in as much detail as possible.  Instead of committing to memory, “the soloist stepped to the left,” I might make the note, “the soloist shifted her weight to the left, initiating from the hip and pulling herself as far off balance as possible before displacing her right foot to catch her balance and quickly flailing her arms to the side.”  The details of the second description will be useful when trying to recall the texture of the choreography later. 
  • Look for repetition and/or contrasts.  The movement that is repeated will give you a hint about what motifs are really important to the piece. The same goes for movement or other elements that are obviously contrasted. Does the quick, light movement of the opening sequence become increasingly heavy and weighted as the piece goes on? Do you see impeccable unison between the dancers disintegrate into chaos? These transitions, both in the movement itself and in the relationships between dancers, may highlight key qualities of the piece.  
  • Watch the intervals. Silence does a lot in music. It can inform the dramatic arc of a song, build suspense, create a transition, etc.  Just so in dance.  Pay attention to when movements begin and end.  Keep in mind that stillness always dances.  What do you see when the dancers stop moving?  Do they show you their exhaustion?  Are they highlighting the show’s artifice by grabbing a water bottle or visibly changing costumes?
  • What other compositional aspects are at play? The lights, set, costumes, and music are the obvious things to pay attention to.  What do they look/sound like?  Do they shift or change throughout the piece?  If so, how? But there are other compositional aspects enacted by the dancers themselves to pay attention to.  Watch the dancers’ use of space—their relation to concrete objects on stage, as well as to each other.  Do they use voice?  Are there gestures (either behavioural or expressive)? Do the dancers make sound when they move? What colours are present onstage?  Everything that exists within the ecology of the stage matters, and their relationships to each other can say a lot. 
  • How is the dance making you feel? Human brains have these wonderful receptors called mirror neurons.  If I watch someone raise their left arm above their head, my brain responds to this motion in the same way that it would if I lifted my own arm.  Check in with your own body and see what it has to tell you about the dancers you’re watching.  If your muscles are really tense, it could be because the choreography has a lot of bound, aggressive movement.  If you feel very relaxed, the movement might be aiming for an air of effortlessness.  A shiver down your spine?  Take note of that.  It will tell you something about the events on stage that induced it. 
There are a lot of questions here.  Of course, no one is going to sit in a darkened theatre with a checklist in hand looking for all the elements described above.  My intent is only to suggest a few things that might come to the surface when you watch a dance and focus on the what.  Why, how, and who are great questions too, but they should be rooted in what happens onstage.  It’s hard to put words to things you haven’t taken the time to really see and feel.  Let concrete observations anchor your words to the art. 

Part II of the series
Part III of the series

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