Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Essay: Approaching Dance, Part II

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 second 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 2: Finding the right words

You’ve come home from the show, hopefully exhilarated from a stellar performance (and perhaps a post-show drink with your fellow dance-goers).  Now starts the potentially gruelling process of translating what you’ve experienced into words.  
  • Start with the tone.  My immediate first step is to take a look at the small sheet of paper I’ve scribbled on throughout the show and pull out words that seem to resonate with the performance as a whole: frantic, hurried, exaggerated, diminutive.  I let those words set the score for the rest of my writing.
  • Technical vs. specific.  Are you a former bun-head who knows her arabesques from her attitudes?  It’s often easier to rely on technical names than to describe what is really going on in a particular sequence.  Sports writers can get away with unexplained talk of ‘icing’ and ‘doubleheaders,’ so it’s tempting to rely on specialized terminology without doing the work of identifying what part of the adagio was really brilliant, or what specific quality made the pirouettes worth mentioning.  Go back to those few hyper-detailed movement descriptions you made note of during the show (and that we discussed in Part 1).  What quality was present in that movement that made you take note of it?  Chances are you’ll recall a similar quality or texture in the movement phrase you’re having trouble describing.  Maybe the dancers never reach a full extension, and kept an uneasy angle in every shape they carved.  Talking about the feeling this produced—a precarious, off-kilter feeling within the choreography—is far more interesting and accessible than saying “the leg extensions in second were really great.”  You may tell yourself they were really great, but tell your readers why. 
  • Be selective. Know when to give up and cut.  It’s inevitable; there will be moments or aspects of a dance performance that will not adequately fit into words no matter how hard you try.  I used the word ‘translate’ earlier very deliberately, to highlight the shift or slippage in meaning that necessarily occurs.  Just as some words lose their resonance when you translate them to a different language, some movement might feel flat when you try to describe it.  If you’re reading over a piece of text and it just doesn’t feel close enough to your experience, try zooming out.  If it’s a particular movement phrase you’re having trouble speaking about, can you talk about the larger staging or thematic concerns of that part of the piece?  What about flipping your analysis around?  Instead of talking about what you saw, talk about your response as an audience member. 
When all else fails and every attempt at a particular description does not approximate the liveness of the thing your describing, cut it. It’s my opinion that we write to serve the art, and if our words don’t augment, but rather, take away from the work, your review is probably better off without that troublesome bit anyway.  

If it’s too much to press ‘delete,’ strike them, highlight them, put them in Comic Sans and banish them to the bottom of your page to deal with later.  After considering the suggestions in Part 3, you’ll probably notice they don’t fit with the larger aim of your article anyway. 

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