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The Inner Workings of Dance

“The first taste of art is spontaneously sensual, it is the discovery of an absorbing entertainment, an absorbing pleasure,” muses Edwin Denby, and it is no different with dance. But what is dance? Clement Crisp helps answer this by weighing in on Paul Taylor’s style, elucidating that his dances are “about what the human frame can do when inspired by music, when liberated by technical prowess, and then shaped in action by a master.” With this description in mind, dance can be defined as an unrestricted, boundless way by which we can use the body to infinitely express ourselves and expand our perception of the beauty that it is to live and to experience. It makes us feel something inside as spectators of an amazing performance, bedazzled by the radiance of graceful footwork and shocked by the whimsicality of zany antics as we become overwhelmed with gushing emotions of delight, grief, and everything in between. It takes us out of our context in life and places us in another one, a context full of movement, vivacity, and euphoria. Energy radiates from the stage as we look on, and the energy pours into us like ambrosia surging into the empty chalices of the gods. Crisp describes it as “food for the eyes,” and in that sense, it satisfies a craving we have in our souls for something more, something that breaches the mundane feel of the daily grind and sends our hearts and minds into eternity. Enthusiasm, epiphany, excitement – these words do not do justice in describing how we feel in that moment, as our eyes engulf a visual embodiment of sheer wonder. Still, Denby tried to drape the feeling in words by illustrating that dance can have “sensual mysteriousness, ‘abstract,’ unrationalized, and magical.” And so it rings true. But what really goes into creating the scintillatingly complex experience that we are so quick to simply call “dance”?

“If you ask anyone who enjoys ballet or any other art how he started, he will tell you that he enjoyed it long before he knew what it meant or how it worked,” claims Denby assertively. Most if not all people will testify to this, especially those who have never been behind the scenes. But dances cannot just spontaneously emerge from the depths of the stage; great effort and exorbitant creativity are dancing necessities. Crisp elaborates that “he [Taylor] makes jokes, he mocks, he despairs, he is compassionate, he produces throwaway lines and makes indictments.” Not a single word is spoken, yet all these messages are conveyed. Taylor incorporates all of these by making the motions of the dancers speak in the universal language, in the ubiquitous tongue we can all speak but never vocalize. Each movement carries with it some emotion or feeling, and while it may be up to interpretation, something can be interpreted – something can be felt inside. That is the goal, and it is not always so easy to achieve, but Taylor proudly attests, “Working on dances has become a way of life, an addiction that at times resembles a fatal disease. Even so, I have no intention of kicking the habit,” and further illuminates the process of making dances, relating, “Although there are only two or three dances in me […] I’ve gone to great lengths to have each repeat of them seem different.” And so he has shed light on the challenge all choreographers face: The human body can only move – only contort, only jump, only swing – in so many ways. A choreographer must master how to shape the bodies of his dancers in new and different ways, in effect clothing the dance in different garb even though the dance, naked underneath, is still the same dance. It is in this way that we see variety and zeal manifest itself among different dances, despite how they all have a tremendous link in the anatomy of the dancers. This also gives rise to the cultural melting pot of dance with the use of stories and traditions to give the body different forms while it remains the same under the guise of the dance. And what about the dancers, who must give the dance the life anticipated – what is expected of them?

“The vigilance towards style and atmosphere is fundamentally a matter of craftsmanship” reports Clive Barnes on the work of Frederick Ashton. This depicts how dance is not simply an art, but also a craft or a trade, and in order to put on a stunning performance, the dancers must master their trade just like hands-on workers must master their trades. The process is rigorous, as one might expect, and Merrill Ashley under Balanchine’s wing recalls, “We had to be aware of every part of our body and make it look alive,” along with adverse conditions of “tiles missing from the ceiling, and during rainstorms we would dance around the large plastic garbage cans we had placed […] to catch the dripping rain.” Already it is clear that to dance is to do more than move one’s body; it also involves breathing life into actions. To become skilled enough to do that is a demanding struggle. In reference to the “tendu” position, Ashley laments how “each time we moved our foot to the front, he wanted it to go to exactly the same spot on the floor, in line with the center of our bodies,” and, at times, “our muscles were burning and dancers were groaning and sometimes giving up altogether.” Apparently, to dance is to endure a grueling challenge, one presented to both mind and body that takes a heavy toll and must be overcome with patience and ardor, and at every dance we attend, the dancers have all risen to the occasion and fought the good choreographic fight. Now, let us look at some of the fruits of their labor!

Performance by Performance, Experience by Experience

The New York Baroque Dance Company claims Baroque dance boasts “a relaxed foot, 90-degree turnout of the legs, ornamental hand gestures, vertical carriage of the body, close interplay between music and movement, and […] symmetrical, complex floor patterns.” In Zephyre, we saw these elements: There was a driving complexity to the movements, which were beautiful but seemed difficult to execute because there existed many nuances of body form. The culmination of these movements was the effect of a strictly guided yet flowing river, as everything came together fluidly but everything also had a place and structure. Despite how things may have been difficult to discern at times because of the language barrier, one felt a sense of awe at the control of motion. The emotion and technique were well articulated, and the elegance of the dance and its tale was felt to the core.

Exotic and flamboyant would well describe the Kathakali woodsman in Damayanthi and the Woodsman. His red make-up and “curtain-look” introduction translated symbolically into his diabolical villainy, and we could see at once that he was up to no good. His grunts, gestures, and eccentric stage movements told the story of princess Damayanthi extravagantly, and with each one, we either cringed or laughed, and it was just so easy to relate. Through his mind-penetrating actions, we could sympathize with the princess’s plight and her eventual triumph by the conclusion of the performance. The dance was lavish, odd, and intense, and innate sentiments could be felt without full comprehension, just by watching the woodsman’s curious deeds. It was truly a mysterious experience that could easily revolutionize our perception of dance, which usually exists in a more conservative, traditional sense.

Striking and stunning are befitting to portray the four performances of Fall for Dance. [1875] Ravel and Bolero displayed a whimsical burst of fanciful, capricious movements and feelings, with an exuberance that permeated the fickle shouts and jerks of the performers. It was comedic, yet we felt a sense of frustration or loss at times because they would fall often and erratically. The dancers in Diving into the Lilacs were so perfect in form: The female looked exactly as graceful as a swan, and the male provided a pleasant and romantic contrast of his strong appearance to her more fragile semblance. It was intricate, warm, and beautiful, and it charismatically portrayed a delicate balance of interdependent beings in love. My Favorite Things featured a vibrant solo dancer, whose random yet highly controlled fluid movements exuded an unstructured, spur-of-the-moment feel. At times he moved like a caterpillar; at other times he moved like things we do not have names for. It felt sensual, limber, rebellious, free, riveting, and unpredictable. Company B highlighted the early- to mid-20th century era, but it had contemporary influences intermingled in the mix, producing a “good, clean fun” image characteristic of the era that was not boring but was rather enjoyable because it went outside the box. It pleasantly went into notions of togetherness, aloneness, love, pomp, and sorrow in disparate sections of the dance, and it was a breath of fresh air in its innovative design.

Many similarities and differences existed among the dances: Some were traditional, as with Zephyre, and some were exotic and strange, as with the Kathakali dance. Some were based in some type of lore, especially the more cultural dances, and some were to be interpreted as a product of the motion itself, without a background context, as with the more contemporary dances. Most did or could involve both sexes, but Kathakali is limited to men. Most were quite structured, but some, especially My Favorite Things, appeared spontaneous. Almost all of them shared a belief in the value of societal roles, and all of them represented the importance of dance to culture, to lifestyles, and even to just getting by in a harsh world and trying to enjoy the ride. Ultimately, in understanding the meaning of dance, the creativity and effort that goes into dance, and the experience of viewing dance, we broaden the scope of our appreciation of this world and this life, and we find inspiring, expressive significance where once nothing was to be found.

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