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Marcin: Dance

As incongruous as it may seem to anyone else, when comparing the many dance performances our class has seen in the past weeks, the ones I think are most similar are Ravel and Bolero from Fall for Dance, and the brief exhibition of Kathakali dance. My favorite performances also shared a common thread, though they too were from different periods and cultures. They were those put on by the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Turocy’s New York Baroque Dance Company. I’m not exactly sure that what ties them together is yet evident to my reader: the use of vocalizations in addition to any musical accompaniment. What makes a dance interesting for me is primarily the use of vocalizations, or singing. For the purposes of this class, however, I did my best to expand my understanding of expression in dance itself as well as the use of other elements such as light, color, and props to add to the aesthetic of the dance. My Favorite Things from Fall for Dance, for example, was an excellent study in the use of coordinating color, light and music—though I personally found the dance to be otherwise abysmally boring. Finding something boring or not to one’s taste is of course never a reason to dismiss it outright, a lesson I am quickly learning to appreciate in this class.

Dance, much like photography, is not one of my favorite art forms. Anecdotal evidence quickly springs to mind, though the story does not showcase one of my prouder moments—several years ago, I sat in the famed Bolshoi Theater of Moscow napping my way through what was undoubtedly an exquisite presentation of ballet, the name of which now escapes me. In my defense, it was far beyond any reasonable hour by Eastern Standard Time, and the theater was invitingly dark and comfortable. Alas, I since then have realized that my uncultured attitude towards dance (and since that incident, ballet in particular) is both indefensible and inexcusable. Regardless, I’ve made it a point to now only frequent more upbeat dances rather than those with a slow or quiet tempo to them. Taking that consideration, it should be no surprise that Company B was one of my favorites. As the description in the playbill helpfully comments, “the songs express typical sentiments of Americans during World War II” because though war is forever a dismal, tragic affair, the era just before that was fast paced and decidedly joyful. Through the war, and when recruiting for the effort, ads and songs were designed to keep spirits up and project a sense of the patriotic. That is a sentiment purposefully lacking in today’s social climate of constant criticism and polemic, and the retro sound is refreshing to hear for once. It works to evoke a sense of nostalgia, even for those far too young to have ever heard such things in their original setting. The pure beauty and buoyant happiness that the music and dance work together to project are what made me love the performance.

I can’t forget to mention the technical details that added to my enjoyment of it, of course. The costumes and colors for one, allow the spectator to place the era instantaneously. One thing I noted almost immediately on seeing the first part is something that impressed upon me the idea of a vastly separated time, one that I am still at a loss to decide the level of intention in: among all the dancers, there was one less man dancing than women, meaning one would be left without a partner. Seeing that, I simultaneously realized that among all the men and women dancing, there was one single black woman. For the majority of the first dance which incorporated all dancers, she danced without a partner. Even if such a thing was unintentional, it brought to my mind a time when racial segregation was a fact rather than a strange, offensive, and obsolete custom. Also, among other less controversial techniques to suggest meaning in the dances was a change of costume for the woman who performed in Rum and Coca-Cola—a red skirt layered underneath the sensible-looking brown one hinted at the racy undertones in the song.

During other performances that I had to truly force myself to concentrate on in order to enjoy, such as My Favorite Things, my salvation was in analyzing the work that must have gone into unifying all the elements bringing it to its final coherent form. Everything about it exuded the feeling of warmth. From the brassy instruments and sound to the dancer’s costume and the amber tinted lighting, all the elements were united in that one aspect. What absolutely bored me about it was the lack of meaning in it all. Granted, Denby’s Against Meaning in Ballet provides a wonderfully eloquent argument for the use of uselessness, pointing out in particular “…all that people need to do to enjoy art is to look and listen with ready attention and trust their own sensual impressions.” But while it is perfectly fine to enjoy something beautiful for the sake of its own inherent beauty, I am far too analytical to enjoy something so unstructured. The absence of words in particular is something that I find tiresome above all other things. My personal preference is to have a story to listen to, a guide, and be led to some sort of meaning that may be looked over and explored in depth. For that reason, Zephyre quickly earned a place as one of my favorites. Looking at the written French and hearing it spoken of stage combined with the physical interpretation implies a depth of meaning in my mind that cannot be surpassed by something so simple that it is empty, like My Favorite Things.

Though I have written at length already about the importance of the spoken word, I find that perhaps it isn’t so much about what is actually said as much as it is about how expressive a dancer or style is, and how much even an amateur audience member can glean from their performance. Kathakali is a perfect example when discussing all the different methods of expression that go into conveying meaning. Kathakali creates art out of trying to relate ancient stories. With only the most basic knowledge of the gestures and facial features so integral to the comprehension of the stories the performer is still able to get across the most important emotions and meanings in his work. Still, the selection of Kathakali dance that we’ve seen as well as the first selection in Fall for Dance, Ravel and Bolero, both made use of random vocalizations by the performers in a medium that usually does not demand such things from performers. That was definitely something that caught my interest in a form and style of dance that would have otherwise uninterested me because of how foreign it seemed in comparison to everything else I have ever seen.

Ultimately, when considering how my experience in watching these performances has changed my perspective on the art, I can say that while my preferences have not shifted much, I have learned how to appreciate them from an intellectual standpoint. Learning more about what goes into creating the final product and the amount of training and thought that goes into every piece of the whole making it seamless and polished definitely affects the way I view something whether it suits my tastes or not. Writing at length on these performances also changes the way I pay attention to them, and forces my appreciation in a way that I am grateful for, because it teaches me to see things that I might ordinarily dismiss.

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