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I first fell in love with dance when a friend of mine urged me to sign up for a ballroom dance class that was being offered in my high school. She had taken that class and loved it herself. I took her advice and I’m glad I did, because it opened up a whole new world of art to me. Dance to me is about beauty and passion, making it similar in my mind to the visual arts, which I was always very passionate about. Art of any kind must invoke in the viewer an emotion or idea by use of beauty. This is true for dance as well. My experience in dance was enriched by my MHC class’s unit on dance, which gave me an opportunity to ruminate on the meaning of dance and what makes dance effective. Some performances we saw left a strong impression on me, while others left me unchanged. But all helped me build my taste for dance, which I am very grateful for.

Our class’s unit on dance was opened up with a discussion on Baroque Dance. Learning a little about the history of Baroque Dance and its significance in the Court of Louis XIV helped us appreciate and understand the dance style, especially when placed within the context of the changing function of dance in society. Then, Catherine Turocy,  a well-known dancer and co-founder of The New York Baroque Dance Company, spoke to us about the intricacies of the dance style. The difficulty of the steps and the importance of fine nuances was emphasized when Ms. Turocy had two students demonstrate the most basic step of the dance: the curtsy. It is just a bow, a formality, a sweet request for a dance together, and yet it took a good ten minutes for the couple in our class to learn a proper curtsy. We ended our discussion with an appreciation for the fine details that together make up the finesse found in Baroque Dance, and the discipline which the dancers must keep in order to be able to perform this dance.

What excited me most about the Baroque opera we were about to see, Rameau’s Zephyre, was its history. While it was published in 1754, for some reason Zephyre was never performed on stage. Ms. Turocy and her dance company have placed their stamp in the history books by undertaking the grand task of presenting the premier of a Rameau piece, and they are probably the last people to be able to call that privilege their own.

During the opera itself, I was intrigued by the costumes of the performers. Although there was no real set, which disappointed me but was impossible anyway because of the small size of the stage and the relatively large size of the orchestra, the costumes piqued my interest and brought me back to Rameau’s time if only for an hour. The elaborate gowns, wigs, and costumes worked to the advantage of the show by adding life and color and made up for the limits set by the house. At the same time, however, the fact that they were so interesting and foreign to us worked against the show. As much as they drew our eyes they were difficult to get past and almost formed a barrier between the 1700s and our century. This is something that I found to be true while watching the Kathakali performance as well – sometimes the cultural boundaries can be difficult to transcend, obscuring the universal message of the dance. And as Edwin Denby states in his essay about ballet, this goes against the art form of dance. “[Art] is not a temple of humanity one enters with a reverent exaltation. Art is a familiar pleasure and Gautier assumes that one strolls through the world of art as familiarly as one strolls through Paris [. . .]” (Denby, Against Meaning in Ballet, 379). That is not to say that art which is difficult to understand must be dismissed. I just mean that when art is made too unfamiliar, it is very difficult to enjoy. Beyond the costumes, the steps were not very interesting. I appreciated the formations that are an integral part of Baroque dance, but otherwise there was not very much variation in this choreography. The orchestra was phenomenal, however, and the music is one aspect of the opera I could freely enjoy.

Before we attended the Kathakali performance we were lucky enough to hear about the dance form from our very own Kathakali expert. Her presentation on Kathakali and the culture surrounding the dance was very thorough. Kathakali was compared to opera in the sense that it is difficult to understand by the common audience, but the kind of person who attends such a performance is usually learned and knows exactly what he or she is about to watch. This is why it was so essential that we know background information about Kathakali. The dance form is based in Kerala, a region in the southwestern tip of India. The stories told by the dancers are based on Hindu tales, but the dance itself is not a religious one and is not limited to any denomination. It originated in the 7th century from within the warrior class (the Kashtriya). This explains the rigorous training the dance demands. The dancers practice Kalaripayat, a martial arts form. As stated before, the dance tells stories, but the dancers do not speak. Singers sing the text while the dancers communicate with an assortment of hand gestures and facial expressions, which together make up an elaborate and colorful language with which to tell stories.

As said before, the obscurity of the meaning of the dance made it difficult to enjoy. But the costume was, again, intriguing. And the music was very interesting too. Thankfully there was a translator who would tell the audience what was happening throughout the dance, so we could keep up with the storyline. But even so, the dance was one from a culture completely different from ours. There is nothing wrong with that; I, for one, enjoy learning about foreign cultures. But this made the dance difficult to connect to, and I could not simply lean back and enjoy the dance. I must admit there were moments that were amusing, such as when the hunter tries to convince the princess that she should marry him because he has a nice house. When she rejects him, he simply does not understand what her reasoning is. The story had some universal human themes such as love and desire. The characters – gods, princesses, and the hunter – seemed to be representative of emotions or qualities. In this sense, Kathakali reminded me of ancient Greek mythology and theater. The characters are caricatures of human qualities, and their stories involve universal themes.

The dance itself was intriguing as well. I saw what was meant by the physical rigor of the dance. The dancer was not flying around doing acrobatics or anything that looks intensive. But on closer inspection, the dance proved to be extremely tiring. To begin with, most of the dance was performed with the dancer’s toes pointed up, his feet only half-touching the floor. Next, his back was pin-straight almost the entire time. Then, considering all the jumps in the dance, and the immense weight if the costume, I see how rigorous the training must really be for this dance form. While it was difficult to connect with, I found this dance to be intriguing in its own ways too. And, like the Baroque dance, this performance carried some historical significance – the portion of the dance that was performed at Hunter had never before been performed outside of India.

Our next dance experience was the most exciting. We attended the October 2nd performances at the Fall For Dance Festival at NYC Center. The first dance company was Shu-Yi & (Dancers) Company, a Taiwanese group. According to the playbill, this very abstract routine told the story of time slipping away, and of birth and memory. I’m not sure I saw that in the performance. It began with the dancers in a pile of green papers (bills?) in front of a fan. They consistently fall in unison, screaming, and to a repeated dramatic theme. But one by one, the dancers walk over in front of the fan. Later, there is one dancer who is doing her own dance while everyone tries to scream her into order. While they scold her for being different, by the end they are all following her. Maybe this dance was about the passage of time, but I saw it as representing conformity and its paradoxes – the rebel is scoffed at and admired at the same time.

There were some beautiful dance moments in this piece, but it seems like the story was central to this piece. Frederick Ashton would disapprove – he writes “In a ballet it is the dance that must be paramount” (Ashton, Notes on Choreography, final line). In this performance dance was not at the forefront, but it was technique that helped paint a beautiful idea onstage.

The next performance, Diving Into The Lilacs by San Francisco Ballet, was simply beautiful. Here is where I agree with Ashton. It can be argued that the dance tells the story of a couple in love, but overall it is the dance that is the focus. It needed nothing else – no elaborate costumes, no complex set, or even anything but the most basic lighting arrangements. And there really is no other word for it than absolutely beautiful. I felt as if I could have watched the pair dance together forever; their bodies gracefully weaving around each other across the stage formed such a constantly beautiful visual. It was beautiful, and the essence of art.

The third performance, My Favorite Things by Emanuel Gat Dance, was anticlimactic when placed after the visually stimulating Diving Into the Lilacs, but even when forced to stand on its own it wasn’t very appealing to me. The only aspect of the routine I found interesting was moments when the solo dancer seemed to become, or mimic, the instruments of his song. When his movements reflected the crescendo and decrescendos or melodies of the song, there were moments that were very enjoyable. But overall the routine was rather uninteresting. I did admire the dancer’s strength, however – he had many jumps and twists and moves that made the piece one requiring physical exertion and very strong technique.
The final dance was by far my favorite of all the dances we had seen as a class. This was Company B by the Paul Taylor Dance Company. According to the Playbill, the songs chosen for these routines “express typical sentiments of Americans during World War II”. The choreography was pleasing to the eye; Paul Taylor’s signature formations were central to much of the routines. The dancers were passionate about their dance. The artistic direction for the pieces was also phenomenal. The costumes, the music, the lighting – all of it was so effective, yet unobtrusive, and left me nostalgic for an age I had never even lived in. But most of all, Paul Taylor’s portion of the show was just so much fun and easy to enjoy.

I later realized that the reason I had enjoyed this last dance so much was because it embodied everything I had come to believe dance should be. It looks beautiful. It tells a story that does not take over the choreography, but is told by the choreography. And finally, it had so much emotion. It has beauty and passion. Johnny gives his definition of dance in Dirty Dancing; “It’s a feeling; a heartbeat.” When the heartbeat is put back into the dance, it is so beautiful.

This is where…

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