The beauty (or not) of contemporary dance!

Evolution of Mankind
Evolution of Mankind 

 Edited one day after first publishing: it’s an awful long post, again. If you’re not patient enough, just go to the to examples in the end – they speak for themselves.

I have a problem with overuse of weird and ugly movements in contemporary dance.

I know it sounds unsophisticated and simple-minded, but am I just a traditional ballet lover with an idealized view of dancing? I believe not, I have a few arguments, and they may be not that naive (although I love this little figure, I stitched it together myself!).

To begin with – and this is important: my problem is NOT with ridiculous, weird, strange or ugly movements used to impart the wealth of negative emotions and ideas that are part of life – just when they are used for other reasons and in other contexts. Some of them:

# 1: “I want to shock, I want to push you out of your comfort zone!”

Reality is not a nice place to live, but classical ballet refused the notion and presented us with an idealized view of human being.  In this context, the use of ugly and weird movements in contemporary is a way to give a good push on ballet’s complacent audience, as a shocking device to make them again aware of the real facts of life. I subscribe to that! BUT…

… nowadays they became overused. It’s like these American B-films, where the characters use FUCK as their every fifth word. It should show how the character is bad, or messed up, but fails, nowadays, to have the desired effect. You see, I’m a clumsy person, and this puts me in frequent situations when swearing is needed…  and heartily done!!!  It would not be THAT satisfying, though, if I used swearing in every sentence. Overuse kills the effect of trespassing, of rebellion, of a striking-back reaction. It becomes just bad manners, and does not make us jump in our seats anymore, or even uncomfortable.

If ugly movements are used to shock us, or to remind us of the ugly side of reality, well… it’s not working anymore, they are, nowadays, just… boringly ugly!

# 2:  “Contemporary dance is not falsely prude, or falsely nice”.

And there comes bottoms facing audience, or held up high facing the sky, or the common lift where the female dancer is held high, back against her partner’s chest, horizontally not-fully extended, half-open legs, crotch facing the public.  I used to look for the sex act key of that movement, since a woman in that position, in all our minds, with legs tensed that way, is a powerful and beautiful image of sexual desire, very rarely seen in other contexts, if any – I would welcome that, by the way, sex is still taboo in ballet, even in contemporary, and many choreographers and dancers are still uncomfortable in acknowledging even that sex exists – as Theatre, for example, has been doing for a long time. But… no, it is mostly just a slightly out-of-tune movement that, more often than not, has nothing to do with sexual drive.  So what does it mean, this position that, taken out of its context, is not exactly graceful? The same applies, for example,  when dancers crawl on all their fours…  in my body-language lexicon, this is about very little children (the child inside us?), or about a very desperate, in sheer terror human being, that turns animal-like for lack of options. So I look for hints either way, but more often than not… they are not there! Made by an adult, and without the archaic corresponding meaning, this kind of movement is not graceful or makes sense anywhere in the world… So?!??

# 3: It is original!

In a world with too many people, ideas and images, originality is an important way to stand out. For the sake of originality, people go to any lengths, pushing boundaries of aesthetics to ultimate extremes. If it comes from a deep understanding of hidden possibilities we common people are not aware yet, I love it. But sometimes weird, ugly dancing does not seem to have any meaning, or belong to an intended aesthetic statement, they come and go in the dancing, and you can’t make any sense out them.

We, social beings as we are, live inside a symbolic universe, which allows us to communicate. We share words, concepts, tastes, ideas. Even if I see blue were you see green, even if Thai food feels so hot for me I have a hard time identifying the other ingredients  through my tears, even if my fragmented notion of time is different from my Arab neighbour’s flowing one… even so, we have more in common than we have differences.  Every social group shares a symbolic universe, deeply grounded on its language, and part of these diverse universes is common to all mankind. It is not different with body language. Different cultures have different conventions about the meaning of movements, and some of this meaning is common to all humankind.

The common aspects are rooted mostly in archaic fears and needs. So if you are standing up and stretch yourself completely,  as far as you can, your eyes not on someone else, but focused far away, or unfocused – what does it mean? Here? In China? In Iceland? You see what I mean? INSIDE a specific culture, it is even easier, because all body-language – partly deeply rooted, partly convention – is understandable, is a language like the spoken one.

Our ears, our eyes, our nose, our tongue, all our senses, are trained since early childhood, so we can share images and colours, flavours and smells, sounds… and concepts related to them, and ever more abstract ideas construed using these as ground-stones.

Now, coming back to Art. Art is part of our symbolic universe, both the specific one, and the general one.  I may have trouble understanding a Japanese Opera, or Indian music, when I’m seeing it for the first time and without preparing myself. But I can learn! I can learn its aesthetic criteria, the difficulties of performance, the concepts that are imbedded there, the culture where they came from, and then… THEN I will be exposed to the full power of that kind of Art. What I mean is: Art exists INSIDE a symbolic universe, and can only reach me if I share this universe.

There are artists that have an instinctive knowledge of our symbolic universe, but so a deep and great one, they are able to show us things we are not aware, that are in the boundaries of, or hidden from our “Weltanschauung”. And still, they share our symbolic universe, or they would be just psychopaths, living in a world of their own…  It is my belief that this kind of Art, even if you can’t understand it rationally, will get at you anyway. Provided it is Art, provided it comes from a knowledge that includes mine and exceeds it in some way, and brings me a new truth I will recognize once seen, and then not be able to dismiss again. Problem is, this is not the kind of artist we are discussing here. This kind of artist is Beethoven, is Isadora Duncan, is Van Gogh, they are rare, so, SO rare!  Most artists are not so far away from our everyday reality, and share our symbolic universe as it is. There is nothing less valuable about them, because Art must not throw our symbolic universe upside down, everytime, to be Art –in fact it rarely does, for it is, most of all, a way for us… just to live! Nietzsche said: “We have art in order not to die of the truth!”. We need Art in order to cope with what being human is, just IS!

Many artists strive, nowadays, to be boundary breakers, but if they resource to artificial means to become that, it is of no avail – this kind of issue should not even worry them – in fact, articialism gets in the way of creation! The points I enumerated above about the use of strange movements ARE artificial ways some choreographers are using, and do not convince me. At all.

To be original guarantees… originality, not that the work will be Art! To unveil hypocrisy and false moral values is always good, but does not guarantee the work will be Art (but a valuable socio-political statement, maybe?), and so on.

Our culture shares an immensurable knowledge on body-language and concepts of body beauty and body-movements beauty… and their corresponding ugliness.  This wealth of meaning is just beginning to be explored by Dance. I wonder why so many choreographers are dismissive about our shared language, and try to create something that is not really new, just weird – to create something that is just…  not understandable!

How many writers you know that use as much words they create from scratch as existing ones? How many perfumists do you know that create perfumes that smell like rotten eggs, or a car’s exhaustion?  What happens when you hear music  that uses not the kind of “hamony” your culture shares? even if it is Art, will it reach you?

I will a give an example, and a counter-example.

My example of weird, not understandable dancing is Ohad Naharin’s Passo. Passo is part of a larger work, and was presented, out of context, in Solo For Two, with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, where I saw it the first time. Despite being performed by outstanding and expressive dancers, it was a shot off the mark, if I, in the audience, was the intended target. Even seeing the whole work, I doubt I would get what was to be imparted through the choreography.  It was lost on me, I did not understand the body-language, and could not see, also, a possible internal coherence or consistency of Form, some aesthetic proposition I could recognize.  Was it necessary to know about Gaga-technique? Well… Naharin could not expect that from me, could he? I must say:  simple-minded me did not get it at all… I wonder if someone else did!
(The strange thing is, there are several choreographies of Naharin that I like  – and, I believe,  understand…  so what is the matter with THIS one?

Small excerpt of Passo by Ohad Naharin, performed by Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev

The counter-example is Mats Ek’s (he is Swedish) work, based on a play of Garcia Lorca (he is Spanish), using music from Bach (he is German), Villa-Lobos (he is Brazilian), Albeniz and Tarraga (they are Spanish): Bernardas Hus, or La Casa de Bernarda Alba. An extraordinary work, “readable” by anyone, despite the multicultural aspects… at least by any occidental one (due to Catholic religion references). But then,  Mats Ek is an extraordinary choreographer, I’m fascinated by his work!  Even if you do not know the original play (I did not), you get it, both emotion and plot, through the cleverest use of body-language in – and this is what I like the most – IN the dancing,  THROUGH the dancing!

bernardas hus
Small excerpt of Bernardas Hus by Mats Ek – link to complete work below

Link to complete work: <<>>.