The sound of heels hitting hardwood; deliberate steps down a long, narrow corridor; two massive black columns framing the space; a spider’s web suspended over my head. Freeze-frame: seconds stretch out as I suspend a balance pulled in two directions. I feel my arms caught behind me, the glow of the spot centre stage and an intake of breath from the audience as the lights flash on. My heart is racing, my mood is defiant and my muscles are taut and filled with a white heat.
Leaves on a forest floor; rays of moonlight; deep emerald water; the reflections of street lights in a rainy alley; the rubble and echo left after a bomb; being surrounded by fireflies; a gush of water; wind sweeping across a horizontal tundra; the curve of a lover’s neck.
Fearless, enraged, despairing, mesmerized, chilled, melting, caught, ecstatic, serene. Rushes of raw energy.
These are all images and sensations I have felt while performing on stage. What makes performing and watching dance so rich for me is the combination of the kinetic and the imaginary. I love how the sparse elements of light, sound and bodies in space shape moving canvases.
“I am not sure that art will offer people meaning [in] their lives, but it could offer them insights and experiences that are a part of making their lives meaningful,” says Dena Davida, artistic director of Tangente, the Montreal showcase for emerging choreographers. Davida is also a dance scholar, and her doctoral work explores dance from an anthropological perspective. “I think dancers look for the spirituality of it. In their warm-up rituals, they are looking for focus, concentration and some way to get inside the experience as fully as they can.”
Not that I’m suggesting dance is a religion. I would say, though, that it is a practice that can manifest a physical and mental evolution. Davida’s perspective resonates not only with my own personal experience, but also with that of two of my peers, dancers Katie Ewald and Chanti Wadge.
Performance, both Ewald and Wadge agreed, can be a meditation about stilling the mind, opening the body as a vessel for energy to pass through. In physical freedom lies the opportunity to embody a larger reality beyond your regular identity. Performance makes the moment significant. It grounds our awareness and allows access to an expanded consciousness.
Water drips down the sides of a dark, warm cavern. A current passes down my spine, and with each increment of movement a mountainside shifts. I watch dust spiral in front of me and imagine myself as a mythic creature waking to galaxies forming. Rising up, I sense the articulation of each vertebra and the weight of my torso. I feel as if I am emerging from a long hibernation.
So, in this sense, Western dance is shamanic: It seeks a doorway into another reality through action and through the senses. But part of its power is that it leads others on a journey through the physical and mental space that melds reality and illusion. It conveys symbolic experience and metaphoric imagery in flesh, time and space. It is alchemic because, in the mix of performer, audience and creators, something new is distilled.
“[Norwegian ethnomusicologist] Owe Ronstrom talks about an extra-ordinary social occasion where the focus of the event is on the dancing,” says Davida. “We take ourselves out of our everyday lives into a special universe where things happen that don’t usually happen in real life. Conventions and codes of behaviour emerge that ask us to give all of our concentration to that marvellous art object in front of us.”
“In that sense,” she continues, “we are seeking a kind of spirituality in our performing arts. You are sitting in the dark. You have an hour to two hours to give yourself over to what is presented to you on the stage. You come for that and the dancers would certainly like that moment of bliss where you can forget everything else except the performance. [The performance] is a form of communication. It is being presented outwards to you and you are moving toward it. I think, almost metaphorically, something happens in the air between the two.”
That something that’s happening is the people in the audience briefly letting go of their self-identities. They’re connecting to each other and to the present. They’re agreeing to focus on the action supplied onstage. There is an aspect of individual soul-searching in each person’s subjective interpretation. A symbiotic relationship is formed: the performer provides the earnest intentions and passion that are conduits for the audience to feel, the audience generates the energy and attention for the performer to harness.
“There is a potential at every performance that something significant, maybe quite significant, is going to happen—something that we can only experience together. It is definitely a heightened experience for audience and dancer, and at the best of times I would say it is transformative,” says Davida.
But dance is a statement—expressed by our bodies—about being alive and shouldn’t be done only by “experts.” What professionals can convey is the joy of moving, of exploring and enhancing one’s physical awareness. Usually, performers begin by trying to impress, but in the end observer and performer are hopefully transformed—moving beyond their individuality into a collective space and experience. It’s a familiar experience for most people, except the vehicle for these emotions and sensations is generally a great night out dancing, “workin’ it” with friends, rather than a dance show.
Dance can only exist in the moment, no matter how many times it has been rehearsed previously. For professionals and ordinary people, dancing releases the residue of experiences pent up in the body. It’s a way to truly be yourself and connect with your imagination.
Western culture may be less upfront about its reasons for bearing witness to physical expression, but the dances done today continue to possess elements of spiritual experience and medicinal healing. Contemporary dance succeeds for all its participants when it summons unconscious spirits with fleshy symbolism and transforms inner and outer space through authenticity. The fact that we live in a culture less centred on the spiritual, less connected to the physical and less open to the intuitive can make it easy to idealize spirituality in other cultures. But the fact is we too possess modern rituals. We just have to value and open ourselves to them.
Picture This A performance ends and, instead of the lights turning on brightly, they come up to a red glow. The audience gets to its feet and starts to clap, and at the same time a great beat comes on. People spread out into the performance space and start to move, reinventing what they witnessed and no longer sitting still. The performers join the audience and a new ritual is born. Could be good.