I recently heard an interview with filmmaker Guy Madin, whose work is often compared with silent film, where he spoke about his love of art forms which do not follow linear time or logical conventions, because they retain the quality of dreams. He said he identifies with melodrama because it uninhibitedly shows the hysteria often repressed in our daily lives.
Whether you live in a tribal society or a post industrial one, it is not socially acceptable to unleash the full range of your emotions in public. This does not however, squelch the desire to do so. I think this is one the reasons for ritual, art, therapy and religion. We as humans need an outlet for the full range of experience we feel and cannot immediately express. Dancing can provide a release valve for the pent up emotions residing in our bodies.
I am a white wasp raised on ballet converted to contemporary. Socially, when I started going out to dance we went to bars and danced to rock and roll, ska and punk music, which was followed by various forms of electronic music, the rave scene and a hippy revival (not even going to get into the return of the 80’s). Needless to say this body has spent many days in dance studios and nights at grungy bars, dirtier warehouses and outdoor drum jams. Some of the most potent moments of my life have been dancing in the vastly different contexts of studio, stage and dance floor.
I guess that is what motivated me to write my article for the magazine this month. To prepare I researched books and then enlisted fellow dancers Katie Ewald and Chanti Wadge to discuss with me their experiences as performers and party goers.
After that I met with dance presenter/scholar Dena Davida to discuss her doctoral work on the contemporary dance event from an anthropological perspective. I feel there are interesting parts of our discussion that didn't make to print. So for those of you interested here are some excerpts from our conversation:
EF: To what degree is the contemporary dance performance a ritual?
D: It depends on what your definition is of a ritual. I think of ritual almost as a metaphor, that whole idea of transformation and channeling happens in small and large ways. What happens when people get together to create an event. In the case of urban culture that is the village of those dancers and in Bali it might be an entire village. The definition I am using for this notion of an event comes from an anthropologist/ethnomusicologist, Owe Ronstrom. Ronstrom talks about an extra/ordinary social occasion where the focus of the event is on the dancing. It is out of the ordinary everyday; which is what theatre is. We take ourselves out of our everyday lives in to a special universe where things happen that don’t usually happen in real life. So already for me this is transformation.
EF: Do you think the main purpose is a break from the mundane?
D: I would say that is the beginning place. Even when you had naturalism in theatre where a butcher shop was setup on the stage and people could walk in and out, it was framed in a theatre and you went into a special place to look at it.
I am also fascinated with this idea of an ethnography of a western symphonic concert created by Christopher Small. He talks about the division between artists and audience, and the fact that we even have separate entrances and separate spaces for each. He has the notion that this is the shamanistic ritual of our art going. The fact that we these ordinary spectators walk in, sit down and these extraordinary beings that come from somewhere enter and bring alive this thing we call art, that has mystery and power and we all believe it does. They come in from another entrance and we are separate from them, and it maintains a kind of magical distance. He says that we develop a mystique about the artist we believe that they are more than us. In fact we have a sense that artists are these gifted, special creatures and if they are gifted and special enough we support them and give them money and so on.
EF: How do you compare the attitude towards individual artists as special creatures in our society with other cultures where the dancer is performing a function of healer who can travel to other planes of existence and/or a vessel for spirits to enter into.
D: But only certain people are apt to have these spirits enter them. If you dig deep enough you see that these powers of transformation aren’t granted to just anyone. Even if they perform other tasks alongside everyone else, there are still these special people who have this aptitude to channel. They all work at and develop it. It resembles more than one might think how we practice art.
EF: Just a simple question, why the dark, do you think it adds to the mystique?
D: Christopher Small reminds us that it wasn’t always so. That there was a time when music was people out on a lawn in an open space wandering around listening and not sitting down in chairs the dark. Historically, once you have the tennis court theatre with the divisions between the house, the audience and the proscenium stage, decorum for spectators develops. Conventions and codes of behavior emerge that ask us to give all of our concentration to that marvelous art object in front of us. This is my interpretation, to give our full attention without any distraction we need to be completely sitting in a space where we can barely see anyone else and all our attention is directed to this lit open space. It is a cube with one wall that is a curtain that opens for us onto this magical box. So I think the darkness is about becoming quiet, meditative and not distracted, so that the audience does not become the center of attention. The architecture and lighting, the technicians and audience direct the effort towards the artistic object – this lit box and what is happening inside of it.
EF: Do you think it is a genuine experience that takes place or more of an acted out ceremony?
D: In the way you ask the question I sense a doubt in your mind. There can a judgment that something that is genuine is better than something that isn’t, but I have a take on it.
From the audience’s point of view it is a commitment to pay some money. To buy something that you think is of value. You have gone there because you are hoping this will be a significant experience, and what you are wanting from the experience I found varied. Some come to admire the skill, to have an experience that they enjoy, find exuberant, charming and beautiful. Admiration is what they are coming for, so they get it or don’t get it. Others are coming to learn something; they want an experience of the mind: ideas, understanding, something to spark an intellectual experience. Others are coming to feel emotion or sensation, sometimes even physical sensation. There are very kinesthetic watchers. Then I found a group of people coming to have an adventure. With an attitude that “it is going to be an exotic experience, something unfamiliar, like visiting a culture I don’t know”. They treat it as an adventure and they want to be surprised, challenged and to open new doors. In my study no one had a spiritual motive but I could imagine people coming to commune with the work, transform with it in a spiritual sense.
So either people’s hopes and aspirations are satisfied in that evening or they are not. But they all believe that they are coming to something that has this possibility of fulfilling the needs and desires for which they go to an art performance. So in that sense, in answer to your question it’s genuine. People go for a real reason and as is their disappointment or satisfaction.
EF: Let’s talk about the motivation of those performing now and whether for them this is a real or acted out ritual?
D: I have come to understand, because having been a performer it is so true, there is a whole lot of behavior going on. One is the contract with the choreographer to be a conduit for their vision and so the dancers are to the best of their ability interpreting, giving life to this choreography they have been given. That they have made with the choreographer. They are doing it with as much fervency as they can muster. I haven’t met a dancer who doesn’t do the very best they can do to fulfill what they feel the choreographer and their vision intended - even if they don’t like what they are dancing. They of course have to transform it through their own consciousness and understanding of it. So they are literally interpreting it and they have to blow meaning into it or they cannot dance it. Anna Reed from O Vertigo said ‘even if it is only the joy of movement, if I can’t find something beyond that, then that is what I will express.’ Demonstrating that there is great joy in doing this expressive thing and if she can, she infuses more little meanings into it; because dancers are busy making meaning and communicating it to an audience. And I don’t doubt that dancers, because it is a hard living to make, don’t choose it for reasons strictly of narcissism nor income. Those have never been two of dancers’ great fulfillments. However adrenaline is a great reward. It is a wonder drug and it feels marvelous. So, dancers do get rewards. They get appreciated through applause and they get this marvelous adrenaline rush. And the happiest of dancers feel that they are giving something to the world of value.
EF: Do you think there are any spiritual aspects to the act of dancing in front of an audience?
D: 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. I mean I have said that and my colleagues have said it.
And so everyone is doing the best they can. I mean they all come with skills, expectations. And I call it now a belief system that we create. There is potentially at every performance that something significant, maybe quite significant is going to happen. For that thing to happen we will all believe in this moment as an extra-ordinary moment. That we can only experience together. And it is definitely a heightened experience for audience and dancer and at the best of times I would say it is transformative. The audience members succeed in fully giving themselves to the experience. I think most audience members have experienced this, know what it is like and look for it. For the dancers this is nirvana, they are looking for the perfect dance performance where they are inside the dance from beginning to end. That’s the perfect moment. And while it rarely happens perfectly, they are searching for that.
EF: What do you think is the cultural role of these dance performances?
D: In the larger sense, the place we have left in our capitalist societies for these performances are leisure time activities and they literally for most people fit into that category. Something they do outside of the workplace. The work place is purportedly stressed and pressured – work, so people attend for the variety reasons I already mentioned: to relax, to have an adventure, etc. But some societies, including our own, believe that this kind of art making is the height of the civilized world and necessary things. This defines people as cultured, cultivated, sophisticated, in the world, and modern. I think philosophically Quebec society, for instance believes in art making. It has a special place because of the Refus Globale, of defining Quebec culture through literature and songs. So there is this great fondness for what artists are able to do, plus the French fondness for literature. Art making is revered and considered a necessary activity in our society, but it doesn’t translate yet into political will to support the activity in an important way as European countries do.
Some societies actually think that artists are vaguely criminal, that they live outside of how everyone else lives, do naughty things that other people aren’t allowed to do and are vagrants that mooch off of society. An alternate attitude reveres them as models of behavior, particularly dancers because they are supposed to be beautiful and skilled.
“While there are other images of artists working out of their intuitive selves, in tune with the universe, envisaging the future. At times we have been known to revere artists to think of them as unique or even superior beings who live deeply inside their creative selves, while the rest of us forfeit these more ephemeral aspects of ourselves for jobs that we find less fulfilling but that might provide us with more stability and a greater anchor to the reality principle………We may revere the work but we mistrust artists, imagining them as self serving and lacking the practical skills that would enable them to states men or capable of running the world. “ From Carol Becker’s Surpassing The Spectacle, where she creates this case that artists are important intellectuals whose opinions could be potentially transformative for the whole of society.
Value of the art form is very culturally relative and comes from many sectors. There are a lot of criteria floating around from presenters, dance professionals, intellectuals, juries, critics and the public, but there are magical moments when we all agree.
EF: What is the cultural impact of contemporary dance?
D: That there is a form of physical expression that is an art form is interesting in itself. Contemporary dance as a form is between art and athletics. One impact is that people really admire dancers for their physical skills and think of them as models. Not model citizens but models of physical entities.
EF: Do you see any similarities between performative western dance with the social dance that takes place at clubs or the dance done as a part of community rituals in other cultures?
D: Well, we are always talking about a heightened experience of some kind that is out of the ordinary for a start. The other link is that it is kinesthetic and physical. So it is through the body that we are having this communal experience of some kind.
The other line I like to draw is participatory or presentational. There is the dance that we do with others that we like to call social dance and then there is the dance that you experience by watching specialists dance in front and/or for you. So these are two different things. One is where you are physically engaged in a social occasion because you are having relations of some kind: with Gods or with other people. The other is presentational, where you spectate something being created in front of you. I think these are two rather different types of experiences. The fact that we imbue it with this whole mystique we call art does make it somewhat different in our belief system than some others that don’t call what they do art - because of all of the power we have given that thing in our society
EF: I think what you mentioned about relations is interesting because there are still relations going on even if you are sitting in the dark. It is just more of a relationship with ideas as opposed to other people or spirits.
D- You are having a relationship with what is going on in front of you on stage on some level, whether you are sitting back to watch and admire a spectacle or searching for meaning inside of these gestures. It is a form of communication that is true. It is being presented outwards to you and you are moving towards it. I think almost metaphorically something happens in the air between the two.
EF: Maybe there are less tangible aspects of the human condition that both art and religion speak to.
D: The meaning of life is what religion addresses. I am not sure that art will offer to people a meaning to their life, but it could offer them insights and experiences that could be a part of making their lives’ meaningful, but I don’t think it will replace a spiritual belief system. Why am I alive, what happens when I die, how was the world created? Those are the questions religion address. Though artists do love to make work about those kinds of subjects, muse about them and stimulate people’s thinking.
So now dance in some cultures is a part of a religious belief system, it’s a manifestation of aspects.
EF: It’s a manifestation rather than a credo. It’s a spiritual practice rather than a code and I wonder how that translates in our culture. Dance is supposed to the highest form of meditation to say the Sufis for example. It is reaching a state where you feel at one with creation. That’s a heightened state of awareness that embodies religious ideals - to be a vessel, and have energy pass through you.
D: Yes, every dancer, I mean myself when I danced too, for me that was the perfect moment I was seeking. Where I wasn’t distracted by the fact my partner wasn’t two inches to the left or the light didn’t come on exactly at the right time.
EF: What I heard in the interviews with my peers is that performance makes the moment significant. It grounds our awareness in the present in the way we search for in meditative practice.
D: I totally agree. It is a heightened consciousness.
EF: Does it translate to life outside of that magic box?
D: That is in an interesting question, could it, should it, might it? That could be the sequel to this article.