Can (Or Should) Dance Have "(Political) Meaning"?

As with DEATH IN VENICE, I’m totally late in writing this (blasted briefs, annoying job!), but better late than never, right?… On Thursday night, Dea and I went out to BAM to see THREE ATMOSPHERIC STUDIES choreographed by American-expatriate-in-Germany, William Forsythe.

I’ve seen excerpts of Forsythe’s work before, but this was the first full-length piece I’ve seen by him, and I had no idea what to expect, but I absolutely LOVED it. Instead of pure dance, it was German ‘dance theater’ (“tanztheater”) so there was dialog, as well as acted-out or talked-about images, in addition to movement. There were three “studies” (ie: Acts). In the first, a woman comes out and tells the audience that the scene is going to be about the arrest of her son, and she points to the dancer, wearing a bright red shirt, who is portraying that character. Aside from that, the first scene consists entirely of dance, and, from there, becomes rather chaotic and remains so throughout. Dancers violently grab each other, hurl themselves at each other, jump on each other, throw each other, run from each other, fight, fear and comfort each other. It was honestly really amazing to me that no one got hurt. I also attended a pre-performance discussion at which Forsythe spoke a bit, and one audience member asked him if he considered whether his dancers would be injured and he assured us that dancers have a “very meticulous” sense of time and space. There was no music (apart from the dancers’ heavy breathing which acted as a kind of natural sound effect), so he must have been making a huge understatement! If someone was one millisecond of time or one milimeter off on floorspace, they or the person they were hurling themselves at at full force and lightening speed could have really got whacked. When I dance, I count my music by the beats; still baffles me how they all kept such exacting time with no music?…

At various points, the dancers momentarily freeze to make painting-like tableaux. It wasn’t until the second scene when the woman whose son had been arrested began speaking to a translator to tell her version of the events that I realized that, because there was so much violent commotion in the first scene and because I was so in awe of the amazing ways the dancers manipulated the floor and moved their bodies, I’d totally missed ‘the story’ of the arrest. Forsythe had said that one of the ideas he wanted to play with was our ability as an audience, both in the theaters of dance and of world affairs, “to pay attention”. I realized that I’d failed that test, and had no idea how the arrest happened, even after the woman had specifically pointed out to me what I was supposed to watch for!

So, in the second scene, the woman tries, unsuccessfully, to give her account to a translator so that she can make a police report. The language barriers, the fact that there simply are no words for certain concepts or objects (“you say ‘bird’, I can give you ‘airplane’ … for ‘castle’ how about ‘apartment building'”) is a metaphor for the severe limitations of language to connect people. At the same time that this dialog is happening, there’s a dancer in the middle, speaking and illustrating with movement, the content of several different photographs and paintings. Sometimes his words overtake the woman’s and the interpretor tries unsuccessfully to translate his descriptions of the images into words as well. There was a lot of confusion as to the meaning of this, but to me, it was a way of saying that we can be bombarded with so many images that, ironically, they ultimately prevent us from empathizing with the subjects depicted in them. Forsythe said another thing he wished to explore was “compassion fatigue” — how the multiplicity, and perhaps sensationalism, of images of others’ suffering exhausts our ability to feel compassion for them, and results in drowning out the truth depicted therein. So the image becomes more important than the reality. At the end of the second scene, the woman, interrupted by the dancer’s voice describing yet another “composition” cries out, in frustration, “which composition are we on now?”

The most powerful, disturbing part of that scene was toward the end, when the woman rises from her chair and moves around the stage, contorting and distorting both her body and voice in quite grotesque ways. That frightening distortion I thought graphically illustrated both her emotional devastation and the impossibility of her truth being told because of the distorting effects of images and language. Forsythe is known for exploring the relativity of truth. Perhaps he is saying pure movement is the best way of getting to truth?

I guess the last “study” is the most “political” if you want to call it that — at least in terms of it echoing a current, specific geopolitical situation. There has been a bombing and the woman, whose whole village has now been destroyed, is so devastated she can now hardly move. A man is struggling to hold her up. A dancer portraying a diplomat tries to console the woman, telling her (rather amusingly at times) the bombing has been for the good of the community, etc., and a dancer whom she (interestingly, the diplomat is played by a woman) points to as her assistant (also a woman) conveys the diplomat’s words through dance. The assistant’s body-distorting, somewhat grotesque movements, reminiscient of the woman’s in the second scene, evince the ludicrousness of the diplomat’s words and their powerlessness to explain, defend, or console.

I found that the combination of the dialog, images, and most importantly, the brilliant movement, made me think about all of those ideas that were explored — the relativity of truth and its vulnerability to reduction to false images, the effect of bombardment of images on the observer’s attention span and ability to connect to the subject, and the distorting effect of language. And I felt the theatrical combination of the three art forms was more powerful than one alone. Discussion of this piece has centered on whether dance can (or should) provide political commentary. But I’m unsure of the reasons for this focus. I think this ballet was ‘political’ in the sense that everything is political — the word comes from the word “polis” — the people, after all — so anything that has as its subject matter human beings, is to an extent ‘political.’ But I was compelled to think about the issues mentioned above, not that war is bad or the current situation in Iraq is the U.S.’s fault or something simplistic and obvious like that. In general, I think it’s far more productive to talk about the ideas presented by a work of art than whether they are political.

Anyway, today Ashley commented on Matt’s blog as well, posing some more interesting questions related to the Forsythe discussion underway there: what meaning professional dancers as opposed to audience members with little or no dance training extract from a ballet; whether non-dancers can understand pure movement in the same way pro dancers do; and, if non-dancers don’t comprehend pure movement, what then attracts them to the ballet — particularly the contemporary, story-less ballets and modern dance? I thought those queries were really intriguing, particularly in light of viewing this work. I, for one — someone with very little dance training — don’t “understand” pure movement at all, and don’t really try to either. The contemporary story-less ballets that I enjoy, I enjoy because I love watching the dancers move in amazingly beautiful ways. But then, the dancers have to be really really good. And, in fact, sometimes they have to be dancers with whom I’m already familiar. I don’t know if I would have loved “Clear” which ABT recently did, if David, Max, Angel, and Jared were not dancing it; I don’t know if I would have liked “Meadow” as much if it wasn’t Marcelo and Julie performing. I need to connect to the dancers, especially with story-less ballets (which is why I think books like “Round About the Ballet,” magazine interviews, and websites like the Winger are so important to promoting ballet and concert dance).

I think a lot of dance fans also go to the ballet for the sensual experience: they perhaps enjoy Balanchine, for example, because they savor the feminine beauty, the pretty, dulcet charm of his ballets. I prefer ABT’s celebration of masculine (including both male and female) beauty and strength exuded by the ballets they present. I think people often go for the sensations the experience, the way the ballets make them feel, rather than to make them think. But then, for me, Forsythe is a welcome change to all that, at least once in a while. I think I’ve been seeing so much contemporary ballet of the “Clear” and “Meadow” variety during ABT’s recent City Center season, I was quite starved for more — to be given a chance to use my mind, to be compelled to decipher meaning, at points rather complex. That’s me, anyway. Very interesting to ponder just what it is that draws non-dancers who presumably derive no solid ‘meaning’ from pure movement to concert dance though…


  1. Sorry I couldn’t go with you last Thursday. ๐Ÿ™ I would have liked to but the honest truth is that I am pretty low on money this month. Next month I return to the riches of being a graduate student and college teacher. Wanted to thank you for your write-up. At least it gives me enough familiarity with the work to talk about it. Just because you miss a performance doesnt mean you shouldnt have a strong opinion about it. Right?

    I think you are right-on when you say everything is political. Even when art is decidedly non-political it is political by this absence. Lets get spooky for a second. Frances Stonor Saunders presented some great scholarship in her book The Cultural Cold War relating to CIA penetration of cultural institutions and the promotion of “non-political” art such as Abstract Expressionism. I found it really interesting that art could be disruptive enough to power structures that such a project would be necessary. There was no mention of dance in Saunders work. Perhaps because dance in the 1960’s was already sufficiently abstract and non-political for these folks to be bothered with.

    This winter I read a really great book that speaks to the issue of politics in dance, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the politics of movement by Andre Lepecki. He is a really far out thinker and has influenced my thinking of where dance and dance studies are located within the larger discourse of politics and power relations. Its helped solidify my opinion that dance sits right smack in the center of this conversation.

    “Your question is: why am I so interested in politics? But if I were to answer you very simply, I would say this: why shouldn’t I be interested? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct . . . So instead of asking me, you should ask someone who is not interested in politics and then your question would be well-founded, and you would have the right to say ร‚โ€˜Why, damn it, are you not interested?ร‚โ€™ ร‚โ€— Michel Foucault

  2. Thanks for your perspicacious comment, Tony!

    Well, I’m always low on money! The good thing about BAM though is that all of the seats are good and the ones up in the balcony are only $20 — so that’s one fairly affordable venue for me, and, as I’m realizing this season, they seem to be putting on some of the most cutting-edge stuff around.

    Forsythe also said during the pre-performance discussion that “everything is political” and I think he quoted Gandhi when he said it (he speaks rather softly…) That’s fascinating about the Saunders work. I’m definitely going to get a hold of the Lepecki book. I find this topic really intriguing and really want to read more — thanks for letting me know about it.

    And thanks for finding that great Foucault quote! I used to LOVE reading and discussing him in grad school, and he definitely belongs in this debate! Oh, to be a grad student again…

  3. Originally I’d opened my novel with a quote from Foucault’s DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH but my agent made me take it out…

  4. Reading Discipline and Punish right now! Good on the subway. Very relevant to theorizing about dance. Discipline as a technology of power enacted on and instrumentalized by the body. Sounds like dance to me! We should start an online reading group. Maybe just start with an essay or something. To have a text we could all work off would be so exciting. Tell me when you start the Lepecki. We could do some posts on it.

  5. I didn’t realize we weren’t friends for a while ๐Ÿ™‚ I thought debate was what blogs were all about!

  6. Tony — that’s a great idea about the posts about Lepecki — am gonna look for it this weekend.ร‚ Also, that’s a really interesting way to think about Discipline and Punish (I’d quoted the part about the gaze of the guards on the prisoners, and how everyone is in their own kind of prison). I’d think it would be hard subway reading though!ร‚ Good idea to start a reading group too! — on the Winger somewhere maybe?

    Matt — ๐Ÿ™‚ — OMG, you actually READ my blog, ha ha ๐Ÿ™‚ You know, I was just upset about that friend of yours ๐Ÿ™‚ I know, I am realizing that dancers and lawyers think very differently about bodies…

  7. you can find some great articles by lepecki on the SARMA website (and its free!) here is a link for one of the articles where he discusses jerome bel’s “the last performance” – don’t know if you’ve seen the work. i haven’t, but i loved reading about it.
    use the links to get to some other useful articles. it is a fantastic database of articles on dance & performance.
    thanx for reminding me about Foucaultรขโ‚ฌโ„ขs Discipline & Punishment. it has been waiting on my shelve for just this moment.
    are you still considering starting an online reading group? will you focus on lepecki? would love to join in.

  8. Oh thanks for that, Maia! Yes, Tony did start the reading group; it’s taking place on the Winger’s website. So far there hasn’t been a lot of discussion, so please feel free to join! Go here:

  9. thanx, Tonya. will do that right now! … yeah! this is just what i need right now ๐Ÿ™‚ am writing an MA thesis on Lepecki’s notion of ‘reduction’ with regards to South African dance. Absolutely fantastic to investigate this notion with other people. Doing an MA can get very lonely ๐Ÿ™‚

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