The Program in Dance’s Spring Dance Festival: expertly choreographed works performed by accomplished student dancers at the Berlind Theater. There, I sat and stared at the stage. There, danced young men and women, their figures silhouetted against the backdrop, their motion passionate and firm. I sat next to my dear friend, who is herself an accomplished dancer. The seats were small and padded, and I shifted in mine. My dear friend was rapt in the stage’s goings-on, gasping in astonishment, often smiling; I was sort of bored. I stared hard at their bodies, myself unmoved, while my friend and many of the spectators surrounding me danced in their seats from excitement. I could not understand it; I could not feel it.
Never have I been able to watch dance and enjoy it. Of all the arts, dance is perhaps the least accessible. It resists comprehension through infinite abstraction and silence. Here you are, in your seat; there they are, the dancers, moving between themselves, holding each other and pushing away, extending, leaning, twirling, contorting their bodies into inimitable forms and their faces into frozen smiles or grimaces. Here you are, still and anxious; there they are, miles away, gliding effortlessly across a pure black stage, a stage upon which you will never set foot, and from which you will never gaze, and which is nothing like your subdued, cushioned, imprisoning seat.
There is a vast chasm between you and their dance. They know what it all means: why an arm moves as such and a foot stays still, and why that person is there at that moment, and why that other person isn’t. You know nothing; it all unfolds haphazardly before you. They feel the motion and emotion of their dance, and you can only see their feeling of it. You feel nothing. All that crosses the chasm is a series of images, discrete snapshots of bodies in pose, and then near-pose, and then near-near-pose, that the air degrades as they approach your eyes.
Music, on the other hand, immediately crosses the anti-experiential space (i.e., the space between a human and a Thing—an object and its motion—that resists the human’s knowing of the Thing) and enters through your ears and consumes you, so there is nothing else in the world but it. Music insists upon prodding your soul; its nature is to force or foist itself upon you and demand a response. It comes toward you. Its nature demands its fierce penetration of the anti-experiential space and is averse to its objectification, for even though you might find it in record or disc form, it only truly exists in those forms when evoked, and when evoked, it explodes and is not merely sound waves. Its moves and twirls are in you. What of the music you hear at dance performances? It is the not the dance; it is accompaniment and inspiration and adornment. And what of the dance’s noise, the grunts and foot-slaps and unsettling of air? Those sounds are minute and mere side-effects, tender and human and admittedly beautiful, but detached. And, in the absence of this accompaniment, dance becomes solely a Thing: an object whose existence, but not the essence, you know and recognize; an object you see and recognize, but with which you cannot interact.
You, especially if you are a dancer, might respond with a question: does not this apply to all things that are only seen? The answer is, of course, “no.” We all well with joy at the sight of a mother and son reunited, and with awe as we stand on a cliff beside the sea and look out at the rolling tide and the horizon beyond. These are images that certainly traverse the anti-experiential space, and thus change us. What, then, differs these images from that image of the dancer in motion? We should answer, “context” (for it is the correct answer). And what is meant by context? The image of the mother and son embracing (an action we associate with reunion) is contextualized by our knowledge of the circumstances of their embrace: one of them had been away for an extended period of time (which saddened us), but now he/she has returned (a joyous moment). The lone image of embrace—without knowledge of its circumstances, or of the two figures’ relationship to each other—would be far less evocative, if at all. Our inspiration by the view of the sea is also due to context: seeing a single wave would hardly affect us, but the knowledge of the life that brims beneath the surface, and of the endlessness and timelessness of the sea and our own finitude, can do nothing but caress our heartstrings into ecstasy and transcendence.
Dance is beauty decontextualized. It is the lone image of the wave and the arbitrary embrace. How so? Imagine the scene of a young boy in threadbare clothes skipping through a forest, as night rises from the mossy ground; now, imagine a muscular man of twenty-something skipping across an all-black stage under urinary ceiling lights. This shift between images is the function of decontexualization—the removal of the landscape and knowledge that invest the moment situated in them with its emotive force. Dance is motion toward nothing and in nothing. And though it is by something, that something becomes nothing in the nothing. What is a step, if not toward something? It is nothing! And what is a pirouette, if not in the twirling breeze? It, too, is nothing. It is pure gesture. The dioramic stage is a vacuum, in which anything can be done, but in which every thing stays. Where context, that is to say, air—for is there really air on-stage?—trees, buildings, other people, and so on, could mediate the outward radiation of elegance—the elegance found in the subtle gestures of conversation, of walking, of love—the de-context, the vacuum, of the stage, in its nothingness, allows nothing to touch, let alone penetrate that anti-experiential space, which may be imagined as filled with fine glass, thick and transparent.
Here, dance differs from theater and film, which, though mainly visual, consist of context (i.e., scenes, plots, sets) and speech. Context, as we have discussed, definitively penetrates the glass to touch us. Speech does, too; speech, like music, insists upon being heard and, here exceeding music, it demands feeling and comprehension. We feel it as noise, but we also conceptualize the words uttered as possessing of meaning and strive to find that meaning. Unlike motion, which is pure gesture, words as such only exist upon our definition of them, and the definitions are always already in our mouths. Spoken word is inherently interactive, and thus shatters the glass. (Of course, the written word is even more insistent on interaction, for in a simplistic way, it acts only when acted upon; it exists and is then activated in whole, whereas the spoken word is acted and then elevated by the listener.)
Dance, however, I learned on Sunday, is not entirely silent. Thrice during the show—twice during Bill T. Jones’ “Continuous Replay,” and once during Zvi Gotheiner’s ‘Easy for You to Say’—dancers intentionally articulated noise as part of the dance’s motion. Jones’ piece, which is a meticulously elliptical dance elegantly composed, was especial in this respect. The dance begins with lone male dancer repeating the same motions over and over, with only slight variations; every iteration is punctuated with his arms crossing fiercely and a raspy hiss through clenched teeth, a hiss that like a flitting electron caroms across the theater. A woman soon joins him, and does as he does. And then another and another. The man wears black, and the women white. And then another and another. The man leads the women across the stage; sometimes they move as one, often they move separately, but they are all doing the same moves. And then another and another, and this time the women cycle out and back wearing white. And the man keeps on dancing. At times, a woman will break from the group and twirl, alone, on the oppose half of the stage. This cycles and evolves and grows until, in the dance’s final moment, with the group back in formation, the dancers lean forward stage-right and scream, “That’s all!” (Which I, and many others, misheard as “Asshole!”)
“Asshole!” “That’s all!” Both signifiers of finitude, the end of digestion, of the dance, of evolution, of life, but the end of the end of the end, thus the end of not-beginning, and now begin! “Asshole!” “That’s all!” The end of silence, and of the glass’ reign. Grown accustomed to those repeated grunts, lulled into a new silence, the audience was shocked by this exclamation; we were literally touched by it as it broke through. The exclamation, as speech, is always penetrative, but here it pushed further and quicker for its singularity and starkness against the silence of the dance.
At the moment of utterance, in which I was touched, my mind returned to every motion in the dance, and they touched me, too. Every motion was collapsed into the troupe’s final exclamation, and so every motion became all, and all was only motion. The “asshole” as the end of digestion—the end of the meaning-finder’s journey, or, the expulsion of meaning from the motion. The motion is the body that remains. “Asshole!” “That’s all!” They affirm the finitude of dance as dance. They affirm dance’s inability to penetrate the anti-experiential space and, yet, in so affirming, and in collapsing into and being the dance itself, they penetrate the glass, and dance breaks through.
A lacuna in the glass, a lacuna in the theory exposed. What is this gap? In other words, how did the dance traverse the anti-experiential space to inspire? The answer, I think, is through its self-contextualization. Every motion in “Continuous Replay” is grounded not in some vague, suggested plot, but to past motion, thereby creating plot, for every motion has a genealogy of motions behind it. And there are a finite number of motions in the dance—around forty-five, I believe—and each of those motions is designed specifically to follow from or precede another motion, and so once every motion has been performed, a sort of dictionary is formed, which then constitutes the entire vocabulary of the dance. Thus, the single motion is not a single motion, but, like the mother’s embrace of her son, cradled in our memory (i.e., the plot) and, as such, inspiring. It is no longer pure motion and has relational context.
“Asshole!” “That’s all!” The self-referential exclamation demonstrates consciousness of what, at the moment of utterance, is past. In time, each wave will have caressed the whole surface of the earth. The lone motion of the arm to the left is no longer frozen in the critic’s “Oh, the tenderness!” which seeks to describe a motion’s inherent beauty, which we know is nonexistent. That lone motion’s beauty, which we know exists, is evoked by the mirrored collapsing of the right arm across the chest just prior.
Dance elegantly constructs in itself the context that will mediate through the glass its evocation. Perhaps supremely, it rejects air and trees, and finds in its own repeated and evolving motions pro-experiential contextualization. For in dance’s constant play and growth of motion, and only there, the viewer may experience the relationship between dancers—whose motion mixes—and between motions happening and motions happened, between past and present, life and death, gesture and love, and feel its totality reverberate in his bones. Only this dance can crack the glass, only the dance that, like us, grows. The dance in bloom—“that’s all!”