Words for dance, dancing words

Dance & Dare – Final essay

Publiciteitsbeeld film Black Swan –
Regie: DarrenAronofsky

Listen to three Dans&Durf audio stories by Ilona and two further writers here (in Dutch).

Over the past months I have had the pleasure of working together with a group of authors like myself. Our task was to write about dance on condition that we did not write reviews. The organisers of the writing project were several months ahead of the Dutch national newspaper Het Parool with this condition. Het Parool announced in late December that it was going to stop awarding stars in reviews. A welcome trend, as it shows that there can be more to reviewing art than making quantitative assessments. It shows that words don’t need to be accompanied by absolute values.

Physics has something known as a natural constant: a magnitude that does not change in value, like the speed of light in a vacuum, the Bohr radius and absolute zero. Art, in contrast, has so much more inherent ambiguity. For one thing, art begs the question: what is art? And similarly: what is a good film/painting/installation? While the value of absolute zero is a given: −273,15 °C = 0 K, not everybody will agree on Christie’s final sales price of 58.4 million US dollars in auction for Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog. From definitions to price tags – nothing is predetermined in the realms of art. One’s own ideas and perceptions are unlikely to be the same as someone else’s.

Writing about dance is like telling a joke and ending with: “You should’ve been there!”

Wanting to capture dance performances in words will never be more than taking a shot in retrospect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It doesn’t mean that we should simply leave the language of dance to dance scholars. Or, since words escape us, resort to indolent wordlessness: ‘Dance is dance, you can’t put it into words.’ The question is not what is dance and what is the value (or, to some people’s irritation, ‘the use’) of dance, but rather what are the universal values an observer can derive in abstract terms from what is presented. Attempting to put a visual experience into words means being capable of assessing the value of that experience; a value that can indeed be universal. Dance scholars, dancers and sundry experts in the dance domain should be able to wield the language or jargon that best describes this medium, at least theoretically. But a visual experience allows us to construct a story, interpretation or signification of our own. Any attempt at writing this down represents a free fall into the chasm between two languages – that of the script and that of the body. What we can describe, of course, is the free fall.

The performance Siri Loves Me by choreographer Katja Heitmann proves that a dance performance is worthy of post-discussion. A description of the performance reveals little more than:

‘Youngsters in grey uniforms performing a series of minimal movements to a soundscape based primarily on high tones.’ Yet these sequences, however minimal, expose a world that evokes a dual visual experience. During a performance staged on a square in Tilburg’s commercial centre, I hear a woman say: “This is making me feel bad, I don’t think I can take any more.” In contrast, shortly before, I overheard a boy asking his father: “Dad, do you think this is going anywhere?” These two people experience the performance in completely different ways: the woman walks away with a feeling of dread; the boy, on the other hand, is indifferent to both the music and the movements.

The boy’s indifference can be explained by the simplicity, or rather, the precision with which the youngsters line up. Their slow movements create an island of tranquillity. In contrast, the woman’s feeling of dread is an indication of the effect that uniformity can have in a world where we are all observers. This is underpinned at the close, with the soundscape echoing the words ‘there are eyes everywhere’. The world evoked is both dystopic and calming. Above all, Heitmann is expressing a present-day reality.

On a Monday evening in a metro train in Amsterdam, an empty McFlurry cup occupies the seat between myself and another passenger. I avoid looking at my fellow passenger, a woman, who is angrily eyeing this item of garbage. I’m hoping she doesn’t think the cup is mine. In the end I pluck up courage and decide to seek eye contact, whereupon we start talking about plastic waste separation. She says: “Where I live you have to take it around the corner and, who knows, it might all land on the same pile in the end.”

She gets off; I change onto a metro train where nobody looks up from their telephone. I reflect on the conversations we are missing by staring at our phones all the time. On how I used to sit in the metro when I still had Internet on my telephone. Whether there is a difference between the world I observed on my screen when I still had 4G and the world I find myself in now talking to someone about separating waste.

‘Le corps est notre moyen général d’avoir un monde’ (the body is our general medium for having a world), wrote the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his Phénoménologie de la perception. To Merleau-Ponty, the world is not self-evident and does not consist of data to be analysed, certainly not in absolute terms. To fathom the world and its significations, it must therefore be experienced by committing to it and interacting with it. He emphasizes that you perceive the world by being physically in the world. The body through which you experience the world is at the same time in the world. This is the structural duality Merleau-Ponty identifies. He claims that this experience is both sentant (sensing) and sensible (sensed). Vision involves both seeing and being seen; touch involves both touching and being touched; hearing involves both listening and being heard. One of my guilty pleasures is watching dance tutorials and lyric videos. I derive physical pleasure from watching people dance well and I sing along with people who sing well. Indeed, vision and hearing are sentant to me too. Merleau-Ponty would class these guilty pleasures as physical in-the-worldness. He even goes on to suggest that physical experiences are recognizable precisely by their physical nature. Gestures, actions and other manifestations (perspiration – injuries – bruises) inherent to physical experience contribute meaning and recognition because they possess specific cultural values. Consider a film such as Black Swan, with scenes that dwell on the wounds on the protagonist’s back; how skin is picked at the cuticles; and the creaking sound you hear when the camera zooms in on a dancing foot. These are all physical scenes that affect the observer physically and make you touch your feet and fingers to establish that they are not like the feet and fingers you are watching.

A performance that illustrates Merleau-Ponty’s dualism is Movement Concert by Andrew Greenwood. Here, interaction takes place between Greenwood the conductor, the audience and his group of dancers of different ages. His dancers move in ways that are easy to follow even for the most arrhythmic layman. The audience is lulled into a passive observer’s stance, only to be invited to join in and move their bodies, sometimes seated, sometimes standing up. This is where vision becomes both seeing and being seen. Slowly I start to wonder: what am I doing here? Is this dance? No, this isn’t dance, this is a waste of time. Will I have to comment on this later? Why would anyone produce this? What is Andrew Greenwood’s standpoint? And the more I reflect on this, the more confident I become. Bent on finding a way out, I lapse into scepticism and shame.

Perhaps we have become too cerebral. And by succumbing to screen-staring 24/7, we could be becoming cerebral in other people’s heads. In this ‘digital panopticon’ we construct stories for others. This collective form of self-expression is the driving force behind our social media. Maybe we will only be able to focus on experiencing the world around us collectively again by confronting our own body and that of others. Writer and artist Miranda July made the app ‘Somebody’ that asks strangers to deliver your text messages to your friends. The app was launched together with a short film within the scope of a project that ran from August 2014 through October 2015 and left us with this final message:

“Somebody has disappeared from the world forever. But you’ll still be here. And your friends are too. And there are strangers everywhere”. This was July’s way of countering the disembodiment of public space by drawing on the world around us, which by its nature is embodied.

I’ve been thinking recently: “What will be left of our collective physical experiences if we all keep staring at a tiny screen?” A few months ago, I was sitting on a train on my way to Antwerp, when it was announced that our journey would be interrupted, and we would be standing still for about ten minutes. We, the occupants of the train, rolled our eyes and muttered to one another: “That’s just typical isn’t it!” and then we either looked for a Wi-Fi network without password protection or had come prepared with a dozen downloaded instalments of Black Mirror. On another occasion it was quiet in the metro, or rather, thirty-odd passengers were sitting staring at their telephone screens. A man got on.

He’d been drinking, and he swore, spat and asked us for money. His unsteady gait and slurred speech made it difficult to tell which one of us he was addressing. He was raucous.

Certain levels of intonation, volume and tone can make people feel unsafe. Consider the man who yelled during the Dam Square celebrations in Amsterdam. Four stops later, a team of policemen appeared on the platform to remove the man from the train. We, the passengers, looked at one another and sought eye contact, thinking: “Uhm, something weird just happened”, before returning to our telephones.

When we share experiences, we tend to seek confirmation from others. We do this to establish that we aren’t unhinged ourselves when someone in our proximity makes us feel unsafe. Even in banal situations people still feel the need to have their opinion confirmed by someone else (“Yes, awful, isn’t it, it’s likely to go on raining like this for a few more days I read today.”) Yet the tendency at present is not to share what we experience with others with those same people, but to post them on line instead. A modern form of physical being in the world is when you see people patting their trouser pocket for their mobile phone.

‘The digital medium strips communication of tactility and physicality’, wrote philosopher Chul Han in his publication In the Swarm. Philosopher Hans Schnitzler, author of Kleine filosofie van de digitale onthouding, states that disembodiment ‘takes place at the expense of that which forms the basis of human sociability: the ability to touch and be touched, a capacity that is anchored in our tactility, our sense of touch.’ Dance evokes such tactility: it disturbs us or leaves us indifferent, as with Siri Loves Me. At the Movement Concert I felt observed and shamed. By putting words to a dance performance, we assign words to (and focus on) our sense of touch and body language. Why does this disturb me? Why do I feel ashamed to move my body in a group? In short: how does someone else’s body affect us? Only in an embodied world can we be touched, and this is where dance as an art form fits in easily. Could it be an idea to put down a dance floor in station areas to go with the piano? Rather than write about dance, I’d like to dance this essay.

Final essay by participant Ilona Roesli presented at the Moving Futures Festival 2018 in Tilburg. Written within the scope of the Dans & Durf/Dance & Dare writing course, a project for creative writers with the pluck to seek new words for dance, organised by Domein voor Kunstkritiek/Domain for Art Criticism & DansBrabant (Sept. 2017 – Jan. 2018).