This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “How should we think about dance?” with our guest Helanius Wilkins. To listen, click here.
I suppose I ought to begin today’s show by admitting I know very little about dance. I enjoy watching it, but I only have emotional reactions. I rarely understand what the choreographer intended, and I’d be hard pressed to offer any kind of philosophical explanation for what makes one performance better or more interesting than another.
Well, I suppose that’s not true. Like many, I can tell a good dancer from a bad one. I can see who has control over their bodies and who moves naturally. I can observe which of the dancers is out of sync and which most demands our attention. What I can’t identify is the difference between a good dancer and an excellent one, or between hackneyed choreography and innovative developments. I can take my general understanding of the arts and apply it to a performance, but I don’t know enough to truly appreciate dance in and of itself, on its own terms, with an eye towards its history and controversies.
Frankly, this ignorance is weird because dance has so many things I like. I enjoy watching people. I am attentive to bodies and movement, clothes, and physical communication. I can navigate a crowd, predicting people’s trajectories, and I find the natural unspoken coordination of large numbers of people walking on the same street mesmerizing. I love music and am also a fundamentally visual person. All of this prefigures dance: bodies moving, framed by costumes, in a well-defined space, to prescribed sound, choreographed to be seen by others. And while each of these items are negotiable—some dance alone, some in silence, some dance nude, and others focus on stillness rather than movement—each of these variations is a response to an already existing tradition. Dance, like philosophy, is a millennial-long conversation, and my goal for today’s show is to find a way to enter into this discussion myself, and to find ways to articulate the experience of watching something I admire, but don’t understand.
With that said, here are some things I do know: almost all dance, like almost all art, is constructed for an audience, yet the dancers and choreographers value the process of creation as much as any painter, musician, or author. They do it so they themselves can dance, not just so others can watch. To truly understand it, then, we have to emphasize the relationship between process and product, between the creators’ experiences of making art and the audience’s interaction with what they’ve made.
Dance is ephemeral. It exists only at the time it is performed and any recording of it is a historical document. To truly witness dance one has to be in the moment. The dancers have to be in a flow state—“in the zone,” as sports fans like to call it—and this means that their whole art is immersed in Descartes’s mind/body divide. Intellectually, they have to know choreography, meaning, and their place in the artwork, but their bodies must move automatically, like a pianist’s fingers or a quarterback’s arm. Their minds command their movements, but their bodies define the limitations of these commands. A body can only do what it can do, so to get dance, we have to ask what it means to be a physical person, a thinking thing subject to the laws of biology and physics.
And, of course, dancers’ physiques are themselves crafted, intentionally, through schooling, practice, and will-power. As an audience, we are expected—in fact, we are encouraged—to look at their bodies, but Americans in particular are bad at this. It is hard for us to look without considering them sexually, and so to understand what we see, we have to ask about what the body means in our culture and history. This means that we also have to encounter sex and gender, race, disability, weight, age. Dance is an occasion to see the world we have all inherited, and to engage with the cultures we assent to and modify.
And finally, behind all of this is the choreographer, the mind who tries to realize a vision. The person who creates something from nothing, and who trusts in the performers to understand and communicate on his or her terms. Can a work of art every truly be realized? Does a performance ever meet the standards we create in our imagination? And how do we, as an audience, become aware of the choreography? It is so easy to be impressed by the bodies on stage, but it takes great practice to contemplate the whole work. Choreographers are continually overshadowed by their dancers because the dance is immediate, but the composition is buried under technique, expression, and individual capabilities.
How then should we think about dance and who do we credit for a performance that has so many co-creators? These are the questions of a beginner. Today on Why?, we have the good fortune of exploring their answers with an expert.