21. Dance Theater

As a result of the developments in the past one hundred or so years, now the material we can use in artistic activities which we call “modern/contemporary dance” and “music” is limitless. We can present any sound as music and any bodily movement as dance. (You can say “in certain circles,” if you think they still won’t be accepted everywhere.)

However, the limitlessness of the material does not indicate that the person carrying out the artistic activity can do whatever s/he feels like doing with it. These activities are not done on one’s own, they are realized to be perceived by others. The only restraining factor in the arts is the fact that they are always aimed at communication. The presentation is prepared and presented by considering the ways the human mind identifies and comprehends. 

In the section titled “Denotation and Connotation” I indicated that there is a two-step procedure in perception: we first determine what it is that has met our eye or ear (denotation), then we move on to its connotations. Denotation is the level where a sign “is what it is.”

For example, noticing that the sound you hear is a “piano sound” belongs to the level of denotation. Realizing (based on what you know from your past experiences) that the neighbor has sat at the piano and will give you a headache for the next few hours belongs to the level of connotation.

Similarly, to say “s/he has raised his/her arm” when you see someone with a raised arm is a denotation that doesn’t travel further than that. If the hand in the air turns into a fist or the index finger stretches out, forming a signifier that refers to established concepts, we begin to move beyond the denotative level. If this doesn’t happen, that is, if the person keeps holding the arm in its raised position in a “neutral” way, without connoting a coded gesture, then we begin to contextualize the movement in order to make sense of it. For instance, we look at the place where the person is standing, we examine his/her outfit, gender, age, etc. Contextualization (it can also be termed “reference to the matrix”) becomes more crucial and designating as the level of ambiguity of the message goes higher.

Below I will take a look at the somewhat “standardized” modern/contemporary dance concepts and practices in terms of perception and I will try to explain the reasons why it became necessary to search for alternative approaches (which are generally named “dance theater”).

[I am using the terms “modern” and “contemporary” together because the difference between the two is still not clear. In general, “contemporary” is often used to indicate forms that are newer and more open to experimentation. There are explanations tying the difference to technique and the usage of different parts of the body, which I don’t understand well.]

Let’s say I go to a dance studio (often an empty space with a wooden floor) to watch a modern dance performance. There are, say, forty to fifty spectators sitting in the seats lined up on one side. When the time comes the ceiling lights dim, five dancers enter and get in their starting positions, the spotlights on the sides illuminate the performance area, a recorded music is heard from the loudspeakers and the dancers begin to move.

The dancers don’t look at the audience: if they look in that direction, they stare blankly, as if there were an invisible fourth wall in between as in realistic theater (which puts the audience in the position of secretly watching peepers). Why is this imaginary wall needed in dance? The purpose may be to create some untouchableness, independence and security. It may be likened to forming a “living picture” (tableau vivant) or to a painting hanging at a museum which can be viewed but not touched.

During the initial minutes of the performance I find myself studying the physical appearances of the dancers and attributing personalities according to the stereotypical references in my mind: “The blond guy has very strong muscles. He seems to be the type who would follow orders and perform them meticulously. The tall girl’s legs are a bit too thick for a dancer. She seems to be a tough and tense person.” In other words, my brain is doing its job, it is trying to interpret the denotative characteristics by referring to the learned paradigms in the mind. It is impossible for the other spectators not to do the same but that aspect of the spectacle is almost never mentioned because the established definition dictates that we are there to watch a performance consisting of movements, not to examine bodies.

It is clear that the dancers are executing planned and rehearsed movements. Indeed, it is indicated on the piece of paper they give you at the door that the moves have been conceived and directed by a choreographer. In other words, the performance consists of the sequence of movements and positions determined by a person who has taught them to trained people for execution: “You bend forward and lift your right leg at a 90 degree angle while s/he holds your arm, then wait for him/her to hold your ankle to put your left hand on the floor…” etc.

What would happen if the dancer lifts his/her leg at a 120 degree angle instead of 90? Why does this choreographer want it to be at 90? It would be reasonably justified if the intention were to evoke the shape of a certain object or to create a familiar (coded) body position. Yet, one almost never encounters such justifications in standard modern dance, because the movements are intended to bear a single code: “dance movement.” That is, they remain at the denotative level. The reason for requiring the 90 degree angle as opposed to 120 is often explained with arcane terms such as the choreographer’s “taste,” “feelings,” “style of expression,” “aesthetic preference,” etc.

After I decipher the bodies and the setup in the said dance performance, I begin to wonder what I am expected to find significant and appreciate in the presentation. I ask myself: “What is it in this performance that they think is worth someone investing his time, effort and, possibly, money to go and watch?”

Am I supposed to watch the athletic ability, flexibility, and the skillfulness of the bodies? Those who theorize on dance say that such aspects are secondary and inessential and that a dancer is not to be watched as an athlete. I find myself watching the faces quite a bit but I know that that should not be the focal point either. Facial expressions are not included in a dance choreography according to the established definition.

I basically know that I am there to watch the syntagm of the movement and position choices of the choreographer. Yet, I am having a hard time doing that, because I cannot form connections or associations with things I know from the outside world. As a result, I watch the (often similar) “pictures” of movements/positions one after another, without forming predictions or anticipations about what could or should come next. 

When we listen to music, we proceed by forming expectations (often subconsciously) based on the data offered at the moment, which can be fulfilled or unfulfilled by the transmitter in the next step. This is possible in music because there is an abundance of paradigms for reference stored in the subconscious since we live “in” sound at all times and we continuously associate the aural with the visual. We do not encounter dance movements that often in our daily lives.

At times I can detect “familiar” movements but their familiarity tends to come from my previous experience with dance. For instance, I have seen dancers tumble before, so tumbling of a dancer in this performance is not a significant move for me. But if the dancer circles the performance area doing one tumble after another, this, within the framework of dance, can become an unexpected, “awakening” stimulus.

To summarize, because the movements in “standard” modern dance performances do not go beyond being “dance moves,” because they do not evoke connotative expectations, tracking of the timeline gets to be rather difficult for the viewer. That is, the viewer basically cannot detect much difference between the first, eighth, twenty-fifth, thirty-fourth or forty-third minutes of the performance: the movements tend to become undifferentiated, thus resulting in “adaptation” in the minds of the spectators, giving way to indifference to the stimuli (see “Anticipation, Stimulus, Adaptation”).

Ballet has built a position and movement inventory for itself from the very beginning and has required this material to be used in the structuring of a performance. To save itself from becoming a mechanical string of particular movements, it tried to narrate a story with them, bringing in some pantomime, coded gestures, costumes and props.

We know that modern dance has come to being as a critical response to ballet’s formulaic rigidness and theatrical storytelling. However, due to the reasons I have tried to explain above, it has placed itself in an abstract position with reference to nothing but itself. In a way, it has turned into a ballet-like “discipline” without a story to tell.

Modern dance is more or less at the same age as abstract visual art. One can detect parallels between abstract art (which stays away from representation and references to things familiar) and the concept of movement in modern dance. Yet, there is one essential difference between the two: in the visual arts, they don’t gather people in a room and ask them to look at a painting continuously for one hour (the beholder is in charge of his/her time, can look as long as s/he wishes).

To go back to the tumbling-dancer example above: What would happen if the dancer, upon completing his/her tumbles, turns to the audience and shouts “I tumbled for twenty-five times” and the other dancers stand up and applaud? This would be an act not covered under the standard definition and the dance would become theatricalized. What would be wrong with that? The reply to that question (which is heard whenever a corner is turned in the arts) will be: “Sure it can be done, but don’t call it ‘dance’ anymore.”

The Green Table, Kurt Jooss (1932) [Jeoffrey Ballet Chicage, 2013]

The forms called “expressive dance” or “expressionist dance,” introduced in 1910s and 1920s in Germany, first constituted a reaction to classical ballet but eventually turned into an alternative to standardized modern dance. The term “dance theater” (Tanztheater) also appeared in Germany, towards the end of the 1920s and its pioneer was the choreographer Kurt Jooss and his most influential work was “The Green Table” (1932). Pina Bausch became the main choreographer to popularize this concept.

In the section titled “Mimesis and Performance” I wrote: “According to the established codes and ‘frames’ in society, any aural and visual sign during the course of a theatrical performance is perceived as a “theatrical sign” by the audience.” 

I can sum it up by saying that what has given way to works presented as “performance” or “dance theater” as opposed to “theater” was the realization that the above sentence can easily be changed into this: 

“According to the established codes and “frames” in society, any aural and visual sign during the course of any performance is perceived as a “performance sign” by the audience.”

It was realized that “theatrical” essentially means “followable”: Use of mimesis and/or linear, thematic narratives and storytelling are not unavoidable and indispensible to create an attentively watched performance. The timeline can be built with components that are coded and connotative, instead of or in addition to abstracts. All types of movements I have listed under “Communicative body movements (gestures): intended to be seen” in the section titled “Body Movements,” as well as the voice of the dancer, can be used. Dance theater prefers compositions one can liken to modern poetry, stream-of-consciousness in literature and collages in the visual arts which freely assemble meaningful phrases and images without feeling obliged to communicate a narrative.