As a lifelong dance professional, I’m often told by fellow attendees after seeing a piece of choreography (my own or other choreographers’), “I don’t get it.”
In response, here are some thoughts about how to watch dance, the writing of which presents a conundrum — putting into words something that is meant to function without language. As I’ve been choreographing for decades, and pretty much think about sound and the moving image all of the time, I’m up for the challenge.
I’ve had my own eye-opening experiences on how others perceive dance, often quite different from my own view, but equally valid. Picture me sitting in the front row of a small theater, quite close to the dancers. The old guy next to me bursts out loudly with delight, “They’re almost naked.” Silly me, I thought we were viewing a cutting-edge dance, intellectually stimulating and enjoyable. (It sometimes happens.) Or imagine me and a friend/collaborator at a performance, 200 years ago, of Eliot Feld’s “Harbinger.” Wondering if she liked it, as I did. All she had to say was “What’s with the noisy feet?” As in the unavoidable noise toe shoes make, something balletomanes simply ignore. Alas, for my friend, the noise was the experience.
It’s entirely possible dance isn’t your thing; I’m not that interested in painting, contemporary novels, straight theater, or ink. That said, I’ve been entranced by works in all of these forms, and the same might happen — dance-wise — for you.
Here’s a sort of primer to get you started.
As an audience member, the first thing to do is obvious, and it applies to any art form. Go with an open mind. Allow yourself to be surprised. It’s not mandatory to like the work, but it’s worth a try.
Next, don’t overanalyze. Don’t search for the narrative or message as the choreography unfolds. Compare your response to your state of mind when watching a sunset, or listening to instrumental music. No explanation necessary, the experience is the explanation. Let the sights and sounds of dance stack up in your brain, and worry about defining them — or not — later. It’s part of the fun.
The most significant elements in understanding dance are expectation and memory. Choreography is an ongoing series of moves that appear on stage, dissolving into imagery that remains in memory. The sequence of remembered moves sets expectations with which the choreographer creates, satisfies, and surprises.
Once a movement is seen, it takes on, each time it reappears, a new meaning. Which means the invisible is as significant as the visible. The moves, the placement of them in space, the relationship to sound, the pacing of the events, build an invisible layer of prior content that evolves over time, affecting perception as the dance continues.
Breaking things down further, here are some specific definitions which provide a window into the choreographer’s intent.
Message: The meaning of the work. The choreographer may have something specific in mind, a story or a non-narrative abstraction. Or the choreographer may simply intend for the viewer to form their own subjective response.
Vocabulary: The actual moves of the dancers, which can be based on existing techniques, like ballet or tap, or an invented realm of movement, like early modern dance, or today’s urban street dance.
Style: The quality or impulse of the movements. A correlation might be made to musical dynamics, articulation, attack, and phrasing markings, but translated into the body.
Space: The performance area, the air between the dancers’ shapes, or the patterns in space the dancers make. The space can be intricate, geometric or fluid, like beams of an idiosyncratic lightsaber.
Focus: The focal point the choreographer wants you to see. Your eyes can be directed to follow specific moves around the space like a close-up, or can be pushed open like a wide-angle lens. At times the wide angle, like a kaleidoscope, can become the background, with other simultaneous close-up moves taking focus, like a melody and accompaniment.
Sound: The coordination of the movement and music or silence or sound design, which creates the atmosphere in which the dance occurs. That said, the sound does not dictate the mood, the choreographer designs the relationship of moves to the sound, and these choreographic decisions control the perception of the dance.
Sequence: The pacing and timing of events, where expectation and memory are particularly significant. You might compare this with rolling musical harmony, happening in horizontal time, as opposed to vertical sound.
Why is this choreography primer relevant? There’s an astonishing amount of professional world-class dance during summer on Martha’s Vineyard — a regular sampling of the best dancers, choreographers, and companies the world has to offer. To learn more and enjoy, visit Vineyard Arts Project at vineyardarts.org, the Yard at dancetheyard.org, and The MV Times calendar at mvtimes.com.