dance & aesthetics, mostly
Recently I was very privileged to attend the inaugural Aerowaves Spring Forward dance platform, ‘Plesna Vesna’, in Ljubljana. As well as watching a marathon 20 performances in two-and-a-half days, I was fortunate to be able to talk with many wise and experienced dance producers, presenters and makers, and to listen and learn from them.
One recurring topic of conversation was how little talking is actually done about dance, in both verbal and written form. This reticence is particularly stark when compared with the visual arts world, where reams and reams of text are produced every day. Practitioners in the visual arts seem to have developed a fluency and confidence with words that allows them to participate in areas of society and culture that are similarly reliant on spoken and written language: I’m thinking particularly of academia here, but the same could be said of politics, social activism, journalism, and so on. Dance has so far struggled to contribute to these economies of discourse, and I’m wondering if the relative lack of verbal and written discussion in the dance world doesn’t have a lot to do with this.
There are those who would argue that dance has a core essence that cannot be ‘translated’ into words, and that any attempt to do so only gets in the way of the audience’s experience of the work in purely visual and sonic terms. But is this the case for every kind of dance? Sometimes the refusal to provide any kind of ‘way in’ to the work can be disempowering for the audience, whereas a well-written text, far from telling people what to think, can provide them with the tools they need in order to make up their own minds. I’m also aware that there are plenty of choreographers out there who are trying to articulate something specific through their work, but the lack of discussion means that their ideas are not heard. Not every choreographer necessarily agrees that the ‘essence’ of dance is always ephemeral and resistant to conceptualisation, if such an essence exists at all.
I’ll be honest, though: if I were given the choice between keeping 90% of the written output of the visual art world, or having a few more trees, I’d take the trees. A lot of what’s written and spoken simply doesn’t seem relevant or necessary to me; perhaps it’s true that what I value most about art isn’t just a set of abstract concepts, however big a part those concepts might play. Very often, it seems that the art that moves and challenges me most deeply does so in ways that circumvent or short-circuit the verbal part of my brain. In such cases, words cease to become a medium of translation. Instead, they perform a kind of shiver — the shiver I feel when I hear a poem spoken in a language I don’t understand.