An Ιntroduction to the Special Dance Issue
Throughout the history of mankind on earth, performing has been meant for the gods. When it later developed into what we call the performing arts, dance, music, myths, stories and images were all part of the life of the royal courts and their aristocrats, as well as intertwined with the daily lives of ordinary people.
The separation of the dramatic theatre from the art of dance and music is a modern invention. Prior to that, the word “theatre,” written in gold on the facades of many monumental buildings and hosting institutions of the Western world, was understood to refer to the art forms for the stage that were mixed or combined in various ways. It was only in the late 19th century that the separation was increasingly distinct, and separate structures were built to house the dramatic theatre. To highlight a single instance: Henrik Ibsen, who wished to bring to the stage the larger discussion of social and ethical dilemmas, refused to have music concerts between the acts of his plays, although up until then, that had been the usual, traditional and much-appreciated composition of “an evening at the theatre.”
August Strindberg went one step further when he arranged for only a minimal foyer in his Intimate Theatre in Stockholm: no drinking, no social mingling, only serious theatre and nothing else.
So, dance flew into the arms of the opera houses—in Europe and the Americas. Isadora Duncan, like other modernist pioneers, had to dance in cabarets, outdoor events and other “off” theatres at the beginning of her career. In Asia and Africa, the blend of art forms for temples or courts remained as it was, original and classical, through the centuries, until the European modernists’ dream of a gesamtkunstwerk was imposed as a model in the colonized countries or regions.
Theatre critics reviewed the overall repertories of the theatres. Only when dance gradually became a discipline of its own, along with opera, did the critics develop special skills and knowledge to be either a theatre critic or a dance critic. Still, in most countries, the theatre and dance critics are members of the same associations—a reminder of how it all began.
During the late 20th century, modern dance had a period of powerful growth, taking the lead and setting the landscape for a much wider range of performing arts. With the postmodern dance of the 1960s, performance and installations became frequent and deeply influenced the dramatic theatre. Not without complaints, in particular from the critics. The influence of Pina Bausch and her dance theatre cannot be overestimated. She was not alone, but she was leading in the seamless combination of drama and dance, in storytelling that highlighted social and ethical problems and stage imagery.
Theatre, Dance and Dance Theatre
The critic’s paradox is that the prominent aesthetic profiles of the Western theatre by the end of the 20th century—those who were not only influential but real celebrities, such as Ariane Mnouchkine or Robert Wilson—were clearly working in a conceptual field where movement, music, lighting design and scenography were orchestrated similar to the fields of dance and performance. Hans-Thies Lehmann’s study, Postdramatic Theatre (1999, English edition 2006) often quoted and seen as a summing up of the period, takes his examples and references frequently from dance, even if he is writing about text-based dramatic theatre. “In postdramatic theatre, breath, rhythm and the present actuality of the body’s visceral presence take precedence over the logos” (145, English edition). In the chapter entitled “Aspects,” Lehmann discusses body, space and time referring to the work of the early modernist Oscar Schlemmer, as well as to contemporary postmodern choreographer Wim Vandekeybus. The examples from dance are legion: “Alongside the durational aesthetic, an aesthetic of repetition has developed. Hardly any other procedure is as typical for postdramatic theatre as repetition—we need only to mention Tadeusz Kantor, the extreme repetition in some ballets by William Forsythe, the works of Heiner Goebbels and of Erich Wonder where repetition is an explicit theme” (156, English edition).
Many would define dance as an art form without spoken words, but only rarely is dance, or has it been, non-epic. The romantic ballets of the 19th century were all based on folk tales, retelling well-known stories such as “Sleeping Beauty,” and many of the most well known choreographers such as Pina Bausch often worked with deconstructed or reorganised narratives. The postmodern dance of the 1960s was strictly abstract, refusing to accept dance as subordinate to the music, to the individual dancers, or to the stage set, but working instead in its own right, following a “non-composing” concept, such as Merce Cunningham’s chance-based compositions. Theatre critics who easily approached Heiner Müller’s plays or Robert Wilson’s works would still hesitate to review dance productions by Anna Theresa de Keersmaker or Alain Platel, even though the difference in the manner of narration might have been negligible.
Let There Be Light. . . .
With postmodern dance and its often deconstructive structure and willingness to discuss body-related matters such as gender, transgender, heteronormativity and age fixation, all the elements of the stage tend to have equal importance. Lighting and stage design, seen as a heritage of the wave of performances, happenings and installations of the 1960s and 1970s, made lighting, previously seen as only a technical tool, grow into an interactive artistic branch co-acting with the dance on stage. Today, the lighting designer is normally seen as an artist “painting” or “sculpting” with lights. The rapid development of computers, IT techniques and the possibility of programming a rich variety of light sources have become some of the best friends of a “total” stage experience. In dance, this was already frequent and usual in the 1980s, but became normalised in theatre in general in the new millennium.
The history of theatre lighting is a mirror of technical development, from candles to gas lanterns and to electricity. The new possibilities of spotlights, dimmers, colours and other capacities have made theatre, dance and opera stages, by and by, brighter and more dramatically exciting, doubtless also influenced by the cinema.
Today, contemporary dancers often meet their audiences with no set design other than lighting, frequently very advanced and playing an important role on stage. Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui created with their piece, “Zero Degrees,” (2005) an equilibristic performance for two dancers and light and shadows. Silhouettes and shadows of various sizes and with elegant elasticity danced with the dancers, yet the piece is far from a purely aesthetic creation; it contains a very sharp criticism of the new world of migration, passports, colonialisation and global thinking with reference to continual war.
On the Wings of Music
Dance without music is barely thinkable, even if it exists. Music in contemporary dance would sometimes be more precisely described as sound, and the notion of a soundscape is most relevant for many of today’s choreographer. Still, the newly created works of Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, as well as the Greek Dimitris Papaioannou, open new universes of sound and music. The now internationally known Ekman, who always works in close collaboration with Peter Karlsson, the Swedish composer, combines sampling with eclectic composing. Papaioannou gives a clear and beautiful example of a choreographer working with a soundscape where silence is an active part, crossed with the sounds of bricks falling, concrete scratching, cracking, wind blowing, stones rolling.
Today, newly composed, qualified art music has one of its best playing fields (and playgrounds) within contemporary dance. The parallel practice of letting the soundscape come forward in its own right has become a new convention in the theatre, where silence and voices no longer seem to be the characteristic sounds of the theatre. Also here, the influence of the movie world is considerable, where there is “background music” even in spoken drama, to underline a dramatic development. One of the youngest variations of the performing arts, cirque nouveau, equally relies on advanced music, freshly composed. Internationally touring Swedish based Cirkus Cirkör puts the composer-musician on stage, and his tower of instruments and equipment is as natural a part of the set design on stage as the tightrope is for the acrobats.
The serious experimental works by composers such as John Cage and Philip Glass, often related to and much used for dance, are today already classics, and new generations of composers mix popular music with or even within their compositions, where quotations from the daily life’s world of sounds, and silence, are in a dialogue.
Site Specific Creations
Processions, parades and festival dancing are as old as the traditions of creating puppets, masks and figurines in worship of gods or within spiritual rituals wherever we travel in the world. However, the postmodern dance and its close relation to installations in connection with (or within) art exhibitions gave a push forward to site specific dance. Recently, when the new Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland was opened, it was with a massive dance creation, both in honour of the workers who sacrificed their lives in the construction work, and imaginative references to local folk beliefs in the Goat Man. After the death of Michael Jackson, a wave of flash mobs in major cities around the world paid tribute to this legend of music and dancing. Many are the occasions when the tradition of street performances is combined with contemporary dance, theatre, mime or circus—a new art museum, a big sports event, public jubilees or national days. A wide public, wider than those ready to pay for a ticket and enter a theatre building, can see and connect to dance. Some dance festivals has brought the public street performance to new heights, like the Lyon Dance festival where “everyone” can participate in the art dance of our time.
To the critics, the site specific events and interactive performances might create difficulties to overcome. How to review an event where you had to participate to watch? The sad conclusion is that critics may refrain from writing, because they feel too “involved,” thus refraining from discussing one of the crucial tendencies in the current arts.
Globalisation and Postcolonial Times
Dance and music have always travelled more easily than the spoken word, tied up as they are with language. But language and eloquence have always been rapid carriers of ideas, and the fact that dance does not speak has often been turned against the art form, leaving it to be considered simply entertainment. This has not been the case with the silence of paintings and sculptures. Modern dance was part of modern societies, and, during the last decades of the 20th century, dance moved at the speed of light from stages to the Internet, and from the streets to YouTube. There is no need for translation, and dance became global more quickly than the political world did. Then, too, it is equally often taken to be superficial and trendy because of its “in” factor.
African dances had been travelling for centuries to the Americas, deeply rooted and creating both jazz music and jazz dance, the most important influence on music and dance in the Western world of the 20th century. The fact that, around the turn of the millennium, street dance from the Bronx was travelling back to Africa with the speed of the Internet is as amazing as it is confusing. What kind of contribution did it add to the rich soil of African dances? Was this another (post) colonial violation of vernacular and traditional art? Or, the deserved revenge or pay back of a very rich art, now coming back in its own right?
Edited by L. T. Renaud
*Margareta Sörenson, president of IATC, is a Swedish theatre and dance critic, and a writer and researcher in dance history. She has written for the daily national paper Expressen since the early 1980s, and for the Swedish dance journal, Danstidningen, in addition to writing a number of books on the performing arts, the latest on Mats Ek, with photographer Lesley Leslie-Spinks. Her special interests in dance and puppetry have often led her to the Asian classical stage arts and increased her curiosity about contemporary ones.