Dance is an art form categorised by its precarious nature. It is essentially one generation away from extinction if it isn’t passed through living and intelligent bodies. Dance elusively defies our efforts to contain, codify and document it faithfully. These are not new concepts; the ephemeral nature of dance has been long discussed and praised by very articulate people. Yet, as I look around, I question whether contemporary dance artists celebrate this uniqueness enough. Do we acknowledge it as a core aspect of the art form we have chosen? In fact, there seems to be a palpable discomfort with engaging with dance as an art form unto itself, and this is hindering the possibility of dance to continue to develop as a legitimate art form on its own. How can we expect audiences to be part of the discourse of dance, when we are lacking confidence in our own voice? Dance, desperately needs its advocates, and it has to begin with us.
The problem with dance is that its medium is the body. We all have one, in varying shapes and forms; so familiar and immediate, that it often exists in a blind spot avoiding scrutiny. To place a living body in front of another in a performance is an opportunity to bring to the fore that which may be hidden or too obvious to be noticed in the everyday; to re-present that which we know. It can be a chance to question the place the body inhabits in our society, how we relate to one another, the nature of existence, and may suggest new ways of being and thinking. It is an opportunity to by-pass the rational and intellectual, and appeal to our other impulses; empathetic responses as fellow human beings.
Much of dance that occurs today gives no room for audiences to consider such questions. “This dance is about” is a statement that we tend to avoid in programme notes. The words “an exploration of” or “an investigation of” often take its place. Yet such words still imply that the audiences are expected to get something; a narrative or an underlying theme or concept that can be explained in words. It is as if the mere recognition of the artist’s intent within the work is the task of the audience. How many times have you heard people say “I don’t get contemporary dance.”? They are kept busy, burdened with the expectation to understand the work, and this alleviates any need to delve into more challenging ways of engagement.
Lack of embodied information, rigorous investigation and invention of new movement is causing a stasis in dance.
Too often works rely on many elements, apart from the dancing to convey its messages. It is as if we are trying to tie dance down, imbuing the work with excessive content through often awkward marriages to other more familiar art forms such as dramatic theatre, film, sculpture, music, so that it may be better understood. It signifies an unfortunate lack of confidence in the art form itself; as if dance is not enough. Perhaps it is even an admission that the dancing is underdeveloped, lacking in information and that it cannot withstand the scrutiny? I am not saying that all dance artists should do away with making work about themes they may find interesting or compelling. However, I will argue that too often, the resulting works are about something solely because of the other, loaded elements; the dancing itself superfluous. The art of dance is not enough of a priority. If the other art forms serve your purposes better, why bother with the dancing?
Lack of embodied information, rigorous investigation and invention of new movement is also causing a stasis in dance. Dance is primarily passed on from one body to another, and requires a large investment of time for this process to occur by both choreographer and dancer. The limited amount of time afforded to companies for creation/development, as well as the relatively small pool of professionally employed dancers in such companies contribute to the unsurprising similarities in choreography that can be observed across the board. Again, the other elements mentioned earlier help to distinguish the works apart, but we are essentially dancing what we already know, in different guises.
There is no denying that the alternative would be hard work. I would suggest that movement-based practices, where the dancing is rigorously investigated as the priority, are uncommon in Australia, not because they are considered out-dated, do not produce significant results, or are costly in time and money, but are unpopular precisely because they are hard work. It would also require a significant shift in expectations on the part of audiences, artists, funding bodies and other stakeholders in the “industry”. Everyone is invested in some way, and change to the status quo is threatening. There are livelihoods at stake after all. However, I would hope that such a significant overhaul would result in a more vibrant, innovative and confident art form that is not afraid to let its voice be heard on its own terms (or better still be seen and sensed?).
Dance can be a generous and exhilarating opportunity to offer audiences living canvases on which to project themselves, to see/sense themselves through another body and to ask the big questions. Dance works that are overloaded with content distract the audiences away from this innate potential. As dance artists, we have decided to invest an immense amount of time and effort to exploring the form, inviting audiences to come with us on the journey. There are no doubt many ways in which this can and will occur, but perhaps we need to be posing subtle questions through our work rather than trying to make bold statements. We must address the unutterable and explore the spaces where language fails us. Let’s dance dance again, and remind our audiences and ourselves that we all already have a valuable point of reference to engage with the art form on a profound level: we all are bodies.