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Dance: Rituals of Experience$

Jamake Highwater

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780195112054

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195112054.001.0001

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Ritual as Art

Ritual as Art

Ritual as Art
Dance: Rituals of Experience

Jamake Highwater

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The core of dancing and the neuromuscular activity of the human body combine to create one of the vehicles by which sentience becomes visible where emotional states express themselves in movements. Expressiveness and something which is expressed are usually the main concerns of art. These did not exist until they were made implicit in ritual. The major issues of choreographers in the 1960s and 1970s is also discussed to illustrate the dramatic narrative of dance which put too much stress on the dance itself. This chapter also features different forms of dance, and the clear definition that provides what dance expresses. Gestures of drama inside every dance are presented as well which give expressivity and technique in ways somewhat similar to the activities described in dance.

Keywords:   neuromuscular, art, dance, choreographers, dramatic, narrative, gestures

(p.127) I do not know where to find in any literature, whether ancient or modem, any adequate account of that Nature with which I am personally acquainted.

— Henry David Thoreau, The Journal

Art does not consciously come into existence until the values implicit in ritual are shattered by social change and must be manifested in the idiosyncratic works of individuals rather than the unified customs of tribes. When art arises out of ritual, it becomes self-conscious and is quickly surrounded by various artistic principles with which we make aesthetic judgments and which shape the definition of the purposes and techniques of art.

Art is usually concerned with “expressiveness” and with “something” which is expressed. But the criteria by which we once automatically knew what words like “expressiveness” meant have broken down as art has ventured into entirely new areas. So we have to try to redefine what we mean by expression and we have to decide what kinds of things are expressed in art.

A central issue of exploration in dance since 1900 has been an effort to define nonpantomimic movement. Intrinsic to that difficult definition is the question of how nonliteral, nonrepresentational movements convey “something” to an audience, whether that something is wholly abstract or thoroughly dramatic. The original ritualistic power of movement was ineffable — an inextricable aspect of tribalism — a nonliteral, nonlinear expression of unspoken group values which had no need of articulation because they were fundamental to the experience of the entire tribe. We are now emerging from a long period during which it was assumed that anything of importance could be named in specific words or in specific gestures, such as pantomime. Recently, Jerome Robbins (p.128) epitomized the new sensibility when he said that “the world I’m interested in is the one where things are not named.” These unnamed “things” have become progressively central tot he aims of most choreographers. Through a renewal of certain ritual processes the ineffable has become visible in dance once again. By what means do choreographers achieve the materialization of nonrepresentational things — of apparitionsin their dances?

Isadora Duncan provided the first answer to that question. Through her dancing has often been accused of rampant self-expression, in actuality Duncan was concerned with an impersonal experssiveness contaiend within and conveyed by pure movement without reference to plot, dramatic characterization, or motivational psychology. Ducan suggested a principle which revised the naturalistic aims of Noverre and Fokine and stressed the return to abstract, rather than narrative, dancing. The critical stance of Duncan and her followers grew out of their efforts to give an expressional character to dance which was generic to its basic forms. This was something ballet at the close of the nineteenth century has failed to achieve. By now it is apparent that Duncan’s influences were not limited to modern dance; ballet was also radically changed by her ideas.

Duncan was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, and one of the results of their combined impact on art was self-expressive manipulation of personal, psychological history. This inwardness occurred in all the arts at a time when communal values were no longer capable of supporting the “public truth” which prior generations of artists have used as the substantiating dogma for expressional content in their art. Duncan, however, was not interested in the self as psyche as much as she was interested in the self as body. Despite her free-flowing dance, the subsequent history of dance from 1900 to 1960 shows a dominant effort — in the name of Isadora — to evolve from abstract movement to narrative movement in which plot and characters are central issues. This process completely reversed the trend found in all the other arts which were moveing at that time from imitative realism to abstraction. Ironically, this tendency toward explicitness in dance was reversed during the sixties and seventies. Just as painting, for instance, was renewing an interest in representational realism, dance was rejecting objective content.

The situation of content and expressiveness in dance has become highly problematical. if Jerome Robbins was correct when he said that dance is a form in which things are never named, then what do we dance about?

What Is Expressiveness?

When dance critic John Martin axiomatized the neuromuscular basis of dance, he stated only half the truth: “Any emotional state tends to express itself in movements which may not be practically useful or in any way representational, but nevertheless reflects the specific character and quality of that emotional state. Thus, at the root of all the varied manifestations of dancing, he stated only half the truth: “Any emotional state tends to express itsef in movements which may not be practically useful or in any way representational, but nevertheless reflects the specific charcter and quality of that emotional state. Thus, at the root of all the varied manifestations of dancing, lies the commom impulse to resort to movement to externalize emotional states which we cannot externalize by rational means. The dancer utilizes the principle that every emotional state tends to express itself in movement, and that the movements thus created spontaneously, though they are not representational, reflect accurately in each case the character of the particular emotional state. Because of the inherent contagion of bodily movement, which makes (p.129)

Ritual as Art

Martha Graham’s Phaedra, 1962.

onlookers feel sympathetically in their own musculature the exertions they see in somebody else’s musculature, the dancer is able to convey through movement the most intangible emotional experience.”

Martin — like Fokine and Noverre — was tied down to the literal, dramatic tradition of dance. His description of the neuromuscular transaction is biased in favor of a dramatic interpretation of dance, and this view has made the evolution of abstract, concert dancing problematical. To judge from what Martin wrote, all dance resorts to movement to externalize emotional states, and all dancers wish to convey through movement the most intangible emotional experience. This simply is not true. Or at least Martin’s terminology creates confusion.

The problem here is not the neuromuscular transaction which John Martin described; the problem is found in his description of it — for dancing is not concerned fundamentally with emotional states or emotional experience any more than music is. These constant references to emotion in dance during the 1930s (p.130)

Ritual as Art

Pina Bausch in Cafe Muller, an important work in the repertory of West Germany’s major experimental theater company, the Pina Bausch Wuppertaler Tanztheater.

and 1940s now necessitate a qualification of terms. Is dance really emotional? What do we mean by emotion? Does the presence of emotion in dance necessarily make dance a dramatic form? And if emotion exists as part of the nature of dance, specifically what kinds of emotion are intrinsic to dance as an art form?

American philosopher Susanne Langer, who is greatly concerned with art as an expression of feeling, has suggested that what we mean by feeling in art is expressiveness — but not emotion.

“Expressiveness,” she writes in Problems in Art, “is the same in all art works. A work of art is an expressive form, and what it expresses is human feeling. But the word ‘feeling’ must be taken here in its broadest sense, meaning everything that can be felt, from physical sensation, pain and comfort, excitement and repose, to the most complex emotions, intellectual tensions, or the steady feeling-tones of a conscious human life.”

It is important to recognize the subde revision of the definition of emotion which occurs in Langer’s remarks — “everything that can be felt” represents both a physical and intellectual potential, both physical sensation and intellectual tension. Emotion in art has nothing necessarily in common with the rampage of the private psyche. It is not confined to lavish displays of personal emotion or to (p.131)

Ritual as Art

Linda Kent and Nicholas Gunn in the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s production of Runes.

(p.132) the imitation of dramatic events. It is not restricted to the physical depiction of psychological events but can also deal with the transactions of the abstract imagination.

What Langer is talking about is sentience and not mere emotionality. Contemporary choreographers agree with Langer and reject the notion that feeling and thought are incompatible.

“Abstract thinking,” she has stated in her book, Philosophical Sketches, “is traditionally treated as incompatible with emotional response. Were our rationality purely an increase of automatic processes, emotions would really be the sheer disturbances they are often taken to be. But if it is true that abstraction is made by the joint functions of perceptual and emotional mechanisms, then we are faced with the paradoxical finding that only highly emotional creature could have developed a talent for abstract thought….Whatever there is in experience that is not discursively communicable is unspeakable, ineffable; and according to practically all serious philosophical theories today, is unknowable. Yet there is a great deal of experience that is knowable but defies discursive formulation, and therefore defies verbal expression: that is what we sometimes call the subjective aspect of experience.” It is precisely this subjective aspect of experience that is what is meant by the word “sentience.”

The core of dancing, the neuromuscular activity of the human body, is one of the vehicles by which sentience becomes visible. And the “emotional states which express themselves in movement,” to which John Martin referred in his definition of dancing, are examples of sentience which is manipulated artistically, with or without dramatic purpose. The spectrum of the expressive potential of dance is extremely wide: from a naturalistic statement of emotional and physical facts in strict chronological sequence (Tudor’s Pillar of Fire, for example), a realistic composition divested of particulars (Grahams Appalachian Spring), a surrealistic work which develops in terms of the sequence of emotion but not the sequence of naturalistic events (Robbing’ The Cage), to an abstract dance which conveys only a semblance of human behavior (Balanchine’s Serenade or Cunningham’s Rainforest).

The major objection of choreographers of the sixties and seventies to dance which is explicitly dramatic is that this kind of narrative dancing puts too much stress upon subject matter and too little stress upon the properties and potentials of dance itself. In their view, sentience is not subject matter in dance but rather an indispensable source of power.

After long debate about the expressiveness of dance and its expressive content, there are still choreographers who create dance-dramas which depict dramatic situations; there are still those who reject all semblance of personality in dancing; and there are also those involved in radical realism in which screaming, groveling, and howling at near-lunatic intensity are used to produce shock in the audience. This debate cannot be resolved, but any definition of expressiveness in dance must somehow strive to be large enough to contain all these diverse attitudes.

Such a widely inclusive viewpoint has not been typical of dance theory in the past. There has usually been far more concern for narrative dance than for dances which do not involve plot, incidents, or characters. An important lesson in this regard can be learned from the history of opera, insofar as it is a medium in (p.133)

Ritual as Art

The San Francisco Contemporary Dancers sustained a rich dance tradition with its own works and those of guest companies for over a decade. Here are the company’s Glenna Shaw and James Croshaw in A Season in Hell.

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Jean Mathis and Raymond Evans of the San Francisco Contemporary Dancers in Yerma.

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Diana Russel and the author in The Tree of Night the San Francisco Contemporary Dancers.

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Aileen Cropley and Rudolph Nureyev in Paul Taylor’s Aureole.

which there haye been seyeral traditions? rather than a single tradition, and the development of these contrasting idioms of opera indicate the potential for great diversity not usually recognized in the dance world. In the past exceptionally little attention has been given to the kind of abstract dancing which is performed on concert stages. In the history of opera we discover that both the dramatic and the nondramatic traditions have been provided with prominent places in the opera house.

Opera began toward the end of the sixteenth century, and its development was divided between the effort of two pioneers: Christophe Willibald Cluck, who forged a natural, theatrical idiom, and Nikolaus Hasse, who created vocal music which emphasized classical conventions and lavish ornamentation.

According to many musicologists, the evolution of opera was thwarted by a dichotomy between its musical considerations and its concern for dramatic plot. (p.135) Music requires repetition and development, wnich tends to slow down dramatic action; plot requires continuity and rapid progression, whcih tends to cramp the development of music. The musical and dramatic elements of opera do not effectively serve one another.

The dramatic basis of an opera is its libretto. The music consists of various orchestral overtures and interludes which sum up and anticipate the dramatic action. It is also composed of various arias, duets, trios, and quartets in which the vocal aspect is developed and the orchestra plays a Often the dramatic intentions of an opera libretto are carried forward by spoken dialogue or recitative. Verdi’s Il Trovatore or Rigoletto are examples of this kind of conventional opera.

A music-drama, in contrast, tends to use the human voice as an integral part of the orchestral texture and to create a more thoroughly dramatic work in which separate arias and duets, etc., are not permitted to break the progress of the drama. Orchestral writing normally plays a greater role in music-drama. Repeated motifs representing aspects of the action or characters are used as the basis for the kind of development and recapitulation which is primary to musical composition. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is an example of music-drama. Wagner wrote extensive essays to justify his departure from operatic tradition.

Though music-drama is often used as the model for new musical works by is still very much alive. In other words, music-drama has not replaced opera; they coexist as expressions of two widely separate aesthetic viewpoints.

“Ballet” is a term which readily decribes a dance style very much like opera. “Dance-drama” paralles music-drama. In other words, the development of ballet in the court of Louis XIL approximated a genre like opera: it had strict conventions; it used pantomime to further plot much as opera used dialogure or revitative; it organized choreographic “arias,” “duets,” and “trios,” etc., which stressed pure dance and which were tucked between the expository, pantomimic action. Ballet also makes elaborate use of ornamentation and technical daring which suggests the style of opera called bel canto. Giselle, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty are typical of this type of balled.

Dance-drama, like music-drama, gives its enure emphasis to methods which further the dramatic action and atmosphere of the dance but does so with a concentrated sue of the drama implicit in gesture. The music which accompanies a dance-drama is generally more “musical” and less supportive; it challenges the attention of the audience and oftedn runs its own independent course rather that simply marking time for the dancers. Gesture is more freely evolved and developed than it is in traditional ballet. Solos and pas de deux, etc., are integrated into the basic choreographic flow of the dance and contribute to the dramatic continuity. The sequence of the “plot” is often nonlinear and departs from naturalism much as contemporary plays and novels shun naturalistic causality. The dramatic outline of a dance-drama is likely to be fundamentally reshaped from the realistic viewpoint into a ritualistic form. Martha Graham’s Circe, José Limón’s Moor’s Pavane, and Jerome Robbins’ Watermill are examples of dance-drama.

Ballet and dance-drama are only two examples of the vast potential spectrum of dance. They have no more exclusive right to be considered the definitive forms in the broad field ofmusic. But ballet, (p.136)

Ritual as Art

Paul Sarasardo, Michelle Rebaud, and Jacques Patarozzi in the Paul Sarasardo Dance Company’s The Path.

first, and then dance-drama have had such an inordinately dominant impact on choreographers, dancers, and audiences that for a long time it was quite impossible to compose any other kind of dance. Thus, abstract choreography, a dance form that is essentially without a “libretto,” managed to surface only with great difficulty. For the sake of convenience I am going to call this kind of dancing “concert dance.”

Concert dance is concerned with the arrangement and development of gestures without explicit dramatic purposes, plot, or characters. The only subject matter of concert dance is gesture itself. This does not mean that concert dance must depend solely upon technical skill to make an impact or that it is incapable of rousing a wide variety of responses in an audience. Quite the contrary. The impact of concert dance, however, is based upon an expressiveness which exists within gesture, within movement itself and not in the maneuvers of plot. Balanchine’s Agon, Nikolais’ Imago, Cunningham’s Winterbranch, and Humphrey’s Air for the G String are examples of concert dance.

What Do Dances Express?

Behind all forms of dance — ballet, dance-drama, and concert dance — is a common expressive impulse. But expressiveness is not a single, uniform power in any art. It constantly changes, at least on a certain level, as public values change. What is amusing to one era is not necessarily amusing to another. What is tragic to one age is not necessarily tragic to another. The quality of sentience changes from one era to the next, and in ways so subtle that even the most undefinable qualities of life — those which have no direct relationship to “emotions” — also evolve and change.

It is relatively simple to conceive how public values make their various, constantly changing appearances in the works of novelists, playwrights, painters, and sculptors, but it is more difficult to imagine how public values can have any relationship to something as abstract as, for instance, instrumental music or concert dance. But they do.

(p.137) The romanticism of a Tchaikovsky symphony, though built entirely of abstract notes and having no apparent “plot” or program, nonetheless seems lugubrious to the nonromantic mentality. The transparency and meticulous development of a baroque sonata may seem redundant, fussy, and inarticulate to a listener devoted to serial music. On the other hand, the musical mind of Anton Webern often seems morbid, remote, and ugly to a classically oriented listener who has a melodic expectation of music. Public values are so fundamental to human responsiveness that they reach into even the so-called mathematical abstraction of absolute music.

Social values have always had an impact upon the character of a work of art and still do. But today that impact has become uncertain because we live in an age in which there is no longer one truth but many, not one school of art but many; and people are being presented with a constantly increasing number of ways to think of, look at, and evaluate the same thing.

In a book which definitively summed up the impact of this condition on fiction between 1918 and 1945, John Aldridge commented: “One cannot speak of fiction without sooner or later speaking of values.” The subject of values in art is by now a familiar subject of discussion, but in Aldridge’s day it was, perhaps, better grasped than it is today.

Art cannot exist without evaluation, and evaluation cannot exist without values. The simplest human comment, gesture, or intonation carries with it an expressed or implied evaluation. Even people who insist that they believe in nothing, and who claim that they produce works which revel in nothingness, are expressing an evaluation of experience. We simply cannot do anything without expressing something. “If love died,” Aldridge commented in reference to the artists of the post-World War I Lost Generation, “they stopped believing in love and began believing in sex. If everything collapsed and they were left with nothing, that too was all right. They began believing in nothing.”

The predicament of expression in the arts was the subject of another critic, David Daiches, who stated in The Novel and the Modern World: “It is public truth which provides the artist with his means of communication. It enables him to communicate emotion [sentience] and attitude by simply describing incidents; it gives him a storehouse of symbols with guaranteed responses; it enables him to construct a plot by selecting the patterning events which, on this public criterion, are significant….One of the most outstanding features of Western civilization in the twentieth century has been the drying-up of traditional sources of value and the consequent decay of uniform belief….New developments in psychology arrived very opportunely and encouraged artists to beg the question of value by confining their world to the limits of an individual mind and assessing value solely in terms of the consciousness of that mind. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a prime example of this trend.”

We can also use this principle in discussing dance. Swan Lake, for instance, for all its naïveté, is the depiction of incidents which, in 1895, possessed the storehouse of symbols which elicited guaranteed responses from its audience. Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov constructed Swan Lake by selecting and patterning events and characters that were significant in terms of the public values of their day. Public truth provided Petipa and Ivanov with the basis of their theatrical communication. It enabled them to convey attitudes and (p.138)

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Two Penny Portrait is performed by the Louis Falco Dance Company’s Louis Falco and Georgiana Holmes.

feelings by simply describing incidents. The form and technique of Swan Lake were also products of a public criterion and of a storehouse of symbols with guaranteed responses: because public truth also dictates public taste and therefore establishes the techniques which result in the purely mechanical aspects of skill in art. The same values which gave credence and emotive validity to the events and characters of Swan Lake also induced a style and a technique generically related to the values and events of the ballet. The form of expression operates on the same values as the subject of a work of art. Odette in Swan Lake is a combination of balletic steps and pantomime. The steps and pantomime describe the Swan Queen as clearly as she is described by the literal events in which she participates in the ballet. The steps, spatial and temporal forms, plot, and characters of Swan Lake are interactive and interdependent. Together they constitute Swan Lake and together they also epitomize their era. This process is called tradition — but, contrary to conservative judgment, it is constantly and erratically changing and not fixed or forever evolving toward a single, predetermined destiny.


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The great Mexican-American dancer-choreographer, José Limón, produced a marvelous and unique stage presence. With Erick Hawkins, Limón founded a whole new basis for the male participation in dance, whild, at the same time, he infused his work with elements of his Mexican-Armerican traditions. Here Limón performs in The Traitor.

This discussion of Swan Lake brings attention to plot and characters, but it does not mean the impact of public values on art depends upon a literal, dramatic framework. To the contrary, concert dance is as much affected by public truths as ballet, though it is apparently devoid of plot, characters, emotions, and any such concern with it. The value system of a society operates on every level — some of its manifestations are subtle and are expressive in an entirely nonliteral, nonlinear way.

It is true that we cannot produce in music a direct emotional statement, yet there has not been an era in which “feeling” was not associated with the most abstract elements of musical composition. These abstract elements are not fixed is not so absolute that it stands aloof from the era which produces it. Music reflects the public truth of its age through sentience — without which it simply could not be art. What is true of absolute music is also true of absolute dance — or concert dance.

(p.140) The psychological work of art (in dance and literature, etc.) is a method of dealing with personality without confronting the value system of society. This is achieved, as David Daiches has said, by dealing with “the limits of an individual mind and assessing value solely in terms of the consciousness of that mind.” In dance-drama there are psychological works such as Tudor’s Pillar of Fire.

The psychological art required alterations of technique and form. Tudor, therefore, devised an original mode of gesture and revised balletic vocabulary, making it more flexible and more capable of reflecting complex internal rather than simplistic external events. Tudor’s dance-dramas were outside the tradition of Swan Lake, not only in terms of his creation of a dance-drama rather than a ballet but also in the structures and gestures of his dance. In subtle ways, Tudor altered the expressive tone of gesture. In his day, it would have been unlikely for him to choreograph another Swan Lake. The public truth which had justified and motivated Swan Lake was no longer viable or visible in Antony Tudor’s world. Psychology had caught the interest and faith of society. Artists were thinking in terms of the stream of consciousness which motivated most external actions. Tudor considered the motivational inner world to be real and the external world

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Yvonne Rainer and dancers in Performance 1972, which represents a crisis in dancing: a reappraisal in light of the real world.

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A composite photograph from Yvonne Rainer’s Performance 1972

(p.142) a mere reflection of it. A dancer in a Tudor dance-drama is a very special kind of performer — so different from dancers who perform the roles of Odette or Giselle that they seem to belong to a totally different order. In a Tudor dance-drama, the dancers cannot convey the public truth of their world by behaving like Odette any more than James Joyce’s Molly Bloom could exist if she spoke in the prose of Charles Dickens.

Expression in dance is indistinct from content. But what is more important is that technique merges with content. When artists’ values require them to convey something new in their work, then new techniques become necessary. This is as true in dance as it is in fiction and painting. Technology originally justified the Western idea of the separation of content and technique; at the same time, it ultimately required the revision of that dichotomy.

This controversy of the relationship of technique and content was described by Mark Schorer in his famous essay “Technique as Discovery”: “Modern criticism has demonstrated with finality that in art, beauty and truth are indivisible and one. The Keatsian overtones of these terms are mitigated and an old dilemma is solved if for beauty we substitute form, and for truth, content. We

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Yvonne Rainer and Company in Story of a Woman Who…, 1973.

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Jeffrey Urban of the Rudy Perez Dance Company performs in Colorado Rambler, 1975.

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Rudy Perez in Running Board for a Native, 1974.

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In Merce Cunningham’s Travelogue there is a galvanic spirit in the exploration of the realities underlying dance.

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Ze’eva Cohen in James Waring’s 32 Variations in C Minor.

Twyla Tharp in Sue’s Leg.

(p.145) Ritual as Art (p.146)
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New objects in dance can be seen in the Gus Solomons Dance Company’s performance of Ascent from Molehill, danced by Gus Solomons, Jr.

(p.147) may, without risk of loss, narrow them even more, and speak of technique and subject matter. Modern criticism has shown us that to speak of content as such is not to speak of art at all, but of experience; and that it is only when we speak of the achieved content, the form, the work of art as a work of art, that we speak as critics. The difference between content, or experience, and achieved content, or art, is technique….Technique alone objectifies the materials of art; hence, technique alone evaluates these materials.”

Schorer’s final sentence recalls Susanne Langer. The artist, Langer stated, “formulates that elusive aspect of reality that is commonly taken to be amorphous and chaotic; that is, he objectifies the subjective realm.”

Art is an objective expression in the form of technique. The imagination of an artist does not arbitrarily invent forms. His art is not driven by emotions. The artist selects an aspect of the reality he perceives. This process of selection is also a process of objectification. Once we, as audience, have entered into the artist’s perception we are able to look on the world with the artist’s “eyes.” Art represents a distinction between the objective and the subjective, the representational and private expressivity. The Parthenon frieze or Bach’s B Minor Mass, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or a poem by Leopardi, a quartet by Beethoven or a novel by Dostoyevsky are neither representational nor expressional. They are symbolic in

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The Five Day Lobby Event performed by the Gus Solomons Dance Company in 1973 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology represents the new environments used in dance.

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(Above and right) Nancy Meehan’s brilliant composition. Cloud…Roots, 1984. An essay in sensuality and birth.

(p.149) Ritual as Art (p.150)
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How much is enough? Trisha Brown and Carmen Beuchat of the Trisha Brown Dance Company perform Pamplona Stones, 1974

a unique and fascinating way. They are not momentary outbursts of passion — they reveal a deep human grasp of unity and continuity. Such works of art are objective interpretations, not naïve imitations of reality. They are sentient forms, not an overflow of powerful private feelings. They are, above all else, the products of masterful technique — whatever the nature of that technique may be.

It is fashionable to explain nonobjective art as a method of indulging in technique for its own sake, rather than facing the emergence of values in our time. This criticism is off target. Nonobjective art has constructed a valid expressiveness built upon the postindustrial aesthetic potentials of technology itself. As history is a proper subject for the historical novel, technology is a proper focus of a work in which technique is the prime mover. The assumption that technology is stoical is unfounded, just as it is unfounded to assume that an abstract musical term like allegro has no meaning beyond the physics of sound. I earlier quoted John Aldridge’s notion that if man were faced by the collapse of everything, he would actively believe in nothing. In a special and positive sense, nonobjective art — like concert dance — is a belief in “nothing.”

The stronghold of nonobjective concepts in dance is concert dance. It is difficult, however, to imagine dancing which is created without reference to objects, since dance must be performed by dancers. The presence of dancers, even when they are highly dehumanized by costumes and makeup, automatically introduces a human as well as an objective element. Whether we are talking about classic ballet, dance-drama, or concert dance, one factor remains constant — the human body is implicit in dance, and with the body come associations and feelings which are inevitably part of any dance whether the choreographer likes it or not. What differentiates ballet, dance-drama, and concert dance are the (p.151)

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Trisha Brown and dancers use the real world in Roof Piece, 1973

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Trisha Brown in Accumulation Pieces, 1973.

methods used to deal with the associations which the human body brings with it to a dance. In ballet the use of literal pantomime closes the gap between naïve realism and the things the body intimates by its very presence in a dance. In short, ballet exploits the fact that a prior era of faith has left a residue which can be resurrected by using pantomime as a means of representing sentimentality, and the values connected with it. Dance-drama recasts naïve realism in terms of ritual, so that the specific is generalized and the relationship of various sequences of gesture is based on psychological rather than material causation. Concert dance generalizes even further, so that dance sequences which seem to have a momentary relationship to an explicit feeling abruptly change into other sequences which do not seem in the least emotionally related to what came before. This constantly happens in the dances of Merce Cunningham; it also happens in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.


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Eloquence versus expressiveness — Phoebe Neville in Lady Dance.

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Phoebe Neville in Memory, 1975.

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Trisha Brown and dancers in Locust, 1975.

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New space, new time, and new dance can be seen in Spiral 1974, by Trisha Brown and dancers.

(p.155) (p.156)
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The Viola Farber Dance Company in Lead Us Not into Penn Station, 1997.

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Lazy Madge performed by Douglas Dunn and Jennifer Mascall of the Douglas Dunn Dance Company, 1976.

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Sarah Rudner’s Dancing May’s Dances with Sarah Rudner, Wendy Rogers, and Francesca Bartocinni, 1976.

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Robert Wilson reinvents the theater in A Letter to Victoria.

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Jennifer Muller and the Works in Muller’s White, 1975.

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Nora Rotante in Ted Rotante’s Corporate Images II, 1975.

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Laura Dean and dancers in Drumming, 1975.

(p.162) Gesture as Drama

The theater and cinema are trying to solve the problems of expressivity and technique in ways somewhat similar to the activities I have described in dance. Harold Pinter, for example, uses radical realism in a way similar to choreographers who deal with commonplace actions. He captures the absurdity of everyday conversation and rarifies it into a terrifying expression of an aimless human condition. This technique of dealing with the seemingly insignificant in a significant and entirely abstract way is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s interest in words: their context, normal meaning, and purpose were ignored and they became valuable in terms of what they looked like and sounded like unto themselves. Despite her rejection of the objectivity which words usually convey in literature, the works of Stein are expressive. Exactly the same thing can be said of the concert dances of Merce Cunningham and Erick Hawkins.

Michelangelo Antonioni has discovered in his films an intriguing method of dealing with objective facts without using superficial “truth” (naïve realism) as the basis of his expressiveness. This method is particularly apparent in films like Blow-Up and The Passenger, in which he suspends plot and character development but evokes emotional reaction by borrowing various traditional techniques of melodrama to produce suspense, dread, excitement, etc., none of which however, are carried to their normal dramatic conclusion and none of which finally mean anything in terms of the films’ content. Antonioni captivates his audience without telling us anything. He leads us into a metaphysical and ritual maze by luring us with emotional tensions which are in no way central or pertinent to his wholly abstract films. The end result is like the solo dance Alwin Nikolais created for Murray Louis in the second act of Imago — Louis’ gestures evoke qualities like mystery, dread, and suspense without ever really dealing with them. Yet we don’t feel in the slightest way cheated when the dance is over and these “feelings” turn out to have no real relevance to what the solo dance is really about. As Mark Schorer would say, The content of a dance is only valid and meaningful to the extent that it has been used up by technique.

Gesture, in art as in life, is always related to the human condition, no matter how metaphorically subtle and ritualistically reshaped it may be. This is true in dance whether the particular idiom is concerned with plot, characters, and dramatic gesture, or with pure, abstract gesture. Dance is gesture, and gesture is the rendering of a desired appearance without any actual representation of it, by producing the equivalent sense-impression rather than a literally similar one. When gesture serves dance in these ways dance becomes capable of rendering effects without actually imitating them; conveying a sense of motion and time without projecting events that connote anything in particular; and conveying a “dramatic” universe with objectified gestures instead of pantomime borrowed from actual situations. In dance, this process involves a transformation of the ideas furnished by reality into the materials from which the work of art is made.

Gesture is the manifestation of the total range of human movement. The only limitations of gesture in dance are the limits of human physiology. Each “school” of dance defines its perimeter of movement within the larger spectrum of possibilities. Someone like Erick Hawkins, for instance, would base his guidelines on his belief that just because a movement is possible does not make it desirable. Other choreographers, such as Yvonne Rainer, would stress utilitarian gestures, while (p.163) George Balanchine would embrace the mechanical vocabulary of the danse d’école as a point of departure.

Gesture is amplified bodily motion. By virtue of the kinesthetic basis of dance, the dancer’s body is a highly developed neuromuscular resonator — like the resonance box of a violin — and it amplifies and projects its kinesthetic actions in an intensified form. The reproduction of a gesture by a dancer is like a musician

Ritual as Art

The Concert Dance Company in Pilobolus.

sounding a tone on an instrument: it is a deliberate effect based upon a discipline which has been learned — and that applies equally to nondancers who learned as children the disciplines necessary to walk or to pick up an object, etc. Gesture is as explicit as tone. The interpretative quality of gesture is like the interpretative activity of a musician who is reproducing tone — the result of a purely qualitative function. For instance, the dancer possesses muscular “mutes” which alter the (p.164) quality of movement and result in changes in the quality of visible gesture. The horn player knows that a specific kind of mute gives his intonation a distant, nostalgic sound. The distance as well as the nostalgia are not qualities of either the horn player or the note played. They are qualities of the mute. Exactly the same process — though it is infinitely more complex — is used by dancers in their control of the gestures they perform.

There is a vast potential spectrum for any gesture. At one end of the scale is the kind of expressiveness that has a discernible emotional quality. At the other end is the kind of control which permits a gesture to achieve itself fully, without any external references.

Ritual as Art

The Don Redlich Dance Company in Slouching toward Bethlehem, 1968.

Ritual as Art

The Acme Dance Company in James Cunningham’s Apollo and Dionysus.

Ritual as Art

Kenneth King and dancers in Radio A.C.tiv(ID)ty, 1976.

Ritual as Art

One of the major innovators in the theatre is Meredith Monk whose Quarry (1976) established new ground in the arts of the stage.

We have been subdued. Our lack of the strength and stability of custom and the binding and sustaining power of communal tradition has subdued us. We have come to this difficult situation by a long and winding road, impelled by a trait which the Western world likes to call typically human but which is clearly nonexistent among a large part of the world’s population — the drive to ceremonialize the unknown by means of specificity. It is this compulsion which turned the ambiguity of ritual into religious ceremony, and it is the same urgency to impose specificity upon everything we encounter that made us depose all power from our religious ceremonies and turn them into social customs. Now, the pursuit of specificity has been reshaped into the idealization of specialization,

Ritual as Art

James Cunningham and Barbara Ellmann of the Acme Dance Company in Cunningham’s Dancing with Maisie Paradocks, 1973.

and this has brought us to our current technological predicament. Technique has replaced conviction. Artifice has replace ritual. We have arrived at the not very sublime summit, spinning our questionable motives into questionable prose, like the final lines of Curt Sachs’ World History of the Dance: “This world is the living expression which has been the secret longing of man from the very beginning — the victory over gravity, over all that weighs down and oppresses, the change of body into spirit, the elevation of creature into creator, the merging with the infinite, the divine.”

(p.169) That Faustian proclamation perfectly summarizes the illusion which has brought us to the brink of extinction and divested us of most of our animal virtues along the way. We have become so “specifically” homo sapiens that we no longer related to the animal world, which, is after all, our only world. But we think we are meant for the stars, and our technology is rapidly taking us there.

The victors of the Western world have won everything — and in the process have lost themselves. This loss is deeply felt by clans and cults which continually borrow from other people’s ritual cultures. It is also felt by the people who work in art rather than in industry, and who do not particularly like the notion that humanity’s crowning achievement will be technological self-extermination.

These artists are attempting to create rites of their own to compensate for the lack of rituals in their societies. Most of the great artists of our certury — Joyce, Kafka, Bacon, webern, Pollack — have built a mysterious self tnrough their art to fill the vacuum left by the lack of public ceremonial life. And what, after all, is this mysterious ritual self? It is an appearance — an apparition, if you like. It springs from what we do but it is not what we are. It is something else. In watching a ritual we do not see what is physically before us. What we see is an interaction of forces by which something else arises. Those who only see what is before them are blind to all the other potentials of experience. Ritual, like art, requires us to really see. To see a virtual image, which is not unreal, for when we are confronted by it, it really does exist. The image in a mirror is such an image; so is a rainbow. It seems to stand on earth or in the clouds, but it really “stands” nowhere. It is only visible, not tangible. It is the unspeakable, the ineffable made momentarily visible, made experiential.

Contemporary artists are fascinated by technology, but they like to play with it rather than use it industriously. They use technology to produce apparitions, and this is heresy in terms of the Faustian dream. Artists are using the new technology to destroy technology, to reverse the process of specificness and specialization. They are using technology to produce that ambiguity which is at the core of ritual. Naturally this counterproductive urge of artists is nonsensical and repulsive to those striving for the stars. They want artists to be technical virtuosi. They want real art. They want real dancing — lots of fast, frantic, arduous dancing. They want to be uplifted — by rockets and supersonic aircraft. Somewhere over the rainbow, no doubt.

But what they need, and what dancing needs, is more rainbows.


Ritual as Art

Erick Hawkins and Lucia Dlugoszewski in Geography of Noon by the Erick Hawkins Dance Company.