Monday, June 26, 2017

The Poetry of Dance

Of all art forms, dance is one that has long held a special fascination and attraction for me. I think part of the fascination I, as a writer, feel toward the art of dance (i.e., dance as performance rather than social activity) is the fact that it is a form of artistic expression that uses means other than language to convey meaning.

Of course, this is a quality it shares with music and visual art. However, unlike those arts, which use physical objects like sound, color, and shape, dance uses the human body itself, and more specifically the movements of that body, to evoke meaning. I have always been deeply intrigued by the way in which movement alone (well, in combination with music and visual elements such as costume and scenery, but primarily and essentially the movement) can "speak". What does the dancer say when she dances? Is it something that can be translated into words?

I think the answer to that last question must be a definitive no, just as surely as music cannot be translated into words, and even in the way that poetry cannot be translated into prose. That is what I find so mysterious and fascinating about dance as performing art--the irreducible nature of its expression, the way it can express things that words cannot, a sort of supra-linguistic language, if you will.

Of course, there are many other things I love about the art of dance--the energy, the costumes, the sheer beauty of movement--but what gives dance its true depth, what raises it beyond mere spectacle or entertainment, is its nature as a mode of genuine artistic expression. I especially appreciate and admire ballet and modern dance in this regard, though I also love and appreciate the artistry and expression in, for instance, the dance numbers in musicals, and even the routines of Legs & Co., the troupe that performed on Top of the Pops in the seventies and early eighties (what many people might regard as kitsch or frivolous entertainment, but in which I see real art).

Though I have never discussed it on this blog, my artistic activity has never been limited to just writing. I am also a musician, and in fact when I was in college I considered music to be my main creative forte. It wasn't until I was 25 that I realized that I wanted literature to be my primary focus (although I had been writing stories since kindergarten and poetry since high school), and to define myself first and foremost as a writer. I have rarely recorded music since then, though I have a backlog of songs that have been accumulating in my head for the last eight years that keep nagging me to record them at some point. I have also dabbled in various forms of visual art and I long harbored the ambition of becoming a filmmaker (which I have since abandoned--my novels are my cinematic expressions, my fiction writing being very much influenced by that art form).

Dance, however, is perhaps the only major traditional art form that I have never seriously entertained the idea of pursuing--at least, not as a dancer. That, too, is surely one of its attractions to me--it is an art that I enjoy purely as audience, not as actual or potential (however accomplished or amateurish) creative colleague. In this way, dance, to me, is an "other"--and therefore holds a very deep appeal to me. But beyond being simply "other" (many things are an "other" to literature, such as, say, the study of economics), dance is an art that I see as being in some sense complementary to literature--a way to tell a story or express the human spirit through movement rather than through words.

However, while I have never really aspired to be a dancer myself, I have given more than a little thought to the idea of becoming something of a choreographer. I don't mean a professional choreographer, but rather a writer who sometimes "writes" dances. I have long been intrigued (I have entertained this concept probably since the nineties) by the idea of marrying literature and dance in this way--not merely in the way that literary works are often adapted for the ballet, for instance, but as a writer deliberately composing a work that is meant to be expressed in the form of dance.

In reality, if I were to write a dance piece, it might, depending on the scale and nature of the piece, be better left to an actual choreographer to translate my script into all the specific movements and arrangements of the performance (which would, of necessity, be somewhat generally and vaguely sketched in the written script). It is perhaps possible, though, that, as with a film or theater director, part of my creative process would be to explain or show what I want a dancer to do and then trust her talent for realizing the concept effectively, with skill and with her own artistic expression. This is largely uncharted territory for me, as I am not familiar with very many accounts of writers who have had the audacity to try their hand at the art of composing, not a poem or novel, but a dance performance.

As a side note, a variation on this concept (and of course much easier to achieve) would be to write a "closet" dance--akin to the closet drama, i.e., a play that is meant primarily to be read and imagined in one's mind (much as a novel is) rather than actually performed on stage. The ideal, however, would be to write pieces that become fully realized as performance.

In any case, as a writer, my role in actually creating the work would be only partial. This is because, as I said above, dance is a language beyond language. The dance itself would be the fullest expression of the work (though, as with a written play or screenplay, the dance script might still have artistic value of its own). The only one who can truly give full expression to the dance, to fully embody and communicate its meaning, is not the writer--working in the medium of verbal language--but the dancer, who gloriously transcends it.

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