"For truth to tell, dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education: dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with pen- that one must learn how to write." Friedrich Nietzsche
Published on March 20, 2017 Christine Jowers Photo by Ben Gabbe
Words, Words, Words: I'd Like to Get The World To Write (and Talk) About Dance.
Originally Published on October 26, 2011:
In the Lerner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle chides her smitten admirer, Freddy Eynsforth-Hill for his use of flowery language singing, “Don’t talk of spring. Don’t talk of fall. Don’t talk at all -- show me.” “Never do I want to hear another word, there isn’t one I haven’t heard. Anyone who’s ever been in love can tell you that, this is no time for a chat! ...Show me now, “ she wildly croons, shocking the daylights out of poor upper-class Freddy, unused to such an assertive woman. Eliza wants action. She has no time for nonsense. In addition to being a cockney flower girl in the stalls of Covent Garden, perhaps Eliza Doolittle was a dancer.
A scene from the movie version of My Fair Lady with Jeremy Brett as "Freddy Eynsforth-Hill" and Audrey Hepburn as "Eliza Doolittle"
Dancers crave action, don’t like to waste time and are never satisfied. Our bodies need to train to communicate clearly. We struggle, repeating movements over and over again to achieve a sense of perfection. What dance artist can conceive of a day without working in the studio refining some aspect of their craft? How many dancers lay in bed awake wondering what the next bit of choreography will be or visualizing how to fulfill a phrase of movement more fully? We don’t put our language on paper, we live it. We aim for close to perfection as we can, or maybe we feel “perfect” because we know we are, at least, doing something. When you are a dancer-mover-performance artist you do. Thinking is action. It feels good and honest. No BS.
Words are problematic. They live outside us, and there is so much that words cannot convey. Many, not all, dancers struggle with words. “If I could say it, why would I dance it? That is something I hear over and over. “The body says what words cannot,” claimed Martha Graham.
Writing requires different tools and conditions than dance, the same with speaking. Movement goes directly to the gut, and as Martha Graham (I quote her because she wrote and spoke about dance A LOT) is famous for remarking “the body doesn't lie." Words, hmm...they get in the way. Why couldn't clumsy Freddy Enysforth-Hill just kiss Eliza?
The night before last I attended The Bessies, The New York Dance and Performance Awards. Trisha Brown received an award for a Lifetime of Achievement in Dance. Brown challenged our perception of what dance can be, revealing to us the exquisite beauty in pedestrian movement and reminding us that all the world really is a stage (and not a proscenium one) as she danced off the sides of buildings and passed movement along from one person to another on the rooftops of Soho. Brown uttered three or four lines in response to her award. One of which was, “What did I do right?” followed by a promise that one day she would write a letter to all of us to putting her feelings in words.
Susan Rosenberg, consulting historical scholar with Trisha Brown Dance Company, uses archival footage of Set and Reset to discuss Brown’s processes, why the dance has endured as a seminal work of postmodern art and dance, and why it continues to be breathtaking viewing for each new generation of audiences.
How can we find the words to express such deep wonder--the wonder of a lifetime of performing and creating for example? How can we speak intelligently, even coherently, about a non-verbal art form that often happens fast and all at once? (At least it happens faster than the analytical or logical mind can move) Then, the final kick in the arse (Eliza Doolittle is on my mind) for anyone writing-- the artwork disappears.
Images, movements, patterns, juxtapositions, race by as our imagination collides with art. Bits of us are jarred. Thoughts, memories, feelings about life, relationships, responses to color, texture or line, pop up out of the air. Suddenly we are engrossed or not. How did that happen? Why did it happen? How on earth does one articulate the sensation? It is a puzzle. Often I can’t even begin to verbalize until I have lived with the feeling of a piece for a few days. Now, how does that work if you have a writing deadline?
What about finding the perfect word to uncover your experience as well as capture the imagination of a complete stranger? How do you find words that can be respectful of the artist you are writing about as well as questioning them if you are confused? Do I know enough about what I want to write about to write anything? (I will never know enough.)
Words will never touch what it means to create dance. Words will never capture the dreams, the sweat, the politics, the years of study, the rage, or the poetry. No one person will ever be sensitive enough to capture every nuance of meaning in a gesture, nor will writers always be able to put what they see in a context that can illuminate a dance work's importance in the history of the art or, for that matter, in the history of life, the universe and everything.
Words are as imperfect as the people who write them, but unlike people and dance they last. We die. WORDS LAST. DANCE EVAPORATES. WORDS LAST. So shouldn’t we dance types and dance enthusiastic types (audience members, board members, dance fans, I am talking to you) try to make peace with words, and perhaps learn to use them a bit more in support of the art form we love?
Isn’t there more hope for the dance of the future if people who love the art form passionately and have curiosity about it communicate that?
Shouldn’t more of us speak up or write out loud?
Why save all the great opinions and insights for friends at the bar after the show?
Why not commit these insights formally somewhere?
Talking about dance work is engaging. A variety of opinions, from a variety of people on similar topic broaden the topic and infuse it with vitality. Sounds appealing, no?
Try it out after a show. Let us know what you think. There is no need for participants to be brilliant. You do not have to be a professional writer or a professional dancer (some enthusiasm would be nice.)
In our Audience Review section, we ask for words. Simple words. Direct words. Lists even. Our system may not be perfect, but it is a great beginning to an important process. We want to get the world talking about dance. Perfection is not required... but involvement is.
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