Last night Hobgoblin and I went to see a dance performance in New York City. This was a new experience for me as I’d never been to a professional dance performance before. We went with a colleague of mine and her husband; she is the one whose class on creativity and the arts I am sitting in on this semester in order to teach it myself in the future. Part of the training process I’m undergoing is for my mentor and I to attend some arts event of our choosing, which the school will pay for. So I decided I wanted to see an art form I’m not terribly familiar with, hence our trip.
We saw a performance by the Stephen Petronio Company; there were two dances in the first half of the show, the first one loosely telling a story about a woman at a beach who meets a sexy but amusingly ignorant man. The second one was more abstract; it had music by Rufus Wainwright that used poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in the lyrics. What stood out to me most was the point when the lyrics began repeating Dickinson’s line “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”; the entire dance was performed in simple costumes with nothing on the stage and lighting that would change with different sections of the music, and at the point where Dickinson’s line began, the light warmed to a bright orange color and the dancing was exuberant and acrobatic – hopeful – with lots of leaps and pirouettes. After an intermission a longer piece was performed with five sections, each one with different music and a different concept. I didn’t quite figure out how all the pieces fit together, but each one had, if not its own story, then an idea or a feeling that the dance communicated.
I have trouble when it comes to describing the dances themselves, though; I have a much easier time writing about costumes, lighting, and music. These things seem more concrete to me. In my colleague’s class we are talking about terms with which to analyze dance, terms such as line, stage use, symmetry and asymmetry, geometrical patterns, and form. I was able to pick out some of these elements in the dances; I noticed now and then the use of the canon form, or I’d see how the bodies were symmetrical or the use of line was particularly effective or the choreographer was using space of the stage in an interesting way.
But when it comes to dance moves themselves I don’t really know what to say; I recognized some moves that come from ballet, but there was much more going on and I have no vocabulary with which to describe it. I watched some of the more intricate scenes, and I couldn’t imagine how the choreographer could possibly think all this up. I know there must be a dance language, a vocabulary of moves and a tradition of how to put these moves together – a syntax I suppose – but I know nothing of the language and so feel speechless.
We talked about this after the performance and I found others felt similarly uncertain, and it reminded me of how some people feel about poetry and the challenge of analyzing a poem. Readers don’t need a critical vocabulary to respond to poetry, but without it they can feel at sea and so shy away from attempting a response at all.
What was interesting for me, though, was the degree to which I was comfortable with knowing I was not fully getting it, knowing that while I was appreciating the beauty of the dance there was so much communicated through it that I couldn’t understand. I think I am much more comfortable dealing with not getting it in dance than I am in poetry, an area I have much more experience with; when I come across a poem whose meaning I feel I can’t penetrate I can get frustrated because I feel I should get it, whereas with some of the more obscure dance sequences I didn’t mind feeling lost. There was something freeing about not having the expertise to fully understand what was going on. I could relax and just let it happen. That’s not to say I would ever want to give up what expertise I have in order to approach a poem with that freedom, but I did appreciate how experiencing something new forced me to find the pleasure in being a beginner.