Watching the marvelous Paul Taylor troupe performing for public TV's "Dance in America" series this past week set me to thinking, for the umpteenth time, about abstraction in dance.
The program's narrator, using Taylor's own words, says, about the work called "Esplanade," that it "doesn't have a dance movement in it." Instead, he continues, it is based on "walking, running, jumping, skipping - things you see in the streets."
The fact is, however, that what you see on the screen is a far cry from anything you'd ever see in any street.
Rather, you see carefully selected and highly trained bodies, in bare feet and dancers' tights, extending the locomotive basics of walking, running, and so forth, into complex, intricately coordinated spatial and rhythmic patterns - i.e., choreography.
So what, then, does "abstract" dance consist of? In the common parlance of the dance world, "The Nutcracker" is termed a "story ballet," which is to say, a dance pageant with a cast of identifiable characters who act out a dramatic plot to music. Taylor's "Esplanade," or Balanchine's "Jewels" or Ashton's "Monotones" would be referred to, by way of drawing a distinction, as abstract.
Right away there's trouble because the Snowflake dance in "Nutcracker," as an example, fills most of the usual criteria for abstraction, while there are passages in "Esplanade" and "Jewels" that appear to be as specific in reference and as rich in emotional implication as almost anything in "Nutcracker."
A word about terminology. When people talk about abstract dance, what they often mean, strictly speaking, is non-representational dance. They have in mind a dance, say, like Balachine's "Symphony in C," in which not only is no story told or impersonation intended, but in which also the dancers' movements don't imitate or correspond to anything one might run across in real life situations. It's just movement "for movement's sake."
Abstract dance, by contrast, maintains a relationship, if tenuous or schematic, to actually. "Esplanade" could be said to be abstract walking and running, etc. In painting, the cubist figures of Picasso's "Three Musicians" are clearly abstractions; the colors and shaps of a typical Rothko, however, are non-representational.
But there is a sense in which all the-atrical performances as abstract, if they are looked upon as actions in which certain words, gestures, sounds and movements have been lifted out of (i.e., abstracted from) real surroundings and presented to us - in stylized form, on a stage - for our esthetic contemplation. If a man runs around a pool chasing a bathing beauty, that's not "dance." But if a danseur runs around a stage in pursuit of a ballerina, which happens not only in "Nutcracker," but in "Esplanade" and "Jewels" as well, much the same kind of physical action becomes transmitted into performance.
In this latter case, our interest centers not so much on whether he'll catch up with her, or what she'll do when he does, as on the expressive qualities of the running - on how clearly, forcefully and graciously the movement conveys the man's desire or the woman's reticence.
But this brings us to the heart of the matter, which is that dance can never be absolutely abstract or non-representational because it is inseparably bound to the human figure. At this point, someone is likely to cite the case of Alwin Nikolais, who uses lights, projections and costuming to disguise, distort or even entirely conceal the body. Even in the works of Nikolais, though, the body is the inevitable base and measure of movement.
Possibly instrumental music of the formal, non-imitative variety can attain, alone among the arts, an estate of pure abstraction. Mozart's symphonies are, heaven knows, expressive, but the musical tones of which they consist have no direct analog in everyday experience. The sounds emitted by violins, oboes or timpani don't occur either in nature or the world of human fabrication, save for the concert hall. Mozart's "expression" comes from the purely formal traits he has imposed on these tones, the internal relationships between them, their gait and flow.
Similar relationships - of line, shape, energy and rhythm - lie at the crux of the expressive powers of dance. But dance, aside from such borderline cases as kinetic sculpture or abstract video-dance, can't occur in the absence of bodies, and as soon as you have bodies you have, by implication, sensations, feelings and even stories. If a man bends to the knee in a reverent attitude in front of a woman, as happens in the fourth movement of "Esplanade," this doesn't automatically turn him into the Nutcracker Prince and her into Sugar Plum.
But the idea of romantic worship is not only unavoidably evoked, it is also clearly a part of the motivation of the choreography at this point. It may not signify anything quite as blatantly literal as "he worships her." But within the interplay of dynamic tensions, which is the substance of the dance, a fleeting emblem of lyrical adoration is an ummistakeable element.
Until the 20th century, theatrical dance was by and large content to be associated with dramatic spectacles, though these were filled with abstract ensembles and pas de deux along with fanciful stories. Fokine's "Les Sylphides" is often pointed to as a surviving early example of story-less ballet, and hence a harbinger of the modern penchant for abstraction, and Fokine was already under the influence of Isadora Duncan (who had visited Russia twice by the time "Les Sylphides" was composed) and her own new brand of poetic abstractions inspired by music.
But it probably wasn't until Merce Cunningham came along that a choreographer set forth deliberatly to exclude literal or allusive meanings from dance. How curious to note that even Cunningham ends up with titles like "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run," and with dances that, in spite of themselves, illuminate the connections between movement and feeling.
Perhaps tne most radical step in this same direction occurred when choreographers like Ann Halprin and Yvonne Rainer, in a typical '60s effort to banish the "artiness" from dance, began to use dancers with untrained bodies to perform ordinary, workaday movements. In place of the stylized walks, runs and skips of Taylor's "Esplanade," Halprin and Rainer and others of similar bent gave us the real thing, using these "unesthetic" movements as artistic ingredients in the same way that 20th-century composers have used the noise and din of the actual world as part and parcel of their scores.
The paradox here is that when dance became most abstract, in the sense of being most remote from story-telling or allegories, it demonstrated its most conspicuous links with real life. The line between abstraction and literalism in dance is never as sharp as it may seem.