". . . Finally I shouted at him that I had come to Europe to bring about a great renaissance of religion through the Dance to bring the knowledge of the Beauty an Holiness of the human body through its expression of movements, an d not to dance for the amusement of over-fed Bourgeoisie after dinner."
From "My Life" by Isadors Duncan
ISADORA DUNCAN was describing her rejection of an offer from a wealthy German impresario who wanted to sponsor her in what he, unwisely, kept referring to as her "barefoot act."
Few modern dancers nowadays would express themselves quite so extravagantly or would happily give voice to such unfettered arrogance. Nonetheless, Duncan's views on theincompatibility of art and popular theater still thrive.
Modern dancers still ride on the faith that searching out the new is a worthier and more rewarding pastime than traffic in known forms and on the theory that the freshest and most original work of a given period is likely to arise, not in civic halls and opera houses, but in the outstations of Bohemia. There's an unspoken nition that lofts and garrets are more conducive to the health of art than opera houses, and an assumption that "experimental" dance is less predictable and more adventurour than other forms - assumptions on a level with the notion that poverty is morally superior to wealth or that good things come in small packages.
It's true that popularity an dpredictability often go together. The audience for Alvin Ailey or "Chorus Line" or Ukrainian folk dance knows what it likes and is not likely to be disappointed in its expectations. Likewise, one "Swan Lake" is pretty much like another - even if the skirts are shortened in one version, or the steps change, or several bars are omitted from the Dance of the Cygnets. "The Nutcracker" is always and forever "The Nutcracker" no matter who's been fiddling with it recently.
Modern dance, on the other hand, begins in provocation, and audiences go expecting to be challenged, or surprised. If they aren't always challenged, it's because the conception frequently falls short of the desire. And if they're not always surprised, it's because modern dance, like any other discipline, has spawned its own cliches.
In Twyia Tharp's wake, for instance, a whole generation of choreographers has taken to enlivening formal dance movement with whimsical infusions of nostalgic or popular dance styles. The current enthusiasm for Adidas and running shorts seems to come from the same source, although athletic imagery has been used in ballet and modern dance since th e'50s. Many of Tharp's admirers seem content to borrow the mannerisms without adding anything fresh in the way of insight or invention. But merely lacing up your new Adidas and launching into an old soft shoe isn't enough to make it new or certify you as a member of the avant-garde.
The chair dance is another case of style replacing substance: a dance hung on a physical scaffold instead of the scaffold of an idea. The performer dances on, around, under, or with, a chair, the range of movement depending on the flexibility of the choreographer's imagination and the dancer's limbs. Occasionally a table is substituted for the chair. Or a box. It doesn't really matter, as long as the choreaographer and the dancer have something to lean on. The substitution may alter the suggested meanings and images slightly, but not the basic form.
The idea itself is hardly new. Tap-dancers have been doing chair dances for years. And in Eastern cultures, they've been dancing sitting down for centuries. Martha Graham's "Lamentation" (1930) was, among other things, an early and distinguished example of the species by a modern dancer. (She used a bench rather than a chair.)
There's nothing wrong with the chair dance per se. Given an odd angle or a fresh insight, the oldest idea can take on new life.But it's not enough for a modern dancer to simply drag the corpse back on stage and prop it up. There has to be some reason for bringing it back. Something else to be said or done.
The insistence that something new or different should happen is an honorable outgrowth of the same passion for varied sensation that drives people to theater or to art in the first place. In the context of modern dance, however, the claim takes on particular intensity.
We don't demand of ballet that it be radical or bizarre or shocking. The emulation of revered models is a respected part of ballet tradition, as in the Soviet Union today, for instance, where young dancers struggle to reproduce the precise style and manner of a famour interpreter in a given role. The balletomane is perfectly content to see the same ballets, or new versions of the same ballets over and over again (although he welcomes ever more sublime performances). But modern dance did not evolve, as did ballet, out of an officially sanctioned set of tastes and sensibilities. It was born of willful perversity, and, for better or worse, the leading figures in modern dance from Duncan through Martha Graham andMerce Cunningham and on up through the Judson dancers and the present generation have liked to present themselves as revolutionaries, reformers and rebels, the enfants terribles of dance.
It's matter of self-image and projected image. The pioneers in the movement, and those who followed, believed they were breaking new ground by finding new subject matter for dance and new ways of using the body. For modern dance, as for modernism in the arts in general, emphasis is on originality and on the evolution of a personal, stylistic signature.
In the long run, originality is probably a shaky concept on which to base an esthetic. But for now, the hope of doing something radically new is inherent in the whole enterprise of modern or experimental dance. That's why we don't cavil at an umpteenth "Giselle" or "Les Patineurs," but feel vaguely disquleted at the prospect of yet another chair dance, or yet another somber landscape full of angst and symbolism, or yet another evening of nostalgia and whimsy.
A quest for absolute originality - all the time - is doomed to failure, and modern dance, like any other discipline has styles and trends - lines of close resemblance which arise when choreographers share common influences and preoccupations. Nudity, which was still popular about five years ago, seems to be out these days, but we're seeing lots of heaping and hoisting and schlepping of bodies: the sack-of-potatoes syndrome. The heaping and hoisting and schlepping is interesting because, in its more intelligent manifestations, it reflects a common fascination with body weight and leverage, inertia and interacting balances.
This fascination is an active ingredient in the organic, quasi-gymnastic group assemblages of a company like Pilobolus, for instance, or in the odd lifts and crashing falls which make the work of Senta Driver's "Harry" so alarming, or in Steve Paxton's Contact Improvisation or a collaboration like Dinae Frank and Deborah Riley's recent "Overlap." There's an introspective focus and a tentative, almost probing quality to the movement and development that sets these dances apart from what we've seen before.
Although dancers working in this vein today share common traits, the work is still alive and interesting becaue it contains alleys of continuing exploration and discovery. A vein of invention doesn't begin to go dead until the outer forms of the experiment appear as pure convention although no genuine inquiry is going on. When this happens, the dance is no longer experimental, even if the dancers cheerfully take off all their clothes or gallop around with tennis rackets or cavort with chairs or rolls of paper towelling.
At its most exciting, modern dance communicates a sense of exploration an adventure, a commitment to the process of discovery instead of to the perfection of a product. The pleasure of attending modern dance concerts lies in the opportunity it gives us to participate, however indirectly, in the process, to eavesdrop on the seeking and the losing again. Sometimes it's in the failed pieces that the goal can be most clearly perceived: It's a widening of perception one is looking for here.
The two dance memories of recent years which best sum up for me the insights modern dance can provide come from works in which the consciousness of process runs most visibly. One is the somnambulistic flow of sounds and images in Meredith Monk's "Paris" and "Venice/Milan."
The other is an image of Kei Takei in "Light, pt. 3," squatting motionless in the spotlight's beam, like a gold-panner waiting or listening. There's a sound like running water, and, in the half-light, we see other dancers dressed in white moving and gesticulating. It's as if all the movement around Takei flowed out of her stillness. Or rather, as if a stream of energy were flowing from an unseen source, through her, to generate the active dance around her.