Notes: Towards an Embodied Art
Let’s talk about dancers. It’s not as easy as you might think.
A is small in her motions, pretty in her gestures, light in leaps in spite of a less-than-slim frame. When she’s still, nothing happens; you don’t look at her, she doesn’t seem promising. In fact, she even seems a little petulant, irritated that you’re not looking. Yet when she moves, she gives up the spoiled little-girl pose. Or she doesn’t give it up; she escapes from it and from herself in fast footwork, in the sudden elevation of a jump. Meanwhile, the curled-tendril tracings of her hands and head enact her little fears, her little desires.
It’s difficult not to think of, more difficult not to write of all this as evidence of her psyche. She must be wounded. She’s a James character. She has this one way, this gift for beauty, to redeem herself from her petty life… offstage, you wouldn’t want to know her.
I’m exaggerating, but only a little. For example:
This is a spirit that weeps about its limits… She does not ignite the audience with the fire of her talent but extends over them the palpitating cover of all those tears, as yet unborn but already tormenting her heart.
— Akim Volynsky ON Olga Spessivtseva, QUOTED IN THE REVIEW “Appraising Grace”
BY Tony Bentley, The New York Times
Admittedly, this example comes from a Russian critic of the last century, but it’s common even in today’s dance writing to speak of a dancer’s innocence, passion, and spirit without acknowledging the dangerous assumption we’re making. I’ll call this longstanding habit of dance the “psychological fallacy” — everything we see is the dancer’s own soul, usually laid bare by the skill of the choreographer, which allows her to become what she really is. Whether a dancer has anything compelling to embody is not a matter she can do anything about.
Another dancer: K is tall, with long legs and arms and a tiny torso. Her feet look like modeling clay; she keeps going right over what would be anyone else’s maximum arch, spinning on a bent bow. Every joint in her body hyperextends so that she’s voluptuously curvy in spite of being impeccably thin, and every curvilinear move extends miles into space.
A body like this tempts critics to write about the dancer as if she were a thoroughbred horse. What’s assessed is the quality of the dancer’s frame, taken as if it were an absolute. The dancer either has or does not have exquisite feet. Her flexibility is innate, independent of training and usage. And there’s an envious implication hidden in criticism of this sort: in that body, anybody could dance, the critic seems to say. If, with that body, the dancer fails to live up to expectations, it’s because she’s lazy, or worse: crossing this physical fallacy with the psychological fallacy, we could claim (as some critics don’t hesitate to) that, sadly, this glorious machine is wasted on a vulgar girl.
Both the physical and psychological fallacies deny the dancer any art. The genius of her performance comes from her body or her soul; there’s no room for her to be an agent in her own dance. The physical fallacy does make room for her skills, but technique alone does not make a dance artist, any more than the ability to draw a horse makes a visual artist.
Another mode of criticism borrows the language of classical music criticism. We hear about the “handling” of phrases, about rubato and interpretation. This mode allows her art, but denies her embodiment. The dancer is envisioned as manipulating her performance; there’s no sense that she lives there, too.
The problem is clear: altogether, current modes of describing dancers stop short of achieving a verbal record of an embodied art. I’m not casting blame; I do it too.
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