writing dance, moving words
This week's Forest of Imagination artist, Alison Harper, looks for the unexpected in the world around her.
Her ways of seeing the 'extraordinary' 'amid the familiar and everyday' reminded me that, even though we cannot (in Covid times) watch dancers in theatres, we can see the extraordinary slow dance of trees. These old witch hazels in my local park perform their dance while generations of humans and dogs pass by.
In 2011, I ran a Creative Writing Workshop entitled Writing Dance, Moving Words, at Tacchi Morris Arts Centre, Taunton. I've copied the outline and research for the workshop below. The parallels between choreography and writing are fascinating.
Writing Dance, Moving Words
"My men like satyrs grazing on the lawns, / Shall with their goat-feet dance an antic hay."
- Christopher Marlowe
“At first glance, writing may seem not nearly so much an art of the body as, say, dancing or gardening or carpentry. And yet language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths; it is our langue, our tongue. Writing it, we shape it with our hands. Reading aloud what we have written -- as we must do, if we are writing carefully -- our language passes in at the eyes, out at the mouth, in at the ears; the words are immersed and steeped in the senses of the body before they make sense in the mind.”
Wendell Berry, from ‘What Are People For?’ (Counterpoint, 2010)
To celebrate Tacchi-Morris, this creative writing workshop will take dance as its inspiration. We can see parallels between writing and dance – rhythm, imagery, repetition, balance – and will explore these through games and short writing exercises, to produce poems and descriptive pieces.
Choreography / Writing involves thought about coherence, cohesion, transitions, shape, syntax, gesture (vocabulary) choice, focus, theme, introductions, development of ideas, detail and specificity, intention, audience, the ending, voice, and a host of other aspects that a professional writer considers and a novice writer ignores or knows nothing about.
A mosaic of _________________________________ glued together by _________________________________.
Art: An ironic sense of the sophisticated and crude in wedlock.
A stew of _________________________________ cooked together by _________________________________.
Food: A plain, subtle but earthy sense of movement.
A hodgepodge of _________________________________ blended together by _________________________________.
Visual: An awkward, chaotic and moving sense.
A symphony of _________________________________ brought into harmony by _________________________________.
Music: A auditory sense of pleasing flow, clarity and co-operation.
A soup of _________________________________ stirred together by _________________________________.
Food: As with stew, a plain, subtle but earthy sense of movement.
A troupe of _________________________________ choreographed by _________________________________.
Dance: An organized sense of movement, flow and rhythm.
A cacophony of _________________________________ harmonized by _________________________________.
Music: A self deprecating sense of controlled chaos.
A flock of _________________________________ herded by _________________________________.
Farming: A sense of free movement brought into dynamic control.
A gathering of _________________________________ hosted by _________________________________.
Social: A sense of willing participation in a group atmosphere.
A salad of _________________________________ tossed by _________________________________.
Food: A fun, self deprecating sense of randomness.
A dryer-load of _________________________________ tumbled together by _________________________________.
Household: A ludicrously expressed sense of randomness.
A clockwork of _________________________________ synchronized by _________________________________.
Time: A sense of clean, precise mechanical order.
A spectrum of _________________________________ focused by _________________________________.
Visual: A vivid sense of color and control. (compare: rainbow)
A tour through the _________________________________ guided by _________________________________.
Tourism: A sense of transient non-committal interest.
A basket of _________________________________ woven by _________________________________.
Farming: A sense of crafty complexity from simple roots.
A bushel of _________________________________ gathered by _________________________________.
Farming: A sense of harvesting ideas; earthy and tangible.
A symphony of _________________________________ conducted by _________________________________.
Music: A sense of controlled flow and yielding unity.
A blend of _________________________________ sifted together by _________________________________.
Cooking: A sense of movement and fine integration.
A cocktail of _________________________________ shaken (not stirred!) together by _________________________________.
Cooking: An indelicate forcing together of elements.
A quilt of _________________________________ stitched together by _________________________________.
Household: A timeless, patient sense of craftwork.
Notes and research
But we weren't supposed to take notes; we were supposed to train our body to remember, which is another way of saying to think. I could not use writing to learn, as I always had. This stymied me from the start. I began to mutter words to myself, things like, "first we're going to swing our arms up, then bring up the right leg -- no, that's the left leg -- no, wait, we're working on the left side, so it's the right leg." I was trying to write, regardless of instructions to the contrary.
The second discovery came gradually. Learning to dance is like learning to write: The two processes share the same mental, even physical, space. I thought about coherence, cohesion, transitions, shape, syntax, word choice, focus, theme, introductions, development of ideas, detail and specificity, intention, audience, the ending, voice, and a host of other aspects that a professional writer considers and a novice writer ignores or knows nothing about. These and other ideas about writing manifested themselves in the dance studio as I struggled to bring order to my chaotic body. As my students would say, I had all these ideas, but I just couldn't seem to get them down. I felt as if I were quite literally writing my body in space and time, just as I would write a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a page. I began to rethink my view of writing and the teaching of writing as I sought to write my body.
Donna: A Dancer's Perspective
Ever since I can remember, my most satisfying modes of expression have been dancing and writing. As an adult stutterer, I have found that movement and the written word are havens for me, while speaking disturbs my perfectionist tendencies. Ironically, however, I am instinctively a very verbal person. Even so, when I lecture to my students, I do so with conscious deliberation, fearing the possibility of dysfluency. Although my stuttering is sporadic and never disrupts my communication of ideas, still, knowing what I want to say is the easy part. Thus, one could say I have a natural bias toward both dance and writing, a propensity that has ultimately affected how I think about arts and education.
Now, a couple of years later, I realize I was amidst a neurotic dance moment, something all dancers fall victim to now and again. In the course of one difficult day in the studio, we might decide we're fat, untalented, and unskilled before we snap out of it. Luckily, the body stutter never resurfaced. But I'm glad it happened once. The experience demonstrated to me how my students feel when their movement isn't fluent, even movement they know well enough to perform. And it reminded me of the student who hasn't found her way out of "choppy" writing patterns, despite her confidence with the topic. As we strive for perfect fluency and "flow," both dancers and writers, students and teachers, face humility.
Having a sense of the spatial dimensions of writing and of how using space affects the ease or difficulty of reading helps us figure out structural problems -- why certain sentences don't work together and how they might follow each other or be spatially related. Rearranging, which is a spatial concept as much as a linguistic one, solves the problem.
This principle also works for paragraphing -- a delicate, complex matter. We take it for granted, or belittle it, when we tell students that a paragraph contains one complete thought or that we create paragraphs based on sense or logic. Yes and no. Paragraphs are more like spatial phrases; they begin in one place, explore that place, and as a consequence of that exploration move to another place. We mark the movement spatially by indenting each new paragraph. But paragraphing can also be arbitrary, with paragraph boundaries shifting numerous times throughout the drafting life of an essay. Because long paragraphs look uninviting -- in the words of typesetters "gray" -- a final look at a manuscript might well result in several short paragraphs from a few long ones..
Then there's the matter of punctuation. As with paragraphing, we treat punctuation mechanically, when it is really movement through space, as important to a writer as the fluid use of the arms for a dancer. For instance, a dash -- like this -- uses space very differently than the colon: the ponderous, stuffy, Dutch uncle of punctuation. A dash pushes readers forward, a semi-colon slows us down, a comma asks us to pause briefly, a colon stops us short.
Understanding space can help writers effectively use spatial markers like first, next, then, however, on the other hand, let's turn to, or let's now move to. These let us know our direction. (They are also temporal markers because English connects time and space.) As with space breaks or subheads, a lack of spatial markers, or their misuse, can make a text seem disjointed, disconnected, or choppy. Writing can't "flow," students' favorite word for writing problems, when writers lack a sense of the spatial dimensions of prose; their texts are physically awkward. When students try to add spatial markers arbitrarily, thinking that the words automatically solve organizational problems, they soon realize where their spatial problems lie.
At first glance, writing may seem not
nearly so much an art of the body as,
say, dancing or gardening or
carpentry. And yet language is the most
intimately physical of all the artistic
means. We have it palpably in our
mouths; it is our langue, our tongue.
Writing it, we shape it with our
hands. Reading aloud what we have
written -- as we must do, if we are
writing carefully -- our language
passes in at the eyes, out at the mouth, in
at the ears; the words are immersed
and steeped in the senses of the body
before they make sense in the mind.
"Feminism, the Body, and the Machine" from his book What Are People For? (1990) Wendell Berry
Writing that has authority has weight. Yet students find it difficult to write weighty prose without overwriting. A misunderstanding of weight results in overblown vocabulary, syntactical convolutions, overwrought analogies. It also might result in putting too much weight on nouns and not enough on verbs, which are born to carry more weight than we usually give them. When students don't understand the concept of weight in writing -- or when we fail to convey this to them -- their writing is out of balance, like watching someone carry a precariously balanced stack of dishes; you expect disaster and yourself feel off-balance.
WRITING ABOUT DANCE
Most cultivated people are able to respond sensitively to and can discuss in a reasonably informed manner most or at least some of the fine arts. Yet when it comes to dance (Redfern, 1975) they seem totally lost. Two traditions have had something to do with this unusual state of affairs. In the remarks that follow, I discuss these traditions briefly, offer an introduction to dance (with an emphasis on modern dance), and provide a few hints on writing about dance.
1. Dance Criticism
We notice that the tradition of dance criticism is weaker than those of such fine arts as art and drama. Few writers in the field of dance have produced the "evocative criticism" we expect from writers like Donald Tovey (d. 1940) or Bernard Berenson (d. 1959) or F.R. Leavis (d. 1976), that is, criticism which catches and conveys something of the flavor of the work and is itself a work of art in its own right. In this regard, it was Clive Barnes, the New York based critic, who set the standard during the late 1960's and the early 1970's. Today, we look to Anna Kisselgoff, who writes for The New York Times, and Robert Everett-Green, who writes for the Globe and Mail.
Until recently (of course) the materials for appreciating dance have not been not available in an easily accessible form. The proliferation of films and video-tapes devoted to dance, not to mention televised performances, make a difference here.
2. Education Policies
In the past, the educational policies of high schools and universities have concentrated on the study of masterpieces in art, literature, drama, and music. Today, the notion of a "cannon" is itself suspect.
However, the proliferation of dance programs of the past three decades, together with the increasing availability of dances, on film and on tape, for example, has fostered the serious study of dance. These programs have shifted their emphasis slightly; instead of concentrating on performing work, they also encourage the practice of evaluating works. Most directors (of dance programs) strive to establish a balance between performance and appreciation: they believe that the one enriches the other. After all, the sort of appreciation that is possible during the dancer's performance is quite different from the appreciation that is possible for the spectator. Obviously, dancers cannot be aware of the work as a whole. For example, they cannot see what takes place behind their back.
An Introduction to Dance
Many people think of dance as human communication at its most basic level. Some form of dance can be found in every culture, regardless of its location or stage of development. It is easy to see that dance is a natural, universal human activity. Scholars tell us that dance sprang from religious needs; they say that the theater of ancient Greece developed out of that society's religious, tribal dance rituals. How is dance unique?
• For one thing, dance focuses on the human form, i.e., human bodies moving through time and space, shaping space as it were, reminding us of kinetic sculpture (Martin and Jacobus, 1997, p. 296).
• As well, abstract dance especially calls attention to visual patterns, reminding us of abstract painting.
• We also notice that dance calls attention to narrative, reminding us of drama.
• By the same token, we notice that dance is intensely rhythmic, unfolding in time, reminding us of music.
Normally, music accompanies dance; now and then, however, dance makes up part of opera.
Modern dance (the focus of my remarks here) utilizes four basic movements or activities: bend, stretch, twist, and rotate. To add weight, dancers accentuate movements in terms of space and time. To add color and texture, dancers accentuate movements in terms of ebb and flow. Via these movements, then, dances suggest mind, feelings (emotion), and body.
Dance is an art of time and space. It utilizes many of the elements that can be found in other arts.
1. Dance takes as its subject matter abstract motion, i.e., shapes and patterns.
2. As well, dance takes as a pervasive subject matter feelings: you might say that this is what dance is all about. The body exhibits feelings less abstractedly than music, i.e., the feelings are "embodied."
Our ability to identify with other human bodies is very strong; the dancer exhibits feelings and we in turn experience those feelings. The choreographer--who creates the dance--interprets the feelings for us. In this way, we understand these feelings--and ourselves--with greater insight.
3. Dance also explores states of mind. Feelings, such as pleasure and pain, are relatively transient; however, states of mind, such as attitudes, tendencies that engender feelings, endure for a longer period of time. For example, jealousy involves a strong feeling, which can be described as passion (p. 297).
The serial structure of the dance provides just the vehicle needed to interpret these enduring states of mind. What is revealed is not so much why things happen as the inner reactions to the happening (p. 298).
4. Narrative provides a subject matter for many dances. We think of Robert Helpmann's ballet, Hamlet, which takes Shakespeare's play as its subject matter. It interprets the inner life of a tragic drama.
Dance takes as its subject matter moving visual patterns, feelings, states of mind, and narrative, in various combinations. The form of the dance, the details and the parts as they work together to organize the structure, gives us insight into the subject matter. However, the details, the parts, and the structure are not as easily perceived as they are in painting, sculpture, or architecture, because the dance "moves on" relentlessly through time (pp. 298-99).
To enjoy the dance, we have to develop a memory of those movements. We do this by noticing the repetitive movement and the variations on those movements. We notice how the dance builds tension--by withholding movements we think should be repeated. Thus, repetition or the lack of it serves as an important "shaping" feature of the dance (p. 299).
We can identify a number of formal qualities:
The repetition of movements might be patterned on the repetition in the music. The musical structure of A-B-A is common. Often, the movements performed at the beginning are developed, enlarged, and modified in a later section, and then are repeated at the end, so as to help the viewer understand the full significance of the development.
Choreographers employ a number of techniques to give their dances balance. First, the dancers balance themselves across the space allotted to them. Second, they might give the dance centrality of focus, so that we see an overall shape. Third, the most important dancers take up center stage. Thus, we detect balance in terms of the relationship between the main dancers and the subordinate dancers and between individual dancers and the group.
Appreciating dance involves developing an eye for the ways these movements combine to create individual works. Modern dance develops a slightly different vocabulary.
The origins of modern dance can be traced to Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, who rejected the stylization of ballet, with ballerinas dancing on their toes and executing the same basic movements in very performance (pp. 311-12).
Duncan preferred natural movement; she danced bare footed, wearing gossamer drapery that showed her body and legs in motion. Also, she insisted on placing the center of motion just bellow the breastbone--the solar plexus. In this way, Duncan (d. 1927) and her followers infused a new energy into the dance. She based her dances on abstract subject-matter, especially states of mind and moods, and expressed her understanding of them via her movements. Her works tended to be lyrical, personal, and (often) extemporaneous. Her movements tended to be on-going; they rarely came to a complete rest (pp. 312-13).
Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey, and other innovators who followed developed modern dance in a variety of directions. For example, Graham created dances on themes of Greek tragedies, such as Medea (p. 313).
Graham (d. 1991) studied with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (at the Denishawn School), who pioneered instruction in Oriental and primitive techniques. It soon became clear that classical ballet was not for Graham; she preferred the uncharted terrain of human passions as translated into angular movements, flexed (not pointed) feet, and rhythmic "contraction and release" breathing. Graham became a virtuoso dancer.
In 1926, she organized her own company and school (in New York), where she developed the "Graham technique," which is reminiscent of ballet in its rigor and discipline. Graham's contraction is a common movement: this is the sudden contraction of the diaphragm with the resultant relaxation of the body. This movement builds on Duncan's emphasis on the solar plexus, but adds to that emphasis the systolic and diastolic rhythms of heartbeat and pulse (pp. 316-17).
At times, Graham's dances have been very literal, with narrative pretexts (as in ballet). In Night Journey, she interprets Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the dance accentuating the emotional links between Jocasta and her son-husband Oedipus (p. 317).
Life magazine selected (in 1991) Graham as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century.
Graham performed until she was 76. To many, she has made the greatest contribution to modern dance. Graham has been compared her to Picasso and Stravinsky. She created 181 dance altogether, ranging from Greek dances to collaborations with composers, e.g., Copland and Stravinsky. Most of the major choreographers in the USA have studied the Graham technique, including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp. Many actors have studied this technique too: Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Eli Wallack, Joanne Woodward, Diane Keaton, and Woody Allen. In an interview (1985), she said:
• To me, the body says what words cannot. I believe that dance was the first art. A philosopher has said that dance and architecture were the first two arts. I believe dance was the first because it's gesture, it's communication. That doesn't mean it's telling a story; it means it's communicating a feeling, a sensation to people.
• Dance is the hidden language of he soul, of the body. And it's partly the language we don't want to show. As Auden says: "We all have places where shy humiliations gambol on sunny afternoons."
• I don't believe in imitating the street on the stage. Why should you go in off the street and see the street on the stage. I believe you're going in to see gods and goddesses.
Tharp has developed a style pleasing to serious critics and dance amateurs, including a playfulness that seems appropriately modern. She has taken advantage of the new opportunities for showcasing dance on television, e.g., the Dance in America series. She has been particularly successful in adapting jazz of the 1920's and the 1930's to dance, e.g., "Sue's Leg" (1976), which features the music of "Fats" Waller (p. 321).
A few Hints on Writing about Dance
In writing about dance, we share our insight into the artfulness of a work; our task is to identify the artistic qualities which make up the work in question. This means helping readers perceive the form of the work, and thereby appreciate its content. Much more is required than such expressions of personal taste as: "I don't know anything about dance, but I liked it" or "I didn't like it."
Of course, the ephemerality of dance makes reviewing three-dimensional moving images exceptionally difficult.
1. A rather good place to start is to consider the title, as a device for directing or mis-directing the attention of the audience.
For example, Kurt Jooss's The Green Table features a Dance of Death in eight scenes (first performed in 1932): the movement of the figures (dressed in formal attire: top hat and tails) around a very long board-room table covered with regulation green cloth represents the endless and futile conferences of European politicians during the inter-war years, i.e., mobilization, combat, war profiteering, movement of refugees, and so on. All the time Death is featured in the background dancing out the rhythm of the ballet.
We should not forget that a dance comes across all at once, that is, it is fully comprehensible, no matter what we as observers bring to it in terms of concepts, interests, and so on.
2. Program notes, which may or may not outline the origins of the work, the choreographer's intentions, methods of presentation etc.
3. Technical aspects, such as the costumes, lighting, accompaniment, and so on.
4. Sculptural features, that is, the movement itself in terms of developing shapes and patterns. Notice how the "chase" shapes many films, especially westerns.
Dance is one of the most difficult of the arts to appreciate because, as Henry Moore argued, many people are blind to form. Moore claimed that, although many people attain some accuracy in the perception of flat form, they do not make further intellectual and emotional effort to comprehend form in its full spatial existence (quoted in Redfern, 1975). Moore argued that sculpture is probably the most difficult of the arts to appreciate.
A case might be made for the following argument: dance poses an even greater challenge, i.e., dance too exists in three-dimensional space: moving shapes and transient patterns unfold from one moment to the next.
Again: the basic material out of which dancers shape their works is movement, i.e., in terms of bending, stretching, twisting, and rotating movement, to express their minds, emotions, and bodies. Individual movements vary in quality, according to the space in which they are executed, the time taken to execute them, and the weight given them.
In other words, movements acquire color and texture according to whether they ebb or flow, whether they are bound or unbound. Such patterning as the straight line/chorus line say or the circle (cf. Martha Graham) shape movement in unique ways, i.e., giving it solidarity or wholeness as opposed to the sense of fragmentation no patterning at all might convey.
5. It goes without saying that different dancers bring different qualities to their performances. Think of the unusual qualities Merce Cunningham brings to his work, e.g., flexibility and fluidity.
6. The piece as a composition: this means "getting inside" the dance.
We think of choreography as the primary impulse behind what we see. At this level of perception a language specifically relevant to dance is needed, one that includes technical terms and the language of "physical reality." In other words, as reviewers we must become involved in what we see: we must describe what we see and feel and think.
In conclusion: Every writer who writes about dance faces the following problem: what we cannot describe to ourselves tends to pass us by as part of the formless unknown: what we do not notice we cannot attend to. Engaging in criticism of any kind helps us--as performers as well as spectators--to discipline our perceptions.
Barnes, C. "The Function of a Critic." In Visions, ed. M. Crabb. Toronto: Simmons and Pierre, 1976, pp. 76-80.
Coton, A.V. Writings on Dance, 1938-69. London: Dance Books, 1975.
Osborne, H. The Art of Appreciation. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Martin, F. David, and Lee A. Jacobus. The HUmanities through the Arts. 5th Edn. New York: The McGraw-Hill Comanies, Inc., 1997.
Redfern, B. "Developing Critical Audiences in Dance Education." In Collected Conferences Papers on Dance. Warwick: University of Warwick Arts Centre, 1975, ii, 59-76.
Taplin, D.T. "On Critics and Criticism of Dance." In New Directions in Dance, ed. D.T. Taplin. Toronto: Pergamon Press, 1979, pp. 77-91.
Wigman, M. The Language of Dance. London: MacDonald and Evans, 1966.
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I am Jo Backhouse, a writer and artist, with a BA(Hons) in Fine Art and an MA in Creative Writing.