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Dance: Dance from A to A:  Aesthetics to Athletics

By Francine L. Trevens
ART TIMES April online 2013

Helen Hansen French, of Buglisi Dance Theatre
Helen Hansen French, of Buglisi Dance Theatre,
in Jacqulyn Buglisi's Requiem
(photo by Kristin Lodoen Linder)

About 70 years ago when I first became aware of dance forms, I thought there were only a few kinds – ballroom dancing which was smooth and graceful: ballet, which was elegant with beautiful movements and poses which flowed like silk: musical play dances, which were slightly more exciting and a little more in your face, and of course, regular people dancing, which was attempting to attain the grace of the other forms.

Going to a dance event – the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, the New York City Ballet, or Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet you knew you would enter a world of enchantment and fantasy, where beauty prevailed. It was unreal. It was a dream come alive, a fairy tale world in which people flowed, glided and virtually flew rather than walked.

You knew there would be a pas de deux where the lead dancers would display their technical brilliance together and separately. You knew there would be nothing ugly or awkward in movement.  You were ready for the extensions of graceful arms and legs.

Then I became aware of new dances such as the jitterbug, which were lively and exciting but not so beautiful. Nor was the music as elegant and timeless as the works of the masters who scored the ballets. The old masters of music who had been adapted to ballet, as well as those who wrote for the ballet, and the new masters such as Stravinsky and Copland all created music that built to marvelous crescendos and conveyed all the emotion which the dancers themselves seemed not to feel.  The dancers seemed one step removed from reality and pain and grief and desire.

The story ballets allowed for slightly more emotional displays, but even here the constrictions of ballet made them appear beyond the reach of human tragedy or exultation.

Ballet was so ephemeral you never heard a footfall on the stages of the ballets. Lightness, airiness, spirituality were what they conveyed.

Music and dance have changed drastically in these 70 years. On screen it was obvious as the suavity of Fred Astaire, who was as in control of every muscle of his trained body as any premiere danseur, yielded to Gene Kelly whose entire body hung loose and danced with as much energy and spirit as his feet, who seemed to be the very music and emotional situation brought to life through his body.

Collective Body/Dance Lab.
Collective Body/Dance Lab.       (photo by Quinn Batson)

Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham moved dance along by allowing movements that were less graceful and more of a punctuation to the music than the strict structure of classical ballet which limited creativity.  They often thumped the ground and brought more of a contemporary reality to dance.

George Balanchine pushed the envelope at the New York City Ballet, which he founded in the forties.  He was a pioneering classical choreographer who hired modern dancers and loosened the stringent ties of the classical ballet.

Others followed, and music and dance was quickly taking on a more demanding beat, a more viral sound and movement.

Dances of sheer beauty, slow lingering poses and almost dainty lifts and embraces yielded to more erotic and interpretive dancing.

Ruth St. Denis introduced the Asian influence in dance while many others brought African rhythms and beats to the stage.

While I scarcely noticed, dance was becoming more free-flowing, with exciting lifts and leaps. It was also becoming more encompassing in terms of ethnic dance. Spanish dance, African-American companies, Irish dance, Japanese Dance, Chinese and more.

In the fifties Kabuki Dance appeared in a major Manhattan venue, but it was Japanese based, not an American company as we have today. Now we also have companies dedicated to woman’s issues, gay issues, male viewpoints and other specific topics.

I still recall when a touring troupe came to Boston with some classical ballets.  As the corps danced, there were murmurs from the audience.  When the only male dancer in the troupe lifted a white ballerina and let her gently slide down back to the ground there were actual gasps.  A hundred years after the civil war, and shock that a white woman and black man were dancing together on stage?  Now, 50 shades of skin color grace our stages and audiences are able to see beyond the color to the quality of the dancers.

Twyla Tharp was a rarity then – an American born choreographer who moved dance more towards athletics with experimental movements and contortions. Dance was no longer merely beautiful.  It was more virile and athletic.

While Nijinsky rocked the classical world with his Apres Midi d’un Faun – particularly scandalizing audiences when his faun made love on a raised ground formation to a woman’s scarf. This may have been the beginning of dancing with one’s body prone.

It was cleverly staged, not at the edge of a flat stage, but further back and raised so that everyone could see his every lunge and shiver.

Now it seems you can scarcely attend a dance event without having dancers sprawling and stomach crawling about the stage.  But today, the stage floor is either flat or raked slightly forward. And choreographers have their prostrate figures way down stage, where members of the audience with someone taller than they sitting in rows ahead are unable to see much of the movement.

Colonial Nutcracker
The cast of The Colonial Nutcracker at  Brooklyn Center.
( Photo by Rob Reynolds)

Pilobolus made human bodies into combined pieces of sculpture. Often, as they quickly spun and slithered and stretched into place you had no idea what image they were building until it was complete.

There are now dances which are intricately connected with light – where quirky black outs make it seem as if the dancer has magically moved from place to place, from attitude to attitude.

Wives no longer need to drag reluctant husbands to dance events. Men are no longer merely supports for ballerinas, they have created and perform dances of virility and excitement and even athletic agility unthought-of seventy years ago.

Then dance events were often clustered around holiday time, or the occasional troupe touring the cities.  Now there is hardly an area in the U.S. where there are not proficient professional dance troupes within an hours commute.

While musical movies used to have long dance sequences, they now frequently have none.  But the stage has swelled with all the new concepts and movements and companies and dance has never been more accessible, more vibrant and diverse.  The selection is infinite. Enjoy it in all its forms or only in those few you like.

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