The future of dance and its aesthetics: truth, beauty and goodness?

Sarma 1 Aug 2002English

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Contextual note
This text was presented as a lecture in Autumn 2002 in Essen (Germany), in combination with Baervoets' performance 'Swollip'. It was first published on Sarma on the occasion of its colloquium 'Unfolding the Critical' (March 2003), where Baervoets took part in a dialogue.

If I speak to you today about the future of dance aesthetics, it should be understood that I do this from a certain perspective. I was born and raised in Western Europe and this fact colours my perception of the world and of the works of art that come to my attention. Further, I can only speak about tendencies that I believe are becoming important from my point of view as a practitioner and, of course, I don’t have a crystal bowl and the future of dance might prove me to be wrong.

Throughout its history, in order to fit onto a stage, dance has been severely codified. Whereas dance in its original form is an act one would rather take part in than look at, stage dancing seems to be ruled by the Platonic concept of the World of Ideas.

The Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) believed that what we perceive is only a reflection of the real world, the real world being the world of the Ideas. The world of the senses in which we live is ephemeral and relative and can not fulfil our need for truth, beauty and goodness. So, to find truth, beauty and goodness, we need to strive higher than the everyday reality, a task that is reserved to philosophers, scientists and artists.

Plato’s theory, as much as the doctrines of Christianity and other idealistic believes, led to the division of the universe in good and bad, in beautiful and ugly, in right and wrong. We still continue to think in these schemes of hierarchy, and we fear that if man does not strive for perfection, he will sink into evil.

Ethics and aesthetics seem to go together. But, I ask you: do artists have a moral duty? Is it our task to make mankind a better mankind? Are we some kind of high priests or defenders of Beauty and Truth and Goodness? (Or is this the task of the programmers?)

In the early twentieth century, a French fine artist named Marcel D. displayed an urinoir in an exhibition and called it a work of art. By this act, the artist reached the rank of the gods. He didn’t need his hands any longer to create. It was all in his mind. Was he a genius or a fool? What we know for sure, is that he believed in a certain hierarchy for he was calling himself an artist, that is – in the Platonic belief – a person with a higher sense of perception. Or was he only fooling us?

We could say the act of Marcel D. was Platonism in its highest form, as the idea or the concept of the work was all that mattered. The work of Marcel D. has always been regarded as controversial and even revolutionary. In a way this is true, but it can also be considered as the final conclusion of very old conventions.

Man has a tendency to strive for perfection. But how do we need to understand this notion. Is it – as Plato suggested – this unreachable World of Ideas? Or do we follow Aristotle (384-322 BC), who sees man as the centre of human reality, and do we accept the world in which we live - with all its defaults – as the ultimate reality?

To Aristotle, reality is a dynamic process, a process of development, an unfolding of what is already in the germ. The concrete individual thing is not a shadowy appearance but the primary reality. The outward and material world, the diverse manifestations of nature’s life, organic and inorganic, the processes of birth and decay, the manifold forms of sensuous beauty, all gained a new importance for his philosophy. Art was the manifestation of a higher truth, the expression of the universal which is (…) presupposed in each particular. The work of art was not a semblance opposed to reality, but the image of a reality which is penetrated by the idea, and through which the idea shows more apparent than in the actual world (Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, ed. S.H. Butcher, p.160-161). ? It is a choice between ideality and universality. To Aristotle, art is an abstract of what all men are in their humanity.

You may think of these statements as all very theoretical and having very little to do with dance, so let us turn to dance. Stage dancing has been caught in a number of conventions that all come forth from the same Platonic principles, which were amplified throughout its history, mainly by the influence of Christianity and Cartesian philosophy.

In its early days of court ballet, dance was highly symbolic. The king and his court members would personify gods (Louis XIV as Apollo, e.g.), demi-gods and heroes in a perfect world of illusion. Under influence of Neo-Platonic philosophers, on an abstract level, these dances were even believed to bring peace and wealth to the nation. More than an art form, dance was a matter of politics and power.

Of course, there was very little place for any sort of naturalism in this idealised world: nymphs were common, farmers were non existent. When the professionals of the ballet later took over and stage dancing gradually became the art as we know it today, this idealising tendency was kept as an essential, if not its quintessential character.

The consequences of this historical background for today’s dancing are manifold. First of all, we generally consider choreography to have some sort of abstract essence. The choreography exists in an ideal form – as if it were an Idea – that is to be striven for at every performance of the work but that is never fully reached. In other words, the performance is only a shadow of the real work.

Another consequence of the idealistic way of conceiving dance performances is that the performers who bring this ideal performance to life are necessarily reduced to schematic bodies. Only perfect young bodies can embody the idealistic choreography.

But, do we have an alternative for this way of constructing dance performances?

A couple of centuries ago, an English scientist named Isaac N. once got an apple on his head while lying under a tree and concluded that gravity was painful, but could not repeat this experiment as he was unable to predict when and where the next apple would fall.

Therefore, scientists such as Isaac N. would reduce reality to laboratory data in order to simplify reality. But this method would prove invalid when it came to researching more complex matters in which process is concerned, such as evolution or weather processes. Scientists these days are no longer looking for simplified notions – Ideas; they try to understand more the dynamics of complex processes.

One can see movement too as a process, like the weather or the growing of the tree or the assembly of the people in this conference. These are no concepts, but reality. They are not static, but dynamic. To work within this sort of situation, one cannot work with one time decisions. One way out for sure, and here I am referring to my own work, is to develop strategies of organisation. You could compare it to football, a game with a very limited set of rules that can be played over and over again. It will never be exactly the same game, but in essence it will always be football. Or, you could compare it to a walk in the woods. In this case neither, you would decide beforehand on every step or every turn or stop. You’ll see during the walk which trees will catch your attention or which animal will cross your path. You will not know how the weather will be or which bird will whistle which tune when. But all of this is exactly what walking is about: a lively experience.

Of course, if we start constructing dance this way, it also means a change in aesthetics. The audience has to get used to a dance in which virtuosity is no longer so important, or symmetry, or ideal bodies. What dance would gain by this procedure though, is the excitement of the here and now, the uniqueness of every step or decision taken during the performance of the work.

I would like to add one last argument about alternative ways of choreographing. In the nineteenth century, the invention of photography meant a shock to the painters and to those people who believed that painting was about copying reality, and thus photography gave way to a cascade of experiments in the fine arts. In a similar way, the invention of film and later and more importantly so video – because of its lower cost and simpler technology – should maybe lead choreographers to think over alternatives for the traditional way of choreographing. When it comes to repeating the same movements again and again, the video does a better job.

And finally, and here I get to a more ethical level: instead of turning to the absolute, why not live on a human scale? Do we really still believe in the existence of the World of Ideas? Can we not accept the simple facts of life and is there no more humane way of dancing?

I would like to conclude with a statement by the American dance critic Jill Johnston who was a vigorous supporter of the Judson Church movement and that to me still sounds up to date: “No plots or pretensions. People running. Hurray for people.”