Saturday, September 24, 2011

Staging Beauty

You can tell a new show with a new piece is close: I'm thinking about what people will think.  How will it go over?  What will people think!!

Enjoying the beauty of the movement is one of the most accessible ways to appreciate a performance.  As different as we all may be, we all have some sense of beauty, and a dance performance is likely to feed and challenge that sense.  Even if you don't know much about dance, can't figure out what it means, and/or don't know why you like it, the bodies you see can touch you deep down.  I remember going to my first dance performance and just crying (silently) throughout the whole thing.  I had no idea why.  Most recently, I had the same response to a performance of the Nederlands Dans Theater.  This time, I knew why, but I kept crying nonetheless.

Dancers are regularly in contact with ideas and realizations of beauty.  It's not the repeated applications of makeup that make us beautiful, though; it's the sweat and the work in the studio.  Barely a day goes by without one of us calling the other beautiful as we rehearse.  If we are not noting the beauty in ourselves, we are talking about a beautiful performance we've seen.  Somehow, even though it is a much-used way to respond, calling something beautiful is still a meaningful response.

But beauty also has its underside when it is seen as a necessary precursor for professional success.  I want to thank Eva Yaa Asantewaa at Infinite Body for unknowingly helping me frame my ideas and for connecting me to some important parts of the conversation.

A while ago, there was a large debate in dance and feminist circles about whether it was fair game to comment on a dancer's body.  I didn't write a full post on it, but my observations about how, in dance critic Alistair Macaulay's eyes, arm fat suddenly became connected to disability can be found here.  Dance Magazine has a 2008 piece on the role of the critic (the piece under discussion at Infinite Body), but buried even in that conversation is the question of beauty in a dancer -- and whether a critic can/should comment upon it.  There's a reference to the John Rockwell piece in which he discusses the virtues of technique and beauty -- dancers should be physically beautiful as well as have astounding technique (NYT: subscription only).  There's also another example of Macaulay's obsession with physical perfection with this reference to Lynn Seymour, a ballerina who is euphemistically said to have had weight issues.

In the Dance Magazine essay, the more accepting voice is that of Deborah Jowitt, dance critic for the Village Voice: "Jowitt cites the example of dancers Larry Goldhuber and Alexandra Beller, who use their ample size to their advantage. “It is less useful,” she says, “to talk about a person’s body than about the way he or she uses that body.""  (That said, the DM author, Joseph Carman, seems snide: "ample size" is wholly unnecessary and highly prejudiced.)

The way in which a dancer uses a body is I think a useful way of undermining the discourse of beauty because it challenges how we understand dance and opens our understandings of who can dance.  From this perspective, you can find beauty where someone focused on tradition and so-called perfection will see only flaw.

There's a caveat, though -- one that stems from disability.  Dancing disabled bodies are beautiful.  There's no doubt about that.  Some of that beauty is unexpected; you see something, something that can only happen because of disability.  Some of that might be you -- you never anticipated that you could find beauty in something that tends to occupy such a socially stigmatized place.  Some of that beauty comes from the dancers' themselves.  You can be conventionally attractive and disabled.  Some of that beauty comes from the non-conventional bodies themselves.  If you haven't been to a physically integrated performance -- go.  GO and discover new beauty for yourself.

But beware: don't fall into the trap of thinking that the dancers are overcoming their disabilities.  I'm going to generalize here for a second and tag this as a non-disabled viewer's response.  There is a related response from disabled viewers, but it tends to be a little different.  This overcoming idea (and, for that matter, other stereotypical ideas about disabled bodies) is at the heart of the riskiness of relying on how a dancer uses her body as a guide to beauty.  Too often, I find the response to an integrated performance comes from the viewers' understanding of disability as a limitation.  Then, when they come and see amazing, unexpected, and beautiful stuff, they unload that prejudicial understanding back onto the dancers.  We are overcoming (or inspiring).  It's a well-meant response -- one intended to communicate to the dancers that the viewer has appreciated the performance -- but, as I've talked about all over the place, I end up frustrated every time I hear it.

There's another side.  I don't encounter this often, but when I do it is more shocking to me than the overcoming stuff.  The beauty of integrated dance and disabled bodies can negatively jolt even those with disabilities.  I suppose I think of it as a problem of familiarity and overgeneralization.  You happen to be in a wheelchair with a certain body.  You know what it can do, and you know how your wheelchair works.  But that doesn't mean that it is the same for everyone who uses a chair or who shares your diagnosis.  For these people, I think a moment of beauty that is also shocking registers as hostility towards the dancer -- I know that I have certainly encountered it that way: you can't be ....

So, perhaps, if you are using beauty as a way to interpret art -- any kind of art -- I would recommend transforming that lens into a mirror and asking what does it say about me that I respond to beauty in this way.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. I enjoy reading this blog, i am looking forward for more beautiful post like. Keep it up!