Interpretive Dance: The Challenge of Making Meaning through Movement

“If the objective an author has had, in writing a book, cannot be discovered from its perusal, the problem is that it is either very deep, or very shallow.”
– Charles Dickens, in his Preface to Barnaby Rudge (1841)

In last month’s Huffington Post Blog was a terrific post by Columbia College Chicago student Nora Younkin, entitled “What the Heck Is Modern Dance?” Younkin beautifully outlined many reasons why dance is a serious career path and why dancers are simultaneously athletes, artists, educators and scholars whose work has great value in our society, despite being frequently overlooked.

But where I wish to connect the voices of this young student and of the great author Charles Dickens, whom I quoted in my epigraph, is through this paragraph of Younkin’s post:

A great choreographer knows how to use bodies in space to say something or occasionally, nothing at all (a statement in and of itself). Sometimes it would seem audiences are afraid of modern dance because it's not evident what it's about, or what you're supposed to get walking away from it. Let me tell you another secret: that's okay. Sometimes it's boring or sometimes you might downright hate a dance. Even if you love it, the challenge is to figure out why. Maybe on the whole, as a culture, we're so used to being spoon fed meaning that we've lost interest in being challenged by our entertainment. Modern dance is a big invitation for interpretation, and sometimes it requires the audience to take an open-minded leap into the new, unknown, bizarre or abrasive.

I have frequently been one of those audience members who, leaving a modern and/or contemporary dance concert, has felt bewildered. Actually, it was not just when I left – it was during and after many of the numbers I watched. I was confused for most of the concert. I felt like that person at the movies who can’t follow the plot and has to whisper in his friend’s ear every minute, “Who is she, again? …. I thought he was dead. . . . Wait, how did they end up with the secret formula?” (Echoes of Jerry and Elaine talking throughout the movie “Chunnel,” trying to unravel its convoluted plot, on “The Pool Guy” episode of Seinfeld.)

If you're not familiar with the humorous "How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert" video on YouTube, which pokes fun (ironically?) at some of these sentiments, take a look:

As a young artist, I am beginning to experiment myself with art that “says something,” and I fully support dances that attempt to convey particular messages, tackle certain themes, or tell stories. (I even wrote a blog post about my goal for 2012, to take more risks in my life and my art.) I’m also a literature student and aspiring English teacher, after all, and part of my attraction to the novel (and, by extension, art in general) is the way in which it discusses timeless themes and raises uncomfortable questions. Is not the enduring popularity of classic literature indebted partially to the fact that it addresses ideas that yet remain topical?

But I think that there is a clear difference between a work of art that raises serious questions (i.e. Is technology a burden or a blessing to modern society? How are we still challenging or subverting traditional gender roles in 2012?) and a work of art that simply raises confusion (i.e. “What just happened? What was that dance about? What was that naked person rolling around on the floor supposed to represent?”) In other words, I think there is great value in a dance that leaves us thinking about greater ideas or issues. I’m not sure what value there is in art that leaves us confused, lost, and subsequently annoyed or frustrated, ultimately impeding our quest for enlightenment and/or entertainment.

It’s like watching a foreign film without subtitles, or hearing a series of inside jokes. You’re lost, and that feeling prevents you from participating in what’s happening right in front of you, which makes you feel helpless and frustrated. As dancers, we are supposed to entertain. People are paying for us to entertain. If we are frustrating them, I don’t think we’re doing our job properly.  

I do think that Younkin is partially right. Audiences are afraid of modern dance – but not because they’re averse to interpretation. On the contrary, I think audiences are perfectly willing to watch dances that ask them to think. But I don’t think they’re willing to watch dances that are unintelligible or inaccessible. There is little fun in being confused – especially when that confusion persists during dance after bizarre dance.  Dickens, one of my favorite authors, makes a great point in his preface to his oft-overlooked historical novel Barnaby Rudge that I believe is just as applicable to dancers and choreographers as it is to authors. If the choreographer’s objective (or message/idea/concept/etc.) cannot be determined from watching the dance, then it is either too complicated to understand, or too simple to be recognized seriously. Note that I am not saying that an audience member should be able to completely understand and interpret the piece after seeing it – for what is art, if not a medium through which we can wrestle with question for which there is no one right answer? But if, as a choreographer, you want your audience to think about a question you’re asking or a statement you’re making, then that question or statement needs to be clear – otherwise, your audience isn’t going to think about it. They’re simply going to say, “I don’t get it.” Even worse is when a piece has an artistic statement in the program, but the statement still fails to help elucidate it.

That, to me, is an artistic failure. (And I don’t think it’s fair for the choreographer to say, “You’re not supposed to get it.”) If your intent is to tell a story, to present a message, to explore a theme, you have a responsibility to your audience to convey that story/message/theme in a way that is both entertaining and accessible. People are not likely to be entertained if they are confused; they are likely to be bored and impatient.

An NYU writing professor of mine often reminded my class that it is a frequent misstep of young and/or inexperienced writers to err on the side of subtlety. They know that they cannot make their authorial intent completely transparent or blunt, and that they must be creative and artistic about how they go about exploring it, and so they end up trying so hard not to be obvious that they make it too subtle. Sometimes, what we think is completely literal and stupid is, in fact, just what the reader needs. “Don’t worry about being too obvious,” he said. “I’ll tell you if you are.”

I think choreographers often forget that there is a vast spectrum of creativity to explore between the painfully obvious and the bewilderingly vague. Cheesy musical theatre choreography is an example of the former: the lyrics are interpreted choreographically almost word for word, every phrase with its own accompanying gesture. Younkin’s stereotypical example of modern dance, “I'm a tree! I'm the wind!” *insert wave-like arm gestures*, represents the latter. But there is so much room for creativity that falls in between these two landmarks – and as artists, I think that our fear of falling on one or the other end of the spectrum sometimes keeps us from exploring that room.

There are concerns, as Younkin points out, that commercial dance is indeed spoon-feeding us meaning, that people who are used to watching two-minute routines on So You Think You Can Dance (almost all of which are preceded by the choreographer saying, “This is a routine about two people who … [are falling in love; breaking up; fighting; are meeting for the first time; just lost a loved one; etc.]) will not be able to sit through much longer, more insightful pieces presented in a serious concert setting. Perhaps our desire to see dances that challenge us intellectually is waning in favor of watching simple, structurally/thematically similar routines performed by thin, good-looking dancers performing lots of jumps and leaps and turns. I don’t know.

But I really think that people are more than willing to witness sophisticated dancing as long as we reach out to them and make them active participants in our creations. We have to consider our audience and our venue when we choreograph. To perform for an audience and to make no effort to get them to understand what we are doing, nor to engage them in our movement, nor to provoke them to think actively while they are watching, is just rude and irresponsible. Again, it’s the difficulty of finding that middle ground. A responsible artist does not create a piece of art and then spoon-feed us its meaning – but neither does he create a piece of art and offer no inroads by which we can attempt to uncover and discuss its meaning. We have to create and pave those inroads for our viewers.

If we want audiences to not be afraid of modern dance, to be willing to take the “open-minded leap” that Younkin speaks of, we need to teach/show them how.

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