Assistant Professor of Dance
Narrative and Bodily Movement
"The idea that dance is linked to narrative is in some ways relatively new. The earliest dances were part of sacred, magical processes. You dance the world that you want into existence. If you want rain, you dance the rain dance. If you want to win the war, you practice that conquest. But then you have relatively more recent cultures where the idea is that you dance your myth; you dance the narratives. That is the way that you tell the story of where you came from. This is where dance links to migration."
Interview transcript: Paul Scolieri
Dance has no aspiration for commercialization or the monument because it is constantly ephemeral, it is constantly disappearing. That is in part where it gets its power. It also has a biological imperative. It is embodied in the nerves, in the language of it being corporeal. It is linked to some sort of biological determinism as a part of our evolutionary process. Every culture has some way of explaining that dance originates in the body even though that's not necessarily the case. But that need to narrate the body is a product of history.
The idea that dance is linked to narrative is in some ways relatively new. The earliest dances were part of sacred, magical processes. You dance the world that you want into existence. If you want rain, you dance the rain dance. If you want to win the war, you practice that conquest. But then you have relatively more recent cultures where the idea is that you dance your myth; you dance the narratives. That is the way that you tell the story of where you came from. This is where dance links to migration. Some of the dances that we continue to see at the base of most classical traditions are stories that tell you where you come from. The choreography has been a way to recreate the processions of migration.
What Modernity meant was being civilized in public space as opposed to being primitive. This idea of Modern dance becomes a delayed response to Darwin and the early rise of eugenic thinking. Somehow dance will teach us social cultivation and will allow us to evolve and become better selves. It is linked to education, physical hygiene, and class. In that sense, there is an evolutionary explanation of origins embedded in the constellation of the dance.
With regard to physicality in dance, the definitions vary depending on the dance. In ballet, for example, physicality is all tied up in the shapes and the clarity of the line that you can achieve. It is physics. Cuban social dance is also extremely physical, but it does not take up the same amount of space. The intricacy is not in the shape, but in the commitment to endurance and to the complexity of rhythms. It is physical, yes, but it is a very different sense of physicality. You could have a dancer come on in a ballet, they do their 64 bars of dance and then they are done. Can they go for longer? Of course they can, but that is the art. In Japanese or classical Indian dance, you might only move two feet in an hour, but the intensity and the physicality necessary to have that kind of control is its own form of art.
Even though improvisation is improvisatory, it already embodies social structures of meaning. You can look at how people improvise and it is already shaped by the way that we think about language or how we think what visual structures should be or about how we know bodies work and the shape of the body -- the idea of literal movement. Dancing is seen as site of liberation practice and utopian world-making, but it is also the site of some of the most cruel and barbaric conservative thought. In Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and later throughout Latin America with the nationalization of dances, having people adhere to specific scripts of gender and identity demonstrates and obsession with conformity. And we can also see this with the Rockettes in New York. Largely speaking, although not always, we think of the most abstract movement being the most porous, where interpretation is allowed to happen, where it is about semiotics and experience, as opposed to the pantomimic or the very gestural take of a particular narrative. Those are the polarities that we see in political performance.
This is what Plato was talking about with regard to what is abstract and what is concrete about representation. In terms of space, one could look at Plato's last dialogue, "The Laws," in which he comes up with a fictional city that was going to be the ideal city next to Athens. In it is his longest writing about dance. One of the arguments that he makes is that the city must be round and it must be a circular city because you must keep all of the citizens' bodies moving in a circular manner so that it could reflect the movement of the cosmos; so that people were in constant harmony with the cosmological order. He writes very seriously that this was going to create balance, harmony, and moderation and what is interesting that it was going to be created on Magnesium, which is a deserted island. So it is already a colony, it is already about a migration. Plato establishes movement as a formative experience in the production of social difference. His idea of subjectivity was one that not only moves in the world, but also understands its place within it and that idea is so much of what dance does. If you go to the Court Ballet of King Louis XIV, to classical Indian dance, or look at Confucius' drawings about what court dances were supposed to be, they are beautiful but they also convey the need for subjects to learn their place in a social order and about how to exist there.
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