First draft of text prepared for the Liberté journal, English version but published in French, August 2001

by Dena Davida

[…] challenges to boundaries between high and low, high art and mass culture, have circulated as a major challenge to art theory […].  The underlying tension in the debates that participants find difficult to acknowledge is the necessary survivial of the category and institution of “art” for its own critiques.  Why, after all, be “an artist”?  Why not just be done with the whole business?  This is a question of genuine anthropological interest.  (Marcus and Meyers, 1995)

In cosmopolitan urban environments like Montreal almost everyone dances somewhere at sometime.  There are hundreds of dance event genres and occasions for dancing, each requiring a particular kind of dancing and dance-watching.  Amid the sport, folk and social dance enthusiasts can found a (much) smaller group of “art” dancers for whom dancing is a full-time vocation.  Unlike their part-time dancing cohorts, the dances of these vocational aesthetic-minded dancers are not (principally) a matter of health, sport, play, cultural identity[1]  or socialization.  But this art dancing seems to have a less tanglible, perhaps less practical aim:  they are busy producing “aesthetic experiences” for audiences.  Among the art dancers a certain subgroup of innovative individuals make claim to a genre called “contemporary dance” in which the movement style, form and purpose is literally reinvented with each choreographic project.

An ethnographic description of a contemporary dance event

In trying to seize the meanings of contemporary art dancing from an anthropologists’ eye view, I like to imagine myself as a stranger walking into this kind of perfomance as if for the first time.  Anthropologists call this strategy of reviewing common phenomena in their own cultures through a socio-cultural lens “making strange the familiar”.  With this frame of mind, the goings on at a typical contemporary dance performance can appear to be an enigmatic kind of social occasion in which participants share a physical time and space, an implicit code of dance-going behavior and similar attitudes about the value of art dancing.  But the dancing and non-dancing participants of these events are engaged for many different reasons, and have few common understandings of how to interpret the choreographies and what they might mean.  As it turns out, this ambiguity is a distinguishing characteristic of the contemporary arts ethos and practices.

Contemporary art dance events then usually take place in the evening and on weekends, one of many available “leisure time activities” competing for the attention of the work-weary.[2]   Dance-watchers arrive at a special building reserved for these kinds of performing arts events at a specified time.  Once inside, they pass through a vestibule where they purchase the privilege of entering a special waiting room, surrounded (possibly by a few acquaintances but ) mostly by strangers.  As the pre-announced starting time for the dance perfomance approaches, everyone lines up at the entrance door to the theatre space and is given a written programme, naming the dance and those engaged in creating and performing it, listing its sponsors and perhaps offering additional information about the dance and dancers.  The spectators file into a dimly lit seating area with parallel rows of chairs facing a dark, and as yet invisible, stage area behind which the performers are preparing.  They open their seats and sit, reading programmes and conversing in respectfully hushed voices.  As the lights dim over these stationary spectators they assume nearly absolute silence and stillness for the duration of the performance.

The stage area is illuminated and the dancers begin to enact an on-going stream of inventive “extra-ordinary” movements which bear scant reference to recognizable everyday behavior.  Even to the unaccustomed eye, this dancing clearly requires special trainings and physical skills, demands the kind of intense physical effort and coordination required of elite athletes.  But what could possibly be meant by this odd, energetic and apparently erratic gesticulating directed towards the on-lookers?  Are these movements symbolic representations, narrative outpourings, embodied conceptualisations, physical displays of prowess or something else again?  But few prescribed explanations are offered up definitively in the programme notes, newspaper articles or visual displays of texts and images posted at the entrance to the theatre space.

As the dancing progresses, the partipants — audience members and performers alike — become increasingly immersed what is certainly some kind of cathartic communication ritual.  What is going on?  Everyone here appears to subscribe to a common belief system which dictates that the choreographer has a guiding “vision”, embodied by and projected through the dancers’ own expressive interpretations to be finally apprehended from the imaginative point of view of each spectator.  It is at these public occasions that literally months of choreographic preparation come to fruition and the dancing is offered up to society-at-large.  After an hour or two of fervent dancing and silent spectating, the lights dim to black onstage, signaling closure.  The audience springs to animated attention, slapping their hands noisily together in appreciation of the qualities of the dance and/or the efforts of the performers.  The dancers then bow, acknowledging the audience directly for the first time with apparent humilty and pleasure.  The lights brighten once again within the audience area, and all file out, anxious to compare their impressions of this aesthetic experience with someone else.

A  tale from the field: backstage with O Vertigo

In my personna as a novice dance ethnographer doing fieldwork, I huddled inconspicuously in a dark corner in the wings of the theatre at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts.  The  curtain was about to rise on a performance of Ginette Laurin’s En Dedans , a meditative choreographic study of the body’s inner life.  Montreal dancers were scattered about the performance area behind the curtain quietly immersed in rituals of preparation, stretching and reviewing difficult dance phrases.  From this vantage point near the curtain I was poised to see all that would be happening in the right off-stage wing (the focus of this observation session), and a small wedge of the stage and audience areas.

My heartbeat quickened along with that of the dancers at the stage manager’s starting signal, as performers scattered to assume their starting positions.  In an instant the stage lights flared to full brightness and I could also see the ceiling lights above the audience begin to dim to black.  Just as their preshow chatter died down, I thought I heard an audible intake of collective breath (anticipation of pleasure?) from the spectactors .  And then:  the heavy curtain dividing light and darkness was pulled open into elaborate folds and tucks by invisible mechanisms.  My dancer’s body recalled this pre-preformance moment when adrenaline saturates the cells and heightens sensory and kinesthetic awareness.  But I had never before witnessed it from a comfortable distance as it was happening to others!  This transformative instant in which artists and audiences hover together between the everyday and the theatrical worlds remains a vibrant memory.  From my fieldnotes that night:

Melanie walks slowly towards the stage from the wing, transforming her energy from that of waiting to entering.  It’s an intensifying, sharpening, thickening of psychic and physical energy.  I glance towards the now fully, brightly lit stage (I am already beginning to feel the heat of the stage lights).  It is a glowing, charged space, separate from but intensely observed by about six hundred pairs of eyes.

The dancers already onstage suspended in active stillness for several seconds, and then suddenly set themselves into motion unfolding movement sequences predetermined by the choreographer.  As the center of everyone’s attention, they appeared as if larger-than-life.  From the several interviews already completed, I knew that in each dancer’s mind was a private narrative of images, motivations, meanings and focal points they found necessary to maintain their engagement and memory as they danced.

I turned my attention to the off-stage wing. My eye caught a flurry of task-like activity hidden from the audience’s sightlines:  backstage workers going about their technical tasks and dancers preparing for the intense effort of imminent onstage performances.  Together we dancers, technicians and ethnographer, animated this inner sanctum of the contemporary dance event.

And then:  a common yet extraordinary process began of theatrical metamorphosis.  Dancers waiting in the wings moved to the edge of the stage space, ready to enter but still hidden from audience view.  Part of their attention was finely attuned to the timing and textures of the onstage action.  At the same time they looked small and vulnerable as they continued their private rituals of preparation.  Only seconds before they were to slip through an invisible barrier between off and on-stage, the pyscho-physical transformation began.  It happened in the time of a single intake of breath!  Adrenal flow and heartbeat coursed more quickly, and kinesthetic sensory mechanisms (the sixth sense) sharpened perceptions of body shape and placement.  Their bodies became denser and larger as if swollen with the intensified nervous, glandular and muscular activity firing away inside their skins.  And this heightened energetic state emanated outwards as well, carrying them out into the hot, bright stage to join the on-going choreographic patterns.  As they exited, in the seconds or minutes allowed until their next entrance, they released the pressure of this extra-ordinary power into the floor as if with a single gasp.  Recuperation from the exertion of performing was sudden and imperative.  Over and over, this energetic intake and outake.  The body filling to emanation, releasing with urgency.  By the time the choreography was over I had realized that this usually undetected backstage process, invisible to the audience, held a key to the strange power and allure of theatrical performances.

The ending: reframing dance.

These two tales from the field have attempted to fit a socio-cultural frame around contemporary choreography to ask ‘What does it mean to dance this way.’  And now I am wondering, have these two unusual angles of view of a dance performance somehow shifted your preconceptions?  For the contemporary dance initiates among you I am hoping that ethnographic strategies can help us seize the deeper purposes of our practice.  As for you novices who have witnessed only a little  of this strange, expressive art dancing, perhaps you have recognized your own experience as a “stranger” in the first story, and in the second, gained in empathy with those seemily superhuman dancers leaping and spinning before you.


Bibliographic references

Becker, Howard S.  (1982).  Art Worlds.  Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann Wheeler.  (1969/1970).  “An anthropologist looks at a ballet as a form of ethnic dance”.  Impulse 20 :  24-33;  and Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. (1983). What is Dance?:  Readings in Theory and Criticism, New York, Toronto and Melbourne:  Oxford University Press.

Marcus, George E. and Fred R. Myers.  (1995).  “The Traffic in Art and Culture, An Introduction”.  The Traffic in Culture:  Refiguring Art and Anthropology, ed. George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers, pp. 1-51.  Berkeley, Los Angeles and London:  University of California Press.

Small, Christopher.  (1998).  MusickingThe Meanings of Performing and Listening.  Hanover (Connecticut) and London: Wesleyan University Press.

[1] I am thinking here of those kinds of folk dances whose costumes and movements are emblematic of the cultures which spawned them.  But sociologist Pierre Bordieu and anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku remind us that Western art dances can also be seen as products of specific socio-cultural environments and tastes.

[2] This account of a contemporary dance performance is undertaken in a spirit similar to Christopher Small’s ethnography of a symhonic concert and Howard Becker’s description of “art worlds.”

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