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Look Who’s Looking Now: How We Watch, What We Think, and Why It Matters

Dance and  the Body Look Who’s Looking Now: How We Watch, What We Think, and Why It Matters is a four-part series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper […]

Dance and  the Body

Look Who’s Looking Now: How We Watch, What We Think, and Why It Matters is a four-part series on watching dance. Discussions are divided into sections on the body, space, time, and action/energy. The series aims to give audiences the tools to discuss the elements of dance performance and dig deeper into the philosophical meaning behind the works. Feel free to add to the discussion and share your own insights in the comment section below.

Understanding dance performance begins with simply describing what we observe. Certain terms help us communicate these observations. For example, we can use terms that describe parts of the body, like head, face, shoulders, arms, legs, torso, and feet. We can describe how bodies in motion create shapes and divide space. We might describe the symmetry or asymmetry of the arrangement of bodies on stage, or we might describe rounded or angular motifs in the positions of the dancers (Cunningham). We might describe the dance techniques employed in the performance. Some techniques are muscular (Streb), while others require dancers to move from their bones and organs (BodyCartography Project); some techniques use breath at the center of movement (Eiko & Koma); and some techniques use all these elements. Beginning with simple descriptions of what we see, we can begin to think about how a dance performance makes us feel and what it means to us. Reflecting further on the cultural context of a performance, we can begin to consider what it might mean to its choreographers and dancers, and what its broader cultural impact might be.

The body is the instrument of dance. We – as audiences – watch how the body moves or doesn’t move.  We observe shape, movement, and technique; body size, gender, race, age, and more. We make these observations and others through visual cues whose cultural histories predate the present performance. What is communicated through dance performance depends both on the dancers’ bodies and the audiences’ cultures of perception. That is, our bodies, as viewers, are part of the meaning.

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Imagine a performance involving black dancers and white audience members. In the United States, this occurs in and communicates an ongoing negotiation of power dynamics and cultural conversations. The same can be said of a performance involving a woman dancing for an audience of men. In these examples, the significance of the dance has to do in equal part with the dancers and the audience members: race and gender are part of ever-changing cultures of racism and heteronormativity. These are only two examples of ways in which visual cues interact with audience culture to affect a performance’s meaning, message, and impact, in the field of dance and beyond. Many dancers and choreographers, aware of the complexity of visual cues, create work with such negotiations in mind.

Choreographer Bill T. Jones creates art with his audience in mind. He observes that the audience that sees his work is mostly white, and he admits that this awareness informs his choreographic choices. Jones addresses issues of interest for his audiences, challenging what he perceives to be the social and cultural assumptions viewers bring to a performance. In discussing his 2012 work Story/Time, Jones asks audiences to “watch [ourselves] watching.” He explains, “I’m always aware that I am a subjective consciousness, trying to observe something and trying to relate to it. It makes me very self-conscious, but it also makes me feel like I am participating in the world of ideas.”

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An opportunity arises to “watch [ourselves] watching” during a section of Story/Time. The same story is repeated three times, each time accompanied by a different choreographic representation – first by a black woman dancing abstractly, alone on the couch, then by the cast, narratively performing the story as it is told, and finally repeated again by the cast with their backs to audience and with their real names inserted into the story. The repetition and variation emphasizes how bodies and culture can influence the perceived meaning of a story. During the piece, Jones retells a story centering on relationships, struggle, and violence and the sequence of events that unfolds. The original version of the story is as follows:

A woman is sitting alone on the couch, distraught, because she can’t pay her mortgage. The father and daughter enter and try to comfort the mother. Then, the landlord [sic] comes in with his goons, demanding the money. The mother says, “have mercy, we don’t have the money. Please, please give us more time.” The landlord says, “I don’t care, I gave you another month already. This is not a fucking charity.” He tells his lackeys, “take the furniture.” The father screams, “But you can’t do this!” the landlord says, “not only can I do this, but I’m going to take her, as well.” The mother shouts, “no, no, no, no!” as the landlord seizes the daughter and begins ravishing her. The father tries to intervene, fails, and has a heart attack. The landlord, full of himself, walks away. The son enters the scene, witnessing the carnage. The mother tells him, “The landlord is the cause of all the troubles.” The son, full of fury, takes his revenge.

The story itself is an example of using the body as a weapon for control, reinforcing dynamics of sexism and classism.

After watching each segment, some questions to consider are: What is conveyed when it is performed by a black woman? How did the impact of the story change when the dancers pantomimed the events? How did the bodies of the people portraying each character influence your feelings about it? What do you think that means? What about when the dancers’ real names are used and they are portraying themselves? How do Jones’s presence on stage and his narration impact the overall presentation? Does the impact change when the dancers have their backs to the audience?

In all three iterations, the bodies performing on stage influence the significance of the piece and affect how it is perceived by the audience. In what way might the meaning change in relation to the cultural background of the viewer? Taken together, these considerations inspire unique interpretations that arise equally from the bodies of the performers and the bodies of the audience members.

Connotations of the body vary from community to community. In times of war, the body is often used as a weapon and as a tool of control. In the 20th century, the Democratic Republic of Congo was fraught with political and military coups, political corruption, poverty, civil wars, and human rights violations. In a 2010 performance, Congolese artist Faustin Linyekula (lin-yay-coo-la) reflected on the significance of the body during political upheaval and instability:

So, you have a body. The ultimate territory you could occupy. And you know what? History could be understood through the lens of the evolutions of forms of violence against the body. Not only the history of my country, which has been particularly violent against the body, but any people, any country, can be understood through that angle. The evolution of forms of violence against the body. So, maybe a dancer is a fortune or a curse.

As Linyekula describes, violence against the body is not restricted to select countries or cultures. Violence against the body is a common phenomenon among all human cultures, and it has evolved over time. Rape, slavery, and mutilation are examples of extreme brutality, but violence also takes on more subtle and nuanced forms through systemic racism, sexism, classism, and religionism, to name a few. Dance and performance remind us of the embodied human experience in their portrayal of relationships, emotion, struggle, perseverance, elegance, and beauty. Live performance not only invites embodied empathy for characters and actors, but invites us to see the impact of our own interactions with other people. As audience members, we experience ourselves as embodied participants in an embodied story.

The methods that performers use to get us to challenge our own notions of the body vary greatly, but they all contribute valuable information and experiences to the ongoing dialogue around the body and the cultural habits that it bears.

Deborah Hay hails from the Judson Dance Theater, a dance collective whose philosophy centered on dismantling the conventions and theatricality that often accompanied dance performance and utilized every day movement as the predominant vocabulary. They organized informal performances in unconventional places, without elaborate lighting or costuming, in an effort to convey their true selves.

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For her original performance of O’ Beautiful, Deborah Hay hired a costume designer to design a “post-apocalyptic looking costume… it did not feel appropriate to me, at all, in that it strongly influenced my dancing and really got in the way for me. I felt quite limited by the cuteness of the costume.” During one rehearsal in the Texas heat, Hay rehearsed the piece in the nude.

I’m in the studio one day and it’s so hot, I just take off all my clothes and I start performing O’ Beautiful and that was the costume. And what I experienced performing that piece without any clothes on was so phenomenal that [nudity] had to be the costume.

Hay no longer performs the piece live, renamed Beauty, but performs A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty in which she discusses the evolution of the piece while projecting two performances of it (one in the post-apocalyptic costume and the other in the nude) side by side.

Hay’s change of opinion in how to (un)dress for the piece was a response to her daily experiences (climate control). The banality of those circumstances, however, does not change the cultural significance of a woman in her 60s performing in the nude. How differently would the performance have been perceived if she were in her 20s or 30s? If she were black? If she were male? How does showing the side by side performance change the viewer’s perception? Seeing the performances side by side, we become increasingly aware of the differences that costuming has on the body and the impact costuming has on our interpretation. Since Hay no longer performs the work live, in costume or in the nude, the audience watches a video of her dancing, while she gives a lecture, live, about the work. Her academic presentation and intellectualization of the piece further de-sexualizes the performance.

Though Hay found comfort in her nudity, not every dancer or company agrees that the uncostumed self is the “true self.” In the tradition of the Harlem vogue balls, one’s true self was her or his attitude.

This realness, what is interesting, is that it includes all the artificial means that you may need to use… While realness, to be real, you may use a lot of makeup, a lot of fake bra, a lot of costumes, a lot of accessories that’s going to make you be real. So this is this interesting situation where being real is not getting rid of all the cultural elements and all the artifices, but being real is using everything you may use, from hormones to costumes to heels to fake dick to pass as what you want to pass as. – François Chaignaud

To the members of Judson Theater, their bodies “true forms” were revealed by ridding performance of traditional theatrical elements like costumes, hairstyles, and stage makeup. Dancers in Harlem’s vogue balls took an opposite approach, utilizing all available technology for altering bodies to represent their “true selves” so that the images and persona that they presented to the world matched their inner ideas of their bodies. In both cases, the notion of “realness” has the body at its center – perhaps because we, as a society, place the body at the center, taking social and cultural cues from what we see, who we see, and how we see.

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Whether making physical or philosophical observations about the dancing body, perception and understanding are undeniably influenced by the culture in which we live. Analysis of the performing body requires contextualizing the work based on the background of the choreographer, the cast performing, and the demographics of the viewers. Each participant brings with her a body of unique experiences and varied perspectives that together effect the overall reception, meaning, and impact of a work. Dance is more meaningful for viewers who bring this awareness to a performance.