Dance as communication with the audience is a tricky subject. It has always been one of the most important aspects of dance. As choreographers we have to understand the different pieces of a dance and how to make them fit together so that the audience can understand.
Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey’s long time partner, said:
“I have always been impatient with the “art pour l’artist” [art for the artist]. Clarity and understandability has remained the basis of my dance creations.” (Vision, p. 67)
Making dances that an audience can understand is a priority but tricky to pull off. It is one thing to want to create a piece the audience will connect with and it is another thing to actually make the connection.
I’ve tried to choreograph dances that make the audience feel… anything really. Now looking back on my few attempts I have to laugh, because they missed the mark, by a lot. Ok, so I have something to work on. In my search for learning about dance communication, I’ve turned to one of the original queens of choreography, Doris Humphrey. Hopefully she can help me understand the magic of a well constructed dance.
Ok Doris, first things first. What to create a piece around?
What Should it be About?
There is a whole section called “What to Dance About” in “The Art of Making Dances” by Humphrey. I was pretty excited.
Then, I read this statement:
“Here it must be pointed out that the importance of subject matter is paramount mostly for the choreographer. It is his source, his dream, his love. For the audience it often makes very little difference what a dance is about.” (Making Dances, p. 26)
What? I knew Humphrey, like myself, thought that good dance meant getting something across to the audience. So what is all this business about it not being important? I took a deep breath and kept reading.
“In fact, some of the most famous and successful dances in the world have been on trivial and inconsequential subjects. Consider ‘The Dying Swan.'”
Ok, she had me again. I first saw “The Dying Swan” it was performed (by my cousin) at one of our spring concerts. I distinctly remember this piece because it was the first time I’d felt so deeply moved by a dance. I felt like I was being drawn on stage, invited to experience rolling waves of joy at exquisite beauty and deep sorrow of loss. I’m pretty sure my jaw literally dropped.
(If you haven’t seen “Dying Swan” check it out now. It’s worth the 3 minutes.)
Watching this piece, I’d definitely felt the power of communication in dance.
So I was willing to “consider ‘The Dying Swan'” as Humphrey suggested. I kept reading.
“This, as performed originally by Anna Pavlova, has moved countless audiences to tears and remains the supreme example of romantic tragedy in dance. It is certainly not because of the the actual subject. Who could care seriously about a swan, alive or dying?”
Ok, that started to make sense. It’s not that what is being communicated isn’t important. As long as the idea and emotion are portrayed, it doesn’t necessarily matter how.
Most choreographers have an idea or emotion that they want to get across. Many start with a general idea. Sorrow, joy, fear, love, beauty, oddness, symmetry, asymmetry… something people can relate to.
Knowing what you want to create a piece about is important. Although exactly what that is, as Humphrey said, isn’t critical to the audience. They are there to be brought into your world. So, figure out what you want to tell them.
Ok, we have a subject. Now how do we make sure that the audience can figure out what we are saying?
Understanding Your Audience
The swan symbol was especially potent because at the end of the 1800’s a swan was “the favorite ornament in the romantic pools and lakes. It was the final touch of elegant beauty to be seen in the vista of the garden from the drawing-room windows.” (Making Dances, p. 26)
So the people watching the performance had enough experience with swans to understand why the dancer was portraying a swan. Swans were literally in their backyards, so the audience could follow that swans are beautiful and graceful and this one doesn’t seem to be doing so well.
“The genius of Michel Fokine conceived this symbol of the romantic age, embodying in one short solo all the most potent images of the then-current ideal. Now, the more sophisticated mid-twentieth-century mind does not respond so ecstatically to such a dance. Ideas have changed. Dying no longer seems so beautiful, and living more desirable.”
I felt the potency of “Dying Swan,” even with my late-twentieth-century “sophisticated mind.” But I know what she meant. To be really effective, we want to talk to people about things they will understand. Art connects with an audience when it is a reflection of their lives.
And, like using a swan to show beauty, some of the best reflections of life are through symbolism.
The Importance of Symbolism
“Who could care seriously about a swan, alive or dying? Only in so far as on can be pleased aesthetically by a handsome animal of any kind does the swan have an appeal. But there are no famous dances about the death of a noble horse or “The Dying Dog.” So there must be other potent factors in such a dance.”
Now, this is true. I’ve never seen or heard of a compelling dog dance. Though, from a purely emotional response, a dog would seem to be more effective at bringing on feelings than a swan. Swans don’t make good pets. You can ride them. They can attack if you get too close. Therefore, we don’t naturally have strong emotional connections with swans. So why did watching a “swan” slowly fade on stage create such a memorable experience for me? What do you think Doris?
“First there is the symbolic meaning, and then there is the movement. The swan glides, and this motion could be pleasingly imitated in dance in a period when grace and beauty were the sole aesthetic ideals. A four-footed animal moves by stepping, and the change of weight is accented, more jarring to the senses than the gliding movement of the bird.”
It would be easier to translate a swan’s graceful movement than a dog’s movement on a ballerina’s body. So the symbol used in a dance has to be something that translates into dance vocabulary. I guess my ballet suite on the snow crab is a bust.
What, after movement translation, is important in choosing a symbol to communicate? Humphrey talks also the thoughts brought up around a symbol.
“The swan has romantic proportions; it has the “swan neck,” the long “s” curve which for centuries has been the symbol of beauty. And what is so sad as the death of the supreme symbol of beauty? The poets of the day never tiered of pointing out the lovely melancholy of expiring youth and grace; it was all so tragic and soulful.”
Graceful, beautiful movements, plus everyone thinks of beauty when they think of swans, added with the fact that the swan is not going to last much longer… and you have a good equation for a tear jerking performance.
Makes sense. Ok, we have a what to dance about. Now what about the music? For me the music and the movement of “The Dying Swan” were a team in triggering such deep emotions.
Music choice is so important. I know it is important because I’ve seen many good dances ruined with bad music. Haven’t you?
“And this leads to the music for [The Dying Swan]. It, too, speaks to the emotions, with its wistful melody, played on the warmest of instruments, the cello. No real death agony here, just a fading away, with exquisite pathos and grace, in a romantic dusk.”
There are some philosophies (especially in modern) that say that music shouldn’t dictate the movement. And this has been taken to some pretty far extremes. I’ve seen pieces where the dancers seem to be arguing with the music, or worse, dancing in spite of it.
This was great during the experimentation periods of the 60’s and 70’s, but today when we are trying to make dance accessible to the general public, dance in spite of music just confuses the audience. They give up watching the dance at all.
Find a piece of music that doesn’t distract from your message but complements it.
Costumes will send their own message to an audience. Just like music choice, we want the costumes to help with the message, not distract from it. Humphrey had this to say about costuming for “Dying Swan”:
“Nothing could become the ballerina or epitomize the ethereal female more than the soft feathers, the dark jewel of the heart, the remote and pure whiteness of the whole contrasting with her raven-black hair. Lovely, mysterious, tragic.”
The iconic white tutu finished off the graceful look they were going for. It is so simple. White. Tutu. That is why it is so effective. There is nothing distracting about it.
(Watch the “Dying Swan” with Anna Pavlova to see how the pieces originally came together.)
Reading through what Doris Humphrey said has helped me understand that it takes several elements to communicate with an audience. None of these things are surprising. Of course costumes are important. Of course we want to particular about what music we choose. But we need to carefully consider how all the pieces work together, and how they all combine to deliver a message to the audience.
“The Dying Swan” was so touching to me because of all of its pieces. They jumped off the stage and gave my heart a squeeze. And that, after all, is why I love dance. It has the ability of touching hearts.
“The point to remember is that the subject per se was not important, except that it happened to be surrounded with supremely significant symbolism. (Would that choreographers of the day could do as well with contemporary subject matter!)”