My experience with dance ended after the square dancing unit in elementary school, excepting a trip to watch The Nutcracker when my child was singing. Undoubtedly, my having lived without dance has much to do with having grown up in a restrictive Protestant Christian environment combined with a penchant for studies rather than sports. I’ve been attempting, over the past months, both to try new things and to explore in greater depth the role of the body (including my body) in living well.
I decided to see Ailey II on Nov. 4 at the Englert Theatre more to fulfill my drive to explore the unknown in the arts than from a desire to see it. The opportunity to interview Ailey II Artistic Director Troy Powell for Englert’s Stages magazine was the tipping point — he’d been insistent on the point that dance is an art that anyone can appreciate and understand. And so I went.
It was an illuminating performance, one that taught me more about joy, sorrow and the role of the body in human life than any other art form had taught me. What follows are the four concrete lessons that I learned from the performance in a way that I had not understood previously. I found the performance absolutely absorbing but lack the sophisticated conceptual apparatus to provide a review of the performance on its technical merits. This, instead, is what I learned as I watched.
Lesson One: Stillness is not the absence of motion
We tend to default into an inadequate version of Newtonian natural mechanics as we go about our world, assuming that stillness is the absence of motion simply because we are habituated into keeping our bodies in motion until they are depleted and collapse. When the curtain rose to reveal the bodies of the Ailey II company, it showed some of the dancers sitting, scattered on the stage, watching their peers dance. The sitting was part of the dance: Periodically dancers would raise themselves in a seeming defiance of gravitational forces and leap or whirl onto the stage; other dances would enter from the wings and assume a place, seated.
Each movement of each body on the stage was pregnant with meaning and intentionality. A hand would touch a shoulder or a knee. A head would turn to smile. The potentiality for human grace was manifested in each of these events: rather than exhausting meaning in motion, the way that I do as I lumber from one room to another, simply stopping when I enter, the dancers have cultivated a powerful modality of inviting motion with every action, allowing every gesture to gather energy. In the same way that some silences reveal themselves to be the potentiality of sound, so also did the Ailey II dancers communicate stillness as the potentiality of motion.
I appreciated how the wordless interactions among the dancers, sometimes passing each other without seeming to notice and sometimes very much attuned to someone else on the stage, nonetheless conveyed a world rich with context. While I did not understand the logic that governed the complex choreography that shifted the bodies in space, I could appreciate that a pattern was at work.
Like the stillness and like the silence, these patterns also introduced something that appeared to be a necessary precondition to the possibility of communication — a silent anticipation and appreciation of the other modulated by moving bodies in time and space. The moments when the dancers flashed into unison, either with rapture or terror, were profoundly striking as they bared the sorts of emotional undercurrents that often influence the ways we interact with the spaces and bodies around us.
Lesson Two: A pure purposiveness of movement shows the emotional core of our flesh.
As an avid Kierkegaardian, I’ve long loved the phrase “the purity of heart is to will one thing,” and I had always approached my understanding of this text with a typically Protestant sense of individual spirit surging forth despite the flesh.
The Ailey II dancers demonstrated the alternative approach: Each of them expressed the experience of an emotion as they danced: joy, fear, grief, longing, curiosity, rapture, rupture, anger, woe, contentedness. Watching even for a few moments revealed the deep validity of the insight trickling from ancient religious traditions into popular culture concerning how emotions are embodied. The dancers, focused on the precise expression of both minute muscular alterations and massive bursts of spins and leaps, could also therefore collect and gather an emotional expressiveness that was wholly transportive.
One could not only gather emotional resonance from the way that a garment was worried between fingers or a head was bowed, but also from the expressions visible on the Englert stage. The dancers’ faces were unclouded, solid presentations of exactly what they intended to reveal: There was no room for a feeling or a thought that was not embodied as they moved such that each movement expressed became a moving experience for me.
Lesson Three: Our bodies can convey what is universal about our myths.
Ailey II emphasizes a simplicity in stage setting: Sometimes a light pattern paints the stage, sometimes shadows form. These scarce shades of color interact with the simple costumes to highlight, rather than detract from, the work of the dancers. They also contribute to the most basic imaginable form of setting — a sense of place that could be anywhere. At this point, the proscenium arch serves as a portal that that transports the audience into a utopic no-place, an anywhere and also an everywhere, that is made present as here. The outlines are perfectly placed for play — they provide a sense of the familiar without the particular, like an image of home that has no house attached to it.
The dancers generally performed as a group, without much by way of characterization. Small narrative moments punctuated the performance, especially when the dancers are paired: Intimacy flourished as the dancers — often mirroring — understand the self through the body of the other. The de-emphasis on the particular allows each dancer in the company to evoke the feeling of universals, such that the emotions that they exhibit as they move become almost archetypal.
The mythic depths of dance were most clearly expressed in Flock (2004) and Virtues (2012). Flock, featured in the middle of the set, was unusual in featuring one dance (with a distinct costume), begun with a sequence of dancers moving obliquely across the stage until things started to unwind. A sense of discomfort and misery began to settle over the company, as one dancer began to hold a sense of control over the rest. The suggestion of violence, even the violence that controlled the bodies of dancers who sat still on chairs, was gripping. The overall sense was how evil emerges through the imposition of constraints.
Virtues, the final dance, was the opposite: A feeling of harmony and rapturous joy emerged as the bodies moved as complementary entities, working together through complicated forms of balance. It was as ecstatic as the former was dispiriting. The suggestions of intimacy, between pairs and among groups, were pure and vivid. To watch the dances — especially these two in the context of the rest — was to witness the bones of any story ever told.
Lesson Four: Freedom is found in limitations
Those of us who occasionally look skyward in November find examples of corporate unity expressed in the patterns of birds that scatter, shape and weave together once again in deference to some sort of understanding that may be profoundly simple but simultaneously defies understanding. Each being knows its place in the larger whole: Every flock of birds patiently reminds us of other ways of moving and being in the world.
Much of our culture fights against finitude — we try to do more with less, we try to prevent death, we try to enhance ourselves beyond what would keep us limited. Perhaps the loveliest element of the performance was the recognition that dance performance — like form poetry — is an exacting mechanical science. The beauty of the dance exists only through these limitations, through the confinement, through the mastery and precision and grace that these strictures impose. Watching dance became a lesson in how humility — accepting finitude — is the first step on the path to grace.
I had a chance to talk to the dancers after the show, even though they had taught classes throughout the day and were leaving later that night. Each dancer continued to embody the same sense of dignity and joy that they had captured throughout the performance: polite, joyful, thoughtful, kind, gracious.
I had never thought of myself as someone who could really “get” dance, but I realize now that was a misconception that I mistakenly waited over 40 years to correct. I would strongly encourage anyone to witness dance in the future: to become open to the message that remains embedded within our flesh that too few of us have bothered to find the keys to unlock.