We’ve heard the arguments – is dance a sport or an art? Is it a combination of the two? On the other end of the spectrum, we look at some of the things that Judson Dance Theater created and have to wonder if that’s dance or performance art.

What makes Paul Taylor’s Esplanade dance? The first part is mostly stylized walking – is that enough to make it dance?

Likewise, what makes the cupid variation, like many ballet variations, dance, rather than a showcase of athletic capability? This is just contortion set to music. The music doesn’t make it dance; we’ve established that movement in silence is still dance.

Is dance sort of like obscenity, where, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, I know it when I see it?

Looking to the past, to the pioneers, might be more confusing than helpful.

Yvonne Rainer, one of the original Judson movers, wrote the No Manifesto in 1964. She says:

  • no to spectacle
  • no to virtuosity
  • no to transformations and magic make-believe

(okay, so say goodbye to all the ballets)

  • no to the glamour and transcendency of star image

(and bye bye Baryshnikov)

  •  no to the heroic
  • no to the anti heroic

(adios, Night Journey)

  • no to trash imagery
  • no to involvement of spectator

(see ya, Cunningham)

  • no to style

(It was fun while it lasted, Taylor and Graham)

  • no to camp
  • no to the seduction of the spectator by the performer
  • no to eccentricity
  • no to moving or being moved

(So what’s left now?)

Well, this is what’s left.

Trio A, still infamous to this day, was built around the above ideas along with the vow to never repeat. It is a task-oriented dance. She is not trying to emote or move you. Her goal is to put her ear to the ground. Her next goal is to swing her arms three times. Her next goal is to bend her knees.

The Museum of Modern Art says that “It freed the dancer’s body from the rigid fragmentation and artificiality of choreographed movement.”

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And what is artificially choreographed movement?

People were getting upset about it back before women had the right to vote. Fokine, great choreographer of the Ballet Russes, also called for authenticity and realism. He disliked ballet because it was “too staged” and “artificially mannered.” Fokine humanized dancers. They moved from dramatic motivation. And yet, if we were to look at Fokine’s work like “Firebird” or “Le Spectre de la Rose”, they would not pass the No Manifesto (but let’s be honest – Trio A doesn’t even pass the No Manifesto).

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From the Fokine Estate Archives:

Fokine’s Five Principles from 1914 (abridged)

  1. Not to form combinations of ready-made dance steps (so Evginia’s variation up there wouldn’t have gone over so well)
  2. Dancing and mimetic gesture have no meaning in ballet unless they serve as an expression of its dramatic action
  3. New ballet admits the use of conventional gesture only where it is required by the style of ballet
  4. Groups of dancers are not just for ornament; groups can be as expressive as individuals
  5. The new ballet refuses to be the slave of music or of scenic decoration, recognizes the alliance of the arts only on the basis of complete equality.

But what does it really matter, because dance – whatever it is – is made up of a series of revolutions, with a new leader charging forward with each group, into the future. Maurice Petipa gave power to dance, and Mikhail Fokine stripped away the pantomime and gave more power to the movement, more power to the ensemble. Isadora Duncan stripped dance of its technique entirely. Martha Graham followed Isadora’s rejection of ballet only to implement her own new system of movement, still classical in composition and style. Then came Paul Taylor, who gave new life into modern dance with his own style of modern technique, still classical in nature.

Modern dance, the rejection of ballet, became its own system of classical movement. The revolution failed. Much like how a king might be replaced by a dictator, Graham replaced ballet with a different sort of subjugation.

The 1960s brought about post-modernism, where Cunningham choreographed with dice and improvisation. Cunningham had his own technique, mathematical in nature, but his choreography was less predictable. Judson Dance Theater said no, that is still too much, and stripped dance even further, and Yvonne Rainer called for NO virtuosity or technique or seduction.

We desperately look for classification in dance, the language of which may hinder us. When students are taught that dance and composition is made up of retrograde, mirroring, cannon, levels, shadowing, and unison, is that opening doors or closing them? Trio A included no mirroring, no retrograde, no cannon, no unison – but it is still dance (is it?).

Twyla Tharp says to use the nuts and bolts of your craft – but for dancers, that is technique, which Rainer told us to throw away.

Does this bring us back to pedestrianism? To walking and reaching and turning our heads? If dance is just movement, what makes a kick more of a dance than a step? And why can’t we just put fifteen steps together and call it a dance.

Cunningham said that any movement was valid. This could mean that all of us are dancing every day, our choreography determined by the obstacles in our way, the other bodies near us, and the distances we must traverse for appointments and errands.

But if all of that is dance, is anything not dance? Stillness is an accepted part of dance, and so we could argue that sitting or sleeping is dance.

This thought, to me, that any and all of that is dance, is somewhat sad. Dance has always seemed otherworldly in my mind, and the fact that it can contain so much of the mundane shatters any grandeur illusions.

The most revolutionary thing we can do, really, is to not listen to any of them, and to pick and choose what you want, and take what serves you as a dancer or a choreographer.

As a dancer, I don’t really even know what it is, but I’m comfortable enough exploring the grey areas that I don’t need to be able to see the lines of definition.

Anyway. I know dance when I see it.

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