After organizing my rant on Cendrillon into a somewhat coherent review of Jean Christophe-Malliot’s 1999 reimagined Cinderella ballet, I realized another piece to the abstraction puzzle that is the struggle in choreography.
Dance is inherently abstract. Movement does not equate meaning. A word symbolizes something, but movement can symbolize or mean anything. Just as a word can change depending on the context, so can meaning, but there is no concrete meaning to movement beyond its cultural connotations.
Despite this, good dance still exists in a cause and effect world. This movement happens, and then, therefore, this must happen. Action reaction. But why? If you move your arm, why does his leg have to shift?
There could be many reasons. Her arm moving might create a line of energy that his leg has to match. Her arm might move in the way of his leg. Her arm might throw some energy at his leg, which then flies away. Her arm could draw a line that his leg then decides to break. Her arm might draw the letter “A,” and then his leg draws the letter “B.”
All of the above are reasonable and not unheard of in the world of dance logic. But that’s the thing – there’s still a logic to it. It doesn’t happen “just because.” It doesn’t happen because it looks nice.
Choreography operates by its own laws of logic. Each piece of dance composition is like its own little universe with its own laws, just like gravity is different on Mars than Earth.
What watching Cendrillon brought up for me was the question – is it important that the audience understand the logic by which the dancers are operating?
I would say no, but Jean Christophe-Malliot obviously felt otherwise. He didn’t really trust the audience to understand why anything was happening or what led to a chain of events. A successful piece of choreography trusts that the audience understands what is happening even if they don’t know why.
This gets tricky in non-narrative work. In some cases, the choreographer attempts to create a feeling of tension or joy and must trust that the viewer will feel it without having any concrete reason. Or the choreographer has to trust that the viewer is aesthetically pleased,
even if they don’t know why, or that the viewer thinks that the movement makes sense, even if they don’t know why.
Maybe it’s like the golden ratio. We know that we are, in some way, pleased when we look at a piece of art. We don’t – well, all right, I didn’t understand that Lady Sewing by Firelight was pleasing because it followed this.
The artist, Barbara Krawczyk trusts that this will be pleasing to our eye. She didn’t feel the need to draw the spiral or draw three lines across the painting to show us why it was aesthetically pleasing.
But there was an underlying logic beneath it all.
So I submit that dance must unfold according to the rules it sets down for itself. Sort of like a horror movie – rules are established, and everything that happens must follow the rules that it sets down. It’s why sometimes vampires explode when they see sunlight, and why sometimes they melt or sparkle like diamonds (but let’s not talk about that).
The audience doesn’t need to understand the rules/logic, but they will see and be pleased by the results. Each piece of composition exists in its own diegesis, and its logic will translate to the viewer whether they understand it or not. Bad composition thinks that the viewer won’t understand, and good composition trusts that it will.