Monday, August 31, 2015

Modern Dance Forms - an artifact of interest


Following is the introduction from the book, Modern Dance Forms in Relation to the Other Modern Arts written by Louis Horst and Carroll Russell, 1961:

Long before the time of recorded history dance must have been a developed and complex skill. Early man used it to help him surmount the riddles and complex tragedies of his daily life. He lived at the mercy of nature forces which we have learned to understand and in some degree control, and dance was for him a powerful way to conciliate these forces. It was his religion and his poetry and his science. Ritual dances were his insurance of success against natural enemies of hunger, disease, and death - fertility dances, harvest dances, war dances. He danced to celebrate his joys in triumph or his sorrow in defeat, and believed that his very survival depended on a dance of such strength and agility that it would be worthy of notice by the gods who controlled his destiny.

Thousands of years of civilization have endowed us moderns with only a veneer of refinement to separate us from our crude and naive ancestors. We accept unthinkingly the essential importance of communication between us marked by involuntary movements of hands, of eyes, of breath, etc., which express human emotions directly. We all have an instinct to use movements as a release for deep feelings of gratification ("I felt like jumping for joy") and frustration ("I was hopping mad"). Its elemental nature is conspicuous in the impulse to dance, so evident in every young child. The dancer's will has a relationship of intimacy with his body like the child's, whose demands, joys, and alarms are immediately told in physical movement. The dancer knows that his mind quickens his body and his body enlivens his mind, and he glories in the responsive obedience of one to the other. The feeling of oneness of body and spirit which is so obvious in the child must have been more nearly the condition of the primitive. We know, because provisions were left in his tomb to sustain the physical body on its trip to the after world, that the primitive's conception of immortality was unthinkable without his body. He did not relish the prospect of leaving it behind to rot in a grave while the soul escaped to dwell in austere purity.

Of this deep responsiveness between body and mind the art of the dance is formed. Henri Bergson, in his essay "Laughter," has said of the artist (and it applies with special vividness to the dancer) "He grasps something that has nothing in common with language, certain rhythms of life and breath that are closer to man than his inmost feelings, being the living law - varying with each individual - of his enthusiasm and despair, his hopes and regrets." This "something grasped" is given form by the performing artist. It may be mounted on a stage and offered to people who do not themselves possess the rich power to discern these "certain rhythms of life/" It is built of symbols abstracted from daily living and intimately associated in the memory of experience with action and emotion. To Enjoy it, the trained eye of a connoisseur of painting or the trained ear of a music lover are not needed. Any human being who is willing to give it his attention should be enlivened by dance.

Why is it then, that dance, with a venerable history and an ability to speak with directness, is now considered as entertainment and that few write of it? Dance is not even recognized by most aestheticians as an art. It is no longer an essential of living, no longer qualifies as one of those things - not bread - without which man cannot live. This is a very new emphasis and arrangement of values in man's long history. When he fought for his existence against physical odds, his body expressed his life directly and vividly. But the present day fellow who goes from down to up in an elevator, and from here to there in an automobile, who does his hunting at a desk or with a can opener, has a body that is nothing but a shell which miraculously shelters the complicated biological functions which keep him breathing. As abiding places for our personalities, our awarenesses, our bodies are dishonored and atrophied with disuse.

Words serve us where actions once did. No wonder modern man has forgotten what gratification it once was to him to express his participation in life in disciplined movement. One has only to look at the proud posture of the trained dancer - the carriage of his spine and his head - to sense his enjoyment in the knowledge of power in bones and muscles. But lacking this knowledge of power, most people respond to the concert dance as to a language only half understood, and their fears of the unfamiliar are more acute than fears of the novel in the other arts.

The dance as an art form, like an easel painting or a mounted piece of sculpture, is a fairly new phenomenon. Even the ballet, which was the first dancing to be presented in the Western World as spectacle, grew out of court performances in which the king and queen and the ladies and gentlemen-in-waiting made up both cast and audience. Folk dancing, social dancing, still are widely enjoyed as forms of self-entertainment. The principal connotation of dance, therefore, is of physical stimulation and emotional release through action. But any present-day concert dance production, although it does accomplish this effect through an automatically sympathetic physical response in the audience, also proffers emotional refreshment and intellectual quickening. To many, at first, this seems highly inappropriate to dancing.

Because of the inferior status of dance in the culture of the Nineteenth Century, the rebellion against outmoded forms in the dance world didn't appear until the other modern arts were somewhat established. The manner and the reasons for the rebellion are strikingly similar, however, to what occurred with painters, sculptors, musicians and poets. Although there are scores of books about the visions and values in the other modern art fields, little has been written to explain the techniques of the dance as a means of aesthetic communication.

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