Throughout time dance has not changed in one essential function. The function of the dance is communication.
– Martha Graham
Dearest Martha was always a strident communicator, whether through her chosen performance medium or in her speaking and writing about it. But in many ways, her commitment to communication (and the efforts of other performers and choreographers in this direction) raises more questions than it answers. How does dance communicate, how does movement signify? Does dance indeed have communication as its one “essential function” at all? And if so, how do we learn to understand it?
I’ve been thinking about these questions a great deal recently, in the contexts of dance for the theatre and my own teaching work. I think there are a number of broad ways in which dance conveys meaning to an audience. The first and most direct form of communication is generally found in classical dance forms worldwide, which often retell stories drawn from myth, folktale or other existing narratives already known to the audience. Performances of this form include both pure dance sections and narrative sequences which take the form of conventionally understood mimes or readable gestures.
In Western classical dance, we find mime sequences portraying the narrative element of story ballets; likewise hand gestures (mudras) convey stories from myth and epic in Oriental forms such as Bharatnatyam. In either case, the traditional expectation is that the audience are trained to read the movement conventionally, just as signers are trained to understand sign language. In this kind of formal movement, as well as artistry in the structure and performance, the work has a functionally communicative level somewhat akin to reading literary prose.
Dances which do not directly retell a narrative might still aim to communicate a particular mood, character or emotional state. Without resorting to direct mime or gesture, dancemakers might choose to evoke a specific ambience or tone through the choice of actions, use of space, dynamic qualities and relationships between dancers as well as sound score, costumes and lighting.
A dance containing slow, smooth-flowing low-level actions in a limited space performed by dancers who do not look at one another will read very differently to a dance containing lots of fast, energetic leaps and dancers throwing one another around the stage. In either cse, there may not be a full narrative in the story-ballet mould, but the dance will still communicate a particular feel (mood, bhava) on an expressive or suggestive level. The work is understood by sensation rather than conventional “reading”, and communicates affectively rather than literally, similar to the way we might read poetry rather than prose.
There are works which aim to be completely abstract, rejecting narrative, theme or suggestive image. Graham’s own former dancer Merce Cunningham has said, “I don’t work through images or ideas. I work through the body… When I dance, it means: this is what I am doing.” It is, however, unusual to find a dance with no conceptual subject matter at all – even Cunningham’s works occasionally suggest referents outside the dance itself, as with Pond Way, in which the dancers perform as amphibian and insect pond creatures (that can do triplets, tilts and twists); or the recognisably pedestrian actions of How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run.
If we can conceive of a spectrum from completely abstract to completely narrative, upon which the signified of a given dance work can be plotted, most points will be scattered somewhere along the middle of the range – suggestive and evocative rather than completely prosaic, somewhat abstracted from the narrative or dramatic theme, using the languge of movement playfully and suggestively as well as functionally. The audience, for its part, is invited to participate in the meaning-making process by reading the available structures – the movement vocabulary, the space, dynamics and relationships; the affective as well as the informational content. The locus of meaning is not solely in the choreography or in the performance on stage, but in the effect of the performance upon the viewer.
Graham passionately believed in dance as a universal language that could communicate across cultural, national and gender boundaries, and as an experience common to all humanity. But communication for Martha was not purely formal or purely functional; rather it is the kind of communication that provokes an emotional, rather than a literal, response . “My dancing,” she told American Dancer in April 1935, “is not an attempt to interpret life in a literary sense. It is the affirmation of life through movement.” It’s a manifesto in which I find much to celebrate.