My background in ballet has helped me realize that death is all around us. If you know the great ballets, you know about death and how important it is in ballet themes and plots through out the ages: Giselle, Manon, Swan Lake, La Bayadere, to name just a small fraction of death-oriented ballets. But my more recent personal history with modern and contemporary dance has also taught me that to dance is to grieve, not just ponder about death idly like the great ballets have.
I turn to the wonderful, the luminous Pina Bausch for this lesson in dance because along with her handful of witty, charming dances, she created great tornadoes of grief in dance. I particularly love two of her most iconic dances, Café Müller and Orpheus and Eurydice, and immediately connect grief and death in the dance world to these two pieces.
How can a dancer present such a sorrowful event in a honest and respectful manner? Café Müller and Orpheus and Eurydice do.
Dancers of the modern and contemporary vocabulary are quick to connect their emotions to what they are learning choreographically. The majority of ballet rehearsals begin with the language, the tendus and pirouettes of life. I’ve observed that students of modern and contemporary dance styles approach rehearsals with intense emotional linkage, sometimes even before the art of movement.
The physical and the mental, the unconscious and the conscious are all alert when most dancers are moving and performing. I love this feat in modern and contemporary dancers, so much so I feel a jolt of personal awareness when I photograph them (which I spend a great deal of time photographing since Texas State dance is a modern based program).
Bausch’s Café Müller and Orpheus and Eurydice transport dancers into an awareness of grief when faced with death or something very close to death. Watch as one human being recoiled and contorts into herself while another walks in a blindness, strained and taunt. Death moves us closer to the lose of control. Senses are blocked out. And for a dancer to experience this completely is very intense. For the audience, for the choreographer, for the musicians, everyone…Grasping this from the very first rehearsal to the very last performance and beyond is a very powerful skill that modern and contemporary dancers have.
And if Café Müller is harking to the realization of grief in natural life, then Orpheus and Eurydice (another well-noted, glorious contemporary Homeric dance, mind you) turns the supernatural realms of death back into the face of human experience. Gluck’s score is intrinsic to this atmosphere, and as a Gluck follower I relate a lot of grief I might feel to his compositions.Vibrating reminders of death ring out with this composition.
In movements, for instance, the agonizing arm clasp which is revisited in each act is a necessary modern movement. When I say this, I mean that I’ve seen many unnecessary modern movements that symbolize grief and are never honest. But when a dancer is in such a frenzy that the clasp across her throat is dragged violently down towards her solar plexus and below, I know in the deepest parts of myself that death is a part of life that requires grief. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice dictates this very notion, too.
Well, I didn’t mean to turn this into such a “down” sounding musing. But in my experience with ballet and modern and contemporary dancers, I felt it is interesting to note which one has the upper hand here. Both are graceful servants to their characters or emotions or themes. But modern and contemporary dancers are the owners of grief.
That’s not to say that modern and contemporary dancers can’t be funny, clever, happy and all that- I’ve seen SO much humor in my past 5 years, especially at ACDFA!
As a dancer, not a follower of a religion or anything else, look at grief, look at death. In performance, do you approach it like a Giselle? Are you nervous about it? Are you worried about it? Most importantly, to me, can you honestly express that grief?
Human grief embodied in the spirit of the dancer. It’s not morbid- it’s another aspect to the life of a dancer.
For further reading on Pina Bausch: