`Who can tell the dancer from the dance?'
I HAVE been watching choreographers create dances ever since my childhood, when I often visited the studio of the legendary Ruth St. Denis in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. At 80, Miss Ruth was no longer teaching or performing and had delegated the administration of her school to a young assistant. But now and again, I was fortunate enough to be present on those rare evenings when Miss Ruth came drifting down the stairs from her apartment over the studio.Skip to next paragraph
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What a spectacular experience that was! Her tall, lithe figure crowned by a great mass of white hair defied her advanced age. Her charisma was so overwhelming at close quarters that she seemed more specter than person. Her smallest gesture was unexplainably expressive, magnetic, magical.
I had no idea what her movement meant, but I had absolutely no doubt that it was meaningful. It seemed to me, as a youth, that through Ruth St. Denis I experienced the ritual heart of some marvelous and alien religion.
What is it about a great dancer that transforms ordinary gesture into powerful art? How can something as illusive and non-literate as dancing contain a potential for expression that verges on religiosity?
Since my youthful encounters with Ruth St. Denis, I have never ceased to be intrigued by that question. This perplexity about the communicative power of dance is not unique to me. As a whole society, we are probably more mystified by dancing than any other art form.
Undoubtedly, part of our discomfort comes from the fact that we live in a culture in which the body has a terrible reputation. From the earliest days of Western civilization, the abhorrence of the flesh and its association with paganism and evil resulted in the castigation of the body.
The dominant religions of the West officially banned the ritual use of dance as early as the 8th century. For all other peoples of the world, such a situation would be unthinkable. For them, dance is an implicit part of religion. In fact, dancing is indistinct from praying.
Given this bit of history, it is little wonder that tribal people have retained a strong conviction about the power of their bodies, while we of the West gradually became so out of touch with our physical selves that in the 1960s and '70s it was necessary to rediscover our bodies through ``consciousness raising'' therapy and courses in body language. Eventually many churches reinvented ecclesiastical dancing, and dancers once again became the acrobats of God - a spiritual role they had held in most other civilizations.
For many of us the reemergence of dance as a respectable form of expression did not answer a fundamental question. Why does something as apparently useless and primitive as dance possess such power among most of the world's peoples?
It took many journeys into the heartland of remote nations before I could answer that question. While body movement is unquestionably pleasant to the eye, its real power is more profound than its visual niceties.
Movement communicates. Yawning is an obvious example of its contagion; so is the desire to stretch when we see someone else stretching. Because of this inherent quality of motion, which makes onlookers feel in their own bodies the exertion they see in others, the body of the dancer is able ``kinesthetically'' to convey the most intangible and metaphysical experiences, impressions, feelings, and ideas.