Modern dance can be appreciated on many levels, but four seem to be especially key: the emotional, intellectual, visual, and kinetic. The most-resonant dance works usually combine all four of these in varying balances.
Keeping these elements in mind can add to your enjoyment by giving you insights into what the choreographer may have intended in creating the work.
EMOTIONAL Part of any art's enduring appeal and power is its ability to move people's emotions. In dance, this happens most often through setting up a context in which a story is told or specific feelings are brought to the fore. In modern dance, this ranges from works that are as much theater as dance - presenting vivid characters and clear-cut narratives (Martha Clarke is one of the chief exponents of this kind of dance theater) - to works that only briefly allude to human emotions.
Love can be expressed by the slightest of tender gestures. Anger can be suggested by the merest jerk of a limb. Emotion in dance can be expressed by full-blown pantomime or through subtle nuances that can make a different impression on each viewer.
Sometimes choreographers aim to create ambiguity that compels audiences to bring their own backgrounds and experiences to the interpretive challenge, and no two people will see the work in quite the same way. The Japanese team Eiko and Koma, for example, create long, slow-moving works amidst a rich variety of imagery that can draw the mind and heart in a number of different directions at once.
INTELLECTUAL Often a work is created around a concept that has little or nothing to do with emotion, but is crafted more as an intellectual exercise.
The challenge for the viewer is to solve the puzzle, to figure out what the choreographer is doing and where he or she is going as the work unfolds. There is a stimulating, cerebral quality in works such as those by Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown that often lingers long after the specifics have faded from memory.
VISUAL Not all dances "mean something" or have a literal context. Some are abstract, what are called "pure movement" works, the focus of which is simply the shapes, speeds, and dynamics of bodies in motion.
The dance company Pilobolus, for example, has a large repertory of works that are highly sculptural, almost architectural: The appeal lies in seeing what kinds of shapes and "organisms" can be formed by the various connections of human bodies. Other works evolve primarily as slowly shifting patterns, and the beauty lies in their kaleidoscopic unfolding.
KINETIC All dance, to varying degrees, has a kinetic quality, a sense of energy being expended causing force and motion. In the most kinetic of dances, this quality soars over the footlights. Audiences can almost feel the thrill of being airborne, the rush of speed, the sense of heft or lightness, fall and recovery, tension and release.
In some works, this quality is paramount and can leave the viewer nearly breathless. The athletic acrobatics in works by Elizabeth Streb - using an array of bungee cords, trampolines, and platforms - are the ultimate in kineticism. Other works may focus elsewhere but still impart a visceral charge that actually makes the viewer's heart beat faster.
As long as you go to a performance with an open mind, you will "get it" on some level. Some pieces you may like, and some you may not. Any honest response, unfettered by specific expectations or feelings of inadequate understanding of the genre, is a fair one. The vast diversity in the world of modern dance means that there is almost certainly something out there that will resonate with you, that will take you some place you've never been before, and leave you a different person coming out of the experience than going into it.
And ultimately, isn't that what art is all about?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society