Deconstructing dance

I had the privilege recently to observe Elizabeth Streb mentoring a group of choreographers through CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange), a program of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.  In Streb’s aesthetic, action comes first.  Emotion follows.  Streb aims to connect viscerally with the audience through action itself, rather than through movement that is narrative, emotive, or gestural.  She wants to “do something to the audience, to cause a physical reaction so strong that [the audience] feel[s] that some of the moves have literally happened to them.”[i]  Streb is interested in movement that is stripped down to archetypal purity: the flip, the fall, the climb, the balance.  Streb herself says “I’m action, not dance.”

Watching Streb made me curious about the difference between action and dance.

In some ways, Streb is soul sisters with Trisha Brown, whose aesthetic values “pure movement.”  In Brown’s famous words:

“Pure movement is movement that has no other connotations. It is not functional or pantomimic. Mechanical body actions like bending, straightening, or rotating would qualify as pure movement providing the context was neutral. I use pure movements, a kind of breakdown of the body’s capabilities.”[ii]

Where, when and how does action become dance?  Where, when and how does dance become action? If jumping through a pane of glass is the epitome of action, what is the most “dancerly” of movement?  Or do we need to re-define our terms?  Are the answers to these questions different if we are talking about the experience of doing the work (does it feel like dancing?) versus watching the work (does it look like dancing?).

I’ll deal with the experiential angle first.  When does pure movement cross the line from post-modern or athletic task into something that feels like dancing? I auditioned for Streb for three days in 1998, after which I felt like I had been in a car accident. The work was exhilarating, but I didn’t feel like it was “dancing.” Why not? Because, based on my training, I have a certain somatic idea of what “dancing” is supposed to feel like? As a point of comparison, when I was dancing for Trisha Brown, I did feel like I was dancing. (Usually. The role of the standing man in Brown’s For M.G.: The Movie requires the dancer to stand still for the entire piece, which lasts 30 minutes. I tried to feel like I was doing Paxton’s “small dance” the entire time, but it was a challenge.)  Brown’s work definitely exists in the realm of “pure” movement. What then, differentiates Brown’s work from Streb’s?

Perhaps examining the issue from the perspective of the audience will help. Does action look different than dance?  Here are two hypotheses, both of which are easily countered:

    1    Transitions

    2    Argument: Action is about the event, and if transitions are present, they exist only to make the next event happen.  Dance is as much about transition as it is about physical event. Counterargument:  Dribbling is as much a part of basketball as shooting a basket.  Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A is certainly a dance. And there are no transitions.

    3    Beauty

    4    Argument:  Action is not trying to be beautiful, whereas dance has aesthetic goals.  Streb has called her work “ugly children.” The runner is simply trying to win the race. Counterargument: Diving. Gymnastics. Some people find NASCAR beautiful.  Are there choreographers uninterested in aesthetics?

Right now I am making the end of my new work, Reluctant Light, and trying to build a section where there are two types of bodies on stage—pedestrian and dancerly.  One trio tosses 4-foot long boxes made of PVC pipe back and forth while moving in the space.  The other trio improvises in response to somatic impulse.  The first time I juxtaposed the trios, there were clearly two different kinds of bodies moving in the space:  (1) bodies performing tasks/actions and (2) dancing bodies.  But here’s the interesting part: The more the dancers repeat this material, the more their bodies look the same.  The box-tossing movers have become more dancerly.  Whereas they began with a very rectilinear and efficient approach to tossing the boxes to each other, increasingly their pathways in space have become more curved, and they handle the box in inefficient, but more beautiful ways.  And the dancers performing the dancerly open score have taken on the kinetic charge and energetic dynamic of the box tossers.

As long as we’re talking about pure movement–movement without connotations–I have a hard time distinguishing dance from action.

Finally, let’s consider the work of Merce Cunningham through the action/dance lens. I wouldn’t call his work pure movement because it is not free from the ballet lexicon nor from connotation.  I don’t believe Cunningham was trying to deconstruct the dance canon in the same way that Streb and Brown have. Cunningham’s brand of brilliance comes not from a reductive approach, but rather one of re-creation. He took the dance lexicon—a lexicon full of connotations–and reconstituted its use of rhythm, weight, spatial orientation, and the spine, to create something wholly new. Many of his dances (especially his duets) have sprinklings of gestures that are decidedly full of connotation.  And so it seems easy to place his work in the category of dance, not action.

The action/dance inquiry seems to be a useful tool for thinking about dance and its lineage, assumptions, and aesthetic goals.

Post-writing realization: Perhaps the only thing differentiating dance from action is pleasure.

[i]  All Streb quotes herein are from “Interview with Elizabeth Streb by A.M. Homes,” Bomb Magazine,  Bomb 112, Summer 2010,

[ii] Trisha Brown: Dance and Dialogue (2002), p. 87.