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The Politics of Dancing

In her latest Sixth Position column, Danielle Georgiou considers political dancemaking, from William Forsythe to Kurt Jooss to, yes, Beyoncé.



published Sunday, February 21, 2016

 

Dallas — In light of the recent release of Beyoncé’s “Formation,” and the subsequent response to the video, I’ve found myself wondering about the influence and power of dance. While dance is only one part of “Formation,” it does play a significant role in supporting the thematic message of the work. It is an influencer, a driving force in parlaying the historical narrative. Consequently, becoming an actor in what can be considered a political drama.

The role of dance in society is one that has been debated in the cultural anthropological world for decades, and there tends to be two views on the matter: one, is that dance is political, the other thinks that dance should occupy a separate domain and should never be connected to political matters. Sylvia Glasser, in an essay for the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement, in 1991, found that people who follow the first line of thinking argue that “dance or any form of cultural expression is inextricably interwoven into the social-political, economic, and even religious fabric of peoples’ lives. On the other hand, there are those who believe that politics and art should not be mixed and that dance is solely a form of entertainment. It is often those in the society who have political power who support the idea that art (or dance) is not political, whereas those who do not have any political power support the converse idea.” Yet, if art, be it dance or theater, is supposed to be a mirror on society as Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells us in Act 3, scene 2:

Photo: Brooklyn Academy of Music
William Forsythe's Three Atmospheric Studies

 

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

 

Then should it portray and magnify the realities of life? Or is dance just an escape from reality? As a primarily non-verbal art form, how can dance be political?

It is precisely this uniquely identifying characteristic that makes dance a powerful tool of expression. As Glasser said, “dance and music can often express sentiments of opposition and resistance and the aspirations of people who are denied verbal or literary expression of these feelings. Because of its non-verbal nature, dance can easily be ambiguous, so that ideas that may be censored in other media may be suggested or implied through dance.”

It’s easy to dismiss the idea of dance as political if we take the definition of “political” to mean that it is a form of communication centered on ideologies and specific ideas. But if we consider it from a broader sense, as an act of “belonging to or taking sides in politics: relating to a person’s or organisation’s status or influence” (Concise Oxford Dictionary), it becomes more challenging to discredit its power since a dance performance can generate intense positive and/or negative feelings about the relationships between people and their actions. Dance, a highly developed form of non-verbal communication, can act as a catalyst for political thought and action, and is political in the sense that attitudes toward dance, and its aesthetic value, have been influenced by the political actions and mindset of people at particular times in history. Moreover, if we disseminate the term “political” down to its root, “polis”—the people—meaning anything that has as its subject matter human beings, then dance is inherently “political.”

Take for example the toyi-toyi, a South African military march dance done by the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army as a form of political protest. Identified by the repetitive stomping of the feet, and spontaneous chanting of either political slogans or songs, the toyi-toyi was often successful in intimidating South African troops during Apartheid. As one activist was quoted as saying, “The toyi-toyi was our weapon. We did not have the technology of warfare, the tear gas and tanks, but we had this weapon.”

Now take for example William Forsythe’s “Three Atmospheric Studies,” which debuted in 2005. Here we have a concert dance work versus a ritualistic dance; yet, the impact of the movement yields similar results. One critic called it “Forsythe’s Guernica”; the choreographer sees it as, “an act of citizenship.” Fueled by the Iraq War, Forsythe delicately handled what was and still is a current and specific geopolitical situation, without mincing any necessary images and moments of violence. He marks the work with body-distorting, grotesque movements, painful moments of dialogue between characters, all paired with an overall sense of compassion and fatigue.

But before Forsythe’s political stand, we had “The Green Table,” Kurt Jooss’s 1932 antiwar agitprop, Paul Taylor’s “Banquet of Vultures,” in which Death, dressed in suit and tie acts as a stand-in for President Bush, and a majority of Bill T. Jones’s work are politically driven.

 

 

Therefore, dance as a political tool is not a new trend or an undiscovered avenue, but it is one that is misunderstood, minimized, and has yet to rise to the level of an “enduring art form.” One reason might be the fact that the term “political” has such a bad connotation, and that dance is generally thought to be more successful and entertaining if it has nothing to do with society itself. But art is supposed to break the rules, be a little unruly, a little undancerly. People want to think, they want to talk about things, and they want to be active citizens in the worlds they live in.

If the statement above is true, if we are all citizens in the worlds we choose to occupy, then artists are citizens of their world, and therefore, dancers are citizens of theirs, and if citizens can be political, then why can’t dancers? Forsythe asked that question in “Three Atmospheric Studies,” and answered it in an interview with The Guardian: “I’m a citizen…and I have the opportunity to speak in public and many people don’t. Dance happens to be the medium I have access to. I feel obligated on some level to use it to make a comment.”

Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video (below) runs in tandem to these discussions. She is an artist, a citizen, and a powerful voice in our pop cultural community. Whereas the choreographers discussed here work within a bubble (albeit a large artistic bubble), Beyoncé has the ability to reach out to a generation that is affected by different (and still similar) political events. Through this visual anthem, Beyoncé has achieved something that these other artist/citizens were unable to do: she generated a massive conversation about race, culture, gender, sexuality, war, crime, and punishment that is powerful, gritty, and unapologetically a call-to-arms. “Formation” is a mediation on black identity—something that we have not seen in decades, but something that our country desperately needs to acknowledge and respect—and uses many images that evoke and call forward that identity, including dance. And she uses dance as both entertainment and activism.

So, if Glasser is correct and dance is “not only an expression of political feelings, [but]…can also influence the perceptions of the participants and viewers, and contribute to transforming socio-political systems,” then “dance not only reflects the society, but it can also mould society.” Therefore, dance can be political, especially if it holds the power to alter our understanding of current events, situations, and trends, and lead us into a new period of understanding and tolerance.

 

 

» Danielle Georgiou is a dance educator, critic and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) and is a working dancer and performance artist. Her column Sixth Position appears on the third Sunday of the month on TheaterJones.com.

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The Politics of Dancing
In her latest Sixth Position column, Danielle Georgiou considers political dancemaking, from William Forsythe to Kurt Jooss to, yes, Beyoncé.
by Danielle Georgiou

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