Non-review: Does a dance audience ever witness real emotion?

The other night I saw Faye Driscoll’s recent work, There is so much mad in me, at Dance Theater Workshop. While I do not wish to critique the work, I would definitely recommend seeing one of her shows in the future. After the show, I talked with one of my good friends who was a dancer in the piece. He was sharing his experience performing a particular part of the dance, a very dramatic and theatrical solo that included some audience interaction. And his description of the performer’s perspective reminded me of an ongoing discussion in dance theory about emotions in performance.

In the book The Performer-Audience Connection: Emotion to Metaphor in Dance and Society, Judith Lynne Hanna explores dancer perspectives and audience responses on conveying emotion in various forms of dance. To frame the discussion, she highlights particular dance theorists that continue to inform views of artists today.

  • Francois Delsarte: French philosopher (who I previously mentioned in Modern dance is still so new!); believed that humans give form to feeling through the body; classified each bodily gesture in terms of emotional significance; strong influence on the forerunners of modern dance
  • Wassily Kandinsky: Russian painter and art theorist; believed a work of art had 2 elements, the inner emotional soul of the artist and the outer display of the art, and a work was successful if the artist evoked his inner emotion in the observer
  • Constantin Stanislavski: developed method of acting that utilized the whole body and used sensory stimuli to engage physical and emotional memories to bring a character to life; felt that if a performer displayed sincere emotion on stage, the audience should be moved to similar feelings
  • Rudolf Laban: believed that motion, emotion, form, content, mind, and body were inseparably united
  • John Martin: American dance critic who perpetuated the idea of dance as a means of expression
  • Susanne Langer: dance philosopher in the mid-20th century; bucked previous ideas and stated that dance includes gestures that are simply symbolic of imagined or recollected emotions – “it is actual movement, but virtual self-expression”; she used examples, noting that Pavlova was not any better at performing the Dying Swan on days that she actually felt faint or sick

**Another interesting book is What is Dance? by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen, which includes essays written by John Martin and Susanne Langer along with many other dance artists and theorists.

So where is dance today? Do artists agree with Laban and others, that movement expresses actual emotions, or with Langer who says movements are only symbolic of emotions? Are there perhaps more real emotions being expressed on the stage with the contemporary trend of adding theatricality (acting) and audience interactions? And how does the experience of the performer affect an audience?

Judith Lynne Hanna tried to shed some light on these ideas through her study. Her conclusions in The Performer-Audience Connection showed a complete mix of responses from performers on whether the dancing involved real or remembered emotions, with no difference in responses between genders. The choreographers of the various forms of dance also differed on their views of emotion in dance and what they wanted an audience to think or feel. The majority of audience members, though, did note feeling a particular emotion from viewing a dance, and most noted feeling the same or similar emotion to the one they perceived onstage.

From my own experience as a dancer, I would say that the level of emotional engagement felt while performing varies from piece to piece and even moment to moment. Though, there are fewer times I remember evoking actual emotion, and those times were mostly in pieces that had text and theatrical elements or moments of breaking the 4th wall and connecting with the audience. And to speak as an audience member after watching Faye’s work, which was heavy on script, acting, and audience interaction, I certainly was drawn-in to feeling particular emotions, and I imagined the performers had to have been really emoting during some of the more dramatic sequences. Take as an example a scene in which the rest of the cast is making fun of one female dancer, surrounding her physically and verbally abusing her like a gang of bullies. Could she have given a convincing reaction without some actual feelings of anger and sadness felt onstage at that moment?

For me, the question still to consider is what the implications are of these emotional theories. Do pieces that display real expressions of emotions (perhaps the contemporary experimental pieces that fuse dance and theater) have a better chance of engaging with the audience? Or do such displays of realism make a work less approachable to the average audience, possibly wishing to “stay out of it”? And further, should choreographers strive for one or the other method if they desire to expand their audience?

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  1. Tori

     /  April 6, 2010


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  • Meagan Bruskewicz

  • Dance is the hidden language of the soul.
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