Is Edward Hopper correct? Is pure dance impossible? (Part 3)

After much consideration and inner debate on the subject at hand, I come to my third and final entry in a series discussing the significance of a quote by the late visual artist, Edward Hopper. (If you have not read the first 2 parts, it would probably be good to do so before continuing: Part 1 & Part 2.) Previously I have discussed the meaning of Hopper’s words and how his opinion would translate to the art of dance. For my summation, I will present my perspective on the subject of “pure dance” followed by an examination of various performance examples. First, for one final time, here is the quote of interest by Hopper (as taken from a video retrospective produced by the National Gallery of Art).

There is a school of painting called abstractionist or non-objective, which is derived largely from the work of Paul Cézanne, that attempts to create pure painting – that is an art which will use form, color, and design for their own sakes and independent of man’s experience of life and his association with nature. I do not believe such an aim can be achieved by a human being. Whether we wish it or not, we are all bound to the earth with our experience of life; and the reactions of the mind, heart, and eye and our sensations by no means consist entirely of form, color, and design.

So, is Edward Hopper right? Is there no such thing as pure art or pure dance? For the most part, I agree with the opinion of Hopper as it relates to dance. I believe that there are those that create dances for dance sake, focusing solely on the medium – movement, space, energy, time, etc. And I think that some of them perhaps have the goal of creating a pure dance, a dance that is separate from the rest of human experience, while others simply do not care whether or not a piece has possible connections to reality. But whether they try to create a pure dance or not, I do not think that creating a pure dance is possible. I agree with Hopper that we are all bound to our experience of life, and seeing a dance (just another life experience) cannot be separated from the rest of our lived experiences. As an audience, we bring to the performance all that we know and have seen before. And our senses, our minds, and our hearts cannot react solely to the substance on the stage; they are naturally and automatically bound to respond to the performance based on our entire lifetime of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Because we are human, it is impossible for a work of art to be purely non-objective or abstract, no matter the artist’s intentions.

Also, some may choose not to acknowledge the connections to human experience; they may decide to focus on the form of the art and speak to it as a separate entity. This does not mean, though, that connections do not exist. The true reality of human experience does not change because of someone’s preferences or choices.

To flesh out these words, though, let’s look at a few examples of potentially “pure” dance.

1) A hip hop dance on So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD): From the few times I have watched SYTYCD, I have noted that the short partner dances they do as part of the competition could be good candidates for potentially pure dance. The dances remind me of my high school days of doing regional dance competitions – picking flashy costumes, having a solid number to compete against others, and entertaining the audience. Those dances and the simple hip hop routine on SYTYCD don’t seem to be “about” something or even connected to the bigger picture of reality, but that still does not mean that they are pure or completely separate from human experience. To just focus on the judging aspect inherent in such competition, a viewer watching SYTYCD automatically draws on memories (or lack of memories) of all that she has seen of hip hop in the past in order to determine where the current performer ranks among hip hop talent. Also, the hip hop technique must be regarded, and to do so the judges and viewers must think about the history of hip hop and what specific qualities make the technique what it is. So just focusing on the experience of competition (not even societal or cultural implications), one has already connected the single hip hop dance onstage to one’s past experience of hip hop, to the history of the form, and to the specifications decided in the outside world of what makes for good hip hop.

2) Houston Ballet’s Falling, choreographed by Stanton Welch: So here’s an example from concert dance. I recently saw this ballet work performed live at the Kennedy Center. Though choreographed in 2005, it certainly takes a more conservative or classical approach to the form: it has many sections, there is a lot of male-female partnering, the music is Mozart, the dancers mainly face the audience, the choreography mostly displays traditional ballet aesthetics, and the costumes are pretty and unobtrusive. While it is easy to enjoy Falling as simply a delightful piece to watch and a grand display of technique, the work is not actually pure or disconnected from the rest of our lives. The style of the piece immediately makes me think of the choreographer and wonder what sort of prior experiences he might have with ballet and how those shaped his preferences for creating work in 2005. I can also think about why audience members enjoyed this particular piece, noting the humorous moments in the work along with the beauty & grace displayed and considering how they stem from our societal experiences with humor and ideas of beauty. Even though some may not think as deeply about the work, this does not mean that such connections do not exist.

3) Alwin Nikolais’ Crucible: I would be remiss to not include something from modern dance. Even though most modern dances tend to have more of an intention or message, there are still plenty of pieces from yesterday and today that are more simple, seemingly just a dance or just an exploration of movement. Crucible is one of those dances. With 10 dancers in simple tight leotards & tights, a slanted platform covered in mirrors, and a variety of colorful lighting employed, the piece is largely a display of shapes, form, color, and design. The dancers move about, but mostly in tandem with each other and clearly in sync with the lighting changes to create a kaleidoscope of visual images. Though clearly focused on its own design, the work is not completely abstract or devoid of real life connections. One obvious observation is that everyone watching the piece uses their past experiences and knowledge of shapes and colors to individually appreciate and witness the new creation in front of them. Also, as a piece first choreographed in 1985, one can think about the time period in which it was created and how the artistic environment of the ‘80s may have shaped the work.

In summary, yes, a dance can be created for dance sake and a choreographer can have a variety of intentions in mind when making a work. But in my opinion, every dance will have some connections to the experience of reality and human life. Even when a dance is not “about” something, one can always consider how a dance relates to the creator, the performers, the time period in which it was made, the audience to which it is performed, the intention of the work, the cultural or societal implications of the form, the history of the technique, etc., etc. I heartily agree with Edward Hopper that pure art, and therefore pure dance, is impossible. Because humans create and view the art, it is impossible for a work to be completely abstract and disconnected from the experience of life.

Of course, this is only my opinion. I open the discussion to those with differing opinions and welcome any and all comments related to this topic.

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