from Paul: Kinesthetic Identification and why I write

I guess you’re the hostess on this site, and it’s great that you’re concerned about our equilibrium, but I don’t think you need to worry. I’m having a good time, and so far as I could tell Annie B expressed herself to her own satisfaction.
I do want to expand on the idea of kinesthetic identification, since as a critic that’s where I take off from. Many in the audience may “look” at the dance, but for me, the sense of sight is just the way into feeling the movement itself, and when I’m fascinated by a dance, it’s usually the process of finding my way back into the movement that makes me want to write.
So I’ll take the most recent example of a dance that got under my skin and made me want to figure it out. I was fascinated by the way the singers moved in the Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion” we just saw here (and here I’m going to quote what I wrote for Danceviewtimes this week)–

with twinkling small steps that roll through the platform-shoe, heel-to-toe. These steps function exactly like bourrĂ©es — the steps are very short, extremely even, the head does not change levels, and the character seems to glide weightlessly, like a flower-petal on water. The fairies also move like this and are expressly understood to be the personifications of flowers. When a corps of a dozen or so surround the heroine in her great erotic dream-scene, the effect is of a floating ecstasy: their silk capes drift in a magnificent procession that overwhelms the stage, like a wave of magic.
Anyone who’s familiar at all with Chinese dancing will remember the way dancers will pull long panels of silk fluttering through the air; there seems to be a fascination with THE FLOW, the manifold consequences that the silk reveals in these actions which is philosophical, almost religious, as if it showed us the secrets of time rippling in the wake of an impulse: the consequences must be dwelt upon, studied, savored. As with Chinese fascination with the secrets that can be revealed in calligraphy (which the new Cloudgate show coming next month is based on), the study of the unexpected vagaries of streamers set in motion seems to be investigative, as if the deepest secrets of the spirit world could be discerned by examination of the currents revealed by light glancing off streaming silk. [It puts me in mind of Andy Galsworthy’s studies of rivers and tides, the ebb and flow at the edge of physics and metaphysics.]

I’m aware that this is a large generalization to make about dance from a culture that is not the one I was born into. There are certainly ribbon-dances in the culture I DO come from — but none of them pay as much attention to the animation in the ribbon itself, as the Chinese dances all do. Western folk dance actually likes to control the ribbon, and uses patterns of plaiting (as in maypole dancing), or confining (as in la Bamba’s cummerbund dance), or in the Scots and Irish reels using patterns of shuttling, weaving, threading a needle, winding around a bobbin and going off at a 90-degree angle (lace-making). The Chinese dance examines the current itself as it’s revealed by the silk, and it seems to be a physicalization of the idea that you can’t step twice into the same river, you cannot conquer time.
In China they may know the name of the originator of this streamer-dance – I don’t know. I do know that it fascinates me because I was already fascinated by things LIKE it in western dance, and it illuminates something I’ve always wanted to know, which is why I am so moved by the slow movement of “Concerto Barocco” (which is a ballet that leaves many people cold but which hurries away my soul; it is one of my desert-island dances). In the West, the authorship of thread-the needle, bobbin-turns, shuttling, plaiting is “lost in the mists of antiquity” with the name of the Beowulf-poet. But if you look at the slow movement of “Concerto Barocco,” you will find that Balanchine built the entire movement out of these figures, especially thread-the needle, and the section called the snail (which is the holy of holies in that ballet) is nothing but pulling a sleeve through itself to turn it inside out. But look: it makes time run backwards.
PS I owe the idea that rhythmic movement may have given early man an adaptive advantage to the great historian William MacNeill, who has developed it at length in a fascinating book, “Moving Together in Time,” published by Harvard a few years ago. MacNeill is famous for the ideas that are now being popularized in “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” which he laid out in the 70s in his magisterial volume “Plagues and Peoples.” I’d recommend “Moving Together in Time” to anyone interested in dancing (or in military history or crowd-control). It is the greatest example I know of nowadays of a scholar at the top of his powers and near the end of his life reaching out beyond what he knows, trying to grasp a key that will help us understand the place of human beings in the balance of nature.
MacNeill’s really more interested in the creation of armies than of dance companies. His insight came to him as the result of marching about in the Texas desert; he was a draftee, the prospect was World War II, but he found that after a dusty hot afternoon of marching he somehow had developed a warm generalized feeling of great good will towards his fellow soldiers. He pursued this insight after the war in studies of the dazzling victories of William of Orange, who used techniques developed first by Alexander the Great to train men in close-order synchronized movement to build unbreakable esprit de corps. These esprit-building crack-timing do-or-die exercises were widely copied throughout Renaissance Europe, whose armies then went out and conquered the world.
“Plagues and Peoples” corrected the idea that mere military superiority could have accounted for the conquest of Mexico and Peru; unlike his followers, MacNeill is not sentimental and does not blame the conquistadores for bringing smallpox and measles to the new world, any more than he blames the tsetse fly or the AIDS virus (which when he wrote had still not been imagined) for sapping the energy of human beings and making it harder to get ahead. He sees the ancient migration of human beings out of central Africa into drier lands in the Middle East, where the parasites that our ancestors had evolved in synch with were no longer present, as allowing for a greater accumulation of collective energy, and the ability to collect wealth that resulted probably then made the new civilizations likely prey for marauding bands of hungrier people, who may have brought new diseases from the steppes of Asia (home of the rodents who harbor the bubonic plague) unwittingly to assist them in conquering the likes of Babylon.
The books resist summary; I hope I’ve not misrepresented him too badly and even more that you’ll read him for yourself.
[editor’s note: my mother, who has never danced a step in her life, likes this book a whole lot too.
Paul Parish is a dance critic for and San Francisco magazine, among many other publications. He lives and dances in Berkeley.]

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *