There are all sorts of interesting indicators that our discipline-specific thinking in the arts is coming unstuck. What the gatekeepers among us used to call distinct art forms like dance, music, theater, and visual art are becoming dialects of a common language, and those dialects are blending in compelling ways.
What brought this back to mind was the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra’s work with choreographer Liz Lerman — who created movement for the musicians as they performed an orchestral work (see video below or on YouTube). This is likely an outlier, and we shouldn’t expect a major trend toward choreographed orchestral performance. But it’s a pretty cool way to beg some questions:
Why do orchestral musicians need to sit still, essentially bolted to their place on the stage — particularly when the music is so driven by motion and shifting interplay between different instrument groups? Why must dancers be silent as they perform to music played by others? Why can’t an effort to make music performance more ‘visual’ also include insight from visual art, as we’re seeing in the extraordinary New World Center?
But the question that’s nagging at me the most these days, given where I work, is this: Why do we continue to silo arts majors by discipline in higher education? Technical excellence and specific context for each discipline certainly require the silo for at least some of the time. But retaining those silos outside their utility is actually quite damaging.
Musicians should know how to move — how to use their bodies on-stage and off in ways that support their craft and their health (and yes, Feldenkrais Method and Dalcroze Eurhythmics have been doing this for decades, but are still strangers to most higher education programs). Dancers should know how to play, or sing, or speak in ways that help them move, but also ways that help them work across disciplines and explore their aesthetic vision — even if it’s mostly rooted in movement. Visual artists should explore space and time in ways that performing artists understand those dimensions. And everyone should understand the elements of visual aesthetics, proportion, scale, balance, and harmony (in every sense of the word).
Regardless of our discipline, we are all in our bodies. And our bodies move, and sing, and speak, and see, and breathe, and play — as individuals and as communities of bodies. Increasingly, I’m meeting students who understand this, and want to explore expression beyond their primary discipline. We make it hard for them to do that in higher education, and in the professional silos we’ve built in the arts.
Let’s make it easier.