In high school, I choreographed a dance to a metronome. The dancers’ stomps pounded out the rhythm of the dance, and at the end one dancer suddenly turned the metronome off. In college I joined the Step Team, and in YDT’s Cunningham project we stepped out meters in tandem as we danced to Jennifer’s snapping fingers. In Reggie’s work we learned a bit of African gumboot dancing and timed our movements to an ill-defined rhythm dependent on our own shifts of weight, the other dancers’ pelvises, and sporadic instructions shouted out during the course of the excerpt. And in the Akram Khan project, we stomped out kathak rhythms and meticulously pounded out seven-counts in our heads, using syllables and breath and “shh…TAK!” to stay in sync. Rhythms are fun because they remind us of a heartbeat. Rhythms are universal.
The dancers in Vertical Road were covered in dust. We all wanted to be coated in dust, some of us even joked about buying a bag of flour at Stop&Shop and rolling around in it. It is so rare in serious dance study that one gets to be truly theatrical, which is odd since dance is inherently a visual, performing art meant, for the most part, to entertain. The severe beats, the huge triangle formation, and the fierce movements of Vertical Road made for an incredibly exciting experience both for the dancers and the audience. This sort of unbridled excitement is what is often missing in today’s dance that takes itself too seriously, and it is why, I believe, it is difficult to appreciate and enjoy watching modern dancing, especially without a dance background.
I kept thinking about studying dance. Why is this project so groundbreaking? Dance combines music, visual arts, and theatrics. Yalies overwhelmingly flock to music, art history, and theater classes. They watch movies and TV shows regularly, constantly listen to music, and attend concerts out of genuine interest. The two large art museums on campus are some of the best in the country. Why, then, is dance such a niche? Why is the academic study of dance almost inherently linked with the practice of dance, and why do my friends come see me dance to be supportive, not because of an outside interest in dance? Anybody on the street could name dozens of musical artists and at least name a few famous painters throughout history, but would have trouble placing the name Margot Fonteyn. What is different?
I think it’s because the practice of dance today lacks the theatricality, excitement, and accessibility that music and art provide. Choreographers like Akram Khan, paired with growing access to video material through the internet, can change this reality. Akram Khan uses props and stimulating music to actively engage both the audience and dancers. His collaborations (or attempts: see video) with various artists (from Kylie Minogue to the National Ballet of China) show an interest in dance as a universal human practice, not as part of an elite cultural knowledge.
This is what the dust can do. Whenever I started Vertical Road I never thought about the pretentious meaning I sometimes felt like I had to stuff into my movement, or the lengthy and circular discussions we often had throughout the project. I thought of the verse “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” and thought of the terra cotta warriors, and how the music sounded like a heartbeat. I thought about being powerful, hoped I would remember the steps, and then threw myself into a lunge.