It dawned on me the other day that what happened on the gymnasium floor at Yale University on Friday, April 27th, 2012, has never happened before and will never happen again. It was singular, in the truest sense of the word. Every movement we dancers made, every step, misstep, leap, or turn of the head, was unique to the very moment it existed. Between the two performances, even though the choreography remained the same (save the few chance-based sections), our movements differed. Maybe we inhaled more on the same arm movement, maybe the sun washed over our faces at a certain point, maybe the audience applauded less after Roaratorio. Each moment was born and died and just as soon created a new moment, so that the relationship between the audience and the dancers, between the dancers’ minds and their bodies, was forever new.
This is the beauty of performance. It can never be a staid object on a wall, hanging on for an eternity, unchanged. Many say this might be the death of performance, but I say it is its saving grace. Sure, we can never truly capture a performance, despite all the photos and videos and ephemera we might compile. But this is what makes the liveness of dance and theater and performance art so incredible: for a certain period of time, our attention is drawn to the moving, acting, performing bodies in front of us. We have to be there, and in being there we recognize that time is passing right before our eyes; we recognize the tension inherent in a moment.
I believe that dance shows this tension more than any other performative form, since it relies on the entirety of the human body, an organism so complex that it seems quite impossible to repeat any one thing in exactly the same way. Even in classical ballet, historically attempting to hide any effort in dancing, there is a certain tension: when Giselle does a simple pique arabesque, she appears to be suspended, and yet she is also moving, breathing, thinking, acting, doing so many things at once that there is indeed a visible, captivating tension, for both the dancer and the audience. I felt this tension in Merce’s work. I feel it whenever I dance, because I know that the step I’m about to do will be over just as I soon as I begin it.
This transience, this fleeting existence, is both frightening and exciting. It means that dance provides a world of endless possibility, forever mutable and new. But it also reminds us of life’s transience, of our own unsure existence, of the fact that everything ends just as it begins. Dance forces us to notice moments in our lives, and in the absence of moments, to notice blocks of time, like the minutes of a pas de deux or the seconds a body rests motionless in space. A dance must always begin and must always end, just as life must begin and end, even though it is a lovely thought to think that Merce might still be dancing away somewhere, hidden behind a curtain or one of Rauschenberg’s set designs. I think he’d agree that what we did at Yale was singular and new in that certain space and place and time. And what a wonderful time it was! Thank you Yale Dance Theater 2012—I’ll remember those fleeting moments forever.