Keep looking!


I might be misremembering this, but I think that in the movie “Pina” at some point a former member of Tanztheater Wuppertal recalls that Pina Bausch once told him or her to “keep looking” for what the piece or movement was about, for the meaning of the dance, or something along those lines.

The idea underlying those words is simple and elusive at the same time. It’s the same idea that we find in Merce’s[1] quote on Nancy Dalva’s website The Informal Formalist: “keep looking”.

To my non-native English speaker’s ears, the words can be interpreted in two, mutually compatible, ways: keep searching, on the one hand, and keep watching, on the other. This might be wrong, and I thought about asking a native speaker for confirmation, but then I thought: if Heidegger can invent etymologies and get away with it, can’t I keep my supposed ambiguities and write about them? Well, of course, I am not Heidegger, and I might not get away with it, but I’ll give it a try anyway.

One can search in many ways. Using your eyes is one important way. Eyes are the organ of perception par excellence, the means for our primary way of interacting with the world. Dance as an artistic form is something to watch. We could spend many, many hours talking about the role of the gaze in dance: the gaze of the audience, the gaze of the dancers, the relationship between the two. So one obvious way for a dancer, or an audience member, to keep searching for what’s to be found in a dance, is to look with one’s eyes.

But it’s not the only way. After all, you can stare at a landscape, a painting, a beloved face, or a sequence of movements as long as you want, but you might not see what is there to be seen. We have many more organs of perception, including our brain and our heart.

Why splitting the mind in two cheesy metaphors[2], you might ask? The answer is fairly obvious, but maybe less obvious, or less universally shared, is the constant struggle that I experience in reconciling the different searches for meaning that the emotional, the intellectual (and the visceral) parts of me embark on. I am a philosopher and a dancer. I approach dance, such a physical, necessarily embodied enterprise, from a conceptual point of view. When I started choreographing, my dances were primarily concepts, concepts that I found in my dancers’ bodies. I am realizing as I write that my way of choreographing is the way Socrates does philosophy (absolutely no comparison in philosophical value intended!!!): as a midwife. I maieutically extract from my dancers what I want them to say with their bodies, helping them to give birth to a dance that is mine and theirs at the same time. For a long time I felt this was a bit like cheating, not genuine choreographing, and evidence for my lack of creative talent. But I am finally starting to set aside narcissistic self-doubts and questions about talent, and recognize that this is a legitimate way of choreographing, because it is the way a philosopher choreographs, or, more importantly, the way I choreograph, the way I can “keep looking”. I keep looking into other people’s bodies for my meaning and I try to bring it out.

But there is another way in which I see myself as following the dictum of two choreographers as different as Pina and Merce. I keep looking into my own body for the meaning that someone else intended. (Or for the lack of meaning. Or for the impossibly thin line between meaning and lack of meaning, which I think is what is to be found in most of Merce’s dances)

For every dance I learn, I keep looking into my body (and my body includes my mind, and my mind is my body) for what is to be found. In Merce’s case, I keep looking for the ever elusive lower back curve; for the perfect circle of plies and tilts and uniquely Jennifer-esque bounciness that starts “my” jig in Roaratorio; for the sharp and lighthearted precision of the up-up-downs; for the hypnotic smoothness of the slow crossings and of the Pond Way sequence; and for every step that I performed on Friday afternoon there is a never-ending list of discoveries to be made, of little sparkling treasures to be found.

It makes me sad that I have to stop looking for them, at least momentarily. But it’s also a relief brought to me by life, with its limited resources and other necessities, because never-ending quests are exhausting and terrifying.

And of course art just is life on a illuminated, elevated stage, and life itself is an exhausting and terrifying never-ending quest. But thankfully there are moments of enclosed rapture like those in the Payne Whitney gym on Friday night, when we dance to our own, collectively established, rhythm, and we hear each other breathing, and we feel each other’s protective gaze, and we look up and we hear the music for the first time, and we are just finitely, infinitely, happy.




[1]    I say “Merce” hesitantly, given that I never met him, but after Friday night I cannot help but feeling part of the Cunningham’s family, presumptuously but unavoidably.

[2]    And it should really be three: we shouldn’t forget about the guts, our primitive brain.