Unreal Nature

October 30, 2016

Facts Have a Way of Dancing About

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… Dance criticism has two different aspects: one is being made drunk for a second by seeing something happen; the other is expressing lucidly what you saw when you were drunk.

This is from ‘Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets’ [1954] found in Edwin Denby: Dance Writings, edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (1986):

On the subject of dance criticism, I should like to make a clear distinction that I believe is very valuable, to keep the question from getting confused. And that is that there are two quite different aspects to it. One part of dance criticism is seeing what is happening onstage. The other is describing clearly what it is you saw. Seeing something happen is always fun for everybody, until they get exhausted. It is very exhausting to keep looking, of course, just as it is to keep doing anything else; and from an instinct of self-preservation many people look only a little.

[line break added] One can get along in life perfectly well without looking much. You all know how very little one is likely to see happening on the street — a familiar street at a familiar time of day while one is using the street to get somewhere. So much is happening inside one, one’s private excitements and responsibilities, one can’t find the energy to watch the strangers passing by, or the architecture, or the weather around; one feels there is a use in getting to the place one is headed for and doing something or other there, getting a book or succeeding in a job or discussing a situation with a friend, all that has a use, but what is there in looking at the momentary look of the street, of One-hundred-and-sixth and Broadway. No use at all.

[line break added] Looking at a dance performance has some use, presumably. And certainly it is a great deal less exhausting than looking at the disjointed fragments of impression that one can see in traffic. Not only that the performance is arranged so that it is convenient to look at, easy to pay continuous attention to, and attractive, but also that the excitement in it seems to have points of contact with the excitement of one’s own personal life, with the curiosity that makes one want to go get a special book, or the exciting self-importance that makes one want to succeed, or even the absorbing drama of talking and listening to someone of one’s own age with whom one is on the verge of being in love.

[line break added] When you feel that the emotion that is coming toward you from the performance is like a part of your own at some moment when you were very excited, it is easy to be interested. And of course if you feel the audience thrilled all around you just when you are thrilled too, that is very peculiar and agreeable.

[ … ]

… Did you really see anything? Did you see any more than you saw in the morning on the street? Was it a real excitement you felt? What is left over of the wonderful moment you had, or didn’t you really have any wonderful moment at all, where you actually saw onstage a real person moving and you felt the relation to your real private life with a sudden poignancy as if for that second you were drunk? Dance criticism has two different aspects: one is being made drunk for a second by seeing something happen; the other is expressing lucidly what you saw when you were drunk.

… [That] is of course what makes criticism criticism. If you are going in for criticism you must have the gift in the first place, and in the second place you must cultivate it, you must practice and try. Writing criticism is a subject of interest to those who do it, but it is a separate process from that of seeing what happens.

… creating dancing and seeing dancing are not the same excitement. And it is not about creating that I mean to speak; I am telling you this so you won’t sit here unless you can spare the time for considering in a disinterested way what seeing is like … . And it is not very likely either that I shall tell you any facts that you had better write down. I rather think you know all the same facts I do about dancing, and certainly you know some I don’t; I have forgotten some I used to know.

[line break added] About facts, too, what interested me just now is how differently they can look, one sees them one way and one sees them another way another time, and yet one is still seeing the same fact. Facts have a way of dancing about, now performing a solo, then reappearing in the chorus, linking themselves now with facts of one kind, now with facts of another, and quite changing their style as they do. Of course you have to know the facts so you can recognize them, or you can’t appreciate how they move, how they keep dancing.

[ … ]

… The difference between the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and a letter on the editorial page of the Daily News isn’t so great if you look at both of them without reading them. Art is certainly even more mysterious and nonsensical than daily life. But what a pleasure it can be.

… There is nothing everyday about art. There is nothing everyday about dancing as an art. And that is the extraordinary pleasure of seeing it.

My most recent previous post from Denby’s book is here.




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