All too often we approach viewing dance with too high of expectations of ourselves or a bit a fear, afraid we may not “get it”. We then try to squeeze so much meaning out of it, working so hard to “understand” that we completely miss the beautiful nuances or subtle meanings of the work. Instead of approaching dance as an objective observer, like a scientist, allow yourself to be a subjective participant, active in the translation of the work as it is being performed for you. Most importantly, relax. Allow what you see to wash over you, to bathe you in images, meanings, impressions, emotions, kinesthesia, color, light and sound.
Viewing dance is an interactive, multilayered process. Unless you have the luxury of viewing a work many times, in one viewing you may choose to pick out moments as significant or you may choose to just receive the information as a general impression. Some of your impressions will be shared by the group or may be only for your individual interpretation. Your goal is not to arrive at consensus or a definitive answer, but to describe what you have seen and based upon what you have seen, write about how this created meaning for you.
Describe What You Have Seen
Before even attempting to shape your observations into a coherent idea, just write about what you saw. Perhaps you are struck by how shadows shift in and out of the light of the moving bodies on stage, or the Aristolelian rise and fall of the structure of the piece as a narrative whole, or the intricate floor patterns of the choreography, or the relationship of two dancers as they partner on stage, or the one gesture that is repeated throughout the work. Maybe you note the energies of the dancers on stage, or the presence and/or absence of music, or you are intrigued by the interplays of positive and negative space as the bodies morph in and out of shapes, or how the costumes are achingly beautiful or disturbingly distressed. A suggestion for beginning this process is to write: "when they did such-and-such it was surprising, challenging, evocative, compelling, delightful, unique, touching, poignant, different for you, interesting" etc. [i]
Based upon your descriptions, write about how the descriptive information communicated meaning to you. Don’t be surprised if you discover many layers of meaning within your descriptions. Allow for your personal experience to enter into your translations of meaning. Dance, like all the performance arts, is meant to be shared. During the process of performance, it is a collaboration between you, the audience participant and them, the performer. Your contribution to that interaction is valid and necessary for dance as a performance art to exist. You become pivotal to the creation of meaning as the work is being performed for you.
A General Framework-Where to Start
Describe the venue for the performance:
- What kind of theater are you in or is it a site specific work?
- Is it a formal space or experimental?
- How was the audience arranged (e.g. in front of the performers on one side, two sides, 3 sides, all around)?
- How large is the seating area?
- What is the rake of the house (e.g. steep seating, shallow)?
- How are the sightlines (can you see the performers or are there blindspots)?
Describe the program information:
- What kind of performance will you be seeing-an evening length work or a repertory program of different pieces by different choreographers?
- Does the information in the program tell you anything about what you will see?
- Describe how the title of the piece provided/or didn’t provide a context for viewing the work.
Describe the collaborative elements of a dance:
- What was the music? How was it used?
- Did the choreographer use a sound score, or montage of artists?
- Was it live sound or prerecorded?
- What did the music or sound or silence evoke?
- How were the levels? Could you hear the music or was it meant to be heard?
- If present, how was text or spoken word used e.g isolated words or narrative?
- How was light used? Were there lots of colors, lots of shadows, bright, dark, colors to evoke moods?
- How did the use of light affect you?
- What costumes did you see? Did they look like everyday clothing i.e. pedestrian, did they flow, did they restrict movement, were they colorful, drab, stark, tight fitting, loose?
- Did you notice any details to the costumes that had significant presence for you?
- Were the costumes uniform or unique to each performer?
- Was there a set or props? How were the set or props used? Were they incorporated into the choreography or additional elements on stage?
Describe the movement:
- What areas of the stage were used?
- What was the relationship created between the dancers and the space and the dancers with each other?
- What were the shapes, lines, direction of movement?
- How were the individual bodies choreographically shaped?
- What was the sense of time e.g. slow, fast, medium, sudden, sustained, percussive?
- How did the movement respond to the music i.e. contrasting, complimentary, counterpoint, dissonance, harmony, tonal, atonal, symmetry, asymmetry, successional, oppositional?
- Was the movement light, weighted, strong, delicate, extroverted, introverted, suspended, collapsed, contracted, expanded, large, small, low, high, wide, narrow?
- Was the movement stylized pedestrian, virtuostic, gestural, postural, vertical, multidimensional, curvy, hippy, sensual, mechanical, spiraling, two-dimensional, grounded?
- Were there movements, gestures, themes and/or motifs that kept reoccurring?
How to Conclude
After you have fleshed out your descriptions, allow yourself to ponder over meaning, then write about it. And perhaps you choose not to interpret meaning as you are satisfied by your descriptions. That's valid, too.