AC Grayling on contemporary dance

From ballet to breakdancing, there has never been more happening for dance enthusiasts in the capital. Here, author and philosopher AC Grayling argues that contemporary dance is the most exciting art form of our time

  • At almost any exhibition of contemporary art the thought that crosses one’s mind is: Is this rubbish, or am I missing the point? Personally I take the view that most of it is rubbish of a useful kind: it takes a lot of compost to make a flower grow – and flower-lovers live in hope. Cynics say that the problem is the existence of art colleges, where people spend their time gluing cereal boxes to bicycle tyres (conceptual art), or demand that people watch them doing it (performance art): but at least they serve the purpose of establishing the contrast between art in Andy Warhol’s sense (‘art is what you can get away with’) and the art of dance, which is real art, where there is no possibility of faking it.
    Contemporary dance is in fact the cutting-edge art form of our time. Even before there can be questions of choreography, design, staging and performance, there has to be such a high level of fundamental skill available – and of the most unequivocally recognisable kind – that the raw material of dance is itself a thing of art. Then add the fact that the twentieth century, and increasingly its second half, has seen a majestic efflorescence of choreographic talent in both the classical and modern arenas, and the case is made.

    Dance can be narrative or absolute, and although it is hard not to make it beautiful, it can sometimes achieve that feat. Even then it retains its power to entrance. The basic formula is simple: dance is about human bodies creating shapes and lines in space, and in chosen ways changing the patterns of them over time, usually as an interpretation of music, or in partnership with music, or at least a beat. The paradigm of dance is rhythmic movement using conscious patterns of steps and gestures in ways that are expressive and typically (though sometimes deliberately not) graceful. That makes dance four-dimensional at least, although add the emotional dimension – most often, the response to such traits of beauty as grace and youth, for dance is the business of perfected human physicality too – and one sees why it is not enough to think of it as mere movement

    The usual though not invariable sixth dimension is music, often as powerful as the dance itself; and the seventh dimension, important when dance is performed for an audience, is design – costume, setting – ranging from a naked stage (and dancers) to elaborate palaces and mountain glades, exotic fabrics and dramatic lighting. As performance for an audience, dance is theatre that needs the least but can profit from the most that theatrical science offers.

    Dance is probably the oldest of all forms of performance, along with song. Pictures on pottery shards dating back nearly 10,000 years show dancers in action. Dance comes naturally: following a rhythm, imitating the regularities in step or handclapping of others, moving to a pattern in hoeing or cutting, swaying to a beat, is integral to human physiology. In what used to be called ‘traditional’ societies, any excuse to dance, and any means – a patch of clear ground and a hollowed log for someone to beat a rhythm on – is enough to get the whole community going, from infants to the aged. In those societies everyone still dances; in ours, we mainly do it in the two decades between the onset of adolescence and the end of courting. After that, self-consciousness sets in.

    But that only applies to us as performers. As admirers of the various gifts that human beings can display, we delight in athleticism, musicality, acting skill, beauty of form, graceful deportment, and we might go to see them on the sports field, in the concert hall, the theatre or the art gallery. But all these combine in ballet and modern dance. Dance is therefore a summation of what we most like when we watch others. Sitting at a pavement café observing passers-by is a pleasurable entertainment; attending to the simulacra of other lives in soap operas is a gripping entertainment; watching dance includes and transcends them both.

    London is rich in dance. In almost any year one can see the work of such giants of choreography as Kenneth MacMillan, Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine at Covent Garden, and in modern dance the genius of some at least of Anthony Tudor, Twyla Tharp, Pina Bausch, Jiri Kilian, Mark Morris, William Forsythe and others at Sadler’s Wells. The unending flow of work by new choreographers is on show there and at The Place and Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio, so there is no excuse for missing the best of the latest.

    My introduction to dance occurred early, as an expatriate child in central Africa seeing whole villages of Africans dance barefooted on hard ground, their stamping, swaying, ululating unison a hypnotising sight. Once established, the symmetry of that style of dance begins to invite complexity – syncopated steps, changing patterns, counterpoint, subtle over-rhythms – enabling the dance to evolve beyond communal enjoyment of semi-trance into the realms of narrative: hunting the leopard, marrying the chief’s daughter.

    When I first saw dance on the Covent Garden stage, also as a boy, I recognised that the basic elements of dance had been transformed by ballet’s sophisticated language so that it could tell whole stories and richly explore the emotions that give them their point. The formal vocabulary of ballet, like structures of metre and rhyme in poetry, is the framework on which the art is built. In modern dance that framework is stretched, bent, looped, buckled and abandoned at need to go into different fields of expressiveness – as an alternative to, not as an advance beyond, the classical forms, which the work of Ashton and MacMillan shows to be inexhaustible.

    Ballet and modern dance can only leave you cold if you start with prejudices about them. Laddish distrust of boys in tights, or a pose of disdain for high culture as the preserve of the rich and affected are the typical barriers. But hardly anyone who sees ballet and modern dance without preconceptions – who realises that what they enjoy about dance in music videos is here by the truckload and more – can fail to be a convert. It is, after all, the most natural and enchanting of all entertainments, the easiest to enjoy, and it is true art: there is, to repeat, absolutely no faking it.

    AC Grayling’s most recent book is ‘The Heart of Things’, Orion, £12.99.

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