Beautiful futility of dance

On the web, I come across articles which argue whether the essence of dance is really movement or something else, and I read through debates in which people question the necessity of dance in a dance performance. I don‘t understand the selections of festival juries and I don‘t understand the awards presented in the dance industry. Lately, I got amused by a letter by a choreographer who complained that critics did not get his piece “right”. It seems to me that some people in our field have an absurd tendency to “racionalize” dance.

Filip Staněk. Foto: Petr Kurečka.

Filip Staněk. Foto: Petr Kurečka.

Filip Staněk Autor: Filip Staněk

There is always an edge to everything: on the one hand, there is classical ballet, often accused of putting too much emphasis on the aesthetic aspect of movement; on the other hand, there is conceptual dance which weakens this aspect or lacks it completely. Conceptual art in general rejects its aesthetic foundation, conceptual dance prefers intellectual reflection to the aesthetic one. It is not based on movement but on an idea or concept. Though it is impossible to establish what is art and what is not, there is one point theoreticians usually agree on: art is a domain in which the aesthetic function dominates.

Beauty is essentially a value which exists for its own sake, yes indeed. As well as love, truth, good and education. A dance performance may possess other values – such as the entertaining and socio-critical values etc., but it is the aesthetic value which defines a piece, i.e. it attracts attention to the piece itself not to the things it refers to. The aesthetic theory I am drawing on was introduced in the 1930s by the aesthetician Jan Mukařovský, who explains that: “...the relationship between the aesthetic and extra-aesthetic values is such that the aesthetic value is superior to the remaining values, but it does not repress them, it brings them into a dynamic whole...” (J. Mukařovský: ‘Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. In: Study I, Structuralist Library, Brno: Host, 2000, p. 26).

Choreographers often ask if dance can address current topics. It always drains me how wrong this question is. Ask a cook if food can cure a cold. Of course, he can prepare a meal that will have enough nutrients to improve one’s health but it is not its primary function. Literature, for instance, is a much better medium to tackle serious topics. Conceptual artists also strive to question institutions and deconstruct our habitual perceptual patterns (the ways we perceive art) but this role can also be better filled by other disciplines, such as philosophy. The problem of conceptual dance (as much as it lacks the aesthetic value) is that it does not create a value of its own, it feeds on other people’s ideas, with an arrogant face. The lack of creativity can be camouflaged, for instance, by a brilliant physical theory. If you want to know something about physics, better read Stephen Hawking – you will learn more and in a more digestible way.

But our time values “utility”. Juries and grants committees need to justify their decisions. Conceptual projects often boast well-structured synopses and deal with “important issues”, so their “cultural assets” might be more comprehensible for bureaucrats than those of purely dance performances. To appreciate the latter, you need to ‘have taste’ which is, reason-wise, a slippery term. Moreover, wannabe talents  often outnumber really gifted creators: and cynical discourse relying on snobbery increases their chances. The prevalence of intellectual judgement (at the expense of the artistic one) affects the distribution of funds, media attention and audience preferences, and thus the evolution of the field and its identity in general.

I believe that the main value of dance is the ability to speak a language that cannot be grasped intellectually. It touches the deepest layers of our personality; it is the metaphysical consolation Nietzsche talked about. But try to mention this at a meeting. I’ve read satisfying theories defending the position of conceptual art, however, they only satisfied the logic. Love can be “explained” by a chemical formula and psycho-sociological terms: but those who have ever been in love know that the reality cannot be captured so easily. Of course, I can’t disqualify dance conceptualism as a human activity. Life is colorful and we live in freedom. It has its upholders and its place in the society. Same as water parks and swingers clubs.

Still, I am wondering – how can we approach dance intellectually if we keep neglecting the depth we have access to. We can only get this insight through the aesthetic approach. In a time which hails pragmatism and believes in the language of science (the interpretation of which we confuse with objective reality – perception which is numbed by the omnipresent technology), the non-practicality of art is like an oasis. It refreshes our relationship to the world in a way which, I believe, cannot be replaced. Dance stems from mysteries which go beyond reason. It speaks about them but if we listen with our reason, we will not hear much. Those who think it’s too little deserve our pity because they have lost the dimension that distinguishes humans from machines and animals. It is the ability to appreciate what is most valuable about art – its beautiful futility.


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