the art of bodies in motion

Sunday, January 24, 2010

ABSTRACTION: The Empty Space

a paper presented by Ann Moradian for The 21st Natya Kala Conference -- "Choreography: The Art of Making Dances"
December 15-21, 2001, Shri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai, India

It can be rather intimidating for a dancer to talk about dance. It isn't that there is someone better to do it, but we do not always have a lot of practice at it. I have spent most of my life exploring dance experientially, not linguistically. Words can seem limiting and limited.

Words are a tool used and understood by only a certain portion of the brain. They are unable to embrace or define the experience of being -- being is all embracing. Words confine our experience within borders that do not really exist. While language helps us to communicate and exchange ideas, it also encourages a sense of understanding, a sense of knowledge and control that is misleading. Wallowing in this illusion of understanding, we restrict our experience and our understanding, confining it to that small realm in the brain that interprets linguistic symbols. Words remove us from immersion in experience, setting us outside looking in. Words are, in fact, a form of abstraction. Through language and its symbols we cut our selves off from the experience of being -- an abstraction of being, if you will.

You might think that introducing this idea of the "abstraction of being" is a rather convoluted way to begin a discussion on choreography. But its opposite -- a very deep need to experience existence fully -- has been a primary motivator in my life and in my choices to date. This includes, naturally, the choices I make in dance and in choreography.


I've been asked to speak here about abstraction in dance. My response may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you. You see, upon consideration, it seems to me that all presentational dance is abstract. We place 'dancing' and presentational dance under one linguistic label called "dance." I would like to clarify a distinction I perceive between dancing and presentational dance. They are substantially different.

I have found that dancing, the experience of dancing, amplifies and intensifies the experience of being. Dancing focuses the attention of the dancer inward and outward simultaneously, uniting numerous aspects of our existence consciously in the moment. It is an 'attending.' It is impossible while dancing not to attend to the physical body and its relationships with space and time, breath, energy, thought, feeling, sensation.

Presentational dance, however, is a formal sort of beast, no matter how personal or casual it might appear. Presentational dance is not simply inspiration or expression embodied. It is choreographed -- a series of choices. By choosing, we are drawing boundaries: deleting, extracting, directing the viewer's attention and informing it. At the very least, we frame the work, somewhat like a photograph. In the process of framing the work, we have made choices about what will be seen and what will remain hidden. In other words, we abstract ("draw from, separate")*

Yet Ben Hahn, in his book "The Shape of Content," states that it is content that determines the form. He says, "Form could not possibly exist without a content of some kind... If the content of a work of art is only the paint itself, so be it; it has that much content." According to the dictionary, "content" is "what is contained... the substance." Hahn is discussing visual art, but it seems applicable to dance as well. Even more so, perhaps, because the content of dance -- at the very least -- is not only the human body but also the human being. In my experience, the dancer (body and being) assuredly influences, restricts and contributes to the form a dance takes. If all presentational dance is abstract and has content, then we are really discussing degrees of abstraction. What we decide to label "Abstract" will naturally be determined by our subjective perceptions.

As we create a dance, our choices are strongly influenced by our relation to the layers and layers of context that are formed by our history, culture and society (the history of dance itself, schools of thought in religion, philosophy, the sciences, and by our values, metaphors, icons, etc.). These layers are like the undercoat of a painting which creates the landscape we spring from, rest upon, reject, explore, amend, allude to or reference. In other words, presentational dance -- choreography -- is not only an abstraction of experience but also an abstraction of the experience of a particular artist in relation to a particular conglomerate of contexts -- and it is full of content.

By making choices we create boundaries that, unavoidably, contain substance. Yet these boundaries simultaneously set us outside -- abstracting our selves from the experience of being. Another way of saying this might be to say that we astract elements from the vast "What Is" to create a sense of something concrete, yet in the process of creating this concrete something, we simultaneously remove our selves from the greater experience of "What Is"... (A bit of a paradox which I believe has been well addressed by your country's philosophers.)


When I first began choreographing professionally (in 1982), I felt a need to "control" the work -- to ensure that the audience "understood" what I was "trying to say." Since that time I have come to believe that this is essentially impossible. I have heard so many people in dance say that "dance is a universal language." I recognize the comfort this idea brings, and I admit that there are certain physical expressions of human emotion that seem to be shared across cultures. But dance is not a universal language. There are so many layers springing from the context in which the dance is born or created that we don't even recognize when we are using a sort of "short hand" which references and alludes to a vast communal consciousness that is not "universal," not even global. What is a clearly defined, even 'literal' dance to one group of people can be experienced as purely abstract movement to another.

I remember the first time I welcomed the empty space rather than wrestling against it. I had set out to create a piece that would only be completed by the viewers' perceiving the dance through the filters of their lives, memories and experiences. It required a structure, of course, empty space, and images and moments that resonated strongly enough to call upon the reservoir of information that each one carried within them. In 1995, after my company (Perspectives In Motion) premiered that particular work, a young dancer approached Anna Sokolow (whose work had also premiered that evening) and asked her if she had 'enjoyed the show.' This tiny little woman bristled up, greatly affronted, and said to her "We are not here to enjoy! We are here to think and feel!" I think she summarized the viewpoint quite well. ("Entertainment" is, of course, something else -- but that would be another discussion.)

The "content" of my work is both the human experience and the human being. I was surprised when I was asked to speak about abstraction as if my work were abstract. Now I see that it is. I was stunned when one of my dancers told me that my work was hard, that no one else had ever demanded of them what I asked. Until then I hadn't realized that the content of my work requires not just the body, mind and heart of my dancers, but also their soul, and mine. Whether I create something that is perceived as abstract or clearly defined -- literal even -- is not really a question for me. I attempt to create each work appropriate unto itself. I try to provide structure, metaphors, textures -- a visceral residue of existence within a particular frame -- and enough empty space to invite the viewer to create his or her own experience and interpretation of the work -- which may or may not be the same as mine.

One of the things I have loved about choreography is the empty space. Not all empty space and not just any empty space, but that empty space between resonant movement or images which allows the viewer to experience the work, to sense its energies, textures, movements, its interconnectedness -- its life. That empty space which invokes not just an emotional, empathetic or sympathetic experience of being, but that calls upon the full spectrum of our possibilities as sentient beings (mind, heart, body, soul) -- to engage as much of our being as we possibly can. It is from here that we begin to enter the dance, co-creating the work through the filter of our own experience and consciousness.

I'd like to use the example of Vesper, probably considered to be one of my more abstract works, as a way to illustrate abstraction through the use of this empty space. Essentially and quite simply, Vesper is a dance about sitting in a chair. Given the movement vocabulary of the dance, the chair might be interpreted as a metaphor for rest, confinement, surrender, death. Ultimately, the significance of the chair, its "meaning," will depend upon the viewer's perception of it.

(Deirdre Smith & Joan Mullen in "Vesper)

The basic structure of the dance is quite simple, with a linear, dramatic development. The dancer begins sitting in the chair. She becomes conscious of the chair and leaves it to move out into the space. Her attention is divided between the experience of her environment and her awareness of the chair, which seems to be alive. The dance concludes as the dancer returns to sit in the chair. This structure itself gives clues to the possible "meaning" of the dance. Additional metaphor can be found in the spatial patterns,(such as the movement from the far corner of the stage the the opposite forward corner -- alluding to a progression or journey. The title, also, offers clues to my choreographic intention: vespers are devotional songs sung at dusk, alluding to a concern with the sacred and with the coming of night.

The chair, the personification of the chair, the music and the costumes join together to remove the dance from a real landscape and place it in a surreal environment. The chair is a curious, angular sculpture of string and wood, resembling a harp or kite perhaps. One of the dancers creates an ongoing sequence of moving sculptural images with it, and because the two are always intertwined, we understand that this dancer and the chair are one. And because this personified chair has a will and a relentless connection with the other dancer, and she with it, we may ask ourselves what this relationship could be.

(Deirdre Smith & Joan Mullen in "Vesper")

The music is a soundscape, with no recognizeable rhythm or melody. It seems to distort time, creating a warped and disturbing environment. The costumes are simple unitards that have been designed with the same angles and webbing as the chair. They subtly de-personify the dancers. Sitting, or rather not sitting in a chair in this surreal environment re-contextualizes the act of sitting. We are left with a sense of intense feeling, an intimate relationship and yet, we don't really have the feeling that the dancers are "characters." I would venture to say, from my own point of view, that this "duet" would be better described as a trio, but it is actually a solo. For me, Vesper takes place in a psychological landscape. But each viewer will have his or her own ideas about it. This kind of empty space allows for one dance to be experienced as many different dances. Some people in our New York audience refer to this dance as "the lesbian chair dance." I don't see it that way, but they do. I hope that that dance is also an interesting one!

In my work, I am asking the viewers to experience the work through themselves as fully engaged human beings. This demands that the viewer actively think and feel. I am inviting the viewer to experience the dance through the lens of his or her own life experience. Some people are uncomfortable with this -- and this is also exciting. For even then, one important question remains: "Why do I feel this way in response to this work?" As I see it, if we ignore this question, then the value of the work is lost. "Your willingness to explore is the dance."**


My choices are a direct response to the context I exist within. There seems to be a sort of 'chemistry' between my unique evolution of life experiences, a particular grouping of socio-cultural environments, and my self, to the point I have been able to realize or actualize that self thus far on my journey.

As a young girl, I was very passionate about my dancing. Every possible moment of my day was filled with dance, dance and dance. By the time I was 18, I had made a conscious choice: I began to define myself as a human being who danced, not as a "a Dancer." I shifted my focus from dance to life, and I told myself, clearly, "My life is the work of art I am creating, and dance is just a part of it."

I remember being frustrated by the lack of an "object" (like you have with painting or sculpture) and the difficulty of surviving in such an ephemeral field. A Polish installation artist reminded me that we choose our mediums for a reason. And when I thought about that, I found it was true. I chose dance because for me it expresses the essence of life -- fully experiential, demanding every possible milligram of me -- gone in the moment of its making.

In my choreography, it seems that I am exploring the possibility of extending this aspect of dance that I love so deeply to the audience. This seems to me to require a certain use of the empty space through which the viewer may enter and experience themselves as living, fully sentient beings. That empty space which invites us to journey through the dance into a space in our own being where not only our conscious mind, empathy and emotions are engaged, but also our visceral senses and subconscious memory.


So, my view at this moment in time is that presentational dance is unavoidably full of content, abstract and contextually determined. The content, the substance of the dance, removes us from experience as it creates a sense of clarity and definition. The abstractions, the empty space between the known and the unknown, invites us to enter this space, sending us circling back into our selves to rediscover, or at least remember, the experience of being.

Our work expresses our values in relation to the context of our lives. The only value I am convinced of in dance -- that I embrace without a shadow of a doubt -- is the experience of dancing. As I put these thoughts together (in these limiting and limited words), I begin to realize that I am seeking to change the relationship between the viewer and presentational dance -- to invite the viewer to share an experience in being -- consciously, deeply. My work is occasionally referred to as Abstract Expressionism, but I suspect that some other label may better embace the values inherent in the work.

Right now, in this very moment, Indian artists are creating Indian Contemporary Dance, with varying degrees of abstraction and content. And they are creating this new form of dance in direct relation and response to this unique, beautiful and perplexing culture, its evolution and history. It is a journey, and an experience. May you live every moment of your journey.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
The University of Chicago Press, 1958
Maxine Greene, Variations on a Blue Guitar
Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2001
Ben Shan, The Shape of Content
Harvard University Press, 1957, 1985
*Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language
Simon and Schuster, 1984
**Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton, Emmanuel's Book (I & II)
Bantam Books, 1989

©Ann Moradian, 2001.