Dance Advice

Does dance have a responsibility to bring us joy?

'Mortal Condition' choreographed by Larissa McGowan. Photo courtesy of McGowan
'Mortal Condition' choreographed by Larissa McGowan. Photo courtesy of McGowan.

Few would argue that one of the most wonderful parts of being human is the capacity to dance, and the potential for dance to bring us joy. But it does so much more than this. Whether you are the dancer or the observer, the experience of dance can open up a whole raft of human emotions. And isn’t joy so much sweeter when we feel it in contrast to despair, loneliness, anger, sadness or anxiety?

Involuntary. photo by Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions.

‘Involuntary’ by Katrina Lazaroff. Photo by Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions.

This month, Dance Informa presented me with an interesting challenge: to explore the perception that one dance genre in particular has a tendency to wallow in the darker emotions of wanting, reaching and desperation. Can you guess which one?

It’s a genre that has its roots in a reaction against the rules and restrictions of the much older dance form of classical ballet. Beginning in the early 20th century with modern dance pioneers such as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, and resulting in today’s diverse collection of techniques and approaches, it is known by the umbrella term “contemporary dance”. 

Since its inception, contemporary dance has been about pushing boundaries, exploration and experimentation, and delving beneath the veneer of social expectations. It’s not surprising then that the genre is sometimes viewed as dark, overly serious, even ugly.

In considering this topic, I chatted to contemporary choreographers Larissa McGowan, Lina Limosani and Katrina Lazaroff.

Joy is sweeter when we’ve known darkness.

I was particularly interested in Limosani’s take on darker subjects in contemporary dance because she’s created dark, beautiful, even comical, works, which I found enthralling.

“I find beauty in the dark and macabre,” she explains. “I think a lot of us miss that within our own worlds. We’re trying to make everything light and pretty, but there is beauty to go deeper into our own existence. I see there is light, hope and brilliance within all of that. I enjoy tackling those areas and finding the textures and tones and sweetness in it all.”

As she points out, joy has less meaning without its opposite.

“You need the darkness, with light and shade, to experience the joy,” Limosani continues. “If you make work that’s about a deeper subject, it has to have light and shade of emotions to be powerful.”

She also stresses that the reverse is true, too. “In order for it to be powerful, it has to have light as well. You have to be able to provide hope. It’s not great to make dark work if it doesn’t have some kind of happy ending, or if it doesn’t, some sort of beauty. It has to be balanced.”

A_delicate_situation. photo by Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

‘A Delicate Situation’ by Lina Limosani. photo by Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions.

Humans experience a range of emotions.

McGowan points out that contemporary dance explores a range of emotions.

“Contemporary dance isn’t always dark,” she says. “I just think it explores the depths of emotion that can sometimes be hard to explore in reality. It’s allowed. It’s a place where we get to be vulnerable. It’s an expressive art form, and so it’s a safe and creative space to delve into darker topics and themes.”

She continues, “For me, dance is not just about being entertained. It’s also about feeling something. Most choreographers aim to have some sort of dynamic structure. A whole work is never just one emotion. There is a scale within it, and a smart choreographer takes you on a journey.”

Contemporary dance isn’t all doom and gloom. 

All three choreographers express an opinion that it’s not true that all contemporary dance is dark.

“My work has not necessarily been dark,” states McGowan. “My last few works have been based on popular culture themes, like entertainment and movies, which have been quite funny.”

Lazaroff notes that contemporary dance is less likely to be about despair than it used to be. “In the beginning of contemporary dance, they were being rebels busting out of ballet, and more people were opposing social norms,” she says. “A lot of choreographers were saying, ‘We’ll be dark and dirty, weird and abstract’, which is all the things that ballet wasn’t.”

“I think people are kind of bored of the anti-statements in dance,” Lazaroff adds. “People are coming back to humour, virtuosity, beauty, rhythm and music. Contemporary dance doesn’t have to be just weird, ugly, rebellious and confrontational. It was appropriate when it was a new thing, but now it’s been done so many times, artists are sick of it, and general public don’t relate to it. I don’t think it’s necessary to keep doing stuff that is abstract for abstract sake and doesn’t connect to audiences.”

Is it about theme, or just aesthetic expectations?

Contemporary dance is not the only dance form to tackle dark subjects, as McGowan points out. 

“If you think about the central theme of many classic ballets, there is a love story that goes bad and someone dies,” McGowan describes. “I don’t think there is much difference between contemporary and ballet when it comes to dark or light works, but ballet has an aesthetic style that is lighter. People say contemporary dance can sometimes look grotesque. That’s because we are trying to find new body pathways, to distort the body so it can find unique patterns and pathways we haven’t found before, so it might be seen as grotesque. In ballet, certain positions have been formed and they don’t change over time.” 

She continues, “Perhaps that’s why people say they don’t get contemporary dance – it’s abstract and weird, and sometimes people might think it’s ugly. But personally, I find that aesthetically more pleasing, because it is ever changing, and the body can almost do anything you want it to do, and contemporary dance allows you to explore that. So personal taste, and what you find aesthetically pleasing, and your own personal desires affect how you view and attach to movement. It’s not just the theme; it’s the quality and style.

Skeleton by Larissa McGowan, featuring Tobiah Booth-Remmers, Lisa Griffiths, Lewis Rankin. photo by Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

‘Skeleton’ by Larissa McGowan, featuring Tobiah Booth-Remmers, Lisa Griffiths, Lewis Rankin. Photo by Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions.

Contemporary dance is often playful and light.

Despite its reputation for being serious and sometimes unpleasant, contemporary dance actually has a playful side.

All three choreographers have created playful, and sometimes childishly naughty, works. But it is the inclusion of the playful with the serious that makes contemporary dance so powerful.

“I have always had a sense of making work for an audience, not just for myself.” explains Larzaroff, whose works InvoluntaryWasted, and Quick Fix poke fun at the absurdities of modern life. Even Pomona Road, Lazaroff’s retelling of her experience in the horrific 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in South Australia, has elements of humour and play.

“If I watch a piece of work that is an hour long that has the same dynamic, I am numbed or bored at the end,” Lazaroff shares. “I like to create a different way of looking at the same subject which makes you feel a different emotion throughout the work. It’s important to have humour, joy, a senses of energy, dynamic rhythm at some point in a work so you can feel it and connect.”

“Contemporary dance does have a great sense of play.” McGowan agreed. “There is something about movement that can be fantastical. You can be over the top, extreme, and you can’t normally do that in reality, as easily. It’s a place to be an extrovert and show things in a physicality you can’t normally say in words. It’s definitely playful, but it’s also a freeing experience as well. You put your mind and thoughts through your body, and there is nothing I could explain as well in words than I can through my movement.”

One's Wicked Ways presented as part of Australian Dance Theatre's Ignition series in 2016. Photo by Tony Lewis

‘One’s Wicked Ways’ presented as part of Australian Dance Theatre’s Ignition series in 2016. Photo by Tony Lewis.

Joy can be found in unexpected places. 

Limosani questions common perceptions of what is joy.

“Joy is different for everyone,” she says. “Some people love being taken on that ride. I always compare my interest in macabre subject matters with people who are fascinated with horror and supernatural. Contemporary dance is storytelling, and we can take people on a rollercoaster. Maybe that’s what joy can be for some people. People enjoy being exceptionally moved. Allowing people to find joys within the darkness is thriving. Sometimes they don’t even know it. They go and see something and don’t expect it to take them to those places, and walk out feeling amazing.”

Limosani adds, “I think it’s about the unexpected. I enjoy creating something that you shouldn’t be laughing at but you do. That twist. It’s storytelling. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, and even if you don’t know exactly what is happening, you go on a journey. We have a hunger for stories, a history of telling stories and what they represent.”

She continues, “I make work like that because that’s the kind of work I want to see. I want to see works that take me on huge journey sonically, visually, emotionally. I want to feel like I’ve been hit with something. Time is precious these days, so I want to know that I’m going to be bombarded by something really great, and I want audiences to have that same experience.”

So for those of you who think contemporary dance can be too dark, I challenge you to go out and find some that isn’t. To find the choreographers who are playing with movement, tickling your sense of humour, and making sure you feel something when you’re sitting there in the dark and watching. If you allow yourself to see beyond the things you may have been trained to find ascetically pleasing, you’ll discover a richer palette of emotion, and the joy will be so much sweeter for it.

 By Jo McDonald of Dance Informa.

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