Do you see what I am talking about?
If we were to take the above question literally, we would soon become bewildered: we are invited to “see something” which is transmitted verbally, to picture what the person is referring to. This is exactly the process that we go through when we talk about dance. We don’t just rely on words, we use words to visually re-enact what we saw, to create a system of signs that will help the interlocutor to get “the whole picture.” Since linguistic communication is purely temporal, when we talk about dance we try to create as much as possible simulacra, to transmit echoes of what we saw, to encapsulate the fleeting body images (or states) in “moving words.”
During the Aerowaves Spring Festival I gave myself a task; to create a “word-tank” by asking random audience members, after each show, to contribute with 5 words that they thought relevant to the performance they have just seen. Suffice to say that there are many aspects for someone to observe at the wonderful spectrum of collected words; strictly linguistic or broadly anthropological, the sample is of great interest. For purely practical reasons, I will be just sharing some observations and not presenting a thorough investigation of the word-tank.
Language is much related to the production of meaning. We speak to share our views, to express our feelings, to transmit ideas, but also to disagree, to engage in a fruitful dialogue with others. Meanings are both generated and exchanged. Even if we narrow down this process to a particular subject – e.g. to talk about a performance – the breadth of this enterprise would be so multi-faceted and heterogeneous that it could not be simply reduced to one communicational goal. Words, like movements, are used so personally that we could say there are as many of them to describe movement as there are movements to express ideas. They are like empty shells: meanings are both embodied and embedded in them.
However, in this particular project we are faced with a verbal material that is not just a linguistic sign; rather it becomes a “sign of a sign”, or more accurately a sign of an ephemeral, moving sign. This doubling effect allows us not just to “talk about” dance, but make people “see” what we are talking about. Every aspect of dance is governed by the denotation-connotation dialectic: props, set design, costumes, the dancer’s body and his/her movements, determine and are determined by a constantly shifting network of primary and secondary meanings. Hence, even if we “see” the same thing in a performance, the way we see it (the “how”), translate it or transcribe it is never the same. This semantic ambiguity – the fact that one movement is capable of generating a potentially unlimited range of “readings” – is what makes art so powerful and vital. It’s not only what we say – think for example of the word “animalistic” and its various applications – but also the network of ideas connecting to that particular word: “animalistic” next to “grotesque” creates a more visually rigorous image of a dance than the combination “animalistic” and “nimbleness.”
Of course one might say that this is too obvious! Words act like a sort of framing to behold the meaning of something that has always been connected to the ineffable, the ephemeral, the non-verbal, i.e. the “art of dance” (or quite an obsolete definition of it). This challenge to “transcribe” movements in words often creates its own rules of accessing the dance material. Given the variety of words used by the audience, I managed to create two main categories. The first one refers to words which connect to an image or give a visual reference to the movement. The visual equivalent doesn’t necessarily opt for a “realistic representation/description” of the movement: it can work as a metaphor, thus allowing us to infer from the movement the presence of “another thing.” Reference to animals or objects makes the “drawing of a picture” more direct and specific – even though we rarely question the understated implications or the stereotypical meanings inscribed in the usage of such words. Is manhood always connected to strength and stamina? Or are feminine qualities easy to connect with abstractness?
The principle of similarity, though, begins to break down as one considers more complicated homologies between the movements and their denotations. For example, in “Womanhouse”, if we talk about gender then what really classifies the masculine and feminine? Which are the visible signs for such immediate and undisputable categorization? Clothes, facial hair, body movement, body parts, all of the above? In other cases, such as in the illusionistic solo by Yasmine Huggonet, the body turns into a playful geometrical form, resisting all apparent and immediate applications of meaning. The abstract quality of the movement requires a more elaborated vocabulary, more articulated ideas to capture the body images created on stage. In both performances, what is at stake is language itself; how easily can it adapt to diverse body images or to gender characteristics defying the male-female binary?
The second category of words is more attached to an “introspective” value; it is not just the visual impression but what echoes inside (our mind and soul). This is more like an attempt to connect an external sign to something that reverberates with an inner condition. It suggests a more creative process, that of “transcodification”: a movement is signified not by what it resembles, but is attached to a whole different, unexpected group of ideas. Think for example of the following words: silence, honesty and infinity. No similitude or physical connection exists between the movements and their verbal counterparts. In such cases, what predominates in our mind is the “pointing to” a certain concept/notion, instead of an imagistic mode of signifying. In Pere Faura’s solo, for instance, movement, costume and set elements are used to recall a strip dance and indeed in the beginning he manages to convince us about his resemblance to a “real” stripper. However, his intention is directed towards a “conceptual arousal”, thus revealing the whole theatre apparatus and the way our gaze captures the “image.” It is not by chance that every word connecting to this performance refers to the idea revealed behind the movement and not the movement itself. Faura goes even further by dismantling the mechanism that produces the meaning; he gives us the stereotypical, post-modern keys to “read” his performance but he is always a step ahead in showing how meaning is constructed or how the body is objectified.
A different introspective effect is created by Marco D’Agostin’s solo, “Everything is ok.” An uncanny bricolage of the most diverse movement material – from jazz to release to cabaret to gymnastics – allows a free play of sign-vehicles without stable denotations. His personal stature, vocal qualities and physical idiosyncrasies create a certain distantiation; the density of signs requires a flexible mind and an eloquent way of expression. The semiotic thickness of his performance is like a challenge to the common spectator; words apply mostly to an inner state of mind and require a sensory and cerebral investigation as if we are meditating. The fleeting words don’t fit the image; they talk more about us rather than the physical traces of his performance. To quote Sanjoy Roy, it’s a like “a vocal and physical flipbook [that] turns into a texture of impressions.” Such tactile impression is also the result of Robbie Synge’s “Douglas.” His performance is “resonating” – to use the word of a member of the audience – unfolding a series of archetypical binaries: man vs creator, fall vs recovery, failing vs success, body vs objects, art vs nature. It’s such a naïve yet insightful approach to human nature that one has the impression of witnessing the history of humankind. He is like a Beckettian character trying to make meaning out of unmeaning actions; the paradox is that they end up meaningful, reflecting the existential oxymoron of our lives. They are quite painful and hopeful, disastrous and somehow divine.
There are no one-to-one relationships between movement and words, signs and meanings. Nor was the intention of this article to classify as an extensive guide to the semiotics of dance. It is clear that accounting for the rules which permit meanings to be generated and communicated is an all-but-boundless enterprise. To think otherwise would mean that we face the danger of making performance analysis a parade of items to which the audience has merely to assign fixed values. Instead what I attempted to grasp is the human volition in reading those signs, the never-ending attempt to fully comprehend the world around us by processing what the world resembles: art.