The other day I was chatting with a choreographer/dance teacher of the “downtown/release technique/postmodern” variety, and he made a couple of remarks which struck me because of their extreme familiarity. I’ve heard countless artists saying more or less exactly the same thing, or writing the same thing in the Movement Research Journal over the last 25 years. Here were some of his comments:

He was discussing a dance class he taught, in which the students were undergraduate theater students. He remarked how the students’ acting training led them to see every movement experience in terms of character, motivation, or scenario. One of his goals as a teacher was to get them to “just be inside their body and do what the body wants to do.”

Mind you, I do think it’s an admirable goal to get acting students comfortable with the experience of moving their bodies without relying on character, motivation, or plot.

But the idea, much bandied-about by postmodern dance types, of “listening to the body” and “doing what the body wants” needs to be re-examined.

First of all, this artist is merely falling under the spell of the “endless cycle of artistic rebellion.” This cycle generally plays itself out in the following way:

A) A generation of artists (such as Martha Graham and the early modern dancers) is tired of the false, old forms of dance, and discovers what “real honesty” is in dance. In the case of Graham, “real honesty” is seen as delving into the murky depths of human hatred, anger, joy, lust, etc.

B) These artists use their discoveries to make many successful works, which gradually change the way that the public perceives the art form, and their works become popular.

C) Now that this aesthetic stance is popular and successful, it is endlessly copied in a mindless or overly mannerist style, by others hoping to cash in on the success and popularity. As a result, the style begins to look slick, fake, or old-fashioned.

D) A new generation of artists comes along (in this case, Merce Cunningham, the Judson School, and the postmodernists) who are tired once again of the old, false style. In this case, the old false style is now hyperdramatized, histrionic classic Modern Dance. This new generation decides that “real honesty” in dance consists of rigorously excluding narrative or any claim to be “expressing an emotion,” and concentrating instead on a “pure experience of moving the body through space.”

E) The cycle repeats itself forever!

Wouldn’t it be great to get the hell off of this merry-go-round? Wouldn’t it be great to have the freedom, as an artist, to admit that any aspect of the human experience, anything a person can feel, think, or imagine, could be the basis for an “honest” work of art, so long as the artist investigates the material in a deep and rigorous way, and finds a powerful, coherent form which provides the audience with access to the material?

That way, an artist would be free to choose her subject matter based on what interests her, what resonates with her, what obsesses her, and not have to be bound by a rigid set of prejudices which state that “real honesty” means doing the opposite of whatever the previous generation did.

This debate is especially relevant to improvisational artists, since good improvisation technique means developing the ability to say “yes” inwardly to ANYTHING that comes up in your head, regardless of whether or not it fits into your personal definition of what is “honest.”

To get back to my choreographer:

First of all, it is part of an elaborate and clever dodge to say that you are “listening to the body” or “doing what the body wants to do.” If you just listen to your bones, muscles, etc., generally the body simply wants to get into a comfortable position and stay there. Your body doesn’t want to do anything at all. It certainly doesn’t want to dance. It’s your spirit that wants to dance.

Even when I am in a highly energetic, excited state, my desire to dance doesn’t come from “my body.” It may come from the systems in my body which transmit energy: the nervous system, the flow of oxygen into the bloodstream, chemical reactions. It comes as well from mood, emotion, images, sexual feelings, hunger, the imagination, my reactions to space, people, music, colors, etc. By saying to myself “I am listening to my body and doing whatever it wants to do” I am merely mentally dodging the reality that what I’m really listening to includes my emotions and my imagination, with their much more problematic relationship to representation on the stage. Instead, I pretend that I am merely channeling a kind of impersonal kinetic force which is more “honest” because it doesn’t scare me by claiming to “mean something.”

It’s actually a strikingly DIShonest stance to take. Why not admit that the energy I’m listening to, which becomes my dance, isn’t coming from “my body,” but is really the energy of the complex totality of my human spirit, which is flowing through my body?

Secondly, this choreographer explained to me that he no longer either takes traditional dance technique classes himself, nor does he teach traditional dance technique, because he wants his students to learn “just how to be fully present on the stage.”

Mind you, I’m perfectly willing to accept the idea that a traditional Modern or Ballet class has no relevance to this artist, in terms of training him to do the kind of dancing he is interested in. But I have a problem with his goal of simply teaching students how to be “present” on stage.

Actually, I don’t have a problem with this. I fully agree that it is a beautifull thing to watch someone being simply and fully present on stage, and that this is a necessary skill for performance. I fully agree that most young people don’t have a clue about how to do it, and that it is an important part of training, particularly for young dancers and actors.

But, can we move on already?

This aesthetic stance, that the-most-beautiful-thing-in-the-theater is watching a performer performing a simple action, or just being still, while being fully “present,” is one that I had as a teenager and in college, circa 1980. It was already kind of an old idea, which, as a young person, I was taking from earlier artists such as Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, the first few Wooster Group pieces, etc., etc.

Somewhere in the last 25 years of watching performances based on this idea, I came to feel that this simple act of being-present-on-stage, beautiful and essential as it is, is not sufficient for a work of art. It is not enough for doing that complicated wonderful thing that we ask a work of art to do for us.

Somehow, a work of art must be an encounter with certain powerful energies which lie underneath the human experience. The work of art needs to explore, encounter, and articulate these energies. And it needs to show us a complex relationship between several of these energies. It needs to operate on more than one level. This is true even of a work of art whose aesthetic stance is one of simple, pure minimalism. We humans are complex beings, and we simply don’t feel fully engaged with a work unless it engages with our complexity as well as our simplicity.

So, yes, let us learn to be fully “present” on the stage. And then let us use this presence to help the audience connect with that-which-is-behind-presence.