A Choreographical Investigation
I am currently deep in the process of creating the piece to be performed in October. As I do this, I think about what my intentions are, what I want to convey, and what I use to embody (a good word for a choreographer) those intentions. Intentions exist on the level of creating and exploring themes, such as for this piece, the relationship between dancers and food. Intentions also exist on the level of wanting to create a certain aesthetic experience.
In some of the pieces that I have created, I use chairs as an element with which the dancers play. Once, when I showed such a piece in a workshop and I was challenged. “Why do you have a chair in your choreography? What’s the meaning? Every element of your choreography must have meaning. If it does not have meaning, it should not be included. You should be able to explain the chair’s place in your choreography.” On first glance, this seemed like a reasonable prescription. After all, random elements thrown in are not likely to result in powerful choreography. The fact is, though, I didn’t choose to use a chair because of any meaning that could be articulated in words. I chose to use the chair because I just had knee surgery and couldn’t bend my left knee as deeply as I normally would. The chair – a rolling chair – helped me move and provided stability. That explanation deeply disappointed my questioner.
This has troubled me a long time and, perhaps the answer is obvious, and, now that I’m thinking about dance and food, an analogy has come to me. While food can be an artistic expression, no one asks a chef, what is the meaning of tarragon in your sauce? To come up with a meaning would do violence to the aesthetic experience and supplant it with a semantic structure that is rather nonsensical. The tomatoes represent Christ’s blood that was shed for us, the onions the tears that Mary cried, the tarragon the wooden cross, etc., etc. etc….
Another way to think about this is that it seems to me that my questioner was asserting that language should be able to explain what the meaning of an element in a dance work is, and, that there is an aesthetic implied by the assertion. Moreover, this aesthetic works to the detriment of other possible types of aesthetics. I want to be clear here, because I think much of the issue has to do with a particular understanding of language. That is, what the assertion was implying was that language, as we commonly understand it – spoken or written, made up of words – is an important arbiter – maybe the arbiter of what dance should be. But then, why not just talk and forget about dancing?
I’m often asked what is the meaning of this hand gesture or that hand gesture of my dance. Presumably because of Indonesian dance has a lot of hand gestures (mudras) they think each hand gesture has a specific meaning. While perhaps it is true to some other world dance styles (e.g. Barathanatyam, Odisi, Hula), but in Indonesian dance depending on the choreography, hand gestures sometimes have specific meaning and sometimes they are simply used for the esthetic purposes. Javanese dance’s hand gestures have names, e.g. nylekenthing, nyempurit, ngruji, ngepel, ukel, etc., some have specific meanings, but some don’t (or the meaning is embedded on the meaning of the whole phrase, e.g. theme of sadness, joy, longing, etc). The question is, why we have to know about “meaning” in order to “enjoy” the dance?
I anticipate talking with many people about my upcoming performance and look forward to it. Undoubtedly in the questions will be what does this mean, or what does that mean? For some things, I will have definite answer. For other things, I may resort to the old trick of therapists everywhere and reply with a smile, “What does it mean to you?”