Essay: Storytelling Using Modern Dance
Modern dance tells stories using movement via abstraction and themes. Because dance can be non-literal, it easily accommodates complex juxtaposing and dynamic storytelling.
Dance is experienced in a series of layers, much like how we experience space through the layering of our five senses. Dance can rely on elements such as site, set design, props, colors, distribution of space, costuming, lighting, and audio to create atmosphere. The pathways, timing, movement qualities, styles, compositions and physical relationships of dancers are tools in which the story comes to life.
In abstract dance, the story can unfold through several ways: movement for movement’s sake; patterns; visual design; symbols or motifs; removal, separation, condensing or distilling of movements; or free-form associations between a performance’s elements. In thematic dance, the story sends an audience a specific message through: a unifying theme or subject; an emotional message; or a specific narrative.
Modern dance pulls inspiration from everything, from simple investigations of movement to complex cultural or period influences. It can be paired with other arts to create unique environments, but just movement alone can tell powerful stories across culture, age and time. Like pictures, it can tell thousands of words in a couple of gestures. While this is great for complex stories, it is a drawback for the visually impaired. The sounds of a performance alone, however, can tell a different story (e.g. the sound of a body moving without accompaniment). These are neither good nor bad, but must be considered in context of the audience, for what is a story without an audience? It is therefore important to consider and allow for — or control — how the audience may react to or understand the performance. Without audience interpretation, the performance alone is an incomplete story.
As important as it is to pair the story with the right movement, visual and/or auditory elements, so is the setting it is performed in. A proscenium stage with traditional fixed seating often creates an invisible fourth wall (barrier) between the audience and performers, because the dancers don’t usually interact with the audience and the distanced viewers are encouraged to remain silent. A performance in a museum or gallery may be void of a stage or seating, but often encourages similar distance and silence from the audience. Whereas a performance in a pedestrian locale will have a different connection with the audience and environment, and can even foster audience involvement or performance. Careful thought on where a performance happens, the involvement type of the viewers, and the time of day/year can change or enhance a story.
Movement is the key ingredient in a dance story. It can be expressed in locomotor or non-locomotor movement. Breathing, hopping, or twisting are some forms of non-locomotor movement (moving in place). Leaping, walking, or lunging are a few forms of locomotor movement (moving from one place to another). The style of these movements can be expressed dramatically, naturally or anything in-between, depending on the type of story it is. Movement qualities can express different energies, such as percussive, swing, sustained, vibratory or abrupt. How movements are articulated in a body are just as important to the expression of a story. The levels a body occupies, low, mid or high can uplift or weigh down a scene, even what directions the dancer moves their body in or moves across a stage can convey deeper meaning.
Dance can border on theatrical, or performance-art, and sometimes cannot be separated from other art forms. In Lloyd Newson’s Enter Achilles, he tells a story about male camaraderie and homophobia, his work is meant to blur the lines between theatre, politics and dance. In Shen Wei’s Connect Transfer he tells the story of connection using the body, paint, and flow. In Bauhaus artist, Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett, his visual story of human as a dancer transformed by costume, moving in space is told through design, geometric shapes, color, and sculptural props and costumes.
Dance can tell tightly controlled stories like Martha Grahm’s Night Journey, or be utterly abstract like David Gordon’s Chair. It depends on what the narrator is trying to express. Successful dances stories reach some connection with the audience, it touches some feeling within them, even if the audience cannot articulate what the story is about, in their gut they know. The best word I know to describe this feeling is the Icelandic word, innsæi meaning “a constantly moving world of vision, feelings and imagination beyond words.”