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On Not Knowing How to Dance

 Rudolf Laban and the Geometry of Dance, directed by Valerie Preston-Dunlop and Anna Carlisle. 2008. Photo by Iwona Wojnicka. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 1. Mary Wigman at Monte Verità. Film frame from Living Architecture: Rudolf Laban and the Geometry of Dance (2008), directed by Valerie Preston-Dunlop and Anna Carlisle. Photo by Iwona Wojnicka. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It’s rare to read an account of the process of learning about a new art form or medium from the beginning. Maybe because, at least for me, it’s hard to remember the first time I read a poem or a novel or saw a painting or heard a piece of music. Or maybe because that experience merges uncomfortably with a non-critical stance of “appreciation,” a word that doesn’t deserve some of the pejorative associations attached to it.

How do you describe that “oh” when you realize painting can do something different than poetry can, or that film has its own language, or that there’s a history of process-based dance? I don’t mean to summon up the ghost of medium-specificity here, but rather to turn in the other direction, to the phenomenology of beginning to learn about something. How does this process take shape? What does it feel like? What are the initial barriers? What efforts at translation occur, and what distortions follow? I don’t know anything about dance. I’ve been trying to learn, and to learn in a place that does not have a ballet company or a set of longstanding cultural institutions that encourage this kind of learning.

When it comes to modernist aesthetics, dance doesn’t come up very often, really, at least in comparison to painting, poetry, fiction, and film. I can’t remember anything about dance in Raymond Williams, nor in various collections of modernist manifestoes, nor, until lately, in the essential revisions of modernism that comprise the new modernist studies. Thematically, of course, there’s a lot of gazing at dancers in modernism, a gendering of the dancing body that Yvonne Rainer would definitively unpack and explode in Trio A (1966) and that Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker would investigate in the first part of her Fases (1982), the part with two women in matching dresses casting their multiple shadows on the walls. But it’s odd how little thinking there is about the poetic line as an analogue for the choreographed movement of the arm, or about the page as a notation for a performance (somewhere Helen Vendler calls a poem a “script” for a performance).

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Dance Group of the Mary Wigman School. Dresden, 1926. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 2. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Dance Group of the Mary Wigman School. Dresden, 1926. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a complicated tradition of thinking about poetry as song, though. Jahan Ramazani has written recently, and beautifully, about it. Others have tried to delink poetry from lyric and from song, or to historicize it a bit. But even at the moments of English poetry’s closest association with singing, there’s an underwritten history of movement. It could be the frenzy of the Platonic rhapsode, or it could be Yeats’s preoccupation with Loie Fuller or with the stillness of the long-legged fly, or it could be Frank O’Hara’s notation of walking through New York. Charles Olson’s idea of the poetic line as a measure of breath almost gets there. Amiri Baraka collaborated with the dancers of the Judson Memorial Church in the early 1960s. So did Diane di Prima. And O’Hara, briefly, before he died in 1966. Thinking about movement in poetry is important not only for these metaphors of the line, but also because it demands greater attention to disability, ableism, and the ways that accounts of the poetic senses or physical dispositions have sometimes assumed a normatively abled body. 

At first, I thought about writing this piece in dialogue with other conversations about modernism and dance, but that started to feel too much like the preparation for an academic article. Susan Jones has written wonderfully on modernism and dance. I’m not intending to propose, in this piece, a new way of recasting modernism by including dance. Instead, I’m going to reflect on the way that my encounters with dance, at first sporadic, and now immersive, make a timeline of my life—that manner in which repeated encounters with art become the plot of a life. I’m going to try to take a different approach, one more in keeping with the mandate of this blog.

Last year I read Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (2016), a series of essays on various topics and themes—tumbleweeds, housesitting, owls, the “near term”—crafted with a special kind of constraint. Blanchfield sets himself the task of writing without looking up information or doing any research. The progression of each essay depends on where his mind goes, and the effect is a marvelous inquiry into the self traced through objects and ideas. It’s a contemporary Confessions, but its structure is sui generis, because each essay relies on the contingent associations produced by the exigency of continuing to write about something while discarding all the trappings of big data and broad internet searching.

So when I think about what it means to learn about dance, I think about how the discrete moments of my encounters with dance form a scatterplot of my life and link together points that I might not otherwise associate: 2005, in Paris, with Kevin and Raluca; 2011, in Charlottesville; 2018, in Greenville and New York. What I mean is this—is memory a kind of choreography, and is there, then, a choreographic subject around which life assembles?


In Paris we met at Nijinsky’s grave and opened a bottle of Muscadet, which exploded under the April trees. I remember that Kevin said it smelled like sex all over Paris that spring. Later that night the three of us went to a gay bar in the Marais to dance and then collapsed in a doorway and fell asleep together.

Sketch by Walt Hunter. Paris, 2005.
Fig. 3. Sketch by Walt Hunter. Paris, 2005.

Two weeks before, at the Opera Garnier, I saw Kader Belarbi’s Wuthering Heights. It was March; I had been waiting for the pear trees to bloom. I was living in Normandy at the time. The opening scene of the ballet was the end of the novel, dancers lying down on the floor, a tragic prolepsis. And then from out of sight, dozens of weighted flowers fell and hit the stage. It was incredibly loud. The story started from the beginning.


I was struck, in Charlottesville, six or seven years later, by Alain Badiou’s idea, inspired by Nietzsche and by a certain modernist vision of dance, that dance was an emblem of the “event.” Badiou’s philosophy seemed to me then, and seems to me now, like a retread of so many tired claims about modernist novelty and disruption, threaded through a narrow canon, some math, and an unselfconscious male elitism. But there was one resonant phrase that made me think about the flowers falling from the rafters. Badiou called dance “a new name given to the earth.”


And, honestly, that was about the extent of thought that I had given to dance: those brief, discrete, incomplete moments in which dance and life came momentarily closer. Then in late November 2018 I watched a video of de Keersmaeker’s Fases. Then I watched it again and again. It was as though the flowers hit the stage for the first time since 2005. I watched, in rapid succession, all I could of UbuWeb’s archive of dance. I went to the Judson show at the MoMA and saw Trisha Brown walking down the side of a building, saw Lucinda Childs’s score for her Street Dance (1964), saw Simone Forti’s dance constructions. I read Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s book on Rainer, who is my current favorite. I saw Alvin Ailey’s show at City Center, Revelations (1960) in a packed house.

These kinds of dance—whether de Keersmaeker or Pina Bausch or Ailey or Rainer, Brown, Childs, Paxton, and Forti—were not about the “event.” They were much more about what Badiou might have called the “situation”— all the other stuff that couldn’t predict the event. The rest of us would simply call it life. They were about living through the difficult inexplicable years, with tasks and work and with fighting against the reduction of the gendered body as something to be set apart, looked at, choreographed, brought to climax, photographed, and ultimately erased.  

First Dance

There’s a long history of writing about aesthetic encounter in the modernist context. Walter Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa in The Renaissance might be the most famous. Sometimes, in poetry, the encounter with a different art falls into a transhistorical category like ekphrasis, but there’s a larger genre at work here. The process of learning about a new art form brings with it the experience of a generative decentering. In this way, it’s like learning a new language. Marcel Proust’s Swann undergoes this while listening to Vinteuil’s “little phrase”; Claude McKay thinks through it while writing a sonnet about watching a Harlem dancer.

The other side of the encounter—and the uncomfortable part of writing publicly about it—is the realization and confession of ignorance. How did I go so incredibly long without thinking about movement, choreography, the weight and extension of a body in space? My first observation about dance, my intuition about it, was, I think, wrong. I thought dance was beautiful because it was the poor image of what it could never be, namely, the freedom of the body, or of the emotion choreographed through the body’s movement. I thought dance was ironic, and possibly tragic, because what I saw seemed only to point to what could never be there.

Writing an origin story for the encounter with an art form might be the wrong way of doing things. Who remembers the first song or the first image? Or who doesn’t: my song was an Emily Dickinson poem (“I’m Nobody!”); my image was a simple table fan (we were moving houses). But what if the encounter with art is just a different and a truer way of encountering one’s life, and knowing it again as for the first time?

 Kevin Holden, Raluca Manea, Walt Hunter. Paris, 2005. Photo by Walt Hunter.
Fig. 4. L to R: Kevin Holden, Raluca Manea, Walt Hunter. Paris, 2005. Photo by Walt Hunter.