Dance Up Close: The Art of Is

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Few words are defined as loosely as “art.”

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Not only does the term encompass any range of disciplines, from painting and sculpting to photography and dance, but it can be generated at any skill level. A kindergartner’s watercolor of a rainbow is certainly not at the level of, say, the Sistine Chapel, but depending on who you talk to, it could be considered art.

Entering this debate over the level and quality of something as subjective as art is one that should make any beginning critic nervous, and I was no exception:

It’s Dec. 4, a little after 7 p.m. A light, cold rain pelts me as I hurry from my car to the Masquer Theatre at the University of Montana. Tonight is the night of the School of Theatre and Dance’s first showing of Dance Up Close, a performance the school calls “its most intimate dance concert of the year.”

Chairs are lined along carpeted choir risers on three sides of the scuffed theater floor, allowing the audience to be in as close of proximity to the dancers as possible.

Having never been to a live dance performance like this before, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I wanted to write about it, and that’s why I had decided to attend. Well, that and I was somewhat of a closet dance critic, as I had been a member of the dance team at my high school and for a while was addicted to FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” (Laugh all you want, but if you watch that show enough, you pick up a few things, I’m telling you.)

The overhead lights fade to black and then turn back on, signaling the beginning of the first performance, “The Breathless Zoo.” Eight dancers in pastel-colored blouses and dresses have taken the floor. One begins a monologue into a mic set off to the side while the others stomp back and forth across the stage. There is no music. The theater is silent save for the steady thump of bare feet.

The lights shut off again.

The lights come back up on a group of performers making awkward movements with their bodies.

After a few more silent minutes, the lights fade again, and the audience then watches as one of the dancers ties a large, white bra around her head, covering her eyes. The piece continues to move along in sections split by the fading and raising of lights: a girl does what seem to be floppy jumping jacks and asks the audience, “Does it look like I’m flying?”

All of the dancers seat themselves on the floor and scoot their bodies back and forth (and nothing more) while staring innocently up at the audience. Capes and high heels are brought out, and some of the dancers attempt to put them on, while another girl lying on one of the capes is dragged across the floor.

I had no idea what was going on.

I don’t even remember what the monologue was about because I was so caught up in what I was witnessing. This was dance? The peculiar, graceless movements seemed to want to make you feel uncomfortable. There was no music, no clear story, it just ... happened.

More unusual still, I discovered afterward by reading the program more closely, this piece is different every time it is performed. The dancers knew of all the roles that could be performed in the choreography but did not know who was doing what until they got on stage. The choreographer, Anya Cloud, chose not to solidify the performers’ roles in order to let the piece “breathe.”

New to this as I was, I did not know what to make of what I just saw. I’m pretty sure I could have crawled around or sat on the floor as well as any one of them. And lastly, I couldn’t help but feel an amused sense of guilt when I saw the dumbfounded look on my boyfriend’s face, who had generously agreed to be dragged along for company but was now probably having second thoughts.

But the thing about art is, it doesn’t have to mean anything to anybody except the person who made it. As a writer, I go through the same thing. It’s an expression. Of creativity. Of imagination. Of self.

Sometimes it has a purpose, perhaps to ignite a certain emotion or send a message. It can be beautiful or ugly, powerful or subtle.

But that’s the thing about art.

It just is.

This article is part of a partnership between Green Room and Lee Banville's Online Journalism class at the University of Montana.

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