The first contemporary dance performance I ever attended sent a shock through me, one whose effect I still feel today.
My previous experience with dance had been watching ballerinas go through ritualized poses during a high school performance of The Nutcracker. I had no eyes at the time to appreciate the athleticism of their leaps and spins—too mild-mannered, too “girly” for an adolescent boy.
My second year in college, I found myself willing to do anything to impress a cultured young woman who had spent most of her life in France and Germany, where her father had been posted as a diplomat. This was a doomed endeavor from the start, but when she mentioned that the Maurice Béjart dance company was performing in New York City (a short hop from our Sarah Lawrence College campus) I didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to accompany her. They were performing their interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, that masterful squawk of modernism (and one of my favorite pieces of classical music). I knew that The Rite of Spring had originally been composed for a ballet, and that the premiere performance had sparked an uproar back in 1913. The object of my affection gave a little smile at my minor display of cultural knowledge and said that the new Béjart choreography had created its own controversy.
We sat in the stratospheric reaches of the balcony, which turned out to be quite a blessing, since the full force of the patterns shaped by the dancers was clearest from a distance. Béjart’s choreography marshaled over forty dancers on the stage, often in great blocks of swirling sexy movement. No tutus here, no polite duets! The power of all those dancers creating a kind of mural that twisted and turned in time was beyond anything I could have anticipated.
My relationship with that elegant young woman lasted only a few months, but my interest in modern dance continued, and a desire to somehow write fiction about it grew. I’d come up with some big ideas over the summer: I would write a novella about a small dance company that performed to Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet (another favorite of mine). I’d write about the individual musicians playing the quartet, the dancers, the rehearsals and the ultimate performance. So I signed up for dance and choreography classes (and had the good fortune to work with Don Redlich and the legendary Bessie Schonberg), music history and notation, and a creative writing conference course devoted to this project with my mentor, short story writer Grace Paley.
To my mind, Bartok’s quartet offered special possibilities for this writing project. The music was so varied and unusual, so haunting, that I couldn’t wait to create scenes with the dancers’ interpretations, especially in the fourth movement, where the quartet members set aside their bows and pluck at the strings instead, creating music that sounds something like a side-step spider hoedown:
By the end of the year, what I came up with was absolutely terrible, a disaster. My ambitions had clearly outpaced my twenty-year-old self’s limited talents as a writer, and I am grateful that no copies of this experiment still exist.
And yet . . . when I think back to that project, I don’t think of failure, but of a different kind of success. Taking contemporary dance classes transformed my writing, and in ways that I couldn’t possibly have predicted once I’d started.
First, dancing simply released some rhythmic energy in my body that came to influence the rhythms of my sentences. I had been a careful writer, serious about finding just the right word, though often to the detriment of the larger needs of a sentence. I continued worrying about that ideal word, but this concern now came later. Instead, I first let my language, well, dance, allowing the infinite varieties of sentence structure to take me places I’d never visited before, much in the same way dance allowed my body to move in ways it had never moved before.
As one of the few men in the dance program, I was quite popular with the female student choreographers, who were always looking for a man to perform in one of their dance pieces. Being choreographed, being moved about in three-dimensional space on a stage, seeing that creative process develop and change, and my role as a dancer therefore changing too, gave me a sense of how to better create dramatic scenes in my own fiction. Having been moved about in space, adapting to the rhythms of timing and interacting with the other dancers, now I found I could more easily move about my sometimes reluctant fictional characters.
Finally, part of my dance study included learning how to apply the dance notation system called Labanotation. Developed by Rudolf Laban in an effort to record and preserve on paper the movements of choreography, it’s akin to musical notation, and can be adapted to even complex pieces (click to enlarge).
Holding still on the page the fluid soul of dance helps one to see the underlining structure, what I guess you could call the long game that binds the accumulating incidents together. My attempts at learning how to apply Labanotation helped me think more deeply about artistic structure in general, and story structure in specific (developing rudimentary skills in reading musical notation helped here too).
It took a while for the changes in my writing to unfold, and even longer for me to fully grasp where those changes had come from (always a slow learner, me). But those lessons learned taught me something else. I was blessed as a student to work with a great array of writing mentors—Grace Paley, Frederic Tuten, Donald Barthelme—but also to explore the possibilities of another art form, an arena outside a writing workshop. I was able to see that language is not only words, and that dance is not merely contained in the body.