Dance is hard to talk about. We don’t often need to talk about movement in the first place, especially the movement of bodies, because explaining what we mean is usually as easy as doing it. “I was like … ” usually suffices.

Jessica Boullion

But when you try to describe or to discuss dance, imitation is sometimes impossible and so we need some sort of specialized vocabulary to describe it, right?

One way to describe something to someone who hasn’t experienced it directly is, of course, through comparisons. Things sound or look like other things. But this only makes the job easier if you’ve experienced the original reference – and sometimes that’s assuming a lot.

Works of art can cut that distance using humor, which provokes a visceral response that brings with it a sense of understanding. In a neat way, sometimes humor gets to us so fast that we’re in on the joke without doing much work at all. We take pleasure from both the experience of watching and the experience of understanding. That sense of being included in the action makes us more receptive to whatever comes next.

Even orchestral music, a more abstract art form than dance, can engage audiences this way, as in a performance by the Kirov Orchestra in Ann Arbor earlier this year. In a piece that was steadily paced for the most part and full of low tones, a sudden higher, twittering sound elicited actual laughter from the audience. They laughed at the first instance of the sound – and it was people throughout the auditorium who chuckled, not an enlightened few on the main floor. The appearance of a spontaneous reaction at all suggests they were in on something composer Shostakovich wanted them to be. And judging by the immediacy and breadth of the reaction, they were making sense of it without first perusing the program notes.

The Kirov Orchestra created humor by juxtaposing types of sound we recognize, a little twitter in the midst of a dirge or a march. (How a steady tempo and low sounds indicate “somber” to us so definitely is a related question). Humor doesn’t need to be built on understanding if it can get by on recognition.

If there’s one thing we’ll pay attention to when it enters our awareness, it’s a human body. It’s a semi-guilty pleasure to have it exposed to our eyes, and witnessing the extremes of how it can bend or hurtle or shiver fascinates us, easily.

But our fascination wearies if we have nothing to relate it to other than acrobatics. Modern dance companies can often be characterized by how much they go beyond pure movement and dip into storytelling. One middle-ground approach, used brilliantly by the company that had their University debut this weekend, is to temper stretches of pure movement with gestures. Gestures in dance are versions of what we do every day – movements that somehow carry social meaning. In life the smallest motion can be eloquent – touching someone’s wrist as they talk to you, leaning in to speak.

Momentary gestures that have a more explicit implication – either because they’re a familiar social gesture or because they suggest a narrative – reference the kind of social cues audiences will be very sensitive to, regardless of their familiarity with performance. We’re familiar with people, so drawing on our sensitivity to the drama of human interaction engages all audience members at once. It’s a unifying moment.

The Stephen Petronio Company, a modern dance company made up of eight electrifying dancers, was all movement all the time. The only narrative came through in gestures that instantly created a social dynamic. The dance, at once a stunning display of balletic discipline and virtuosic abandon, barely paused to give these moments space. But they were so well-chosen, so specific and so weighted that their inclusion allowed the company to hold tight our attention while around them the company flew to the extremes of speed and sound. Just before throwing his body dangerously around his partner’s form to be caught, a dancer brushed his partner’s hand with his cheek, cat-like and adoring.

New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella once said of performances, “If I don’t get it, it isn’t there.” Although it might sound like a boast of her scrutinizing critic’s eye, Acocella meant it as an evaluation of a performance’s effective success. A great concept on paper or a succession of seven rather than six difficult turns are of little more than academic interest unless they’re woven with moments that flash straight to our most reactive selves.

– Colodner gets it. She knows it’s there. E-mail her at abigabor@umich.edu.

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