Belly Dance Indeterminacy: Reviewing the Barbican Duchamp Exhibition

I recently had a chance to see the Barbican’s  new art exhibition, ‘The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns.’ Now, I’m going to be honest with you: I’m not very fond that particular period and style of modern art, so it probably wasn’t the most obvious choice for me to go along, considering the whole exhibition was about the development of Duchamp’s modernist style and his influence on a whole generation of younger artists.  But nevertheless, there I was.

Part of the exhibition included dance performances of works by Merce Cunningham and other modern choreographers whilst music by John Cage happened in the background.  (You can’t exactly say they were dancing to the music by Cage, because the whole indeterminacy thing he helped develop means that wouldn’t really make any sense.)

As I was watching the dancers, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of technique without emotion, without affect.   This is so much in opposition to a style like belly dance, where to dance with physical skill but without emotion will elicit criticism, even unto the point of saying that to do so isn’t really dancing.  (I’m basing this on my own personal dance training and on my research with dancers.)  The emotional reaction of dancers when talking about this ranged from suggesting that to dance without emotion was boring to watch to vehement scorn, implying that to do so wasn’t just poor execution but bad manners.

In the main (though let us avoid the trap of essentializing, and please do let me know if you have different thoughts on this), what dancers have expressed to me is that the physical movements of belly dance must be rooted in emotional sensations within the body.  The audience should be pulled irresistibly into these sensations, experiencing a sympathetic physical and emotional reaction to the dancer.  A dancer who has technique but no emotional affect might as well be a dancing automaton: there is no longer a purpose in having a real dancer if a well-designed replica would do.  The dance happens in the soul, not the body.

It may be the case that the emotional intentions of  the dancers at the Barbican exhibition (students and graduates of the London Contemporary Dance School, under the guidance of a former Merce Cunningham Dance Company dancer) were simply not obvious to me.  But I am more inclined to believe that the intention of these choreographies is not to elicit a shared emotion among all audience members, but to present a discordant and fragmentary series of movements from which each viewer must derive a unique reaction.  (To which someone like me might ask belligerently, “How am I SUPPOSED to feel?”)

There are some forms of belly dance that tend to keep a more neutral facial expression throughout–Tribal style springs to mind.  (Not to say that all Tribal style dancers do this, but it’s more common among Tribal style dancers–with all the complications of what that vague phrase means.)  This might be one of the reasons that more ‘traditionally trained’ dancers (with all the complications of what THAT vague phrase means) find Tribal style so challenging: the implicit agreement that dance must be a clear expression of emotion is undermined by keeping a neutral expression.

But regardless of what I felt about the dance performances at the exhibition, I was very intrigued by something that I heard the exhibition curator say.  To paraphrase, he said that one of the most important aspects of Duchamp’s work was the way it gave a younger generation of artists permission to pursue their own work, especially work that questioned the boundaries of what art was (and is.)

Though the exhibition itself was not full of work I found inspiring it was this reflection that brought home the importance of these artists for me, because I could immediately think of works of art I do cherish that plenty of people wouldn’t necessarily consider art.  (Indeed, belly dance is not often given space alongside ballet and modern dance, because it is considered too folkloric or too culturally specific to be accessible to all audiences, and thus not a ‘fine art’, while the other two are supposedly universal.  There are plenty of excellent academic texts that question–read: tear to pieces–the universality of ballet, but in practice most arts funding organizations and other bestowers of power/meaning will still privilege it.)

The principle of expanding what art is, of giving artists the freedom to explore the edges, boundaries and marginal spaces, is still a very necessary and worthwhile pursuit.  I recognize that without Duchamp’s influence and that of the other artists represented in this exhibition, much of  what I take for granted in contemporary arts practice would not have been possible–and long may that dance continue to develop new forms and ideas.

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