Seeing Dance Through The Looking Glass

By Melissa Durante

Sometime early in my freshman year of college, I had a dance-related existentialist crisis. Sure, I’d spent a good deal of time taking jazz and tap and lyrical classes, but the ballet dancer in me was committed to structure. I was used to dance that had to look “pretty,” that had to be performed “right.” What I found when I encountered modern dance (and post-modern, and post-post modern) at the beginning of college, however, was that I really appreciated more open forms. I enjoyed the possibilities that come with improvisational dance, and came to enjoy the freedom to explore through dance. But as much as I enjoyed classes that didn’t require constantly pointed toes or even shoes at all, I found myself wondering what dance is. Without steadfast rules, how can we determine what is and what isn’t dance?

What I ended up learning from this little crisis was that what really gives color to choreography is the imagination behind it. While a dancer may dance for the way the movement feels in their body, what gives the dance power is the intention driving it. Take, for example, Martha Graham’s iconic “Lamentation.” Here, a dancer moving within a single sleeve of fabric portrays a woman’s grief. She does not come dripping in jewels and smiling, like we often expect of a dancer, but through the pained movement the anguish behind the piece is conveyed. Of course, there is a good deal of creativity propelling the ballets as well. Recently, The Royal Ballet adapted Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. A whimsical story, it takes a highly creative eye to recreate this fantastical plot within the confines of reality,  but with the help of innovative sets, out-of-the-box costumes (building characters of one, two, three dancers), and modern film technology, Lewis Carroll’s tale came to life. This creativity driving dance often takes other forms as well—leading to choreographers reimagining the traditional entirely. Take, for example, the creative mind behind the British-based New Adventures Company. Director Matthew Bourne is known for his twisted interpretations of classics; reinventing Swan Lake with a male Odile and Odette and all-male corps of swans, spinning Sleeping Beauty as a gothic ballet complete with vampires, and adapting Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands as a ballet.

Sometimes, imagination and creativity even extend beyond the bounds of the traditional stage. An emerging field, immersive theatre lets the audience roam around the set, following performers as the story plays out. Productions such as Punchdrunk’s New York production Sleep No More, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth (and drawing on elements from Hitchcock), and Third Rail Productions’ And Then She Fell, which gives another interpretation of Wonderland, are current examples. Creativity and imagination don’t just fuel interesting choreography, however, but works that carry meaning. Just as Graham expressed anguish or as Bourne turned gender-conventions on their heads, dances are often created with more than a story in mind but a message or idea to convey. In my experience, that’s what really gives dance value, what makes it dance at all—the intention behind the movement and the creativity and imagination that brings those thoughts to life.