In late 2011 I asked my friend, lighting designer, technical director, and all around thoughtful guy Joshua Paul Weckesser to write a blog for our website. In conjunction with a show we were working on, I asked him “what is dance?” In a few short weeks we will present a new and improved version of Lips of Their Fingers, a work that premiered on that 2011 show. And with that in mind, I am revisiting Josh’s blog and the question at large – what is dance? Enjoy his brilliant musing below, and then buy your tickets and help us answer the question in person (March 28-30, 2014!).
WHAT IS DANCE? by Joshua Paul Weckesser
(originally published September 2011)
I’m going with a few big ideas and then, most likely, discard them immediately. This is the internet, it is my right. I work in dance, it is my habit. Years ago I worked on plays. It was a time, hard to believe now, before cell phones and always-on internet. Even then I was drawn to the real thing, where the simulacrum would not do, to these places where the public comes and sits, the lights dim, the hush and then. And then.
I read Ibsen, I saw Checkov. I quote Shakespeare while watching football (“I hate it, as I hate hell, all Patriots, and Brady”). But all these words, words, words were not enough. Our crown prince said it himself, “can this cockpit hold / the vasty fields of France? or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” No, we can’t. Not when the cineplex is down the street, not when the television is in our living rooms, the very internet in our pocket. There are always words coming at us, and so few of them can grab our attention and fill us with wonder, with disgust, with shock, confusion, elation. Most of the time they settle comfortably into the white noise that is the sound floor of our lives.
That is the thing about dancing. You can’t be driving and watch a dance. You can’t be making dinner with dance on in the background. It demands your attention. The only way to consume it is wholly and completely. Which is why bad dancing is so painful to watch, the failure is so complete. There’s no reprieve. The theatre doors are closed, exiting is awkward, as is checking your phone. You have to sit and watch. The other edge of this sword is that amazing dance condenses all of your life into this moment, while your eyes land on that wrist and it flicks here and then rests there. “Of course,” you think, “There it is.” And it has always been there. And a moment later it’s gone.
Chances are though, if you’re reading this blog, you already know all this. But the choir is the easiest group to preach to.
I read once that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And my first thought was, “Oh, I’d love to see a dance about architecture.” Something so passing, so fragile, so dream-like reaching out for something so solid and seemingly-permanent. The analogies between an elbow and a grand staircase, an ankle and an elevator. The dissonance between what is meant and what is seen. Writing about dance seems about the same.
All of this comes out of Lizzie saying, “You can’t sit with dance the way you sit with a painting.” Comes out of Melissa resting on Nicole’s knee, desperately maintaining her composure while the ground literally shakes beneath her, frantic and then still, trying to do something while someone tries to stop her from doing that thing. Comes out of Laura at the head of a line holding her pants to her right, everyone revealed in the leotards and hidden in the dim floor lamps, the tension rising, the pants dropping, the music starting and the moment has passed. Delicious and sweet, like a remembered candy, like a remembered first kiss.
It comes out of turning a brickwall into a backdrop; transforming a wood floor with a patch of astroturf. Of writing lighting cues on a brand-new console. Turning half a plot and some units on the ground into a fully realized design, a cavernous room into a theater. Of the stress of sitting next to the choreographer throughout the whole run. I press a button and, hopefully, something beautiful happens. If not, there is little I can do. Powerless, I can only watch, perhaps weep, and on this show look to my right into the shock and loss on the face of the prime motivator of the event. It’s a feeling of almost sweating, of sitting up straight for an hour and a half. Standing by and then going. Surely, there are other ways to live, but I do not care to know them.
What is dancing? I don’t know. I never will. That’s why I keep coming back. My thanks to the Leopold Group for asking. For being comfortable in the question, in the doubt, in the incomplete answers. If someone was to ask me, “What is dancing?” I would like to take them by the wrist to this show, sit them on those bleachers and say, “We don’t know either, but watch. The journey is the important part.” Like all great mysteries one answer leads to new questions. Here’s what I can say for sure: You can watch it on the internet, but something that is amazing you turn to your friend and say, “Man, I’d love to see that.” Because the seeing isn’t complete until you’re there hearing the zipper work, the bare foot sound on the astroturf, the ever-present breath, images serve only to whet your appetite. After it’s over you’re left with wonder, like a vanishing dream. You can’t hold onto it, only moments remain, only a feeling. And it feels, oddly, like coming home because we are such stuff as dreams are made of. And we, like the dance, will vanish into air (into thin air).