“Dance without music is hollow. It’s only technically impressive – a shell without anything inside,” says a commenter on a Merce Cunningham dance choreography video on Youtube.
Like postmodern art, thinking about contemporary dance is a new way of viewing the art world that I had not been exposed to very much until relatively recently.
Last year, my best friend, who is an aspiring musical theatre performer, was taking a postmodern dance class and showed me a video of a woman walking across a room. There was no music. It was just the woman walking across the room from one end to the other. This is a dance video, my friend said.
I remember looking blankly back and her and saying: “I don’t get it.”
Although this dance choreography by Cunningham was very strange and experimental to me, it brought up a very interesting point that I couldn’t let go. Can a dance really exist without music?
I’ve been a major fan of hip-hop choreography since I can remember. And I realized that I enjoyed this type of choreography because hip-hop styles – like breaking, locking and popping – are rhythmic with the lyrics and beats of a song. You will never see a guy on the street b-boying in silence because the musicality of the movements are very much inseparable to the counts and beats of a song.
So perhaps this was why I felt so uncomfortable watching Merce Cunningham’s choreography. The silence made me uncomfortable. This realization made me want to dig deeper into why I was in such discomfort watching this type of dance and choreography.
Last year, I had the great opportunity of meeting Anna Halprin at a conference where she spoke about her late husband, Laurence Halprin, who was a renowned landscape architect. But to be perfectly honest, I was more interested in hearing her talk about dance.
Anna Halprin is an early pioneer of the “expressive arts healing movement” in which she utilizes the body in a kinesthetic sense. If you’re confused about what that means, I don’t blame you. It is very hard to describe; even once you witness it, it remains indescribable in how seemingly experimental it all feels. But in an exercise Halprin did during the conference, she told the entire room to sink down into their chairs. And then, she told the room to sit up straight in their chairs. Halprin then asked: “How did this change in position alter your mood?”
After Halprin’s exercise, I came to the realization that movement can be lead by the dancer’s contact to the objects and space around them – like how Halprin made the entire room shift in space. In this sense, music becomes a secondary entity.
I was curious to see what aspiring dancers on campus think about this issue and the growing popularity of postmodern dance. I asked my roommate to ask her friends in her dance choreography class whether they think there needs to be music for dance to exist. Here are two responses I received:
“Since dance is a form of self-expression, it doesn’t necessarily need music. However, music helps me connect to movement, so for me, music and dance are almost inseparable,” Avery Lincoln said.
Alright, I get that one.
“I don’t necessarily think dance needs music, especially since I usually end up creating movement without any music. I feel that when dancing your body creates natural rhythms, which can be the music that drives the dance. This includes breathing, tapping your foot to the floor, clapping, etc. Although this is my own preference, I do feel that for certain traditional dance such as ballet, music plays an important role. I think it’s important to mention that I personally think music should not determine all of the movement,” Angel Rodriguez said.
I guess you would have to say that whether music is an important factor in creating dance ultimately depends on the dancer and the choreographer. There’s no denying that I continue to be impressed by artists who are pushing boundaries and dancing to their own rhythm in life. That, in itself, is by no means “hollow.”
UYEN CAO would like to know if you’ve ever danced without music. Let her know what you thought about it by e-mailing her at email@example.com.