A metaphysics of contemporary dance, status updates, and mood rings.

What do contemporary dance, status updates, and mood rings have in common? They are all vehicles for public displays of emotion. But have you noticed that the range for the emotions people express with this type of media tends to be somewhat stereotyped? Here we have the case of portraying either the emotional turmoil of wretched remnants of a soul flapping in the wind or the illusion of perfect friendships/relationships reified by the status updates that inevitably end in a smiley face.

Let us take contemporary dance as the first example. It is somewhat of a generalization to say that contemporary dance tends to err on the “emotional turmoil of the wretched remnants of a soul flapping in the wind” side of things. Often (qualified by a “but not always”), the emotions and experiences communicated through contemporary dance are on the painful side of life: vulnerability. Love found, love lost. Identity confusion. Internal psychological conflict. Difficult choices. Oppressions of the external and internal kind. Loss. An experience from the fringes, an experience that is typically marginalized, ostracized, put behind an invisible line which it cannot cross to blend with the normative, nine-to-five job, picket fence, and HD television paradigm of life. At least this has been my experience when I attend a showcase of contemporary or modern dance works (or when I try to birth my own, they inevitably emerge as convoluted little devil spawn-looking things of emotions). To sum up my experience with that, I will just say that I rarely see a dancer smiling in contemporary dance. I rarely see the projection of joy, happiness, or ecstasy in their face.

Here is my confession: when I choreograph in a contemporary style, I cannot help but fall into this stereotype. In the past it has been easier, somehow more powerful, more interesting to create dance work from a place of emotional pain, vulnerability, and fear. The painful emotion is so strong that it makes it easy to throw my body into it and new ways of moving become new ways of expressing and sometimes healing through the pain. But does that then limit me to be the kind of dancer/choreographer who never smiles? The one who always dies at the end of a piece, slowly fumbling my way towards the ground before lights out?

What I realize through these reflections is that I have also fallen prey to a kind of self-limitation that I believe exists in contemporary dance: a focus on the gut-wrenching, the complex, the painful. Applying the existential lens here, when contemporary dance maintains such a focus, perhaps it is doing an important service to our humanity: it is holding up a mirror to ourselves, showing us all the ghastly and unwelcome inner experiences that we do not want to admit without ourselves. After all, how many public arenas are there, besides funerals, that allow the display of painful emotions? However, any limitation is constriction, an elimination of possibilities, which is something Schneider writes about in his work on existential integrative therapy. As such, who is to say that dance that focuses on the happier side of emotional continuum is somehow less valuable?

One public arena that I already mentioned, the social networking platforms, are a bit of an inversion when compared with contemporary dance. There is a tendency that researchers have documented for people to post “status updates” that are exclusively positive. Complexities are erased, ambiguity is shelved, and meanings are reduced to a number of exclamation marks and smiley faces. Ironically, when we post those “omg so excited for XYZ” and “lol last night at ABC was amazing,” our friends who read these updates tend to actually experience more feelings of depression, likely because of the social comparison between their own life and these fantastic-sounding status updates. I imagine there is wide variety of motivations behind this tendency to only focus on the positive. However, I will focus on one in particular. I will call it the Positive Thinking trap (and I am certainly not the first one to point this out): the idea that as long as you portray your life as perfect in a sequence of short bursts of status updates, your life will actually be the life you want to live. The Trap is the idea that by just “thinking positively” and “posting positively,” one can make a life worth living. I call it a trap because a vital element is missing: the conscious action of creating the life you desire. Wishing it, even if you wish for it publicly, is not enough. A wish without action is just an illusion.

And the mood rings? The magical mechanisms that are at work within these perplexing psychic machines are worth volumes and volumes of writing, meaning that I cannot possibly do them justice here but to say that the concept of a mood ring, regardless of its utility, at least suggests that we do not just teeter-totter between inane happiness and existential despair, that there are other emotions in our range.

Here is the part where you may be hoping for a solution to a problem. Facebook statuses: be more sad! Contemporary dance: be happier! And all will be well. Unfortunately, I do not think that this is a solution, mostly because I am not sure that what I have described is a “problem” per se. I believe it is a symptom of the cultural environment that often devalues and simplifies emotions: either you are happy and this emotion is “good” or you are sad and this emotion is “bad.” There are few opportunities to see the “good” in sadness and the not-so-good in happiness. There are few opportunities to talk express emotions and the very word “emotional” carries so many negative connotations.

So rather than provide a solution to a problem that cannot be solved, I would rather discuss an example of how a fuller range of emotions can be represented and expressed. Pina Bausch, a well-known name on the scene of dance that is modern/contemporary is a perfect example. Wim Wenders, director of “Pina,” a film about Bausch’s work, described legendary Pina’s vision in the following way: “One of my main questions […] is what I am existing for and that was one of the eternal questions that Pina was asking her dancers: what is the core of your desire? Why do you do what you do, why do you continue, what is driving you? That is a very existential question and, in dance, that didn’t exist before. Dance was really not about our lives, dance was about all sorts of issues, mainly aesthetic ones. She made dance […] about ourselves” (2011).

I was floored when I watched “Pina” and saw a dance about joy. The dancers’ movements and faces, the music, and sheer expressiveness were focused on just this: joy, its full and moving experience. I had never before seen a contemporary dance work that was so shamelessly focused on the happier spectrum of emotions, and not in a candy-coloured “just think positively” kind of way. This compelled me to re-consider my own choreographic tendencies and habits and expand the boundaries of what I thought constituted contemporary choreography for me.

Going back to Wender’s words about Pina, making dance about ourselves is such a significant accomplishment because our selves cannot be adequately represented by either a “think happy” attitude or an attitude of permanent existential crisis. Neither captures our humanity, our complexity, or our potential. Indeed, Pina’s works travel the full range of human emotional potentiality. There is joy. There is anger and conflict. There is parody and mockery. There is even boredom and routine. Emotionally, her work is so complex that is cannot help but move you: it holds up a mirror to the tiny, dusty corners of our minds just as it reflects the more prominent and obvious parts of our selves. This is contemporary dance informed by existential questions. This is contemporary dance informed by the real complexity of life. It breaks the stereotypic dichotomy between the contemporary dancer, dressed in black, convoluting themselves in strange shapes to share the vision of despair vs. the deluded, internet-addicted Positive Thinker who has suppressed their emotions to such an extent that they do not even know why they do the things they do; their life just rushes by in a flash of status updates, selfies, and martini binges. These are stereotypes that do not represent all dancers or all users of social media. Yet, by being complacent with the cultural impetus to banish various emotions from the public display, we may begin to look much like these stereotypes in a sense of being self-limited, not self-expanding. How much self-limitation would be too much before the circle you have drawn around yourself becomes so small that it becomes a prison?

And the status updates? What shall we do about those? I am not sure if anyone can provide an adequate answer to this question.

In closing, I will say that going beyond the self-imposed limits of emotional expression is difficult, no matter if we are talking about dance or social media. Personally, I find it much easier to harness and sustain a painful emotion as an initial spark that pushes my choreography forward. The more joyful emotions are more challenging to re-ignite, over and over again, when working on a dance piece. They may feel powerful in the beginning, but then they can fade as you encounter creative blocks, self-judgments, and fears in your choreographic process. If you are choreographing from a vulnerable place to begin with, you can just tie all of these processes into your motive for the piece, but you cannot do that (or at least I cannot) if your motor is a positive experience. However, I must say, as difficult as it has been, re-zoning the boundaries of my dance emotionality is one of the most compelling experiences I have had in the realm of self-exploration and self-definition.

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