by Susan Cunningham
Dance, what is the principal art form, the body or the choreography? I asked myself this question recently whilst struggling to maintain the technique in a professional class. I looked at the vacant faces in the mirror, including my own, gripped by determination.
Then, almost on cue, a voice encouraged us to soften our bodies and asked us, "Where had the enjoyment gone? Why did we look like we were dead inside? Come on people...let your lights shine!"
It made me laugh, however I realised that in professional training, we can easily lose sight of ourselves and why we dance. As we conform our bodies to the shapes and structures of our teachers and mentors, the danger is that our uniqueness is lost.
Choreographers such as Lynne Taylor-Corbett have spoken of being influenced by passion and not just technique, the importance of the human and not just the body. She credited Alvin Ailey for this. How refreshing it is to find those who support this ethos. 20 years ago, Bill. T. Jones challenged social norms and stereotypes by embracing dancers of all shapes, sizes and colour.
But there will always be those for whom dance is a visual escape, an aesthetic art, a reflection of beauty, grace or athletic capability.
There are those who do not feel dance should be used as a political platform or social commentary. This is where choreography often projects its power over the human form. The body becomes a pliable material for the artist to sculpt to please such audiences.
Maguy Marin reflected that she grew tired of feeling that dancers were there to serve a choreographer and it seems this view is reflected by a new wave of creators. They believe the dancer should be part of the artistic process and their input, creativity and personal stories add to and shape the original ideas of the catalyst.
In 2012, Errol White Dance Company brought the personal to the dance in 'I Am'. It demonstrated the incredible power of authentic movement to make an emotional connection to the audience. The company continues to develop their work with a strong ethos of dance as human movement communication. It may be risky to put yourself out there but it is a methodology that both dancer and witness can gain from:
"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." Anais Nin
As a graduate performer seeking work, I experienced two common types of auditions. Those where you were expected to conform to the director's vision or those where you were expected to show them your own vision. I discovered that my training had not supported my ability to be myself and to share that.
It should have been about the growth of myself, rather than merely the growth of my muscles. I believe the best training needs to address both and it is important for all contemporary dancers to seek this balance, or risk losing out personally and professionally.
Years later as I rediscover a new joy in dancing and performing, and I revisit the same steps, technique and choreography again. I realise that, even when I repeat them over and over, I am not tired or bored, lost or frustrated, because I am there with the movement, as I am, different in every breath and moment.
When this feeling is not developed and the dancer is not in touch with their inner self, the dance is merely a physical body in space and the performance is incomplete.
Susan Cunningham is a professional dancer living a working in Edinburgh.