How do we write about dance? In Deborah Jowitt’s article in Ann Dills and Ann Cooper Albright’s book Moving Histories/Dancing Cultures, she asks how one can write “beyond description: writing beneath the surface.” You can’t reduce dance to a synopsis – nor can you write only about a narration of movement in order to get at the heart of a dance.
For those of you who will see Batsheva this weekend, pick a dance you saw and write about what you saw. You can use up to five paragraphs this time. For those of you not going to Batsheva, go back to Veronique Doisneau and write about one of the pieces she dances — Swan Lake, Giselle or Points in Space. Find when description is necessary and when you need to use metaphor. Also think about how you might need to talk about narrative or abstract concepts. But use the five paragraphs to convey your experience of watching dance. There is no right way to do this – just find a way to convey what the dance makes you think and feel.
For the final performance of her career, Veronique Doisneau spent thirty minutes reflecting on some of her favorite roles, choreographers, and experiences from her time in the Paris Opera Ballet. While the majority of the performance was rather informal, with Doisneau lightly humming the accompaniment. But the final piece she presented, an excerpt from the second act of Swan Lake, felt much more impactful and emotional than the other pieces.
For one, the piece was set to prerecorded music of the Ballet’s orchestra. But what really makes the Swan Lake excerpt so compelling is Doisneau’s explanation of the emotional turmoil that was a result of her status as a sujet (someone who could be a soloist or simply in the corps de ballet) in the Paris Opera Ballet for her entire career, as she retires at the age of 42. Though she is a highly skilled and virtuosic dancer, Doisneau was relegated to only be a piece of human scenery in this scene of Swan Lake, an experience so humiliating and disheartening that Doisneau describes the “long moments of immobility–the ‘poses’–we become a human décor to highlight the ‘Stars,’ and for us, it is the most horrible thing we do. Myself, for example, I want to scream or even leave the stage.” With a humble sigh, Doisneau begins the almost 10 minute sequence.
Doisneau starts on the stage left side, back turned to the audience, arms extended gracefully. She then remains in this pose for over a minute. Her lack of movement, contrasting with the bright and moving symphonic music piped in overhead, allows the audience to focus on a part of the scene that is often (and meant to be) overlooked in the final performance: while the audience can imagine the “Stars” performing in the center, they begin to see the perspective of Doisneau and the 31 other dancing women in the corps. Doisneau shifts poses a few times, but the overall “look” remains the same–a beautiful woman, standing as still as a statue, not meant to pull focus.
It is almost four minutes later that Doisneau actually begins to move: a simple sequence of one-legged hops that lead her upstage…where she takes up another back-turned pose. Eventually, Doisneau walks forward, takes a deep lunge-like pose, and moves her arms like the wings of a graceful bird, before popping up to relevé. This sequence is repeated a few times, and then Doisneau settles into another pose, this time facing the audience, hands delicately crossed in front, and eyes pointed towards the ground. In her stillness, the audience observes (and can hear, thanks to her microphone) Doisneau’s pained breathing, and how she must labor to control it while remaining in such a graceful and fragile pose. Throughout the remainder of the piece, this pattern of slight movement (essentially a way for the corps dancers to artfully switch placement onstage) and then cementation into poses repeats a few times, with very little variation.
Without the costumes, sets, lighting, or “Stars” performing in front of them, the audience now sees the truly boring and physically taxing perspective of Doisneau and the corps. Doisneau’s statement that she wanted to scream or leave the stage are understandable–though her presence here is impressive, beautiful, and virtuosic, hardly anyone would truly notice if she wasn’t there. In fact, many filmed performances (such as the one I linked above) do not even include the corps in the majority of their shots. By the end of the piece, Doisneau is physically and emotionally exhausted. In fact, she completes the performance by simply dropping out of a pose, letting her posture return to “normal” and looking completely dejected. Though she doesn’t say very much about her career, this performance says a lot about the power structures inherent in professional ballet companies and the ramifications for its dancers. There is great injustice on display in the fact that a dancer as skilled, as compelling, and as graceful as Doisneau (as she demonstrated in her short performances of Giselle and Points in Space) is no more than an occasionally moving statue. It is absolutely heartbreaking to watch.