I DON’T KNOW WHO FIRST CAME UP WITH THE IDEA that Merce Cunningham’s work is like a heightened version of everyday life — like very good people-watching, in essence — but the comparison has stuck with me because it goes both ways: if people-watching trains you for Cunningham, so too Cunningham trains you for people-watching. Certainly Cunningham-esque people-watching differs from other sorts of people-watching (the character practice of budding novelists, the magpie gaze of street style connoisseurs), but what’s key here is that dance, post-Cunningham, is not merely specialized movement, but is also a way of seeing. Dance is a lens. Let us, then, take the dance lens with us when we leave the theater. Let us go look at the undance.
Undance 1: People who walk funny
Quick! This guy getting off the bus ahead of you, look at his uncoordinated shamble. You wouldn’t call it a limp, it’s not caused by debility or disease; it’s a side-to-side shimmy that accompanies some steps, a lurch on others, a general sloping of the right shoulder toward the ground, as if he’s permanently burdened. Unsymmetrical, arrhythmic, this walk looks surprised to be out in the open, like some skittery thing uncovered when you move a rock. This walk says Don’t look at me, nothing to see here, but in fact if you can stand to go on looking at it, this walk will unbalance you, its shivers and shudderings like water in your ears. Think about it too long and this walk will make you cry: The way he moves, you know this guy is never going to marry the beautiful girl or lead the team.
I’ve been looking at my fitness instructor for fifteen minutes, trying to pin down the oddity of her stance, when I get it: she’s moving just like C-3PO. Her elbows jut that same way, lower arms rotated, palms facing back, her upper body slants back from her hips with a slight arch of the upper spine. Every time she bends over, she starts by contracting her ribcage in a movement I, at first, found obscurely obscene but now cannot help associating with the smooth whir of robot machinery. Actually, the cause is similar: muscle-bound, she can move only along certain pathways. Funny as it is once I’ve identified her set, she’s very unlike the boy with the wretched walk — no one is going to laugh long at this invulnerable gym bunny with her tight buttocks and her high-swinging platinum ponytail.
If the poor guy actually limped it might be easier. A limp is otherworldly, eldritch or noble. Actual debility, once recognized, commands respect. That is, it commands aversion. It must be tiresome, if you have a disability, to watch as passerby after passerby stares, trying to classify your anomaly, then promptly refuses to see. And this is a pity from the point of view of the undance as well, because some limps are astonishing muscular feats. Is it grotesque of me to say so? But why? We admire the goddess-like stance of the bharatanatyam dancer; why not marvel at how one walks a city block with shins that cant in towards each other at forty-five degrees? Besides, I take visual equality as a principle of the undance: you cannot refuse to be moved by another’s movement.
Take your older coworker who is beginning to shake slightly when she talks. You can feel the room settle every time she speaks; everyone has to brace to resist the combination of her still perfectly sensible words and her pre-dementia quiver. If you didn’t steel yourself, you’d be sobbing on the floor. And maybe, every so often, you should be.
Undance 2: The weather
Were you awake the other day when the wind blew the petals from the crabapples and the ornamental plums? They tossed around in the street like snow. Then the rain came down, sheeting on the street in petal-topped surges. How often do you see that? And once seen, you know you won’t see its like for another year at least: the week of flowering trees is over, their petals a wreck in the grass. Or, almost a wreck: This morning I saw out my office window pink petals in purple violets, pink petals outlining all the paths students trod over the winter.
Another principle of the undance: You have to take it when you find it.
Undance 3: The orchestra
The harpist is graceful — that’s obvious, with her nodding consent to each pluck — and flautists are birdlike, peeking sideways at everything. Pianists are their own creatures, but strings are hard to watch, their jagged motion giving the impression of a constant mental battle between the desire for longer, sparer limbs and the realization that then their fingers would be that much farther from the strings. But the one I really want to notice is playing no instrument at all, unless she is playing the whole orchestra, using her body as a theremin: I mean the conductor.
For musicians, the conductor’s motion is more purposeful and specific; perhaps the way she inclines her head means nothing. But the audience, casting around for a key to the sound, naturally settles on the conductor. As she feathers in this or summons up that (hand shoveling up seeming shelves of air), the audience learns to hear what she shows. And different conductors show different aspects of the music. Gustavo Dudamel’s cloud of hair amplifies and echoes his body’s rhythms, rendering every semiquaver clear before tumbling it into the torrent. In grainy video, Arturo Toscanini stills himself imperially, only his baton ticking, between gusts of thorny elucidation; “contents under high pressure,” the warning must read. The Minnesota Orchestra’s Sarah Hicks — lissome, slender, silky, arching her supple upper body like a ballerina — seems borne along on oceanic sweeps of sound.
Whoever you watch, imagine yourself for a moment a deaf observer from another culture: Wouldn’t you take this whole orchestral scene for a religious event focused on the throes of this one priest? Everyone else sits still while this one spine is seized, while this one body feels.
Undance 4: Sign language
Like a conductor, a sign language interpreter makes sound flesh. I’ve always found their quick, specific fingers mesmerizing, even more so the finely delineated fan-shaped field that extends before them, a space of mere air that’s as detailed as your yard in childhood. Trisha Brown once made a dance of spelling out her press bio by pointing to or touching letters placed in the space surrounding the body. You can’t read the bio, of course (why would you want to?), but it gives the dance a unity of purpose, a sense of meaning that, paradoxically, turns out to be more meaningful than its actual meaning. Here in town, Hijack’s dances deepen along the same lines. The takeaway? Detail suggests meaning, and meaning is not at all diminished by being indecipherable.
Except that, of course, sign language is decipherable by some. I wonder what sign language speakers make of dance gesture — ballet mime, say, or the flurries of specific-looking flourishes that have lately haunted postmodern dance. Does it seem flat and unimaginative to them, or does it charm the way nonsense verse can? Come to that, when sign language speakers look at the world, how is their lens different from the one I’m applying now? Might petals in the wind seem to form a word?
Undance 5: The work dance
The efficacy of the work song is well known, but I can’t find any similar research on the work dance, perhaps because it goes unrecognized as dance. I mean the rhythm with which one splits firewood or shovels snow, but also the flourishes with which we make our work satisfying to ourselves; I mean the way we smooth several tasks into one breathing sweep or roll around our balance when wrestling with anything larger than ourselves. Watch baristas, for example. The narrower their workspace, the busier their day, the more they rely on memorized and coordinated sequences — that is, dances. They pivot on their heels with a trailing hand placing a teapot on a counter whose height they know by heart; their fingers trip along the espresso machine, starting a shot and shutting off a steamer wand, picking up a cup with the last reach before they spin back around to start again. Their dances get smoothed down and perfected over time until each motion is a rebound from the last or a spring into the next. The proof, I’d argue, is how spectacular a practiced worker’s flubs are. You don’t just drop the glass; you fling it, because the proper force is a hair’s-breath calibration. You don’t make ordinary mistakes because you are — have made yourself — a virtuoso. And this is, after all, partly what we tip baristas for: for the pleasure of watching them move.
I’m years now from my last physical job, and I miss it a bit, but as a friend points out, all you have to do is give yourself some repetitive task — copying and collating papers, say — to find how your body puts it together, how you naturally seek a sleek way through. To anyone else in the office you may look a little strange, swooping upon the copier, swaying in your sorting circle, but you will find yourself soothed by your work dance. Maybe you will even hum.
Another principle of the undance: You are not just watching it, you are in it.
Undance: Your own dance
Apply it all now. You’re at a dimly-lit bar, you’ve ordered a martini. The guy who took your order has his hair cut straight across his forehead, and he moves like all the guys with that haircut: stiff, bobbing, ungraceful, sudden. He’s maybe a bit annoying, and you’re relieved when the other bartender, the one with the hanging ponytail and the habit of shaking drinks high above her head, sometimes two at once, comes over to pour your drink, stretching the stream theatrically high, teasing out the last few drops and then sweeping the shaker away with a curt rattle.
You look around; you see the couples. You admire how these two sway yin-and-yang towards each other, their outlines fitting before and rebounding after they’ve kissed, like continents in rewind. Those two, on the other hand, belong to different movement worlds, and though they neck furiously every five minutes, you can tell they’re not exiting into the same wing when this dance is over. Everywhere heads turn, spines incline, hands gesture, tossing off the candlelight as if it were rain. Speaking of hands, look at that man’s: He’s a magician, quicksilver fingers building cat’s-cradle cathedrals. His companion watches, entranced.
Either you’re getting used to the gauche bartender, or you’re getting drunk, because he’s increasingly comic. He plays his role with such perfection, he could be making fun of its poker-faced machismo, or maybe his refusal to sway plays counterpoint to the sloppy vivacity all around.
Meanwhile, what’s going on on the ceiling? Nothing. It’s all pristine up there, very Louis Quatorze with its arched candelabra. Worth checking all the same, like looking into silent water.
The magician is sitting on his hands now, and you want to give him a tip. His companion is much more attractive than he is; without the hands, doesn’t he know he doesn’t stand a chance? The split couple is texting side by side, expert, at last, at something; the swaying pair have gone home entwined like a cursive monogram. Out the gauze-curtained window, you sense the scud of oncoming storm.
And you — what are you up to? What do you add to the score?
About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship.