Dance beyond words

by Dave Maier

Pina-movie-wallpaper-25338In 1985, by his own account, the filmmaker Wim Wenders had no interest in dance, and had to be dragged to a performance of choreographer Pina Bausch’s Café Müller by his companion, actress Solveig Dommartin (you remember her, she’s in Wings of Desire). However, he found himself so moved by the performance that he wept. So reports Siri Hustvedt in an essay accompanying the Criterion Collection issue of Wenders’s film tribute to Bausch, Pina: dance, dance, otherwise we are lost. With respect to Café Müller in particular, Hustvedt tells us that “one cannot encapsulate what one has seen in words.” That is, “one does not come away with a message or story that can be explicated […] Rather, [Bausch’s] work generates multiple, and often ambiguous, meanings,” which helps account for the work’s power:

The viewer’s emotion is born of a profound recognition of himself in the story that is being played out onstage before him. He engages in a participatory, embodied mirroring reaction with the dancers, which evades articulation in language. Susanne K. Langer is writing about music in the following passage from Philosophy in a New Key, but her commentary can be applied equally well to dance: “The real power of music lies in the fact that it can be ‘true’ to the life of feeling in a way that language cannot; for its significant forms have that ambivalence of content that words cannot have.” Musical meanings arrive, as Langer puts it, “below the threshold of consciousness, certainly outside the pale of discursive thinking. […] [Bausch:] “For I always know what I am looking for, but I know it with my intuition and not with my head.” Indeed, many artists work this way, even artists whose medium is words. There is always a preverbal, physiological, rhythmic, motoric, ground that precedes language and informs it.

Okay, that’s quite a mouthful. Let’s unpack it (as my anthropology teacher used to say).

If the experience of Café Müller reaches “beyond language,” a natural question is: what is it about dance, a non-verbal art, that allows it to do what words cannot? Is it that it is physical/gestural rather than verbal, or instead that it is characteristically artistic experience rather than everyday discourse? To answer this, we must also consider for comparison the two other possibilities: non-verbal non-art and verbal art (literature/poetry).

If everyday non-artistic gestures reach “beyond language” simply by being non-verbal, then it is hardly remarkable to say of dance that it does this as well, and thus it cannot be this mere ability that makes possible the latter’s power. It must be that what does the trick instead is that dance is an art of gesture, that it takes advantage of its non-verbal nature in a way that everyday gestures do not, in order to allow the exceptional experience that moved Wenders to tears. But what does that difference amount to here?

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