From Plato to Parkinson’s: Reflections on Dance

by Abigail Akavia

A group of young women performing exercises at the ballet barre and an angry mob chanting “lock her up.” These two situations, where the exact same action is performed by a group of people, may have more in common than it appears at first. Kinesthetic empathy, a recent topic of research for neurobiologists, dance theorists and a range of scholars and professionals in between, offers an interesting perspective on this issue, since it points to the emotional effect of physical activities carried out in group settings.

Empathy is a blanket term for a wide range of interpersonal phenomena: it is probably most commonly understood as an other-oriented feeling of concern or compassion. Empathy can also be defined as an ability to imagine what the other person is going through, or as an intuitive understanding of another person, including an understanding that is more physical than mental. Mirror neurons in the brain—for example, those firing both when we itch our foot and when we see someone else itching their foot—are probably involved in such a body-mediated and body-motivated awareness of the other.

It is remarkable that we can also feel empathy towards a fictional character, say in a book, a film, or in the theater. The latter situation is especially interesting because by understanding how audience members relate emotionally to what they see onstage we may gain access to how the audience as a gathering of disparate individuals becomes a group, a collective whose emotions and reactions can be manipulated and controlled. When the aesthetic medium is dance, the nexus of emotional reactions and physical experience is more obvious, even if not easier to parse; for it is through the body and without the mediation of words that we are “moved.”

As spectators in a dance performance, a whole gamut of emotional responses may arise in us. At the same time, often we are simply moved to join in the dance (an impulse aided in no small part by the accompanying music), or rather, we feel as if we ourselves are experiencing the dancers’ movements. ‘Kinesthetic empathy’ is the term used to describe this fellow-feeling with other people moving, or this sense of participation and identification with the dancers from the spectator’s seat.

The impulse to join in the dance has been recognized and exploited since antiquity. In ancient Greek culture, theatrical performances were not a series of dreary soliloquies delivered by pontificating toga-clad men, as we are perhaps used to thinking of them through unfortunate historicizing representations of classical theater. Rather, ancient Greek drama was a spectacle of song-and-dance led by a chorus, a large group of performers (between 12 and 24, by traditional accounts). Ancient tragedies were more like Broadway musicals than opera—that is, if Broadway musicals spotlighted murderous, incestuous, dysfunctional families.

Participation in non-dramatic choral song-and-dance was a civic duty virtually all Athenian citizens took part in at various stages of their lives; choruses provided the soundtrack to personal milestones (weddings, funerals) as well as other religious and political events. Their role was central in aesthetic performances, of which theater is the best known genre. In the dramatic festival in honor of Dionysus, the audience was the entire Athenian civic body. Tragic choruses, in turn, were made up of ordinary citizens whose training was covered, at an extraordinary expense, by a wealthy individual designated as the “chorus-funder” for that year. In effect, citizens in Athens got a six-month state-funded break from their regular lives and jobs to rehearse for a one-time tragic performance in front of the entire polis. Ancient Greeks, in short, were no strangers to choral performance. When they watched a chorus in action, it might have been their neighbor or cousin onstage. It could have been triggering memories from their own choral participation in a wedding-procession or onstage the year before. The cultural importance of choruses and the centrality of communal movement in everyday life in ancient Athens was deeper than any comparable phenomenon today. In fact, it is almost unfathomable in our era of wearing headphones and swiping, whether in public or at home.

Plato’s (in)famous indictment of the theater as a dangerously populist medium of emotional indulgence was not aimed only at the principal actors and their “unmanly” displays of grief. Rather, it derived from a deep understanding of the emotional pull that choral performance had on its audience. In his late work, The Laws, Plato discusses the importance of choral training in the education of citizens of the ideal polis. Here he talks not of mimetic performances (after all, tragedy and comedy would be banished from the ideal state) but of choral performances in civic-religious contexts. Song-and-dance, in his vision, was a means for emotional and moral indoctrination, for keeping people in step, quite literally. The totalitarian utopia he envisioned was one of unison and harmony. Part of why this could have been imagined possible is because of the strong reciprocity of performance and spectatorship of choral song-dance. In this and other ancient texts, choral performance was conceptualized as interactive and mutually empathic: in other words, it aroused and tapped into kinesthetic empathy.

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Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder has been creating boundary-pushing works for decades. One of her latest pieces, Common Emotions, is an exploration of the relationship between audience-members and performers as mutual participants in the creation of the piece, and, throughout, a meditation on how collective emotions are aroused. At various points in the work, a dancer invites members of the audience, at their will, to join them “backstage”, behind a spectacularly colorful and deliberately tattered weaved curtain. Behind the scenes, the volunteers are asked to perform certain actions together, sometimes remaining backstage and sometimes going onstage together with their guiding dancer(s). The group activities which audience members are requested to perform include tenderly supporting a dancer’s body as they sink to the ground, physically and verbally humiliating another, and participating in what sounds from the outside more than anything like a collective orgasm.

At the beginning of the piece, the six dancers perform a sequence in unison. The sequence repeats, at first exactly, and then the iterations gradually grow more varied. Once the process of inviting spectators backstage begins, the whole concept of repetition, as well as the coherence of a dance-piece in the traditional sense of the word, disintegrates. As a volunteer backstage, you take part and influence the show. But as you do so, you inevitably become aware that the “show” is going on (in repetitions and variations) without you onstage; yet another scene may be going on without you among a different group of volunteers backstage. As audience members become active participants in the dance, pure spectatorship is no longer possible, for you are missing out on something whether or not you choose to heed the dancers’ call to join them behind the curtain. At the same time, the performers carry out an act of essential trust in their audience, not just by entering into a physical-emotional relationship with them (at one point, a performer curls up sobbing in the lap of a seated audience member, holding hands with two others) but also by relinquishing control over the performance, which no longer hinges on the technical expertise that normally distinguishes dancers from spectators.

The various group activities, as well as those moments that seem more like pure “acting,” are deliberately coordinated and juxtaposed to arouse or manipulate certain group dynamics. Picking apart the most basic element of harmony in dance, the “unison”, the work instead creates a series of ad hoc, instantly binding relationships or communities. Indeed, Godder has commented explicitly on her dislike for unison: “As a choreographer… I was scared of [unison]… as it had a variety of references which were conceptually challenging for me.” On an aesthetic level, Common Emotions suggests a radical alternative to the tyrannical pressure to conform epitomized by traditional “unison”—familiar to anyone with even amateur experience of classical ballet—and at the same time creates moments of empathic unison which are morally or aesthetically ambivalent (at the very least, they are not necessarily pleasant…). Godder wished to explore how unison might play out in modes different from its traditional form in dance: as “an emotional unison, a physical unison or a unison that is not visible, a unison that is felt and not seen.”

Common Emotions can thus be seen as an experiment in the arousal and effects of kinesthetic empathy. The piece demands from its participants a reflection on emotional identification and manipulation, and on our ability to relate to another person—often a complete stranger—with kindness or with cruelty. Since for the most part the impacts of the work are staged through group interactions, it highlights how our empathic instincts are conditioned by our being part of a group and indoctrinated into certain norms of spectatorship and public behavior, in other words by our modes of conduct en masse. The political resonances of such a performance in present-day Israel ring clear, as they would in any context fueled by nationalistic narratives of “us” against “others.”

Thinking of Godder’s piece has reminded me (or my former dancer self) of the tyrannical conformity of ballet. This tyranny against the body is also, or could always also have the potential of becoming, a tyranny of the soul, for which we pay a price not only as individuals but as communities as well. Commons Emotions exemplifies how instinctive it is to get sucked into a group mentality, how easy it is for a designated leader to tap into the callousness of a mob; it is a warning against the fascistic tendencies latent in collectivity. Thankfully, it is also a call to openness and receptivity through unison, by re-imagining unison not as a tool for social oppression but as a medium for togetherness despite, or beyond, heterogeneity.

What I learned after the show reinforced my optimism concerning contemporary applications of choral dance. Common Emotions was developed in the context of Störung/Hafraah (German/Hebrew for “disturbance”), a German-Israeli interdisciplinary project on movement and movement-disorder that involved dancers, scientists, and people with Parkinson’s disease. The project brought together the research of neuroscientists, biologists, physicians and computer scientists, the movement expertise of choreographers and dancers—the latter’s “silent knowledge” of the body—and the everyday experience of people with Parkinson’s. It included dance classes in which scientists as well as “Parkinson’s dancers” (as they were called in the project, not patients) participated, an extension of the worldwide initiative Dance for Parkinson’s. The collaborative projects of Störung/Hafraah suggest explanatory models and clinical interventions for movement control and movement loss in people with Parkinson’s (read more about them here). Unison was one of the themes around which the project was centered, as a topic of creative inquiry and a research object. For example, research has suggested that the same part of the brain, the inferior frontal gyrus, is active in imitation and in emotional empathy, both of which play a part in carrying out synchronized motion. In this context, one interesting observation was the following: in the dance classes for people with Parkinson’s, they were sometimes unable to perform a certain movement by themselves. However, they did succeed in performing the same movement when done together “in unison,” or as part of a group. It seems that “choral” kinesthetic empathy might be at play here, as a certain kind of latent dynamism and muscle memory are triggered through taking part in a collective activity. This is not only an immediate cause of hope for people suffering from loss of movement control due to various medical conditions. It also prompts us to keep in mind—beyond the politically, emotionally, and aesthetically oppressive effects of unison—the restorative powers of collective movement.

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