Dance is ruled by basic laws of physics, even if choreographers strive to repudiate those laws. It can obviously be laborious, cathartic, and exhausting for the performers or it could seem effortless and ethereal. Watching great dance can remind us of the human potential for profound expression and kinetic brilliance during a time when many of us are acutely detached from a physical life.
In this modern world, we conduct our lives through a surprising amount of mediation and simulacrum. We rely on computers for most basic information—time, outside temperature, current headlines. We needn’t go to libraries with the seemingly limitless resources of the internet. Digital files have all but eradicated the need for anything paper-based, as well as a reliance on mail and couriers. Videoconferencing and Skype connect us around the globe in real time, doing away with the necessity of absolute travel. In this mediated life, seeing dance (or better yet, dancing) can remind us of our essential physical being and of our potential for greatness.
Maximizing your free time encourages streamlining and trying to make everything go faster. But in dance, there are no shortcuts. Physical conditioning is key, if not for appearance, then at least to prevent injury. It is obvious when companies rehearsed enough, and even more so when they haven’t. Technology also impacted certain aspects of dance—software for choreography and notation, video and DVD recordings for archival and teaching purposes, YouTube for dissemination. But when it comes down to it, great dancers work and train hard.
We rely on elevators and escalators to avoid walking up and down, and then find ourselves exercising on stair climbers and elliptical machines at the (climate controlled) gym. Many of us who don’t do heavy physical labor lift weights to simulate such work. We engage in competition with Xboxes and Playstations. Mimicking actual sports activity, Wii is a backlash to the laziness of the joystick. Flung remote injuries and keyboard-induced repetitive stress injuries have become the weird tennis elbows of our time. But dance’s most popular electronic counterpart, Dance Dance Revolution, requires the player to actually dance. The game is even being introduced in physical education programs as exercise disguised as fun. The physicality of dance leaves little need for simulation because different muscles are challenged constantly.
There is also a tendency to rely on artificial or electronic conventions once they’ve been mainstreamed, whether or not they justify development costs. Graphic artists use rendering programs or Adobe Illustrator to create magazine covers that attempt to achieve hyperrealism, yet come off as cold, bloodless, and overdone. Digital animation’s seemingly highest achievement is the depiction of realistic fur, deploying immense resources. The animated film Over the Hedge required more than 15 million rendering hours (at a “render farm”), due to the many animals depicted. And yet are we convinced of the veracity of these gratingly adorable critters despite the creators’ ambitions? It’s more difficult to fake realism in dance. Classical story ballets try to make us believe we are watching swans or spirits, but it’s clear that they are people making a supreme effort at pretending to be something else, particularly when their humanness appears, whether in sweat or exhaustion. These cracks in their armor allow us to relate to them, if only momentarily.
Just when we think Google Earth is the coolest virtual travel tool around, allowing us to “fly” over remote parts of the world, Google Street View comes out and takes us to frighteningly intimate proximities. Online networking and virtual reality sites like Second Life mushroomed into universes of their own, where people create avatars (alter egos), monetary systems, and marketplaces that sell not just virtual goods, but link to real life manufacturers as well. Virtual becomes real in the sense that communications and transactions take place in time and space.
People may be increasingly gathering online to form a virtual community. But on a social level throughout history, people assembled to dance, celebrate, and ritualize life. Concert dance grew out of that, some permutating conceptually and analytically with sometimes more cerebral and less visceral variations or remaining outright physical and demanding. So in a day filled with simulated-everything, it is immensely gratifying to encounter dance, even if we simply watch. It returns us to our physical selves. Many modern choreographers also choose to involve audiences by bringing them on stage or by having them participate from their seats. Naturally it affects the chosen ones, but it also draws the remaining audience members into the work deeper. Even the belly laughs elicited by comic antics in dance performance require a physicality that is uncommon in the course of a day.
We still need to actually eat to survive, but even that has become conducive to some substitution. With the ease of transportation, we have access to just about any food year-round, rather than relying on locally grown produce. One glaring exception is the tomato, naturally and resplendently ripe for just a brief span in the summer. Yet all year, we demand the presence of hothouse tomatoes in our sandwiches and salads as a kind of unsucculent placeholder, until the real thing is in season—a pallid promise of the sublime. The year-round abundance of dance in New York can be just as gratifying as eating a vine-ripened tomato in August.
Susan Yung is a New York-based culture writer.