PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Why We Dance, Why We Watch Dance

Episode Summary

This episode is an exploration of why we dance, why we watch dance, and the relationships between dancers, choreographers and audience members. Jacob's Pillow Scholar Jennifer Edwards, who is also the Director / Producer of PillowVoices, draws from a wide array of voices and perspectives including: The Wondertwins (hip-hop artists), Derick K. Grant (tap dancer), Dr. Thomas E. Backer (psychologist), Faye Driscoll (choreographer), Steve Paxton (dancer / contact improver), and Edward Villella (ballet dancer).

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN:Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my pleasure to introduce Pillow Scholar Jennifer Edwards, who is also the Director / Producer of PillowVoices. She will be your host for this exploration of why we dance, offering the perspectives of choreographers, dancers, psychologists and audience members. 

JENNIFER EDWARDS: Each time I journey into the archives at Jacob’s Pillow, I simultaneously lose myself and regain a connection to my own journey with dance. The way my family told the story, I began to crawl, stand, and then took off dancing, in such an obvious statement of desire that by age three, my great aunt, who was herself a recreational dancer in her seventies—gave my mother money and told her to put me in ballet class. 

That drive toward movement, toward expression via dance, and the relationships forged between dance-makers, their own bodies and the witnesses of the work—the folks we call audiences—is what we will explore in this episode of PillowVoices.

We begin with the most intimate and self-reflective—the physical feeling that a dancer has when they are in the audience, experiencing a role that they themselves first danced, as performed by another. Here is Steve Paxton, former member of the Merce Cunningham Company, a key figure in the Judson Dance Theater, and pioneer of a form called Contact Improvisation, in conversation with scholar-in-residence Maura Keefe at the Pillow in 1998. 

MAURA KEEFE: You were here last week when Cunningham was performing and…


MAURA KEEFE: …and it’s been a few years since you performed with Cunningham: 1961 to 64—is that correct?

STEVE PAXTON: Yeah, yeah.

MAURA KEEFE: So, what was it like to see the performance of their work versus what you were doing thirty years ago with them? 

STEVE PAXTON: Yeah, I think maybe the most interesting moment was actually seeing some of the steps that I did perform actually still current in their repertory. I don’t know if you can know what it is to, I don’t know, be a young performer, you know, learning these—it was Suite for 5, which has a number of positions you just hit and hold, you know, which is perhaps one of the more taxing things to do on stage. And so they kind of burned into my nervous system and they’re still there and so then to see this—to have this sensation reawakened in the Cunningham performances, was quite—it’s quite emotional, in a way. It’s like touching…my nerves are responding, in a way, to what I’m seeing on stage in a very different way than they normally do. The other thing that happened actually was that, as an artist in residence here, I am offered seats that aren’t otherwise occupied by paying customers, and I was put in the front row, way down left, audience left. And that puts your face right on the stage. And I was looking at people’s toenails. I was looking at their feet and ankles, with an unimpeded view. And up into their figures, you know and then the perspective down the stage. Of course, it’s up the diagonal—it was remarkable. It’s a remarkable way to see it. I was fully engaged. 

JENNIFER EDWARDS: While Paxton’s account is certainly unique to his lived experience, this act of his ‘nerves being awakened’ may be a more universal story that you’d expect. From 2008 to 2011 a study on kinesthetic empathy called “Watching Dance” was conducted through a partnership with four universities in the United Kingdom. The universities include University of Manchester, University of Glasgow, York St. John University, and Imperial College London. The central hypothesis of this study focused on kinesthesia, or the sensation a person has in relation to movement and physical position. 

The study hypothesized that kinesthesia is central to consciousness and to the spectator response to dance. “Watching Dance” researchers posited that dance audiences can experience physical and imaginative effects of movement without actually moving their bodies; that is, spectators can react in certain respects as if they were moving or preparing to move.

Through monitoring audience members, researchers not only found this theory to be true but found the highest response rates in people who were dancers or who had some dance training over the course of their lives. This becomes even more relevant when paired with studies that find large numbers of audiences for dance are in fact current or former dancers. 

In 2001, Dr. Thomas E. Backer visited the Pillow to lead a talk titled, “Getting Inside a Dancer’s Head.” Dr. Backer is a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge, who has devoted his life to researching human behavior. A large area of interest for him is in the relationship between audiences and artists. He was joined in this discussion by dancers Marge Champion and Celeste Miller, though in this podcast, we will hear only from Dr. Backer.  

THOMAS BACKER: Indeed, I think art exists, in part, because it illumines the contradictions that we all experience in the acts of living and dying and being human and that’s a part of what we are going to be talking about a little bit today. Twenty-two years ago Marge Champion and I shared a stage in Los Angeles, in a course that I taught about the relationship between artist and audience at UCLA. And that relationship has been a considerable part of my life’s work. I’ve worked with artists, dealt with cultural participation—not only the technical part, which has a really inelegant phrase. If you thought you were only going to hear technical stuff today, here’s your first technical term: they call it “getting butts into the seats.” That’s the term in cultural participation. But it’s really more than that, it’s more than selling tickets and getting people to come, to the theater or whatever it is. It’s also looking at how art influences our lives. And that’s a part as well, of what we are going to be talking about today. My colleague Jerry Zaltman, at Harvard University, has developed a technique in which he asks people to cut pictures out of magazines to make up a kind of living mural of what the arts mean to them. And in a sense, that’s what I’m going to ask you to do today—is to think about what dance means to you. To cut some pictures, you know, out of your head, out of experiences that you’ve had.

I’m going to give you my list of about a half-a-dozen joys and a half-a-dozen stresses of being a dancer. And you know, I get to speak first because I’m the alleged expert from Los Angeles. But this list is only target practice for Celeste and for Marge and for everybody here to think about what dance means to you by looking more at what happens in the dancer’s experience and how we relate to that when we are in the audience, watching the dancer on stage. Now what I’m about to say probably doesn’t have a whole lot of surprises in it for people who love dance, certainly not for those of you in the audience who are dancers or who are otherwise involved professionally in the dance community. What might be a little bit of a surprise to you is that some things that you have believed for a long time or that come out of your own experience, now there’s actually some research that helps to back up some concepts of what dance is about and how dancers relate to their audiences. Those of you who have heard researchers talk before, you may have heard the expression that “research is the confirmation of the obvious at enormous expense.” But the obvious sometimes needs to be confirmed so that we have a better way of talking about it. And that’s what I’m going to be doing today. 

Anyway, I want to get through what I’ve got to say so that I can also listen to Celeste and Marge and to all of you and have a conversation. So, I’m about to give you two laundry lists. Once is a laundry list of the positives—the joyful side of being a dancer. And as you think about this, think about, if you just saw a performance this afternoon, what might have been happening on stage that looks like or that doesn’t look like what I’m about to say. And if you are seeing a performance tonight, the same thing. This is something that you can anticipate. So, here’s my list. 

First of all, is the joy of sheer movement. You know, like Jules Feiffer’s cartoon character, the joy is not just in Spring, it’s in all elements of the dance. We’ve been moving since we were in the caves. Even animals move in rhythm—and there’s a whole branch of animal studies that relates to that. So, the joy of movement is one of the joys of being a dancer. 

Second, the chance for self-expression; to bring something into being. Now as a matter of fact there’s now a fair amount of research that has to do with the particular elements of creativity that relate to dance and to physical things. Some of you may have read a book by a New Yorker writer called Malcolm Gladwell, and the book is called The Tipping Point. And Gladwell also has written about what he calls ‘physical genius,’ that is, the physical elements of great talent and ability that until fairly recently got ignored in studies of creativity; so that dancers and other people whose genius is physical got kind of short shrift. And now we’re learning more things about how to measure that creativity, and that’s also a part of the joy of dance is the joy of creative expression. 

Third, to master a highly challenging skill. We’re learning all the time from psychological research about how important what’s called ‘self-efficacy’ is to our psychological and our physical health. How much we feel we are mastering the environment, and dancers get a chance to do that every time they come on stage.   

Fourth, the chance to fulfill the creative vision of the choreographer. 

Fifth, the opportunity to bring pleasure and the challenge of discovery and learning to the audience; to all of us who represent that here. 

Six, the chance to be a part of a profession that has many centuries of tradition behind it and sometimes, not always, even make a living from the profession. 

Seventh, and this is one that might not be quite so obvious: a recent study at the City University of New York found that the physical act of dancing increases creativity. That is, if you give a dancer a creativity test before the dance, whether it’s rehearsal or performance, and test them again with the same test afterwards, their level of measured creativity goes up. And there’s a pretty good reason why that may be true. That physical exercise releases endorphins into the brain and that also is a stimulant for creativity. So, dancers have that advantage, as well, in terms of actually being more creative as a result of the work that they do. 

Eighth and finally, another one that comes out of recent science, dance reduces stress. I have a colleague at the University of Maryland, a dance researcher named Judith Hannah who’s written a whole book on the uses of dance to reduce stress. In the work that I do with other kinds of creative people, what I usually say at some point in the talk is that if you only do one thing to deal better with stress, get thirty minutes of large muscle movement exercise every day. Well, guess what; you don’t have to tell dancers that. That’s built into the work that they do, in preparation as well as in performance. And that also turns out to have an important concomitant in reducing stress for dancers just as a basic part of their work. 

I found a quote from a dancer called Buffy Miller who used to be at the Feld Ballet, that I think kind of sums up the points that I’m making here. She says, “Dancing engages your body, mind, and spirit in such a complete way, that it’s both thoroughly exhausting and thoroughly thrilling. It uses your whole self; that’s what I love about it.” Dancers bring all of those joys to the stage every time they perform. 

JENNIFER EDWARDS: Backer goes on to share a second list of stressors that dancers face, which are not as germane to this exploration, however, I won’t leave you hanging. He talked about the short careers that many dancers have, lack of money, lack of health resources, and things like eating disorders and substance abuse that are unfortunate factors in all athletic and physically challenging pursuits. 

But Dr. Backer touched on points of the ‘why’—why dancers dance, and that is a question I feel is worth delving into a little bit deeper. As it turns out this is a fairly common question asked by audience members during post-show talks and so I teased out two responses because they underscore a difference in lived experience that we don’t often highlight in dance. The story that I opened with—one of a small girl, encouraged by a family member to channel her physical expression into a dance class, is fairly common. But there is a wide range of inspiration that drives people toward a wide range of types of movement. 

Following the 2016 performance of a piece titled And Still You Must Swing, in conversation with Scholar-in-Residence Suzanne Carbonneau, tap dancer Derick Grant responds to the question, ‘Who inspired you to dance?’ I find Grant’s description of two men who moved him to dance fascinating, because their performances seem to exemplify opposite ends of a spectrum. One seems to dance as though his life depends on it; the other seems to revel in the form itself. 

DERICK GRANT: I would have to say Jimmy Slyde and Lon Chaney, because they were two very different types of people. Jimmy Slyde was a beautiful dancer; somebody who used the term ‘dressing and undressing the stage.’ He was in love with dance. He was in love with music and jazz and you could tell just by watching him. Lon Chaney was a very rough man. He was, he learned how to dance in prison. He was a strong bad guy of sorts and every time he danced it looked like it was his last day on earth. He danced like it was gonna be the last time he would get to dance, every time. And so, as a child, it scared me, but I was fascinated with it, and I just had to know what makes somebody like that work. What drives somebody so hard like that. So I was pretty obsessed with those two people as a young man growing up, and certainly hope that I do them some kind of justice now that I’m in their shoes.

JENNIFER EDWARDS: In 1998, former New York City Ballet principal dancer, Edward Villella, spoke with Scholar-in-Residence David Gere. Villella shares that, at first, he took dance class because his sister was enrolled, and his family thought it would help him channel and structure his physical energy. But it was Villella who chose to take his training to the professional level, against his father’s wishes. Here he talks about what, to him, distinguishes the physicality of dance from sport, and he touches on ideas of masculinity in the United States and as it relates to dance and ballet.

EDWARD VILLELLA: Look, I am a pure blue-collar person; I’m not an intellectual. I’m a guy from Queens. My father drove a truck. And yet, I have delight in movement, in the physical thing of movement. And when I watch sports it’s, to me, it’s not so much whether somebody’s going to win or lose, it’s how the game is played. You watch a double play turned or you watch a wide receiver and the moves that they make and basketball—I mean, these are phenomenal physical activities. However, if you were one of those guys, and I work with so many of these guys, and you begin to imply rules and regulations and techniques and standards; if you begin to say to them, you have a vocabulary, you have positions that you have to move through to hit a home run or drop a three-point shot in, or something, it gets to be a very different idea. We have a formalized sense of gesture and it’s, it’s attacked because it has that formality and it has this courtliness and it has an elegance, and this is kind of a Marlboro country. You know, it’s kind of that idea. 

DAVID GERE: You know, you’re beginning to speak about something that I wanted to ask you specifically, which is: What were the notions of masculinity that you were taught at home? And what were they in contrast to what George Balanchine was teaching you about masculinity? 

EDWARD VILLELLA: First of all, let me say it very fast: I was the only Italian in an all-Irish neighborhood. [everyone laughs] So I learned how to behave in my neighborhood. 

DAVID GERE: I notice that whenever you talk about that neighborhood the shoulders hunch and the arms kind of come up protectively…

EDWARD VILLELLA: It’s what it was… you learn to speak another language, which was physical. We just spoke a physical language. And then, of course, that’s what we do as artists. We have taken what is normal and human—the normal part of human gesture and we have formalized it. We have put it in line and structure and form and we have started to relate it to so many things—like time. [He snaps and claps rhythmically.] But also music and what that also implies on time and style and period and theater. Who are you on that stage? Relationships, how do you relate to somebody on stage? How do you move an audience? And it’s…it’s wonderful. It beats sports for me from a physical point of view. I did an awful lot of them. But there is no sport like dance, where your mind is what your audience eventually respects.

JENNIFER EDWARDS: Building on this idea of cerebral engagement, and the relationship between dance-maker, dance-witness and the sharing of ideas—here is award-winning choreographer Faye Driscoll in 2017, in a conversation with Scholar in Residence, Suzanne Carbonneau. They talk about her piece, Thank You for Coming, the first piece in a tryptic of work. Each evening-length work takes over two years to craft with the cast. 

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU:So, Faye, this idea of the audience…

FAYE DRISCOLL: Um, ok, yeah.

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: You have a very different relationship to the audience, certainly in this project. 


SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: You’re not behind the proscenium. We’re not looking into a frame. Can you talk about what you think about your relationship to the audiences and what you’re trying to do with them?

FAYE DRISCOLL: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting in this form that you know, it, on some level, never fully comes into existence until there is a witness. You know, so there’s this really just deep dependence on the audience and need for the audience to be there. And I think in this work in particular that was just that sensation of the interdependence, is what I was trying to actively amplify and bring out. I often have intentions in the work that are kind of, like, you know, impossible, you know. Like, and sometimes they succeed or sometimes they don’t. Or sometimes they succeed for some and not for others. But this one, I wanted to create a sensation of physical interconnection. And in the next one, in the second one, I wanted to create, I wanted to make a story that would destroy the constraints of story through story. [laughing]

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: Wait, can you say that again? 

FAYE DRISCOLL: I wanted to create some kind of a story that you would follow somehow, but that you would also, the constraints of story would be destroyed. Like the structures of narrative that we live by would be opened and shifted, but through simultaneously the making of a story. So, that’s really hard. And sometimes people say something to me that seems like they got exactly that, and other times people had a whole other experience. And I am okay with that. Like, I let that be. At that point I do come to, ‘what do I feel that this is doing?’ And is it doing something that feels like it has integrity for me? And that might mean that it’s hated or loved. Or hated or loved at the same time. Or it might mean that it’s hated now and loved in twenty years. Or vice-versa. 

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: Are you talking about your audience?

FAYE DRISCOLL: I’m talking about the audience. Yeah, I’m talking about the audience. So, I think I need them and I’m also trying to go, like, ‘don’t get too in my head.’ Because there’s some kind of, there’s an internal track that I must follow. That I must listen to. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t give a shit what they think… Or you know it’s just—excuse my language…

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: But you’ve definitely in, in this project that you’re doing right now, broken down all kinds of assumed, assumed—well you’ve changed the assumed relationship between performer and audience member. And you’ve made me really think not to say ‘audience’ anymore. 

FAYE DRISCOLL: [laughing]

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: Each member of the audience… each person. 

FAYE DRISCOLL: Yeah, yeah. 

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: So, I mean I look at your performers and how they are doing that and think that must be… It’s an amazing thing but it must also be a scary thing...to be doing. Both for audience members who are saying, ‘What is going on here?’ and also for you as people who are coming into a space and asking people to have a different role. 

FAYE DRISCOLL: Mm hmm. And that is why I think it takes two years, you know, because the role is so different and so unexpected and it’s being made anew. As so I think that the labor needs to go into that. That not just something we can just dive into and be like, “Okay, I get this, let’s do it.” It’s just something—we are like growing new bodies together, to figure out how to do this thing. And the skills for being able to do the show are being made alongside the show. I’m learning new skills, they’re learning new skills. So this certain type of engagement, this certain type of presence, this certain type of casting of audience…

JENNIFER EDWARDS:In this PillowTalk titled “Connecting Artists & Audiences,” Carbonneau asks Driscoll about how she approaches creating an evening-length work. 

FAYE DRISCOLL: Hmmm, I tend to, I tend to sprawl. I tend to start in the world, often—in books and in art that I see and things that I see on the street and encounters I have. And [I] kind of formulate, yeah, I guess it’s a sort of nexus of ideas that are going on for me. And then I’ll come… and so that that’s one beginning… and then another beginning will be the moments in the room with the performers where I’m taking sort of whatever is percolating and generating in me and bringing it into action and bringing it into, you know, image-based improvisations or movement material maybe I’ve played around with or dialogues or writings or—and then from there, that’s sort of another seed or another friction that’s created. And I’m also often thinking about the stage—What’s the stage? What’s the space? What’s around?

SUZANNE CARBONNEAU: Do you mean the actual place where you will be performing? Or how you are going to create the space that you will be performing in?

FAYE DRISCOLL: I mean both. Because sometimes if I know where I’m making it for, that specific space will be in my mind. And then I’m also thinking about, often, you know, tracing the ghosts of the audience. You know, sorry [laughing], that’s a reference to a conversation that I had with Lindsay the other day, but I do have this sort of thing where as I think about the work, there’ll be moments where I think about the witnesses of the work. So I think about the space and then I think about the potential witnesses, the potential audience, the potential placement of them, the potential impact, but it’s not weighing too heavily on my mind; it’s just there in the beginning. 

JENNIFER EDWARDS:While we have only scratched the surface of a topic as vast as the breadth of the history of dance artists and each person who has experienced their work, I’m afraid we must close. I think though that the most important take-away from what I can tell, is to show up—show up and be a witness, have the experience—of your neurons firing and your brain making connections for yourself. 

Studies have also shown that sometimes folks don’t come to live performance because they are afraid they won’t understand it. So, I’d like to leave you with a story shared by The Wondertwins, a hip-hop duo featured in a 2014 piece produced by the Pillow titled “Unreal HipHop.”  

BILLY McCLAIN: Somebody said to us earlier today, he said, “I loved your set you did yesterday. I don’t know what it was…” [laughter from the audience] And for us, it was actually a compliment. I wasn’t offended—at all—not at all, because he sat there and he watched it. And that’s more important than anything—is watching what we do and what we come up with, for, I think for most artists. 

[Closing music comes in, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN:That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob’s Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course, through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon—either online or onsite.