Music and dance have a long history together, therefore there are many stories to be told and/or recounted. Some are lost in the obscurity of a distant past, some are closer to the present era, which means there is more information, nonetheless in histories emotionally charged as this one, the truth is a debatable goal. The history between the two art forms may appear as one long itinerary, like a tree trunk with its branches as the various phases and forms of this collaboration, with either of the two partners in the position of a “dominatrix”, until the 20th century, when more truly collaborative forms took place. In this text, the relationship is taken as anything but linear, focusing on the disruptive elements imposed by ideologies, historical background and individual interference.
There are mysteries and unsettling stories in the whole of the history of dance that excite imagination and call for speculation, as for example is the alleged form and musical accompaniment of the Chorus of ancient Greek drama. The Medieval Dancing Mania is another famous example. To my opinion, most of the cases deal with a multi-layered image of dance, historical, ideological, philosophical, political, and more.
One of the most fruitful points in the relationship between dance and music at the intersection of different ideologies, is that between modern dance and pre classic (“early”) forms of music in the 20th c., as well as the first appearance of that musical genre at the time of Louis XIV. Thinking of the relationship between “early” music and dance, one of the greatest stories worth exploring is also that of Louis XIV, the absolute monarch of France, in the 17th and early 18th c. According to Louis Horst, going back to that form, not only provided for a choreographic pattern and new expressivity, but it also assisted the efforts of the pioneers of modern dance to ascertain the independence of the new genre in the domain of dance.
Dance, whether there is notation and information around its form, musical accompaniment and exponents or there is very little about it, seems to revolve around certain axis, the stability and position of which are transformed through history. While dance seems to be a very concrete, (albeit diverse in form and often escaping definition), activity of the body, a very material act of human beings, it may also be at the same time, an example of social and/or Courtly protocol, an instrument for political propaganda (as with Louis XIV), a disruptive externalization of particular (to an era and to a society) issues, an art form, a metaphysical, or contrary a statement of scientific rigour, ever transforming the idea of the body, adding to the already multi-layered reality of a “unity”, a “being”, a “divided subject”, “a citizen”, “an aristocrat”, “a revolutionary”, “a gentleman”, “a debutante”, “a married woman”, “a single/widowed/divorced male or female” and so on. It marks social boundaries, hierarchies and delineates different “bodies” each with their specific obligations in regard to space, distance, awareness, partnering, timing and skills.
To many, music must be a faithful companion and until the 20th c. it was unheard of a dance piece without proper music to it. The habit broke with Isadora’s unusual choices, the famous collaboration of the Ballets Russes’ choreographers with composers such as Stravinsky, and the pioneers of modernity on both sides of the Atlantic, with more artists to follow in the later years, until the times of the Cage-Cunningham dedication to the unintentional and the potentially (?) metaphysical resonance of the “Chance” method or “leave it in the unobtrusive hands of “God”” put an end to the myth of the “auteur”, of certainty, of dance as communication tool.
It seems then by and large, in the prescribed and re-considered relationship between music and dance, regardless the era, the enjeu, the issues at stake deal with assembling and discarding, shaping and re-shaping models of bodily ideologies as well as art genres and styles. The most interesting and the most revolutionary in terms of their long lasting effects and their potential in getting the artists and the audiences in new territories, are those which aim at a potentially disrupting effect; disrupting of rules, habits, taste, concepts, certainties. The Baroque dances -for example- may be seen as dances of an utmost elegance; and yet they are much more than that. They are dances of certainty and at the same time of denial. Certainty for the King, for the regal environment, for the knowledge of hierarchies, boundaries, religion, language, social etiquette. And yet, they are dances of denial in regard to defeat, war and accumulating debt of the ruling classes. An appointment with the King or with a close relative of the Sovereign subject, even worse, a banquet in his honour, cost a lot of money.
The feasts of the low clergy around New Year gave the opportunity to satire and even political commentary through masquerade in the churches, in the accompaniment mainly of drums. It seems that drums, percussive sound, are considered as more Bacchic, more apt to push people to extreme behaviour, to loss of control and boundaries. It is the instrument of war, of executions, as it may be sombre, fearful or give the tone in the military marches, but it also seems to be associated with a Dionysiac effect and sexuality. Along with other instruments it is used in the cathartic process of the “hysterics” and the “mad females” in the Italian villages of the south, the “Tarantate”. It can lead if not to the debatable state of trance, at least to a confusion in regard to identity. Mary Wigman used percussive sound in her experimental work of the ’20s leaving space for the body to explore new expressive possibilities somewhere between silence and percussion.
While chanting as well as certain troubadour compositions of the Middle Ages aimed at creating an ideal condition of a body in an altered, “higher” state of being, imitating angels in the weight-free, floating form and strove for perfection in their expressing gratitude and love to God (or the ideal Lady), in the contrary, percussion is bare, austere, bold and rough. It at the same time instills and dissolves unity, symmetry and discipline. It is the exact form of Dionysus, like one sheet of paper that cannot be divided: discipline and abandon, strict measure and loss of measure, inspiring and pushing to -at times disconcerting- closeness and perspiring of the bodies.
It seems that at all times there has been an aid at disruption, an aid to disobedience, by the (among other things) acoustic capability of humans, one of its senses. The 20th c. artists consciously led the quest for disobedience with the help of music. Pre-classic music, Medieval music, percussive sounds alluding to a distant past, anything that brought forward ideas of an immediacy of feeling, of the power of feeling, of the denial of restraint, of the acceptance of the weight and the material side of existence without guilt, anything that showed in full light the divided subject in all its agony, loneliness, alienation became suddenly welcome. To arrive after the WW II to the point of doubting the whole tradition of music and dance.
However, to my opinion, the crucial issue has been how far in denying anti-gravity, how far in sweating in front of an audience, how far having ensembles instead of stars and choruses, how far, despite satire and subversion and the democratization of the body through egalitarian processes in the creative stages and so on, how far have we really gone in ridding ourselves of the moral exigences of the traditions of the past? With post-modernity deconstructing modernity, how far have we gone, ridding the body and the dancer from the guilt of the Fallen Angel? How far have we gone in meeting a new freedom without losing humanity? Is representation in dance despite its musical accompaniment -may it be Purcell, Bartok, Bach or other- truthful to the emotions, or there are preconceptions to the emotional-ity of the body that are long before prescribed as an intangible conditio sine qua non that limits and controls the body and dance? Do we really know or acknowledge the possibilities of this new territory, and are we really ready for a beyond good and evil performative quality of the self -whatever the musical accompaniment may be to the immersion into the unknown…
*Natasha Hassiotis started her life as a professional dance critic/historian in 1992 and still contributes to several newspapers and magazines. She was the first in Greece to approach the country’s own dance history in a critical way, and used a whole range of media to convey her ideas: Anti, Athens News, Avghi, Ballet/Tanz, Choros, Dancemagazine, Danza & Danza, ELLE, En Choro, Epilogos, Hmerissia, Peritehno, Seven, Theatis, Taxydromos, To Vima, Votre Beauté.