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?

Cafe muller3We might say that art (here, that of dance, but in general as well) has a history which, over time, has accumulated a repertory (a “language,” even – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves!) of expressive resources; but that’s not so different from gestures generally, which reach back to the prehistory of our species. Or maybe it’s that art has geniuses, paragons of the extraordinary – but they are few, and it is easily imagined that particular individuals not generally thought to be artists can still be almost magically expressive with their gestures. On the other hand, maybe we should not be so parochial, and indeed think of such people as artists, for that very reason. One almost wants to fall back on the much-maligned “institutional” definition of art: that gestures count as part of an art of dance if they are presented that way, in a context defined by a cultural/institutional background (or, as Wittgenstein might say, “stage-setting”) which makes such a thing possible, including, perhaps, a tradition of criticism. Still, even if this distinction can be maintained, it takes some of the punch out of identifying dance’s essentially non-verbal nature as being its key feature.

I get the same feeling from the other case, that of verbal art. It’s uncontroversial that different artforms have different expressive capacities due to their natures; but it seems odd on the face of it to say that any one artform is thereby essentially more powerful or even more immediate than another. Indeed, Hustvedt allows that “even artists whose medium is words” are plugged into a “preverbal” and thus presumably more immediate and intuitive realm of experience. Still, it sounds odder still to maintain that this allows writers as well as dancers to do what words cannot. Whatever writers do, they do with words.

Here again we naturally turn to a distinction between ordinary discourse and artistic uses of words. And indeed “out, out, brief candle” has a power that “hand me the pliers, willya?” does not. We might try to map this to the difference between literal and figurative uses of language (as Macbeth’s not talking about, you know, candles); but that won’t survive the move from poetry to literature generally. Here again it seems that we have a continuum of sorts, where with the proper context to surround them, even non-literary utterances, just as non-artistic gestures, can attain transcendent power.

Hmmm. Let’s go back to Langer’s and Hustvedt’s suggestions that it is the ambiguity of dance in general and/or Café Müller in particular that lends these things their emotional power. It’s true, I grant, that a work’s multiple, ambiguous meanings can indeed contribute to its power. The reason I’m writing about Café Müller at all is because I watched the DVD (not the Blu-Ray, unfortunately, as I think that’s in 3-D (!)) of Wenders’s film and was myself greatly moved by it (although not, I admit, to tears). Why was the one dancer rushing across the room with her eyes closed while another pushed chairs out of her way, often at the last possible moment? Why was the one guy piling chairs on top of each other while a woman (still, or again, with eyes closed) moved her body through the chairs at the bottom? In lesser hands this might lead to mere puzzlement; but I assure you it was quite powerful (go watch it).

Yet here too this seems too quick. Compared to Café Müller, even other dances (e.g. Swan Lake) are often quite straightforward in their communicative intent, yet that all by itself cannot make the one more powerful than the others. (See also Pina’s opening segment, Bausch’s take on The Rite of Spring, only moderately enigmatic in comparison yet still powerful). Langer too must account for the power of relatively unambiguous musical expression, for example the prelude to Act III of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. We hardly need the context (Tristan has been gravely wounded and, worse, separated from Isolde, for whom the magic potion drunk in Act I causes him to feel intense longing) to feel Tristan’s unambiguous torment; yet this doesn’t make the music thereby less moving. This does not refute Langer’s theory, which is about how the ambiguity of “tonally moving forms” allows us to hear that specific four-note phrase in the strings as conveying Tristan’s agony; but it does seem to blunt Hustvedt’s appeal to Café Müller’s enigmatic nature in particular.

This point is related to the paradox of negative emotion in art, and suggests a helpful, if unoriginal, qualification to the idea that what Bausch is doing is communicating something beyond words. For while I find Tristan’s Act III prelude to be exquisitely moving, that is hardly because Wagner has allowed me to feel the agonizing pain of Tristan’s sword wound, on top of his longing for Isolde. You couldn’t pay me to endure such things; so if (the experience of) this music is valuable, that can’t be why. Yet that must be part of it, and indeed it is here as much as anywhere that Hustvedt’s appeal to preverbal, primal experience is compelling. I knew already (having seen Act II) that Tristan would be in pain, so simply to tell me this (e.g. in words), however accurately, would not be of any use; feeling it – or something like it – is another matter, and the very one we’re concerned with here.

Again, though, that particular feeling is the last thing I want to feel, and not because it’s unambiguous, as it’s Wagner’s laser-like focus on Tristan’s pain that, somehow, causes that four-note phrase, when properly performed, to cut like a knife. So what am I feeling then, and what good is it? Wordsworth famously suggests that what poetry (and, by extension, art in general) is concerned with is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and as generations of undergraduates have informed their professors, even this Romantic brings a sharp intellect to bear on his emotive task. The result is not a brute blast of raw emotion, just as Tristan is not an experience for masochists alone. It has cognitive value – the reader learns something – even as its emotive content renders that value itself hard to express.

Or maybe that’s what Wordsworth has to say, being a poet and not a choreographer, and saddled with mere words as his instruments. Again, we can hardly expect mere words to do what mere words cannot. Indeed, it is not only art critics and philosophers of art who insist on language’s failure to reach reality, emotive or otherwise. For example, Nietzsche’s argument in “Truth and Lie in a Extra-Moral Sense” (as elaborated by various other theorists, anyway, e.g. Derrida, or so I’ve heard) states that concepts are not simply general but essentially so, and thus cannot, even when piled on top of one another, capture things in their individuality. To say that something is a horse is to say (that is, is only to say) that it shares a certain property (labeled but hardly described, let alone adequately, by the sound or inscription “horse”) with a whole bunch of other things. I can point to these other things – and when I teach the word to children, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing – but that hardly gets us any closer to the reality of any individual horse. Nor, it seems, would an individual name, even if unique, as names are even more obviously mere labels than are concept-words. And if words can’t even reach horses, then surely such slippery things as emotions are even farther beyond them. Still, it’s important to note that this is the opposite of Langer’s suggestion, above, that words fail to reach the emotive realm not because they’re ambiguous or vague, as Derrida’s Nietzsche suggests, but because they’re not.

In any case the “preverbal” nature of emotive expression must be compatible with the fact that these are the non-verbal emotive states of discursive creatures, and that when we’re not dancing about them we’re talking about them, and about dancing; all of which suggests that in order to understand what words can’t do, we will need to look even harder at what they can and do.

So, next time: back to philosophy of language.