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Theatrical Dance: How Do We Know It When We See It If We Can't Define It Roger Copeland Everyone seems to concede that "theatricality" is back in fashion among American choreographers, but what exactly does the word "theatricality" mean when applied to dance? All too often, we link the words "theatrical" and "dance" with a casualness that borders on promiscuity. (E.g., we say, routinely, "So and so is a highly theatrical choreographer," or "Such and such is a powerful work of dance theatre.") Variations on these standard statements are an essential component of every dance critic's vocabulary; and yet, all too often, when pressed for a rigorous definition of these ready-made concepts, we perform the sort of evasive maneuver that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart made famous when he was asked to define pornography. Sounding a bit flustered, he replied: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." Common sense may well prove a reliable guide in these matters. And yet, it seems reasonable to ask, "How do you know it when you see it if you can't define it?" Proceeding then on the Socratic assumption that the unexamined phrase is not worth using, it may prove helpful to compare several different-and in some cases, mutually exclusive-definitions of "theatrical dance." Let's begin with the obvious: Most often, when people speak of "theatricality " in dance, they refer to choreography that incorporates the full panoply of theatrical resources (decor, costumes, lighting). Theatricality in this context implies an additive process, movement plus something else. One thinks of Michel Fokine's five principles for the "new ballet," which culminate in his vision of an "alliance of dancing with other arts." Thus, those legendary collaborations with major composers and visual artists that he participated in under the auspices of the Ballets Russes (Sch6hdrezade , Petrushka, Carnava/) can rightly be regarded as "theatrical." 174 This is not to imply that the concept of the alliance of dance and the other arts originates with Fokine. In fact, a similar theatrical synthesis lay at the heart of the earliest sixteenth-century court ballets such as the Ballet Comique de la Reine. And these elaborate hybrid spectacles which sought to amalgamate music, text, and figured dances were inspired in turn by the renewed interest in Greek tragedy that accompanied the rediscovery of Aristotle's classic treatise on the subject, The Poetics. Aristotle argues that the Greek tragic theatre combined six discreet elements: plot, character, diction, thought, music, and spectacle. (Lincoln Kirstein writes that Renaissance theoreticians of dance and drama believed that works such as the Ballet Comique ... provided "an exact image of the tragic chorus of ancient Greece.") Thus the idea (or ideal) of an alliance between movement and the other arts is at least as old as Aristotle; and the most celebrated proposals for such a synthesis (Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk or "total work of art," for example) all hark back in one way or another to Aristotle's description of the Greek tragic theatre. But Aristotle can also be credited with another and rather different conception of the word "theatrical" as it relates to dance. In Chapter 1 of The Poetics he argues that the purpose of dance is to "imitate character, emotion , and action by rhythmical movement." He thus conceives of dance as a mimetic medium, one obligated to "represent" the world beyond the immediate limits of the dancer's own body. Mimesis or imitation is so central to Aristotle's conception of art that he had very little sympathy for the notion of movement as an end-in-itself. And to the extent that dance conforms to Aristotle's specifications, to the extent that it "represents men's characters as well as what they do and suffer," we often refer to it as "theatrical" (regardless of whether or not it avails itself of theatrical accoutrements such as scenery, lighting, and representational costumes). Jean Georges Noverre, whose eighteenth-century proposals for a "ballet d'action" were based directly on Aristotle, argued that in order to accurately imitate nature it was necessary to strip away distracting, unnatural elements of costume and choreography: facial...


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pp. 174-184
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