Friday 9 February 2018

Considering Dance and Theatre

In recent years there has been a great interest, renewed or not, in the presentation of live art, with a focus on performance and a influence of dance and theater in general.
The current day art museum serves often as a safe haven for other forms of expression that seem unable, or unwilling, to find their footing in other, more strictly determined contexts. While I have no quarrels with this as such, it does muddle the questions and discussion surrounding art, as the inclusion in the museum schedule is often misconstrued as a designation as art, sometimes deliberately sought after for its equally misunderstood higher social status and associated monetary value.
Although it is not my area of expertise, it seemed useful to me to try and find the areas where these distinct activities overlap and where they differ.

To do this, it seems necessary to define dance and theater in a different manner than they are found in the common dictionary definitions of 'moving rhythmically to music' and 'live performance in front of a live audience'.

The idea of dance can become very clear by considering the movement of other animals. Most human behaviour, and all animal behaviour, is directed by an external goal. Even seemingly random movement, like tossing and turning in one's bed if one cannot sleep, ultimately has a goal, namely feeling more comfortable and calm so one might be able to sleep. Although not all goal-directed behaviour is conscious or structured in the perception of the doer, there is a clear difference with me walking down the street and at one point making a little skip and a little hop, before continuing as I was before. This small movement is evidently more dance-like than the rest of the walk, therefore dance can be thought of as 'movement for movement's sake'. 
Perhaps this definition is not definitive, but it serves well-enough as an approximation of the essence of dance that does not consider other externalities. This is further substantiated by considering the simultaneous left-right movement of two people attempting to avoid each other, yet inadvertently choosing the same directions and then correcting those accordingly, getting stuck in a loop of corrective movement. This often humorous occurrence has been described as a little dance, precisely because the goal of this otherwise goal-oriented movement disappeared by its own execution.
Most, if not all, day-to-day activities are goal-oriented, thus it should come as no surprise that dance and art are closely related to each other. If dance is movement for movement's sake, then most of these activities will fall outside the normal activities of daily life. The clear distinction between art and dance thus comes from a well defined field of dance, where within all possible movements are anticipated on a meta-level. One cannot drive a car to work and call it dance, for example. Because any dance would only be art if it fell outside the defined field of dance, it would also stop being dance because whatever art this dance is would not be dance as it falls outside of the defined field of dance in order to be art. 
In short, when considered towards the rest of the world dance is extremely art-like behaviour, yet looking from inside dance, there is no dance that is also art without giving up some defining aspect of what made it dance in the first place.

This definition of dance has been somewhat straightforward, without any real obvious objections. Unfortunately the redefinition of theater will require a bigger leap of imagination.
We will consider theater here as 'movement defined by its duration'.
This may seem like a strange definition of theater, but it is the one that marks the clearest distinction between theater and 'live art'.
The common idea that performance in the presence of an audience is what defines theater is clearly misguided. If I decide to stage a performance by myself of Beckett's play Krapp's Last Tape in my own living room without any audience, I would not be performing theater according to this explanation and an immediate crisis on theater's nature would arise.
Coming from another angle, sports are an obvious cousin to theater when defined as movement defined by its duration. Sports have movement and most sports have a set duration, even in abstract terms, such as the innings in baseball. Although duration and movement are important factors in sport, the duration is not what defines the movement. Other goals determine the movements and the set duration is often only an outline to determine when these movements have a set meaning. Through our redefinition sport comes close to theater, although its differences are quickly seen. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the modern settings where sports are professionally performed are much like those of the theater, mimicking the idea of 'live performance in front of an live audience'.
To think of theater as movement defined by its duration one has to consider the common notation of a play.
'A does the dishes.' is not much of a play, even when its rudimentary plot isn't taken into consideration.
'A picks up the small blue cup, inspects it, washes it, rinses it, dries it and puts it down on the other side of the sink. A picks up the larger cup and repeats the former actions.' sounds much more like how a play is written. By defining the movements in a more exact manner, the duration of the movement is more clearly expressed. It is precisely by this more exact determination of duration that one thing can be defined as a play and as theatre by extension.
A play written with its durations only vaguely determined will appear to us more art-like since there is a greater distance to the fundaments of theatre.
For example, 'Two people pretend to drive a car until they are bored, at which point they stop.' is a performance piece, while all their movement and dialogue transcribed and written down so it can be repeated is a play.
Whenever the duration is not strictly determined or left up to chance in some form or other, the association with art is stronger. Beyond altering the commonplace object setting of a piece of performance Anne Imhof's 'Faust' at the 2017 venice bienniale is stated to be 'ca. 4 hours' long, while 'Faust Jr.' is '1-2 hours'. Tino Seghal's 'This progress' from 2006 lasts however long it takes to walk up the steps of the Guggenheim museum in New York and although Abramovic's 'The Artist is Present' is seemingly defined by the run of the show and the opening hours of the museum, its contents are actually defined by each individual sitter, choosing however long they decide to stay in their position.