bodies in rhythm: on meaning-making Mar 22, 2018

by Imana Gunawan

A response to In a Rhythm by Bebe Miller Company (Mar 15-18, 2018) (Photo: Robert Altman)


What do we mean when we talk about “the potential” of dance?

Maybe we think of how it’s primal, how it’s universal, how everybody can find ways to relate to it. Its universality is something I often hear being touted as a virtue, especially these days. Artistic directors, cultural leaders, dancemakers rush to breathlessly use the aforementioned virtue to emphasize the value of dance in these “now more than ever” times — and for good reason. It’s a time when seemingly simple disagreements may actually reflect deeper, more fundamental differences in understanding of humanity.

But lately, I’ve found myself thinking less about the universality of dance, but more about whether we actually understand how differently we all relate to dance. And how that difference has everything to do with the ways that we understand the world outside of what we know to be dance.

Witnessing Bebe and her company, I found myself analyzing the value systems that is often considered truth within our contemporary concert dance universe. And obviously, how those value systems are undoubtedly influenced by a select few (care to guess who those people are?)


Bebe asked —
How do we perceive meaning? What do we understand to be the syntactic elements that create a “context” for dance?
Is it time?
Is it space?
Is it energy?
Sure. But what else?


Some proposals —
Consider: physicality, and the movement vocabularies used in a dance.
Where did those movements come from? What were the social, economic, and political environments in which those movements originated? Who created those movements, and who gets to do those movements now?
Consider: the bodies on the stage.
Or the lack of certain bodies on the stage
Consider: the socioeconomic circumstances of who gets to pay to witness these movements.
Who’s in front of and behind the fourth wall? How did they get there? How much did they pay?
Consider: the performativity
Are these performers human? Are they a vessel? Are they tools to convey patterns? What are the possibilities for how performers convey meaning with just their presence?

I think these, too, create context, which in turn create meaning.

But lastly, let’s not forget the most important syntactic tool —
Consider: the bodies on the stage (or the lack of certain bodies on stage)


It was said during the show that reading good writing shouldn’t feel like reading a written work. It should feel like the words just surround you, and suddenly you’re swimming in the character’s stories. You live in their world.

What Bebe and her company made clear to me was how watching dance shouldn’t feel like watching the actual dance steps. It isn’t about the technicalities. It’s more than just how you manipulate time and space. The movements don’t matter as much, because the movements are tools. In the end, all you’re left with are the body’s stories. (And when there’s only one type of body on stage, we limit the range of meaning that can be extracted of our works). As Bebe said, “It’s all here.” Here on this white marley — a blank canvas — is history rearranged. It encompasses the social, the political, the economic, the spiritual. It can’t not encompass all those things, because all these systems and institutions, these ideas of time and space and energy start with one thing: a body.

And when that body moves in a rhythm, a universe of potential interpretations are unleashed. The best part? That universe is an awfully big enough place that each of those interpretations can be right, even when we all disagree.




Imana Gunawan is a Texas-born Indonesian multimedia journalist, dance artist, writer, audio producer, and member of Au Collective. 


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