What the tarot can teach us about dance... Jan 19, 2013

by Matt H

Catherine Cabeen's new work, Fire!, draws inspiration from the major arcana of the tarot. Dancers, composers, set designers, visual artists, and the choreographer herself were all given the task of studying the tarot and responding to its images and the archetypes contained therein.  This is most apparent in the moving images projected in the lobby before the show, in the opening moments of the show, and more subtly throughout the rest of the performance.  It got me thinking about how both the tarot and art, dance in this case, are an invitation to examine our own emotional landscapes through culturally mediated aesthetic abstractions.  I.e. when I draw the Empress card, it both means something specific which has been culturally constructed and I can read about, but it also holds a deeply personal meaning, often read in the images, shapes, colors, textures and is deeply influenced by my own history.  Art, too, holds this double representation that is both culturally and personally constructed.  It both is what the choreographer intended and what I perceived. 

I think the tarot offers us an important lesson, or maybe highlights an inherent difficulty in dance.  When reading cards, usually multiple cards are layed out and each is turned over individually and contemplated.  Often the placement of each card holds a special significance; one card represents the past, another the future, one is for love, another for work.  Each card's meaning is bounded spatially, its message ends at the boundaries of the card.  This clear delineation of meaningfulness allows the reader to absorb a reasonable amount of information and relate it to the apporpriate portion of his or her life.  When all cards have been turned and individually considered, it is then appropriate to survey all the cards that have been turned and see if a larger pattern exists.

Dance too turns offers multiple images that might resonate with specific moments or arenas in our lives.  Dance too offers us an opportity to reflect on our experience through the lens of aesthetic abstraction.  But where the images of the tarot have very clear boundaries spatially and can be digested individually, dance blends the images temporally.  The temptation in dance is to lump all the images together and look for the big meaning, the larger pattern, before the individual images have been fully contemplated. 

I think what the tarot teaches us, is that meaning is not contructed from the top down.  Fire! is not about one thing.  My role as audience is not to discern the bigger picture and then fit all the images into that narrative.  My role as audience is to allow each image to turn over, like a card and to consider it fully.  The Empress, The Priestess, The Magician...  the metallic throne, the circular loom, the bleeding heart.  These images are not a roadmap to a single destination but an invitation to create my own journey.  Cabeen's new work is dense and cerebral, as is most of her work, and the temptation exists to blur the temporal boundaries between images.  I am wondering, now, what it would have been like to turn away from the stage, to close my eyes for a moment, and when I open them see a new card laid out before me.  To accept each image as it arrives, without the baggage of what came before or what is going to come next, and only later consider what the pattern is, if there was a pattern at all, and how I, as audience, am in dialogue with Catherine, Niki de St. Phalle, all the artists, and all the arcana.  Maybe I'll try that next time.