E here. I’d planned on posting about something completely different (an update review of Warehouse 13, as it happens) but last week’s So You Think You Can Dance presented a peculiar issue that I wanted to put out there.
Ask anyone who watches the show, and they’ll all tell you one thing: how much they cried after Melissa and Ade’s contemporary routine about breast cancer. My brother’s already told you, actually. It hardly needs to be noted that I cried. Melissa threw so much emotion into her performance that she had tears in her eyes when it ended. The routine – choreographed by “Broadway” guy Tyce Diorio as a response to a friend’s battle – had the judges awash with tears, even the stalwart Englishman and executive producer Mr Nigel Lithgoe. The judges have clearly had first hand experience with immediate family members and cancer: Mia “I love to cut [dancers from the competition]” Michaels couldn’t restrain herself, which made me sob all the harder the way watching a stoic break down always does . Ellen Degeneres’ mother is a breast cancer survivor. We could see the tracks of tears in Mary Murphy’s make up. As I sniffled, and the judges stuttered praise out between steadying breaths, my husband froze the dvr and turned to me.
“Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t a great routine, and that it isn’t a fantastic idea, but if he didn’t tell you it was about breast cancer, would you have known? Would anyone be crying right now? I feel like that’s manipulative – like it’s kind of cheating to just saying, here’s a dance about this really sad thing and then everyone cries.”
And, okay, sure, he has a point. Tanner Stransky, writing Entertainment Weekly’s recap, had the same idea. No one sheds a tear because of Brandon and the egregiously eliminated Janette’s perfect Argentine tango; it’s just not that kind of thing. Earlier in the season, there was (I’m not kidding) a waltz about dancer Vitolio’s orphan childhood. Even Mia’s piece about addiction – which was fantastic – failed to elicit this level of response. Gosh, all you have to do is look at the comments on the links my brother posted; some people were deeply moved and some other people were really rude about not having been. It’s hard to forget the great Kate Winslet snarking on Ricky Gervais’ satirical show Extras about how she needed to do a Holocaust movie to finally get her richly deserved Oscar – mostly because she finally did do the Holocaust movie which finally won her that Oscar. And the point is, some subjects will always get attention, because they are Serious with a capital S. The Holocaust is Serious. Cancer is Serious. I’m not belittling those subjects by saying this; as M noted, its hard to look around us and not see friends and family members profoundly affected by cancer. My brother-in-law has been fighting it for years. We know so many who have lost that fight; our beloved grandmother, the friend M spoke of, and the parents of so many friends. Even my four year old has a friend who lost her mother to cancer. And perhaps that’s why it’s repugnant to imagine someone using a subject so devastating to get a easy reaction. In a very strange way, it could be seen as a comedian going for the cheap laugh with a dirty joke. Or at least, that’s the problem.
So this is my question to you, gentle readers. How clearly can Art tell a story without words? (I actually feel this way about opera, which clearly does have words but are rarely in English and aren’t sung in a way that makes them easy to understand even if they were. There’s a fantastic line in the first chapter of The Age of Innocence snarking about operas written in Italian by Austrian composers for the edification of English speaking audiences. But I digress.) That’s what Nigel said, holding back his tears – that dance can tell a story without words. But if we didn’t have the words at the beginning, would we clearly understand this particular story? And if the dance itself can’t tell the story, then is the emotion based on our feelings for the subject, or on the dance itself? How can we judge its success? Does it matter if we need the help?
We save SYTYCD on the dvr, and the morning after it airs, I watch it again with my kids. My four year old daughter loves the dresses, my son prefers the hip hop (well, technically, his favorite was the alien invasion jazz), and they all love the movement. And every time, they ask me the same question. “Is this one a story, Mommy? What’s the story?” I have to do a bit of editing – best friends deciding what to do about their physical attraction becomes best friends falling in love – but they follow the stories. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that they crave the stories. To them at least, Dance is best when it means something.
And yet, how clear is anything without even a word of explanation? Most abstract paintings have titles to clue you in to the artist’s intention, a chance to add another layer, put a different spin on things. My kids don’t just want to see a story in something; they need the story to tell them how the pieces relate, so they can look for the small actions that add up to a narrative, to meaning. The costumes, the lighting, the hair and make up and yes, the narration before hand in which the choreographer explains a bit about the piece all lend meaning to the dance, the way a summary in the program of a live show might. I doubt that I’d have know exactly why the couple in the ‘best friends crossing the line‘ dance were fighting their passion, although I certainly knew that they were fighting it. (Then again, the words of the song – if you can actually get your brain to function – are pretty explanatory.) I like to think that my favorite dance from the show, Chelsea and Mark’s “Bleeding Love”, makes a perfect picture, but would it without the props and the costumes, without its perfect use of music? Maybe not. So where’s the line? I get a bit frustrated with critics who rail at popular entertainments as being too manipulative. Isn’t the point of Art to make you feel something, to make you think? Do we get to be pissy because some people (ie Steven Spielberg, oft the recipient of such critiques) are virtuosos at playing on our emotions? Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?
Perhaps what seems a like the cheat is this; Art should make us feel, yes, but should it tell us WHAT to feel? When it plays too obviously on our heartstrings, is that unfair?
What I think it comes down to, really is the storytelling itself. It may be my four year old’s favorite dance, but not enough people bought Kayla and Max’s high concept “Princess and the Rat” jazz number, and Max went home, even though the judges loved it.. I think the story has to be there, has to be clear, for people to respond, no matter what the judges say, no matter what magic word or Serious subject the choreographer canvases.
So this is what I saw when Melissa and Ade danced. I saw a woman in a pink and purple head scarf, and a thin beige shift like a hospital gown. Melissa is referred to by turns as the naughty ballerina and the buff ballerina; for the first time to me she seemed small and frail, leaning into Ade, using his body to hold herself up. She contracts in pain; she leaps in desperation; she beats his chest in her frustration. And she walks away alone, clenching her body and putting up her hand to ward off assistance.
I saw Ade, solid and tender and powerful, holding her up – pulling her from the ground straight into the air, shooting her above his head, her body straight as a knife. He catches her when she leaps for the edge of the stage. He is her rock – the rock she relies upon, and rails against. But he dances alone, too, spinning out his distress, his confusion.
To me, this was one of the clearest stories I’ve ever seen danced. Would I have known that it was about breast cancer specifically? No. Cancer? Maybe not, although the headscarf is a good clue. But I can feel the relationship between the dancers, their bond, and their struggles. I can see that she’s profoundly sick, that she strives for a way to hold her head up – and that she finds it.
And I can get behind it, behind the story and the costumes and the music and the tiny bit of narrative summation beforehand. If the details hadn’t been true, I don’t think it would have worked. The dance itself, and the dancers, had to make the choreographer’s vision concrete. And the vision had to be authentic, honest. I think the judges responded the way they did because the pieces added up to a story, especially for those trained in dance who will note the tiniest movements and drink in their meaning. I can’t have other people’s experiences for them, so if it doesn’t come together for everyone, that’s not something I can sway with words. But if nothing else, I can say that I believe the intentions were pure; that the dancers and the choreographer strove to make us feel what it is to live in the shadow of death, not because it was an easy road to our emotions, but because it was hard. And that’s why – for me – it succeeded.