Holy Body, Holy Earth

I submitted this piece to the magazine Parabola. It remains unpublished.

The very real question must be asked – how can we sanctify the earth when we live so very far from it? As the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our concern is not how to worship in the catacombs, but how to remain human in the skyscrapers.” When we imagine the Earth, many people imagine a rain forest, or a lake. This conceptualization, however, keeps the earth at a distance. Two levels of distance exist there: nature to humanity, and humanity to the body.

The capacity to separate nature from humanity is what has enabled our exceptional control of nature, and similarly our exceptional disregard for our place within it. Bill McKibben noted in The End of Nature that, “[Natures] separation from human society” is what has defined nature for us in modern times. Nevertheless, humanity, and each human body, is a part of the earth.

In our construction of humanity, we have displaced that part of nature that is human – our bodies. The Environmental philosopher Michael Zimmerman considers this central to our relationship to the earth: “Perhaps the most profound aspect of our alienation from nature is being alienated from our bodies.” We can trace this understanding of humanity to Science but we can also trace it to older and newer philosophies. However it is traced, we must understand some of the framing that contributes to the physical distancing of humanity from our physique.

For various reasons, Judeo-Christianity has a troubled relationship to the body that has translated through to our science. Consider Darwins reference in The Descent of Man that “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” This comment must be considered in the context of a note he wrote in his “M” notebook: “Our descent then, is the origin of our evil passions!! – the devil under form of baboon is our grandfather.” This devil in the from of our body can be connected to – amongst other sources – Pauls Corinthian letter which, as explained by Peter Brown in The Body and Society, places the body between man and his god.

In order to reconnect the body to humanity, and so to the earth, we must learn to acknowledge its presence. David Orr certainly did not have this in mind when he wrote that, “A good way to start thinking about nature is to talk about it. A better way is to talk to it.” Nevertheless, body centered practices can be central to reconnecting to the part of the earth that is humanity, and to the body as part of that earth. We can learn to both talk and listen to our bodies. In so doing, we are conversing with the earth.

If we do not accept our organic humanity amongst the earth, we accept the terms that have led to our life in the sky. If we treat the holy earth as separate from our humanity, and our bodies, we are rebuilding the very world that has produced the skyscraper. These assumptions are quite tenable. Modern science and modern medicine have wrought extraordinary benefits. But in connecting to the purpose of life, and the science of the holy, we must expand our understanding.

The body is more than an engine, or carrier of the soul. As David Abram wrote in the seminal The Spell of the Sensuous, “Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears have attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves, and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherenece. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.” At the same time, we are also holy only in contact, and conviviality with what is human.

Sex and Sexuality on Stage

A friend recently turned and said to me, Oh, youre a dancer. Thats so great that youre in touch with your feminine side! I replied: “dance is masculine, Woman!” It reminded me that aspects of our life today are embedded with expectations of gender and sexuality. Dance is inherently neither masculine, nor feminine. Dance is also neither straight nor gay.

In performance practice, there are issues of character creation that legitimately come into play. Classical and narrative dance relies on the creation of character, and so of necessity, stereotypes are used. In the use of character within abstract work, however, it seems frequently as though our community is a dog being wagged by its tail. We seem to rely on the same character types that much of the work is seeking to both acknowledge and dissolve.

Artists are the visionaries who create the new world. At least thats what it says in our press packet. And so while we are representatives of communities, we are also leaders, responsible for helping others find the new light, the new way, the truth, and the way away from The Guiding Light. When we pay homage too deeply to existing stereotypes of humanity we lose our ability to express a more complex, holistic humanity.

Art – dance inclusive – has always been a home for the alternative. Artists are different. Today as all members of the society jockey for full participation, artists are unfortunately making our own acceptance more difficult by producing work that fetishizes notions of masculine, feminine, straight, and gay. To the degree that we as artists prepare the audience to see the world in stereotypes, we perpetuate a society that only knows how to know through separation.

Nevertheless – are there essential character traits to being a man? Are there central character traits to being a gay man? It is fine to answer glibly that, yes, being a Man (capital M) means liking beer, sports, and Jessica Simpson, and that being a gay man means liking fashion, wine-coolers and Jake Gylenhall. But that is not only bullshit, it hurts all of us. The fetishization of gay characteristics, the fetishization of female characteristics, pigeon-holes not just the artists but the audience into roles that have nothing to do with their character.

Being a dancer does not imbue one with a character. Being gay does not give one a certain character. Being a woman does not give one a certain character. We still live in a world where smart people – for example Lawrence Summers, recent past president of Harvard University – still actually debate whether men and women have the same intellectual possibility. As long as we – the visionaries of society – project stereotypes of masculine/feminine/gay/straight we give validity to the limits placed on any of those groups. Perpetuation of stereotypes in gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and age may be a part of our past, but they do not have to a part of our present.

Liberalism and Modern Dance

This piece has had various titles, and iterations. At one point it was called, ‘Goooooooo classical!’. At another point, ‘A Refutation of Liberalism in Modern Dance.’

I find some attitudes in the Modern Dance community congruous with many of the least attractive attributes of political Liberalism. Liberalism, politically speaking, is a strain of social theory that emphasizes equality. The causes of death for political liberalism are interesting in critiquing modern dance, which is possibly perishing with some of the same symptoms.

I grew up in Massachusetts at a time when politicians were re-claiming Liberal ideology. Political Liberalism was a stance of hope, inclusiveness and generosity. Liberalism brought us school lunches and affirmative action. And then it was de-flowered – the Randian freemarket go and get it beating the crap out of the Liberal come and get it.

Modern Dance began, like Liberalism, with an individualistic and inclusive streak – from Duncan to Graham, Nikolais to Rainer, Modern Dance was an expression of the embrace of individual experience and personal vocabulary over pre-determined positions and rote facility.

Some argue that Modern Dance is the somatic equivalent of jazz music. When Modern Dance began it was an organic and personal response to times, places, and personal experiences. And perhaps it is like Jazz: the practitioners of today are hard put to find the blood memory that ran through the creators of the form.

I am not trying to lionize even more antique forms – for instance ballet – but simply am trying to offer Modern Dance a little humility. Ballet came before Modern Dance, and will still exist after Modern Dance has disappeared. The majority of professional Modern dancers are heavily trained in ballet. And yet ballet seems to be talked about like a grandfather who has hairy ears and a penchant for pinching cheeks. There seems to be a perception that Modern is today, and ballet the past.

Modern dancers, like Liberals, need to recognize that all solutions rely heavily on craft, and that whether jazz music or dance, one will be taken more seriously in creating new work if one is capable of mastering the craft used by earlier practitioners. In political Liberalism the dismissal of free-market economic principles can be compared to the modern dancers dismissal of ballet.

When artists believe that they can take the craft out of dance, they reduce it to something like pop poetry. If your name begins with e.e., or ends with Ferlinghetti, that is surely a reasonable thing to do. But if you do not happen to be a genius, perhaps having the will to dance within the forms crafted by others would serve you better in reaching an audience (which last time I checked was the reason for performing.) Certainly pronouncing that one is a dance artist will help you in the bars, but in contributing to your community, its deeply ineffective.

All dance is not good dance. All dance is not of value, even if its practitioner says it is. All dance is not of value for the practitioner even if they say it is. In the end, it does not matter if you practice Modern, Ballet, Jazz, Horton, or Rumba. There is no guaranteed way toward good social solutions. But there is a guaranteed means toward bad ones. Reasonable practice of prior forms can assist in the creation of what sculptor Frederic Hart called art that has a role “in the public pursuit of civilization.”