Dancing the more-than-human Body
Dancers sometimes dress up and move like other animals to take the viewers beyond themselves and into a spirit not confined to human habit. Spirit, in this context, also means body, a body not as solid and fixed as we think. The human-animal hybridity of our most ancient gods suggests that maybe it is through our animalness, not in spite of it, that we can taste the more-than-human — the pre-human, post-human, beyond-human beings that we all are. Here we see naked spirits dress up like humans and perform something totally non-human, something no human body ever does, right before our eyes. What are our bodies to do with this information? Incorporate it?
To move as another animal or a non-human being like a fish or a tree is simply the most visceral approach to feel one’s way into the body of that creature, and so to taste the flavor of its experience. We mistakenly think our bodies are a fixed and finite form, a neatly bounded package of meat, blood and bone, when in fact, we are shape-shifters, performing and transforming all the time, changing our contexts, our backgrounds, our personas. When we watch ANTES, “a choreographic science fiction on the nature of mankind before its social existence,” we receive a story that our bodies might understand even if our minds don’t. We see the group perform silent glossolalia, with totally novel movements — original, yet also simple and organic. They are praying in some ancient language with their entire bodies.
As viewers, we vicariously share in their experience. Naturally, bodies empathize with “other” bodies (thanks be to our mirror neurons). We feel how we too are the movement of a shared spirit — one that’s also linked to fish, and trees, and stars. The extended body found in group dance pulls the dancers out of themselves and into something stranger. Like singing in a choir, they lose some agency, but also gain a concentrated version of it. We cannot look away, because we see the body-as-spirit — that intense vulnerability and trance state of fearless embodiment, public embodiment.
Can inquiry into our empathy reveal a deeper wholeness than the merely resonant connection between separate people? Maybe something even deeper than “receive/transmit” is going on here. Empathy’s a challenge to our notions of a separate self. Absorbed, we move as they do — we become the silent pole of something bigger than both dancing motion and the audience’s stillness.
The great sociologist Marcel Mauss liked to talk about how a change in one’s environment or world-space correlates with a change in one’s movements, so that people in France, for example, walk, sit, and shit differently than people in Germany, or Spain, or people in the so-called United States. Does it go both ways? If we change our movements, do we change the perceived world-space? If we transform into a tree through dance, do we suddenly see a forest? If we transform into a non-human, what kind of world will we inhabit? Changing the posture and movement of the body may open a door to another world.
Incarnating together, the dancers communicate something deeper than any individual story. They communicate a bodily potential that transcends but includes the animal, the personal, and the public parts of the body. Dancing, and watching dance, creates somatic awareness that we cannot grasp with rationality alone.
Before we told stories with words, before God made man man and gave him verbal languages, in Eden we danced naked, like the bees, the bears, the dolphins. Our animal bodies, our biological bodies already know the truth beyond words, beyond clothes, beyond concepts, beyond time. We carry Eden in our bones.
What if we can go back, and feel with our lucid, contemporary minds into the body-world before duality, before the primary division, before animal and human, us and them, land and sky? Back to a time when we just were, a time before the “I” emerged, before our individuation, before mind and verbal language cut up the world? If we could, how would we move? And in that movement, would we still acknowledge anything as separate from the dance itself?
If body is spirit, then sometimes it is not heroic or idealized. Spirit has a link to nature, to rivers, mud, fish, birds, and so dancing like these non-human beings is a way of disclosing the true body, vulnerable and animal and mad, of disclosing a spirit which is not only human. “The bodies are interconnected one to the other, bound together to survive, like animals in a herd, their unity constructs an identity.”
Regular dance in its highly disciplined forms can distance us from the body through idealizing it and submitting it to harsh training, i.e. ballet, hip hop, ballroom, pole. Crazy, naked animal dance seeks our original body before culture gets to it, an impossible task but one worth trying, as in attempting to answer the Zen riddle, “What is your original face, the face you had before your parents were born?”
If someone asked you to show them your true self, how would you move? (And who’d be moving?)