Experiencing the Humanities
A Web Textbook
11. The Performing Arts:
Stories That Move
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre photographed by richsofranko.com* (Credit: page bottom)
Chapter Eleven of
Experiencing the Humanities
by Richard Jewell
Introduction--All the World's a Performance
William Shakespeare once wrote in his play As You Like It, "All the world's a stage / and all the men and women merely players...." This highlights how everything we see, hear, and do is part of the "play of life"--it is possible, no matter how serious or silly, to turn it into a performance on a stage.
However, not all of our lives would, if we performed them on a stage, actually interest other people. The best stage performances are those that excite audiences, condense quite a bit of seriousness or humor into a understandable story (usually of no more than three hours of performance), and are worth repeating through dozens or, in cases like Shakespeare, thousands of showings over the years. Well made performances seem to us to be alive while we watch them. Such performances include plays, screen shows, dance performances, operas, puppetry, and even mime.
All of these performing arts are forms of art that usually must be performed to be appreciated. They involve the art of sight and often, with it, sound (and occasionally other senses) that move through time. The performing arts are among our earliest arts, existing long before writing existed, long before drawings and paintings were placed on paper, and, of course, many thousands of years before electronic transmissions. Many thousands of years ago, our long-ago ancestors were watching religious-based dance performances that included chants and, quite likely, songs, sometimes even with the accompaniment of simple instruments made from natural materials. These mixed-arts performances were the earlier forms of what later would become plays.
Through time, especially as we move into the classical periods of civilizations in Greece, Rome, India, China, and elsewhere, the different aspects of these religious performances became divided into individual types of art such as playacting, dancing, singing, and instrumental playing. However, even though each of these types of art gained their own staging, most of them continued to be intermixed with one or more of the other arts: for example, a stage play has, in addition to people's movements, a structure of words, and it also may have artistically drawn sets, great music, and sometimes even dance. Another example is dance, which almost always has music and may also have visually beautiful sets or outfits. For this reason, the performing arts also often are called the combined arts. They may include
screen shows (movies, TV, videos)
operas and musicals
static "performance art"
Enjoying a Performance: Surfing the Edge of the Wave
Performing arts move through time. This means that unlike our appreciation of other art forms such as books or paintings, we do not have the luxury of staring at a section of a performance for a long time nor, in most situations, easily and quickly returning to just one part. This is because a performance keeps moving, never staying the same from minute to minute. Whether you are watching a stage play, video, or dance, or listening to music, the event keeps flowing on. In this regard, a performance is like a wave of water traveling through time. This means we must treat it differently than a static object such as a painting or book, which is always there in front of us. Instead, we need to pay attention by following the leading edge of it. We might be able to stop for a few seconds or half a minute to remember something that happened earlier on the stage or screen, but we don't want to stop for long: instead, we should return as soon as possible to the leading edge of the visual production.
Of course, we must realize that focusing consistently and well is a problem
for all audience members, even those who are expert: live performing arts often
demand a more intense focus (and often, for this reason, performances tend to
be shorter) than does reading a book or watching a favorite movie at home.
Like anything else, becoming good at focusing on a performance requires a
mixture of concentration, alertness, and knowledge of the art form and/or story
line. One of the most important elements of viewing live performances is
learning to focus on them well. To do so--for the best experience
possible--it is wise to prepare for them ahead of time by being awake and
rested, reading any available information (such as program notes) ahead of time,
possibly reading a written version or summary of it ahead of time,
and practicing your focusing technique.
Stage Plays, Operas, and TV/Movie/Screen Plays--Stories in Action
Everyone understands that plays on a three-dimensional stage are a classic type of storytelling. However, screenplays--whether for television, movies, or computer screens--use the same patterns as three-dimensional stage plays. Stage plays are especially known for their three-dimensionality: they look, sound, and feel real as they take place on a stage or in a stage space. However, not too far in the future, screenplays that now are in two dimensions--on a screen--will become three-dimensional, as well: as holographs. These holographs will in some cases be projections from our own individual viewers, such as special eyeglass wear; in other cases, they will be projected for an entire audience to see. When holographic viewing becomes normal, there still will be physical stage plays, as the latter elicits in people a higher level of reality that involves the senses a bit more realistically. However, the two forms of plays--staged and screened--will once again be much more similar.
Historically, stage plays possibly evolved tens of thousands of years ago at about the same time that music and language first developed. The first stage plays probably were just for participants themselves, and the events were rituals that involved chanting, singing, and dancing. The earliest religions for many thousands of years were earth religions and earth-goddess religions, and the earliest evidence scientists have developed suggest that these religions centered around, or regularly used, ritual dances with chants, singing, and symbolic elements using statues, natural elements such as water and fire, and dedication to primary life patterns such as planting, harvest, birth, and death.
Gradually, audiences were allowed at these early rituals: non-dancers were allowed to watch and even, perhaps, to participate peripherally by, for example, chanting or singing along. Gradually these rituals became the province or job of special elders in a tribe, usually women, who in time became recognized as spiritual leaders. And as storytelling developed among humans, gradually the rituals of the earth religions and the wonderful memorized verbal stories, usually connected in some way with religion and nature, began to be combined. These "plays" on a "stage"--usually a dirt space--became a part of the memory of each tribe's high and low events in its history; its way of sharing its memories and rituals with other tribes; and a way, too, to preserve, develop, and practice its religious rites in more dramatic style.
The beginning of modern drama happened very roughly in the same era, about 1000-500 BCE, in several places around the world. India, China, and Greece, among others, started a tradition of the staged play with a specific dramatic plot and, in some places, different types of plays.
Types of Stage and Screen Plays
In the West, the types of plays were categorized by the philosopher Aristotle in his manual Poetics. He described three main types, all three of which usually placed men at the center--in fact, in many cultures throughout the world since the development of modern plays, women could not be actors in a play. This was, for example, in the West, true in Greek times and still true in Shakespeare's times: men wore masks or feminine clothes and makeup. However, in more recent centuries, women gradually have come to play as central a role in acting as men, including some transgendered, or transgender-like roles (for example, the character Puck in Shakespeare's Misummer Night's Dream). Artistotle's original categories included:
Tragedy (first type of drama)--A hero fights through a specific, limited series of problems to overcome his limitations (for example, Oedipus Rex and Romeo and Juliet).
Epic (a second type of drama)--A hero goes through prolonged difficulties, one after another, to reach a goal (for example, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Game of Thrones).
Comedy--People deal with serious situations in humorous ways to reach a goal (for example, Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream).
To these types, we also can add developments from the high period of Roman literature to and through the Middle Ages, types that also exist in other cultures:
Historical Play--A staged teaching of what happened in the past (though often influenced strongly by a particular set of beliefs; for example, plays that show actual history, sometimes with an added dramatic or epic plot, such as many plays and shows that are biographies or, for example, recounting of a war or particular events in a war).
Didactic Play--Sometimes also known in the Middle Ages as a "morality play," it provides arguments showing why one belief is better than another (for example, a staged argument that inevitably shows that being ethical is far better than following evil). The modern equivalent is courtroom drama, such as Perry Mason and Law and Order, that is partly didactic--showing arguments for and against goodness--along with added dramatic elements for greater interest.
Melodrama--Similar to tragedy, it evokes a series of sad feelings or high danger, often using physical means, with more emphasis on the emotional or physical events or acts themselves, and less on developing the character of the hero or heroine through a superhuman undertaking. For example, plots in cartoons often are melodramatic, such as the lovely heroine tied to the railroad track by the evil villain; or the repeated attempts, for example, by Bluto to destroy Popeye and his girlfriend, Olive Oyl (who was a main character in the series for ten years before Popeye finally appeared).
High Comedy--Plays that depend, for their humor, primarily on amusing use of words, funny plot situations, and/or laugh-worthy characters often are considered highbrow art, or high comedy. Shakespeare's comedies, though they have some physical humor in them, as well, usually are considered high comedy.
Low Comedy--Also sometimes known as "slapstick," is a type that relies, like melodrama, on physicality, or physical humor. Examples of this are many of the plays of Aristophanes (though these often are a mix of high and low comedy), the movies of Chevy Case, and the antics of comedians such as in the films of the Three Stooges and Buster Keaton.
In more recent centuries, we have added to other categories, operas and musicals:
Operas and Musicals--Operas are stage plays in which all speaking parts are sung to music. It was developed in Italy in 1598 and soon developed in other parts of Europe. A popular modern example is Jesus Christ Superstar. Musicals are regular stage plays in which, at times, one or more members of the cast will stop the action (or modify it) long enough to sing a song. Popular modern examples are The Music Man and The Sound of Music. Both operas and musicals involve elements of stage plays, which are described below. For more on operas, see "Chapter Twelve: Music."
Stagecraft: Physical Settings, Props, and Costumes
Stagecraft is the development of the "props," or properties: the physical settings, clothing, makeup, and other props (for example, guns and drinking glasses). All props must fit with the established plot and characters. For example, if the plot is ancient Greece and the characters include rich people, the props may include buildings with white columns, togas, and some belts, swords, or jewelry from ancient times. If the plot occurs, for example, in an opera--a singing play, often (but not always) in Italian--that takes place in Italy, then the props will, as in any non-singing stage play, support the characters and actions by having Italian clothes, architecture, tables, drinking glasses, weapons, and whatever else is necessary to make the play look like the time period from which it comes.
Stagecraft, however, may also include a different time period of dress and props than the play itself. For example, most of Shakespeare's plays happen in a time period during ancient, medieval, or renaissance times in Europe. However, often, directors of Shakespeare plays sometimes decide to use modern dress and modern props, or even dress and props from other time periods such as America's Roaring 1920s, or entirely different cultures such as Asian or African.
Whatever the changes in time periods, all props must fit the play in a practical way. Stagecraft is called a "craft" because it is like crafts such as pottery, glassmaking, architecture, and others that combine the very practical with a varying amount of creativity: all must serve, practically, the plot and characters.
On the other hand, creativity is allowed, a little or a lot, depending on the version of the play. Sometimes the craft might be so practical and simple that it consists of nothing more than, for example, a bare stage with only a nicely made table and a handsome skull on that table, as in some versions of Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet in the scene when the main character speaks to the skull of a former friend. At other times, stagecraft can be so wonderfully and wildly creative that the set, the clothing, makeup, and other props are very colorful, varied, and unusual. The dance play The Nutcracker and Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream are examples of this. Stagecraft might cost a few dollars in a simple physically staged play, hundreds of thousands in modern Broadway musicals, or millions of dollars in large-scale movie productions that actually construct new buildings, grounds, even water fountains; props such as large weapons or crystal chandeliers; and expensive, specially-fitted hi-tech or designer-label costumes and makeup for characters.
The Four Elements: One way to explain stagecraft is by using its ancient, pre-literate understanding of the elements of nature. In both East and even audiences understood nature in a certain way: the four elements. They believed that everything in nature was made of different combinations of the four elements. This was the foundation of their science, their psychology, their medicine, and sometimes even their philosophy and religion. It is very likely that stagecraft--a craft and art very close to nature--was developed with the four elements in mind. Here is how stagecraft can be described using this ancient and classical theory of nature:
Earth: The densest and heaviest of the elements, earth in stagecraft means the "grounded" props of buildings and nature--the basic backdrop or setting of where the play takes place. Some characters also are made to appear more earthy by their heavy body size and shape, raw, thick clothing, and the heavy objects they carry (such as swords, belts, heavy jewelry, etc.). Earthlike colors--often browns, tans, dark greens, and blacks--are used to convey darker, earthier, and more soil-like matters, such as fertility and burials. This may be true in both the settings and the clothing, sometimes even in characters' makeup.
Water: The second densest of the elements, water is more fluid. In stage sets, water can be represented by real water, with a small amount representing a much larger natural amount in a nature setting. However, it often is symbolized by paintings and drawings of it, by cloth that may be blue or green and looks like it is flowing, or even by movements of characters showing waves, rain, and other forms of water. Colors and water-like appearances may also be part of characters' clothing and makeup.
Fire: Fire is the second lightest element. Often it is symbolized by paintings and drawings, as is water, or, again like water, by cloth that may appear to move like flames and be flame-colored with reds, yellows, and blues. Sometimes the sun, a type of fire, is used in a setting, by painting it or even by having an actor hold it and pass it through the sky. Fire-colored clothing and even makeup may be used on characters whose personalities are hot, dry, flickering, or otherwise like fire.
Air: The lightest element, air is something all around us that each of us breathes and in which we walk. Air in stagecraft is represented by having sets that are airy, open, and accessible to all such as public markets, forums, fields, beaches, and balconies and windows on buildings. The colors of air are light blue and white, and these are reflected in the colors of some sets and in the clothing and even makeup of "airy" characters.
The Five Senses: Another way in which stagecraft intuitively works is in how it appeals to the five senses:
Sight: Visually, a show must be attractive to the audience, somehow match the contents of the play and characters, and preferably either show tension that matches the plot, or allow the tension to develop.
Sound: Actors and actresses must be loud enough to be heard well, but also quiet enough at times to display variety in sound. Additional noises, such as a slamming door or the background sounds of a battle, usually must be very occasional and not overwhelm the actors and actresses' voices nor startle or distract the audience excessively.
Taste, Touch, and Smell: It is difficult to include tastes, touches, and smells in performances. However, some productions manage this by throwing treats into the audience (for example, at children's theater productions), sending brief smells through the location of the play, and even having actors and actresses involve a few audience members in physical scenes, such that these representative audience members make the rest of the audience feel like it, too, is participating in the physical activities.
Likely taste, touch, and smell gradually will be used more often in the coming decades and century to increase audiences' participation in a performance. As with sight and sound, the use of these other three senses should be varied and used just enough to be interesting, but not overused or distracting. As technology improves, the use of taste, touch, and smell likely will spread to more performances, not only in live performances but also in movies and, eventually, for electronic screenings.
What Makes a Worthy Character?
The personality and actions of a character in a performance are of absolute importance in excellent plays. In a poor play or story, the plot alone, if it is dramatic enough (with vehicle chases, violence, etc.) may be enough to entertain us briefly. However, in better plays and stories, the type that we want to read--and that many people can share--the characters must be very well developed. They must have high value, be fully dimensional, and be well integrated.
Value: First, a well developed character must have high value to us: we must be able to relate to him or her. That means the character must be identifiable to us, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Whether we love the character or hate him or her, that character must be someone we know intimately, either as a part of ourselves or of others around us whom we know well. Often a playwright will establish this value by creating a character who looks physically similar to how we imagine our heroes, heroines, and villains.
This character also must display types and intensities of emotions that are similar to what we understand or that we think we see in those around us. In addition, the character should mentally use, or go through, the same kinds of thinking that we or others around us seem to experience. In this way we immediately can relate to or value a character.
Dimensionality: Second, a well developed character must be what is called "three dimensional." In play and story writing, a one-dimensional character is someone who comes on the stage, usually briefly, to do the same kind of action or speech. We learn to expect the same kind of action or speech each time we see this character: for example, a court jester or joker always telling bad jokes, or a crook's posse always shooting everything and everyone around them.
On the other hand, a two-dimensional character does have a more developed personality, like a real person we might know casually, who always, for example, seems like a "nice guy" or a "fun lady," or perhaps is a typical person is his or her type, like a typical pastor, barkeeper, small-time crook, or partier. We know that there will be some variety in what they say and do, and because of this, they help fill out the cast of characters and move the plot forward.
However, it is the three-dimensional characters that we truly come to love or hate. They are three dimensional because they, like almost all human beings, have both good traits and flaws; predictable and unpredictable hopes, dreams, and desires; rational and irrational thinking; strengths and weaknesses; and good and bad.
For example, King Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, one of the greatest and earliest stage plays ever written, is a rash young man who means well but has a deep well of pride. He is capable of great love, especially for his wife and children, but he also is capable of murderous anger and sorrow as exemplified in how he kills a rich older soldier who tries to boss him around at a crossroads, and how he tortures himself physically when he discovers he has committed a deep wrong. Oedipus the King is, in fact, one of the world's great examples of the classic hero in tragedies.
A memorable villain also has elements of good in him. He may truly believe, as does Thanos during the Infinity War in the movie Avengers: Endgame, that he is saving humanity by making it stronger, even as he kills half of all intelligent life throughout the universe. Or, as does Queen Cersei Lannister in show Game of Thrones, she may be full of real love for her children and her brother even as she narcissistically murders and plots to bend everyone throughout the seven kingdoms to her rules, her whims, her desires.
All three type of characters, one-, two-, and three-dimensional, are needed in most plays. Usually, though, the three-dimensional characters are the most important, making a play work well or not work at all.
Integration: Third, an excellent character only works well in a story if he or she is well integrated into the plot. In other words, you can't have a heroic conquering king and queen without a war battle, nor can you have a successful evil sorcerer or sorceress without a beautiful kingdom to destroy. A good character must fit the setting and the action such that he or she seems to flow naturally with, within, and as a natural outgrowth of the setting and plot.
A one-dimensional peasant needs land to live on, is comfortable in that role, and appears to be like a natural feature of that land. A two-dimensional nurse, going about her tasks, needs a medical setting with patients with whom she works naturally, so much a part of her job that you can't imagine her doing it any other way. We must feel that a three-dimensional hero or heroine not only fits very well in her given culture and land but also that she, herself, fits into it (whether well or poorly, it is hers), and her life and problems feel like natural features--like rocks and trees--of that setting and plot.
Would Shakespeare's character Romeo be the same bold, rash, and loving young man if we placed him on a pirate ship? Would Juliet be a character worth watching if we sent her to the convent for a lifetime of becoming a servant of her religion? Would one of the world's great stage villains in children's productions, the Big Bad Wolf, work as a villain in a zoo? The answer to all of these is of course, "no." An excellent character fits in his or her plot and setting as if she were born from them. And an excellent plot and setting feels as if they are part of the body, birthed from it, of a good character.
Thus while all kinds of characters usually are necessary in a good play,
they also must be appropriately developed. While an excellent plot can carry a
play to a high level of theatrical power, it is the the characters' value,
three-dimensional fullness, and integration with that plot that make a most
important difference. If, in Shakespeare's famous words, "the play's the thing,"
though the plot must be excellent, the characters must be both practical and
How Does a "Plot" Work?
Plot is the structure that moves a play forward. Plot is the action or movement of the play from beginning to end. Usually, when you are asked to briefly summarize a play, among the first sentences you write are a summary of what happens in the beginning, middle, and end: that is the plot.
However, plot is much more than just the beginning, middle, and end. It is about the ups and downs of the characters, the stresses and strains and tensions they experience, the fighting--internally and/or outwardly--they experience, and the good and bad that happen to them.
Almost all stage plays, however (and almost all plays) have an even more specific structure. It is a classic structure that has moved stories forward--and kept audiences hanging on each event and word--for many thousands of years, from the ancient Gilgamesh in the West and Bhagavad-Gita in the East through thousands of years of Western and Eastern history to our contemporary plays, movies, and television dramas today. This structure is, simply
hero/heroine vs. villain
hero/heroine vs. obstacles
And, in the end, most such stories have a clear conclusion in which the hero/heroine either win or, after a heroic effort, their good attempts fail. This pattern, this battle of good vs. evil, can take many forms: it can be almost entirely internal with a lot of intellectual thought about real, difficult world problems; or it can be almost entirely external with physical or emotional battles, pain, and deaths. The most popular plots tend to combine both, with outer action symbolizing inner inner problems and feelings. This structure can exist in a number of stage forms, as well: tragedy, melodrama, comedy, history, et al.
Historically in both West and East, this conflict, this battle or series of battles in playwriting and stories, often has been represented as a journey or the climbing of a hill or mountain:
Gabriel R. Jewell, Obstacle Mountain. Used by permission.
Copyright 2019, all rights reserved (also in Chapter 14).
This climbing or mountain represents an increasing level of tension in the story--and in the reader. The climb and the tension may represent dramatic outward events, internal emotions and feelings, or an increasing tension of meaning and importance of idea.
Western And Eastern Plots
In Western literature, this journey or climb depicted above often is accompanied by dramatic events. For example, Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey encounters many dangerous natural and mythical obstacles on his way home from the Trojan War. His journey or "climb" is through the history and legends of Greece, showing or proving a human being could encounter even the gods and still get home safely.
In Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers attempt to be together forever, no matter what obstaclesthey experience of family, war, or weak heart. They win in the end, but only at the greatest cost of all--death--which makes their story tragic.
In Eastern literature, this journey or climb may more often be accompanied by a rising inner emotion on the part of the main character and of the reader. For example, in the Hindu Bhagavid Gita, the hero, Arjuna, is about to go into battle against relatives and former friends. He cannot summon the courage to hurt these people; the god Krishna appears to him and the two have a long discussion of the meaning of love, honor, and obligation. The rising emotion in Arjuna--and the reader--is that of resolution, love, and the power to do good.
Or, for example, a modern classic of the Near East--The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran--has this same exhorting quality of someone being steeled to face a greater responsibility, of someone building up their emotions to face reality.
Even the stories in the East that are more Western- plotted--stories with heroes, heroines, and villains--offer fewer ups and downs, fewer highly dramatic moments, and instead a regularly increasing mood of drama, of violence, of love--or whatever other emotions the work of art wishes to convey.
Interestingly, a mode of writing has been arising in the West in modern times that, plot wise, is similar to the plotting of the East: in this kind of story, popular among American and European literary circles, in literary journals, and on public TV, there often is less dialogue and external action, but more emphasis on character development. The characters are shown gradually going through their lives and confronting some kind of change, some kind of new way of acting or being, that stirs up their emotions in a new way and changes them.
The end of these stories often seems up in the air if you are looking for normal dramatic plotting or dramatic endings; however, such endings can be understood in a more Eastern, emotional way if you view the end of such a story as a flower that has suddenly blossomed--as a character suddenly reaching a new discovery or stage of life. It is a "psychological story," this kind of story, and in this respect it is similar to the literature of the East, which always has shown a much greater tendency to explore more directly, more obviously, the inner psychological territories of the human soul.
Poetry often has played this very same role throughout
the history of Western literature; but now storytelling is
beginning to play it, too, as East meets West and as they
learn from each other.
Dance--Sculpture That Moves
Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1910, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Dance is another increasingly important performing art in most modern cultures. It can be thought of as sculpture that moves.
As moving sculpture, dance is fluid, three-dimensional, and depends so much on the movement of the human body--which also is a traditional art form in sculpture--that it is as if, in dance, beautiful statues come alive and began making attractive, dramatic movements. If you videotape a dancer and then freeze-frame the dance every several seconds--especially of a highly artistic type of dance--it is easy to see each resulting still picture as a statue representing some kind of feeling, object, or event.
In addition, dance has been, throughout the development of human societies and cultures, an important civilizing activity. Dancing in groups causes a gathering, a village, a town, or a society to learn to step in patterns together, weaving body and mind among each other to music in formalized steps that help us be organized together and enjoy each other. It is much harder to engage in a fight with someone with whom you danced in a group just the night before, and harder still to make war on people with whom you have danced. Dancing together creates, in cultures and societies, greater understanding of each, a stronger inclination to try to understand others, and a greater caring attitude of sharing.
There are many types of dance with many methods of creation and many types of purposes. Here are some of the major categories:
Elements of Dance
The elements of dance include:
one or more human bodies
movements conveying feelings, objects, or events
music (real, imagined, or something like music)
one or more instruments or singers
stage setting (background)
a director, leader, or coordinator
for dance before an audience, a plan ("choreography")
In each type of dance, the elements can vary, sometimes wildly. In minimalist ballet, for example--whether classical, modern, contemporary, jazz, or tap, the performance might use a simple, undecorated stage with a candle on a table in the middle, around which dancers in plain white leotards move (leotards are basic ballet uniforms similar to single-piece swimsuits); or there could be a riotous background of stage buildings, swirling streamers in the air, and full-length dresses and suits on the dancers. The same can be true of other types of dancing.
Who Is Master of the Dance?
In many ways, the types of dance listed above are determined by asking the question, "Who is Master of the dance--who has planned it?" Dance as art often can be divided into categories as well planned dances versus dances with little or no planning. Both can be excellent, but each of the two often is very different from the other.
Well planned dance movement is called "choreography." Choreography is, simply, the movements of a dance that are planned and practiced ahead of time. In ballet--on a stage with an audience--which can include classical (older than 50 years), modern (within 30-100 years), contemporary (newer than modern), and even jazz and tap--the choreography or movement of the dancers is decided ahead of time by the creator of the dance performance.
This person usually (but not always) is the director or an assistant director of the dance school, and often the one who decides which dances will be performed. Just as an individual painter, songwriter, or author creates his/her own art, so a dance choreographer develops a dance. Many individual dancers also like to choreograph their own short movements in the privacy of their home or studio. If these individual pieces are long enough, and a school's dance director is open to new dances, then sometimes these individual pieces are adopted by the entire dance school and used in a performance.
However, other kinds of dance are both very ritualized, or set in a pattern, and done by individuals casually in group settings. Such dancing may be in dance halls and bars, in square dancing events, and in folk dancing.
For example, the classic two-step is used in much dancing to musical groups in dance halls and bars. Someone invented it somewhere, once upon a time, perhaps many thousands of years ago, and people still use it, mostly as couples dancing on dance floors. Each couple may use this and other dance steps in a very typical manner, or they may repeat it with interesting variations. Likewise, square dancing--usually with four couples arranged in a square--and folk dancing--dancing that is a specific type of a country or cultural history--usually are danced in patterns that have been handed down for decades, centuries, or more.
Some types of dance, however, may be wildly creative, sometimes pre-planned and practiced before a "show," sometimes performed spontaneously at the time. Street dancing--dancing for pleasure or occasionally for tips on the street--often can follow such creative patterns. Occasionally contemporary dance on a stage becomes spontaneous rather than choreographed ahead of time. Much dancing in music videos is creatively choreographed either by the singer or a choreography director ahead of time, but because there are so many music videos and their singers, and the singers are individuals or are dancing with their own small groups, the results can be wildly creative. Even so, such dance-and-music videos usually show dance moves that are of a particular style that matches the type of music: for example, pop, hip hop, rap, rock, etc.
Prehistory: Dancing around Caves and Fires
Dancers on a piece of ceramic from Cheshmeh-Ali (Shahr-e-Rey), Iran, 5000 BCE, The Louvre
Dance has been with us possibly longer than any form of art other than music. Archeologists trace it back to at least 30,000 years ago. Some cultural theorists argue that dance--or artful body movements--may have been one of the first ways, along with music (chanting) that humans communicated symbols. The moment in prehistory when movements became something done on purpose to show or convey a feeling, or to repeat, it, the "language" of dance began. Soon these ancient peoples began to use movements to symbolize such realities as sun, moon, earth, water, and others by pointing to or mimicking them. Early dance also likely imitated or symbolized basic feelings such as love (movements of embracing), anger (fists), courage (chests out, chins firm), worship (arms high), tiredness (slumping), and sadness (tears).
In fact, cave drawings of what appear to be dancers are among the earliest we have from cave-dwelling times. Such early dancing also likely was associated with religious rites. According to theorists such as Esther Harding, dance was the foundation of early mother-goddess religions--the earliest religions of which we have records--which likely existed from the dawn of human civilizations well over 10,000 years ago until about 1000-2000 BCE when early male god-centered religions began sweeping the world. Archeology of ancient times tells us that in these earliest religions, usually a high priestess--that is, an older female--or several such women together, led others, often women, in dance movements that helped bring the power of the supreme mother goddess to worshippers' attention. This goddess power was perceived as being all around: indeed, worshippers believed it existed in everything, and everything existed in it. Ritual dancing helped either to focus the feeling of this power, or to help worshippers become more aware of it.
History: Breaking Taboos; Moving from Asia Minor and from the Rich
Dance was common in historical cultures, as well: for example, from Egypt, Greece, and Rome in the West to India and China in the East. Specific periods and forms of dance include some of the following.
Classical Hindu Indian dance: The ancient Natya Shastra, a Hindu book from sometime about 500 BCE to 500 CE about performing arts in India, describes a type of performance dance that is now known as classical Bharatanatyam in India. In more recent centuries in many parts of India, dance was considered immoral. However, after India's independence in 1947, dance as an art form became popular again.
American Indian dance: America's original inhabitants, from northern Canada to the tip of South America, have been dancing for a thousand years or more. Group dances of much of the Indian community at powwows are especially well known, but medicine men and medicine women--tribal healers--and leaders have their own dances at gatherings. There are dozens of group dances, usually done in a circle to drumbeats, with such names as Bear, Buffalo, Diablada, Fancy, Ghost, Grass, Q'axilu, Rainmaking, Sun, and many more.
China has had dance since recorded times several thousand years ago. Such dances were often performed in court for royalty. However, records show that folk dancing by regular villagers developed at least as early. One type of Chinese formal dancing in particular, for example, called "sleeve dancing," involves costumes with very wide, flaring sleeves that are moved in flowing patterns to show differing emotions.
In Europe and Asia Minor--in Catholic Christian countries--most early-medieval and medieval dancing by people was folk dancing, which often was frowned upon by the Roman Catholic Church. However, many vestiges of pagan rituals and celebrations existed in villages, especially in Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, where the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church controlled religion. In these areas, folk dancing was very popular among all ages, and often was a central feature of village and small-town holidays and weekly meetings. Alcohol often went along with such celebrations, especially in a long era of time when drinking wine or beer was safer than drinking water.
The dancing might be very organized, gentle, and mindful; or it might be exciting and sometimes even wild. In many places, men danced mostly or completely with men in group dances, and women with women in groups. These dances often helped celebrate the harvest; or, as part of early spring events, sometimes they were fertility rites that ended with couples making love in the fields in order to help the soil and seeds produce plants, with the Orthodox Church fathers looking the other way.
In late-medieval and renaissance times in Europe, formal dancing developed among royalty and, eventually, rich merchants' families. The dances probably came from earlier folk-dance versions but were made to have formalized movements, usually as group dances of a number of couples moving in very ritualized ways, much like slow-moving ballet performed in groups. Such dances were performed as one type of entertainment at major social events where people dressed in their finest fancy clothing.
In the 1700s Europe, these ritualized movements were developed into specific movements done by a troupe of ballet dancers trained to move in beautiful, courtly ways. This type of movement--ballet as an individually recognized art form--was especially developed in France by composer and choreographer Jean-Baptiste Lully and by dancer and choreographer Jean Georges Noverre. Dance moved out of the royal courts and into the Paris Opera and to professional studios. And dances began to tell stories and be more active and dramatic, along with dancers' clothing becoming much simpler and more pragmatic for easier movement.
In the early 1900s in Europe and America, ballet began to include not just classical but, especially, "modern dance." This was especially so in the guidance of 1900s dance giants Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham. They and others called for getting rid of the staid "gymnastics" of classical ballet, cutting staging and costuming to a minimum, and showing dance in its rawest, most direct art form.
By the mid- to late 1900s in America and Europe, ballet began to come back at least in part to its roots, at the same time retaining the mobility and experimentation of the modern-dance movement. A new version of modern dance, often called "contemporary dance," became popular. It allows for many styles, many colorful and creative expressions on stage, and the telling of stories.
Throughout the period of the renaissance to our own times in the West, dancing to music in villages, towns, and cities grew in popularity. At times such dancing was suppressed; however, it kept breaking out again in a variety of places, especially in closed buildings where those against dance could not see it and then complain. As dance became increasingly acceptable in most communities starting in the mid-1900s and beyond, people not only danced in dancing halls but also developed groups who met regularly to square dance, folk dance, and take lessons in other types of dancing.
In modern America and Europe, many cultural mixes of dance styles and types have contributed to experimental street dancing, or individuals and groups on the street showing their dance moves, and to dance festivals where many moves and styles are shown, from experimental to traditional. Contemporary dance as a performing art is enjoyed not just by some of the finest dance companies ever to exist, but also by millions of youth in both West and East who take a wide variety of dance classes for years at a time.
Today, in most countries, dancing of some kind is not only allowed but encouraged. Most medical experts consider it a healthy form of exercise. Dancing of all kinds is taught to many, by many. And dancing is considered not just a high art form well worth watching, but also a middle-brow activity that is fun, basic, and excellent for meeting in groups. Dance, the sculptural form, now is perhaps is the second most popular form of participating in art, after music.
Mime, Puppetry, and Performance Art
Three other types of performing arts are mime, puppetry, and "performance art." Here is a brief description of each.
Puppetry has a long and distinguished history in both West and East. In medieval Europe and in China, puppet shows were considered an important art form fit to be viewed by royalty and commoner alike. Puppetry continues to be not just popular but very important in its cultural and artistic contributions. For example, Elmo, the Cookie Monster, and Big Bird from Sesame Street, and Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy from the Muppet Show have made lasting impressions in teaching two generations of children in America, now, how to count, read, and play fair.
Mime is a cross between a stage play and a dance. In mime, the artist--often but not always just one performer--remains completely silent and conveys all of his or her story through movement. There may or may not be music in the background.
Contemporary mimes often paint their faces white, and many people's first experience of mime performance often happens in a public park, where mimes perform for free--as practice, sometimes as political or cultural statement, or sometimes as a performer paid by the owners of the park, zoo, or other public place where the mime is performing. Though few mime artists make a living from performing, some do. The famous twentieth-century mime artist Marcel Marceau performed his art in many famous halls to great acclaim from audiences throughout the world.
"Performance art" is a specific category of the performing arts in which something happens that is, as a performance, difficult to categorize in the traditional performing arts, and this difficulty often exists because several performing arts (and/or other art forms) are combined. For example, if you are in public and see what appears to be a statue, but then you realize upon closer viewing that it is a person standing still in a pose, probably wearing unusual or interesting clothing, then you have are seeing performance art. Performance art might also occur on a stage in a mixed-art event in which, for example, the person or people on stage might sing while dancing and painting a picture or a wall, or perhaps perform a trapeze act in wild makeup and costume and dancing on the trapeze bar while swinging, and while videos show in large size on the wall behind the artist.
A number of performing styles and methods are possible. Such performances
almost always are very creative, and they can be well choreographed or
completely spontaneous, or some mixture of the two.
Be the surfer. Learn to ride with--to concentrate on--the leading edge of a staged or screen story. Choose a a stage play--or a story on TV, in a movie, or on a video screen. As you watch and hear it, try surfing its front edge. Don't linger over what has gone past: stay with the front edge of the wave of the story. If you miss something, don't worry about it--just keep going. Once you've done this with one performance, try it with one or two others of different types. Even if you try out these stories for five or ten minutes, you will be learning how to focus in this way. For this kind of practice, seeing the entire story is not important, at least as you learn to focus in this way. Then write a description about whether this makes a difference in how you appreciate, remember, or feel the experience.
Concentrate on surfing a dance performance. Focus on just on the leading edge of dance. Don't worry about what it "means" or is supposed to be symbolizing. Just experience it by surfing its front edge. Do the same as in "Exercise 1" with this dance performance. The kind of dance doesn't matter: classical, pop, or modern. Don't think about what the dance means; don't spend time on the looks, agility, or athletic prowess of the dancers. Instead, just follow the leading edge of the performance. Then write a description about whether this makes a difference in how you appreciate, remember, or feel the experience.
Make yourself into a character on a stage, whether on a real stage or in a TV or movie set. You can do this in real life--usually in the privacy of your own space--or you can do it within your imagination. First, choose the character you want to be. Second, say something for a sentence or two that your character might say out loud. Third, say it with more emotion, more feeling, to make the words more dramatic and interesting. Try this several times. Fourth, as you say it, add movement--hands, feet, arms, legs, face, eyebrows, etc. Try this several times, checking to make sure that you have not only words, but also added emotion, and not only words and emotion, but also physical movement.
Invent a plot for a stage play, TV program, or movie. Simply sketch out, using a few words or a paragraph for each, the (1) hero/heroine, (2) the main problem or villain, and (3) the eventual goal. Then sketch, in a few words or a paragraph each, several main steps or confrontations between the good vs. the evil, as the good tries to climb the mountain of plot to reach the top of the mountain, which is the goal. After you've written several possible steps or confrontations, order them so the easiest and least dramatic is first, then the next easiest and dramatic, then the next, and leave the hardest and place the most dramatic step or confrontation last. Then add a few words about what the goal looks, sounds, or feels like, and what happens, if anything, in a brief ending after the goal has been reached.
Invent two or three characters you'd like to see. Describe each one outwardly by using the five senses: visual appearance, sound of voice, taste (what s/he often eat, drink, and/or has in her mouth), touch (how his normal clothes feel, what she likes to touch, etc.), and smell (what he smells like, what smells she likes). Then describe him or her using the five W's of journalism, who, what, where, when, and why or how: who he is, what does she do for work and when not working, where is he during these activities, when (in what time period does s/he live), and how or why does he act as he does. Finally, give her three dimensions: what are her best and worst inner trait as a human being, strength and weakness, brightest achievement and darkest secret. In what kind of play, TV show, or movie would you place your characters? Would they all fit together in the same story, or would each need a different story and, if so, what kind? What would each do--what would be the plot to best fit each character?
Imagine a movie, TV, or stage setting for a major scene. This setting can be indoors or outdoors. Then draw it. On a piece of paper, using pencil (so you can erase as needed) or pen--with regular or colored drawing implements--design your setting by drawing it. Provide a setting and details within it that work well for the main character(s), highlighting them and helping them do or be as characters. You may even build this setting for one or more of the characters you developed in "Exercise 5" or "7" above, or one step in the plot you invented in "Exercise 6."
Invent a dance. Choose a private space so you can move however you wish. Then simply start moving. You can be graceful and gentle, or sharp, awkward, or even harsh. In dance, most dance numbers use a balance of left and right, so you might want to try your dance moves using both left and right together, or by doing something on one side and then doing it on the other. Try inventing at least three different movements like this (alternating each side). Try moving around your chosen space while making these movements. Then finally, imagine what kind of music you would like to have in the background, or even sing to yourself, with or without words, as you dance.
Invent a mime routine. This is best done in a real physical room or place outdoors that is private. Choose a visual theme: for example, imagine you are in a box, or a bubble, or some other three-dimensional space. Then explore this space with your hands, feet, mouth/face, and body. Make your exploration, your movements, obvious to an imaginary audience. Then choose a physical object within the space such as a flower, a toy, another person, etc. Explore this object with your hands, again in ways obvious to an imaginary audience. A second step, if you wish, is to practice this mime routine several times and then show it to a trusted friend, or even a child you know.
(a) Plays: Here are some useful search terms: "famous plays," "famous United States plays" (or add a country, state, or historical period of your choice), "famous plays by Shakespeare" (or add an author of your choice), or "famous plays about love" (or add a subject of your choice).
(b) Dances: Here are some useful search terms: "famous dances," "famous United States dances" (or add a country, state, or historical period of your choice), or "famous dances by Baryshnikov" (or add a famous dancer or choreographer/creator of your choice).
(c) Individual plays and dances: If you know the name of a play or dance or can find it by searching for it online, it also may be available free to watch online. For example, search using "Romeo and Juliet free to watch" or "Swan Lake free to watch," or add a title of your choice.
Libraries--unknown to a lot of people--often have videos of plays and dances or their movie equivalents available for borrowing. And if your nearby library doesn't have it, ask if it can find you a copy from a library somewhere else in the county or state.
A play or dance performance in person is a much more dramatic and significant experience than simply watching it as a video. This can be true of even high school, college, or local dance company productions, some of which are excellent. Go with a friend or family. Talk afterward about the different elements of the story, the characters, the stage setting, etc.--or, if it is a play, of the story lines or meanings, how the dancers convey emotions, the patterns they create on stage, etc. Discussing the play or dance with someone very often creates not only a deeper understanding of the meaning of the story but also of the methods the play's author and its director use to bring the story alive.
*Image in Chapter Title: Former dancers Alexandre Silva and Julia Erickson, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, www.pbt.org/blog/alexandre-silva-to-make-final-bow-of-12-year-career/alexandre-silva-final-bow-5/. Photography: richsofranko.com, 2018. Retrieved 24 Mar. 2020. Used by permission of photographer; all rights reserved by Rich Sofranko.
Most recent revision of text: 29 Sept. 2020