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Before You Say You Hate Modern Dance, Think of the Chimpanzees

Jane Goodall’s discoveries with our simian cousins provide a clue as to what dance tells us about human nature.

By Dorothy Woodend 24 Nov 2017 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

In the midst of a recent conversation about the arts with a fellow cultural worker, a weird thing happened. He stopped and declared with something approaching anger, “I don’t like dance!”

He might have smacked his hand on the table to reiterate his point, but the emotion was clear.

It took me aback, but I wasn’t entirely surprised. Dance is one of those things that you’re either into it, or you just ain’t. “Whole lot of pretentious jumping around,” is what my sister calls it.

But why does dance incite such a visceral love it or hate it kind of reaction? As this is Dance in Vancouver week, with events and performances all over the city, it seemed a good time to ask the question.

The thought popped up in the middle of watching a documentary about Jane Goodall. The film, entitled simply Jane, retraces the early days of the anthropologist, from her first immersion in the jungles of Tanzania, to her later work as a globetrotting champion for biodiversity.

A large chunk of the film is comprised of Goodall’s early field work, captured on 16mm footage in colours so vibrant that they almost seem to hum. Lurid green, acid yellow, blue-black, and in the midst of all this brazen jungle colour, Jane herself, a pale blond sapling, in her dun-coloured khakis and sun-striped hair. It’s little wonder that the world took one look at her, and fell ass over teakettle in love. As did her future husband, Hugo van Lawick, a wildlife photographer assigned by National Geographic to document her research. But beneath her gentle gaze, was the spirit of the indefatigable English woman, of the Gertrude Bell variety, women who traipsed across burning deserts and teeming jungles, draped with scarves and enormous hats, and fired with a blinding confidence in their duty and place in the world.

In the footage of the chimps of Gombe, Jane narrates about the shared behaviours of apes and humans, and describes a physicality that goes beyond just opposable thumbs and the use of tools. It was the simian behaviour she described — maternal nurturing and a desire for society, intimacy and companionship — that astounded the world.

But in her first encounters with the chimps, all she could do was watch. The chimpanzees wanted nothing to do with this hairless ape and would flee the moment she got near. Resigned to be an observer, an audience member, if you will, Jane looked on, from a distance, as the simian dramas unfolded. The physical movements and actions of the chimps reminded me, not unkindly, of a modern dance performance, with Goodall as their sole audience member, trying to learn the codes, and figure out what was actually happening in front of her eyes.

The most remarkable aspect of these scenes, is not just the familiarity of the movements, humans and chimps share the same basic construction after all, but the moments of affection, touch and closeness that seem so human, whether it’s between mother and child, siblings, or lovers. This is especially evident in the footage of baby chimps that so resemble human infants that you feel your uterus lunge towards them in some deep simian confluence.

There is also grace in evidence, an ease in the world, that we humans have long since lost, as we stumbled out of the jungle, and set about being civilized.

Goodall had originally been assigned to study the chimpanzees by Dr. Louis Leakey, who wanted to discover more about the behaviour of early humans. (Humans and great apes share 97 per cent of their DNA.) But what emerged from Goodall’s work was something far wider in its implications — a shared commonality of sentience and experience that jumped the species barrier. As Jane narrates in the film. “They, like us, needed friendly contact and reassurance... Staring into the eyes of a chimpanzee, I saw a thinking, reasoning personality, looking back.”

This conflation between human consciousness and the animal mind caused something of an uproar in the scientific community, and the concept of sentience continues to be a difficult, perhaps, impossible thing. To admit that animals have emotions, that they suffer in the same way as humans, means that we have to redo almost everything about the world. Which is probably not such a bad idea.

It may be something of a wild extrapolation to conflate human discomfort with contemporary dance, to our unresolved feelings about our animal ancestors, but I’ll give it a whirl.

One of the things that hits you upside the head in the midst of a dance performance is the mammalian body at work. A reality that is often painted over with larger, grander ideation — mythologies, narratives and theories — be it Cinderella or Merce Cunningham.

The schism between body and brain is especially keen in modern dance, loosed from frills, crinolines and Tchaikovsky opalescence, and set down in underpants, or occasionally nothing at all, on a raw stage. If you’re lucky, you get a few ropes and stage props hanging about. I exaggerate for effect, but a great deal of contemporary performance eschews the classical trapping of the form, and gets right down to basics.

Here is where you separate the folk who love dance, from those who run screaming out of the room. It’s not always easy to convince the uninitiated to join you for a dance show. I once enticed a friend to come to a dance performance with the promise of male nudity, only to have the dancers tuck their penises between their legs, creating, in effect, manginas.

“That’s it?” my friend demanded. I smiled and shrugged, but internally shook my fist at the capricious gods of dance, why hast thou forsaken me?

Watching humans run and jump, and wrestle about on stage, reminds us of our monkey progenitors because the gestural repertoire is often the same, as Goodall’s research demonstrated. Other scientists and writers have stated the connection even more directly. Jared Diamond’s book The Third Chimpanzee derived its title from the fact that humans are their most direct relation, with a genetic difference of only 1.6 per cent.

But we humans cling to this distinction with something of a death grip, made possible by our opposable thumbs.

Which returns me to my initial question of what it is about contemporary dance that makes people so uneasy, even angry?

I think it has to do with bodies, and some strange form of embarrassment at work. To be perfectly blunt, bodies are gross sometimes. They emit stuff — fluids and solids that we would like to ignore. They remind us of the gritty, shitty reality from whence we came: the animal existence of humping, eating ants and hitting each other with sticks. We would rather pretend we came from finer, nobler stuff. Hence God. More celestial, less corporeal, but the twain have to meet in dance, and sometimes it is a distinctly weird conjunction.

One of the dance productions opening this week is Wells Hill, from choreographer Vanessa Goodman that draws together dance, Marshall McLuhan and Glenn Gould. The production is the second in DanceHouse’s 10th anniversary season that kicked off with Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen, and his all-male production of Morphed. In a talk prior to the presentation of the work, Saarinen spoke about the mind/body disjunction, as humans have lost touch with reality, and are increasingly reliant on the digital world. This disconnection from the physical body is explored even more directly in Wells Hill.

It is always interesting to hear about a work, and then try to figure out how this informing element or idea plays out on stage. In the case of Morphed, even as I was watching, my brain was engaged in an ongoing colour commentary: “Oh, now, they are running in circles, and then they’re climbing on top of each other. OK, now it’s kicking time, and now we’re running in circles again. What does it all mean?”

The mind strains for narrative, like an addict, and if none exists, it simply invents one. The experience can be frustrating, even maddening occasionally, but once you crack the code, catharsis and even euphoria can flood in.

For good or for bad, everyone has had one of those experiences when you realize that your body is busily doing something on its own, that is beyond your control. Whether it’s a violent stomach flu or even the first bout of breastfeeding, you can virtually feel the mind’s affront at not being in charge, or even consulted. Think of St. Augustine’s somewhat horrified analysis of human sexuality.

The body doesn’t lie, but the brain, on the other hand, does little else, even to itself. It maintains we’re different, we’re evolved, we can expand infinitely, unfettered by physical realities. And, as McLuhan predicted, technology has largely allowed us to do that very thing.

But reality has a way of catching up to humanity’s hubris.

Dance is a powerful reminder that we are mammals after all, governed by forces that we’re only beginning to understand. We’re still learning stuff about our bodies that we never knew before, from our ability to control our breathing, to the way that the brain communicates with the digestive system. I find even the existence of a second sphincter, the one that tells you when it is safe to go poo, rather fascinating. One you can control, the other you cannot. (A gentle note of caution for those who look up second sphincter on the Internet. It’s not pretty.)

So, what does this have to do with dance?

Back to Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees, and the entire world that opened up beneath her curious gaze. The transcendent ending of the film is not unlike a dance, with Goodall herself, leaping about and rolling on the grass, like a wild thing.

So, for those who claim they hate dance, remember we dance for joy.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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