Skip to main content
need for abstraction

For centuries, the world built up visions of reality. It sustained the belief that the eye was the best reporter of the truth. The ear was considered much less reliable in terms of the so-called real, and hearsay was not permitted in law courts. The mystique of art often got buried under the extraordinary techniques of surface representation and only the great artists managed to succeeded in using reality as a vehicle for deeper visions. The art world had departed a long way from primal abstractions, the raw elixir in which its rites were rooted. It often forgot its birthright.

It was dance which gave birth to theater. In a review of the evolvement of theater, just through its architectural and mechanical evolution, the methodical progression towards detailed visual reality becomes very evident. From the primitive dance ground there developed the ceremonial circle. Spectators were accommodated by surrounding seats, which developed into the huge Greek theaters, such as we find at Epidauris. The later Greek period and the Roman period cut the circle and added the scena (stage) for purposes of scenically embellishing reality. Shortly after this the entire theatre was domed and wood and canvas scenery introduced. The interior darkness then required illumination. Electricity finally permitted the most complex illusions of reality. The whole technical structure of the stage and its machineries was forced into more and more detailed reality and effects. Lighting experts knew what gel color to place over stage lights to give appropriate identity to practically all geographical locations, time of day and weather. In the 19th century the Moscow Art Theatre, and Balesco on Broadway and later thousands of directors and designers brought physical reality to the highest degree of refinement. Although the theatre was still blessed with fantasy it was a fantasy rooted in illusions of reality.

Dance at an early time became the victim of the theatre's quest for the literal and representational. What was initially an abstract motional event capitulated to the frailties of man's belief in his own personal godliness. He believed he was made in the image of god and what he saw and understood was the boundary of the divine intelligence as well. The eye was the culprit which formed this belief. Although Christianity is not the only religion to indulge in this belief, it is exemplary.

Other peoples of the world brought to visualization their hundreds of gods. Actors and dancers brought them into multimedia presence, to tell the stories of life as their civilization saw it. In a way, this was trying to make real for the mind the demons and heros of nature and the soul. It was necessary for them to take tangible shape in the onlooker's eye.

Although early ballet denied the flesh, it tried through the transcendence of the flesh to make real the superelevated creature whom they pretended to be.

In the art of ballet, the reality of gravity and corporeality were matters to be ignored and Newton be damned.

The next archetype began with the Greek revival in the late 1800's in Europe, and its aesthetic power culminated in America's Isadora and her Grecian image. This was another step towards a form of reality, but still not of man as he actually appeared. However what Isadora began here she made real through flesh and gravity. Wigman's metaphysical visions and St. Denis' exotic influences again added to and changed the look and fantasy of the dancing figure.

The later modern dance of the 30's made the common man the archetype and brought the eye to the reality of his own appearance. A new look at the flesh and the nature of the human soul and spirit took place. In the birth pangs of the American dance, the sociological spirit was "Life is real and life is earnest." The dancer finally wore dresses, pants and shirts and reality was finally reached with modern dance, as an art form. A melding of contemporary mind and body.

The Bennington period was the culmination of the "seeing is believing" aspect period of dance. The presentation of the flesh were ideal to the visions of the mind. But it was only to that part of the mind which dealt with the psychodynamics of "self". Although at the time modern dance considered itself abstract, it was only partially so. What was meant by abstract here was that the gestures were predominantly unliteral or more precisely, non-mimetic. However, the figures performing the gestures were real.

However there is also no such thing as total reality. In all forms of knowledge or realizations, there are mystical holes -- mystical in the sense that there are areas of nonknowledge -- which make reality only partially real.

In the early 1950's, through new concepts of time and space, another change occurred in the arts. Art is the vehicle for searching out the mystique that puzzles the collective mind and attempts to bring about some revelations. It does not do this by scientific methods or conscious verbalizations, but rather by new encounters which were unavailable before.

Although this new change was apparent in the 1950's, it began decades earlier with Einstein's theory of relativity. To the uninitiated the concepts of time and space, the two most treasured vehicles of life, were still for the most part incomprehensible. Although scientists began to understand these new theories, the general public was left only with a vague vision of a shaggy-haired scientist who had a genius for viewing universal dynamics and stating them in mathematical jargon. All this was an unapproachable esoteric world wonderful and awesome, but vague to the general collective consciousness, until the reality of the theories took the form of an apocalyptic explosion - the atom bomb. The fact not only reached the eye, but brought about awesome death and deformity. The reality of the flesh which was so recently acknowledged now found itself vulnerable to the existence of the powers of nature manipulated by particles beyond visibility. This terrified man. An invisible force was realized. A colossal "Wizard of Oz" now lurked behind the molecule. We knew now that an atomic blast could make a volcanic eruption look like fireworks. The day of "seeing is believing" was over. There rested in nature invisible realities.

In the psychodramatic period of modern dance, the human was a one-man galaxy, complete with the potential of galactic psychological implosions. His universe was the agony and ecstacy of the self.

Now came a new threat by forces beyond his sight and control. This danger aroused the most elemental and atavistic fears -- the threat of unexpected destruction. With this there also came the possibility of the contamination of the environment in which he moved, breathed and passed this time in life.

The realization of the magnitude and vital importance of environment and ecology arrived. Man was forced to place his sex games second on life's agenda and to now primarily contend with the space in which he indulged his lusts.

His spirit was shaken. It was hurled into the realization that he was only a miniscule cog on the countless spoked wheel of Nature. But whatever the substance of the new sociodynamics, the arts, to qualify as "Modern", had to identify with it.