“(Not)Beautiful Contemporary Dance” – an article from the WM call

By: Raminta Bumbulyte

The surrounding environment is full of magazines, salons and advertisements offering beauty products, services and visions. For some, it is only natural that the topic of beauty constitutes an integral part of their lives, whereas for the others, it serves as a reason for discomfort and even isolation. Beauty is a category of aesthetics studied by numerous thinkers from Immanuel Kant to Plato. However, since the arrival of Modernism this topic has lost its relevance in intellectual discussions and has been rejected as socially impotent, morally ambiguous and suitable only for the fields of psychology, fashion, advertising and marketing[i].

In his book Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (2007), Professor of Philosophy of Princeton University Alexander Nehamas opens up a new perspective towards beauty. The philosopher restores the characteristic of beauty that had already existed in the ancient times but disappeared from the works of subsequent thinkers, i.e. desire. According to Nehamas, to claim that something is beautiful is the same as to declare the beginning of interest rather than to announce the final, evaluative verdict[ii]. A beautiful object stimulates curiosity of a perceiver, causes intrigue, involves, excites, encourages further interest, provokes deeper knowledge and invites to further experiences. Desire is that particular link connecting an object of beauty with individual motivation and wisdom: “The art we love is art we don’t yet fully understand”[iii]. Not only Nehamas discovers a lot in common between beauty and love, but also identifies one with the other: “Beauty is <…> everything we love in a person <…> but are unable to say what that is.”[iv]

When facing an object of beauty the words are not enough to express the feelings and experiences it arouses, this may be done through dance. To illustrate, in the film Zorba the Greek by filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis, one of the main characters expresses his pain caused by the loss of his son with the help of dance: “When a man is full… what can he do? Burst? When my little boy Dimitri died… and everybody was crying. Me… I got up, and I danced. They said, ‘Zorba is mad!’ But it was the dancing… only the dancing that… stopped the pain.”[v] It is not known what exactly that dance looked like but it must have undoubtedly been of dual nature. On the one hand, it is unlikely that a short, stout, mature man could create an aesthetic dance conforming to the canons of classical beauty. On the other hand, the lack of professional dance skills as well as deep, sincere grief could give the impression of raw, fundamental human nature. A sorrowful dance of Zorba must have been (not)beautiful, i.e. both beautiful and not beautiful at the same time.

Every human being who faced the need for beauty evaluation in his or her early adolescence is familiar with the discomfort caused by the concept of beauty and its chameleonic nature. When teaching both men and women the art of love, British human dynamics coach Matthew Hussey comments on one of the most frequent fears (“I am not beautiful enough”) in the following way:

“We all know people who look like they’re out of a magazine and yet they carry no energy; they don’t have the right attitude, the right outlook; they haven’t got the sense of humour; they’re not funny, they’re not intelligent. And as a result, actually, they start to become less beautiful to us. And we all know people who don’t look like they would ever be in a magazine and actually become massively attractive. And I know people like that. They have this charisma and this charm and magnetism that draws people to them.”[vi]

In his teachings, Hussey clearly distinguishes and emphasizes two kinds of beauty, i.e. objective beauty and perceived beauty that define not only physical and psychical qualities of an object of beauty but also the link between a perceiver and an object of beauty.

Quite a few manifestations of objective beauty can be traced in classical ballet performances. Here, all elements starting from the language of choreography and orchestra music to scenery and costumes are time-tested. In classical ballets, the dancers turn into perfectly graceful creatures, the most complex pirouettes are performed almost effortlessly, sexuality and passion never transgress ethical norms, the stage design reminds of a romantic dream rather than an often dull and dirty everyday life, whereas the music does not irritate the audience with dissonant chords. These particular features of classical ballet ensure an unfading romance between this dance and its spectators.

Examples of objective beauty can also be found in performances by contemporary choreographers. For instance, in the performance Love Songs (2011, choreographer Tim Rushton) by the Danish dance theatre Dansk Danseteater, twelve dancers perform numerous actions with the same elegance, grace, fluency and flexibility: they sit straight on the chairs, throw their outstretched, long legs into the air, wave their hands in broad motions, bend their torsos down in a slanting spiral, gallop along the stage in big leaps, fall passionately into each other’s arms, flirt subtly, etc. These movement groups are further supplemented with the stage design consisting of the screen with reflecting circles upstage, fairly smart and glittering costumes and soft, melodious vocal jazz music performed live on the stage.

However, the majority of contemporary dance performances are a far cry from Love Songs. Here, dancers employ a much more brutal choreography, express the entire range of emotions more dramatically and tend to avoid not only additional scenery elements but often costumes, too. For example, in the performance Closeness (2011), Szymon Osiński, the dancer of the Polish dance theatre Zawirowania, who is already in his forties and has a slightly protruding belly, undresses halfway revealing a far from perfect body, repeatedly wipes his heavily perspiring baldhead with his clothes, pats his cheek, belly and thigh, breathes heavily and moves in jerky and abrupt motions. In the performance Horse Tail (2010), Ruby Edelman grabs a woman roughly and rudely by her crotch, pulls her by her ponytail, drags her along the floor, kisses passionately her chest and ignores her objections. An even more dreadful example could be the performance When the Beast Returned (2011), where dancer Ido Tadmor laughs in an ear-piercing voice, screams, moans, spits and imitates masturbation. The romance between contemporary dance and its spectators is unstable, full of frustrations, fear, passion and emotional storms.

The more a contemporary dance performance distances itself from the aesthetics of classical ballet, the more confused the audience feels. The bravest express their confusion openly: “I’m just curious why half/more than half of the performances organised or staged by Aura (i.e. the dance theatre Aura in Lithuania, – R.B.) are permeated with perversions/convulsions/demonisms/murder imitations/sexual acts, etc.? For God’s sake, contemporary dance or its quality is definitely not defined by nude bodies, sex, screaming, raping, etc.”[vii] Such comments make us shrug our shoulders as we have to decide whether a spectator is interested in the discussion on multi-layered psychological, social and cultural planes meeting in a contemporary dance performance or whether he or she merely wishes to state the qualities that do not connect personally with the object of beauty.

Going back to the types of beauty singled out by Hussey, perceived beauty depends on the harmony of individual qualities of an object of beauty in the eyes of a perceiver. Facing an object of perceived beauty is always a highly personal experience similar to that of falling in love. The “je ne sais pas quoi” element becomes the most significant characteristic of an object of perceived beauty as every human being identifies and evaluates the things that attract him or her most in different ways.

While avoiding the aesthetics of objective beauty, contemporary dance invites spectators to such personal experiences, individual love affairs and romances as well as encourages enriching the list of features normally associated with beauty. Alexander Nehamas claims that beauty is not always easily noticeable, therefore a piece must be interpreted.[viii] According to the philosopher, “to interpret” means to identify the link of an object of beauty with other objects of the world as well as with yourself. “To interpret” means to ask “why?” and to try to understand. When establishing a closer link with dance, it is important to concentrate on your personal connection with a (not)beautiful object. In a classical ballet performance this action is performed without straining your mind or disturbing yourself with those wearisome questions “why?”. This could be the reason why the majority of people consider classical ballet to be a certain standard of beauty, i.e. it is delightful to the eye, soothing to the mind, completely undemanding. Classical ballet is like a perfect lover existing only in your imagination and yet never letting you down, never becoming a part of your imperfect daily routine. A personal link with contemporary dance is absolutely different. While observing this kind of dance numerous questions arise, whereas the dance itself is not intended to pamper the audience; quite on the contrary, it seeks to provoke, to reveal this “not beautiful”, aesthetically unattractive side of a body and everyday life. The connection with such a capricious dance object is never easy and offers multiple challenges, discoveries and new experiences that allow you to test your intellectual attitudes, the strength of your emotional status; enable you to construct, adapt and change your relation towards the world and environment.

Raminta Bumbulytė


[i] Monique Roelofs. “Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art by Alexander Nehamas”, in: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Fall, 2008), p. 399.

[ii] Alexander Nehamas. “An Essay on Beauty and Judgment”, in: The Threepenny Review, No. 80 (Winter, 2000), p. 5.

[iii] Alexander Nehamas. Only a Promise of Happiness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 76.

[iv] Regis Schilken. “Book Review: Only a Promise of Happiness – The Place of Beauty in the World of Art by Alexander Nehamas”, in: Blog Critics (April 15th 2007). Internet access: http://blogcritics.org/book-review-only-a-promise-of/.

[v] Michael Cacoyannis. Zorba (Fox Video, 1964).

[vi] Matthew Hussey. Am I Pretty Enough for Him? Internet access: http://youtu.be/NoBnas-LcG4.

[vii] C. on the Impressions from the Aura Festival. Private source.

[viii] Alexander Nehamas. “Art, Interpretation and Rest of Life”, in: Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Nov., 2004), p. 35.

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