Gentlemen, let’s talk. For an eternity I have had to hear your excuses for not joining me and my increasingly small number on the dance floor. Dudes don’t dance. Dancing’s gay. It’s not in my DNA, just take a look at that chromosome! I didn’t have a response to any of those excuses when I heard them, often drawing a blank. But I’m a man, I’m straight, I enjoy dancing, but let me tell you why.
I need you to recall the last time you were at a club, bar, lounge, or any kind of social gathering. That’s not too difficult. Now imagine you’ve met a beautiful woman. You’re chatting her up, she seems receptive, and you both seem to be attracted to each other, but let me ask you something. How can you be sure she’s genuine? Will she disappear after you buy her a drink? Is she just a nice person who doesn’t realize she’s leading you on (not likely)? The answer to those questions comes in the form of another question (I promise it’s the last one). Do you look at her body?
Because I do.
No, I’m not talking about salivating at the sight of her curvature like Pavlov’s dog. I’m talking about observing her body language. You see, before we learn how to use verbal language as our primary tool of conscious expression, we have our bodies and nothing else. Even after we have learned to use our words, we continue use our bodies as a means of expression until our last breath, even if we don’t know it. The human form is fundamental to our expression, and it will always tell a story, no matter how simple or complex, whether we want it to or not. So it is no wonder dancing predates almost every form of storytelling mankind has devised. It’s a part of who we are. It’s ingrained in our DNA, and yet so many men in the modern world deny it, brand it as feminine.
I could try to sell you on it, claiming the greatest warriors of the pre-modern world were often the best dancers, or that Football players take ballet to maintain flexibility and prevent injury. If I’m being honest though, your loss is my gain. We’re here to appreciate dance as a form of storytelling.
Let’s start with The Nutcracker. Choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (op. 71), this ballet classic is adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann‘s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The heroine of this story is Marie Stahlbaum. Its Christmas morning, she and her family are opening their presents under the tree, and she finds a nutcracker fashioned after a soldier. Although it belongs to the family, she takes a particular liking to it and appoints herself as its primary caretaker. She and her siblings use it liberally until her brother, Fitz, inadvertently breaks it on a large nut. An upset Marie takes the toy away from him and uses her ribbon to repair its broken jaw. Later on the Nutcracker comes alive and transports Marie to a magical kingdom populated by dolls.
This is only my opinion, but when The Nutcracker premiered in 1892 in St. Petersburg, the feminization of dance was already under way. While this was not choreographer Marius Pepita’s most successful premiere it helped continue this trend. Like the majority of Pepita’s productions it had a female heroine, an ambiguous romance, and a brightly colored set. Productions that may have appealed to the men of the era like Don Quixote, were far outnumbered by the likes of Swan Lake, The Pharaoh’s Daughter, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.
Many friends of mine claim to have a difficult time interpreting these dances, but the truth is people from this era had help. Take another look at those titles I just listed. Like many movies of our time, a large chunk of the productions of Pepita’s era were adaptations of popular books. Certain movements and formations became associated with events in a novel or expressions of a character. Audiences caught on to this, and recognized it when choreographers retooled them for an original story. I often imagine contemporaries claiming “The book is better than the ballet” just to sound intelligent.
So who’s responsibility is it to fill in the gaps of modern dance, to take that extra step so that dance can be appreciated as one of the most genuine forms of storytelling? Writers will tell you it is the responsibility of the storyteller to do that. It seems most modern dance companies are inclined to agree. My favorite example for storytelling in dance is the now defunct LXD, or Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. Yes, it is a less than subtle play on the Legion of Extraordinary Gentlemen. You may recognize these guys. Those crazy dance numbers for the Microsoft Surface Ads – that was The LXD. They were even featured on TED Talks.
This web series, directed by Jon Chu, is about two groups of rival dancers: The Alliance of the Dark who are the villains and The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, the heroes, who discover they have superpowers referred to as “the Ra” through their dance abilities. The entire story takes place over hundreds of years, beginning in the 1920s up to the year 3000. It features more than twelve styles of dance, including ballet, hip hop, contemporary, break dance and tap. There are little to no special effects, the choreography and stunts are real, and everything is shot on location.
I had a hard time figuring out which episode of The LXD to leave you with, which best demonstrates the storytelling power of dance, and how Jon Chu’s series manages to close the gap. They’re all pretty good, but I think the comic book style of Episode 3: Robot Love Story, is a great place to start. Before you play this video, make sure your internet connection is good, and put on your headphones.
See you on the dance floor.