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Posted on September 18, 2014 in Curator's Notes
Abstract Art Might Make Us Uneasy

Ballet Preljocaj photo Jean-Claude Carbonne

The Dance Centre’s Executive Director, Mirna Zagar, considers the abstract in art, the genius of John Cage, and the work of Angelin Preljocaj in the run-up to Ballet Preljocaj’s performances of Empty moves (parts I, II & III):

Warning: abstract art might make us uneasy

How many times have we heard that understanding abstract art is easy – all it requires is an open mind and a big imagination? I think we also have to acknowledge that this does not come naturally for everyone! Often we hear it said – well anyone could do that. In fact the best abstract artists have excellent skills that they choose to deconstruct: a finely-honed sense of composition, a deep understanding of how different layers come together and their balance, musicality and rhythm – in any art form. Abstract art might make us uneasy because as human beings we want to understand what things are about. In a world of increasing velocity we have less time to consider, and we want to grasp the understanding at a glance.  Not being able to understand immediately, having to apply ourselves more than we counted on, makes us impatient, and suddenly things become confusing, threatening even – yet what actually is happening is that the door is open for us to assign our own meaning to what we see.

How, then, should we approach Ballet Preljocaj’s Empty moves (parts I, II & III), an ode to the abstract that is inspired by the radical pioneer John Cage? To enjoy abstract art is to let ourselves explore how it comes together before us from the colours, lines, movements, sounds, lighting and textures. The patterning that arises from the movement or the positioning of the artistic elements creates the work and reveals a process. All of this helps us create or discover a meaning in a work of art – visual, visceral, intellectual, and emotional. I think that what we need to do with a work such as Empty moves is let go and allow the imagery, the feelings, the sounds wash over us: follow the dancers as they construct the composition and take it apart – look how they dip in and out of the forms that evolve - where does this moment came from, where could it lead? I try not to overthink, to let my eyes relax and travel around the space and the dancers’ bodies without any expectation, and to let the work speak. When the piece is over we reflect back and evaluate from our own perspective how impactful it was. Most contemporary dance is abstract – there is no actual story – however there is a wealth of ideas behind each of the moves which are open for interpretation. In the end it is very personal and it allows each of us to be just as creative in accepting and engaging with the work as the artist was in creating it.

The radical approach of John Cage

Just as with contemporary dance where any movement contributes to the choreography, in contemporary music every sound seems capable of being included in a music performance. John Cage believed that all sound, even silence, is music (a concept found in the philosophy of Plato and Sufism, amongst others) and there is no reason to organize it in accordance with precise laws. He was influenced by the chance operations of the I Ching, Zen Buddhism, and Dadaism: exploring the need to ask questions instead of making choices, the idea of music without a beginning, middle or end, even music as weather. Cage’s philosophy and approach were also highlighted in his collaborations with Merce Cunningham, where music and dance are independent but co-exist.

Empty Words 1977: photo Maurizio Buscarino

Cage’s Empty Words is a marathon text drawn from the journals of Henry David Thoreau. It is one of Cage’s most elaborate works towards a “demilitarization” of language. It consists of four parts: Part 1 omits sentences, Part 2 omits phrases, Part 3 omits words, and Part 4 omits syllables, leaving us nothing but a virtual lullaby of letters and sounds. The full score clocks in at some ten hours (you may be relieved to hear that Empty moves (parts I, II & III) runs a mere 105 minutes!).  The first time it was performed live in Milan in 1977, the concert morphed into a happening, a term dear to Cage. In the beginning the audience seemed intrigued, but soon began to shout, hoot, and protest. Some climbed on the stage in an effort to disturb Cage’s performance, while he continued to quietly read his text sitting at a desk illuminated by a small lamp. Despite the chaos - in which a member of the public even took Cage’s glasses away in an effort to stop him - he continued and when it was over, quite unexpectedly the audience burst into applause. Everybody agreed that Cage had won and the audience paid homage to the composer. The work expressed his philosophy that we need to accept that things don’t necessarily mean anything.

Cage famously said: If you think something is boring, try doing it for two minutes. If you still think it's boring, try it for four. If you still think it's boring, try it for eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and so on and so forth. Soon enough you'll find that it's really not boring at all. In other words, we should take our time and we will most likely be surprised at the end, with the discovery of ourselves or what we have simply witnessed. He was a prophet, a visionary, one of the most important of musicians, who remained an explorer throughout his life.

Empty moves: Cage, Cunningham and Preljocaj

I met Angelin Preljocaj for the first time in the mid-eighties just as he initiated the formation of his own company and I instantly fell in love with his work. Born in France to Albanian and Macedonian parents he trained in judo before making his rebellious foray into dance, despite his family’s disapproval of such an unmanly activity. One senses a taste of the French ballet style whose abundance and intricacy is stripped down through the influence of Cunningham abstraction.  His uniqueness never ceases to astonish and delight, and it is no wonder that Angelin has over time become one of the great icons of not only French dance but internationally.

It is really difficult to predict what his next work will look like. He often offers a twist on great balletic themes (Romeo and Juliet, Les Noces for example); his work ranges from contemporary fairy tales, to the political, to the abstract. His movement vocabulary is rich and meaty and his dancers, perfectly trained, are astonishing as they move in a way that is both effortless and sensual.

Of course Merce Cunningham, one of the great masters and innovators of the past century in dance, was Cage’s artistic collaborator and life partner for decades. It was, at least in the beginning, not unusual for audiences to walk out from Merce’s shows. It is not by chance that Angelin takes on this work for he was a student of Cunningham and also of Cunningham dancer Viola Faber. This comes across quite clearly in the way he has chosen to create the work. So, even if you have never seen a Cunningham choreography, this piece will give you a sense of an era.

In Empty moves (parts I, II & III) four dancers (Angelin’s full company numbers 24 dancers) mirror Cage’s philosophy and intent. There is no story. There are no tricks nor does the work desire to seduce you. Only non-stop movement, purity, endurance. The exquisite partnering which at times appears as a matter-of-fact encounter has unexpected twists in the use of the ankles, knees, arms. And what to me is fascinating is that despite the flow of movement, there is never a sense that the perpetual motion is superficial or overworked. It appears so simple and effortless, and the prize is the ending which leaves us in an almost trancelike state, arising from the dreamlike atmosphere. We also discover his sense of humour, as he periodically calls upon the absurd.

Cage’s Empty Words were in fact not empty at all and the audience applause at the end was an explosion of their sense of fullness: so it is with Empty moves. 

How do you respond to abstract art? Which works have made an impact on you – good or bad? Share your experiences in the comments below.


The Dance Centre presents Ballet Preljocaj in Empty moves (parts I, II & III) on September 25-26, 2014 at Scotiabank Dance Centre.

Photos: top - Ballet Preljocaj in Empty moves (parts I, II & III) by Jean-Claude Carbonne; bottom - audience members trying to disrupt John Cage's reading of Empty Words in 1977, by Maurizio Buscarino.


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