Gradually the movements become less zombie-like, more dance-like — which may simply be an optical illusion resulting from the addition of atonal music and drums to the movement. After all, any movement, when accompanied by music, will seem to take on the quality of dance.
Gradually, too, you and all the other spectators settle into a comfortable “watching” mode. It’s different for everyone. Many people are clustered around the edges of the room so they can take everything in. I preferred to stay in the middle, where I could focus on certain dancers (and audience members — they were as interesting as the dancers) for a while, and then move every so often to a different area to take in a different set of people.
Initially, the dancers were very careful to avoid the puddles of paint, which was incredibly suspenseful. Paint on the floor in modern dance is like a gun on the mantel in Act 1 of a play: at some point someone’s going to get it, and it’s not going to be pretty. Sure enough, before long someone’s toe or arm or entire head managed to slip into the puddle — and then it was just a mess. Because sweaty moving bodies are one thing; sweaty moving bodies covered in paint are another thing altogether.
But paint was only the beginning. Remember those blocks? the rubber bands? those piles of hair? Yep, you guessed it. Oh, the carnage!
One of the things I love about modern dance is how it forces you to think about aesthetics and beauty and the human body and movement. Unlike ballet, which is pretty much invariably gorgeous and perfect, modern dance is often intentionally messy and immediately physical, pushing the boundaries of what is beautiful and not beautiful.
That was definitely true as I stood in the middle of the Shen Wei Dance Arts’ performance of Undivided Divided at the Kennedy Center on Friday night. It was strange and a little uncomfortable to watch the dancers so closely — normally there are clothes and stages and a lot more space and social norms against staring that mediate our interactions with other people. Here, though, the whole point was to be in close to the action and see everything.
If you weren’t there in the room, you might smirk at that “everything” (scandalous!) — but the reality is that when you see someone up close like that, there’s a lot to take in. Yes, there was beauty and attraction, but also imperfection and repulsion — all embodied in the same dancer. Likewise, watching each dancer, you had a sense of vulnerability and presence (he’s right there!) but also coldness and distance (he’d tuned us out; and those 8 inches from me to him were as uncrossable as the “fourth wall” of any proscenium stage).
It was amazing. Weird. Thankfully short. Forty-five minutes after walking into that bright wight room, it was all over, and I was free to return to normal life, where clothes and space and social norms keep us clean and tidy and out of the paint.