Fantasia and the Intimate Embrace
by Bruce Spear
Mostly I want to be dancing and not writing about it, and usually the conversation is likely of little interest outside of those taking part in it, but when explaining to a partner how completely wonderful, but from a very different time, was the dancing I saw of Gloria and Eduardo Arquimbau in New York City last year I learned that my explanations made little headway until I could dig up some youtube videos and offer a demonstration. So now I have something to say.
The problem was explaining the “fantasia” style to someone who had not grown up watching Disney films, and more generally, understanding the difference between the older and newer, more modern way of dancing that my favorite teachers and dancers dance, something that has been heavily influenced by modern dance and features less emphasis on showing for others and more on the partner’s communications, what I first learned in San Francisco as “the intimate embrace”.
The older style is perhaps best introduced with the film that has given it its name, “Fantasia”, and especially the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence, which I will then compare to a video from the 1950s of Gloria and Eduardo — a performance consistent with the dancing they perform for others today, such as this clip made around the time that I saw them in New York City in December 2007.
Both clips begin with the protagonists as lower class and stuck doing menial work for a living, and in both the absence of their masters occasions their breaking into dance.
To be sure, the Disney clip is vastly more complicated as Mickey enters into a Faustian bargain with technology. He steals the sorcerer’s hat, assumes the magical powers that comes with it, orders the brooms to set about collecting water, only to wake up from a dream of infinite power to find that the brooms have run amok and that he is powerless to stop them. It really is a remarkable nightmare, for then he chops the uncontrollable broom into pieces only for each to regenerate yet another uncontrollable broom and all obsessed — this film produced in the California desert — with collecting unlimited supplies of water and ending with the sorcerer’s return, an all-powerful God parting the waters, to save the errant child.
While Gloria and Eduardo dance shares with the Disney film a celebration of youthful energy, playful sense of purpose, and happy precision in movement, their scene of work is simply a background for a light, decorative comedy and there is nothing of the psychological complexity nor historical allegory. While in this clip’s final scene the actors and camera move so that their employer, still sleeping, is hidden behind the dramatic end pose, there is absolutely no threat that she will wake up or return later to haunt them.
In the contemporary dance clip of Tomás Howlin and Brigitta Winkler one finds neither depth psychology nor historical allegory, but a drama of real-time communication being worked out on the surface of the dance, for example, in the follower’s taking her time in the turns. It is clear that these skilled dancers can and do move perfectly as one, but when they do not it is always because the follower has chosen to slow down, offering resistance, until one can almost see the a debate over autonomy and cooperation being played out in slow motion.
I don’t think I am projecting onto this clip, because something like this is what I am being taught here in Berlin from teachers who know Brigitta Winkler and her dance intimately. I have had to learn how to lead, but the business of leading, so I am being taught, is carefully limited: I set the direction and pace, and at the end of a step or figure I regain control to do so again, but in the middle my partner is active, responsible, signals to me all manner of feeling and suggestion, and if I don’t take that up I am an idiot.
Show dancing is often a wonderful thing, but it seems beside the point of much of the social dancing that I am learning, where men of my generation have to learn how to lead, as if we lost this along the way, and where women have to learn how to follow, as if they lost that along the way, too. Many say that rock and roll killed partner dancing, and I can believe them; I think we are returning to partner dancing to regain something that was lost.
I watch the dancing of Gloria and Eduardo in the same way that I watch Olympic ice skating, as so many highly stylized figures and predictable, disciplined acrobatics. I watch the modern dancers in the same way that I listen to jazz, and I think it is because the modern dance foregrounds improvisation as a problem not simply of lyric invention, but as communication and coordination. Gloria and Eduardo are exceptionally skilled dancers, and seeing them in New York City in 2007 was a treat, and they certainly know how to communicate with each other, but they are not exploring this communication at the same time as they would show it to us. Now, I understand that staging authenticity is staging in another name, but one can stage moments of exploration and risk, and I think that we evaluate this as one recognizes a spark: immediately, if one is attuned to it, and confirms this recognition in a feeling of satisfaction.
To illustrate this I’ve chosen the piece Silk, filmed by Astrid Wieske, where Brigitte Winkler is dancing with Fabienne Bongard in a Leading Ladies of Tango performance. This is as much modern theater and modern dance as it is tango, with the sound of a gentle rain falling and a steady subtle heartbeat instead of tango music. The benefit of this quiet, subtle background is that offers nothing in the way of structured musical sequence, never mind drama, but falls to the background so that we evaluate the pace, duration and quality of each element against the interaction of the dancers themselves, their impulses.
The piece also works against the traditional tango because it is danced by two women, and instead of the usual assumption of leader and follower this piece begins with the partners lifting their flowing silk blouses off of their shoulders until they fall down partway so that we can imagine them pressing their breastbones together. Then, instead of the traditional, male-led drive forward with the woman being driven backwards, the dancers start by swaying together, and not walking but turning around each other so it is not clear who is leading, and instead, that these turns are about exploration of each other’s bodies in turning.
As of the summer of 2009 I’ve been dancing only five years, but already I’ve noticed this unusual change in my own dancing and that of others. About two years ago many of us were quite taken by electro-tango, including its novelty and pace, and that pace extended to experiment with figures, so that in a tando many of us intermediate dancers would make a point of exploring our full repertoire of 30-50 figures (far short, of course, of the many hundreds the experienced dancers might know). But over the past six months or so I’ve noticed that, at least in my circles, we are dancing fewer figures, doing more walking, slowing down, and paying more attention to the quality of our movements and communications. “Finally!” said one of my favorite partners, who is in her late 60s and has retired to Berlin to dance, “I am finding partners who will wait for me!”