Look to Dance to Understand the Everyday, and Other Lessons From Gia Kourlas

As the editor of the Culture Desk at The New York Times, Gilbert Cruz relies on critics, reporters and editors in every field of the arts for their expertise. Now we’re bringing his personal questions — and our writers’ answers — to you. He’s currently wondering about how the pandemic has changed the way everyone (including dancers) think about their own bodies. It’s just one of the questions he posed to the Times dance critic Gia Kourlas.

Gilbert asks: Gia, hello! I have so many questions for you, but I’m going to start very specific and then broaden out. I want to ask about your fantastic story from March in which you interrogate what a “ballet body” is and how this pandemic pause might change attitudes when it comes a dancer’s weight, being “too muscular” and the like. I have to think you heard a lot of feedback from the dance community. Can you share some of it?

Gia answers: It was important to me that it have nuance, and the feedback that I received assured me that it did. I really wanted to start a serious conversation; it’s such a loaded topic, but it’s a real one, and it even brought back my own issues and memories of being told that, as a dancer, I was too muscular. I remember being spoken to after class by a teacher — I won’t name him — who actually flicked his fingers at my thigh and said something like, “What is that?” Breasts being too big? I’ve been there, too.

I know I experienced none of the trauma of many of the dancers I spoke to, both for the story and over the years. That was just to say that the idea of body image penetrates deeply. While this was a story specific to the dance world, we also live in a society that prizes excessive thinness. So, yes, I heard from many people through social media both in and out of the dance world. I received private messages, too. I especially treasured some words from two choreographers who mean the world to me. One simply said, “Long overdue.” And at this point in my career, I am too used to seeing young, teenage dancers filled with such hope and promise at the start of their careers to then have what basically looks like a midlife crisis at age 22. If I can ask questions and bring up subjects that might affect the culture, now is the time to do it. That’s why I wrote the article.

Gilbert asks: One of the things that I’ve come to realize about being a dance critic is how much of it involves writing about bodies in such a direct way, at least relative to the other performing arts, in which discussions about bodies as physical things have been largely (and probably rightly) scaled back. Does that ever feel fraught to you?

Gia answers: Generally, it doesn’t feel fraught, but at the same time I am aware of the sensitivity it takes to write about the body and how easily something could be misconstrued. I don’t want to hurt someone — and that’s not to say that I haven’t — but I try my best not to be cruel. And while I might love the way a dancer’s leg is shaped or the length of an arm, I don’t like to fetishize the body or dancers. To write about them as creatures or objects is really distasteful to me. Dance is about the body, but I don’t think entirely about what a body looks like — sometimes a skinny dancer can’t really dance. I love older dancers. And I really am excited to see performances by the dancers who have just had babies because I think their dancing will change — it will have a different kind of awareness and freedom.

What’s more important to me is what that body does, how it moves through space, what residue it leaves behind; or, in stillness, how it changes and holds the space around it. One thing that is so interesting to me about this digital age in performance is how the dancers who have complete command of their bodies don’t lose their magnetism and directness on film. Ayodele Casel’s recent Joyce show, “Chasing Magic,” blew me (and Mandy Patinkin, too, apparently) away, and part of the reason was the power of the dancers, including herself — how I could feel the power of her dancing and the cellular control she has over her body through the screen. It’s wild. Mayfield Brooks, in “Whale Fall,” another digital performance, was so intuitive, so visceral. It was another performance that bled through the screen.

Gilbert asks: I remember early on in this pandemic, after the performing arts shut down, you wrote a piece about how we were all trying to steer clear of each other in public places because of a fear of spreading the virus. It was you seeing the ways civilian bodies were moving in relation to each other and being able to write about it. It’s one of the many ways in which you see “dance” as existing outside of the typical venues — in all forms of culture, and in everyday life. I guess that’s not a question more than an observation.

Gia answers: At the start of the pandemic, I could feel that people were suddenly becoming aware of their bodies: of their placement in space, of standing up a little straighter in order to — in my imagination at least — feel their own weight. People are so alienated from their bodies. Recently I wrote another story, which I think of as a companion piece to the one you mentioned, called “Slowing Down to Feel.” That was in January, when the shutdown was really dragging on; it was winter. It was getting hard to not feel lethargic. Ignoring your body is like being half alive; I wanted to show people how they could transform their minds — at least to get through the next few months — with somatic practices that lead to a new kind of internal attentiveness.

So whenever I can, I like to write about movement in terms of what you see and what you feel. And I always think that if people are more comfortable with feeling, they will be more open to seeing dance that is outside of the box. They will know that quieting your own body in order to watch others speak with theirs is kind of exciting. It’s the opposite of letting something wash over you. That’s what’s missing right now: the energetic exchange with an audience. I know other art forms can relate, but I don’t think it’s as important to them as it is with dance. It’s so fragile because it disappears, but it’s also thrilling because it disappears.

Gilbert asks: Is that what is missing right now, that thing you identified? Have we gained anything when it comes to dance over the past year — either in the ways audiences have been able to access it or the way performers have been able to reach different audiences?

Gia answers: I don’t think that digital dance will disappear, and that’s good and bad. When it’s innovative and comes from a deep place of inquiry and research, it’s wonderful. My fear is that the worst part of it will stick around: dance as a perfume ad, where the camera caresses the body and shows something conventionally sensual instead of something deeper and more sensorial.

I think one thing we’ve gained is a hunger for live performance — on both sides of the stage. But what I’m most hopeful for is change behind the scenes. There’s a lot of inequality in the dance world and a stale leadership mentality — this is the way we’ve always done it, so why change? Please change. I’ve been writing a lot about dance artists becoming more empowered in every corner of the dance world. I definitely want that to continue: dancers using their voice. And I want every Black female corps de ballet member to start getting roles of substance and not just be featured in marketing campaigns. Financially, the pandemic has been horrifying, but it seems that because of it some kind of change might happen.

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