Let’s Dance

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

—from “Among School Children,” William Butler Yeats

Music and dance were perhaps born together. When small children hear music, they move. The impulse of the dance reveals an inner nature of music, and somehow dance brings music closer to the earth. Gravity pulls at jumping bodies, feet trace music into the firm, and the ephemeral art appears before our eyes in a spatial dimension, phrases drawn by the human form.

For musicians and composers of concert music, it is perhaps easy to forget how our art can be so intimately connected to movement. Dancers and choreographers, however, do not often ignore this symbiosis. Indeed, dance puts forth and preserves aspects of the art of music as part of its art, and the most vital dance companies display a profound commitment to the importance of music, presenting a total art in which the whole is much more than friendly collaboration or accompaniment.

Certainly, music for dance usually has a life of its own as concert music, and we take the music on its own terms. In 1959, John Cage offered these reflections on the relationship of music and dance:

“…The first thought is that the music and dance should have the same structure. When something new happens in the music, we should have something new in the dance…where does this simplicity come from? Certainly not from the world of sounds or the incalculable world of physical movement. The sounds we are able to hear exceed the limitations of musical notation, and no amount of dance notation will catch the life of a single step. What has happened is that we have used our minds, our thoughts about necessity, to narrow our awareness and limit our actions. This is how we have treated our arts, and even our language.”

By independently developing music and dance which would be performed together, Cage and Cunningham have emphasized the autonomy of their forms. Yet the union of their work has in practice helped us see the total art as something beyond either art form, a window into the simultaneity of life.

As a performer, I have worked at both extremes of the music/dance relation. With the Cunningham Company, I’ve rehearsed the music, and then seen at a dress rehearsal not hours before show time, the music and dance come together for the first time. What ensues is like an organism unto itself, as though two weather systems have come together to form something intense and localized. Having done some of the works with and without dance, my impression with the dance is quite different than in concert: the music feels much more like part of a spatial environment, fuller and even more alive.

Conducting at New York City Ballet and elsewhere, I have experienced another kind of melding, in which the timing of music is of supreme importance. Fidelity of tempo is paramount, and sensitivity to tweaking it to the energy of a particular performance is where the symbiosis gets rich. When a ballet corps moves and lands in fluid unison to the music from the pit is an exhilaration unto itself, as musicians and dancers truly breathe and move together.

These experiences with dance, though quite different in nature, have for me served to further humanize music and connect music to the breath and the earth. As a listener in a concert setting, I have sometimes wanted to move to the irresistible strains of works like Beethoven’s 8th or Copland’s 3rd, and it seems a pity that we have to be glued to our seats. Dance can make music feel even more whole, and give it new life.

How do you perceive the relationship between music and dance? When you attend a dance performance, which grabs you more—the dance, the music, or both in unison? What has been your experience as a composer, performer, or listener to the marriage of music and dance?