Why we love dance

by Deike Wilhelm

Right now, we have to do without. We are without art, without culture, without dance. The theatres have been closed for weeks. Creative practitioners and art lovers are falling on hard times, not just financially, but mentally and emotionally, too. Why do we need cultural input? Why do we need our theatres?

Even if we are currently experiencing a sudden blossoming of dance and theatre in the virtual world, something is missing. Walter Benjamin called it “aura” – the magical act of witnessing a unique piece of art unfolding in the here and now. Practicing social isolation, we sit in front of our computers, tablets, smartphones or other digital devices, hoping to connect with the theatrical world. Dance has moved online, which is certainly an important step for the industry. And yet – it does not compare with the dark sacred space of the stage and the experience of communion it produces between audience and artists. When we stream a piece of dance, it is easy for our minds to wander during slow or difficult sections, and there are many distractions. Digital offerings can be inspiring, add something to the theatrical experience or provide context, but they can never replace the live event or approximate its intensity. Perhaps now more than ever, we are realising that in a life without art and culture an essential ingredient is missing.

Just before the theatres closed and the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich had to suspend all rehearsals, the company celebrated a great success in Hameln. Standing ovations, applause that would not end, more than ten curtain calls – the audience was in raptures. As soon as the very first piece – «Im Wald» (In the Forest) by the Artistic Director of the Dortmund Ballet Xin Peng Wang – had ended, it was clear that the seven young dancers had captivated everyone in the room. A moment of awed silence was followed by a storm of applause. After each piece, the applause increased. The energy coursing back and forth between the stage and the auditorium also seemed to grow stronger with each step and each movement. What exactly had happened here? What is it about ballet that fascinates audiences so much? What emotions were these young dancers able to unleash in those watching?

On stage, dancers show a deeply human quality: they fully inhabit their bodies. Every fibre of their being is visible. As members of the audience witnessing the vitality and beauty of their movements, the experience of embodiment and shared humanity resonates within us. Only a few generations ago, most people’s daily lives were still dominated by strenuous manual labour. Today, our work and everyday activities tend to alienate us from our bodies. We expect them to serve us and to perform well, and often it is only when they refuse to do so that we really take notice of them. At the same time, deep down, we have a strong desire to connect with our bodies. Some of us are able to identify and articulate this wish, while for others it is no more than a vague longing. Watching ballet can be an expression of this longing, and seeing dancers dance has the potential to satisfy that.

The reason for this is that audiences who are watching dance are, in fact, participating to some extent in the dance. Science has shown that when we watch others move, such as in a ballet performance, our own mirror neurons are activated and produce effects in the brain that are similar to what would happen if we were performing the movements ourselves. Even when we are sitting motionless in our chairs, these neurons are sending faint signals to our limbs and muscles, mirroring the dancers’ movements. Some neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons activate areas in the brain that are responsible for our ability to feel empathy, and they suspect that two different mechanisms are at play: On the one hand, the mirror neuron system produces a direct and subconscious response in the brain – a resonance with other people’s movements that does not depend on prior personal experience of such movements. On the other hand, knowledge and prior experience of certain movements do play a part. Scans show that the brains of experienced viewers of movement light up more strongly than those of less experienced or less attuned viewers. It follows that regular ballet-goers respond differently to seeing dance than newcomers do: their brains are more active. The legendary theatre director Peter Brook commented in an interview that with the discovery of mirror neurons, neuroscience had finally started to understand what had long been common knowledge in the theatre. Watching ballet, we understand what it means for body and soul to become one. We are reminded of the joy of moving to music, of surrendering to its flow, of being at one with ourselves as we dance. Moving rhythmically is one of the first ways in which we can, as human beings, express joy. It is a deep, instinctive part of ourselves.

One of the exciting things about the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich is the fact that it embraces two contrasting but complementary approaches to dance. Having studied in ballet academies for many years, the young dancers are used to observing themselves from an outside perspective. Looking in the mirror and receiving corrections from teachers and choreographers, they practice a certain position or movement until they know what it feels like and can reproduce it without having to check the mirror. Classical ballet is thus oriented towards the viewer’s gaze. Contemporary dance, on the other hand, shifts the focus inwards. Dancers feel their way into a movement and adapt it to fit their own bodies. It is about ‘being a body’ rather than ‘having a body’. For the duration of their two years in the company, the young dancers of the Bavarian Junior Ballet Munich practice both styles in equal measure. Their audiences benefit from this. Many of the contemporary dance pieces in the repertoire – for example «Im Wald» (In the Forest) or the more recent «When she knew» – are more than just beautiful works of art. They are deeply moving, almost like a meditation or a danced prayer. As members of the audience, we are participants in a sacred ritual that is designed to open our hearts. Now more than ever, our society needs such rituals.

Overall audience figures for dance have been on an upwards trajectory for many years, pointing towards an increased popularity of this wordless art form. Data published by the Deutsche Bühnenverein shows that, in comparison to other theatrical artforms, dance is currently selling the best in theatres across Germany. It can reach a multi-generational audience ranging from under-50s to over-80s. While drama requires an intellectual approach and opera is often impossible to follow without extensive preparation, dance is a physical language that can be understood much more easily. But what is perhaps even more important is that these young dancers show us true beauty. They treat the music, each movement and the space in which they move with reverence. The beauty they show us is founded in a solid dance technique. But they also cultivate inner beauty, not just glamorous virtuosity. They allow their inner light to shine through, for us and for themselves. Our society needs them, these people who explore the beauty of our humanity. This is why we need dance, art and culture. The recent proliferation of online dance offerings can contribute to this, perhaps by opening up new ways for audiences to interact with dancers, to dance along, or to inspire them to cultivate their own inner beauty. But online art will never replace the magical encounter between artists and audiences in the here and now. It is this magic that opens all our hearts.

Translated by Lisa Marie Bowler