Amadeus, Milos Forman, 1984 © Warner Bros.
Amadeus, Milos Forman, 1984
© Warner Bros.
The image that first springs to mind when I ponder whether dance can exist without music is a scene from the 1984 film, Amadeus. In it, the dancers are rehearsing the wedding dance scene from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, without the music. Mozart’s score pages have been torn up by Count Orsini-Rosenberg, the Emperor’s opera director, after a dispute that ballet was not allowed within Vienna’s royal operas. Emperor Joseph II, a fan of Mozart’s work, makes an appearance at the rehearsal and watches, bewildered, as the dancers move about dutifully onstage, in count, music-less, the only sound being the thuds of their landings, the creaks of the floorboards beneath them. Joseph II is unsure of what to make of the silent, comically awkward scene. “I don’t understand,” he says finally, not wanting to offend Mozart or reveal his own ignorance. “Is it… modern?” Once the conflict has been resolved, music returns, and opening night reveals the dancers once again creating art, not confusion, with their movements.

We, the audience, have a keen appreciation for this kind of end result. Through the years, music and dance have come together to entertain, enlighten and provide art in our lives. Historically, ballet is a relative newcomer to the equation. Millennia before ballet’s inception in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries, dance has been around, to inform, to honor through ceremony and ritual, to enrich people’s lives and their world. In many cultures, the connection of music and dance are powerful, ingrained in everyday life and countless ceremonies. To this day, many African cultures do not have a word for music and dance as a separate entity. Movement to music is innate and unquestioned.

I experienced this firsthand back in 1985, when, post-university, I joined the Peace Corps and moved to provincial Africa, following four years of dancing with a ballet company. Dance became, overnight, a different concept entirely, as did the music accompanying it. You saw it everywhere: in houses, at public events, at parties, funerals, store openings, to greet visiting dignitaries, to bid others farewell. Music was simple: djembe drums, the deeper, more sonorous tam-tam drums, shaken gourds, singing. Movement seemed to arise from deep within the cores of the dancers, as a visceral response to the drumming. Dance flowed from their bodies. It was astonishing to observe, and, later, to try for myself. The music had compelled me, and mandated me to move.

 

Is music necessary to dance? And, conversely, can music turn inertia into art? Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 offers a dual response here. In the opening vignette, nineteen suit-clad dancers are sitting on folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle. Seconds pass, while lively music plays, before they actually move. They perform a set of energetic, synchronized dance movements, before returning to the same motionless, elbows-on-thighs slump. The music throughout is powerful and effective, making it feel like they're dancing, even when they’re merely sitting there, inert. Later, between vignettes, five female dancers are moving to the tick-tick of a metronome. To most people, the latter would not qualify as music, but the sound becomes oddly musical through watching the dancers’ movements. It could be argued, even, that dance created the music. Certainly a gifted tap dancer creates their own music, of sorts, when they perform on an otherwise silent stage.

These examples aside, can a dance performance fully actualize without music? I should present this caveat first: I’m a classical music lover and a lifelong ballet dancer. From the audience, observing ballet without music, dance without music, reduces my enjoyment of the experience. Yes, silence can be employed to prove a point. I have watched more than one contemporary ballet commence in silence. A thirty-two count introduction in silence can enhance the rest of the ballet. For being silent, it certainly makes a loud point. But do not ask me to embrace an entire ballet without music. It would leave me feeling only half-nourished.

Minus 16, Ballet San Jose © Alejandro Gomez
Minus 16, Ballet San Jose
© Alejandro Gomez

I love when classical meets contemporary, within both music and dance. It is here, in fact, where I find the most enriching sense of art being made in dance today: when both movement and music are chosen with care, to render an image of beauty and grace, conflict and release, query and response. Art that is nourishment for the senses, indeed.