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Mechanics, Choreography, and Gender Roles

Emily Coates and Sarah Demers

The relationship between forces described in Newton’s 3rd Law enables us to perform all of our daily actions—sitting, standing, walking, running, skipping, jumping. Whereas physicists can predict the average forces involved in each of these actions, suggesting a certain consistency in their value and interpretation, how a choreographer frames those movements can alter their meaning entirely.

Consider the action of scrubbing the kitchen floor on hands and knees, which the dancer-choreographer Blondell Cummings incorporated into her seminal 1981 solo, Chicken Soup. As Cummings choreographed the dance, the performer alternates between repetitive, rhythmic scrubbing—her long arms pushing the brush away and back toward her body, away and return—and up-on-her-feet dancing, which is wiggly, energetic, seemingly unbounded. Cummings’s composition alternates formally between the recognizable action of scrubbing and the more ambiguous meanings of her upright dance. As the solo progresses, she dance-ifies the movements involved in cooking, too: through rhythm, repetition, and expansive execution, they become choreographic. The set minimalistically evokes a kitchen, with a table and chair. Cummings wanted to create a solo about women and food, which spoke not only of her own African American family background but to a universal domestic experience for women across cultures.

What are the forces involved in Cummings’s movements? From the perspective of physics, we can think about her actions quantitatively. We know from Newton’s 1st Law of Motion that she needed a force to get going. There are biomechanics involved here—food becomes energy for the muscles that press into the floor to create Cummings’s rocking, scrubbing motion. Newton’s 3rd Law allows us to calculate the force she exerts into the floor and the force the floor exerts back on her. We could also measure the angle of those forces.

Apply Newton’s 2nd Law to calculate the force of her arm muscle and the force from the floor upon the scrub brush, and you can calculate the brush’s acceleration. However, as you might notice should you do a comparative study of floor scrubbing across contexts, her force and engagement with the brush possess an unusually dynamic intensity, for she is dancing the action. A snapshot F = ma would not necessarily pick up on the waxes and wanes in force that constitute the rhythmical structure by which she turns her scrubbing into dance.

Cultural forces are involved, as well. This is a dance about the socially determined gender roles prescribed throughout American history, represented in the domestic space of a kitchen and Cummings’s tasks. Also salient are the critical interpretations that viewers confer upon race. Although Cummings intended the dance as a universal statement about womanhood, because she was a black woman the solo has frequently been interpreted as a black protest piece.

Everyday action in concert dance takes on different meanings depending on the artist, time period, and audience. Blondell Cummings worked in an aesthetic lineage that reached back to the early 1900s, when Isadora Duncan was reacting sharply against what she believed was the harsh artifice of classical ballet training on the body and designing a way of dancing she deemed more natural. Duncan’s movement was not totally extracted from precivilized existence—her aesthetic influences included the philosophy of Nietzsche and classical Greek sculpture. But she nonetheless opened the floodgates to a new way of dancing before the public—solo, as a white woman—partly by including movements that many in the audience could have performed.

In Weimar Germany in the 1920s, the choreographer and theorist Rudolf von Laban not only incorporated pedestrian movements, he also opened dance to the untrained when he created massive movement choirs with hundreds of participants. Everyday action became large-scale dance spectacle in his hands.

In New York City during the 1960s, an adventurous group of young choreographers pushed the type and range of actions that could be included in dance farther, partly by inventing new choreographic structures to organize those movements. They created rigorous spatial and temporal scores to contain everything from walking and running to moving mattresses and eating apples. The group presented their work under the collective Judson Dance Theater and have since come to be known as pioneers of postmodern dance.

Cummings emerged as a performer in the late 1960s out of Judson circles of influence. She developed her own unique spin on composing with everyday action: whereas Judson artists decontextualized everyday behaviors in their compositions, Cummings returned them to their original context by alluding to their settings—as with the spare set that evoked a familiar kitchen—thereby charging those actions with a social commentary all her own.

Using pedestrian movements, dance artists have challenged classical ballet’s elitist domination in dance, brought high art to the masses, democratized the space of public performance, and drawn attention to marginalized experiences. When the movements onstage look more like everyday life than virtuosic technical feats, hierarchies begin to topple.

If walking is presented as walking—without expressive flair or kinesthetic flourish—what pushes it into the realm of art? One way to answer this question is to consider the artist’s compositional choices: the temporal structure, spatial organization, and movement vocabulary all impact the viewer’s perception of any movement, whether spectacular or quotidian. By subtly arranging a walking pattern, or juxtaposing movements against each other—the action of scrubbing against interpretive dancing, for instance, in the case of Cummings’s formal innovation—the choreographer can render something that is familiar unfamiliar. Through this defamiliarization, we can be jolted into seeing our world afresh. To quote the choreographer Yvonne Rainer quoting the composer John Cage (who was himself repurposing a verse in the book of Ecclesiastes), there is nothing new under the sun; there are only new ways of organizing it.

From Physics and Dance by Emily Coates and Sarah Demers. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Emily Coates is associate professor in the theater studies program at Yale University, where she created the dance studies curriculum. Sarah Demers is Horace D. Taft Associate Professor of Physics at Yale University. Their work has been featured in the World Science Festival and covered in the New York Times and the New Yorker.

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