The phone call ended when my aunt said she was sorry but she had to go, it was time to leave for her ballet class. She is eighty-seven.
Further down the family line, we have a seventeen-year-old granddaughter who is studying dance. Her main studies are literature, history, and theology – she is an intellectual girl – but dance is both a passion and a minor academic subject. Her school dance class recently made a brief trip to New York to watch performances and to visit a studio. You might wonder why New York because our own country is not backward in dance. We took her recently to an evening of top-flight dance in Oxford where the renowned Rambert company were performing three breathtaking pieces from their repertoire.
A third member of our family, a daughter-in-law, is a professional dancer and is an animateur with Rambert, working across eastern England to instruct teachers and senior students in the company’s world-class choreography.
With all this talent around me, why is it that I have about as much flair for dance as the widowed Queen Victoria on a bad day? But certainly I enjoy watching dance, and another treat in Britain recently has been the weekly TV broadcasts from the BBC’s ‘young dancer of the year’ competition which ranges from ballet to Kathak and Bharatanatyam from South Asia.
If we consider the broad field of all the Arts, then dance and literature seem to be stationed at opposite wings: one is all body, the other all mind. They are both born from the imagination however and both can touch the heart.
This dichotomy will become clearer if I tell you about Ghost Dances, the key item that night in Oxford. It had been choreographed by Christopher Bruce, a gifted dancer and choreographer who had trained with Ballet Rambert, worked with leading dance companies in several countries and earned an international reputation.
'Ghost Dances' was thrilling. It entered the mind through sight and sound and made the heart beat faster. Being such a sensual experience, it cannot be conveyed adequately in words. And yet there is something to tell you that was not apparent in the dance itself.
The performance began with a darkened stage before a backdrop of mountain peaks seen through the mist. Three male dancers appeared, their faces impassive, just masks with deep black eye sockets and wild hair, their bodies painted to indicate skeletons. As they began to dance there was no music – only the sound of wind rushing. It was eerie, mesmerising.
Then Andean pipes began to whistle softly and we could pick out the notes of a stringed instrument plucked gently. As the rhythm intensified, the dancers suddenly paused and then moved in unison towards the audience, their masked faces staring out expressionless. The rhythm became insistent, led by drums. Then a change of pace: the music was gentler now and half a dozen figures in country dress moved slowly onto the stage. The masked figures receded. The music lightened. It became peaceful, Arcadian. Prominent among the country dancers were a woman in a red dress, a man in a jacket. But the masked dancers emerged from the shadows from time to time – the music ceasing, the sound of wind returning – to seize and carry off one of the country folk.
It was evident that the masked skeletal figures were a sinister presence, their interventions compelling, presumably fatal. But who were they exactly, and who were these country people? Where was the mountain scene and what was going on?
Music and dance, needing no words, are able to reach people of any language. Whether the audience spoke English or Tamil, Japanese or Maori, made no difference. The sensual and emotional appeal was direct. But the subtle questions went unanswered unless you opened the programme. Those who read English would learn this:
Ghost Dances was inspired by a book which describes the horrors of the Pinochet regime in Chile (An Unfinished Song by Joan Jara). This seventeen-year dictatorship, which came into power following a military coup d’état in 1973, became infamous for its oppression, kidnappings, torture and secret executions. Reading the Rambert programme notes, the dance took on a darker colour. This was not only Death or Fate intervening in the life of Everyman or Everywoman but a representation of infamy. It takes language to bring a sharper definition. I am reminded that the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, was considered a threat by the Chilean dictatorship and his death has been attributed to poisoning.
The programme notes also told us that “Ghost Dances absorbed many cultural influences from Latin America, its rituals, masks and fascination with the Day(s) of the Dead. Christopher Bruce was particularly intrigued by primitive South American Indian rituals, where the dead were celebrated in ceremonies at which elaborate skull masks were worn by ‘ghost dancers’. The dead were cremated and made into a ‘soup’ which was ingested by the tribe members. As Bruce said, ‘I liked the idea of the dead living on within those who are alive’ “. Finally, we also read that the dance could, tragically, relate to events in many countries across the world.
Reading the notes, layer upon layer of influence and intention are uncovered. On the other hand, simply in watching, the audience is moved and transported – and any amount of personal interpretations become possible.
The dance was premiered in England in 1981 – so this was a revival, one among many. Our daughter-in-law, the animateur for Rambert, has taught Bruce’s choreography. Our granddaughter has studied Ghost Dances for her school course. I haven’t asked my aunt whether she would like to perform in it.