Modern Dance's Interdisciplinary Marriage

I received this ad in my inbox today.

Clicking through takes you to the preview of the ballet meant to accompany an exhibit of Lawren Harris’s works at the AGO this coming fall.


It’s probably going to be good. Ballet is its foundational language; the shapes and lines are long, rounded, not interrupted the way they are in modern dance. Legs are turned out and necks are extended, the piano a gush of chords. There’s only one thing that could suggest the piece is modern: the costume.

When I first see the nude suit in dance, I think a) it must be modern, or b) they ran out of money before they got to the costumes. Upon seeing the budget, choreographers hustle to write a blurb on their creative process, saying something like “costumes would distract from the raw emotion of this piece,” or “I want viewers to feel my naked soul while they watch” and we all say ahhh and nod like we really can feel their souls but don’t especially want to see them naked and are mostly confused because we thought this was a ballet with tutus.

The National Ballet claims “choreographic associate” Robert Binet “will create an immersive ballet capturing the dynamic forms and emotional themes of Harris’ work, evoking isolation, transcendence and mysticism.” Okay. That’s nice. I can connect those themes, the way the dancers are moving, and the music. I understand that in the marriage of visual art and dance, abstraction is necessary, as it is at a level anyway to view Group of Seven material. I will probably even go to check it out.

I sort of would like costumes, though.

I ended up spending the day thinking about nude costumes in dance, wondering why they keep reappearing. They’re frequently employed in realizations of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.


The pagan ritual around the eruption of spring, and ensuing sacrificial dance tells me there was probably no other choice than the nude costume; dressing up to get closer to the earth seems inefficient. While the original costumes were rather elaborate and there have been lots of costume reinterpretations, including ones of actually nude dancers, the nude dress or bodysuit is a default.

Rite of Spring is a turning point for dance and music; arguably, modern dance springs from this moment and becomes a site of rebellion, letting choreographers lurch, jerk, and hurry, hurry, stop (my favourite descriptor for the genre) against the restrictive rules of ballet. More importantly, dancers don’t have to look the part of ballet, eschewing frilly tutus for skin-coloured spandex.

Don’t believe me? Watch a few clips of So You Think You Can Dance modern excerpts.

Not only are the dancers in dull costumes, they also look worried. All the time. Maybe they fear never getting to wear colour again.

Last year, I went to see Chroma, staged by the National Ballet. Part of a longer night of varied pieces, Chroma left me breathless. It’s a contemporary ballet, with a different take on nakedness.


I still think about it all the time. I’d actually travel somewhere to see it again because it was one of the few powerful performances that hovers like a demon waiting to snatch me away. I realized today that maybe one of the reasons these pieces generate the reactions they do – Rite of Spring famously incited riots in the Paris audience when it premiered – is because of their intimate relationship with another art form. For Stravinsky and the creators of Chroma, our focus is really on the music, but we don’t know that because we’re so visually oriented. You think you’re reacting to the stark whites or shiny muscles emerging from bland suits, but you’re actually getting stabbed in the ears over and over by sounds that should have a visual descriptor because they’re so tangible.

Chroma choreographer Wayne McGregor talks about the music in his discussion of the piece, but also talks about the concept – nothingness upon which the dancers “provide relief from this sense of white.” Maybe he also had a tight budget. In this case, I doubt it.


And he calls the music “acerbic” and “violent,” a contrast to the empty space of the set. Costumes would amount to sensory overload; instead the intimacy of the dancers draws you in, makes you want more, offers warmth against a disruptive background.

Maybe that’s the enduring appeal of pieces like Chroma and Rite of Spring; intimacy comes in other forms like this one that always makes me cry:


I’ll be curious to see where it comes from at the AGO.