Myth & the Movies: the Swan, Americana, & Mythology in Contemporary Dance

If you were a child in the 80s, you may have been inspired to dance by the movies Flashdance, or Dirty Dancing, or Footloose.  I wasn’t as cool at the time, I saw the American Ballet Theatre’s  Nutcracker (1977), recorded by my mother from television, and proceeded to imprint the images into my eternal memory.  (I now realize I confused Snowflakes for Sugar Plum Fairies.  Same dancers, different roles.  Light and ethereal nonetheless.)  The point is that these initial images, this initial exposure, defined dance as art for me, as images from movies do for many dancers.  One of the first dance movies to do this was likely The Red Shoes (1948).  In the movies, we  recognize our cultural selves.

In the movies, in cultural relics, we identify our myths.  Our myths define our lives, our drives, our passions, and purpose.  

Dance is full of mythology.  It appears in its various ways and forms.  The stories of fictional Billy Elliott, of real-life Bill T Jones mingle together on the mythographic plain.  Happily, our culture has its pervasive myths, dance-related or otherwise.  Life without myths would be unspeakably boring, and likely does not exist.  The difficulty with myth lies in the forgetting- myths warp over time and the telling.  

And so, the question becomes: whose myth is it, and who is doing the telling?  

Myths evolve.  Stories adapt to the human conditions of the times, or are left by the wayside.  Who has heard of Salome?  Martha Graham?  Madonna?  

In myths, birds are popular.  Maybe because they are so elusive, maybe because they fly and people aspire to flight.  Maybe because they are haunting, celestial, entrancing.  Watching flocks of birds in flight is the most harmonious choreography I have ever witnessed.  In romantic ballet there are swan maidens.  As well as sylphs and wilis- ghostlike and airy, if not precisely birdy.  The corps de ballet embody these mystical, light things: delicate and rare, captivating and held captive.  Elegant and ethereal phantoms that hover around the edges of existence.  

In ancient Europe, birds, being highest up to heaven, were considered more appropriate as food for nobility and royalty rather than peasantry.  A bird, a swan, being noble and appropriate to a princess, is the alter-ego of the cursed princess Odette in Swan Lake.  Based in Russian folklore, characterized by 19th century European royalty, and enlivened by prima ballerinas across the world, it lives on in contemporary mainstream consciousness by way of the movies.  In the recent American movie, Black Swan, a psycho-thriller drama stars an actress made famous by Star Wars, itself a contemporary movie mythography.  Though not an actual prima ballerina, Natalie Portman reinvigorates the Swan across mainstream contemporary culture.  

Swan Lake remains a pervasive myth.  

Myth is real.  In valuing scientific studies as certain truths, stock market figures as measures of success, and other such (actually unstable) markers of trust, flights of fantasy often become relegated to “entertainment,” and myth equates with fantasy.  But myths are pervasive, and come back at us in the form of social norms, philosophical discourses, architectures, popular candies, nervous disorders, hypotheses to be tested in scientific studies, and waves of fashion that make people money and fame and stock market success.  This is not an argument against the science of science, or even the business of money.  It is an argument against the assumed separation between myth and the world of impact.  If myths help define us, they define art, inform ideas and perceptions, have an impact on our bodies and histories.   Which is to say, dance has an impact on our bodies, our histories.

Ballerinas were a serious part of my world in the 80s.  They now hover on the edges, peripheral pulse of my thoughts.

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