dance Performance

“There Is No Need to Hide”: The Visible Act of Dance, the Visible Act of Writing

Dr Ilaria Grando returns to Artsolation with a lyrical piece on the choreographic quality of art writing and its implications in this time of lockdown. Can online platforms become modes of embodied connection?

This article is the first part of a series on dance.

“What the dancer does is the most realistic of all possible things, and to pretend that a man standing on a hill could be doing everything except just standing is simply divorce […]. Dance is a visible action of life”.[1]

Merce Cunningham

Write, delete, re-write, delete again.

In the last month, I found myself shaping a choreography of the unspoken and the unspeakable. I wanted to write an article or rather a series of articles about dance, but I could not find the right frame, phrase, or lens. Which choreography would serve me best at this moment? Which piece would speak of endless time, a limited space, and a universe of stories that are at the same time personal and widely shared? Dance, the art of corporeality and present interaction, at the time of COVID-19 involves risks that are too high to take. What was there to write about then? On the white page, I danced a pas de deux with my words and my insecurities, using the backspace as the main musical score, and the delete button as a recurring movement. Just as a dance piece, my actions on the Word document were ephemeral and physical: confined to the now; destined to vanish; reproducible and yet never the same. To write about dance during a pandemic that forced the world in a long lockdown seemed impossible. 

Re-think, refocus, re-start.

I started by giving myself some boundaries. I decided that I was not going to be writing about a past performance, that would have meant hiding from my experience and losing my purpose. I established that I was not even going to share that piece I wrote mentally after seeing a ballet in a buzzing Sadler’s Wells last October when the situation was different, that would have felt anachronistic, unconsciously nostalgic, and emotionally forced. Images, momentum, and storylines clashed with my present activating an impending sense of fear. What kind of analysis was appropriate in the Now? The advent of COVID-19, I believe, imposes academics to reconsider more closely their approach to research and writing. At the beginning of a pivotal text, Ways of Seeing, John Berger claims: “[o]ur vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are”.[2] In the present, my vision cannot exist outside of the lockdown I am experiencing: it can expand, shrink, and work things around, but it will always actively bring me back to the persona I am now and to the unique set of emotions that are generated by and because of lockdown itself. I cannot and do not want to hide this in my writing. Thus, I have decided to become more selective of my words, my thoughts, and my academic actions. I stopped and I waited, passively observing a world that kept moving throughout my immobility, as if in a choreography of the whole, I was taking a stand, by staying still.

Sometimes “tout commence par une interruption”, everything starts with an interruption.[3]

Ballet connects dancers in lockdown – Dutch National Ballet.

In the introduction to the collection Dance. Documents on Contemporary Art published in 2012, André Lepecki writes about “dance’s main constitutive qualities,” reflecting on “ephemerality, corporeality, precariousness, scoring and performativity”.[4] One passage in his consideration captures my attention, resonating deeply with my vision on the difficulties the dance and writing worlds are encountering now. “Dance’s inescapable corporeality” to Lepecki “constantly demonstrates to dancers and audiences alike concrete possibilities for embodying-otherwise – since a dancer’s labour is nothing else than to embody, disembody and re-embody, thus refiguring corporeality and proposing improbable subjectivities”. How to re-inhabit that inescapable corporeality in a moment that prevents the happening of corporeality itself? How to narrate different subjectivities without an evident re/dis-embodiment exercise? Of course, the pandemic has not stopped the corporeal realm to exist, but it has limited it to one’s self. For dance then, it is no longer mine and your bodies interacting on a musical score, but it is my body, and my body only, moving in a constricted and constricting space, for no immediate audience. The one space where such newly inhabited form of corporeality can happen in a way that resembles the traditional form is now virtual. The precariousness of dance, compared by Lepecki, to the “precarization of life” translates therefore in an exploration of space, time and movement that not only favoured a refigured corporeality, but also enable a reconfiguration of individual and collective interactions in domestic spaces estranged from the performative side of dance, and yet profoundly embedded in its realm made of bodies, feelings, and stories.[5]

Hold on” debuted online on April 21, 2020.[6] The short choreography by Milena Sidorova is the touching response of the Dutch National Ballet to the present state of emergency. Like many artists around the world, due to the pandemic, the dancers of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet are no longer able to perform on stage, but this did not prevent them from performing on a different kind of stage, the online platform YouTube. A dance made of pieces of dances occurring on different real and virtual stages, Sidorova’s choreography is the emblem of a world that has changed, and is changing; of a precariousness that is re-inventing itself; and of a corporeality that is not staging, but it is living. The choreography dialogues with the song “Hold on” by DI-RECT, composing a subtext of movements, hands gestures, and bodily silences that even though immediately ascribable in the song’s lyrics, succeeds in visualising the unspoken, and narrating a story that is personal to each dancer and yet widely sharable without falling into a cliché. Embedded within a second choreography of well-thought video edits, Sidorova’s score connects, touches, and embodies the present without lying.

What goes on stage, is the “visible action of life” in its purest form. No costumes, no makeup, no filter: even the videos’ quality is left untouched. The ballet dancers move in their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, turning the domestic environment into an opportunity to let life enter the choreography with even more force. Domesticity becomes a tool of creation: the walls are partners to dance with, the ceiling a way of virtually reaching the person living in the apartment above. Expanding the space, reducing the distance, Sidorova’s work makes the best of the virtual realm to which the choreography is dependent, creating a space that just as much as dance is ephemeral, precarious and yet extremely tangible. The dance might not have happened all at the same time, the performers might not have felt their colleagues doing the same set of movements right next to them, but what the viewer sees is the work of a company: it is a togetherness that unites corporeality, time, and space in the precariousness of a four minutes long video, in the present “precariousness of life”.

The song chosen by Sidorova to build this extremely honest piece of work asks to avoid hiding, hiding from feelings, hiding from the present, hiding from oneself, and I believe that in the historic moment we are living now, such invitation needs further consideration. Just as a ballet dancer does not need to mask the domesticity of a precarious stage, and hide the concrete reality of what being a dancer during a lockdown means, so a writer cannot hide the radical shift in the words that frame the everyday life experience. Dancing, like writing, is “a visible action of life” and for that it requires courage.[7]  

[1] Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance // 1952,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 28.

[2] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 2008, first published in 1972), 9.

[3] Paul Valéry quoted in Alessandro Barricco, Mr Gwyn (Milano: Economica Universale Feltrinelli, 2012).

[4] André Lepecki ed., “Introduction// Dance as a Practice of Contemporaneity,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] National Opera & Ballet, “Ballet connects dancers in lockdown– Dutch National Ballet,” YouTube video, Apr 21, 2020, accessed Apr 26, 2020,

[7] Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance // 1952,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 28.

Further Readings:

  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 2008, first edition 1972.
  • Lepecki André ed. DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012.
  • Barricco, Alessandro. Mr Gwyn. Milano: Economica Universale Feltrinelli, 2012.

Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher. Her PhD thesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in the USA, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. Ilaria is currently interested in questioning the visual culture that surrounds health and illness and developing an intimate art history. 


Staying in Touch

Dr Marta Zboralska looks at embodied expressions of vicinity and exchange in this piece about hands and performance.

I have been spending a lot of time on my phone. Scrolling through TikTok, I came across the ‘gesture challenge’: rhythmically gesticulating a sequence of emojis, as if you were dancing with your hand – just one – instead of your feet. I was reminded of Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966).

See Yvonne Rainer Hand Movie from Performa on Vimeo.

Hand gestures have long played a signifying role in artworks. In a Christian icon, it is the hand raised in a blessing that makes Christ readable as the Pantocrator. Giorgio Agamben has described this as the gesture’s ‘communication of a communicability’.* ‘I am a sign!’, the gesture seems to exclaim. ‘Read me!’

One of art history’s most recognisable hand gestures appears in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. There is a symbolic dimension to the fresco: it is a painting about humanity. But it is also, without doubt, a painting about touch. It relies on the palpable tension between two outstretched fingers, the expertly depicted state of almost-but-not-quite touching.

When they are held, hands indicate varying degrees of intimacy. At the more detached end of the spectrum, the handshake symbolises a formal, distant kind of familiarity. And yet, beyond its iconography, it is also a hug once removed – direct skin contact. If you were wearing gloves, you would take them off before shaking someone’s hand.

In Handshake Ritual, part of her Touch Sanitation Performance (1979-1980), Mierle Laderman Ukeles set out to shake hands with every employee at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Moving beyond the imaginary realm of hands whose ‘dirty’ work means that we can feel more ‘clean’, Ukeles’ ritual acknowledged the workers in a physical, haptic way. She recognised their bare hands as the hands in which collective responsibility lies quite literally and visibly: the individual hands of collective responsibility. Her handshake was more than just a ‘nice gesture’.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles from Artforum on Vimeo.

It was accompanied by a verbal expression of gratitude: ‘Thank you for keeping New York City alive’. Here the word ‘alive’ is figurative, in the sense of metropolitan motion and liveliness, and simultaneously tangible: what keeps the public, all of us, alive are not only clean hands, but the hands-that-do-the-cleaning.

As we try to reconcile social distancing with constant thoughts about our hands (wash your hands for twenty seconds, do not touch your face), Ukeles reminds us of the need to stay in touch with each other: to think beyond the gesture.

* Giorgio Agamben, ‘Notes on Gesture’ in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 58.

Further Readings:

  • Agamben, Giorgio. ‘Notes on Gesture’ On Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, 48-59. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
  • Molesworth Helen (ed.). Dance/draw. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz/Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2011.
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural. Translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Marta Zboralska recently completed her PhD on the studio of Henryk Stażewski and Edward Krasiński.