Footloose: The face of a dancer

Face and body -- Both are crucial to expression  

Dance is unquestioningly about movement expression and exploration through the body. Classical and contemporary forms all over the world make certain distinctions between the use of the body and the use of the face in dance.

An investigation into the role of the face in dance proves to be an interesting one. Classical dance forms like ballet and Indian classical dance forms extensively use facial expressions along with the rest of their bodies to express and narrate stories through dance. In India, there is immense literature on ‘abhinaya', the art of expressing through the face. Classical ballets also utilised the muscles of the face for expression. For classical forms perhaps, the face was considered very much a part of the body, and not distinct from it. Till today, classical dancers use their faces extensively, and sometimes exclusively arguably blurring the boundaries between dance and mime.

Contemporary dance movements across the world, some of which started as a resistance to the classical forms, focussed on expressions entirely though the body, and not through the face. The stereotypical contemporary dancer's face did not ‘express' or reveal anything. It was up to the rest of the body to express, articulate and move. The face remained more or less static. More recently, the use of the face is becoming more acceptable in contemporary dance, but several dancers still continue to remain ‘expressionless' on stage, setting themselves the worthy challenge, no doubt, to express exclusively ‘ through the body'.

I believe that blindly taking either of these two opposing positions to use or not to use the face is a mistake. The question of the rightful and appropriate use of the face in dance is much too complex for a simple answer.

When watching classical dance performances in India, one is sometimes struck by the over-the-top, literal and inelegant use of the face where nothing is left to the imagination. I do believe that ‘abhinaya' is a subtle art. As soon as an expression becomes disingenuous and painted on, its beauty is lost. Moreover, dancers forget that the rest of their bodies are also meant to emote. So much so, that they invite criticism that they are not dancing, but rather performing mime. In that sense, subconsciously they make the same distinction between the face and the body that contemporary dance in the west has done in the past.

Perhaps contemporary dancers in the west and now in India chose to eliminate the face as a mode of expression partly for this reason. But I do wonder whether if this complete elimination is necessary. And whether, in fact, it is even possible to completely differentiate between the face and the rest of the body. Isn't the face a part of our body – with muscles capable of intricate and complex movement? I also wonder how far a contemporary dance piece would be enhanced with a subtle expression of the face, rather than the ‘poker face' we see sometimes on stage.

I think perhaps a midway path needs to be found between the opposing positions about using or not using the face in dance. Perhaps, some practitioners of the classical forms need to find a more subtle way of expressing through their faces. This is definitely possible, as I have seen while watching some wonderful classical dancers perform, through internalisation and introspection regarding the facial expressions rather than thoughtless projection of contortions of the face.

Moreover, if the rest of the body is not forgotten, an intentional focus on the slouch of the shoulders while expressing pain, and an arch of the back when expressing ecstasy, can make the entire body express as a whole.

Contemporary dancers, in turn, may not need to entirely eradicate the face from their mode of expression. Even in our day-to-day life, our face and particularly our eyes are one of the most striking ways to express ourselves without speech.

Why rob contemporary dance of this beautiful and moving mode of expression? Perhaps an amicable answer is to have a bit of both styles.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 10:44:51 PM |

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