The Pre/Post-Moral Response

In her essay, “Imagining Dance,” Joan Acocella argues that a kinetic imagination exists parallel to but apart from the critical intellectual brain. Her main allegation in this piece is that dance consists of a series of patterns, originating somewhere deep in the recesses of human biological and psychological memory, which bring a sense of satisfaction to the viewer when recreated through performed movement. Though a balanced perspective—one that makes use of both sides of the brain—is needed in order to criticize a work of dance, Acocella urges her reader to trust his or her instinctive response when watching dance. She speaks beautifully of an all-encompassing human language of movement in which certain patterns and energies shown in dance bring up the same response that strikes a chord somewhere deep in the biological blueprint of every person. However, Acocella phrases this assertion as though human beings are programmed to respond in specific ways to certain energy patterns. In making such universal and sweeping generalizations, I feel that the author neglects an important part of the human experience of not only dance, but all art: individual insight.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will assume, like Acocella, that there are two fundamental responses that occur in a person upon viewing a dance. The first is the visceral, emotional response, which Acocella defines as “premoral,” and happens before the second intellectual response kicks in. She describes the premoral in this case as a satisfying response, using the example of a small thing cutting through a big thing, and surmises that there is a “biochemical basis for this pattern” that “repeats and repeats itself in our thoughts and in our art,” which is why people take pleasure in seeing this particular form recreated. Though I believe that there can be great value in the common experience, I think that the author makes too vast a generalization, and in doing so, undervalues the unique life experiences and emotional make-up that lead each person to have his or her own reaction while experiencing a dance. There are countless factors that shape each person’s inner configuration, both conscious and unconscious. If everyone consistently experienced the same visceral responses to these patterns, I highly doubt that each intellectual response would differ as much as opinions tend to do in the art world. In this essay, it seems that Acocella either overlooks or underestimates the value of individual interpretation, both on instinctual and intellectual levels.
Acocella also implies in the course of the paper that there are true and untrue dances. She maintains that this innate resonance that human beings experience is the reason dance can be remembered and passed on without the aid of a written record. She clarifies, however, by saying, “I don’t mean by this that dance is more natural than language, or more true. I see dance that is untrue every day of the week: dance that is full of clichés and ballast and nonsense.” This statement requires justification; if there are good and bad dances, who is to decide which are true and which are not? Bearing in mind Acocella’s belief that dance comes from a deep, subconscious place within each human being that generates these universal patterns, is she then to be the judge of whose personal expression of these patterns is wrong? I believe that in place of a common “true” and “untrue” for all humanity, there can only be what is true for each individual, though some may have truths in common. Again, in search of a general statement, Acocella has attached her own beliefs to all humankind, when, in fact, some dances may resonate with some people and others may not at all. Interpretation is part of the beauty of art, and in insisting upon a universal reaction, a significant part of that beauty is lost.
Nonetheless, Acocella’s final eloquent claim rings true to me. “So much of life is spent in the difficult task of trying to understand things, to see through them to what’s on the other side,” she states, “But the truths of dance are not on the other side. They are in the very bones of the dance, which our bones know how to read, if we let them.” Indeed, I agree that there are truths to be found in instinctive reaction, but I also maintain that the most well-rounded criticisms of dance come from authors who know how to write from both the intuitive and the rational sides of themselves. The best work happens in the balance between the two.


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