Moving images–Dance and repetition make your eye and heart sing, a book review

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Since the King of Pop died, I’ve been catching up on my Michael Jackson video watching. The ones that really grab me are Thriller and Beat It which aspire to be short movies and pretty much are. Jackon’s dancing is remarkable to watch of course. But his dance moves take on even greater visual energy and emotion when he’s backed up by a dance troupe mimicking him and amplifying the movements.  It’s then that the quick-stepping, twitching, pirouetting and hip popping becomes one big satisfying wave of movement.

Michael Jackson, group dance in Beat It, very reminiscent of the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story
Michael Jackson, group dance in Beat It, very reminiscent of the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story

Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History by historian William H. McNeill talks about the physical and emotional underpinnings of dance and drill and other human synchronous movement. We all love to dance and we fall easily into step with each other when walking; even aerobics classes are satisfying whereas doing aerobics by yourself is odious.  Why is that? McNeill says there’s something in the human bones and psyche that compels us to move together — and then rewards us for doing so. We feel good when moving together with others. There’s a spirit of group cohesion and shared emotion that happens, some pack animal body-and-mind-happiness that occurs.

Marching band stepping together.
Marching band stepping together.

Our ancestors learned this, and dancing allowed them to bond. Dancing may even have helped foster language development (chanting being a natural partner with dance). Moving together rhythmically helped Homo Sapiens evolve and dominate the landscape over non-dancing and non-marching species. Governments have corraled group movement for use in the army — Hitler of course abused this human love of mass physical movement with his goose-stepping soldiers and Heil Hitlering citizens.

University of Michigan graduation.  Football crowds often do the human wave, another way to move together in time.
University of Michigan graduation. Football crowds often do the human wave, another way to move together in time.

In very early times, organized religions allowed group dancing as a way to commune with god. (One of the byproducts of the rhythmic dancing for some people is the onset of a trance state, seen as a direct communication with god.) The Quakers and the Shakers got their names from the group movements associated with their religions according to McNeil.

Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street New Orleans, crowd in unison hoping to get some beads.  Far from a mystical religious experience...or who knows, maybe for some it is.
Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street New Orleans, crowd in unison hoping to get some beads. Far from a mystical religious experience...or who knows, maybe for some it is.

Visual representations of dance, drill and other synchronous movement

Image of a battle in the War of 1812. By Oleg Parhaiev, Russia
Image of a battle in the War of 1812. By Oleg Parhaiev, Russia

McNeill’s book got me thinking about visual representations of dance and drill and about visual repetition motifs in general. And here’s what I think: That even if you’re not physically moving but are observing dance or drill — or are looking at a visual representation in 2-D of dance or drill — the visual image triggers a similar pack-response as your eyes move around the image and pick up the the rhythmic movements  and register them on you.

Fra Angelico.  Early religious paintings often repeated motifs like halos and body stances to achieve visual harmony
Fra Angelico. Early religious paintings often repeated motifs like halos and body stances to achieve visual harmony

And while there’s less of a physical response when looking at a 2-D image than there is to looking at a video (after all, there’s no music to enhance the effects), there is still something immediately satisfying when you look at a work with a repeat motif of bodies moving together.

Busby Berkeley movies in the 1930s specialized in images of group motion.  This is a still from Footlight Parade.
Busby Berkeley movies in the 1930s specialized in images of group motion. This is a still from Footlight Parade.

Popular culture and art both love these movement spectacles. Think of Busby Berkeley (watch video) and the Rockettes; the human wave at college football games; and the standing and singing of national anthems everywhere. Think the Olympic parade and church rituals (Catholic ritual when I grew up was all about standing sitting and kneeling en masse triggered by some unseen signal–all while chanting unknowable Latin words in haunting melodies). In choreographed dance for the stage, especially in musical theatre, often it’s the group numbers that bring the house down.

Breughel's Wedding Dance in a Barn shows a whole town dancing it up.
Breughel's Wedding Dance in a Barn shows a whole town dancing it up.

Certainly artists have always loved making images of synchronous bodies in motion. McNeill’s book has pictures of a Minoan Crete harvester vase from 1500 BC that shows people dancing and singing in time: Medievalists painted legions of angels (and legions of praying sinners) in synchronous harmony; Breughel painted peasants dancing at a wedding; and many artists working for governments have drawn, painted and photographed army battalions in formation.

Sandra Scolnik, painting from the New York art fairs in 2007.
Sandra Scolnik, painting from the New York art fairs in 2007.

In our day Matthew Barney, one of our age’s great visual image-makers, has a scene of a chorus of dancing girls ala Busby Berkeley in one of his Cremaster films.

Matthew Barney, from the Cremaster series of movies
Matthew Barney, from the Cremaster series.

 

Visual representations of repeat patterns

Bruce Pollock, a Philadelphia artist, makes mandala-like paintings.
Bruce Pollock, a Philadelphia artist, makes mandala-like paintings.

Mandalas and other abstract art designs with intricate repeat patterns have a similar bodily appeal. Mandalas are used for meditation and can produce calm or trance; Op Art is about provoking a bodily/retinal response of a different kind.  Standing in front of a Bridget Riley painting triggers my flight response.  (For more about Op Art check out this website.)

Edna Andrade was a Philadelphia practitioner of op art.
Edna Andrade was a Philadelphia practitioner of op art.

Jackson Pollock’s works are like melted mandalas.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)
Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)

One reason that works of abstract repeat patterns like those of Agnes Martin and Brice Marden are popular and have helped spawn an entire universe of artists working in similar fashion is that the works are satisfying to look at and make.

Brice Marden, Marden, Brice, Chinese Dancing, Oil on canvas, 60 x 108 inches, from the UBS collection
Brice Marden, Marden, Brice, Chinese Dancing, Oil on canvas, 60 x 108 inches, from the UBS collection

I’m not sure why all this fascinates but it seems that there’s a human need for perfection expressed in the desire to move together and make images of repetitive movements.  We know we’re not perfect and maybe this is all a way of saying even though perfection is not possible we can get pretty close with these bodily and emotionally satisfying movements and representations.

Tags

book reviews, breughel, brice marden, bruce pollock, edna andra, fra angelico, jackson pollock, keeping together in time, matthew barney, michael jackson, oleg parhaiev, sandra scolnik, william h. mcneill

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