Plugged Live Shows - Backstage - Making the abstract visible

Making the abstract visible: the power of symbolism in dance

Most of us have experienced the joy of moving your body to music. Maybe as part of a crowd, maybe by yourself with your eyes closed and cut off from the rest of the world. Many of us have felt the joy of seeing others dance, either during a performance or just for fun. The entertainment value of dance has been proven over and over again.

Next to entertainment, as any form of art, dance also offers a medium through which we can communicate. Within Plugged Live Shows, dance is most often an important ingredient in the complicated dish that is a live show as well. While the aesthetics of physical movement definitely add to the experience, it’s the functionality that makes the dancers essential. Allow us to share why we embrace the art of dance. 

From left to right: Romantic ballet (Marie Taglioni), modern-day ballerina, contemporary dancer.

When looking at the history of all kinds of art, you often encounter a familiar situation: artists become unable to express themselves within the techniques and environments that they know, so elements are added or taken away and a new style is born. This also applies to a multitude of dance styles.

In the 19th century, for example, ballerina Marie Taglioni wanted to appear as light and ethereal as she could. The existing ballet techniques of that time didn’t feel sufficient, so an element was added that has become indispensable in modern-day ballet performances: dancing on the tips of their toes or “en pointe”. However, in the 20th century, the classically trained Isadora Duncan felt restricted by the typical footwear and “artificial” movement. She left shoes behind altogether, creating the image of the barefooted contemporary dancer that many of us recognize now.

“An artist’s desire for expression pushes forth the need to evolve continuously.”

The language of dance 

As styles change and adapt, their spectrum of emotional expression changes as well. Just as some languages morph and overlap, we often encounter words for which another language offers no perfect translation. The same can be said for dance styles.

To make the communication succeed, both the audience and one communicating have to have a certain level of knowledge and understanding of said language. However, this is an extensive process that we, as show makers, can’t expect from every audience we come across. Nonetheless, this doesn’t take away from our desire to share more complicated emotions. So, how do we succeed still?

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Narrative versus meaning

An important difference between communicating verbally or through dance is that dance does not need a narrative. It can follow one when desired. In the famous classical ballet Swan Lake, for example, the second act shows how a prince finds a lake with swans and intends to shoot them. He is stopped by the swan queen, who explains that the prince is bewitched. All of these events are shown through movements, designed to follow this exact narrative. One needs to recognize many movements in order to completely understand the narrative. This caters to a specific kind of audience.

If we are to communicate to a wide audience, one perhaps unfamiliar with a specific language, we gradually move away from clean-cut elements and step into the realm of symbolism. This is where more abstract movement comes in. Contemporary dance is a great example, especially considering its relation to ballet. While there are similarities in technique, its communicative power does not lie within the gestures themselves, but in their relation to the ones prior and the ones that follow. This creates context. Just imagine a dancer throwing their hands up. This could mean many things or nothing. Now imagine the same dancer abruptly turning away from their partner, throwing their hands up violently, keeping them floating shortly before allowing their arms to come down ever so slowly. That looks more like despair.

“Abstract dance separates physical expression from a narrative, but not from meaning.”

This relationship between gestures helps access a broad emotional palette: from fear to curiosity or a sense of belonging. The shows we create frequently deal with fairly complex emotional states and layered messages. To communicate effectively, our shows tend to be of a surrealistic nature. We use the tools and possibilities of reality to tell an abstract story. Symbolism and iconography become crucial to convey these layered messages through abstract performances. As an example of such a performance, let’s take the Summer Garden Dinner at the Beurs van Berlage we did in July 2020.

Showcase: Welcome to a New Reality

It all began with this rationale: Since events moved to the digital world, two worlds got separated: the event industry that was sending information through a screen and a passive audience. The two were isolated from one another, with a longing that seemed impossible to satisfy. The entire event revolved around ways to bring the two together: Welcome to a New Reality.

We wanted to convey this powerful message while taking into account the restrictions that were placed upon the event industry in the current state of the world. To communicate the rationale, we placed two artists in separate vitrines. However, we needed to find a way within our capabilities to move the two together. Our team could have chosen to place a railing system or have a set of all-black stagehands move them into place. This would solve the problem, but would not add anything to the show in terms of emotion. For it was not the literal movement that was important, but the symbolism of it all. Dance offered the possibility to show the isolation at the start, and the relief and excitement at the end.

Even though it definitely adds to the aesthetics, dance does so much more than simply “look pretty”. It makes a performance stronger. It communicates emotional layers that might have been missed by audience members that are not fluent in the other languages you choose to use. It’s a flexible and far-reaching art form that we can use to express meaning.

The power of dance

If music is what emotions sound like, dance is what they look like in physical art. We believe in the power of emotions, making dance an extremely powerful tool within our shows. We need to communicate with our audience in order to create an impactful experience. And we will use all available tools to make this experience as strong as possible.

We invite you to join us in our admiration of dance. Let’s make sure to embrace it the next time you dance the night away. In whatever shape or form it may come.