tatjna (tatjna) wrote,

In which I wank at length about aesthetics

Last night I went to see Ella and Will, which is on as part of the Fringe Festival. It's an adaptation of Alistair Crowley's novel Moonchild, in which a young magically-talented woman attempts to manifest her ideal lover, while her real-life lover attempts to impregnate her with the spirit of the moon. It billed itself as a dance theatre performance, and is choreographed (and everything elsed) by a woman I'd never heard of, who apparently won So You Think You Can Dance a few years ago, and now we aren't being allowed to forget it, or something.

Anyway, I enjoyed it, mostly. I thought it was about half an hour too long and would have benefited from a bit more linear narrative in general, but I quite like confusing presentation, especially when applied to magical fantasy like this. After a while I picked up on what was dreamworld, what was reality and what was ritual space, and there were lots of little moments where I thought "Hey, that's a cool way of portraying that." There were also moments when I thought "OK I get it, get on with it" and there were some .. questionable insertions of random dance that lent nothing to the story and seemed a bit pointless and vague. Overall, I liked it more than I didn't like it. I was surprised to read this scathing review, although one of my companions last night used similar language to describe their lack of enjoyment as well. I disagree, but there you go. My performance background is in theatre and I know nothing about contemporary dance.

Lately I've been reading Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, which was written in the mid-1800s and seems to me to be a description of the author's experiments with mushrooms (or mescaline). Thing is, while the narrative in this story (which, incidentally, I haven't finished yet) is fairly linear, it contains the same sense of confusion and lack of exposition as Ella and Will did. I haven't read a lot of 1800s fantasy, but from what I gather, the way it was approached back then was very different. Like, in the mid 1800s, suggesting a magical world populated by normal folk going about their business could potentially border on blasphemous, so it seems to me that the sort of world-building you see in Tolkein, for example, didn't really happen. Instead, the worlds were made so fantastical as to be instantly recognisable as Not-Real, and populated with creatures that are projections of the protagonist's fantasy rather than complete characters with lives of their own. This leads to a kind of hyper-unreality that takes on a dreamlike quality and doesn't fit together in any rational, sensible way. Or so it seems to me. They could have just been clumsily trying to be romantic or something. Or on drugs.

Alistair Crowley liked to diddle around in naughty stuff, and the things he wrote about were clearly a lot further down the road to blasphemy than George McDonald (or at least a lot more blatantly so), and part of me wonders how much schoolyard delight he got from being a bad boy. But that's kind of beside the point, which is that chances are his work also suffered from this stilted ultra-fantastical confusion. And in my opinion, Ella and Will had this feel as well. Whether it was deliberate or not I'll leave up to people who are experts to decide, but I thought it was apt. Also, while the ritual aspects of the show were repetitive and inane, in my experience of prescribed group ritual, repetitive and inane pretty much sums it up - they hit the nail on the head with it. Say the same thing, perform the same movement, four times facing each of the four compass points. Rinse repeat. Some people are right into it, others are bored out of their tree and feeling nothing. Yep, very similar. Sadly, this doesn't translate well to theatre performance (even though ritual is theatrical), where the audience could do with things moving along a little more quickly.

Overall, I thought the story was neat, the ending was weak, the fact that it came down to a deal between Emmanuel and Will over control of Ella's future pissed me off (again, sign of the times), and it could have dropped the Moon Spirit character, the stuff about Artemis and Pan (although I liked the film insert parts as a device), and about a quarter of the dance without losing anything. I also would have been happier with no dialogue, using narrative, mime and dance to portray those bits, because the dancers weren't all that good at acting.

I guess part of the question is about expectation. What were they trying to achieve? Was it to tell a story using drama? Dance? Both? I've no idea. I went into it thinking I was going to be seeing interpretive dance, and was pleasantly surprised to see it wasn't all like that (although there was a bit of wankery), in that it seemed to lean more towards theatre-with-dance in my view. If one was expecting contemporary dance, I can see that being a bit disappointing. Don't get me wrong, the dancers were good at what they were doing, but what they were doing was not innovative or exciting, and in a lot of respects seemed to follow the musical theatre format - you know the one where people suddenly burst into song and dance for no apparent reason? It wasn't all like that, but as I said, a lot of it could have come out and nobody would have noticed. But anyway, I had to look up interpretive dance and contemporary dance to write that bit because I didn't know the difference, so what the fuck would I know, right? To me it was dance theatre, like it said on the box.

Which leads me to aesthetics. It happens that this morning I was reading the aesthetics page in our book Big Ideas in Brief, and it had this bit about how Plato thought that beauty could be judged by two things - proximity to the ideal Form of the thing it's supposed to represent, and also, more objective things such as proportion, unity etc. Meanwhile, Aristotle reckoned that beauty could be judged through things like order and symmetry, and the best judges of these things were experts. I can sort of see this as well. This is why when I look at a horse, I'm assessing its conformation before judging its beauty, and if it's got a glaring fault then I'm less likely to judge it beautiful. Form follows function right? And knowing the function helps judge the beauty of the form, therefore when applied to dance, or theatre, or a painting, a 'conformational flaw' can ruin its beauty, and the more flaws you recognise the uglier it becomes.

So if that's the case, what is the function of something like Ella and Will? What is it trying to represent? Are we judging this for ourselves, or listening to the intention of the artist, or listening to experts? And if the experts think the function is X, should I listen? Who are the experts, and why are they experts? What are they expert at in relation to the thing we are trying to judge? And what if I disagree with their judgement?

So then I went and looked at the aesthetics page on Wikipedia in the hope of getting some expert opinion, and discovered that there are as many theories of aesthetics as there are things to judge aesthetically, and I could just pick one that suits my own view. But that'd be a bit silly. However I have concluded that there is no consensus on an objective way of judging something's aesthetic qualities (sorry Plato), and that perhaps I should just consider my old flatmate's philosophy* of wine, which came up in conversation before the show: "Good wine is wine you like." Good art is art you like too.

And I liked Ella and Will, despite its obvious flaws.

Well, that was long-winded and a bit wanky. I find this happens fairly often, that I like something that others don't, and then because I'm a self-doubter with large gaps in my education I spend ages questioning myself, is there something wrong with me for liking this, am I missing something that's blatantly obvious to everyone else, and am I therefore stupid? But instead of falling down that hole every time, maybe it's more useful to have a look at it from a different angle, one that acknowledges that aesthetics and taste are subjective. Sadly I take a while to go through this mental process so when people are having after-show discussions, I'm all "I can't articulate what I think so I'll just shut up" and end up reading Wikipedia for hours and writing long boring blog posts about it the next day instead.

But it's progress, right? At least I'm not just agreeing with everyone else for fear of looking stupid.. and now I'm kind of over philosophy for the day. Kittens! (I'm the one on the end)

* Oddly enough, she doesn't appear on the Wiki page, but Kant does, and I think he was on about more or less the same thing.
Tags: art wankery, ella and will, i cannot explain in interpretive dance
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