Dancing the Eternal Image:
Visual And Narrative Archetypes
Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.
Dance, Archetype and the
dancer conveys feeling through her body: the dynamism and character of her
movement, variations of intensity, clarity of line, and any number of subtle
rhythms and gestures that neither she nor her audience can consciously process.
When a dancer is fully present in her body,
none of her gestures are empty or meaningless. They seem to come from a deeper source, and reach into a
deeper place in her audience's perception.
What the eyes perceive as movement on a stage resonates through the soul
in other forms: a subtle play of emotions or visual images, feelings of yearning
or release, the memory of cool water or a child's touch, or a lover's.
dance, whether Oriental, European, or anything else, reflects realities we share
simply by being human. While
each culture has its own gesture language -- subtleties an ethnic dancer must
come to understand -there is far more that we share simply by being human.
We are all located within a body, and we are all aware of physical
limitations: that we cannot fly, that we cannot breathe underwater, that we are
subject to illness and finally to death.
dreams often concern succumbing to or overcoming these limitations.
Equally, our dance, physical and bodily as it is, must work with and
around them. Dancers of all
cultures train their bodies to overcome the limits of the flesh: ballerinas by
gravity-defying leaps, oriental dancers by emulating the quivering pulse of the
geological and astrophysical worlds, and all dancers by putting the whole of
life's meanings into gestures made by flesh, bone and blood.
also share physical attributes and joys. Our
sexual pleasures, the vast energies that can energize and save us when we are
endangered, the life force that enables us to work and assuage our hungers --
all of these vitally inspire any dance. As
Judith Hanna says, "Dance appears to be the result of processes that have
been selected for in human evolution: exploratory behavior, a sense of rhythm,
symbolic capability, and the ability of the brain to make fine
Whatever cultural differences arise, similarities of impulse and
Jung coined two terms which help define this universality of feeling and
experience within the human race. One,
"The Collective Unconscious," refers to the subconscious expectations
and experiences we all share beneath the surface simply because of our common
human biology. The other,
"Archetype," refers more specifically to the images and story patterns
that arise in similar ways in all human societies.
Archetypes may be visual images such as the tree of life, the mandala,
and the labyrinth; characters such
as the wise and ambiguous serpent, the trickster, and the crone; story patterns
such as the quest and the dangerous marriage.
are also universal archetypes of movement: the hands raised in prayer or
invocation, the body curved around deep feeling, or arms reaching in an unclosed
embrace. As a dancer, I am often
aware of coming into archetypal movements, or attitudes that have a significance
beyond my immediate circumstances. I
imagine a great many feeling dancers are aware of this phenomenon as well.
archetypes exist in and arise from the deepest level of human consciousness,
they have powerful, gut-level appeal. Some
of the most successful new stories get their power from their resonance with
archetypal patterns -- for example, George Lucas modeled Star
Wars on the quest archetype as detailed by mythologist Joseph Campbell.[ii]
It follows that in dance as well, archetypes -- whether they are stories
or visual images -- are potentially some of the most powerful tools the dancer
has in expressing complex ideas and feelings.
Meanings at Once
seem to have their power from the simplicity of their images: the evocatively
whithered crone, for example, or the universal tale of leaving home, conquering
a terrible enemy, and returning. But
when you look more closely, you see that archetypes are really powerful because
immensely complex and delicate ideas are caught up in a single resonant
vision. Their complexity seems
simple -- the way an egg seems simple, but encompasses the remarkable
transformation of embryo into living thing.
favorite example of a simple image involving complexities is the labyrinth.
The labyrinth is a maze, and such mazes appear in the myth and art of
many cultures. The visual images
are evocative, whatever their variations: spiral or blockish, wild or urban.
Associated with these images are stories.
In the Greek story of the labyrinth, the maze is the home of the
monstrous Minotaur, half man, half bull -- a dark, violent, unformed but partly
human soul, who devours anyone trapped there.
The labyrinth's initial meaning is therefore: a place of hopelessness,
confusion, and death at the hands of something bestial.
But in the story, the heroine Ariadne and her lover Theseus conquer the
labyrinth. She gives him a ball of
string to lead him out again, and
holds onto the other end as he descends, and she gives him a sword so that he
can kill the Minotaur and emerge unharmed.
Masculine and feminine virtues -- planning and attacking, weaving plots
and stabbing enemies -- combine to defeat the peril.
Thus the labyrinth can also represent the maze unraveling itself, and the
soul defeating the terror at its core.
an archetypal image, the labyrinth can have either of these opposite meanings,
or both at the same time. Furthermore, its visual nature calls in other patterns and
images as well: the spider's web, the spiral, the arabesque, all of which evoke
different journeys and different ranges of meaning. This is the power of the archetype.
in dance, a simple gesture, such as the raising of the arms from a centered
position, can evoke a range of meaning: joyful affirming prayer, the goddess
offering bounty, the acceptance of a burden, a plea for universal understanding,
or any number of complex and indefinable feelings.
is an ideal medium to express such complexity.
Words sometimes define ideas too closely, but movement perceived visually
can have many meanings, and in fact, it must.
Dance has only a limited capacity to say things specifically, with no
room for doubt. When it does, those
meanings are often comic and/or directed to communicating with the audience
about the dance: for example, winks and socially meaningful gestures (such as
the index finger pointed for "stop" or "no").
most cases, and especially when the meaning is deeply felt, dance is interpreted
differently by different members of the audience.
Its emotional power comes precisely from its ability to incorporate the
observer's preexisting feelings and attitudes into the experience of the dance
as it occurs at the moment. In this
strange intersection between the universal and the momentary, each audience
member has a mandate to follow her own feelings about what she sees in the
dance. Each one will read the
archetypes differently. And this is how archetypes are meant to be read.
has the dimensions of space and time. Other
visual arts -- painting, sculpture, etc. -- exist only in physical space, and
the viewer sets the pace of her observation.
She can glance briefly at a painting and walk away, return for a thorough
study, or spend as much or as little time as she chooses.
Dance is more demanding. Whatever
the dancer shows must be done in a sequence, and bound to the music.
Time may seem to speed up or slow down, move in pulses or smoothly -- but
the sequence is unavoidable. What
is seen is seen, and what is missed is missed.
The viewer is carried along in this unavoidably passing sequence
of this dimension of time, dance is somehow narrative in its nature.
Not that all dances tell a story -- but all dances are in a sequence,
they move from one stage to another. Consequently,
the processes by which they unfold reveal mythic and archetypal narrative
structures. Whether the dance is
formed as a story or as a series of impressions, the experience of the dance is
essentially a journey. Traditional
forms like the Egyptian baladi or the American 5-part routine have their own
essential, unverbalized, deeply felt stories behind them.
the Orientale, a story will often creep in, whether it is "told" as a
narrative or a series of vignettes, or sequentially explores different aspects
of something eternal. In an
interview with Glenna Batson, Nadia Gamal spoke of the importance of narrative
in both folklore and orientale performances.
In Batson's paraphrase, "Each dance tells a story, such as a dancing
slave who begs the sultan not to kill her. . . a narrative is woven throughout
the dance. . These narratives can be taken from everyday life, or in the case of
the annual folklore festivals, taken from historic events and legends."[iii]
I myself saw Ms. Gamal perform a narrative dance in a 1984 Beirut New
Year's telecast, in which she portrayed a bride who, on the eve of her wedding,
was possessed by a demon, exorcised it, and returned to real life. You could see the very moment in which the demon took
possession in her expression and body language.
It was very effective drama.
the relationship between oriental dance and plot is still problematic for most
dancers -- and for most audiences. For
one thing, oriental dance is primarily expressive; its theatrical and social
forms are still very close together. Oriental
dance is largely removed from any sacred narrative traditions which may have
originally been associated with it. By
contrast, a form like Balinese dance involves the performance of stories from
sacred literature well known to the audience, and over time many stories have
developed exact, traditional choreographies.
The audience already knows the stories that will be danced, and often how they will be danced. In
secular forms like ballet, stories are told only with the help of full casts,
elaborate sets, a pantomime language, and extensive program notes.
None of these things are present in oriental dance in its most common
performance manifestation: the solo orientale.
is not to say that they cannot be added. Beata
Zadou and Horacio Cifuentes, the Caracalla Dance Company of Lebanon and many
other performance companies in both the Middle East and the Western world, have
performed oriental ballets with complex plots and a large cast.
But for the solo dancer, plot remains a problem.
fact, the kinds of plots Ms. Gamal adopted -- a slave begging for her life, or a
possessed bride -- are not particularly subtle or profound in their narrative.
What they are is archetypal.
Archetypal stories, when stripped to their bare bones, often do seem
simplistic, or melodramatic, or even dead.
As Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty comments, "[The archetypal plot]
itself is so trivial as to seem trite or obvious when we try to isolate
it. . . The archetype, like the coral reef, consists almost entirely of the
bones of once-living coral, of which only the thin edge of the surface is still
dancer is the living rim of an ancient reef.
Her story may be simplistic, but her dance complex and full.
For the dancer, the enlivening of her art comes from her comprehension of
specific stories and cultures, and from awareness of her own personal resonances
with the stories she dances. Thus
the dances Nadia Gamal performed were vibrant and alive within the structures of
their archetypal plots. I thought when I watched the Beirut New Year's telecast that
I would have appreciated the dance just as much if I hadn't known the story.
Whatever my conscious understanding, the archetypes would have been
humming in my deeper spirit.
archetypal stories have the potential to be the most powerful.
They have "strong bones."
The story of death, mourning, and symbolically transformative
ressurection, for example, is very simple -- we all experience it, when a loved
one dies, we mourn, and then learn to feel her presence in our continuing lives. This story's bones, when fleshed with the spiritual feelings
of different cultures, have supported the world-renowned mysteries at Eleusis,
thousands of years of worship of Inanna in the ancient Near East, and
Christianity up to the present day.
stories are so powerful, and so innate, that when danced, they do not even need
to achieve the level of plot. The
plot can remain "bone" that the audience never sees.
A friend of mine once told me that when I dance she sometimes senses me
as an organic being, seeing even how the bones move beneath my flesh.
This is what happens metaphorically when a dancer moves with the
archetypes. The plot need never
become overt, as long as it is there.
times what might sometimes seem "plot" transforms into
"theme": a set of related symbols and ideas that shape themselves into
a story in movement. Shakira says
of her sword dance,
Every time I do it I go into
"that place" that is appropriate for it. Consider . . . the dance is about initiation and sacrifice,
acceptance of trials and of sacrifice -- and of mastery.
The sword is beautiful, it is craftsmanship, it requires mastery -- it
can aslo hurt you. Same for the
dance. So when I dance it, I take
another look at where I am at the time. What
hurts recently? Where am I now in
terms of mastery?[v]
as every culture fleshes the bones of its stories differently,
every dancer fleshes the ancient archetypes with her own body and spirit. And just as the dance exists in time, and passes by us in an
unstoppable sequence, we also live in time, and tell each ancient story from
where we are now. Our dance takes
shape on the bones of millenia of dancers, storytellers, and lovers, but finds
its transitory power in our own unique lives.
Lynne Hanna, Dance, Sex and Gender.
University of Chicago Press, 1988, p 4.
Campbell, The Hero with A Thousand
Faces. Princeton 1979. See
also Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The
Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988, pp. 143-7.
Batson, "Nadia Gamal: An Interview with the Artist, part II," Arabesque
I. 6 (March-April 1976), p. 16.
Doniger O'Flaherty, Other People's
Myths. New York: Macmillan,
1988, p. 34.
Andrea Deagon received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke Unviersity in 1984. Since then she has taught at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) and at her undergraduate alma mater, Guilford College (Greensboro, NC) before coming to UNC-Wilmington, where she coordinates the Classical Studies Program and teaches in the Women's Studies Program. She has studied oriental dance since age 17, and has had a wide range of performing experiences in the US and (opportunistically) overseas. She periodically teaches local classes and regional seminars. One of her goals over the past ten years has been the integration of her academic research and writing, with her goals and perceptions as a dancer. These articles are a part of that process.
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