Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The power of stillness

One of the lessons I have learned from dance is the importance of stillness.  Beginning dancers often assume that one must be continuously in motion -- keep moving, keep moving, fill up the music.  But constant motion is wearying to watch and gives the viewer no time to rest.  Of course, pauses do more than just give the audience a breather.  Stillness provides a frame for motion.  When the dancer stops moving, it serves to accent the previous move -- it lets the viewer know that something important just happened.  Even the most spectacular move will not be appreciated by the audience unless they are given time to absorb it and the pause that lets them know how amazing it was (think of the "ta-da!" moment, for example).  Dance also needs stillness for structure, just as language uses punctuation to break the continuous stream of words into meaningful units.  Similarly, we use pauses and changing tempos to create phrasing in dance. 

But these moments of stillness are challenging.  As one of those people who can become uncomfortable with silence, I tend to want to fill up every moment with sound and action.  Pauses create anxiety in many dancers, because they worry that the audience will get bored.  We tend to think of stillness as an absence -- without movement, nothing is going on.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When executed well, the pause is filled with meaning: with the memory of movement and the anticipation of movement, with the persona of the performer, with the connection between performer and audience.  The quiet moments require that we have confidence in ourselves -- confidence that we alone, without the distraction of movement, have a strong enough presence to compel the viewer's interest.  In this way, stillness requires that we make ourselves vulnerable; stripping off the cloak of our dance technique and putting aside our bag of tricks, we expose our self, the self we embody for performance, to the audience. 

This excerpt from George Balanchine's ballet, Apollo, uses moments of stillness to create tension and heighten emotion, as well as to highlight beautiful poses.

In this piece by the spectacular dance company Momix, stillness is essential for the illusion of defying gravity.  Tension is created as we wonder whether the dancers will be able to hold their position.  We are able to focus on the one dancer who is moving because all of the other dancers are immobile.  Notice, too, the moment at about 1:30 when the dancers hold a new position for a long moment, and the audience applauds.  This is the the "ta-da!" moment I mentioned earlier.  Later in the piece, moments of stillness highlight particular poses and shapes created by the dancers. 

In life, as in dance, I want to keep moving, striving, doing.  I don't like to just sit still and do nothing.  But I'm coming to realize that we all have (or should have) pauses in life, when we are not doing, but merely being.  While they may feel unproductive, these moments give us a chance to reflect on the past and envision the future, as well as to fully experience the present.  Of course, just as in dance, there are more and less effective uses of stillness -- we need to fill these pauses with meaning, not just hang around doing nothing.  If you find your life overfull of activity, perhaps it is time to cultivate moments of quietude.  If you find yourself in a prolonged pause, make it a meaningful one and recognize that sometimes it is all right just to be, suspended between moments of doing.  I suspect I will always enjoy action best, but I'm learning to appreciate the value of purposeful inactivity.  Perhaps someday I can learn to live as comfortably in stillness as I do in motion, even if only for a moment, when I am my only audience.

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