Grace; Revisiting a Definition

By Maren Witte


The stage lies in the dark, empty and quiet. Baroque music sets in, and three female dancers enter, each of them on crutches. In dynamic, yet poised movements they dance a trio, moving in harmonious waves together and apart from each other’s bodies. Maneuvering on their crutches, they initiate simultaneous little jumps, echoing chains of movements or synchronized changes of direction, always in unison with the music’s rhythm and momentum.

This is a brief description of the “crutches-scene“ and the way I remember it after having seen Jess Curtis’ latest production “Under the Radar” in rehearsal and on stage in Berlin. I open with this image as a reference point for my discussion on the problematic ideal of grace in the aesthetics of contemporary dance.1 Let me call this scene “gracious“ and describe it in a little more detail, with special attention to certain key terms:

The scene is performed by three women, two of them are rather tall and muscular; their bodies look like healthy, normal dancers’ bodies. The third dancer, Claire Cunningham, is comparatively small and thin. Her spine is somewhat condensed, a result of osteoporosis. She looks fragile compared to her partners. Given my knowledge of what I’ll call “regular” modern or contemporary dance performance, she does not have the body that I would expect in a modern dance piece, let alone in a scene dealing with technically challenging dance movements. Yet, each of the three dancers is extremely skillful in what she is doing: she is in control of her body’s movements. All three move in synchrony with each other. When there are echoing movements or movement chains, their intervals are of equal length. All movements are symmetrically coordinated in space. All movements go harmoniously together with the music’s rhythm. And there is more to it: Cunningham uses crutches or a wheelchair in her daily life. The two other dancers don’t. Yet, all three women seem at ease in their dance with the crutches: They play with momentum and gravity, lean towards the edge of their balance, fall and catch themselves and at the same time keep in connection with their crutches, the others and the music. Therefore in this scene, each of the dancers is physically challenged in her individual way to stay in equilibrium and perform a technically virtuous dance.

Now let me go a little further in my analysis of grace, still referring to the scene described earlier. The words highlighted above (women, synchrony, symmetry, harmony, balance, virtuosity), are part of my description of the scene, and at the same time they all have a long tradition in the history of the term “grace:”

My personal perspective on this scene and my aesthetic judgment of it as having “grace” are the product of century old debates trying to define what exactly grace is. A brief overview on the history of the concept can prove how deeply my key terms are rooted in the term’s historical evolution. The concept of grace is part of the yoga philosophy, and finds its origins in ancient Indian times. The practicing Buddhist aims to achieve grace through inner freedom, like a water drop on a lotus leaf: in connection, yet balanced and autonomous. In Greek Antiquity, the people honored three female deities called “the graces.” Their characteristics and virtues are loveliness, thankfulness, friendliness and freedom. We can see strong moral and gender implications already at work here. In Medieval Times, grace was tuned into the Christian religion: ethically good behavior and aesthetically beautiful appearance come together even stronger here and shape the normative expectations of women in society. In Modern Times, grace became more and more personalized and individualized. Philosophers of the Enlightenment (18th century) proposed that grace emerges when thoughts or proportions are in harmony and in symmetry. Furthermore, in this period grace became a virtue created by the subject itself and not granted by God or nature. Around 1800, the German philosophers and writers Friedrich Schiller and Gotthold E. Lessing defined grace as beauty in movement. For them, a sculpture trying to catch and express vivid movements is gracious, because it shows traces of movement even though the moving model is long gone. A piece of architecture, in their terms, has nothing to do with movement, therefore it will never show any grace. In this definition, the essential characteristics of movement, its fugitivity and ephemerality, seem to be the crucial point for Schiller’s and Lessing’s preference of movement for the concept of grace. And it is interesting that to this day, the ephemeral quality of a movement represents a focal point of interest in international dance and performance studies.

Coming back to “Under the Radar”… Why are some of the scenes so aesthetically impressive and emotionally strong? It is the symmetry of the three dancing bodies, the synchrony of bodies and crutches and the harmony of their movements together with the music—it is their grace. The scene shows that all the elements I needed in order to define grace are aesthetic principles we still enjoy watching. “Under the Radar” has various grace-like movements (and moments), drawing back to historically familiar sources, for instance, young female dancers, baroque music and virtuosic movements. What makes the show different, though—by adding a very intriguing twist to it—is the fact that some of the young female dancers need crutches and wheel chairs to be able to move on stage. In Curtis’ work, impaired bodies move in symmetry with “perfectly” formed bodies. A woman with osteoporosis dances with her partners in a way that reminds me of Botticelli’s three graces.2 Drawing together my perspective on grace, Curtis’ piece shows two things: first, the concept of grace is a timeless tool for the production and reception of contemporary performance. Second, the definition of grace and what it generates, is flexible and can change over time. In “Under the Radar,” grace is women on crutches.

Notes: 1 Within the European contemporary-dance-world, choreographers, curators, and dance spectators expect to see concepts of beauty and grace criticized or parodied. I posit that as a result of the postmodern performance aesthetic, a different norm has now taken place: don’t move, don’t wear dance costumes, and don’t look pretty on stage! 2 Sandro Botticelli, Italian Renaissance painter. The painting Primavera (1482), with the central motif of the three-graces is probably his most famous work.

This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of In Dance.