Merde: Oral Tradition and Post-Modern Dance

Merde: Oral Tradition and Post-Modern Dance

26 April 2012

“Merde” is the appropriate well-wishing for a dancer before a performance. It is bad luck to say “break a leg” to a dancer just as it is bad luck to say “good luck” to an actor. “Merde” is for dancers, “break a leg” is for actors, and “good luck” simply isn’t spoken in theaters. I have asked various dance mentors the meaning behind this distinction and the reason for its vulgarity. One answer I’ve gotten is that “merde” is a risqué equivalent to “break a leg” said in French because of the French origins of Ballet, the foundation of Western dance. I have also been told that patrons of the arts had to navigate around “merde” on the streets from horses drawing carriages while walking into especially well-attended performances, so telling a dancer “merde” is like wishing that they will have plenty of horse shit to step in before their show. These various alleged reasons for the presence of this particular bestowment in the world of dance have been passed down over generations of performers as folklore, which is one of the many that connections between dance and oral/traditional literary material.

The ways in which dance draws from elements of oral/traditional material to deconstruct the very concept of traditional reveal that an art form’s capacity to preserve tradition and its capacity to break tradition are one and the same. Oral epic poetry preserves tradition because of the various techniques that characterize its composition in performance. While oral/traditional material reflects tradition, postmodern dance as an art form reacts to, opposes, and changes tradition. In spite of extreme distances in time and space, as well as vastly different intentions, notable similarities exist between oral epic poetry and practices of postmodern improvisational dance. The relationship between oral epic poetry and postmodern dance reveals that the traditional processes which characterize oral traditional literary material can also be used, depending on the medium by which and the context in which they manifest, to generate nontraditional products because both utilize the fluidity and multiformity of composition in performance.

Although oral/traditional material like folktales and oral epic poetry are considered “traditional” while postmodern improvisational dance is considered “nontraditional”, they all share various characteristics that contribute to these differing categorizations. According to Lord, oral epic poems are distinguished by their fluidity, for they are “given text[s] which undergo change from one singing to another” (Lord 99). Because of this fluidity, oral epic poetry is also distinguished by its multiformity, or existence as a single medium without a single form. Each performance of oral epic poetry generates a different product because of specific contextual constraints within time and space, as well as subjective contributions from the singer himself. It is this aspect of oral epic poetry that makes it traditional though, for the very tradition is to preserve a flexibility of forms: “multiformity is essentially conservative in traditional lore” (Lord 120). Anything improvisational, including dance, is also characterized by its fluidity and multiformity; no two performances of dance are alike because of the ephemeral nature of the practice as well as the intention behind emphasizing spontaneity and originality in each moment. Postmodern improvisational dance especially is considered nontraditional, even though it is characterized by the same elements of fluidity and multiformity that make oral epic poetry traditional.

Products as means sharing such distinct elements can be used for such different ends- either preserving tradition or breaking tradition- because of the nature of the traditions themselves. The multiformity and fluidity of oral epic poems as products are considered traditional because the tradition of oral epic poetry as a process is to generate material that is not fixed in form. Because of these elements, as Lord explains, “in oral tradition the idea of an original is illogical” (Lord 101). It is not necessarily the product, but rather the process, of oral epic poetry that is traditional. This process includes generating products that are fluid and multiform, even though these elements aren’t mutually exclusive to either traditional products or processes. The emphasis on fluidity and multiformity in postmodern improvisational dance especially emphasizes that traditional processes can produce untraditional products- and that the distinction of traditionality is a subjective one.

The concept of tradition must be abstracted to include the motivation behind a given product or process as well. As Lord explains, “changes…have been brought about, not by forces seeking change for its own sake nor by pure chance, but by an insistent, conservative urge for preservation” (Lord 120). The context of fluidity and multiformity as traditional within oral poetry informs the intention behind its preservation, as well as the distinction of these elements as “traditional”. Historically, the tradition of Western concert dance has been to generate movement that is mechanized, uniform, classifiable, and replicable. The multiformity and fluidity of postmodern improvisational dance is thus nontraditional in regards to the situation of this genre of dance within the larger context of Western dance from which it arose. Even though the elements of fluidity and multiformity exist within the practice of postmodern improvisational dance as a very nontraditional dance form, oral epic poetry is traditional because it is carried forward with the intention of preserving its fluidity and multiformity. Instead, postmodern improvisational dance uses fluidity and multiformity to change tradition. The label of “traditional” has not just to do with the nature of a process or product but the intention behind them as it is informed by the context in which they arise.

The intentions behind oral epic poetry and improvisational dance differ even though both are composed in performance. It is the live aspect of the production of these media that manifest their fluidity and multiformity- whether they are considered traditional or not. According to Lord, “composition and performance are two aspects of the same moment…an oral poem is not composed for but in performance” (Lord 13). The context of a performance impacts the text of the oral epic poem itself, and the various elements of the work come together under the specific circumstances of time and space. Similarly, improvisational dance is not reproduced or pre-planned, even if it is prepared for. The intention behind composing oral epic poetry in performance is to express a pre-existing tradition, whereas improvisational dance seeks to break free from previous tradition to create new traditions in both form and content. For oral epic poets, “expression is his business, not originality…to say that the opportunity for originality…exist[s] does not mean that the desire for originality also exists” (Lord 45). The oral epic poet has the intention of expression, which implies the preservation of an already existing tradition or practice- in spite of the subjectivity of composition during live performance. The postmodern improvisational dancer uses the context of live performance to emphasize the ephemeral nature of a work composed during performance. Oral epic poetry arises from the intention to specifically preserve the tradition of composition during performance that generates fluidity and multiformity; postmodern improvisational dance uses fluidity and multiformity to deviate from Western concert dance tradition and generate a new practice of composing during performance.

The contexts of the performance of both oral epic poetry and postmodern improvisational dance impact the texts of the work themselves because they are composed in performance. Serbo-Croatian oral epic poetry is performed in taverns, markets, and public places during various occasions: “it forms…the chief entertainment of the adult male population in the villages and small towns” (Lord 14). The performance of oral epic poetry is situated within the context of another setting, gathering, or celebration instead of being designated as an independent production. Thus, the audience of oral epic poetry is often predominantly male because of the demographic of the settings in which it is performed- and not because it is geared toward or seeks a male audience intentionally. Postmodern improvisational dance is not oriented for a particular audience either, for its pedestrian undertones allow it to apply and appeal to a variety of viewers. In spite of its nontraditional intentions, postmodern improvisational dance is often still performed in a traditional concert setting with a proscenium style stage, viewers situated in an audience, and a “fourth wall” barrier between audience and stage. While oral epic poetry is a practice that exists for the sake of performance, improvisational dance isn’t necessarily reliant on the presence of an audience in spite of its capacity to be performed in traditional performance contexts; improvisation is process-oriented and used as a tool for performers themselves.

Because the improvisational aspects of postmodern dance are predominantly process-oriented, it can easily be situated in a performance setting independent of the influence of audience members. The improvisational aspects of oral epic poetry are product-oriented though, which causes its products to be impacted by the settings in which they arise. Specifically, the setting of oral epic poetry performances contributes to the variability of the audience, for audience members come and go throughout a performance in a public place or on behalf of another occasion. The audience impacts the composition of the oral epic poem, for “the essential element of the occasion of singing that influences the form of the poetry is the variability and instability of the audience” (Lord 16). The context of the performance of oral epic poetry informs the form of the poem itself in terms of length and density of descriptions- the form of the poem impacts its content. Because it is composed in performance, oral epic poetry possesses meaning on a content, formal, and contextual level.

While oral epic poetry is shaped by its context through the influences of the audience, postmodern improvisational dance often seeks to change its context instead of being changed by it. Oral epic poetry is altered in length and density because of its setting or audience, but improvisational dance would use its content to alter its context- often by engaging with it in untraditional ways. Unconventional props, costumes, and performance locations are notorious in improvisational dance, all of which seek to change the perception and perspective of audience members. The relationship between the audience of oral epic poetry and postmodern improvisational dance are thus equally as important to their respective media, yet reversed to have the opposite effects. Because the audience of oral epic poetry influences the production of the poem itself, the content of the poem often implies that the audience is educated on the history of the content. By directly affecting the poetry, the context of performance charges the text with the capacity to preserve these traditions. Postmodern improvisational dance, however, generates content that is completely new and unfamiliar to both its viewers and performers. There is no pre-existing relationship between improvisational dance audiences and the content of the work itself, which gives it the flexibility to be relevant to any and every audience member possible.

Performances of oral epic poetry and postmodern improvisational dance alike are characterized not only by the influence of audience members but also by the identities and methods of the performers. The illiteracy of oral epic poets allows them to have the freedom to negotiate the process of composing while performing, for “their illiteracy determines the particular form their composition takes, and thus distinguishes them” (Lord 20). While illiteracy does not directly classify oral epic poets, it impacts their poetic processes and products enough to establish a poetic form distinguishable from that generated by literate poets. This lack of formal literate training enables the creative process of oral epic poetry, which suggests that a formal and institutionalized training hinders the performative process. Literacy in dance corresponds to the ability to understand, execute, and communicate the mechanized movements of formalized veins of dance such as ballet. Postmodern improvisational dancers, who react to and oppose this institutionalized aesthetic, could thus be considered “illiterate”. Because this style of movement expands upon institutionalized genres of movement, postmodern improvisational dancers are often extremely well versed in these forms against which they react. Unlike in oral epic poetry, it is this very proficiency with the “literate” and the institutionalized that enables improvisational dancers to explore and react to those very boundaries in the first place. While postmodern improvisational dance is non-traditional and non-conventional within the realm of dance, it is probably considered more conventional within the realm of everyday life because it emphasizes pedestrian movements and freedom of expression on an individual basis, regardless of one’s movement training and experience.

The performance-as-composition quality of oral/traditional material and postmodern improvisational dance allows the characterization of the identity of performers to transcend boundaries of class. The role of performers in both genres is to create their respective content within the context of a specific performance. This emphasis on composition in the moment of performance allows it to exist independently from outside or previous instances of the performers’ practice. This independence is not to suggest that the occupation or class of an individual does not impact his identity as a performer and thus the processes he practices and the products he generates; rather, it suggests that this impact is simply irrelevant in terms of its contributions to performers in a separate class. Oral epic poets thus “do not seem to form a special class…they can belong to any group in society” (Lord 20). While the number of individuals who have the talent to perform oral epic poetry is limited, this talent is not tied to a specific class identity. One must simply exist in a society that values the practice of singing oral epic poetry, for this society instills “the desire to attain proficiency in singing epic poetry” (Lord 18) that transcends class boundaries to unite oral epic poets. Oral epic poets do not come from one specific social class, so oral epic poetry exists because of and within all social classes from which these poets emerge.

In a broader sense, communication of narrative is experienced in a variety of genres and by a variety of people- often because of political or economic class structures but in spite of specific situations within those structures. Regardless of the form of communication, “the custom of tale-telling [has been] practiced by all the social classes” (Propp xix). This very freedom from and transcendence of social constraints enables oral/traditional and improvisational material alike to be explored and practiced in a variety of ways. The omnipresence of folklore not within but between classes charges it with the capacity to carry tradition. This universality of folklore is possible because of its very nature- its form informs its function. Similarly, postmodern dance emphasizes pedestrian qualities, which makes it accessible to essentially anyone and everyone. It lacks virtuosity because of the people who perform it but also because of its intentions of accessibility. Tale-telling exists beyond boundaries of class because it exists as a human capacity, whereas improvisational dance is made accessible for the very purpose of existing beyond boundaries of class. Thus, the classlessness of oral/traditional practitioners is a consequence of the forms they practice, while the classlessness of postmodern improvisational dancers is a cause of the forms they generate.

Form communicates the meaning of content between performers and audience members for both oral epic poetry and postmodern improvisational dance. The morphology of oral/traditional material, or its “description…according to its component parts and the relationship of these components to eachother and to the whole” (Propp 19), possesses the meaning necessary for communication and understanding between performers and audience members. Elements of oral epic poetry relate to one another and to the people involved in its composition through its formal elements, whether they are classified syntagmatically by how they are ordered together, or paradigmatically by how they exist as sets of things within the same category. Similarly, postmodern dance emphasizes the form of the human body and the movement it does to deconstruct the meanings projected onto it. Postmodern dance generates meaning from form, instead of its form reflecting a pre-existing meaning. The formal elements of both media provide access into the meanings they create or perpetuate.

The form of oral epic poetry not only generates its content, but also manifests the fluidity and multiformity that enables it to preserve tradition. Although there is no formal original of oral epic poetry, the tradition of oral epic poetry originates in its form. According to Lord, formulas are the smallest formal unit of oral epic poetry and are essential to the performance itself: “only in performance can the formulas exist” (Lord 34). The subjectivity of the performer and the context in which he performs are integrated into the formulas of the oral epic poetry, and thus are the purest reflection of the tradition that generates them. Because these formulas function below the consciousness of the singer, they not only reflect the context of the performance but also the years of practice informing that context. The formulas of oral epic poetry “emerge from habitual usage…by the natural oral method” (Lord 36) and thus bear the subjectivity of their speaker as well as the tradition from which they emerge. The equivalent of formulas in any dance genre is each individual movement that is codified and repeatable. Dance training engrains this movement into the body on a biological and muscular level, which enables them to similarly exist below the consciousness of performers. In order to move with the freedom necessary for improvisational dance, one must have enough practice executing these individual “formulas” of dance to be able to regenerate them- they act as the point of reference from which to base the improvisational experimentation of multiformity and fluidity. Formulas reflect the traditions of both oral epic poetry and postmodern improvisational dance, even though they are used to break that tradition in postmodern dance as opposed to preserving the tradition of oral epic poetry.

The forms of both oral/traditional material and postmodern improvisational dance generate and communicate the content itself; the forms create the content so the form is the content. Regarding oral epic poetry, themes as groups of formulas serve as the content of the narrative that the relationship between formulas describes. According to Lord, themes emerge from formulas, as they are “the groups of ideas regularly used in telling a tale in the formulaic style of traditional song” (Lord 68). Not only do formulas constitute a theme in oral epic poetry, but also they indicate how that theme is classified thus how it relates to other themes within the poem as a whole.  As Propp explains, “a theme is usually defined in the following fashion: a part of a tale is selected…the preposition ‘about’ is added to it, and the definition is established” (Propp 7). Themes are configured and noted secondarily based on the form that generates them; it is through themes that one relates to a story but because they are arrived at subjectively it is important to recognize that any meaning derived from themes of an oral epic poem is meaning audience members project onto them.

The form of an oral epic poem extends from formulas to themes, and further manifests itself as a story pattern. Lord claims that a story pattern is traditional, recognizable, and thus embedded with culture (Lord 118). It is at the level of story patterns that the form of an oral epic poem, and thus its meaning, is recognized by those to whom it is communicated. Similarly, Propp emphasizes that the narrative structure of oral epic material holds the relevant information for those who receive it, and that a tale is understood by what it represents not by what it describes (Propp 6). This narrative characteristic of oral epic poetry allows audience members to connect to the oral/traditional material by projecting meaning onto the structure to extract a sense of content, as well as by offering a logical course of action to commit to emotionally. The story pattern is also communicated easily because it reflects the tradition generating it that is familiar to its recipients. In reaction to Westernized concert dance, postmodern improvisational dance is not narrative-oriented and strives to explore movement for the sake of moving, instead of moving to tell a story. Dancers often choose to repeat movement forms, which can establish a sense of a theme within an improvisation- but postmodern improvisational dance isn’t practiced with the intention of depicting patterns in the form of stories or themes. Like in oral epic poetry, themes and story patterns in dance are extensions of and generated by formulaic elements of composition. Because of the ephemeral nature of forms composed in performance, themes and story patterns are only recognizable in hindsight; we as individuals project our content-based assumptions onto the forms we see to try and make sense of what we experienced.

Although they take different forms, oral/traditional material and postmodern improvisational dance both emphasize action. Formulas of oral epic poetry are comprised of actions: “the most frequent actions in the story, the verbs, are often complete formulas in themselves” (Lord 34). Thus, oral epic poems are essentially composed of series of actions at their most basic level of composition. This focus on action is extended with formulas into the structural level of themes, for “usually the singer is carried from one major theme to another by the demands for further action that are brought out in the developing theme” (Lord 95). Action propels an oral epic poem forward by creating the change that its characters enacted and resolve. Without action, the formal sequence of the story could not be expressed as, or generate, content; action unites both form and content. Along the same lines, Propp’s concept of functions in oral epic poetry articulates this fundamental emphasis on action. He explains that function is “an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action” (Propp 21). He also expresses that the importance of action in constituting oral/traditional material exceeds that of the context in which the actions take place. Because of this separation, “functions must be defined independently of the character who are supposed to fulfill them…[and] independently of how and in what manner they are fulfilled” (Propp 66). In oral epic poetry as well as in folktales, functions executed by dramatic personae not only constitute formulas and thus themes and story patterns, but are also the points of reference for character interaction and significance.

As a movement practice, postmodern improvisational dance emphasizes action on multiple levels. Action is the form and content of postmodern dance, as well as the medium and the message it conveys. While oral epic poetry reflects the functions of characters through formulas, themes, and story patterns, dance embodies action physically and in real time. Dancers carry out actions inspired by emotions and thoughts within their own bodies and express them outwardly. The outward expression of action is the catalyst for interaction between dancers, transforming actions into reactions. The interactions explored through improvisational dance communicate to the audiences who observe them, which enables it to provoke change; mental and emotional change is in this case inspired by the physical exploration of the non-traditional. Action exists within the content of oral/traditional material, as well as the driving force of the formal elements of the medium. In postmodern improvisational dance, action is the content and form- within and between the bodies of dancers and audience members alike.

Action unites the form and content of both oral traditional material and postmodern improvisational dance. It also unites oral traditional material and improvisational dance as multiform and fluid media composted in performance, regardless of their differing intentions. These similarities reveal that the characteristics of traditional processes can also be used to generate nontraditional products. It is the level of expression at which it exists- embodiment as opposed to reflection- that gives dance the capacity to change tradition while oral epic poetry only preserves it. Once embodied, tradition and action become one and the same. This action inspires reaction, which charges it with the capacity to not only change but also be changed- merde and all.