“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so,” Alan Watts wrote as he contemplated our search for meaning. “The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

It is a fertile metaphor, for the way we move through the world — and how we move the world through the mind — shapes our entire experience of it. Out of this existential choreography, which we perform a million times a day in a million unconscious ways, arises our perception of reality.

The metaphor comes alive with uncommon vitality in The Choreography of Everyday Life (public library) by choreographer Annie-B Parson, who has shaped living artworks by cultural icons ranging from David Bowie and David Byrne to Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Reading the Odyssey as a kind of secular theology and reckoning with Tik-Tok as the folk art form of our time, she turns a cautious eye to our menacing pandemic of selfing, observing the self-made corner into which we have punished ourselves:

Social media forms are performative solo forms with an odd conflation of friendship and marketing; the body is alone in a room performing the self, with an undercurrent of desire for applause. Without a town square to gather in and hash out the day with neighbors, social media communications have a shading of loneliness underneath.

Art by Maira Kalman for her illustrated adaptation of David Byrne’s American Utopia, choreographed by Annie-B Parson

The way out, she intimates, is movement — a movement of the spirit that mirrors the movement of bodies toward the togetherness of the town square, the place where generative change takes place, for all creativity — which is the antidote to loneliness — is a kind of dance we perform not in isolation but with the world:

The wide shot is the camera position that allows the audience to see the full body of everyone in the scene in their environment, it’s the most objective and potentially the most compositional of camera positions, and for very brief moments I can perceive our wide shot: that we experience contentment, then we suffer, we slog through what we deem uninteresting, we get inspired, we see things, we miss things, we trip or fall or slowly crumble, we get up, we fight, we reconnect, and then in despair or fascination or just reflexively, we write about it.

And this desire to articulate what you feel and perceive, to tell it, to name it, to describe it, this is as natural as the progression from walking to running to leaping, to shaping that leap into a pattern of leaps, and then a group of leapers in unison — into a dance.

And if I go into the extreme wide shot, I can see a generative duality between us and the world, a reciprocity between us perceiving the world together through art, and the world in turn reading us through what we make. In this mirror structure, I can imagine the creative act as world-actualization rather than self-actualization, that what we make becomes a part of nature’s generative system.

Art by Maira Kalman for American Utopia

Couple this fragment of The Choreography of Everyday Life with Zadie Smith on what writers can learn from the great dancers, then revisit Helen Keller, upon visiting Martha Graham’s studio, on how dance is like thought.

Maria Popova

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