A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Professor Mark Magruder

When one looks at water in nature it is almost always in motion. When a human being is moving through space using the elements of time and energy, a dance is occurring. Dancing on water is quite hard, a feat that would evoke much discussion. Christ was said to walk on water and people are still commenting on this impossibility. Dancers have to use illusions brought on by technical effects to create the above feat.

Karoliina Kettunen
Spirit of the Lake

Photograph: © Mark Magruder

Water is a source of impetus for many choreographers. Water manifests itself many ways on this planet. Lakes, streams, rivers, geysers and oceans all can be catalysts for a piece of choreography. Dancers can glean emotions from water. Water can be tranquil like a still cirque lake in the Rocky Mountains or wild like a hurricane brewing in the Atlantic and pounding the Outer Banks. Visually the sundown or sunrise over water can be arresting and can give one a whole color scheme for costumes or lighting.

In 1581, Le Balet Comique De La Reine was performed. This was the first dance that was called a ballet. Catherine de Medici staged this work at a cost of around three million dollars. One of the most spectacular sights in this ballet was the Queen of France, Louise, and her court ladies making a grand entrance on a moving fountain which spouted water. In the original Gisellewhich first opened in 1841 the Wilis drowned Hilarion, Albrecht's rival, in a pool of water. Of course this was second nature for the Wilis, they were water spirits of women who had been jilted by their lovers.

Water can be friend or foe to dance. To Isadora Duncan, the great progenitor of modern dance, water was a major inspiration. She always wanted to live near water. She talks about her connection to the ocean in her book My Life.She loved to perform her dances on a blue-green carpet so that she had her sea source near by at all times. A sad note on Isadora, two of her children perished in the Seine.

Alvin Ailey's signature work Revelation has a rousing section using the spiritual, Wade in the Water,which will bring even the toughest audience to their feet. Revelationis a joyous celebration of life and the connection with water is very uplifting. With the use of cloth streamers it looks like the dancers are walking on the water.

Eiko & Koma

Photograph: © Bruce Feeley
IMAGE SOURCE: Reflections on the Home of an Art Form
American Dance Festival 65th Anniversary 1934-1998

Eiko and Koma are known for their wonderful blending of Butoh and modern dance. The dance that they are performing in the picture above is called River.Eiko and Koma are using the water as an incubator of life. They slowly go on about their tasks as the water gently surrounds their bodies.

This is in contrast to the way Pina Bausch has used water in her work. Bausch is artistic director and choreographer of the Tanztheater Wuppertal. She is a leader in a dance style called German Expressionism. Pina Bausch's world is one of relationships between people, how men and women deal with their basic essences and how they treat each other. In some of her work Bausch has used water as another impediment to human relationships. The dancers move through water that is about four inches deep, it is always there, right around her dancers' ankles. The already difficult world of Bausch is made that much more uncomfortable by the constant sloshing and soaking of these separate individuals in pedestrian dress.

Pilobolus must have taken their notes about water from playful otters. The ending of their monumental piece Day Twois pure joy. After coming to the surface from depths under the dance flooring, the company rips through the flooring and throws water on the stage which is covered by a second dance floor. Pandemonium breaks out amongst the dancers as each and every company member attempts to outdo the other with incredible belly flops and home plate slides, a sight that brings out the childlike fascination when water is fun and under our control.


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College