“Art”, “art” and the Jungle Book

Last week The Jungle Book came to Fort Collins. It is a traveling ballet version, and since I’d organized a wildlife costume/mask/headdress event here for 8 years I thought it would be fun to see how the animals were represented. The dance group’s costumes were interesting, jazzy, and fun, much more polished than the ones we made in our community art studio (see “Procession of the River Species” under Portfolio on my website, www.eco-art.org). I’ll write more in the future about how the Procession made artmaking available to many people who had never picked up a paintbrush as well as raising their interest in local wildlife species.

in front, the Snake, with arms



Early in the ballet performance, my interest was caught by the challenge of how the human bodies should act the gestures. Some movements were clearly to represent the species they were dancing—wolves, bear, snake, panther—but at other times the animals had to use human gestures to tell the story to the human audience. It had me thinking about translating animal gestures, which we do a lot of with our pets, but it takes involvement in nature to “read” the meaning of them in wildlife. And gestures and postures are the only language most other species offer us. In the dance, sometimes the animals moved as animals, with sinuous snake, bumbling bear and slinky leopard moves while at other times to fulfill our expectations of “ballet” they moved as dancers. A leaping snake gracefully splaying the arms it wouldn’t ordinarily have, etc. The dance was well done, competent but not very exciting, and quite a few season ticket holders left at intermission.

In the middle of act two, however, was a duet scene with a raven and a large tree. I don’t know how they related to the plot, but suddenly my attention was riveted on the raven dancer. He was large, dynamic, and waved large black fans as wings, somehow making the motion and the sound a bird rustling in the brush actually makes. I could hardly breathe watching him dance, the movements portraying dance and gesture seamlessly, integrated into a magical creature, compelling to watch. The tree person was too tall to move much, but created a pivot point to focus our attention on the raven.  “Art” onstage.

Thinking about it later, I realized this scene was parallel to my thoughts on visual “art” and “Art”. Where I live there are lots of people calling themselves artists who reproduce, by painting or photography or sculpture,  ideas that are old stale nostalgia. A friend refers to what they do as “stuff” but I’m thinking of it with the small a. The artists I respect give us an experience like the raven dancer: electric, compelling, expanding our world and our consciousness at least in a small way. “Art”.

Why would artists spend their time trying for anything less? Why dream small? Does anyone else have a way of describing this experience? Of course, we can never quite explain it in words, which is why it is visual art.

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