While I was growing up, my family attended The Nutcracker almost every Christmas season to watch a family friend perform. Even from the mezzanine, I could sometimes hear the soft thud of Clara landing a leap or the great swish of dresses and props moving about the stage. I learned to listen for it behind the music. Those sounds belied the massive exertion of performance, art made with bodies that strained and sweated and came back to earth with force. I don’t know much about dance, but I listened for the sounds again this week at Cairo’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, at a modern dance performance called La Traversée/La Nuit.
The performance lasts one hour and fifteen minutes, we were cautioned. You may not leave and return in the middle. You must turn off your mobile phones. This didn’t silence the audience—as the lights dimmed, rustling and coughs and whispers fogged the theater.
Light came gradually, and the music, too. I could not be sure of the figure standing in the center of the stage; it took several minutes to realize she was moving. She turned in circles over and over and over until the light disappeared entirely and three dancers came and moved in large circles, turning as they traced the perimeter of a light that grew focused, then diffuse. The movements expanded and contracted, the women moved close together and then apart, the circles shrank and grew, the music changed—but all so gradually I didn’t notice the change until it had already happened, the way you suddenly realize that your siblings have grown up, or your parents have gone gray. But the sound of the dancers’ feet brushing the floor remained constant as all else swelled, faded, and swelled. I couldn’t trust the light, or the eerie voices and violins, but I knew the steady rhythm of their steps.
In dance, the body is the art. Which is probably why we find it so odd, awkward, difficult to understand—books can be entertaining, and paintings are pretty, but dance is so physical. It’s tactile and real and makes us aware, all over again, of the legs we’re crossing in our theater seats, the urge to cough, the itch just below our left shoulder.
I don’t forget my body in Cairo, or rarely. This week, the temperature broke one hundred degrees fahrenheit, and I felt the air thicken around me as I began to sweat on my short walk home. My stomach protests after most meals. My eyes burn now and then from the pollution. When I walk down strange streets, or familiar ones, I am conscious of my neckline and the action of tucking hair behind my ear or swiping balm across my lips. I breathe harder when I climb the stairs to my apartment. And I’ve been ill so often this year. I am thickly and humanly here, and it doesn’t feel much like art. It’s odd and awkward and difficult to understand.
But I’ve been thinking this Orthodox Holy Week about incarnation as a sacredness, and I’ve been thinking about how change is slow, and difficult to see, until you notice, suddenly, that something is other than it was. The thud and swish of dancers onstage tells me that these weak, tired, aching bodies make art, too—the art of repeated movements and subtle changes, the gentle expansion of circles, the slow moving together and spinning apart. And the light becomes ever brighter, ever more diffuse. I don’t notice that I’m changing until I turn and I am older, and I am different, and the light is ever brighter, ever more diffuse.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.