How do you use your mind when you look at art, listen to music, or watch dance?

Do you seek meaning  in symbols or words, in art design or do you feel the urge to Wikipedia the artist behind the work for context? Perhaps you experience frustration – whether because you feel lost or simply because you’re unsure of what to feel.
I posed this question to Sydney Dance Company’s Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela prior to the premiere of the company’s latest offering Frame of Mind in Melbourne. Bonachela is a man with intelligent, kind eyes that look like merry currants – a fluid and energetic body language and an easy ability to share. He responded that in a modern world there is too much narrative – that everything is explained and set, pre-digested – and that he is most interested in the abstract, in that which you must fit together as a participant. Culture that doesn’t involve language – whether it is modern dance, music or visual art – it’s all abstract when you think about it.
The freeing aspect of the abstract is that you can make of the work what you want. It can be difficult and frustrating to you: that’s what you’ve got from it. It might make you weep, or smile or laugh. It could bore you. These are all  just responses to work – you’re the key that unlocks the work in a way that is true for you. I know that this demanding aspect of decoding works dissuades many people from abstraction – away from modern dance, classical music or sculpture. It truly is for you, though. If you like Masterchef and McDonalds on the way home from the footy, it’s for you. If you spend your weekends taking your Mum to Heide or roadtripping up the Hume, it’s for you. If you’ve got rugrats – or don’t – if you’re political or if you barely know who’s in power – it’s for you too.
When I watch modern dance, it’s very meditative. I think I used to look for more meaning – I’d seek out clues. Now I let my mind free-associate in whatever way it chooses – it’s my responsibility to make what I need to from the artist’s work. Afterwards, I can read reviews and Wikipedia entries to see what others felt about the work. I thoroughly enjoyed Frame of Mind by Sydney Dance Company, which was two works: Quintett by William Forsythe and Frame of Mind by Rafael Bonachela in collaboration with the company dancers.
Firstly, Quintett. Created by American-born, German-based modern dance choreographer William Forsythe, it has been described as one of the genre’s true masterpieces and ‘Balanchine on steroids’. I understood that the piece was performed by five dancers to a reel – a chant of sorts. I wasn’t sure whether this chant would be distressing – half an hour of a repeating dirge can be upsetting. On the contrary – the reel was a beautiful piece of strings and voice by Gavin Bryars. It pairs a live recording of a homeless man singing a traditional religious song Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet – with a slowly growing orchestra score by Bryars. I include it for your enjoyment here – give it a try and let me know what you think.
Quintett is a final love letter from the choreographer to his wife. I was deeply moved by this piece. It felt mildly institutional, slightly 1970’s and extremely athletic. At times the dancers looked as though they might smash into one another. There were looping triptychs of movement between them. At times there seemed to be three tales going on at a time, at others all dancers seemed immersed in their own world. There were moments of rest and recovery. My final feeling about Quintett was that it seemed to me about pushing someone on into a place you can’t go. The fight to hold on together, the courage of the one who remains to move the other along. Grieving, keening. But never morbid or hopeless. Beautiful.
Frame of Mind – the second work of the night – did not enhance my own. The set was beautiful: a room with tall windows – it had kind of vintage feel. Had we joined the performers on stage, one could imagine looking out onto an old European street. The work itself agitated me greatly. The accompanying score by Bryce Dessner performed by Kronos Quartet plucked at my nerves, while the dancers onstage seemed to writhe in torture. I understand from Bonachela’s interview prior to the performance that Frame of Mind was a response to a difficult year: of partners moving overseas and parents falling ill. He conveys this sense of unease well in the piece – I hope this period pf turmoil is over, because the work reflected his worries to disturbing effect. Some moments in this work were sinuous and a bit sexy, and when the dancers came together in synchronized movement it was quite powerful – but overall its themes of paranoia and torture left me tired.
But that’s OK. It did its job, and I did mine. The works and I, we had our own special dance to perform.