No translation required

“Dance is so important in the world. It needs no language. Our bodies speak a language of it’s own.”

–Ibrahim Farrah

There isn’t a language barrier in the visual art of dance. The Nederlands Dance Theatre performed at the opening of Estivales, an arts festival in Perpignan. Dance is something I understand. No translation necessary for me or my French neighbors.

It would be a blissful hour and a half that I could spend absorbing art rather than searching for a translation.

After intermission, however, something changed. The music of the first half had been entirely instrumental. The music at the beginning of the second half included words. I had not prepared myself for this. This piece, my favorite in the entire show, involved dancers repeating a sequence of dance moves on chairs and singing a line of the song at the end of each sequence. This was repeated about ten times, and I couldn’t even determine what language they were singing in. But at the same time, I didn’t really need to. I have been in Perpignan long enough to know that I wasn’t hearing a French phrase, so once again the playing field was even.

Something unexpected happened next. The odds were tipped in my favor. One piece incorporated English-language monologues from members of the company. One by one the dancers improvised choreography that exemplified who they were, while a recording of the dancer speaking played in English. I could understand every word.

After spending a week struggling to communicate for a week in French, I could have felt smug that finally I was in the know. But I didn’t. I actually felt guilty that I could understand exactly what was being said. I scanned the audience as the monologues played looking for some sign that I wasn’t the only one who could understand. Yes, some laughed as a dancer recited his recipe for “yellow soup,” but others looked lost. They were on the outside of the joke, and I empathized with them.

This led me to question the intentions of the dance company. The Nederlands Dans Theatre was invited to perform for the opening festival in Perpignan, France. Why would they use English over French or Dutch? I would have sat happily, entirely ignorant of the meaning, had these languages been used. I am a visitor. I was given a privilege I didn’t deserve.

My concerns appeared unfounded at the end of the show, because the audience exploded into conversation with huge smiles and approving glances. Although we were speaking in different languages, we were involved in a huge dialogue. We created a new art that meshed together our differences to form one mutual appreciation.