Sometimes I put things on my website just because I know that I’ll never find them again, and because they’re so darn weird, blogging about them is the only way to get it out of my system.
So here it is, the strangest thing I ever read in a book purporting to be on the philosophy of dance, or about Moira Shearer, come to that. I discovered, rather too late, that the philosopher Francis Sparshott had written a whole chapter on music and dance in A Measured Pace (1995), one of his two philosophical books on dance. I’m skimming through, then all of a sudden, I see this extraordinary passage about Moira Shearer, who, Sparshott relates, had once said that for her, some modern ballets, performed to “squeals, grunts and groans, or no music at all,” seemed to contradict what dancing was. In her view, or it must surely be fair to say, in her experience, choreographers wanted to choreograph out of a response to music—”Something surely makes one want to dance,” she says.
That sounds pretty normal to me—let’s face it, it’s probably not the money, the lifestyle, or the career prospects, and although it’s not everybody’s reason to dance, an awful lot of dancers will say that it was because of the music, or that they don’t like dancing without it, or that they chose to choreograph a piece because they liked the music. But for Sparshott, who’s already written 200-plus pages on dance by now, this seems “strange.”
“One would have thought,” he says, as if philosophers and their readers are better placed to know the mind of the dancers they are writing about, “choreographers simply wanted to compose dances, and dancers wanted to dance them,” he says on page 218. “She [Shearer] might have said, with equal reason, that something makes musical composers want to compose.” To me, that doesn’t seem so strange either. I can understand that a composer must primarily be interested in putting sounds together, otherwise they’re doomed, but it seems perfectly reasonable that they might look to the world around them for inspiration. They might have to, if they’ve been commissioned to write something. Also, speaking as a musician, I don’t find anything strange in the idea that there is something that precedes music before you actually make it: it’s particularly acute in performance, where you have to have an idea of the music before you start playing, otherwise what are you going to do? At the most basic level, if you’re playing for a class, and you need to set the tempo, you also first need to set the tempo for yourself. In a sense, there is something that is “making you want to play” in that tempo, even if you are part of that process yourself.
But here’s the oddest bit of all, that I’m afraid made me wonder if I should pay any attention to this book any more. I’m going to put it in bold so you don’t miss it: “It is not surprising, as one reads this, that Shearer abandoned her dancing career—no doubt her heart was never in it.” (Sparshott, 1995, p. 218). What on earth is a comment like this doing in a book on philosophy? And what are the implications of it? That Shearer had no right, if she were to fit his conceptual claim about what being a dancer was, to have four children, or enjoy anything other than dancing? On that view, Vicky had no option but to throw herself under that train in The Red Shoes.
Now, as it happens, a comment in Shearer’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph lends some support to Sparshott’s comment. She is reported to have said that she never really wanted to be a dancer as a child, and later on, that “there was so much more in life than dancing – so much ordinary living to do.” But that does not seem unreasonable either. It’s not given to most of us to be able to have the extraordinary, multi-faceted career that Shearer had, so to dismiss her other work and life choices as “abandoning her dancing career” seems a pretty mean-minded way to support your conceptual claims. And above all, if you’re a philosopher, why pick an argument with Moira Shearer, rather than other philosophers?