Silence: The Absence of Sound?

We conceive of silence as a void -- an unsettling condition that begs to be resolved. Silence in most social situations is perceived as uncomfortable. An awkward silence. A pregnant pause. A fleeting condition through which we pass, not moments we relish. Silence leaves us with nothing but our own thoughts. No prompt to answer or through line to follow. Is this uneasiness an inherent characteristic of experiencing time, or do we have arbitrary expectations for how silence should be felt?

I believe stillness is the silencing of movement. But I reject the concept of silence and stillness being the absence of something. Stillness is rich, and challenging, and transient. It is more difficult to sustain than motion.

At first blush, stillness seems to be the antithesis of dance. Audiences are often very uncomfortable with stillness and silence within dance works. Their fundamental notions about dance are violated by stillness.

The use of silence and stillness is nothing new to concert dance. It has been used for decades, often for the very purpose of subverting audience expectations. It has the power to draw our attention to our breath, to our body, and to our impulses. When the music stops and the dancers become static, we may be confused. Some audience members might be annoyed. Some might be frustrated and searching for meaning where there is no objective significance. Many will feel obligated to participate in sustaining the silence. Others might be tempted to disrupt the silence out of inquisitiveness or contrarian tendencies.

Seconds can feel like minutes or the pause in the action can feel like nothing more than a blip. It is an entirely subjective experience, and a vulnerable one. When there are no external cues to frame your experience, are you doing it right?

After years of studying dance academically, these questions still plague me as an audience member. This weekend the revered Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performed at The Dance Center of Columbia College. The evening-length work Story/Time could be analyzed extensively, but I am most compelled to contemplate the powerful minute of silence within the work.

Comments overheard and observations made about this particular moment piqued my interest and drew my attention to the experiences of my fellow audience members. Some of the tension was palpable. A few people seemed to find this moment weird, even off-putting. I overheard an account of an audience member saying to a friend she wished to have some sort of quite audible response, perhaps out of nothing more than curiosity. That whispered deliberation in and of itself compromised the premise of silence.

I believe some of the most important works of art present a challenge. Great art kindles introspection. Watching dance is anything but passive.

I found those seconds, or minutes, or hours or centuries of stillness and silence luxurious. The opportunity to take a breath and absorb the vignette prompted this entire reflection. The experiences of my fellow audience members became just as integral to the performance as the setting on the stage. The silence broke the fourth wall of theatre in a way that called into question the entire dichotomy of audience-performer.

Inevitably, the action resumed. Many of us likely reverted to watching rather than seeing, and hearing rather than listening. The timer hit the 70-minute mark, and the sudden silence, stillness, and darkness signaled to us the performance was over. The sold-out house was on its feet within moments, clapping and cheering. This juxtaposition with the silence from only minutes earlier was at once routine and yet profound. The ritual of performance ended, the crowd dissipated, lights have been turned off and doors locked -- and the ephemeral stillness and silence have since been comfortingly reanimated.