Thomas Sutcliffe: In dance, ignorance is bliss

And, naturally, the lack of understanding follows from that. If you take no steps to educate yourself about an art form, it's surprising how ignorance and incomprehension can flourish, and in my case the foliage of cluelessness is dense and uninterrupted. I try my best to keep other areas of the garden relatively neat and tidy, but I'm perfectly happy for that to remain a wilderness area.

And yet I had a delightful evening this week watching the first night of Mark Morris's 25th anniversary season at Sadler's Wells in London. That may sound like a contradiction, but I'd suggest that the philistinism and the good time were connected. If I had known or cared more, I'd have enjoyed myself much less.

Some of the reasons for my indifference to dance are practical. Life is short and you can't do everything - and a couple of early encounters with classical narrative ballet persuaded me that dance was going to be at the top of my own "not to do" list. Actually, when it comes to classical ballet, I think I'm a philistine through and through. I feel about it rather as my daughter did when she was taken to her first Nutcracker at the age of six. After about half an hour of rapt attention, she leant sideways and whispered: "Mummy, when are they going to start singing?"

Quite - though in my case, any kind of language would do. I know all the arguments about this: the infinite suggestive subtlety of human gesture, the preverbal communication that goes deeper than speech. But I just don't believe them. If they didn't have to mime everything, I find myself thinking, we could all be out and having a drink a lot quicker.

Language is at the heart of my problems with modern dance, too - which, whatever its merits (I'm not denying it has them) seems to me a poor medium for sophisticated communication. If you want a visual image of my prejudice, just recall one of those Jules Feiffer cartoons in which a Martha Graham-style woman in a black leotard subtitles her own movements - "In this dance I celebrate corporate mergers".

The trouble is, I don't find it easy to switch off the translation chip that is a central component in a critical response to other cultural forms. To read a novel intelligently is (in part, anyway) to identify the discrepancies between what it is saying and the way it is saying it. And para-phrase can be an indispensable tool in working this out, since it helps you to home in on why a certain set of words does something that a set of synonyms would not.

If you're watching dance, though, the translation chip simply generates radar clutter. Start thinking: "What precisely is she getting at?" when a dancer thrusts her hand in the air and makes lascivious stroking motions with two fingers (as happens in Morris's Grand Duo), and you're liable to end up somewhere ridiculous. You have to quell the habitual scrabble for interpretation - and the effect of doing that can be exhilarating if you're used to art that is inextricably entangled in a set of judgements and comparisons and evaluations. It really doesn't matter whether this Mark Morris piece is innovative or stale, or where it stands in relation to the rest of his oeuvre. All that matters is the present sensation.

There's an obvious Catch-22 about this naive pleasure, though. If you try to repeat it too often, you start to accumulate knowledge like an artery accumulates plaque. You would, insidiously, start to know whether a particular movement is crassly derivative, or that a certain arrangement of dancers is a witty allusion to Balanchine. And while I know that there will almost certainly be a whole set of pleasures associated with that (smart fun is usually more fun than dumb fun), I also know that I just don't have the time and patience. I'd probably end up with the worst of both worlds - semiliterate in an art form the central value of which (as far as I'm selfishly concerned) is its illiteracy. So, I'll be protecting my philistinism. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but even less can be quite thrilling.

Comments