“The Beautiful Game”: the aesthetics of World Cup soccer (part 1)

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^ (one of US goalie Tim Howard’s 16 record-setting saves in the USA vs. Belgium game)

Admittedly, I don’t watch a lot of sports. Or more accurately, I tend to only watch sports with an aesthetic element: i.e., events like figure skating, gymnastics, and diving, where an athlete’s form or style of movement is crucial to her success as a competitor; philosopher Jim Parry, in an 1989 paper titled “Sport, Art, and the Aesthetic”, understandably labels these aesthetic sports. I suppose my preference for aesthetic sports is a hang-up of my own background in dance, where achievement depends on meeting aesthetic requirements (e.g., forming pleasing body shapes, moving with a satisfying quality) – sometimes more so than successfully completing technical feats (completing 32 fouettés, perhaps with triple turns like Gillian Murphy; landing a perfect double tour en l’air, etc.). The bulk of my athletic training has placed the aesthetic quality of my movements as a priority, and since aesthetics have so long been the primary basis for evaluating my own performance, I tend to have the most appreciation for athletes who also value aesthetics as the reward of their somatic efforts.

Nevertheless, I find myself swept up in the World Cup this summer, streaming hours of soccer on Univisión and watching as many games as possible with friends (who alas, have jobs with normal hours). Indisputably, part of what draws me (and many other viewers, I surmise) to the World Cup is its social dimension: its invitation to participate in a global fervor, debate the relative merits of teams and players, to identify with a team and fellow fans, and most generally, to celebrate the skill of athletes from six continents. The World Cup is among those unique events (like the Olympics and royal weddings) that draw an international crowd of spectators and commentators. But additionally, in light of my interests in the aesthetics of the human body and our practices of bodily maintenance, training, performance, and ornamentation (topics under investigation within Richard Shusterman’s emerging discipline of ‘somaesthetics‘), I’m convinced that there is a salient aesthetic element to the World Cup (and soccer in general) which certainly accounts in large part for my own attachment to the World Cup as a spectacle, and which, I presume, also gets other viewers hooked. Soccer, after all, is nicknamed “The Beautiful Game“, and our relationship to the events of the World Cup, though sometimes mediated by language and data (e.g., the NY Times’ coverage, replete with real-time blog updates and dozens of graphs), is primarily through sensorial (particularly visual & auditory) consumption: watching game footage and hearing the roar of the crowds and the endless stream of commentary. ‘Aesthetics’ derives from the Greek word aisthesis, meaning sense-perception, though today it’s generally taken to mean ‘of or relating to beauty’; under either of these definitions, though, soccer can be analyzed in terms of aesthetic qualities: its appeal to our senses, and its stimulation of our impression of beauty.

One could argue that ‘beautiful’, in the phrase “The Beautiful Game”, doesn’t truly track aesthetic qualities, but is being used in a disambiguated, unaesthetic sense. Art critic Clive Bell makes an claim of this sort in his 1914 classic, Art: that “Everyone sometimes uses ‘beauty’ in an unaesthetic sense; most people habitually do so. To everyone, except perhaps here and there an occasional aesthete, the commonest sense of the word is unaesthetic,” employed in such phrases as “beautiful huntin'” and “beautiful shooting'” (italics added). Furthermore, Bell claims that ‘beautiful’ is most frequently misused to denote a woman’s sexual desirability, which does not correspond to beauty, under his definition (“combinations of lines and colours that provoke aesthetic emotion”), but rather a difficult-to-describe yet attractive something or je ne sais quoi. Bell’s distinction between the beauty and sexual attractiveness of human beings is something to keep in mind for my later discussion (likely in part 2 or 3) of the role that the appearance of individual players plays in our judgment of soccer as The Beautiful Game.

Against a Bell-like argument that “The Beautiful Game” doesn’t really describe something aesthetic about the sport (but rather refers to some other enjoyable or admirable feature of soccer), I believe the epithet does in fact track aesthetic elements of the game, on both macro and micro levels. That is, I believe we can recognize veritable beauty in the overall structure of soccer games and the rules/technique of play, as well as in particular movements and shapes made by the players, and even in the affectively-laden narratives of games and tournaments. My current investigation into the aesthetic properties of World Cup soccer will be conducted in two parts:

  • Part 1: a visual analysis of World Cup imagery in photographic and video media, in which I apply a dance critic’s or choreographer’s eye for body shapes and movement qualities to highlight the features of players’ movement which may be aesthetically satisfying to spectators
  • Part 2: a discussion of the relationship between the aesthetic properties of static bodies and those of bodies in motion, with a foray into the significance of objectifying players’ bodies under a spectatorial gaze

Enough outlining: onto the imagery!

The idea for this post was sparked by a gallery of World Cup photos on Business Insider: I noticed that a good deal of these photos display players in body shapes or patterns that a choreographer might plausibly construct for aesthetic effect. In other words, it would be easy to confuse some of these images with artworks, even though most of these photos have been captured primarily for documentary purposes, rather than to be displayed for their aesthetic appeal. As I intend to point out, much of this imagery benefits aesthetically from the composition of the shot or video (i.e., formal properties of the work), but also, in large part, gains aesthetic value from its content: human bodies in motion. Athletes in aesthetic sports regularly take into account the visual appeal of their motions (e.g., shapes through which one transitions in a 10-meter dive, or in a figure skating spin sequence like this one invented by skater Caroline Zhang) and are evaluated accordingly; on the other hand, players in “purposive sports” like soccer – in which, according to Parry, “the winner will be one who achieves some end specified by rules, regardless of the manner of achievement” (p. 17) – presumably do not actively intend to assume shapes that are visually pleasing, since success in their event doesn’t depend on evaluation of aesthetic qualities of their movement. Nevertheless, bodies in motion – especially those performing the extreme types of motion required to win games, like (in soccer, specifically) outrunning your opponents, making contact with the ball before an opponent gets to it (to gain possession of it or move it strategically), and tackling the ball away from opponents – often inadvertently assume aesthetically admirable shapes and motion qualities. Furthermore, movement capacities that athletes in purposive sports train to achieve because of their functional value, leading to success on the field (e.g. jump elevation, for a goalie to reach a ball launched towards the high corners of the goal, or leg flexibility to reach the ball from a considerable distance) have remarkable overlap with the type of movement capacities dancers, gymnasts, and other aesthetic performers develop in virtue of the aesthetic value of the shapes/motions which those abilities allow performers’ bodies to assume – like the leap performed by Maria Kochetkova, displaying phenomenal elevation and flexibility alike, in the photo below: joyce-theatre2The photos displayed below, all from Business Insider and the FIFA website (all screenshot to include photography credits), each caught my eye for highlighting features of soccer motion which in other contexts are deliberately enacted for aesthetic purposes. Though the shapes may lack the refinement of those performed in aesthetic sports (particularly in details like facial expressions and the shape of one’s feet), they often resemble categories of dance movements, ranging from jumps to slides on the floor. On the other hand, many of these images diverge significantly from the imagery of dance and aesthetic sports, as a consequence of the overwhelming salience of affect (particularly, extremely determined, bordering-on-grotesque facial expressions).

Ironically, while the arts and aesthetic sports are often regarded as rich domains for emotional expression, soccer players are permitted to display a much more varied range of affects – from glee to agony – than aesthetic performers typically are. For example, a dancer whose chronic injury causes her pain during a performance cannot disclose that affective reality to her audience, but must conceal it behind a smile or a serene visage (depending on the type of piece she is performing), while a midfielder accidentally kicked in the shin by another player can grimace and yell as much as he pleases without impacting evaluation of his performance (unless, of course, he develops a reputation for diving or dramatically feigning a more severe injury than he has incurred). Furthermore, dancers are often constrained by an aesthetic imperative to make their motions appear effortless (see Barbara Montero’s paper “Effortless Bodily Movement” on this topic), while soccer players are free to make evident just how effortful their movements are. Contrary to the view on movement aesthetics evinced by practitioners of ballet, acrobatics, and the like (namely, that obvious displays of effort in performing physical feats detracts from an observer’s aesthetic appreciation of those feats), perhaps the affective transparency in players’ ongoing reactions to the proceedings of a game has its own aesthetic effect, related to the knowledge it provides about the player’s emotional experience. In other words, affect might function in sports more like it generally does in drama (often amplifying aesthetic experience) than it does in dance (in many cases distracting from the aesthetic properties of the work and its performers).

Let’s first take a look at an array of slide tackles:   Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 2.16.20 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 12.22.30 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.33.49 AM Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.13.43 AM Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.10.44 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-24 at 1.00.27 AM

I presume that none of the tackling players in the photos above were not thinking about creating an elongated shape with their bodies to please spectators – they were extending their legs and leaning backwards to cover distance at high velocity and reach the ball efficiently. Nevertheless, the shapes they assume as means to that end can be aesthetically satisfying under three distinct explanations for the aesthetic enjoyability of sports motion, respectively focusing on body form, body functionality, and human virtue:

  • According to the formal explanation (in the tradition of philosophers like Clive Bell and Nick Zangwill) of the beauty of the figures in the above photos, what pleases us in the images above is simply the shape that the body takes: the arrangement of lines and colors in that extended body position just happens to appeal to us.
  • functional explanation of the beauty of these motions claims that we respond with pleasure to the spectacle of a movement apparently well-suited to achieve a particular end: e.g., David Best (in “The Aesthetic in Sport”) argues that “[a] specific movement is aesthetically satisfying only if in the context of the action as a whole it is seen as forming a unified structure which is regarded as the most economical and efficient method of achieving the required end.” On this explanation, these slide tackles are beautiful because we can tell they are skillful and effective in wresting control of the ball from an opposing player.
  • A virtue-based explanation (explained by David Cooper in “Beautiful People, Beautiful Things”) claims that the beauty of the movement rests upon its exemplification of admirable qualities in the player, e.g. ambition, determination, and industriousness.

With those three options (formal, functional, and virtue-based) in mind, take a look at the following photos, which all highlight player’s elevation off the ground:

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Next, consider some photos that could easily be confused with dance partnering or contact improvisation, in virtue of the complementarity of player’s shapes relative to each other. Several of the photo captions describe the players as “doing a dance”, recognizing that their shapes recall those deliberately structured by choreographers: 

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.47.40 AM^ (Note how the space between the players, bounded on top by the proximity of foot to hand and on the bottom by the two feet angled away from each other, is the shape of a “8” or an infinity sign. Also, two players’ inclined torsos form a continuous diagonal line, and there is opposition (balance across the composite shape) in the players’ extended arms, reaching up and down, respectively.)

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What I hope to have demonstrated in this array of photos is that soccer features bodily shapes and movements often quite similar to those seen on stage in embodied art forms, or in the context of aesthetic sports. At the very least, it seems that there is a common ground in the movement repertoires of those sports that intend to produce aesthetic effects, and those that may do so incidentally, as a consequence of the types of movements athletes are inclined to execute as means to non-aesthetic ends. The demands of soccer – especially in a setting as high-stakes as the World Cup – drive players to move in ways that turn out to be aesthetically appealing. Aesthetic philosophers have proposed several ways to explain that appeal (in terms of the body forms that players adopt, the apparent functionality of those movements, or the personal ‘virtues’ which those movements make manifest), each of which (independently or in combination with the others) plausibly accounts for our delight in the World Cup not merely as a historical event, but as a sensorial experience.

One quick note: someone might object that these photos aren’t adequate samples of the objects of one’s aesthetic experience while watching soccer, since photos are static, failing to fully capture the sequencing, tempo, and dynamics of the players’ movements, which we all can appreciate while viewing video footage (moving images) of games. Certainly, the experience of watching a live game is nothing like the leisurely contemplation of a still image. And undeniably, there are aesthetically-relevant features of body movement which I haven’t been able to highlight by just displaying photos, like the players’ speed, agility, and the efficiency of their handling of the ball. I haven’t attempted an exhaustive analysis of the aesthetic properties of soccer, but only am highlighting one dimension of soccer’s aesthetics which caught my eye, as someone who regularly contemplates the aesthetic logic behind the movements of embodied art forms.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I address the thorny issue of personal beauty in sports (that is, the beauty of the players qua human beings, as opposed to qua athletes) and the objectification of athletic bodies under the spectatorial gaze.

Ritual Cyclical: a political performance, post-mortem

In the past week, I enjoyed the honor and privilege of performing in Mark Dendy’s “Ritual Cyclical“, a site-specific work designed for Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza, commissioned to open the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, and to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the American Dance Festival and the 40th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet. My whirlwind experience in the project spanned a mere six days: three days learning choreography both for small group sections and for sequences involving all 80 dancers of the ensemble, dress rehearsal on day 4, and two free public performances on days 5 and 6. Mind you, since all of our rehearsals took place outside on the Plaza during the day, we were sort of performing the whole week. It was amazing to watch passersby get sucked into watching our rehearsal proceedings (and sharing what they witnessed via photo and video – we’re all over Instagram). Even at a performing arts mecca like Lincoln Center, civilians don’t expect to see art unfolding around their everyday routines while they make use of public space.

Mark has been very vocal about his reasons for presenting free, site-specific works in public locations. Public performance democratizes dance viewership, doing away with the economic barrier of ticket prices. It also humanizes artists by bringing them into common space with audiences. Divisions between performer and perceiver are dissolved; there is no fourth wall to break through. An article in TDF Stages describes the scene of the rehearsal process and how it reflects Dendy’s vision for social progress within the performing arts:

While Dendy creates phrases with his performers on the concrete walls and in between trees, the city observes him. People stop and Instagram. Parents pause with kids. Some eat lunch while watching. It feels like a widespread collaboration between the space’s random inhabitants and the deliberate ones.

This is precisely why Dendy has an affinity for site-specific choreography. Free public performance “brings the audience and performer on exactly the same footing, he says. “It takes the financial politics out of art, of who can afford the ticket. We’re all on equal ground. I’m not setting myself up as more prestigious or godlike: I’m just among you dancing.”

Dendy’s rejection of a proscenium stage setting for many of his recent works isn’t the only political aspect of his art. Sociopolitical comments are unequivocally woven into the structure of the piece on both macro and micro levels. The ensemble is fractured into New York archetypes: Wall Street drones, wealthy opera patrons, Brooklyn hipsters, blue-collar workers, and a militaristic police presence. After gathering together as a community at the edges of the reflecting pool…

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…in which veteran Dendy dancers Colette Krogol and Matt Reeves kindle a romance through a breath-taking aquatic pas de deux:

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[if that’s not what love looks like, it should. Colette and Matt are married and their chemistry & intimacy make their partnering chill-inducing]

…each group occupies a distinct domain within the plaza. Under Dendy’s reconceptualization of the space (more on this in the TDF Stages article), narrow columns along the wall of the Metropolitan Opera House became office cubicles:

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993641_486621244760165_1174744766_n 1005448_486621318093491_369279789_n 935104_486621398093483_1170693012_n[Those bottom two photos are of my BHdos friends Hannah and Michael. I love the implicit narrative in just those two images: a bit of casual office flirtation blossoms into a full-blown love affair!]

Benches surrounding the shady tree grove and a slab next to the Opera House form backdrops for high-fashion modeling (this was my section, and it was a blast embodying the images of New York luxury and ostentation):

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[Photo of me immediately above courtesy of Instagram user patinaglace]

The National Guard directs the crowds and stand patrol alongside Avery Fisher Hall:

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Little seems amiss upon viewing each group in isolation, except perhaps the presence of indigents within the space, unacknowledged by the other occupants. (Mark invited a few dance artists to portray homeless people, hoping that it would be ambiguous to the audience whether they were performers in their piece, or real New Yorkers. These individuals, in accord with Hassidic legend, are actually spirits in disguise, meant to test our compassion.) It’s when the groups interact that the scenes become arresting (pun semi-intended): in the middle of a flirtatious romp (to music aptly titled “Miniskirt”), members of each group taken aside by the National Guard and quickly frisked. The opera attendees and Wall Street employees join forces – and appetites – to persecute and ultimately cannibalize a demi-god. (An allusion to “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” crystallizes over the “carcus” in the aftermath.) Within this social microcosm, distrust and suspicion abound, desires get out of hand, destruction ensues.

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[Cannibalism is pretty fun, by the way. It’s surprisingly easy in performance, and possibly in life, to flip a switch from a classed-up, artistic sensuality to a raw hunger for flesh. ‘Blood lust’ is still lust, after all.]

An anti-war message emerges most clearly in the work’s finale, performed by Dendy’s core company. After the dancers beckon the audience over to a stage erected in front of the Library of the Performing Arts, calling out to the spectators to “come to our war rally!” and “help us send off the troops!”, six men clad in army fatigues enthusiastically show off their fighting skills over a Kronosified (ominous, distorted, dystopic) version of Charles Ives’ patriotic “They are There!”. They alternate seamlessly between displays of bravado – gravity-defying jumps, mimicking the whole-body reverberations from spraying off rounds of a machine gun, Vaudeville-style dance tricks with plastered-on grins – and picking themselves off the ground after sudden collapses, hobbling around with combat injuries. They’re getting beaten up badly, it’s clear – but they have no choice but to conceal their downfall under a thick gloss of pride.

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At the end of this piece, all but one soldier has collapsed to the ground, motionless. The only survivor on the battlefield – danced hauntingly by Matt Reeves – surveys his surroundings, the crumpled bodies of his compatriots, over Kronos’ take on Jimi Hendrix’s iconic electric guitar performance of the “Star Spangled Banner”. He’s crippled, too, by a sense of duty: to remain vigilant, to stay defensive, to hide his anguish over his fallen friends. We watch him struggle to maintain his composure, distracting himself with absorption in the military routine: a furious series of push-ups, releasing aggression by pounding the ground. By the time that his gesture of trying repeatedly to grab for something above his head (or maybe do pull-ups – either way, it’s a determined, effortful, desperate motion) devolves into a an exhausted gaze up to the sky, it seems that the futility of his exertion has dawned upon him, on top of his loneliness and helplessness. Searching for assistance (divine or mortal) and coming up empty, the soldier’s post-trauma existential crisis culminates in throwing himself on the ground; he doesn’t revive (if this constitutes suicide, Camus would be rather disappointed).

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In the soldier’s stead, his comrades rise up and take gracious bows, stripping down to their skivvies and flirtatiously tossing their fatigues into a screaming crowd of women. Thus begins a section which Dendy explained to us as a comment on the “celebritization of the United States”: throughout a montage of Elvis-impersonating, faux Americana songs, five men and one vixen (the astounding Colette Krogol, in a complete transformation from her reflecting pool persona) dance sexed-up, rock-and-roll movements, punctuated by the same sudden loss and regain of body control we observed in while they were army-garbed. Bombshell Colette straddles and shimmies over Matt’s corpse. They’re losing it (sanity, stability, all of the above), but they can’t acknowledge it: they can only repackage, sexualize, and sell it. My reading of this conclusion to the piece: despite our efforts to dress up and glamorize war, we’re destroying our country through devotion to a militaristic agenda.

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A New York Times article remarks that “the work’s political overtones reflect [Dendy’s] current concerns in dance making. ‘I don’t believe any longer that my art can be made in a vacuum,’ he said. ‘There are too many crazy things going on in the world.'” Word. I adore abstract dance, but I find politically-motivated dance much more likely to stick with me and provoke visceral reactions. I’m not one to cry easily, even during many an immersive, emotional aesthetic experience, but I cried nearly every time I watched Matt’s “Star Spangled Banner” solo during our rehearsals and shows. I was very moved and inspired by the images and ideas Dendy invoked in this work, and I wish I saw dance in that vein more often.

I also sincerely hope that public performances become a more prominent portion of the dance landscape. Over the past year as a member of Ballet Hispanico Dos, the vast majority of my performances have been for public audiences (in Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now Lincoln Center) or for communities without much access to the performing arts, e.g. schools and communities centers in New York’s outer boroughs. Counterintuitively (assuming financial self-interest), I prefer to perform free shows without tickets. Lord knows that on my current budget, I can hardly afford to see a quarter of the dance acts that come through the city each year. If that’s true of me despite loads of racial and educational privilege, imagine how low of a priority attending a live performance must be for those who struggle considerably more than me to meet their basic needs (and don’t have parents’ wallets as a financial cushion). Free public art completely transforms the demographics of audiences towards greater inclusiveness, diversity, and representativeness. If the performing arts want to flourish, expanding audiences and the accessibility of their productions is absolutely indispensible. Call me a cultural socialist: I think the capitalist relationship between art producers and audiences, while allowing some individuals to flourish, halts and restricts aesthetic development at the community level, and prevents live performing arts from permeating culture to the degree that literature, TV, and cinema have.

Returning to a positive note, it absolutely warms my heart to see how well-attended public art performances are in New York – each free outdoor concert I’ve gone to see this summer (e.g. Kishi Bashi and the Philip Glass Ensemble in Prospect Park, the New York Philharmonic in Central Park) has been packed to the brim. I was hardly expecting the turn-out we saw for our two performances of “Ritual Cyclical”, though. See for yourself in this semi-aerial shot of Hearst Plaza:

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I don’t think I’ve ever performed for an audience as large as I did on our opening night. I’m fairly certain we had at least a thousand attendees. During a solo atop a big stone slab next to the Opera House, I felt like I was on top of the world jumping in front of so many people: take a look at the crowd in front of me, and then imagine that all in behind us and to each side – and that was only in one little corner of the plaza!

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Large, dense crowds did create some challenges both for us performers, who had to adapt some of our movements to cope with lack of access to space we had occupied during rehearsal, and for our audience, who had to be willing to move when asked, and to cope with absence of direct sight-lines at some points in the performance, depending where on the plaza they found themselves (perpetual modern dance curmudgeon Alastair Macaulay bitched about this – but there’s only so much you can (or want) to do to direct an audience through an interactive work: too much herding, and the work takes a turn toward the totalitarian). But the crowds also made the piece more interactive than any I have been involved in before. We had no choice but to be present and make choices on the spot, to make eye contact with those watching us, to take them along for the ride.

I think I’ve written more than enough about “Ritual Cyclical” for now, but expect a couple follow-up posts soon on art in capitalism, and other sociopolitical pieces I have performed and viewed that have stuck with me in spite of the ephemerality of the performance/perceptive experience.

Photos included here by Denton Taylor, Kevin Yatarola, and Marisa for RockPaper. Many thanks to them for documenting the event and sharing their images!