Early this summer, the nightclubs in Tbilisi (capital city of Georgia) suffered a widespread crackdown by the government and police. Mass protests ensued, resulting in the reopening of some clubs, but thereafter the atmosphere had changed. Partying became political, an act of defiance against the powers that be. A multitude of conversations ensued about the role of dance in creating meaningful change. Phrases like “revolution through dance” and “nightlife activism” rose in the common vernacular.
On the one hand, nightlife and dance music has all of its roots in marginalized and oppressed communities hunting for spaces to gather where they could escape the confines of privileged hegemony. These parties, then and now, can be places of radical self-expression and exploration, testing the outer boundaries of culture and society.
But these are big words delicately wreathed around what is often an unsophisticated pursuit of raw pleasure and escape from reality. Perhaps this is basically true of all forms of entertainment — movies, books, television — but nonetheless I want to be honest and wary of any undeserved attempt to congratulate myself simply because someone, somewhere once suffered to make these experiences possible.
I thought about this a lot at Unter, last weekend. Unter is many things. It’s the most thoughtfully constructed rave I’ve yet encountered. It’s a piece of liviing, breathing artwork that exists for but a few hours at a time. It’s a writhing, sweating expression of raw sexuality. It’s also a place where many people come to get real fucked up.
The erosion of inhibition that comes when we abandon sobriety is part of what makes it possible to test these boundaries, to question or ignore the norms bestowed upon us by polite society. From one angle, this describes the weakness of human identity, that we are so dependent on foreign substances to break down our barriers. Alternatively, it could be a testament to how massive our social barriers are, that we require these synthetic assistants to break through the maze of bullshit that separates human beings from genuine, vulnerable connection with one another.
I often ponder whether these parties are novel to our day and age. So much of these experiences feels totally 21st century — surely the lights, fog, and completely unnatural sounds make for an experience that no past culture could ever comprehend. Yet, it is no coincidence that the domain of the Greek god Dionysus included wine, fertility, theater, and ritual ecstasy. I dare say that sounds precisely in the neighborhood of a rave.
The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which sometimes used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state. It also provided some liberation for those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves, outlaws, and non-citizens. In their final phase the Mysteries shifted their emphasis from a chthonic, underworld orientation to a transcendental, mystical one, with Dionysus changing his nature accordingly.
I feel a bit cheap, quoting Wikipedia — but I was stunned, reading this. For all our fancy technological wizardry, it seems that at the end of the day, we’re repeating ancient history. I genuinely don’t know what that means. Is it a good thing? Are we reconfiguring a valuable tradition for the modern age, carving out space for much-needed experimentation and exploration? Or are we repeating past mistakes, literally dancing as the world burns, embracing an ignorant bliss for which history will curse us? Are these options even exclusive to one another?
Sorry. Maybe that’s a bit heavy for a dance newsletter. But these are the questions I wrestle with.
Thank you so much for reading.