Category Archives: dance history

The Hardest Thing In the World

In 1930 Martha Graham was a young dancer transitioning between the comfortable institution of Denishawn into the risks of a choreoraphic career in New York. Léonide Massine, star choreographer of the Ballet Russe, invited her to take time away from her burgeoning company to dance the role of the “Chosen Maiden” in his version of Sacre Du Printemps [Rite of Spring]. Influences from this piece can be seen in many of Graham’s later works: claw-footed intensity, archetypical femininity, choric ritual, and yet for Graham the main lesson she took away was one she shared almost immediately with her own dancers in rehearsal, which I may be paraphrasing from poor memory and lack of sources: “I have learned the hardest thing in the world, I have learned to stand still. And now I will teach you.

As I write this I am cruising at an altitude of 35,000 ft., travelling somewhere between five and six-hundred miles an hour (thank you Shelly Voegl, United airlines) – I am doing the very opposite of standing still. I am flying between concert and social dance, teaching and conferences. I have moved through Columbus Day to World Mental Health Day to International Coming Out Day, and I am looking forward to a hike in the mountains.

I wonder, sometimes, why dancers have such  a propensity to liberal activism. Many of us have, in pursuing the fine arts as a career, eschewed some of the central tenants of capitalist society, but that doesn’t explain why the trend exists in social dancers too, even among those in the upper echelons of the economic spectrum. Maybe as people whose lives are literally lived in touch with one another we are more attentive to the responsibility and precarity of human care, and the strange shapes that sometimes has to take.

On the other hand, I have been exploring the notion recently that dancers are often activists because we deeply and viscerally understand the idea that stillness is a choice. Standing inert is not a neutral action, and choosing not to act is as inherently politically weighted as any other movement you can make. Standing still indicates a decision, a perspective, an opposition to doing anything other than occupying a position and, perhaps, observing.

In a dance class stillness can be time to attend to and care for one’s self – to listen to breath and heartbeat, to ground and settle, to allow movement to come from a more connected place. In social dancing stillness is a play, a responsiveness to music, a test of partnership and connection. On stage stillness can indicate anything from a benevolent presence, to resolve, to a complete lack of capacity. Each stillness occupied is different, and that difference holds meaning. Stillness never fails to signify, and as dancers we develop our ability to choose our own messages – we are never still by accident.

If you beg a human to help you, and they remain still, a choice has been made.

If you ask people to let you in, and they refuse to move, you have your answer.

If people shout for change, and you remain inert, you have made your refusal.

In the current political climate it is not uncommon to hear that stillness is a position of privilege: that only those who are comfortable, secure, and supported can afford to remain where they are. It is not uncommon to hear in reply that stillness indicates a lack of information, indecision, a place of too many contradicting options, or not enough – being trapped. Is it possible for audiences to distinguish the stillness of “wait,” and “help,” from the stillness of “never?” How could we move to resolve that crisis?

To an audience asking for movement, stillness looks like opposition. To a population demanding answers there is little functional difference between being ignored, the composition of a complex response, and the breath before speech. That is not to say that sometimes stillness is not powerful or needed – to obstruct, to block, to insist upon the reality of your presence, to resist the momentum around you is a powerful choice. It should always be one that you have chosen to make.

Imagine that you are a teenager, who has just come out to your parents. They stand, still, silent. You know from the internet and the experiences of your friends that the responses may run the gamut of loving acceptance, passive aggressive guilt tripping, pathologisation, denial, homelessness, violence, and death. You have moved yourself from a position of safety you occupied through silence into a position of risk facilitated by speech and movement. Your parents stand still and silent. You are afraid. Each moment the stillness stretches out ratchets up the churning in your guts, the tension, the fear. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt, to anticipate their answer, but in the light of all you know might – is likely – to happen, that seems impossible. What will they do?

Imagine you are a child on the playground and a boy has just hit you. He says you deserve it, and you go to the teacher. What lessons are learned from the teacher supporting one side, or the other? What if they say “well I can’t possibly know the truth,” or “well you’re both mature enough to sort it out for yourselves, stop making a fuss?” Having learned those lessons, what happens if he hits you again?

Martha Graham understood that stillness was hard perhaps because it is much more difficult to preserve integrity in stillness than in action. When we are prevented from moving or speaking by any kind of artistic or social choreography it is incredibly difficult to communicate who we are, what we mean, and why we have made our choices. When we are asked to act, or speak, and do not, we are asking those around us to interpret on the evidence of our non-action. That might be deliberate, and a choice you make for all kinds of reasons – to start off, it is much easier to discus and debate and potentially conflict with the thing someone did, rather than the infinite myriad of things they didn’t do. It is easier to defend an internal movement that no-one can see than the external evidence of that thought process.

If we look at the situation with dancer’s eyes, however, we become aware of stillness as a choice that serves a purpose, and that holds meaning. We are not maidens shocked into immobility by awareness of our immanent sacrificial demise, we are not deaf to the music of the world around us that asks us to respond. Take time to be learn how to be still with integrity, breathe, ground, listen, but be aware that nothing can stop and wait while you do. Your stillness is seen. What does that mean in a world where you have been asked to move?

 

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A Holiday Guide To Dancers – Part 2

Hello friends, it’s been a tumultuous year, which can only mean that it’s time for the second installment of my holiday dancers guide! This year we’re focusing on modern and contemporary dancers, for the specialist spotter. If you haven’t seen the original guide, you can read it here. Enjoy!

Screen Shot 2016-12-11 at 10.56.42.pngDuncan Dancer

Look out for: Unexpected skipping, knocking things down with scarves

Favourite tipple: White wine

Wearing: Grecian drapery

Ideal Gift: Flowers

Political Stance: I see America weeping

Conversation Starters

Bad: Have you tried my new motorcar?

Better: How do myths relate to us now?

Best: What invigorates your soul motor?

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-12-11 at 10.57.09.png

Graham Dancer

Look out for: Standing perfectly still, wild-eyed, as the room swirls around in chaos

Favourite tipple: THE BLOOD OF MY ENEMIES

Wearing: THE BLOOD OF MY ENE … Black.

Ideal Gift: Eye makeup

Political Stance: Movement never lies, but Trump…..

Conversation Starters

Bad: Aren’t you getting a bit old for this kind of thing?

Better: How do you think Jung would interpret this party if it were a dream?

Best: Can you tell me something about yourself?

 

 

Cunningham Dancerscreen-shot-2016-12-11-at-10-57-40

Look out for: Turning the christmas tree into modern art

Favourite tipple: Guinness

Wearing: Brightly coloured leggings

Ideal Gift: A blank canvas

Political Stance: Come away with me to Black Mountain…

Conversation Starters

Bad: Can you count this music?

Better: How could we stage an Event in here?

Best: What is the alignment of democracy and chaos?

 

 

Judson Dancer

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-10-58-23Look out for: Unexplained durational activity, accompanied by blank staring

Favourite tipple: Vodka

Wearing: Beads, feathers, and a small ornamental birdcage

Ideal Gift: You really can’t go wrong here

Political Stance: NO Manifesto

Conversation Starters

Bad: Is this art?

Better: What is art?

Best: Does art matter?

 

 

Release Dancer

Look out for: Sitting on anything except a chairScreen Shot 2016-12-11 at 10.58.41.png

Favourite tipple: Wheat beer

Wearing: Hemp and bamboo

Ideal Gift: Tennis balls

Political Stance: Semi-supine

Conversation Starters

Bad: Is there any technique to what you do?

Better: Why is ballet evil?

Best: How are your fascia doing?

 

Got another kind of dancer you want added to the guide? Comment below!

 

Tilting Fabulous – Jokes, Dance and LGBTQ History

This week, dear readers, I heard something in a classroom that I’ve never heard in a classroom before: I heard a professor make an in-joke about Merce Cunningham being a gay man.

…. Ok, context: Merce Cunningham is probably the most important abstract choreographer of the 20th century, in part because of the incredible collaborations he produced with his partner, John Cage. Here’s a link to a solo from Split Sides, which is not one of their collaborations (instead it’s Cunningham and Radiohead/Sigur Ros), but is a really great bit of dancing if you’ve not seen his work before. The music and choreography is based in chance procedures, and the movement itself is put together from smaller elements (curves, extensions, turns, tilts etc.) in the same way that you might put together Legos to make abstract sculpture.

Cunningham and Cage lived and worked in an era when homosexuality was just not something you could do and have it be ok with the American government. Their relationship vanished from the public view of their work, to the point that as a student in the 21st century, at a university with Cunningham technique and Cunningham on the academic curriculum, I never head John Cage referred to as anything other than an artistic collaborator. Even today I hear people trying to smooth out the edges between the man and the art: Cunningham and Cage had an “intimate relationship,” they were “very close.”

In part I understand why that happens. The really big deal about Cunningham and Cage’s work is how abstract it is: their entire philosophy was grounded in removing obvious referential information from what the audience could see, and so there’s an instinct by educators to avoid personal information that isn’t ideologically relevant to the choreography (… or at least that’s the official statement). Contrast that with someone like Martha Graham, who’s choreography is all about her personal self, or look at a dance world where people desperately try to look for the story, and you can see why you might try to teach Cunningham without the romantic sub-plot.

But.

Dance as a field is famously accepting of LGBTQ life styles; in fact I am frequently the subject of some envy from my friends in university departments that have not yet embraced trans identities, or “they” as a singular pronoun. That said, the dominant narrative of LGBTQ people in dance tends to fall into two stereotypes: gay men doing ballet, and super-queers making postmodern work about queerness. Those stereotypes fall down in practice, but it is very difficult to find, for example, famous lesbian ballerinas whose sexual identity is “out” in the same way that Nijinsky’s is.

Is that a problem? Well I certainly won’t insist that anyone has an obligation to out themselves for any reason, even my blogging. The stereotype that all male dancers are homosexuals is another nasty hangover from the 1900s that we’ve had to deal with, and I can understand totally the response of: “We’re all just dancers, ok?” …just because your job is to get up on a stage and perform does not eliminate your right to privacy, or mean that your sexuality has to be a public part of how you do your identity.

On the other hand, if we are all “just dancers,” who can make work about whatever we like regardless of gender or sexual identity, then isn’t one way of making that clear to acknowledge and normalise the diverse range of dancers and choreography out there? To demonstrate that your sexual identity has absolutely no bearing on how you dance or the kinds of dancing you can do? When I finally found out about Merce and John it didn’t change how I felt about their work, but it did make me frustrated with a system of books and teachers that had – by omission – implied that their relationship did not exist: that had known, and yet allowed me not to know.

The reason I spotted, remembered, and blogged about a throw-away joke in the middle of a technique class was precisely because it indicated a normalacy to Cunningham’s sexual identity – and the expectation that everyone else in the room would share that understanding. To joke about Cunningham not being interested in female dancers, you have to believe that the majority of people listening a) know about Cunningham’s sexual preference and b) don’t think it’s that much of a big deal (either in general, or in relationship to his artistic work). Note: this is a different thing to making a joke criticising Cunningham’s identity, where you assume that most people know, and that they share your (incorrect) opinion of gay-ness as a bad thing.

So… thank you, anonymous professor*, for providing a social model in which Cunningham can be an abstract artist, and a gay man, without any conflict between those two identities. And of course thank you to Cunningham, and Cage, for making awesome art, one of my favourite dance techniques, and just in general – for being tilting fabulous.

*who shall remain anonymous unless they ask to be identified.

A Dance By Any Other Name… The Multiple Modernisms of George Balanchine

I never knew that being a dance PhD had so much to do with picking the right labels: are you doing dance research or dance studies? Gender theory or queer theory? Post-colonial or pop culture? Throw out any kind of equality-minded project and someone will call it feminist – because intersectionality, and of course you could just throw in the towel and say it’s all post-structuralism, but somehow that just feels like cheating, and what does post-structuralism even mean anyway?

Dance has a serious label problem.

Not, of course that I don’t understand the purpose of these labels in general. Citing yourself in relationship to the field? Great. Contextualising your work in relationship to previous scholarship? Fabulous. Having to spend the first chunk of your article slotting yourself in amidst the labels and explaining exactly how it is you’re defining both the label and your field in general? ….I’m working on it, I promise, I promise.

Why am I starting this debate when I promised you I was writing about Balanchine? You came here for the ballet, right? The wondrous legs, the fabulous choreography! Well you can have it!

But first you have to put a label on Balanchine.

Was he a classicist? A modernist? A romantic? How about the patriarchy incarnate? A man who had a post-colonial project before the term was even floated?

For the last few years I’ve lectured at the TrinityLaban Conservatoire on Modernism. We look at (among others) Baudelaire, Woolf, Mondrian, Manet and Greenberg. Then I ask my poor students to name for me a modern choreographer. Some name Graham, some Cunningham. I offer a counter-argument.

They say “But FFEEENNN, what IS modernism???” And I reply “….exactly my point.” There was an identifiable modernist project, but then there were also several. Medium specificity, expressionism, a reaction to industrialisation, a search for the “really real,” to name just a few.

As a regular visitor and sometime contributor to the feminist blogosphere, I am familiar with the exhortation to NAME YOUR FEMINISM. I posit that Balanchine was a modernist choreographer, who gleefully and delightedly refused to name his modernism – and made his his success the greater for choosing not to do so.

Example:

Look at the final, Choleric, movement of The Four Temperaments, and you will see a laughing commentary on classical, Petipa-esque convention.

Example:

Look at the second section of Liebeslieder Waltzer and you’ll find a heart-achingly beautiful portrayal of the social dancing soul.

Example:

Shades of Ausdruckstanz writhe in the Siren’s dance of The Prodigal Son.

Example:

….

From using his ballet company to reflect the jazz beat of the new New York City, his coolly, intellectual restructuring of the danse d’ecole to the mystery of the final exit of Serenade, Balanchine embraces all the modernisms, and none of them. He took the pulse of his time and made dance, without doing us the courtesy of letting us know what kind or why – unless the dance itself is the message, and why-ever should it not be? He was a choreographer first after all. Perhaps what I like best is that his commentary isn’t spiteful: he cites a huge range of influences from both popular and social dance, and – as far as I can tell – his reason for citation is: “isn’t this cool!” He puts a Sleeping Beauty reference and a Charleston right next to each other, in an Ancient Greek narrative, sandwiching a transition that is absolutely his own… and it works! He builds a bricolage of..

Oh no… bricolage… doesn’t that make him…. POST-STRUCTURALIST!!!

Ok, wait, back track and bear with me a minute, I promise that my point is coming. Balanchine cited himself in relationship to the world of dance. He contextualised himself in relationship to the culture, art and social thinking of his time. What he didn’t do was attach himself to a particular theoretical or political project. His agenda was first and foremost to make dances, and comment on the field second, if at all. He didn’t have a label problem, and I’m not sure I’m motivated to make one for him now.

What does the dance tell you? What do you see? What does it make you think of?

How much story you want?

Friends at the Theatre

Today I read Balanchine in the New York public library. Balanchine both personal and professional – the choreographer and dancer, the man and the lover.

Being somewhat familiar with the material (set texts for the next semester), I didn’t try to go in chronological order – I simply worked m way alphabetically down the list: from Acocella to Gottlieb, taking notes as I went. I took a break to grab a bagel. Before I knew it, hours had slipped by – I could happily have stayed for more.

I read about his material and his teaching style, recognizing fragments from my own classes. I learned that he shared tender evenings with a young Suzanne Farrell in an inn, and later a 24 hour Dunkin’ Doughnuts, only a few blocks from where I’m currently staying. I made a mental note to try and find them on my way home.

First though, the library was showing Cover Girl, a classic film from the 1940’s with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. Too much to hope for, I guess, that they’d be showing one with Balanchine’s choreography, although I did note some of his collaborators in the credits. Since this was a free screening on a Sunday, the room slowly began to populate with individuals somewhat older than myself.

The first friend I spotted was, unsurprisingly, Martha Graham, white hair in a bun, perching a few rows behind me. A wispy John Cage sat at my left shoulder, telling jokes through the opening credits; Maria Tallchief made elegant gestures from the front row as she conversed with a companion whose face I couldn’t see.

Mr. B. arrived just as the film was about to start, slipping through the door and taking a seat far right, missing nothing over his hawk-like nose. Merce Cunningham was conspicuous by his absence, although perhaps he could have been in the back – I don’t suppose it would have mattered to him.

The credits rolled.

For me New York is always the home of dance. This may well be a betrayal of both my geographic and pedagogic origins, but I am long since past caring – I’m a modern baby. The inn and the Dunkin’ Doughnuts have sadly gone, but the city, especially at Christmas, still reminds me why I love what I love, and chose to do what I do.

From Broadway, Manhattan, happy 2015.

Ghosts in Dance

I was invited earlier this year to be part of a national conference on U.K. higher education.

I was part of a pannel presentation entitled “Ghosts in Dance Education,” where a number of lecturers from a variety of dance h.e. institutions brought foward provocations from the point of view of various disciplines within the field.  Guided by the student voice (played admirably by Julia Gleich), we were trying to find ways of integrating history into practice.   I was invited to speak for the ghost of Rudolph von Laban, which I did with utmost delight, producing a presentation that I believe will long remain a favourite in my body of work.  It’s very short, and you can see it here.

Did you get the joke?

Maybe not.  You have to have had some Laban training.  The joke is that the entire presentation is organised as the performance of one of Laban’s own movement scales, and the text is related to the positions prescribed by the training execise.

It became somehow a metaphor for what I believe about dance, the integration of theory and practice, of history in the present, and what it means to communicate knowledge.  I share it in the hope that it can remain alive and perhaps be disseminated further.  Discussion of the words, the presentation format or the blog post itself are warmly welcomed.

For more information on the rest of the Ghosts in Dance pannel and its conclusions, links are on their way.