Category Archives: media

Debates in Dance: Documentation

“Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance” – Peggy Phelan

As far as dance scholarship goes, this quote is one of the biggies. If you want to talk about dance, or a dance, you have to deal with the super-smart lady who laid out why that was a problem. Essentially her point is that you can’t save a performance in any way that allows it to stay a performance – once the dancers leave the stage they stop dancing, and anything else that follows is just not the same any more.

“Great, but why does this matter?!” I hear you cry. Well, because dancers do things on stages (and off them) that are smart, and culturally relevant, and useful to the project of being better in the world. They dance their own selves, they dance history, they dance community. Not to mention they make some of the most incredible art out there. And one of the ways we value those contributions and get them recognised in the world is to transmit them, otherwise we end up with people and groups like Wells Fargo telling us that dance is just a phase you go through on the way to a more productive career. Ahem.

There are some pretty well-established ways of documenting dance: you can write a description of it. You can score it like a piece of music. You can film it with a camera. Phelan isn’t ignoring these, by the way, she’s just saying that none of them actually save the bit of the dance we call performance, although we’re all still somewhat shakey on what that bit actually is, and whether we’re not always performing something the whole time. But, for example, how do you record the magic of meeting someone one the social floor for the first time and having a dance that connects just right? The feeling of “I have 25 seconds to do a 45 second run around the back of the theater in time for my next entrance ohgodohgodohgod run run RUN!” or the precise way you start to cramp and lift up out of your body when you’ve been strapped to a frame for 30 minutes pretending to be frozen mid-fall?* Do these things matter?

Well… yes! Because having those experiences taught me things, and changed the way I was dancing. There is a massive difference between waltzing onto a stage from standstill and trying to recover your calm after a breakneck dash around the house – and most choreographers I know are smart enough to make you do that for a reason, even if the audience can’t see it.

But in all these cases, I’m going to try and persuade you, there is a document. Me. My memory, the growth of my muscles to accommodate the work, the tricks I learned to make my body do – the things I take forward into dancing and living thereafter. If I am a document, here are some of the things you can read:

  • Life gets better when we know how to massage each other.
  • When you’re exhausted, try relaxing, or working somewhere else.
  • It’s fun to go fast… right up until the point where you knock someone down.

And these seem like little things maybe, but I draw them out because these are lessons I learned dancing that I perform in my day to day life, and circulate among those I care about.

What am I trying to say?

Firstly, that there are living documents of performance (including those who watched the performance), and that it is worth trying to grapple with how those documents of memory can be transmitted, because they are valuable. It is worth looking at the creator behind the dance, and the document, and trying to figure out how they came to save particular things the way they did.

Secondly, allowing for the transmission of those documents is going to mean trusting what people say about their bodies and themselves. Which sounds like a small thing but really isn’t, as anyone who’s been frustrated at a doctors appointment can attest. We have a cultural mindset that tends to treat bodily experience as fallible in comparison to observed or statistical data, which is not always a bad attitude, but which sucks if you’ve never learned how to do the other thing. In dance, where the performing memory-documents tend to be women, we can get a lot out of trusting how those bodies learn to move in the world.

I know that I’ve somewhat moved away from Phelan, who I don’t think ever intended her words to be read in the way I’ve read them. Quite honestly, I’m jumping off her words because they are important, and using them to go somewhere important to me. I am stopping this post at the point where ethics start, but I invite you to go further that I have in thinking about what life has taught your body, and whether those were lessons you really wanted to learn. How can we talk about them and change them? What’s that dance?




* In Just the Blink of an Eye, by Xu Zhen, part of the exhibit Art of Change: New Directions from China. Photograph above by Lie Chen.




Misty Copeland and the Men in Tights

I just watched Misty Copeland give Jimmy Kimmel a ballet class, and this is what I learned: Misty Copeland is a nicer, more graceful and open hearted person than I will ever be.

I’m not sure quite what it was about the segment that particularly got my goat, which you can watch here, but for me it hopped straight over spoof and right into disrespect in a way that, say, French and Saunders never did. But me not knowing doesn’t make for a very good post, so let’s work our way through some of the issues going on here.

Disclaimer: I’ve never watched a full Jimmy Kimmel. I’ve seen other clips on YouTube that other people have highlighted as particularly good. Perhaps it works better in context? For that reason I’m leaving aside discussion of Guillermo as a character, and I’m not going to comment on the wider aims and scope of the program. Just the clip.

Perhaps it’s the men in tutus getting out of the taxi? Dear Jimmy, NO-ONE wears those any more. The one-piece pink tutu combo might be a nice dress-up outfit for a 5 year-old, but you were wearing a practice skirt. A practice skirt that, I note, had been spritzed and sprayed to stick up the wrong way – you put effort into making that skirt look bad Jimmy Kimmel. Also, why do we still have this idea that men in tutus are intrinsically hilarious? Or that men even wear tutus to go take class… that ANYONE wears a tutu to go take class in? Did you think you needed to look any more silly than you were already going to?

Before anyone starts, yes I know this is supposed to be a spoof piece. We’re all supposed to laugh at the famous guy who fails completely at doing ballet, and fails so completely that he doesn’t even know what clothes to wear. So ok, I’ll let the skirt drop and lets go on with the class.

The steps you were doing. Good lord. Again, were you so convinced you’d look too good doing plies and tendus you had to go straight for the leg whacking? I mean, I can kind of forgive you if this was an excuse to let Misty show off her moves, but there’s an arrogance to it, and to my mind you’d actually have looked sillier trying to hold an extension – which you might have tried – than striving and failing for something utterly and completely beyond your competence.

But no, then you had to go and put on the pointe shoes. There’s an odd messing with gender thing you’re doing here Jimmy Kimmel, and I’m not really sure what you’re hoping to achieve. Do you think it’s just so hilariously unthinkable that men would do pointe? They’ve been doing it in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire since the 70s. Also, the Trocs would like to have a word with you. Are you trying to show that what Misty Copeland does is super hard? So why are you working so hard to be ill at ease? Guillermo isn’t comfortable – he’s in pain and he says so – so what’s with you?

Your side speech, Jimmy Kimmel, says that you’re a master of ballet. But Misty’s speech is just the opposite: today, ballet died. There’s too much conflict in how you’re acting towards the ballet, towards Misty Copeland, and what you’re saying about what you’re doing.

I feel like you went for the stupidly unobtainable because you didn’t want to be funny failing at something more basic – and perhaps this gets at why I take issue with this little segment of yours. When you turn up in the tights, and you put on the pointe shoes, you set the bar so high that excuse yourself from attention, effort or generosity towards ballet in general and Misty Copeland in particular. French and Saunders, in the name of humour, worked really hard to understand the traditions and conventions of the world they were stepping into, which is why it’s screamingly funny for dancers and non-dancers alike. You used Misty Copeland to get a cheap laugh out of cross-dressing.

There is no kind of dance that you can master on the first try, but I feel like only ballet smiles and nods and allows celebrities to pretend that they can be excused the effort. Ballet smiles, opens its doors, and puts a company on stage in a routine choreographed so that you can look terrible at doing ballet. In the same costume you went to class in – hell, you even did exactly the same steps. When you use ballet like that you cement it as this rarefied, elitist thing that no-one but the experts can possibly attempt, and you do a disservice to other dance forms, and to every amateur out there who does ballet for the sweaty, riotous joy of it.

Misty Copeland. Gloriously beautiful Misty Copeland, role model for so many young people out there in ballet and outside… your message all along has been that you should grit your teeth and work for the thing you want to do, even when everyone tells you its unobtainable. I realise you probably didn’t have much choice when some rich tv guy comes along and hands you a script where he has do precisely no work whatsoever, so I’m not blaming you. In fact, I’m sorry you had to put up with such a shallow use of your many talents. I don’t blame the dancer in the Free People ad. either, who was probably just trying to earn a salary, although I do have plenty to say to the people who wrote the storyboard pitching her as a professional, rather than an enthusiastic hobbyist.

But dear TV, and dear Jimmy Kimmel. Do better. Don’t treat any kind of dance as something you can use for a cheap gag, or a poetic moment, or a background shot without being prepared to actually respect what it is we do. Respect that people might want to get something from the dance as well as watching you laze around failing at it. Work a bit harder, and if you don’t know how to do that? Ask a dancer.