Category Archives: postmodernism

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!

 

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.

 

 

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.

Shaking the Dancer’s Toolkit

At the Athens is Dancing CORD conference I watched a presentation by Julia Gleich on her Counterpointe project – a series of performance platforms in London and New York for female choreographers making work on pointe. It attracts a delightfully mixed bag: experienced dancers, new choreographers, medium-mixers and bunheads. It also attracts questions: why ARE so few women making work on pointe? What does pointe work mean anyway? And, deliciously, from an attendee who shall remain nameless unless they tell me otherwise: “Why can’t we just scrap the whole “classical” term, just call it ballet and be done with it?” …I had a lot of fun at CORD.

But what DOES pointe work mean anyway? Pain? Sylph-hood? The female, the fragile, the unobtainable? I KNOW that we’ve got past that place… but just in case you haven’t…

There is no good reason for pointe work to hurt if you’re doing it right. With the shoes they make now and the options for padding, combined with a sensible rehearsal schedule your feet should be just fine. If you are dancing all day every day, no matter what kind of dance you’re doing, you’ll acquire foot injuries: blisters, floor burn, ripping off callous… and that’s just for those who dance barefoot! It’s a matter of good technique and sensible protection.

Next.

If you’ve been through a dance degree, and maybe even if you haven’t, you’ve heard about ballet being a thing that women do for the eyes of men. “The Dancer’s Phallic Pointe” is a real article, which probably needed writing, but we have guys on pointe now. We have ballets about more than girl-meets-boy-meets-god/fate/magic/wizard/chickens. We have this, and much more like it.

Ok. Back to the question. What does pointe work mean?

Gleich suggested that we look at the pointe shoe as just a tool – a way of altering the gravitational/frictional relationship of the body to the floor – and this, finally, is where I come to my point(e). The pointe shoe is one fundamental tool of the art form known as dance, just as the caribina is ONE fundamental tool of the art form known as climbing. There are plenty of people who climb without caribinas, and you would look pretty silly if you walked up to a wall with only a caribina as your kit, but if you were putting together a toolbox for the concept of climbing you would expect to see on in there somewhere.

But if the pointe shoe is a tool of dance, specifically associated with ballet, what are the tools specifically associated with postmodern dance? We don’t have fancy shoes or clothes, we don’t have a technique that unites us, or necessarily a technique at all. If you were doing one of those children’s’ puzzles where you match tools to professionals you’d give the doctor a scalpel, the builder a digger, the magician a top hat… and then you’d have to take them back and put all of them, or none of them, on the contemporary dancer.

So my suggestion… the tool of postmodern dance is philosophy. Like the pointe shoe, it is both openly present and subconsciously feeding the art we make. Like the pointe shoe, philosophy changes the relationship of our bodies to the world. Like the pointe shoe, it can blur the edges of what we know to be real.

But also, like the pointe shoe, it can get tired, trite, repetitive. Like the pointe shoe it can lead to doing the same thing over and over, or falling into a habit that becomes a norm that becomes a power structure. Barefoot Martha Graham was rejected as graceless, and now postmodern dance without philosophical content (I put socio-political content under this label as philosophically derived) is citicised as bland and superficial.

Yes, yes, I hear you. All dance has philosophical content because all dance stems from some kind of belief or philosophy about what that dance should look like and how meaning can be represented. You’re very clever. But I’m talking about named philosophers, their tenets passed down from teacher to student until they’re distorted by time and tradition. We don’t remember that pointe work used to be a burlesque act on the seedy stages of Paris because we’ve been told for so long that it’s for white swans and princesses. We don’t remember that contact improvisation grew from the crash and fall of aikido because we’re too busy enjoying the slow smoosh of breathing bodies. And there’s nothing wrong with swans or smoosh. But it confuses the product of the tool with the tool itself, the planks with the saw, the program with the computer.

So we need to be careful. We need to create a counter-point. We need to see where else our tools can take us, otherwise we’ll end up skipping off merrily down a one-way street into the sunset, with Foucault on one foot and Derrida on the other, dragging us down.