Is It Dance?

Originally published 8/25/15 on my blog.

I think it’s important to note that my lens is modern dance, sometimes shifting towards a postmodern preference (movement for movement’s sake) and more frequently towards the dance theatre need for image-based expression. I am curious to see if this problem comes up in forms that focus on showcasing a technique.

Everyone seems to know what dance ‘is’. Any person walking down the street could offer a definition of dance and maybe even give an example of their best ballerina-esque pirouette, a loose interpretation of tap dancing, or (my least favorite, even as a sometimes-musical-theatre-choreographer) jazz hands. Merriam Webster is no help, suggesting that dance (noun) exists as “a series of movements that are done as music is playing; an act of dancing.” The problem I’m considering this week, is when that need for definition gets in the way of actually watching dance.

Just last year, a well-meaning reviewer came to a Luminarium show and puzzledly noted that while she enjoyed the performance, it seemed that the dancers barely scratched the surface of their technique in the material given.

A few years prior I found myself sitting in a studio showing in Chelsea, after watching my Luminarium co-director and friend Merli Guerra show one of her dance films, a striking piece that integrated a live performer. An older man (who we seemed to hear from endlessly throughout the evening) was the first to shoot a hand in the air and to state, “I just don’t think that’s dance.” There was a quiet smattering of opinion whispered through the crowd, and the discussion ended; shockingly no major objections from the NYC crowd.

Where are we going wrong in that audiences are needing to outwardly contest a work’s genre, and in turn that classification/misclassification effects their consumption of the performance? I recently attended a showing’s talkback where everyone was so eager to chime in (a good thing), but all shared the same anxious look in their eyes as they shared an interpretation of the work with its creator and asked if they were right (not a good thing). Why do some audiences truly need the affirmation that they ‘got it’? What happens when there is nothing to get?

After some thought and reading many critical reception essays of some creative icons (Cunningham, Bausch, Cage, etc) I believe it’s the inherent assumptions that allow anyone to define and recognize dance that trap us in rigid boundaries. Preconceived notions of dance are frequently challenged in the modern dance setting, which can lead to an uncomfortable combination of frustration, confusion and maybe a little bit of fear in the average audience member. Perhaps by seeking affirmation in a talkback a viewer is seeking to redeem themselves after a perceived dig to their intelligence (again, sometimes there is nothing to get), but wouldn’t watching dance in this manner be exhausting — ala frantically searching for symbolism through the curriculum of a literature class, and missing the enjoyment of just reading the works?

What can we do to demystify modern dance and its sub-genres? How can we get audiences in our performances that are ready to openly receive what we have to share without clutching so tightly to what they consider as dance, and measuring the difference between the two? How do we provide a safe-feeling viewing experience that might house some unsettling content; to make everyone feel like they belong, if they are ready to receive, and that all experiences are valid?

I’ve certainly been in an audience myself when there is a pre-show reminder that all experiences are ‘correct’ and important, there are no wrong answers, and at others where the creator provides an immense amount of program notes to (over?)-explain what viewers are about to see. Do we have other options, can we improve upon what we have?

While I certainly don’t think the ultimate remedy to this problem is creating work with an audience’s safe-zone as an absolute limit, I also don’t mean to insinuate that the choreographer can do no wrong in fighting such an uphill battle. In my opinion it’s definitely the responsibility of the creator to make work that is as authentically embodied and thoughtfully crafted as can be — no shoddy workmanship — but that is another post for another day…


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