In Bed with the Philistines – How Intimate Do We Get?
My husband calls himself a philistine when it comes to looking at dance. I think some of his blurted out opinions are among the freshest and truest I hear. I envy his "naivete". From this new-minted critic's hot seat, it looks refreshing compared to the degree of responsibility I am beginning to feel.
Recently, I recently had lunch with Roko Kawai, a Philadelphia choreographer and performer whose work I very much admire. We talked about her performance in the January Philadelphia DanceBoom series and my review of it. Roko had circled several words and clearly but pointedly spoke about her issues regarding their use.
First there’s ‘containment’. Contained has a spatial implication, describing movement that isn’t big and space-eating. From the experiential point of view though, Roko says the movement she has learned in traditional Japanese dances is anything but contained. It requires an enormous expenditure of power and involves projecting way beyond ones own surfaces. It involves a subtle and continual shift in the output of energy. This is indeed one of the most vital points in the mastery of the form. ‘Containment’ as description seems to completely ignore all that.
Then there’s ‘hands like blades’. Roko says that on encountering her, schoolchildren will put themselves into a kung fu ready-to-fight stance, assuming that any Asian person engaged with movement is doing that. ‘Blades’ means stereotypical sword/samurai idea to her. I say that I use the term ‘slicing” hands in my most decidedly non-Asian classes. To me it’s shorthand for a hand that is held straight with some tension and used with the sides ‘cutting ‘ the space.
Then there’s ‘tiger”. There the issue is countries of Asia as represented by the tiger, economic or otherwise. It’s a simplistic representation. When I explain that my association is not that, that it’s more connected with a particular tiger I had as a kid, made in Japan, delicate and well-crafted, she says perhaps the author’s voice as “I”, along with that “I’s” associations could be more clearly delineated. Yikes, this gets convoluted.
I related that I have seen Kabuki, and Bugaku, read about Noh and studied some Asian dance myself – Balinese and Javanese. The forms are compelling to me and in her work I was especially struck by the fact that she may be the only person in the world to be able to play in just the way she does between a post-modern approach to movement and improvisation along with a knowledge of traditional Japanese movement and performance practice. Given that I am an empathetic viewer, how is it that I could get it so “wrong”? And then, what is wrong? Does the viewer need to be steeped in the context out of which a dance work comes in order to appreciate it or have a critical take? What is the critic’s resposiility re: cultural contexting before writing at all? What are the pitfalls in reviewing black dance as a white, or Latin influenced dance when I don’t know the forms? And on that same continuum, does one need to be an “expert” in the field at all to write critically? Roko told me about one reviewer who touts her non-insider status, ribbing that while to cognescenti a given work might mean something but to her and the other non-initiateds, it's a wash.
During the lunch with Roko, who seemed happy to pose the questions but didn’t display any urgency about answering them, I came up with a possible band-aid for the culturally impaired critic when writing about a form which is “other”: Identify, through prior research, some of the most central issues from inside the form and let looking through the lens of that knowledge influence the thinking. In flamenco that would include an understanding that singing on pitch or with a particular tone are far less important that the embodiment of duende, that mysterious inner passion which comes of having seen and lived, loved and suffered. Transcendence comes of this. If I am writing to get deeper inside dance, transcendence of my own limitations may come of just rolling up my sleeves to get further into it. As Elizabeth Zimmer, Village Voice writer and editor said “Make the path by walking it.”