Out It Popped
In writing to apply for support to attend the '05 National Critics Conference in Los Angeles, out popped this: I love dance so much that I feel it deserves to be seen and accurately reflected back, taken to task, goaded to greatness, questioned and cherished. It is my greatest pleasure to feel an intimacy with the work I write about, as though I am part of it somehow or it part of me, albeit in a completely different way than as a performer. It is part of me as I chew on it, try to comprehend and encompass it. And the feedback I’ve received from some artists I’ve reviewed is that they feel they’ve been truly SEEN. That’s what I aim for, laying aside preference and preconception, meeting the performance in the moment of its existence, helping it live longer and spread wider.
The Beholder and the Beheld
the kernel of my irritation today has to do with work I’ve seen recently and the challenge of reconciling it with my own not-yet-clearly-articulated view of what art is for. I believe it was Ghandi who said “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” Looking at some recent performances I wonder what it is my colleagues have in mind. And also why my own ways of seeing seem at odds. Bearing witness to how fucked up things might be through art-making is certainly an obvious impulse and perhaps transformative. It might not involve alluding to any brighter glimpse. Maybe that’s OK. It seems to be a case by case issue. Some works draw me in, whereas others leave me gasping for air and chilled to the bone.
Why does Tere O’Connor’s disjointed, demonic movement sprinkled with cutting interactions delight me, tickle my innards like some wiggly end of a devil’s tail? Why does Daniel Leveille’s assembly of hunky blocky nude movers leave me blank, feeling disconnected, as though I’ve seen something that was exactly as it meant to be but without any meaning I could discern. Reviews I read point to the dance’s own surface as one unable to be colored with meaning or ascribed qualities, that being the intent. I guess one might be as interested in that as in anything else. Why then does it read as sad?
Why does Pierre Douler’s ice cold ‘Inouï’ at Paris’ Theatre de la Cité Internationale read as a fascinating sociological choice – to reduce human movement to speedy abbreviations, extended sliding tumbles, impossible tasks and abusive encounters? It’s like having a window on someone else’s dark view of the human condition. But hey, it’s their take, and aren’t those robotic dancers spectacular! Shen Wei who has chosen to have his dancers utterly deadpan and mask-faced says that’s to let the movement read. And read it does, although you wonder why it has to be automatons who show it to you.
Going to Bali I remember coming home to feel heartbroken that I didn’t live in a place where art was a pervasive part of everyday life for everyone. I even wrote a grant application talking about America as being spiritually bankrupt. Didn’t get that funding! There’s a disconnect in my own thinking. Why do I want to see traditional arts preserved to evolve gradually but huff at the slightest bit staid or old hat ‘new’ work? I’d much rather see something that is opening out a frontier but is in no way warm and fuzzy than perhaps an older form of modern dance with a heart of gold. Weird. And then I still rail against the new work that is edgy (clearly a plus in my book) but seems to have completely forgotten about the fact that we are all going to die, that our lives are precious, that we can enjoy our existence and help each other in many ways. Guess I’m pretty hard to please.
I’m thinking now about the word rarified, as in rarified air that only a few people can actually sustain themselves on. It was a disappointment to me that in my years of dancing with Trisha Brown’s company, my Dad, who was a dance aficionado not to mention writer, found the work too cold, too abstract. I know that a lot of people didn’t have a way in to what we were doing even if it seemed perfectly clear and utterly compelling to us. Now the shoe is one the other foot and I am the audience member wondering ‘why?’.
Genius is often isolated, heading straight into its own muses, down a path it thrashes open where none have tread. Can it be that some of us just get left behind, unable to see why THAT path? I sometimes read fellow writers commenting on their own status as middle aged this or that and wonder if these questions are just about age. Maybe I’m lacking the intellectual equipment or frameworks to take much satisfaction in some of these works I see as highly formalist and (dare-I-say-it) rarefied. Or maybe the disconnect falls somewhere between my seeing/comprehending and the makers aspirations in creating the work.
This week I spent time at the Dances of Our Ancestors Festival at Swarthmore College and Temple University. With dancers and choreographers from Ghana and practitioners of contemporary African dance from the U.S. it was full of people speaking about their dancing missions in terms of bringing a sense of celebration, of empowerment and of creating community. The belief in dance as a transformative art was palpable and genuine. In the live and taped classes offered for kids, and in the concluding concerts, you could feel the effect of that view. Audience members shouted, whooped and were clearly moved, finally standing to close a circle encompassing themselves and the dancers. African dancing language is not a tongue I speak. But the sense of humanity and the kind of message the language conveys is far and away the kind I find most compelling of all.