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December 12, 2005

That elusive spark


Although economics plays a role, I think that the spark of where and when an outburst of creativity happens is more mysterious. It has to do with a certain crackling in the air, an unpredictable confluence of influences. When I think of the early 1960s in NYC, there were three pockets of such activity in the dance world: Judson Dance Theater, the beginnings of the Ailey phenomenon, and the Joffrey Ballet, which re-envisioned ballet dancers and repertory for American ballet companies. There was no NEA at that time. But there was a sense of newness, of discovery. Yvonne Rainer has said, “There was ground to be broken and we were standing on it.” The art of concert dance was young. All three of these cluster of artists built their art from scratch with more determination than money. These periods of excitement and cross-pollination are often brief.
I think that now in Central Europe, Israel, Japan, and Russia and Eastern Europe, there is that sense of discovery. The dance artists are not so burdened by the past. Choreographers here have two, three, four generations before them. I wonder if any of you think that having the Graham company, the Limon company, and the Taylor company in our midst constrains dance makers of today. (Although I have to admit that when I was making dances, I was barely aware of those companies.)
Last week at P.S. 122, I saw a terrific duet by a group from Norway (Zero Visibility Corp). It was very low-budget. The choreographer told me that the male performer was trained in Russian trapeze. And in Russia, choreographers like Sasha Pepelyaev are influenced by gymnastics and mime. I think that influences from outside the dance world are infusing it with energy.
I also want to mention that before the Martha Graham company toured the world, Katherine Dunham and her group traveled without state support. They performed in more countries than any dance group before or since (as I understand it), and to wildly enthusiastic audiences. Her dances blended modern, ballet, and African Diaspora dances. There has always been a sharing of idioms and a crossing of influences, and cross-cultural journeying.
As I said in my December editorial column (look to the right under “Resources”) I feel like NYC is the mother or grandmother of the contemporary dance movement. Maybe we are getting older (and more tired?), but it’s nice to see our children spread their wings and fly all over the place.

Posted by at 7:08 PM | Comments (6)

new dialogue


Over the last century – and it’s safe to say into this new one - contemporary dance has traveled from continent to continent, shifting its focal points of creativity and intensity. What we’ve got historically is a fluctuating cartography, says historian Laurence Louppe. In one port of call the flame extinguishes, in another it is rekindled. So where is the new horizon? A key to the puzzle of new sites of creativity, she infers, lies in the idea of the favorable environment, a place for creative activity, a site in which imaginations are in full metamorphosis. ‘The place’ gives rise to an ability to transform the states of the body and the states of perception.

So does U.S. still matter in dance terms? For the moment, it does. Someday, possibly soon, it won’t. The America of the world’s imagination, in dance terms, is New York. That’s where people outside the U.S. still understand that cultural control holds sway. And it remains a place where everybody would love to present their work.

Art is rarely created in a vacuum, tied as it is to social, political and cultural realities. Undeniably, over the last century, Americans invented new techniques and a new way of seeing dance. Today, under the Bush administration, the arts aren’t a crucial territory to explore. And I agree with Laurie: the absence of a social net that exists in Europe and Canada - with health insurance and an unemployment system that artists can take advantage of – is effecting its toll.

Sactimonious lecturing, certainly from someone outside the borders, won’t move the discussion very far. It’s true that in countries as far afield as the UK, Germany, France, and in my home country, Canada, arts budgets have shrunk or have remained constant. But I’d argue that governments in these countries continue to support artists, and understand the place alternative arts have within the culture. There’s a record to back up the rhetoric. The field of performance is developing and expanding as social and political boundaries are being explored.

If we look to Europe, race, region and nationalism are the issues of the day. The notion of community in Europe is changing, moving away from individual nation states, influenced by globalization and technological change, and as we’ve seen in recent current events, resulting in a cultural hybridization.

There’s a new generation of dance artists far removed from de Keersmaeker and Bausch - often a second and third generation of immigrants working in communities of culture and subculture – that’s trying to create networks and are forcing work to the surface. Communities are not mature. In places like Serbia and Poland, people are working in isolation, and there’s been a return by artists to their homelands to build communities.

No lingua franca, in artistic terms, seems to be taking hold in the new Europe. And just as there is a greater volume of activity spread over a huge geographic area, it is easy to think of the continent as a place of innovation and activity and a landscape of process. Perhaps Kourlas’s article, while jarring to some, aims to spark that kind of enriching and subversive dialogue in New York.

Posted by at 6:37 PM

Traffic: The political diasporas of dance


In this forest-for-the-trees discussion, it is important to remember how dance forms and influences - both contemporary and traditional - have often traveled over the last century. There was the ever increasing movement of key creative populations into and out of Europe, as well as into and out of what were the far vaster and more geographically diverse cultures that had been appropriated as exotica by colonial empires. There was the global merchant and trading class that, as in the case of the Netherlands and Belgium among others, augmented tulips, diamonds and spices with a commerce of cultural production and presentation. These and others like them were in addition, of course, to the involuntary diasporas of the slave trade and floods of refugees that pulled previously unknown deeps of cultural information in their painful wake.

And there was the American Century, or at least that part of it in the postwar glow of the 1950's that promenaded Abstract Expressionism and other demonstrations of rugged (if uncomprehended) US individualism - including Martha Graham - around the globe, supported by State Department and other public subsidies. This same period gave rise to the NY State Council on the Arts, under Nelson Rockefeller and Nancy Hanks, which begat the National Endowment for the Arts which begat the NEA Dance Touring Program in the late 1960's which begat an American dance audience (and national public identity for dance as a peculiarly indigenous form) that ultimately resonated beyond US borders.

Merce Cunningham was recognized at home in a major way after his resounding success in 1964 at London's Sadler's Wells. Much later, Alwin Nikolais was offered an apartment in the Louvre, and named the first director of France's first National Choreographic Center in Angers. His American protege Carolyn Carlson would become perhaps the most successful American expatriate choreographer since Loie Fuller. The French manager Benedicte Pesle would champion not only Merce but Trisha Brown; others would do the same for Paul Taylor and Graham. Robin Howard would create a home abroad for the Graham aesthetic at The Place Theater/London Contemporary Dance Theater in London. By the late 1970's, the postwar cultural effort that ultimately nourished an overwhelming American influence on so many of the 1980's-bred generation of international dance artists ( the group that has allegedly led the usurping of New York's primacy of place) would vanish dramatically in the gathering gloom of the incipient Reagan era - replaced by a tightening conservative stranglehold on American artistic opportunity.

From that point on, American dance would be largely stuck at home, and a new diaspora of dancemakers was off to the races.

Posted by at 3:45 PM

Is the shifting center the result of financial realities?


While I do agree that New York City is no longer the creative hub of contemporary dance in the world, I think that Gia missed the opportunity to delve into more of the reasons behind this shift. Yes, New York City is losing its stature in the global marketplace for dance. It is difficult to compete when resources are not allocated to a particular sector of the economy, when the arts are not valued by the government and by the people as they are in other parts of the world. It is an embarassing fact that artists in the U.S., despite living in a wealthy country, are worse off than their colleagues in much of East/Central Europe, where the economies are much less robust.

Funding in Europe – and, to a certain extent, in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada as well – is primarily centered on supporting, on a long-term basis, artists and companies. In the most recent issue of the U.K.’s Dance Theatre Journal, for example, you can read about an experiment involving two Canadian and one Flemish choreographer/dancers who spent a month in Antwerp and a month in Montreal, working blindfolded on a daily basis. While this, or other, experiments may not result in a brilliant product, the sheer fact that artists have the time to really dig into their work offers them the potential to move the art form forward, beyond what already exists. Chunky Move, the Australian company whose Tense Dave was recently seen at DTW and Jacob’s Pillow, could never have created that work (which takes place entirely on a spinning circular platform) without months and months of rehearsal. What U.S. choreographer has the financial support to allow him or her to work like that? There are, of course, exceptions. One can look at the work of Sarah Michelson and Shen Wei to see highly and fully produced new dance work; yet at what sacrifice in their personal lives? Choreographers in the U.S. have no stable infra-structural support; few are able to transcend the financial constraints when rehearsal space must be rented, dancers and other collaborators must be paid, etc. Even if an artist is not state-supported as a choreographer in their home country in Europe or Canada or Australia, there is a basic social net -- they have health insurance and probably some sort of unemployment system that they can take advantage of.

True, many U.S. presenters are not taking risks in their curation of dance companies. But, unlike many of us in New York City who are promoting risk-taking artists (including 651 Arts, P.S. 122, Danspace Project, DTW, and The Kitchen), they do not have the financial structure that would allow them to fail from time to time. For many of them, earned income – box office revenue – makes up 50-75% of their total income. For those of us who are more fortunate, or perhaps simply leaner, organizations, earned income rarely reaches 20%. That is, in my mind, a luxury. Successful funding programs – from the NEA Dance Touring Initiative to the National Performance Network, National Dance Project, and the New York State DanceForce – understand the fiscal reality and offer funding to hedge the risk. More such programs, supported at higher levels, are needed.

Posted by at 12:28 PM | Comments (3)

The sun no longer revolves around the earth


I am thinking about Buckminister Fuller's Dymaxion map of the world, and wondering if the simple act of reimagining the historical dance map might not have an important effect on this issue. By coincidence, I recently participated in a discussion led by the scholar Roger Copeland for the Philoctetes Society in NY (it included Toni Bentley, Joan Acocella, and Gary Chryst, among others) - that conversation focused on whether or not the American cultural community had lived through a true "golden age" of dance from the 1960's into the 1980's (with a not so subtle subtext that the current age had gone to base metal).

Both the questions of "a moment in time" and "the center of the world" are pre-Dymaxion. Any historical survey of dance in all its infinite variety would find it longstanding, alive and well, if not well off, in virtually every community and culture of the world, from village celebrations to religious and mystic rituals, from Eastern to Western royally patronized institutional dance practices that have grown up over centuries if not millennia. I would propose that the essential question before us is not of a particular place at a given time (though both come true in cycles, as John Rockwell has stated) but of understanding the "engine" of both dance community and choreographic development that emerges in certain existing weather conditions - political, geographic, educational, economic, technologcal - and for a time compels a higher bar of artistic engagement, public visibility and transformative understanding.

Posted by at 5:57 AM


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