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December 13, 2005

not namby-pamby

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A year ago, I got upset reading Anna Kisselgoff's dance-is-dead article ("Thoughts on the Once and Future Dance Boom,” NY Times, Jan. 6, 2005) proclaiming the end of the American dance boom that apparently began in the late 60's and fizzled out some where in the 90's. How could she suggest such a thing, I wondered, when there are so many interesting choreographers taking important steps forward? What about John, Reggie, Sarah, Tere, Wally, Donna, etc.? What about even younger artists like Miguel and Ann Liv? What about the artists I don't even know? I mean, after all, wasn't this merely a matter of a jaded senior critic who had lost touch?

Rereading the article today, I am struck by the provocative (and obviously informed) manner in which Anna summed up the past 30 or so years of dance and pointed to an actual future, one that can include any or all of the artists I mention above. She may have gotten me upset but she also got me thinking as I've referenced the article consistently over the past 12 months. Anna-1. Lane-0.

And so it goes. Joan Acocella wrote about "downtown" dance this past summer in The New Yorker and ruffled some feathers in the downtown community who leveled charges at her being out-of-touch and not getting the work. Paul Ben-Itzak's regular rants in The Dance Insider elicit much rolling of the eyes from administrators and artists alike. Last season, I even wrote an ill-fated open letter in our program suggesting that critics in Seattle were too provincial (bad idea) after one, in my estimation, too easily wrote-off a performance by John Jasperse at our venue. How dare he? This is John Jasperse!

I find it ironic that while we (people who care about dance) are always quick to site the problems in the field--a lack of resources, waning attendance, regurgitated aesthetics, etc.--that we are also quick to take offense at precisely the kind of provocative writing that can get people to give a damn. If there is any threat to the dance field, it is that not enough people care about it. Perhaps this is because people read too much puffy marketing rhetoric (what Tere said) and too many namby-pamby reviews that do nothing to enliven one’s engagement with the form. I’m excited by the questions John Rockwell poses below because they can lead to exactly the kind of conversation and debate that is healthy and interesting.

Posted by at 3:32 PM | Comments (3)

border crossings

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The following may have nothing to do with New York, per se, but please read on.

Place has a lot to do with how artists function. Case in point: In 1948 Québec-based painter Paul-Emile Borduas and a group of rebel artists took the courageous step of signing a manifesto, Le Refus Global, the statement of ‘total refusal’, and a banner for individual freedom. This document is considered Quebec’s first passage into modernity, and it shifted the profile for dance in Québec (and Canada).

These artists endured in the face of huge resistance. French Canadian society was heavily influenced by Catholic thought and with it an underscoring of traditional values and way of life, and these artists demanded Québec become more secular and cast off the cultural blinders of the time.

The Refus Global prompted the seeds for the Quiet Revolution, and with it the social and political movements that galvanized Québec into the modern era.

Dancer-choreographer Françoise Sullivan was among the signatories of the Refus Global, and in the manifesto she published La danse et l’espoir (Dance and Hope), the first theoretical essay published in Québec on the nature and meaning of dance in society.

The talents of contemporary Québecois artists such as Margie Gillis, Édouard Lock, or Marie Chouinard, and the generations of innovative artists following them, arguably might not be making work if it weren’t for a few creative and bold artists who decided to redefine the landscape, and demanded that a creative environment exist. So, yes, articulating artistic principles and ideas about dance and the arts, has everything to do with territory and crossing borders.

Posted by at 1:46 PM

New York's creative environment

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How are we judging the creative impact of New York's dance world? For most of us, it's obvious that we don't want to only be perceived as vibrant by rolling out large-scale, spectacular, marketable work to the theaters of the world. Nor do we expect that we are only vibrant if we can identify ourselves as part of the next big "movement" in dance-- time will tell, and we can get back to that question a few years from now. I think it's too easy to look only for the breakthrough moments and use them to define an artistic landscape. The current dance world in New York is not dead by any means, and interesting things are happening here all the time.

There's no question that the environment for making art in New York City is under-resourced. I assume artists here would make stronger work if they could do it full-time, work with consistency, be able to research and develop ideas with reliable financial support for those activities. But, there is dance happening here that can be seen in any important art-making context, whether a European capital, elsewhere in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. There are a lot of bold and interesting artists making good, exciting, relevant dance in the city.

What it does it mean to make work here now? Some of the hallmarks of the creative environment that is New York City include living in a city that engages a lot of rough edges: having to work all the time in order to pay rent, huge gaps between the rich and the poor, little access to consistent or sophisticated work spaces for artists, the fragmented experience of 9/11, a national attempt to marginalize this city on many levels (too liberal, too multi-ethnic, too dangerous, too experimental, too hedonistic, too out-of-touch, too full of artists, too messy). And, of course, there is the good stuff that keeps many of us here, including a certainty that in this city we are surrounded by a brave and adventurous group of fellow citizens (both artists and non-artists); that we are at one of the global crossroads of information and influence; and that we are fed by a charged, heady sense that we can find, do, or be, anything here. Plus, there is the positive side of being many of those things we are marginalized for!

I want to weigh in, as others have, on the conceit of “being the center of the dance world”. I felt that the New York Times article in question was naïve in that regard, positing that NYC was finally being revealed as an emperor with no clothes. But in fact, no one that I know walks around thinking that we are the center, or deserve to be the center, or should be mourning our demise as the center. As the world changes politically and culturally the idea of “center” is less relevant and not a primary benchmark of success. Tere O’Connor acknowledges this perfectly in his posting.

Nonethless, of course it is important to be part of a network, to be creatively relevant, to be part of the call and response of making new dance, to continue to provide and make opportunities in the field of dance that are both fruitful and risk-taking. I believe that New York City is still, at this time, all of those things. But I work at it all the time, and so do many of my colleagues. As we do our work (as artists, as presenters both in and out of New York, as journalists, as funders) in the field of dance it is our responsibility to work harder than ever, because adventurous voices in dance exist within a fragile art-making context and are not to be taken for granted, even in a city as robust as this one. Perhaps future postings to this blog can begin to articulate some of our strategies to accomplish those goals.

Posted by at 12:36 PM

Some Reader Comments

by Douglas McLennan

Here are excerpts from some of the comments by readers:

I do not think it pertinent to focus on NYC as the dance capital of the world or not, but more so to realize that no matter where (geographically) new, significant work is coming from, it will spur the next generation and help carve the road less traveled so long as it is truly new and significant. - Winnie Wong

The structure of funding the arts in America is necessary as it has bred the culture we all now live with, but it is not the fountainhead of creative juices and it does not make better art. We need a more benevolent attitude toward funding rather than a directive one for artists to thrive again. - Andrew Bales

From my perspective, while there is plenty of BIG, display-based work going on, there IS also another wave of experimentation going on- and there are audiences for all of it. [I've always found it funny to hear this kind of critique from a self-professed balletophile. And, btw, what's wrong with entertainment?] I think of what Tere is doing, what Ann Liv is doing, what Miguel is doing, etc. If you don't like the institutions, either fund your own, or change the channel. But they ARE fulfilling their missions and supporting the work of American Artists. - Brian McCormick

The national infrastructure has changed dramatically in the last 15+ years, as has the "necessity," for artists, of working from a NY base. More and more respected dance artists are finding homes in colleges and universities around the country, where they can continue their creative research and contribute to the building of the next generation of artists and dance leaders. More and more presenters are, as has been pointed out, looking to post-colonial, post-war, and border cultures for rich and challenging artistic voices and content. - Bonnie Brooks

Dance is an international, interconnected world. There are French, Japanese, Australian, Israeli, Dutch, Indian, Columbian choreographers all over New York. I’ve personally danced for all those nationalites. They go back and forth between New York and their home countries, with stopovers in third, fourth, and fifth countries to teach, perform, and/or choreograph. I originally wrote this because I really had a hard time understanding why anyone was discussing dance and its innovation in terms of geography. - Rachel Feinerman

Granted, poverty didn’t daunt Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and a few others we can name. Were there—are there—choreographers of equivalent genius who remain nameless to us because they simply didn’t have the stamina to endure the cruel prevailing conditions? - Tobi Tobias

You can see all comments by readers so far by going here.

Posted by mclennan at 12:24 PM | Comments (3)

Dance Presenting (US): The Story Thus Far

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Never a fan of the bloodless term, "presenting" (and its enacter, "presenter") demonstrates the gulf between making and marketing that Teri earlier discussed. Recently, while participating in a Dance USA/Dance on Tour session with choreographers in Portland OR, I spoke with Paul King, a co-founder of the highly successful White Bird dance series in that city. He pointed out that, nationally, dance-specific, single-disciplinary presenters had dropped in recent years from a high of 26 to a current low of 12. Regardless of scale or aesthetic orientation, that number alone represents a mass shuttering of the public window on the dance landscape, especially as regards the full spectrum, large and small, of choreographic investigation. Many US cities only see dance as an occasional visitor in multi-disciplinary series, and only then the most well-known companies (or the cheapest versions of well known spectacles). and this only addresses general, off-the-shelf concert presentation - the constriction on the far smaller well of support for experimentation, new work and sustained community residency is far greater, and for being so much limited, all the more drastic.

In a remarkable back-to-the future twist, that once again leaves good old New York, competitive buzzing hive or not, with the greatest and most visible concentration of dance-making and dance-enabling in the country, again both large and small. Another bromide from the good old dance days: when the NEA Dance on Tour program got underway in the late 1960's, 80% of the American dance audience was in New York City. By 1980 when it crumbled, 80% of the American dance audience was outside of New York City. That subsidy-driven march to the countryside did indeed make an American art form from a locally grown patch of individual imagination and determined effort (with smaller outposts of course in San Francisco and elsewhere). We find ourselves left with a "vast sucking sound" of the American dance floor being rolled up from under its creators' feet.

There is no lessening of the numbers, vitality and exploratory diversity of US-based choreographers and dancers today, relative to any other population elsewhere. But the disappearance of vast tracts of opportunity have doomed the defining, self-empowering road trip of American contemporary dance in all its forms - as well as the road's communal availability to peer artists and companies from abroad. In such a way, the United States has awoken to find itself removed from the center of the global dance conversation, its artists struggling to escape the thickening mire of its marginalization.

Posted by at 11:42 AM

working tradition

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In some of the recent entries references were made to the impact of tradition on American artists and the value of "solid craftsmanlike work". This is a topic that has intrigued me in recent years. In my own practice I have begun to seriously question the value of tradition and "solid craftsmanship". And I certainly feel the audiences and arts presenters that are part of the community that I work within are asking the same questions.

Perhaps due to the Euopean contemporary dance boom of the 80's and 90's where Forsythe, Kylian, Naharin, Vandekeybus, et al saturated our audiences with an enormously diverse set of dance paradigms, our public has become fairly sophisticated. These choreographers have been quite prolific and educated our audiences to such a degree that emerging choreographers are immediately held to their predecessor's standards of innovation and vision within the art form.
This is an extraordinary experience for the dance makers of my generation and a challenge that I believe most of us are more then happy to embarce. I suspect that we experience this "euro-tradition" as an invitation to better ourselves as artists and to continue the development of dance within the parameters of our personal vision.
I have never sensed a demand or pressure to continue in the stylistic footsteps of those that came before me.

A colleague of mine spent the last year in America, seeing as many dance performances as he could. He reported that much of the work he saw from emerging choreographers sprang from fairly familiar styles or existing idioms. The idea of taking an individual path separate from the holy canon of Taylor, Brown and Cunningham was distant indeed. How are the dancers being educated? Do U.S. presenters encourage choreographers to follow these familiar paths? Is this a market question? Or is it that dance makers without a decent infrastructure around them have neither the time nor the resources to to find a way out from under the weight of tradition?

Posted by at 11:33 AM

some questions

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Gia's article, which was the inspiration for this conversation, made specific mention of "presenters, in and out of New York, who have the power to effect change yet are unwilling to take risks." My first question is: Is that fair? Are their honorable exceptions? Is it asking too much of the "bravery" of the dance community to name names? And while we're at it: Is the press (such as it is, any more) remiss in not seeking out more experimentation? Should the press be more sympathetic toward the tender budding flowers in our midst? Or is there, as Gia suggests, too much tepid praise when artists and presenters should be aggressively challenged for their lack of boldness? Have we made a fetish out of originality and experimentation when solid, craftsmanlike work within given traditions remains a worthy goal? What's wrong with dance as entertainment? IS there a lot of experimentation, Gia's "intellectural and creative rigor," out there waiting to be discovered and presented? Are artists themselves lacking in bravery, too indebted to the system or to their mentors to take risks? What kind of risks might they taking, anyhow? Where are the experiments (other than the French conceptualists) that we should prize? If the 60's are being held up as a model, what's different now, especially since there was no money in the 60's either (tho rents were cheaper)? Is it all George Bush's fault? Will it take a revolution in the Zeitgeist far greater than one art or all the arts, the kind of society-wide, wide-eyed optitimism that prevailed in the 60's, the sense that the world could be transformed for the better and that individuals, and individual artists, could do that, to re-create experimental vitality in dance and to re-make New York into the center of the ferment -- as if that were important in the first place?! (I write as a onetime Bay Area-based Ann Halprin veteran.) These are all questions. I have my own answers, but maybe I'll save them for the same newspaper in which Gia's article appeared!

Posted by at 10:08 AM | Comments (1)

making and marketing

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The problems with dance and its slow demise are not geographical. New York long ago became a marketplace as opposed to a creative center. The problem–everywhere–is the dizzying imbalance between marketing and making and it will rear its head in Europe as well. I love artists from Europe and from the United States. I love big huge art and very tiny art. The desire to locate a particular capital of dance holds little interest for me as a maker. Talk of power centers is antithetical to the reasons one goes into dance as a life. One enters deeply into a willful state of marginalization the moment one commits to a mute, non-narrative form, one that leaves no product and is not (in the best hands) a translation of anything. It exists, by its nature , outside of the systems of capitalism foisted upon it in futile attempts to "market" it. Artists must fight to avoid being pulled into the land of the explanatory. In both Europe and America there are certain criteria one must answer , centered around the validation of dance through
"understandable" terms. The present European penchant for dramaturgical assistance and lofty philosophical sources is not unlike the need here to have the much loved "multi media" or the importance of "collaboration" rule your making. It is a way of saying the form needs to be validated through pre-existing outside information. So whether you are doing this by co-opting the music of a master to enhance your work or using Lacanian thought to source from, you are answering a mandate and you are deeply invested in representation. Trying to make dances that represent ideas in their specificity is like saying "Here, hold this wind " Audiences feel this. The chasm between the explanatory, aggrandizing marketing of these works and the works themselves fosters disinterest.

Ever since the Schnabel- ization of dance brought forth by The Next Wave Festival, the way we measure success or "winning" is size oriented. (Nigel’s list of artists is telling- it does not include anyone who works outside of that modality.) The simple fact that many European artists are rehearsing in large spaces happens to coincide with the size of theaters whose notoriety offers a sense of being on top. We need to create small venues and market them as important ,not as "off-kilter" or "idiosyncratic" or "off-center". The purpose of experimentation is to get to viable works that are a response to the contemporary moment , not to be labeled experimental. Many of the artists who are invested in this are not being seen. In America the hidden mandates in grant applications and touring sources congratulate those who will respond to and re-aim their work accordingly. Artists need to speak up about this.
And although it is an enormously difficult proposition, someone needs to find a way to sell the lack of sale-ability which makes dance so essential on earth.

Posted by at 6:12 AM | Comments (3)

 

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