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December 16, 2005

The Body and the Spectacle

by

Anouk has deftly and feelingly defined the states (and perceived states) of dance-making on both sides of the Atlantic. Her personal arc also illustrates two distinct eras of dance development, one in New York, one in certain European countries, that together show how artistic energy shifts between different poles over time.

But I want to offer my final remarks referring back both to Laurie's question about artists desiring the concentrated density of experience with their peers and to Doug's musing about the seeming sparseness of American dance activity (where is the dark matter that constitutes its true mass?). In brief, American contemporary dance has always been about the body and its immediate environment. It could afford little else, and so focused its collective imagination on articulating all of the languages that the body could possibly speak. The body craves warmth, and similarly artists vested in the body require as a fact of creation, wittingly or not, the close company and friction of others. This is dance after all, the materials of the craft all human, sex and sensuality never far from the main event. No place on earth has ever, now or in the past, offered that particular seduction and intimacy in the art form that New York has. It is the Positively 4th Street, both real and mythic, of much of the historic will to explore, create and build human community through the medium of dance.

In Europe, because of the institutional baggage of centuries-old traditions in theater, opera and ballet - not to mention royal and state patronage - contemporary dance emerged, even in its nominal infancy, with the obligations and trappings of its own defining ecology. Artists passed, in as little as a year's time, from nascent choreography to press conferences in the garden at the Avignon Festival. And whatever the individual artistic impulse, some of the highly desirable enabling conditions (well equipped stages, festival sponsorship, Maisons de Culture, social welfare benefits) demanded a certain pound of flesh - the construction of big spectacle, visual achievements capable of holding their own in the shadow of the other state-sponsored disciplines that preceded them. Sitting in a theater in Bobigny (Paris) some years back, watching the French choreographer Phillippe Decoufle's "Shazam" (eventually seen in New York at BAM), I had a sudden flash of insight into what was happening on stage that night and elsewhere in many cases in European dance. Decoufle had brilliantly constructed a theatrical language that was in fact a dense vocabulary of deconstructed spectacle, shards and images of mature theatrical tradition, with performing bodies present, but not central to the artistic vision.

Body and spectacle are not mutually exclusive; available resources, structural or occasional, marry them in countless ways. But in general, the terms define the gulf between the historical (and current) New York template and its Western European counterpart. The real question is which one gives rise to vital and sustainable community, which provides the most intimate call-and-response of individual visions in close proximity, which would you want to lie down with for warmth on a cold winter's night? Or in Tere O'Connor's case, to sit down with for a grand and gourmet meal?.

I'd guess there would be a wild geography of answers.

Posted by at December 16, 2005 5:32 AM

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