Reader asks and Eva Yaa Asantewaa responds: Is modern dance made for masochists?

[ed. note: this is one of several letters that Eva’s first post has received. Click here for all the readers’ comments so far.]
Gray Miller to Eva Yaa Asantewaa:
Nice to hear Sarah Michelson’s DOGS was that enveloping–I could almost smell the turkey reading your column here in WI.
It seems to me that there must be an element of the sadist in some modern dance choreographers. I had the privilege of working with XXX[persons] on XXX[show] [belated editor’s note: I want to keep names out of this when the communication was originally private–that’s only fair; what a person does ON STAGE or IN PRINT is another matter] at PS122 back in 2000, and have done some work with XXX since then at Joyce/Soho, and I’ve sensed a relish, a satisfaction in the performers when I tell them that from the booth I could see the audience shifting in their seats, nervously looking at each other, or even (a time or two) leaving the theatre, not angry, but distressed. And there are times when I am resentful of performers who deliberately try to manipulate me as blatantly as any soap opera.
I’m all for a strong message. But misery is easy to convey with modern dance; I think until we do something more than abuse our audience’s psyche, we’re going to only attract the masochists.
Eva responds:
Oh, I don’t know if it’s the masochists who are showing up at these concerts. (Don’t they have better things to do with their time?) It’s just folks–mostly committed dance folks, and friends and family of the artists, of course–and they are sometimes distressed by uncomfortable elements in the work or merely left cold by them.
Recently, I reviewed a piece–I won’t say what it was, since the review has not yet been published [ed. note: it’s now been published]–and when my mate read my draft, she said, “That sounds like an abusive dance.” She didn’t mean abusive to the dancers–although a case could certainly be made for that. She meant abusive to the audience. So I thought of her remark when I read your comment, Gray.
An editor and I later had a conversation about violence in some of these dances, particularly sexual violence, especially when there doesn’t appear to be any larger point to it, or if there is a point, it’s not clearly articulated. I read some past reviews of that concert I was talking about, and it appears this troupe has made this sort of thing at least twice before. Whether those pieces were successful or not, I don’t know, but I had to ask myself: What exactly are they trying to do? Is this a kind of porn?
It’s like gangsta rap. After a while, how much of this “reality of the streets” do you have to hear about to know it’s real out there on the streets? Don’t we know that already?
Maybe it’s just me, but I know the US’s history of violence–from colonialism to domestic violence to war to environmental destruction to rape to gang violence to gay bashing–and, of course, the devastating violence out there in the rest of the world. I’m not sitting at home waiting for an invitation to a dance show that will enlighten me about that. I don’t really have to see violence in a dance to wake up to the reality of violence.
I am willing, however, to see violence in dance if there’s some significant point to be made, larger context to be drawn, and maybe something about what inner or outer forces give rise to our violence or what arises as a result of our violent natures and violent acts, and maybe, maybe just a hint that there might be better ways for us to live with one another and live on this planet.
Violence for the sake of violence, gratuitous violence for the sake of looking hot or cool or trendy–I’m not down for that.
As for choreographers making us uncomfortable: There’s nothing wrong with art making people uncomfortable. Getting a good stretch beyond one’s comfort zone is a terrific thing, and there are few things better than art and few experts better than artists at administering that really good mental stretch. All you have to do is look at our country’s social and political dilemma to see that most of us could use a whole damn exercise regimen, not just a stretch.
So, bring on the stretch! To use your word, I “relish” it. But wait, isn’t that a food reference, Gray? Relish?
Eva Yaa Asantewaa

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