“That freaky stuff”–Verizon repairman on modern dance

Recently I was engrossed in an arty European movie (for an article on the European Dream Festival, presently drifting across Manhattan) when I realized it didn’t have a soundtrack. Ambient sounds were filling in: the buggy air of a Dutch summer resort, voices traveling in the blue light of an endless Swedish night, the tamped-down breathing of a pimply Dutch boy anxiously in love. In life, these noises are mainly just noises. In a movie, they become part of the story. The bugs might as well have been Eminem.
On stage, the same thing happens with time–at least when there’s no talking. The fact of the stage heightens our awareness of the movement’s rhythm, even if it’s not strictly rhythmic (in Paul’s sense: see post “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”).
I’m inclined to have a broad definition of rhythm, as well as every other theatrical element–and to agree with Annie-B Parson that no element is more important than any other. But recent dance experiments have been testing my patience.
Choreographers have lately let the profound pressure that the stage exerts on the action–that it can turn arrhythmia into rhythm, for example– do too much of the heavy lifting.
At such downtown New York theaters as The Kitchen and Dance Theater Workshop, European and American artists under age 40 have been creating work that is adamantly antiform. Often the only identifiable structures are the stage itself and the time that transpires before we get to go home. The perpetrators of this stuff (I’d name names, but these people have little enough power. If you’ve seen the work, you know who I’m talking about) barf all over the stage, then invite us to wade in. Obnoxious–and not rigorously so.
Looking back over a long and fruitful career, composer Steve
Reich recently noted,

Composition students from the late 1950s through to the 1980s or later found they were presented with basically one way to compose– in the tradition of Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio et al, or John Cage. Many articles of the day noted that while the Europeans used total or near-total organization and Cage used chance, the results were remarkably similar: no pulse, no harmonic centre, no melodies one could hum.

On the cutting edge of modern dance, the scales have tipped towards Cage (but with too little of his whimsy, his wisdom, his high regard for his audience and his genius in recognizing the beauty in the everyday.) Very few modern dance choreographers are moving in the other direction–forcing themselves to try MORE structure, too much structure, absurdly binding requirements, as Reich has done.
The only experimental dance practitioners upping the structural antes seem to be rhythm tappers. From the vantage point of tap, you can see the road modern dance has not taken–not for the most part, anyway.
The new, new thing in modern dance fundamentally misunderstands structure, I think. Structure is not a secret that makes no appearance in the work. It largely is the work. There is no music without structure and no dance neither. It’s not just an artist’s intent (or calculated and careful non-intent, as in Cunningham), but the structure of that intent (or non-intent) that she needs to bring forward.
If, watching a dance, I can’t find any structures beyond the fact that something is happening on stage and then something else is happening–one damn thing after another–whichever precious structures the artist has invented are for all intents and purposes worthless. When, on the other hand, I can sense the forms–in work by Sarah Michelson and Levi Gonzalez, for example, who may share themes and attitudes with the prevalent rock n’ roll-spirited happenings but who insist on delicious detail and formal rigor–then the work is not only higher in quality, it’s different in kind.
The practitioners of the new stuff probably imagine they’re making the performance-equivalent of conceptual art–that the dance is as much about dance as it is a dance. Fine, except where’s the dance? It’s like they’re making a sandwich with mostly only bread. Conceptual art worth its weight in–what? ideas?–needs to be art as much as be about it. The two imbricate and enrich each other.
According to Reich, contemporary artists are faced with the peculiar problem of too much freedom:

When I occasionally speak with student composers, I find that some are writing like late romantics, and their teachers think it’s just splendid; others are heavily influenced by rock’n’roll, and their teachers think it’s just splendid; some are still sticking to their serial guns; still others are writing like myself. Some turn to me and say: “You helped liberate us!” Well, I’m not sure who was in a better position, them or me. In Poetics of Music, Stravinsky wrote: “In art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible. My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. . . Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength.” I wish those young composers, now free to do whatever they like within the entire world history of classical and popular music, good luck.

I would extend that wish to young choreographers.

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