Choreographer Clare Byrne: Taking pleasure in the dire situation of professional dance

Dear Apollinaire and Eva,
I’m jumping in late on an old trail here, so please forgive, but I’m just reading your postings “Does anyone give a damn about what we do?” and “The dire situation of professional dance writing,” and they happily provoked this response in me, which I might title “taking pleasure in the dire situation of professional dance.” I do not claim to be saying anything new, but here goes.
My way in: what I appreciated about Doug Fox’s suggestion — to have pre-performance online video documentation of rehearsals — is not so much that it gives contextual preparation for the audience, but that it demonstrates, and perhaps contributes, a sense of purpose to the whole entity, the rehearsal through performance. Which an audience appreciates.
A question I am thinking about in my dancemaking: what is both the intent and the net result of the dance? Why are we doing it? As has already been asked in light of reading about dance, “Why do we care?”
I do not mean to suggest that dance needs any justification or cannot simply be, existing for the glory and wonder of itself — believe me, I believe in it. I also believe that dance and dancemaking are inherently radical (as in “returning to roots”) as well as political, valuing the body in deeply philosophical, spiritual, sensual, sexual, emotional, mental, and everyday practical ways. Dance does not get nearly enough credit in this time and culture — that’s the problem.
But, I get a strong feeling, we are ripe for another look into intent. This is good, and fun! I like trying to figure out what dance is brilliant at or, more, what it is essentially for. And my recent thoughts are that dance enacts: it manifests an idea, an intention, and then does it — just as a muscle takes an idea, an intention from the nervous system however conscious or unconscious, and does it — and perhaps by doing changes it into something else.
Now, I may be extreme in suggesting that there are some things that dance enacts better than others, but I am both vastly encompassing and specific in my list: dance enacts beginnings and birth, endings and death, and everything in between that has to do with those two. To borrow a phrase from the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, dance aims truest when it is “about procreation and perish.” I would add a third “p” in there, “pleasure.” Dance resonates, plucks our very flesh-and-spirit lifestrings, when it is related to these three things, which are everything. And we know it when we see it; with a very short scent-trail back to these markers, it gets to us.
Oh yes, and it is about love. But love is bound up warp and weft in all of this and also beyond it all: it is unnameable.
Dance is very good at enacting pleasure for doer and onlooker, and also enacting the flipside, “p” for pain. We now know from science (as if we didn’t know already) that the onlooker actually does the movement she is watching, in her frontal lobe mirror cells. She just doesn’t necessarily move her body. (See NYT, Science Section 1/10/2006 “Cells That Read Minds.”) How’s that for audience participation? We’ve called this “kinesthesia” for a long time. Dance and music articulates, vibrates, activates the senses in both doer and watcher. And the senses are the key to everything, they are all we’ve got for knowing the world.
So I am on fire right now about dances that are consciously doings — and I understand that I am changing myself, those I dance with, my audience, my world through this action. It is for real. It’s not a symbol of something, it doesn’t tell or show.
I could use the word “sacramentality” for all this, and “ritual,” which dance itself created and then found itself excised from in Western culture.
I am searching for words and containers to fit who I am in doing dance, and who the on– (in, with, over, under) looker is. Words such as “professional,” “audience,” “performance,” and even “artist” don’t seem appropriate anymore. So I’m trying, slowly, to unhinge myself from these categories (while still doing the things I do) and am out to drift, looking for nonexistent or very old categories that seem to apply. So I think about containers, but I am not eager to fill them or set things in stone. This is also a problem. And I think many, many of us dancers and choreographers and dance writers and dance watchers are going through the same disaffection. I hope for a healthy infection soon, a better set of heartfelt paradigms! And not necessarily “new” — which is an overused and exhausted word in the art-trying-to-be-commerce world today.
Previews and reviews are both predicated on systems of profit and reward, and seem increasingly ill-suited in our endeavor. I agree wholeheartedly with the thought that dance writers don’t need to describe particular dances these days so much as describe dance-in-and-with-the-world, and not just describe it but dream for it, initiate, push, nudge, aggress, encourage, cajole, do something to provoke both dancer and reader.
I imagine articles in which a writer is not reviewing one concert but taking in a whole broth of concerts and running them over the tongue. I imagine articles where a writer is fantasizing her dream concert (a la Dylan and covers?) and provoking us choreographers to do it, and I imagine us, if not doing it, responding with something else. I imagine the dance writer unhinging herself from the normal set of words. It’s already happening, I know. Let all this, among other things, unhinge the writer from the after-show deadline.
So my dream: death to old names, old definitions, and growth to new ones. I am not saying this solves anything practically — finances, career definitions — but we are all in the same boat, the same field. And this dying is not only okay, it is necessary, and not only necessary, it is a pleasure, I am beginning to find. I think we are going to find different ways and contexts for doing dance, as dance becomes more, not less, essential (yes, I believe it will). Amen to more, not less, dance writing, although it may not exist under that name.
Thank you. Clare
Apollinaire responds: Thank you, Clare, for your provocative and impassioned response. Much food for thought.
[ed. note: Modern-dance choreographer Clare Byrne is based in New York.]

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