Eva Yaa Asantewaa: More Ado about a Lot

Ed. note: Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa sent me this wonderful reflection on the Nothing Festival at DTW from her blog, infinitebody.blogspot.com, to continue the talk on Foot that began here and went here and here and here. I also received an interesting response a few days ago from a curator who was at the panel on Saturday; I’m waiting to hear back from him about some details (yoohoo!). Will post it when I have a chance. (Things may be slow in the next two weeks, as I am swamped with other work.)
From Eva:
The Nothing Festival, curated by Tere O’Connor and presented by Dance Theater Workshop, has got legs. The two-week series (featuring nine choreographers, if you count Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder, the two women known as HIJACK, as individuals) continues to do exactly what it was designed to do–stir up community discussion about conditions faced by postmodern dance artists under our current funding system, mainly, the problem of being forced to declare your artistic intentions well before you have any idea what those intentions are. That some of that discussion has become defensive and heated cannot stand in the way of the enormous value of this dialogue.
I attended the first week of the festival, which included works by Douglas Dunn, HIJACK, Sam Kim and Dean Moss. The second week featured pieces by Luciana Achugar, Walter Dundervill, Jon Kinzel and Susan Rethorst. I regret that preparation for my vacation prevented me from catching this week’s presentations, but I did have the benefit of hearing all of the choreographers at O’Connor’s afternoon panel discussion on April 21.
The three-hour discussion, including audience input, flew by like one hour. I could easily have heard more. As I listened to each choreographer, I got a clear sense of how each one had perceived and translated O’Connor’s invitation to make a piece that–without the preconceived, sometimes artificial notions that funder’s grant applications require–would simply be allowed to grow on its own and find its own form and meaning.
Achugar spoke about the personal challenge of not making something overtly political in order to go into the studio and simply see where exploration of movement might lead her. The idea of “movement locating meaning”–I think O’Connor said this, but my scrawly notes don’t tell the tale–appealed to me. Dunn told us that he’d originally fallen for dance because “it didn’t relate to anything else I knew in the world.” O’Connor referred to movement as “its own language,” not a representation of anything, and he repeatedly mentioned the cultural myopia of Western concepts of artmaking (as well as criticism). Rethorst spoke of approaching dancemaking “without a sense of control.”
I found myself nodding in accord with many of these assertions, which echo many of my experiences in poetry, meditation, psychic work, teaching and–yes, Tere–even the observation of dance. O’Connor–who once suggested that critics should put their notebooks and pens away and just watch–might be amused to know that I sometimes do that, either literally or figuratively, but that with the whimsical state of my memory, it might work out better for dancers if I made an effort to scratch out a note or two.
So you see, I take all of this very, very seriously–but with liberal dashes of humor and love, with one foot in the world of the artist and the other in the world of the watcher–and, in listening to O’Connor’s colleagues speak quite well for themselves and without his rancor, I find more commonality here than conflict or the need for conflict.
O’Connor opened the panel by mentioning Roslyn Sulcas’s negative review of the festival’s first week in The New York Times–a review fairly similar to my own brief commentary on my blog April 19. Although the panel discussion was not intended to be a forum about the failures of dance journalism in New York, O’Connor chose to go there. He has consistently complained about the state of dance criticism, apparently because he feels that any critical opinion rendered about a dance is an attempt to seal it and its maker in amber.
When dancers say that dance criticism isn’t all that it should be, I have to agree. Some of it is indeed disengaged, careless, dull and discouraging to the reader. Overall, dance writing is not yet as sensitive, imaginative, probing or liberating as it could be–a situation that, I believe and hope, will begin to change as more dance writers turn away from the commercial gatekeepers of print media and find empowerment through the Internet and other forms of technology.
But one significant job will remain for critics: to engage with the art and render an informed description, interpretation, assessment and appreciation. Critics have a responsibility not only to artists like the ones who made work for The Nothing Festival–who represent one sector of an aesthetically and intellectually diverse art form–but also to people who enjoy dance or could be enticed to do so.
Could we, as critics, approach dance from the point of view of point zero–beginner’s mind, as Buddhists would say? Yes. I know it can be done because, at times, I’ve practiced it. But ultimately we are sitting in front of something presented not as an open-ended, ongoing process, but as a distinct phenomenon located in time and space and with a title and–let’s get real–a price tag attached to it. We come around to the moment when we must articulate what it is we’ve just experienced, how it sits with our sensibilities, what has shifted within us, what all of that means to us and what measure of value this might have for anyone about to sacrifice time and hand over cash to witness it.
Let’s be blunt and call it consumer advocacy. In this capitalist system that dancer-choreographer DD Dorvillier, speaking from the panel’s audience, reminded us that we labor under, it’s a necessary part of the picture. And verbal language–with its strengths and its limitations–is the tool critics use to build a useful bridge from the dance to the public. Perhaps that bridge can also move energies and information in both directions.
At the panel, I riffed a bit on Susan Rethorst’s comment about dance artists staying inside a circle or two of people who “get it.” (Forgive me, Susan, for possibly mangling this paraphrase of what you said so clearly, but you see what can happen in the absence of note-taking…) I said that I was very familiar with the power of circles from my past work in creating rituals and workshops of all kinds. A circle format can create safe, protected and egalitarian space–but circles can also become windowless enclosures that shut out the very nourishing or even irritating elements that we need for growth and development.
Inside that closed circle, we can hear finally ourselves think, yes, but maybe we hear only ourselves and those most like us–which reminds me all too much of the current, so-called leadership of the United States of America. The last person in this society I’d hope to see shutting himself or herself away in a protective cocoon of the like-minded would be an artist. Interaction beyond our comfort zones is the only way we’ll get things to change.
I also speak as a woman of color and…wait, you don’t really need me to do the whole Audre Lorde enumeration, do you? Let’s just say I know from inside circles, outside circles and way distant circles. O’Connor spoke about cultural myopia. When I look around at a lot of dance concerts, I can’t help but notice who’s not in attendance (let alone who’s not on stage and who’s not writing about dance). Circles can get mighty small and, pretty soon, we’re only bouncing ideas off a handful of people.
Not to jump too much on Rethort’s remarks about circles, but they provided a point of entry for me as a student of and worker in symbols, a particular invitation into the discussion and, for that reason, I consider her words a precious phenomenon.
Doug Fox (of the Great Dance blog) didn’t care for anything from The Nothing Festival’s first program. He has asked me to elaborate on my favorable remarks about “States and Resemblance,” the work-in-progress created and performed by Dean Moss, Ryutaro Mishima and Restu Kusumaningrum during the festival’s initial week.
“States and Resemblance” gripped me and had me on the edge of my seat largely because something tangible–a quiet, refined something–emerged from whatever nothing these collaborators took as their starting point.
Moss–who sat at one far end of O’Connor’s panel and, for some reason, spoke very seldom–said that “We are meaning machines: Put something out and we will make a story of it.” As I watched Moss’s subtle, slyly casual interaction with Mishima in “States and Resemblance,” I found myself forming and releasing a round of stories and meanings, happily birthing but not clinging to any, and this experience was brought to me by two artists in exquisite command of their physical and expressive powers. This work welcomed me in and made me a participant in a way that the other three simply did not. I say it again: Seeing this one dance again is all I want to do right now.
Well, maybe not all I want to do right now. Right now I want to get out of New York and go gaze upon the Grand Canyon. I want to continue to think about what nothingness could mean to a critic and why I’m increasingly dissatisfied with the (imposed and self-imposed) parameters of my own dance writing and my role. I want to spend some time in beginner’s mind and learn something from the spirits of the land.
I also hope to come home and see my Yankees win a few games for a change.

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  1. Anonymous says

    I had the dubious pleasure of attending the Nothing Festival, and the panel discussion on Saturday. While I confess to being slightly ignorant of modern dance, I feel that Tere O’Connor belongs in academia and not in the performance world.
    As an average theatre-goer, much of his anger at the audience and at critics seemed incredibly pretentious. It seems he has forgotten the goal of the arts simply to entertain an audience. I’m not saying things can’t have deeper meaning, or that one needs to pander to popular opinion, but when I pay twenty-five bucks to see something, it better be worth the money! And I do read dance criticism, from the NYTimes to the Village Voice, blogs, etc. The main reason I read criticism is to know WHETHER I SHOULD GO SEE SOMETHING OR NOT. I’m not reading them to discern a dance’s place in the pantheon of modern aesthetics or to enlighten myself. And I think most people read them for the same reason I do. There are critics that I read regularly, because I tend to agree with them (Claudia and Gia, for example), and have come to trust their opinions.
    Thank God for the one woman who stood up and let Tere have it. [ed. note: um, that would be me (I admit abashedly)]. Perhaps she was a little too riled up [indeed!], but she had perhaps the only valid points that I had heard the entire time. I was so grateful that someone was willing not to pat him on the back for being novel and smart. The entire festival seems masturbatory, and I left the panel discussion angry and disappointed.

  2. JJ says

    Dear Anonymous,
    Calling something that you don’t care for “masturbatory” is as pretentious as you claim Tere O’Connor to be.
    Furthermore, saying that O’Connor does not belong in the performance world, but rather in “academia,” is insulting to O’Connor, his colleagues, his audiences, and his funders. Clearly someone is interested in what he has to say.
    It is presumptious of you to say art exists “simply to entertain the audience.”
    Did somebody pass a law? If so, I missed it.

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