GO: Dean Moss at the Nothing Festival, plus thoughts on “nothing”

This just in from Foot’s Eva Yaa Asantewaa:
Much Ado about Something
Curator and artiste provocateur Tere O’Connor has given the City That Always Seems to Need One More Dance Festival a new festival in which choreographers start off with nothing–no concept, no music, no whatever–and come up with…something. (Funny, I thought that was the way it usually worked. In creativity, isn’t there always that moment right before the initial, germinating idea emerges?)
This week and next, Dance Theater Workshop in New York is showing The Nothing Festival (www.dtw.org for details and tickets) with work by Douglas Dunn, HIJACK, Sam Kim and Dean Moss (April 18-21) and Luciana Achugar, Walter Dundervill, Jon Kinzel and Susan Rethorst (April 25-28). On Saturday, April 21, DTW will host a panel discussion with O’Connor and the choreographers (1-4pm).
The highlight of this first week lineup was Dean Moss’s “States and Resemblance, a work-in-progress” (collaborators/performers: Dean Moss, Ryutaro Mishima and Restu Kusumaningrum), such an accomplished, elegant piece of art at this point that you have to ask what the heck more they think they need to do to it. Yeah. Seeing this one dance again is all I want to do right now.
For Eva’s fuller account of the evening, go here to Eva’s wonderful InfiniteBody blog.
Apollinaire responds (doesn’t she always?):
I’m going tonight, so I can’t yet weigh in on this outing, but the lineup of choreographers is impressive–both weeks–and I’m with you, Eva, on Dean Moss’s delicate, thoughtful work: always worthwhile. He has a great filmmaker’s exquisite sense of time–how to take time, and use stillness and negative space meaningfully.
About the “Nothing” rubric, I agree it’s a problem, both for the reason you lay out–there’s always this blank moment where nothing at all comes to mind to clear the way for a real idea, so why even mention it?–as much as for the opposite reason: that art never starts from nothing, even or especially when you want it to. There are always precedents and influences; when a person has that moment of fertile blankness you describe, Eva, she’s probably unconsciously sorting through the detritus in her head, including influences and precedents.
On the other hand, as O’Connor told Gia Kourlas in Time Out earlier this month (I recommend her interviews; they are regularly illuminating), the point of calling the festival “nothing” is to honor what happens once a choreographer enters rehearsals. Choreographers work in different ways–with different amounts and kinds of preparation; O’Connor is clear that for this project he favored choreographers who, like him,

choreograph in the moment you’re in. Ideas adhere to a dance and it becomes something, but you locate it through the process of choreographing. So the artists I’ve chosen seem like people who work in that vein or whose work isn’t about representation or re-representation.

That’s legitimate, I think: to organize a festival around a particular artistic method.
The other reason for the “Nothing” in the title is even more imperative. The major source of funding for modern-dance choreographers right now is the grant, which invariably requires them to lay out in advance what their work is “about.” In dance, the “about” is the least of it. Can you imagine choosing poems for their topics? To get funding, choreographers are forced to think about their work in ways that are anathemical to making it. Invariably, they begin to believe what they’ve said. The consequences for the whole field of dance have been terrible. Here’s O’Connor again:

One thing that’s always been difficult for me, and that I think has had an effect on the entire form, is grant-writing and talking about my work in a narrative way in advance. But it’s always requested. For people who are able, early on, to elucidate the thematic information of their work, there’s almost a value system that says, “That’s better.” It’s more fundable.

If any dance funders are reading this, I deeply hope you come up with another way–soon. Besides looking at a choreographer’s past work, which I assume you already do, how about never, ever asking what the dance will be “about”?
You could ask instead about the syntax of this choreographer’s work: how she tends to put it together, whether it’s episodic, anecdotal, has a dramatic arc, refuses one, and why. Those are questions a choreographer should have answers to, even if she works differently every time. In dance, as in music, the structure actually speaks as loudly as the movement itself. It’s part of its language. If a choreographer thinks stupidly about structure, that’s something a grantmaker should know.
You could ask about the movement: does the choreographer think it’s analogous to speaking? to architecture? Do individual gestures matter? Is there an existing lexicon (ballet, Cunningham, release, breaking, House, odissi) he’s riffing off of?
Or maybe don’t ask pointed questions at all. Maybe just ask what’s preoccupying the choreographers. I believe choreographers should know how to talk about dance; they don’t always, in my experience. (O’Connor is a notable exception.) But the problem might be with the questions–that they’re irrelevant.
Choreographers reading this: what would you like to be asked on grant applications? What questions might illuminate your work? Granted that you need that grant money, according to what criteria would you like it to be awarded?
For info specifically on the seminar with the eight choreographers of the Nothing Festival, go here.
Eva responds:
Apollinaire, to your excellent points, I will simply add:
Gia Kourlas’s Time Out New York interviews are indeed valuable documents, and we should have more of the kind.
As a veteran of reading any number of contrived press release descriptions of new dances, I totally agree that it’s often better when dance artists don’t feel the pressure to impose a concept (especially one that they feel will attract prospective funders and presenters) before a dance shows them what it intends to be. There’s potential for backfire.

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  1. dnal says

    For as long as I remember when artists have applied for funding, the artist says whatever he needs to say to get it, and then does whatever he’d always when or if he gets that funding!
    The whole distinction between knowing and not knowing your plan before executing it is beside the point. Dance enthusiasts’ examination of “nothing” as an idea for a festival misses the point that this is just a context to present work, to encourage dialogue, maybe support artists who are interesting to the curator. To question or even oppose the curatorial idea is to miss that idea entirely.

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