Tonya Plank: More reflections on the Nothing Festival [expanded version, Monday 11 pm]

Hi Apollinaire,
So Doug and I went to The Nothing Festival performance and seminar on Saturday, and I found it really interesting, but frustrating. [Ed. note: See more discussion of the Nothing Festival here and here.]
First, I loved Dean Moss and all that he had to say. I think his remark about “Dancing With the Stars” was really important and it greatly annoys me, to put it mildly, when people — dancers, choreographers, and dance writers alike — ridicule its popularity.
I, like many young girls, took ballet as a child, then stopped during high school, and a few years ago returned to dance as an adult, through ballroom. The more serious I became about competitive ballroom dancing, the more I came to admire and appreciate ballet and it rekindled my passion for that.
Then, the more classical ballet performances I attended, though I sat in awe of the brilliant dancers, the more hungry I became for choreography that would make me think, which led me to contemporary ballet and to modern dance.
Doug [Fox], who writes an excellent, rather pioneering blog on using the internet and technology to promote dance, also came to dance through social dancing.
So, I think there is definitely a crossover audience, and if people mock and ridicule the more “popular” forms of dance and their audiences, they are alienating those people and making enemies rather than tapping into potential markets.
Second, I realize how awful it must be for a choreographer to work so hard only to have some critic completely dismiss his or her work with half a sentence (as some critics do), but I felt like some of the choreographers were saying that they didn’t want even to see writing about their work if the writer didn’t speak on their terms; their terms sounded very theoretical and academic to me.
I had my share of semiotics in grad school and while it was fascinating, I found myself unable to communicate with anyone outside of academia. And I found, having left grad school awhile ago, some of that discussion on Saturday was lost on me.
Dance writers have to communicate with the general public and express through words their feelings and ideas about what they saw. If people write in the language of semiotics, even the most sophisticated of general readers will not have a clue as to what they are saying. Dance writing is an art. It’s extremely difficult to decipher the meaning of what you saw and then use language in the most effective, poetic, and beautiful way possible to convey that meaning.
Choreographer Sam Kim said something to the effect that language was reductive, and, yeah, that’s true but that’s always the case. Whether it’s creative nonfiction, fiction, anything, using language to describe an experience always reduces that experience. But writing is also a crucial form of communication.
So I’m glad that you and the other two writers [Elizabeth Zimmer and Eva Yaa Asantewaa] stood up and had your say, because dance writing is completely undervalued, and more often than not there is very little if any reward; dance writers do what they do because they truly love the art along with the struggle to convey through the beauty of language the magic of that art.
Also, I think [roundtable leader] Tere O’Connor said (and I may have misunderstood him here) that he wanted the writer to seek to understand the choreographer’s intention, rather than coming up with his or her own interpretation. If that is what he said, then why? Isn’t art itself a dialogue between its maker and the viewer?
Both Doug and I were really struck by Sam Kim’s work on Saturday night, but we had completely different interpretations: I thought she was exploring the cult of femininity and how that is destructive to women, but he got something totally different from it. But is it important whether either of us got her intentions correct or just that we both found it compelling and visually arresting?
I felt that at the very end of the discussion, after everyone had had their heated moment, we were finally really beginning to get into some interesting territory when O’Connor asked [former Village Voice dance editor] Elizabeth Zimmer what exactly it was that she valued in dance — the beauty of the movement, or could there be more? I was so annoyed that it had to end there!
Anyway, all in all, there were moments of frustration, but I found it fascinating and I hope that O’Connor or DTW organizes a forum for discussion like this again.
Apollinaire responds:
Wow, what a wonderful response, Tonya. This sentence in particular strikes me: “Isn’t art itself a dialogue between its maker and the viewer?”
I thought the roundtable was valuable too–and wished I hadn’t gotten so excited. It always takes me by surprise how terrifying talking off-the-cuff in front of a group is.
People had a lot of interesting angles–were thoughtful and heartfelt. But I wished more of them had been more aware and respectful of what a general public might need in writing–why they read. The talk about the reductive, unnuanced, and ignorant character of dance writing worries me. It sounds like a cover for contempt for the audience–or at least an audience that isn’t part of “the community,” as people like to put it.
O’Connor said we writers didn’t count as audience: we were our own species. It’s true, we’re as atypical as are choreographers at shows. But I think many of us work hard to retain our sense of wonder and engagement and hope while bringing deeper contexts to the work. When we don’t maintain that balance, we are indeed falling down on the job.
Disliking a show isn’t by itself a sign of imbalance. Roslyn Sulcas’ review of the first week of the festival, which O’Connor described as myopic, may have been negative, but if you know Sulcas’ writing, you know she doesn’t say something is “awful” just for the hell of it. She’s as open-minded and engaged a writer as Foot’s Eva Yaa Asantewaa, who also liked mainly Dean Moss’s piece, so she must have really felt what she said.
Of course, according to O’Connor, it doesn’t matter what we felt. When I asked, wouldn’t you want to know if we liked a piece–really genuinely liked it–he said no. If he meant that our feelings didn’t suffice to guarantee good writing, sure. But we have to start there, or the review becomes a zombie form, dictated by analysis without any relation to the experience of watching.
I liked more of the show than Sulcas did–I thought Sam Kim and Justine Lynch were marvelous performers (your interpretation, Tonya, makes the dance itself much more interesting to me), and the duo HIJACK made me cackle happily all the way through their antic dance–but that’s neither here nor there. Sulcas seemed genuinely horrified by all but Moss’s piece: as a reader, I want to know that.
There is a lot of talk about the power we writers have to direct the dance audience, and this is true. But it’s a power that goes together with possibility–the possibility of having another angle on the work, a parallel existence to the work itself, as choreographer Douglas Dunn kindly suggested and as you, Tonya, corroborate with the thoughts that Sam Kim’s dance generated for you and Doug. Some artists don’t want to cede that kind of control–to take that gamble.
The Nothing Festival continues this week with a different set of splendid choreographers. Check them out.

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