From Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s blog, Infinite Body (thank you, Eva!):
As I sat in City Center last night, writing some notes about the Ailey show, the fellow sitting to the left of me leaned over and laughingly asked, “Is it work? Or is it fun? Or is it both?”
“Oh, both!” I quickly chirped.
“If not,” he replied, “poor you!”
Poor me, indeed. Sometimes, it is indeed work with no fun. Sometimes, it is so much fun that I wonder if it should be considered work. For the most part, though, I find this work fun and–far more than that–an incredible privilege. But his question amused me because, as it happens, I’ve been thinking about what I’m doing when I plop my butt down in front of dance, night after night. Am I working? Am I being entertained? Is it a breath mint? Is it a candy mint?
I’ve noticed how different it is for me to attend a dance concert alone or with a friend; I realize that, most often, I prefer to go alone. Why? Well, I am working, actually, and when I go with a buddy, part of me is taken up with the social nature of the occasion–all that catching up to do, all that laughter and chatter. I can think of numerous times when it was all I could do to take a quick, unsatisfactory glance at the program notes–let alone peruse the press kit–before the lights went down and the performance began. Not wanting to be rude, I could rarely find a tactful way to interject, “Look, sweetie, I’ve got to check out these details before the show gets underway. Let’s revisit your job crisis at intermission.”
But, when I go to a dance concert with a friend, there’s a more serious concern, and it’s all about satisfaction. What if my friend ends up hating the show? Or, maybe hate is too strong a word. What if they’re baffled by it? Or maybe hate is the right word. After all, I once recommended a Dance Theater Workshop show to a dear friend, and she took the initiative and went on her own–with a few of her close friends–and they all came away dissatisfied to the point of fury. She still speaks to me, but I never, ever mention the name of the choreographer in question–one I respect and usually enjoy. Over the past several months, I’ve taken another dear friend to a string of shows that he has almost always disliked, most often with good reason. As a friend, I feel like I’ve failed these people somehow. Oh, the guilt…the guilt!
Here’s the crux of the matter: For me, it’s work, and part of that work is keeping an open mind and taking each dance as it comes, and all manner of dance comes my way. But my friends–ah, my friends!–they’re out on the town and hoping for a good time.
Wait! There’s more! Some casual dance-goers twitch and fidget at the sight of the Ailey troupe; others twitch and fidget at the sight of anything under the Movement Research banner. Figuring out who to take to what for the best outcome can be a lot of work in itself, and this is a form of work (social direction) that I’m not getting paid to do.
And what about the folks who feel anxious about figuring out what they’ve just seen and how they feel about it, companions who look to me for definitive answers when I might not yet have any answers of my own? After all, I’m supposed to be the professional dance expert, right? (Please insert laugh track here.)
I’ve long since given up on inviting friends out to see dance who are–bottom line–not interested in dance at all. But my more progressive, artsy friends–and that covers pretty much everyone–who wouldn’t necessarily seek out a dance show on their own or who are very picky about the kinds of dance they see? These are the ones whose ultimate happiness and well-being take up entirely too much space in my head.
Sitting next to some professional colleagues is a problem in a league of its own, one to be avoided if you want to concentrate and not feel the pressure to be witty and on top of things and absolutely sure of yourself. One thing that the Movement Research people, and their kind, have taught me is the worth of process, and coming into alignment with a dance I’ve just seen is as much a sensitive process as is the making of a dance. I have to give time time, as they say, and not rush to judgment. And I don’t know it all.
So, is it work? Is it fun? Or is it both?
Poor me: I suspect, and I hope, it will always be both.
What a brave, funny piece, Eva! I love it! You get at the heart of live performance (and the movies): we’re each having a private experience in a crowd–and the crowd, or at least the person next to us, leaks into that experience.
I agree that reviewing may be exciting work, but it is work, requiring a much higher level of attunement than I would otherwise give to anything.
Like you, I find the whole issue of how to put this work together with the rest of my life complicated. Sometimes I’ve been working alone all day and I’d really like to see a friend–and if I know someone who will love a given show, I don’t hesitate to invite her.
But what you’re talking about is the show that you can’t immediately think of the perfect date for–i.e., most of them. I’ve gone to shows alone that I later wished I’d brought X or Y because I know she would have loved it, but more often it’s the other way around: you bring someone and it just stinks, and if he’s not already a dedicated dance viewer you fear he won’t ever go to another performance of that kind again. For the sake of dance, I wish I’d suffered alone. Your story about the friend to whom you cannot mention the name of choreographer Z without exciting her wrath is hilarious–and rings true.
I tend to submit the to-go-or-not-to-go-alone question to a complicated calculus of a. friend’s taste, b. whether I’m on assignment and how close the deadline is, and c. cost of ticket.
If the show’s at 8, and my deadline is 9 the next morning, I’m inclined to want to use my intermissions etc. to work out my thoughts–I only have a few good hours after I get home before I’m brain dead. But even then, if I’m pretty sure a friend will be crazy about the work, I’ll bring him: he can energize me, frame things in interesting ways.
Also, if it’s an expensive ticket I work harder to find someone. Often people are gratified to have an expensive experience, whatever its artistic merits. That makes sense to me.
The situation when I almost always go by myself is, like you, when I don’t have a clear sense of who would like it–or when I’ve called a few people and no one can go and I suddenly feel weary of inviting and inviting.
I used to always try to go with friends, but I don’t try nearly so hard anymore. Going alone has its own, meditative pleasures. I usually dwell a bit closer to the art (and perhaps closer to the audience as a whole, too) when I’m alone, for better and for worse. So even when the dance is lousy, the night and my thoughts are clear.
We’re on the same wavelength. And you wrote:
I’m inclined to want to use my intermissions etc. to work out my thoughts–I only have a few good hours after I get home before I’m brain dead.
I need to let things percolate because experience of dance is complex and shifting, and especially so when dance is at its best.
I definitely need to sleep when I get home! I don’t start my writing until the next morning!
You also wrote:
But even then, if I’m pretty sure a friend will be crazy about the work, I’ll bring him: he can energize me, frame things in interesting ways.
That can work the other way, too, when you have a friend who can quickly pinpoint what’s wrong with the work, and that isn’t necessarily the most dance-savvy person. I’ve gotten some remarkable insights from people who are either coming from a different artistic perspective or who are not at all invested in dance in a way that might make them overlook what’s problematic or ineffective in the way a dance is presented to an audience. It helps to get out of the insular bubble we sometimes have around ourselves.
Apollinaire: Yes! three cheers for the civilian dancegoer!
Dance writer Suki John writes in:
I used to review a lot of dance in NYC, before I veered into academia. Once I went solo to a doubleheader matinee and evening performance of ABT at the Met. In between shows I hung out around Lincoln Center and in the process met the man who became my husband. A nice outcome for a day of “work” watching great dance alone! Thanks for bringing up those many moments of scribbling in the darkened theater — I enjoyed them greatly.
Apollinaire responds: Wow, what a great story. Thanks for writing, Suki.
Eva responds: You know, Suki, your marvelous story could encourage more people to get into dance criticism! What an incentive!