main: April 2007 Archives
Here are two reviews of the Nothing Festival that you will not find in the papers.
Tonya Plank--who should win a prize, I think, for Most Engaged Layperson (not a choreographer, not a professional dancer, not a paid critic, just a lucid thinker and vibrant audience member)--provides links to most of the Nothing Festival responses so far and discusses the dances that appealed to her on her blog, Swan Lake Samba Girl.
Lisa Rinehart, an illuminating critic at danceviewtimes.com, reviews the whole festival, coming to different conclusions than the Times' reviewers or Eva.
Next week or so, curator Jeff Larson will post his thoughts on dance criticism--what he thinks works and what doesn't.
Foot will be pretty quiet this week, I anticipate.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Tonight's the last night. If you live in or around New York, treat yourself. With the Kitchen's commitment to rock-bottom ticket prices, admission is only 10 bucks. "Open" is second on a double bill with Kimberly Bartosik's "Ecsteriority1," which for me was neither here nor there, but not excruciating. The dancers were engaging, anyway.
About "Open": Jennifer Allen offers not what childhood looks like, but what it feels like.
Choreographers and especially novelists are returning often to childhood these days--not out of nostalgia, I don't think, but because they want to approach experience before the veil of convention has fully descended. (Of course, children have conventions of their own; as Allen shows, they're constantly making them up.) So you get double vision without the usual irony.
Tone is everything in these works: if they fall into cutesiness or treacly sentiment for one second, all's lost. Allen sustains a wonderfully idiosyncratic tone of weightless intensity that allows a multitude of activities to harmoniously, deliciously, and hypersensically coexist.
She creates a child's world of tiny or huge but always unremarked shifts in scale and time (think Alice from deeper inside her body); of feathery yet absolute absorption in one experiment, then another; of adults on the margins facelessly supplying the props.
The extraordinary dancers (many, familiar downtown faces) are Eleanor Hullihan, Heather Olson, Jillian Peña, Katy Pyle, and Allen. They grace "Open" with dandelion precision.
I hope you can make it.
This just in from Doug Fox, who's hard at work on his web site, greatdance.com, figuring out alternative ways to fund dance. He suggests many nifty alternatives there.
Why does everybody assume there are no alternatives to financing new dance works besides seeking the blessing of funders? If funders impose too many burdensome requirements on choreographers and dancers, I say, forget the funders!
The Internet offers some wonderful tools for seeking small donations from large numbers of people. Through viral marketing, fundraising badges, innovative uses of online videos and other tools and software applications, I'm very confident that many dancers can bypass the burdensome process of writing grant applications and reach out to online dance enthusiasts. There's no longer any reason for dance people to compromise their approach to the creative process in order to package their work in ways that funders deem appropriate.
Thanks for your intervention, Doug, and I hope you offer up some of these alternatives at the round table tomorrow at DTW.
Out of sheer self-interest, I want to know why newspaper Web sites aren't doing everything possible to increase revenue from arts audiences--and pass on the bucks to us. Every time a reader clicked on a dance review, ads keyed to dance events in the reader's area (the Internet knows where you are!) could pop up along the screen's margins: that's how Google works. Even impoverished dance presenters would pay to alert such an already-curious audience!
Doug, I know you've already discussed on your blog how dance writers might get more media savvy, and I'm with you. But first we need to get the papers to devote resources to such improvements. The Newsday Web site, for example, isn't even capable of italics. And the papers won't use money on technology for the Web edition of dance articles until dance proves fiscally self-sustaining.
That's why the first priority, I think, should be generating revenue on the arts pages. Then maybe just maybe the papers will improve lay out and embedding possibilities and, if they don't, dance editors will at least be in a better position to request these crucial improvements.
A couple of responses this morning on yesterday's post on the Nothing Festival at Dance Theater Workshop: Jessica Fogel recalls Daniel Nagrin's solution to the grantwriting conundrum and Nothing fest curator Tere O'Connor exclaims over how jaded we are.
From Jessica Fogel, who teaches dance at the University of Michigan:
We just had Daniel Nagrin here in Ann Arbor for a three-day residency, and in conversation with him I recalled a dance he performed back around 1980, in his loft, in which he performed his glee in receiving a grant.
Within the solo dance, his grant was displayed in a slide projection on the back wall. In the grant application, he described his work as being "about Spring, or not about Spring." (I may not have the wording exactly right, but it was something to that effect.) He had been so frustrated with having to describe his work for grants, and with being repeatedly turned down, that he decided to go this route. After many years of grant rejections, it was with this grant that he was finally successful!
Clearly his artist peers on the grant panel empathized with his frustration at having to describe a work he had not yet embarked upon.
From choreographer Tere O'Connor:
Holy negative spin, Batman!
The first paragraph of this is so jaded, who could stand a chance? "Provocateur," "the city that always seems to need one more festival," "funny, I thought that was the way it always worked."
I don't want to provoke--that is a perception you have. I do want to create a discussion around these ideas. Apparently this is old hat for you, but for many of the people who stayed for the discussion, it was quite interesting.
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.
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.
From Foot's Eva Yaa Asantewaa:
Serious fans of serious dance, you've paid your taxes and your dues, and now it's time for some fun. Try [bjm_danse]--formerly, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal--at the Joyce Theater now through Sunday, April 22. Louis Robitaille's troupe is showing a couple of New York premieres by choreographers Rodrigo Pederneiras (from Brazil's Grupo Corpo) and Aszure Barton that go easy on the eyes and ears, and the dancers are
charming. For details and tickets, see www.joyce.org or call 212-242-0800.
Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Apollinaire adds: I second the Go-emotion, Eva, though perhaps I found it more affecting than you--the Barton, at least. In any case, yes, it's worthwhile. Here a link to my Newsday review.
Eva responds: Actually, we may be on the same page about Barton, Apollinaire. I've been watching her work for a while, and I think she's a striking young talent with a sensibility like no other.
Before the whole Times dance critic hullabalooza on Foot in Mouth, we were having a polite discussion about the ballet corps. One reason to stress the impersonality of Balanchine's corps, I said, was that we live in an age that can't remember what impersonality is worth:
With our reality TV- and memoir-craziness, the prevalent notion [is] that the closer one gets to the personal, the closer one gets to epiphany, the truth, yadda yadda.
Foot contributor Paul Parish concurred:
Keeping the consumer addicted to consuming can't continue without constantly amping up the seduction by adding a sharper drug, which is the threat of status-loss if you DON'T take the kneejerk upgrade. SO we have to see celebrities taken down for anything they get caught at and blamed for not being perfect role models. Also, ordinary people get offered, Babylonian-lottery style, the chance to win A) the solid-gold Cadillac or B) the Blow on The Head.
Any culture that cannot moderate the operation of envy is heading to Hell in a handbasket.
The other and even larger factor -- excuse me, you're going to hate this, but I got it from George Orwell and he was right -- is what happens to a basically Christian culture when the belief in the afterlife decays to the point that it no longer serves as a sustaining force in the polity.
In an email, New York choreographer Clare Byrne has written,
Hi Apollinaire, awhile back, you wrote,
Now let's see--how does ballet fit into all this? Oh, yeah: We've collectively given up on delaying gratification. Art works by distillation and alienation--means more complicated than eating a piece of cake. And its ends are sublimated. So art is doomed--all of it, Paul, not just ballet!
Would love for you to talk about this more -- particularly "distillation and alienation" and "sublimation." Do you think all art works this way? Or all good art, or all true art?
I have a beef with capitalism, believe it's aversely affecting art and me, but I'm trying to figure out why I feel this way. Deep down, I think making art is no nobler than making money; art isn't inherently moral, though art that challenges current morality often affects or even supplants it over time. Likewise, a solitary delving into faith can become a collective morality over time, for better or worse, depending on your perspective.
Capitalism interacts with money; the faithful interact with God, or whatever they want to call that ultimate goal. Each puts each into flow: makes currency.
Christians are by no means all static, but Christians with a static version of God have a fixed end-goal. As for the market, maybe it's the fixed value of money in capitalist exchange that makes it feel so trapping, so immovable. Maybe if we had a barter system rather than a static system of money, the whole exchange would feel much more flexible -- more harmonious with my art-making and faith-making. In valuing changeablity above all, am I saying it's a truth beyond any system of morality?
Maybe it's a battle of my flexible morality-of-art against the morality of so much of the rest of the world. Feel like I'm missing something. Help! But the action to take does feel clear: Disappear and churn up a world in secret.
Wow, Clare, you ask such juicy, generous questions. (Be more small-minded, girl!)
Let's see, about whether all art acts by alienation and sublimation: Art tends to elicit an immediate response, but that doesn't mean it hands a piece of our life back to us "as is" (as the thriftstore tag puts it). To be art--good, bad, or indifferent--it needs to transform experience or radically depart from it. The exact shape it takes--the processes it deploys--does not make it more or less moral. That's another issue, I think.
What does make it moral--i.e., makes us better people--is its courage: its refusal to be a good girl and do what is expected of it or a bad girl and do what's expected of it; its refusal to shy away from the awkward or ugly or tragic or disconcertingly beautiful, nor simply to manufacture these things for reasons of chic; its unslavish curiosity about what presently counts as beautiful or ugly or tragic.
Art needs to take into account its genre's history in truth-telling because, as you say, last year's truth is this year's platitude; forms change so that truth will remain (though this way of putting it probably imagines truth as too distinct from its occasion, even if it does extend beyond that occasion.)
Fiddling with the forms doesn't guarantee insight, however, though it may exercise the audience's mind in such a way that they grow patient honing their thoughts, which could only help!
Probably what is crucial is the artist's rigor in examining and accepting. The scientist is perhaps a better model for the artist than the mystic. The scientist investigates and exposes. To show without judgment is an ethical act. It teaches us to see--the basis for any morality worth its salt.
A couple of dance examples:
There's a scene in Jerome Robbins' war-time short-story ballet, "Fancy Free" (1944), I've mentioned already in which a dame turns a corner to find three sailors waiting in front of a bar.
They flirt with her, then one sailor grabs her handbag and throws it to another. The men keep up this game until it's no fun--not for her or for us. Eventually she raises her arm to strike the sailor that now has her purse and he catches that arm in his fist.
We all know the next move--that he'll strike her for daring to retaliate. But instead, Robbins freezes the action. Bernstein's agitated music disappears and the sailor grips the woman's wrist for an unnervingly long time. We've arrived at the tipping point, where the violence could escalate or it could subside. (Paul and I both thought of "Fancy Free" in our mob mentality round up, though we didn't mention it finally. The ballet is in the repertory of the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, among others.)
If Robbins had just wanted to make a point or avoid one, "Fancy Free" would have been more violent or less. By showing us the dangerous current coursing through these men, the ballet is less resolved, and more true. Robbins' discipline is artistic and moral.
Tere O'Connor's "Winter Belly" reveals not human action but winter: the sense we make of the wind through bare trees (the creak and groan and rush) and the low light.
I have only seen this half-hour dance once--when it premiered in 2002 at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church in New York--and still it has become for me how winter might feel if I yielded to it tree by tree. The humanity of the dance lies in its reflection of our humanity--our yearning to understand something other than ourselves: a tree, a rock, a nightingale, or the belly of winter.
"Winter Belly" may seem to argue against my comparison of artist and scientist: the dance is about feeling, not fact. But what's powerful is its refusal to make that distinction. To create this dance, O'Connor must have had to think of each element separately--winter, feeling, self--before returning them to their mixed-up state. That's how we get to feel they're mixed up, anyway: he has created a little space between what we usually take together. It's like the bar of light under the bedroom door when you are lying in the dark.
The common notion that analysis and intuition are at odds demonstrates an American bias against logic as an element of art or faith. Americans tend to be highly empirical, on the one hand, and utterly irrational, on the other. The idea that one might use empirical method to understand feeling does not naturally occur to us.
As for money, you say,
Maybe it's the fixed value system of money in the capitalist exchange that makes it feel so trapping, so immovable -- maybe if we had a barter system, the whole exchange would feel much more "flexible" -- more harmonious with my art-making and faith-making.
Hmmm... money is by definition unfixed, which makes it both useful and dangerous. We can use it to buy anything, which is good. Because of its slipperiness and transparency, we forget the labor that it represents and how arbitrarily that labor is recompensed (the executive who makes 40 times that of the cafeteria worker), which is bad. Barter may remind us of the object's origin in labor, but it also makes exchange inconvenient. If you want milk from one person and shoes from another and your currency is a mule, what do you do? This is why barter went out of fashion. (For details, see Marx.)
The virtue of leveling taxes a la Sweden! Sweden! (where they all want to kill themselves) is it forces people to recognize that food, shelter, and health care are not rewards but inalienable rights. As a result, what is beyond these basics becomes charged again with life and, on the other hand, money retains a moral neutrality.
In a rampantly capitalist system such as ours, money is easily mistaken for a virtue. The mere economic discrepancy between people--some can buy whole villas and others don't have enough to eat--causes character to be ascribed to this necessarily empty unit of value. So when capital is a country's driving force, it probably is immoral. I doubt we'd end up with a hideous world if art had such power--and has it ever? anywhere?--even if all the artwork sucked!
[Update: for more and better thoughts on the money-art connection, I discover Lewis Hyde and spread the Word here.]
As for your equating the flow of faith with that of money--how impish of you, Clare! God is not simply something your soul can interact with, but a specific direction it might take.
I should 'fess up at this point: I'm a bred-in-the-bone atheist. I'm annoyed when people think atheism is simply a failure to take up the question of faith. I've taken it up and concluded that disbelief is the most ethical position I can adopt. But atheism is also a habit in my case. I was raised by two people who had fled their respective religions and wanted no sign of them. I couldn't possibly kneel or daven or hallelujah without feeling that if God existed, He'd strike me down for sheer phoniness. But that doesn't mean faith couldn't guide a person to goodness--it has for my religious friends. Plus, where would art be without it?
Tolstoy seems to have written "Anna Karenina" as an exercise in Christian curiosity and compassion for an adulteress. He understood how complicated morality is--he wanted to know how you could have faith and embrace life, too, and Anna was one of his test cases: for her, the Commandments weren't enough to guarantee a life worth living. (They weren't enough for the book's other protagonist, Levin, either, though he didn't need to defy them to find a reason to live, he just needed to discover the Emersonian nature of God.)
Tolstoy likely wouldn't have bothered to wonder about such a woman if there hadn't been a solid foundation for it. Jesus couldn't have defended the loose woman who cleaned his feet with her hair if "loose" had no powerful history in the Bible. He couldn't have railed against the moneychangers in the temple if there had been no temple.
Traditional religious systems may have outlived their usefulness, but only because they've been thoroughly absorbed, as you point out. It's just like art: religion advances by building on its past, not by witlessly discarding it or adhering to the letter without attending to the spirit.
To get back to your faith-money comparison, money has no spirit. While it can absorb our stories, desires, needs--anything we want--it really doesn't have anything of its own. Of course, some would say the same for God: we invent Him for our purposes, and the stories that surround Him are no more durable than those about empires of wealth.
Finally, about "the action to take," I think the model of "disappearing to churn up some world in secret" is obsolete. It's that old schema of the Establishment versus the underground. The world is a more horizontal place now. Each pocket of power may still resemble a pyramid, but there are so many more pockets--almost nothing but pockets (and then the New York Times)--that each pyramid counts for less.
In the case of modern dance, the notion of a single canon isn't very useful anymore--activity is too widespread, too eclectic. This is a very good thing, but it does make it hard to know what "matters." Depending on who you asked, it used to be a mark of courage or irrelevance to have no audience. Now I'm not sure what it is.
Well, this was far-ranging--I have likely made a perfect fool of myself. Oh, well! I enjoyed thinking about your questions, Clare, however flinty my answers.
NOTE: From Sunday April 22 through Sunday May 6, Clare Byrne and her order of dancers will perform a "kneeling" on a different patch of New York sidewalk each day. Kneeling, she explains, "is a root-word in the grammar of movement: in wonder, solidarity, remembrance." Go here for details. Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa has posted an evocative report on another of Clare's liturgical dances here.
FYI: My email seems to be working again, and I have a new plan for preserving non-spam comments in the future. So fire away (politely, please).
Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa will still be contributing here, but she also now has a blog of her own, InfiniteBody. Check it out.
Recent postings include a review on Paco Pena's flamenco show at Town Hall this weekend and an approving assessment of the debut performance this Sunday of Alastair Macaulay, new head dance critic at the Times.
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