The Nearness of You

by Eva Yaa Asantewaa
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If I tell you that I'm over seeing the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at City Center, please do not misunderstand. I mean no disrespect to either of these venerable institutions. I'm merely grappling with a revelation (no pun intended) that lit into me one evening last season as I sat near the back of the theater and, with my 55-year-old eyes, attempted to make sense of those acrobats of God leaping, spinning and sashaying on a stage that suddenly seemed as far away as heaven. It was a stage too far, wonderful dancers, working their hearts out, too far, and I'd had about enough of that distance as I could stand.

Which led me to muse about the possibility of seeing the Ailey troupe in an entirely different way. Why not up close and personal? Why not a special show, every now and then, when we could get to watch one or two Ailey marvels dancing something small and intimate in a setting where we might actually be able to track the thoughts crossing their brows, the nerve synapses firing in their muscles, the divine flow of their breathing? What about the possibility of seeing an Ailey dancer do the kind of choreography that might not have to be writ large to read across distance and make an impact, the kind that might take us on new journeys of discovery? What a boon that would be for the dancers themselves, for adventurous choreographers lucky to work with them, and for people like you and me. And what a lure that might be for new audiences.

Part of the problem for me, I realize, is that I started out as a young dance fan watching (and later reviewing) companies like Ailey and New York City Ballet and then quickly plunged into the postmodern milieu. Thirty-plus years into professional dance writing, I find myself looking at major, mainstream dance companies with the sensibilities of someone raised by wolves. I love these wolves because they have never stopped demanding more from themselves, from their art or from their audiences. Now I am spoiled, and I demand more from everyone and everything.

What I demand, in this instance, is closeness.

Some related thoughts come to mind, in no particular order.

Dixon Place
The last time I sat on one of those front-row sofas at Dixon Place, a batch of dancers (Lynn Neuman's Artichoke Dance Company), wielded switchblades and moved noisily within a paper enclosure. They cut holes in the paper just inches from our faces. Later, the Amazon-built Cary McWilliam deliberately lunged in my direction, stopping short of landing on top of me--but not by much. Her arms were braced on either side of me, and she just hung there. Instead of responding with a massive heart attack, I was thrilled by the immediacy of this action. Only later did I ponder the consequences: With cellphones silenced and tucked away, how quickly could anyone have reached 911?

Okay, I realize that the possibility of getting slashed or flattened by jet-propelled dancers is not exactly attractive to potential dance audiences.  Let me back up and try another approach.

When I see a show at Dixon Place, I'm close enough to the performers to catch a hit of their enormous energy and to really see just what it is that they do. My friends, there's nothing like that. If you want to interest new audiences in the work of dancers, make sure to give them a few experiences up close. I don't care if you have a huge dance company. Think like a drug pusher: little samples, little hits. Works every time.

They'll never forget it-even without the knife-play. Instead, it might be something quite benign, like Doug Elkins's Fraulein Maria, in which The Sound of Music is hilariously, brilliantly condensed and reinterpreted for the itty-bitty stage at Joe's Pub. Or it might be a showing of Aszure Barton's work-in-progress, A Traveling Show, which recently made the best use of a smaller-than-her-usual cast on the petite stage of the East Village's charming Duo Theatre. Size matters-as long as it's small, and close.

Yanira Castro
This woman has a reputation. For making audiences stand up, move around, have dancers move around them in close proximity. She also once herded and confined her audience in plexiglas boxes and bid them sit on backless benches with not a sliver of space between one person and the next. When you attend a Yanira Castro dance, you can't just sit back (literally) and take in the show. And this is all to the good. For one thing, it reminds me that I am a body, not just a mental sensibility, and that puts me in a different relationship to the bodies that I'm observing. I can't swear that this has had a salutary effect on most dance critics...sigh...but I like the direction it's moving in.

She's not the only choreographer working this way, of course. William Forsythe's You Made Me A Monster had viewers standing defenselessly while a trio of hulking, crazily-moving dancers pelted through and pushed by. The first section of Tere O'Connor's Rammed Earth had dancers moving among audience members whose folding chairs were strewn across the floor, facing various directions. Added to the usual profound joy of watching Hilary Clark, Heather Olson, Matthew Rogers and Christopher Williams work their craft was watching that craft slip out from behind your left shoulder.

Miguel Gutierrez brought us all up on stage with him for Everyone. Sure, we were still neatly aligned in rows of folding chairs, but only a few rows, and we were rarely more than a few feet from him and his increasingly rambunctious dancers. Daniel Linehan (at Dance Theater Workshop) and, more recently, Alex Escalante (at Danspace Project) and Aynsley Vandenbroucke (at the Baryshnikov Arts Center) arranged us in a communal circle enclosing their action. And there are many more examples, especially from artists creating site-specific work.

Sites for Bored Eyes
Which brings me to the issue of space. Let's go wild and realize that wherever you have space, you can have movement. How cool is it when creative movement responds in a fresh way to the fresh realities and challenges of a space that is not already officially designated for dance! Why are we not seeing more dance breaking out all over town-in the supermarket, for instance, where a group of visual artists replaced cans of peas with cans decorated with their own designs?  Dancers, start looking at every space as your potential stage. Even if you don't have the legal right to use that space, you have the right to play with it in your head, and maybe that will bring a new charge to the work you do in conventional spaces.

We need to plop dance down in the middle of people's lives, right in front of their faces. That way, it will no longer seem to be some elitist thing-apparently, a huge no-no in America-where you have to be dressed up, physically and mentally, in order to attend and comprehend. Take dance to the people, where they live.

The Nerve of You
I have this theory, based in my experience in psychic practices--and, I suspect, many years of watching dance intensively--that we're subliminally, deeply connected to the performers we watch. It goes back to what I wrote earlier-that we are bodies, too, and our nervous systems and our spiritual selves are altered by what we see and by those subtler realities that we do not detect in any conscious way. We truly understand a lot more about dance (and dancers) than we realize we do. This is especially powerful when we see dance up close.  Works with theater and musical performances, too. I don't know about you, folks, but I crave this, and I think it's the cure for America's alienation from body and soul and dance.

To hear more from
Eva Yaa Asantewaa, read her blog.  
To learn more about NPAC sessions such as "Beyond Audience Development: Innovative Strategies for Performing Arts
", visit the website.

May 4, 2008 7:21 PM | | Comments (3)


Hi, Lillian! Thanks for your comment.

If you've seen your share of big, bloated projects that deliver far less than they promise, you begin to yearn for works that are more modest in scale and intimate for audiences with possibly stronger artistic payoff and, again, the potential to bring people back for more.

But you're absolutely right. This is not about making money--at least, not right away.

I'm thinking about particular opportunities beyond the box to reach people who would not necessarily know about dance companies or have the means to access them or believe that dance is worth their time and attention.

I certainly don't expect to see NYCB or Ailey dancing on my street corner all the time, but if a few of those sensational dancers got the crazy notion, let's say, to crowd into the window of the corner Chase ATM for fifteen minutes, followed by someone handing out dance postcards or flyers on the street, it might get the attention of the tourists, business owners and college kids on my block. That kind of eye-catching and consciousness-raising thing would help heighten dance's profile.

I like this essay -- and the idea -- in theory. But how are dance companies expected to make money if they're giving their art away for free in the supermarket? Or performing in venues that sell under 100 tickets? I realize what you're saying is that there should be a mix; why must I only see The NYC Ballet at Lincoln Center or Ailey at City Center. But the most popular companies can barely make money in the biggest venues in the largest cities. Usually intimacy comes at a price: VIP seats, private major donor events. How do we get the best possible experience at the right price.

I love the idea of performance on a smaller scale. Depending on where you're sitting, some of today's new concert halls are comparable to sports stadiums in terms of intimacy. There's fundamentally no limit to what could be considered a performance space.

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Be sure to check in all week for continuous blogging from NPAC.  Attendees from across art forms and job functions report on their conference experiences. Comments from the convention and beyond are welcome!

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Sarah Baird - media and public relations executive, Boosey & Hawkes
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Mark Pemberton - director, Association of British Orchestras
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About this blog From April 1 through June 9, 2008, weekly entries will be posted here by some of the performing arts community's top bloggers. This 10-week intensive blog will serve as a unique forum for digital debate and brainstorming, and both the entries and comments will be archived for use at the live NPAC sessions in June.  New entries will be posted every Monday morning. Please note: the views expressed in this blog represent those of the independent contributors and participants, not the National Performing Arts Convention.

NPAC - the National Performing Arts Convention - will take place in Denver, Colorado on June 10-14, 2008. "Taking Action Together," NPAC will lay the foundation for future cross-disciplinary collaborations, cooperative programs and effective advocacy. Formed by 30 distinct performing arts service organizations demonstrating a new maturity and uniting as one a sector, NPAC is dedicated to enriching national life and strengthening performing arts communities across the country. Click here to register, and we'll see you in Denver!

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Eva Yaa Asantewaa commented on The Nearness of You: Hi, Lillian! Thanks for your comment. If you've seen your share of big, bloated proj...

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