Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A New Home

Danceinthebayarea.blogspot.com has moved! Find essays, interviews, drawings, funny tidbits, and more at stanceondance.com!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Finding the Frontier

I love the story of the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring. Whether the riot that followed the premiere can be blamed on the dissonant arrhythmic music, the pounding tense choreography, or the political and cultural times, it seems as though there was a clear frontier where art had never dared go before, and when Stravinsky and Nijinsky dared cross that frontier, all hell broke loose.

Are there any more frontiers left in art? At least in San Francisco in 2012, artists of all disciplines have been freed from many cultural and societal shackles that once bound them. The more dance (and art) I see, the more I sense that there is nothing artists can’t and won’t do.

I recently saw Macklin Kowal’s Divine Light at the Garage, which featured, among other things, nudity, screaming, minimalistic movement, repetition, and speech. I was not surprised or moved to riot by any of this, for I was in the Garage Theater, where I wouldn’t expect to see anything less. Similarly, I recently saw Theater of Yugen’s Sound is the Movement series at Nohspace, which featured the Scottish convulsing contortionist Iona Kewney, as well as Daria Kaufman and Bianca Brzezinski engaged in a dance dialogue about getting epilepsy medication while accompanied by the scattered electronic sounds and music of Richard Warp, all elements I was adjusted and excited to see in the Nohspace setting.

Places like the Garage and Nohspace have flung open their doors to the multitude of avant-garde artists, the result being a climate where audience members are prepared for anything and everything. However if Kowal were to set his choreography on a company like Lines Ballet or ODC, the reception might be something entirely different. And then consider the reception of Kowal’s choreography in a place like Provo, UT. The context a piece is presented in greatly effects how it is received.

But what really got me thinking about all this was Matt Ingalls and Ken Ueno, the final performers of Theater of Yugen’s Sound is the Movement series. Their music, to my ears, hurt. I found it screeching and dissonant to an extreme. I literally covered my ears the whole time they played because it evoked such a strong physical reaction from me. But at the same time, I was excited. Here was music I wanted to get as far away from as possible. I wanted to leave. I wanted to scream, “Stop!” I was beyond fazed; I could have rioted.

I don’t know if new frontiers in art lie in content, context or simply in audience reaction. It’s difficult to define exactly what a frontier is and when it’s being crossed. Nevertheless, I did not think there was anything a performer could do in a setting like Nohspace that I would be surprised and appalled at. And yet I was. So while I may have abhorred the squawking sounds of Ingalls and Ueno, I am encouraged by their trepidation to push the extremes of what is acceptable art to present to an audience, just like Stravinsky and Nijinsky 99 years earlier.

Monday, January 30, 2012

To My Fellow Dancer:

What do you want? Yes, we all want to be able to practice our art form and hopefully get paid to do it, but what do you want beyond that? What kind of relationship do you want to have with your choreographer and fellow performers? What kind of process do you want to be engaged in? What kind of work is meaningful to you? What do you want out of this practice that you put so much in to?

I dance with Malinda LaVelle’s Project Thrust because I believe in Malinda’s choreographic vision and because I am honored to be able to help her build that vision. I relish in the process, am challenged by the content, grow in my understanding of dance, and nourish a deep love and respect for everyone involved. I could recount how Malinda builds choreography off of her dancers’ abilities and personalities, or how she creates pieces that feel socially and personally relevant, or how she creates episodes that are at once poignantly funny and profoundly sad. But at the end of the day, more than writing about how I believe in her work is the simple fact that I choose to work with her.

After seeing Project Thrust, people regularly remark on the commitment and investment of us dancers. And while it is flattering, I am always surprised. Why wouldn’t we be invested? This is work that we choose to be a part of, that we want to be a part of. Malinda and the other dancers are my good friends, and I feel inspired to put as much of myself into the work as they do. They are my community, and we all want to make Project Thrust the most it can be. Why wouldn’t a dancer be committed and invested in the choreography that they willingly chose to partake in?

While I believe it is healthy and important for dancers to experience a broad scope of choreographic exchanges, as it expands not only dancers’ technical understanding but also their artistic understanding, I think there also comes a time when dancers can take inventory from their experience, evaluate it, and choose what kind of process they want to be a part of. Dancers can be just as discriminating about dance as choreographers, presenters, and audience members, and yet we’re often expected to take anything that comes our way and be thankful for the opportunity.

There are a million ways to be a dancer. Whether it is in a company or freelance, contractual or merely consensual, every day or once in a blue moon, strenuous or relaxing, classical or avant-garde, abstract or explicit, the ways we can pursue dance are myriad. However, how we choose to pursue dance is also a reflection of our values. Because most of us will seldom be handed dream opportunities and ideal situations, what matters is building and cultivating a dance environment and community that facilitates our dreams and ideals. I daresay that those choreographers and dancers in ideal situations more often than not sowed the seeds for making it happen.

I encourage every dancer to cultivate an environment for them self that goes beyond money or opportunity but that considers what they want, particularly with regards to choreography and community. Let’s move beyond waiting for any chance to be on stage. We do care about content, and we’re not replaceable. In the end, we make the dance possible.

So, my fellow dancer, what do you want? Go and make it happen.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lost and Found

I think it’s really exciting when people get up and leave in the middle of a performance. It shows that those people felt so strongly that sitting politely through the end was no longer an option, decorum be damned. It’s the kind of discourse I wish happened more often: discourse based not on politeness but on engagement. People get up and walk out of performances when they are engaged in disliking a work. Art is meant to be viewed, shared, received, discussed, and even criticized, and it falls short of any of those things if the audience isn’t engaged. Far from boredom, in which people obligatorily sit through shows completely disengaged, the act of walking out of a performance signifies care and discontentment. While I’m not advocating people get up and leave during performances anytime they dislike something, I am saying that when it does happen it indicates that those viewers were reacting to the work from an alert, honest, highly invested place.

Pina Bausch’s Danzon recently toured to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall via Calperformances. One of the most highly anticipated dance events in the Bay Area this year, expectations ran high of Bausch’s legendary Wuppertal Tanztheatre. By the end of her life Bausch had acquired a reputation for creating quite epic pieces. While a fair number of people in the audience walked out of the show and some in the dance community expressed nonfulfillment, others have reported feeling overwhelmed and overcome. Wherever the audience fell on the like-dislike spectrum, the level of engagement was high.

I am still trying to comprehend what transpired through the course of the evening. It made no sense. It seemed to hint at everything but say nothing. It reminded me of things I don’t remember. It challenged me to hang on, seeming to intentionally lose me. At the same time it was so soft. From the naked women squirming in their bathtubs and the woman taping her thighs together to trap the man’s hand, to a camp telling jokes in tents and a padded fat woman spiraling around the stage to Saint-Saens Dying Swan, the piece felt like a series of random recollections. In its primordial sexual playfulness, it defied my attempts to make something out of it, contradicting my desire for order and purpose.

At one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, there was only so much time I could spend trying to understand what was going on before I simply had to sit back and watch. And when I finally stopped trying to thread it all together, it began to slowly thread itself. Toward the end Dominique Mercy, Bausch’s longtime collaborator whose simple human stage presence was powerfully affective, held a bag of dirt and threw handfuls in a perfect grid charted across the stage. Eventually I forgot he was there, as other action onstage grabbed my attention. And then just when I’d ceased to notice his presence completely, he burst forward into a wrenching solo to operatic music, catching my heart in my throat with his suddenness and heightened emotional drama before going back to mundanely throwing his handfuls of dirt. At another point a woman shoveled dirt on another woman as she danced, showering the whimsical whirling dancer in dark grainy earth. Things grow in dirt; it’s a fertile substance. Yet we shovel it over our dead too. Growth, death and fertility all came to mind at once. Yet instead of feeling like a forced image, it felt more like a suggestion. All of it felt this way, softly hinting at emotions and memories. In this way I felt like Bausch took me by the hand and led me around the neighborhood, and when I stopped worrying about where we were going and simply allowed myself to be led, I found myself at home.

Danzon made me smile and laugh and cry. It left me lost and found at the same time. I stand in awe of Bausch’s prowess in making me feel so much. But as I watched the man in front of me or the people behind me walk out, I marveled perhaps even more. This was a piece that elicited response. While mine happened to be incredibly positive and theirs seemingly negative, I think both have validity in that they were strongly felt.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Trouble with Expectations

I once got in a bit of an argument with a friend of mine about expectations. He claimed we should never have expectations because they only lead to trouble. I claimed that expectations are ineffaceable. I am willing to concede now that perhaps he had a point: while we can’t eradicate expectations, they do seem to lead to trouble. I recently attended Night Falls at ODC Theater, a dance-theater piece created by Deborah Slater and Julie Hébert that addressed aging. I had expectations. Because of the term dance-theater, I expected it to be dance-based with theatrical elements. I also expected the piece to have a moral of sorts about coming to terms with the aging process and finding the rewards in it. While I don’t think these are unreasonable expectations, the juxtaposition between my preconceived notions and the reality of the piece was a bit troubling.

The narrative of the piece is about a woman about to turn 60 who has to give a speech and is grappling with her own personal frustrations and disillusionment at this life juncture. With her are three permutations of herself at different points in her life, two younger and one older. She is soon joined by her ex-husband’s brother and his younger self, and together they all engage in an extended discussion on what it means to grow older.

I’m 25. I’m young. I think about aging here and there, but I don’t worry about it much. I expect aging to be a trade-off of sorts. I expect to trade my healthy, muscular, able body in for wisdom, perspective, and maybe even some inner peace. I expect it to be challenging and relieving at the same time. If Night Falls is any indicator of whether my quixotic idealism is correct, I’m way off the mark. In Slater and Hébert’s eyes, aging is a process fraught with dismay and disappointment, regrets and nostalgia. Reacting purely to the content of the piece itself, I was discouraged by how dour the aging process is looking from the onset.

Along with my expectations regarding content, I had expected the piece itself to be equally rooted in dance and theater, perhaps dance more so, as it was performed at ODC, a venue typically reserved for dance productions. However I felt the piece was guided almost completely by the spoken text, leaving the dance to feel gestural, decorative, and not completely integral to the piece. One of the younger women never spoke, and I understand she was a designated dance component in the piece. However, with so much dialogue between the other performers I missed her voice. Vice versa I missed seeing the other performers move more. There was so much text about the changes wrought to a body as it ages, but it was never fully manifested physically: the younger and older cast members often did the same movements.

Thus my expectations led to my dissatisfaction. Had I no preconceptions about how much dance versus theater the piece would have, or what the message about aging would be, I might have come away from Night Falls much more enthused. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a way to rid one’s self of expectations.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Forever Incomplete

Can process and product be mutually exclusive? When does something cross from process to product? Is it possible to present process as something distinct from product? Charles Slender’s FACT/SF sought to explore these concepts in its recent residency at CounterPULSE, which culminated in four performances of Pretonically Oriented V.3 this past September 8-11. I don’t know if Slender succeeded in presenting process, but his attempts leave much for consideration.

I recently finished reading The Price of Altruism by Oren Harman, which had absolutely nothing to do with these concepts of process and product, but which ended with a quote I find interestingly relevant: “What makes great works of art complete is that they remain forever incomplete. Explanations for events are at once myriad and mysterious; putting down a book, or walking away from a painting or a sculpture, or finishing listening to a piece of music, one always leaves with lingering thoughts that are neither questions nor answers.” I am struck by the notion that a piece of art cannot be completed or finished, as its reception is often just as much a part of the art piece’s history as its process leading up to its presentation. Rather, there is only the current evolution of the art piece at the time of presentation.

I don’t think too many people will disagree with me when I say Pretonically Oriented V.3 was incredibly demanding of its audience. There were times when there was literally no action happening onstage. The choreography seemed to explicitly give the audience nothing tangible to hold onto. I sat in the audience brooding over whether this was pushing artistic boundaries or simply poor consideration of the viewers (Would you pay to watch an empty stage?). Nevertheless we all sat there. No one started clapping or got up and left. I felt that either the audience must be particularly erudite and patient, or just polite and sleepy. The piece was tedious, difficult to meditate on, and generally, dare I say, boring.

However here I am a week later still thinking about it, so it must have succeeded in a way. When I saw the piece in an informal showing about a month ago, I could very well see it was in progress. Overhead lights, rehearsal clothes, and an after-discussion cemented the feeling of showing a work-in-process. When I saw the piece in performance, with costumes and lights and a full audience, that sense of process was diminished by the presentational aspects. For me, the process is in the product, and in a piece like Pretonically Oriented V.3 that had focused so intensely on showcasing process, the finished product felt like it had little to say beyond what its process had been. Although it was an intriguing exploration, I don’t know if process and product can ever truly be distinct. It appears that there has to be more driving and guiding process than just the process itself.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Art of Wandering

Dandelion Dancetheater and AXIS Dance Company recently teamed up to present The Dislocation Express on and near BART this past July 24, 27, 29, and 30. They dressed as gypsies, a wandering tribe of dancers. The title itself evokes a sense of nomadism; dislocation is out of place, and express is a fast way to get there. The piece began in front of the Ed Roberts Campus at Ashby BART and progressed to either the Walnut Creek BART station or the Powell Street BART station depending on the evening. Combining dance, theater, voice, and music, the piece altered between audience participation, civil disruption, and good old site-specific dance.

In contemporary culture the term “gypsy” connotes a whole assortment of interesting and not necessarily accurate stereotypes. From romanticized fortune-tellers bedecked in bells, to charlatans and swindlers unwilling to integrate into society, perhaps the most pervasive cliché about gypsies is that they are wanderers, people intentionally always on the move. What does it really mean to have nowhere to go? To choose to have nowhere to go?

I found it highly ironic that Dandelion and AXIS were evoking these thoughts of going nowhere as they shepherded the audience systematically from Ashby to Powell. However, I understand that it was the representation of the idea, not the thing itself, which the piece sought to represent. In other ways The Dislocation Express unintentionally became the real deal. A guard in Ashby BART sought to silence performer David Ryther’s violin playing on the platform. In compliance Dandelion director Eric Kupers asked the audience and performers, all of whom were dancing interactively, to hum loudly. In this way Kupers complied with the letter of the law but perhaps not with the spirit of the law, in something reminiscent of civil disobedience.

I was even more reminded of something akin to civil disobedience when we got to the Powell Street BART. The large rotunda area where Dandelion/AXIS planned on performing was taken by a busker, a young woman singing songs for pocket change. Buskers generally operate on a first come first serve basis, and while The Dislocation Express had permits and had obviously been planning for months, there was still an element of sabotage as the girl stubbornly refused to move and was eventually made to. It made me question who really has the right to a public area, a question well in keeping with space and place in connection to the idea of gypsies.

As the crowd of onlookers saw the busker finally relent and move, the performers paraded into the space, colorfully dressed and bedazzling in bells and ornaments. In contrast to the drab station and the commonplace clothes of the audience, the performers of Dandelion and AXIS looked like something out of another world. In the true spirit of gypsies, they didn’t conform to their environment.

I’ve seen a lot of work by AXIS Dance Company and by Dandelion Dancetheater, and both companies often tackle themes of not belonging and not conforming. Both AXIS dancers and Dandelions are pioneers in many respects in finding their own way of dancing and engaging with art. How very appropriate to evoke gypsies and to have samplings of civil disobedience in The Dislocation Express. It reminded me of a quote by J.R. R. Tolkien: “Not all those who wander are lost.”