Sunday, March 13, 2011

An Indictment on Boring Dance

Sometimes it’s no wonder to me that the public generally associates dance with boredom. Time and time again I find myself bored at dance performances. And I’m a dancer. So I can hardly blame lay people for not actively seeking out dance more often.

I recently saw New York based choreographer Stephen Petronio’s I Drink the Air Before Me at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and although I don’t believe the role of a critic should be to acclaim or disparage a show according to their own personal tastes, I will say the show was incapable of holding my attention. Choreographically there was no arc, no catharsis, only an endless parade of solos, duets, and ensemble dances that went on for too long.

The larger problem is that this is a trend regularly manifesting itself in the dance world. I consistently see boring dance. A huge culprit for this is self-indulgence. It seems few choreographers have the wherewithal to know when their work should be edited. So often I get the gist of what’s going to happen in the first five minutes, and then watch a very predictable dance unravel. Because dance is engaging to create and perform does not make it engaging to watch.

The program notes told me I Drink the Air Before Me was inspired by 'the whirling, unpredictable, threatening, thrilling forces of nature'. If I was supposed to experience a microcosm of a storm onstage this was lost on me. The wholly abstract dance phrases seemed to have little reason for existing beyond demonstrating Stephen Petronio’s ability to create phrases and the dancers’ ability to execute them accordingly. In this light the performance was akin to a talent show. I’m not inferring that dance has to be literal or have an apparent meaning, but it had better have a clear purpose if it wants to hold its audience captive. So often dance seems to rely on the wow factor derived from the dancers’ ability to do things with their bodies the audience cannot. This generally ceases to sustain attention after a few minutes at most.

Thus can we really expect the public to attend dance shows spur of the moment and fall entranced? If I as a dancer and a dance writer regularly find myself bored and wondering what the point is, then I can hardly wonder at the alienating and indulgent qualities that keep audiences at bay rather than attending dance shows for sheer entertainment.

But when dance is good, boring is not even a consideration. While confined to the limits of time, space, and the human body, dance can at once transcend these limits to reveal the raw emotion, energy, and inherent humanity only available from a living, breathing, moving body. For the sake of the art form I hope more choreography begins aiming for this transcendence.


  1. I like your candidness, Emmaly. I didn't see the Petronio show, but I see what you're saying and I've often felt the same way. However, more and more I think about how predictability is subjective. You and I have seen a lot of dance, so what's predictable for us probably isn't for someone who's seen very little. I think that with any art form, the more you see, the harder it is to be surprised (and the more you crave the unexpected). Also, does predictability necessarily equate to boredom? Let's say you know what's going to happen in a dance, or a movie for that matter - can you still enjoy watching it all unfold?

  2. Emmaly--

    I understand exactly what you are saying. Dance is a big part of my “entertainment” budget and there are times when things do just go on and on. Writers have editors. Filmmakers have editors and even Dance Reviewers have editors. Why? Because editors make the product better. It would take a choreographer that is pretty secure in his/her work to bring someone in to help with the editing. But I think it be a great thing to do and probably make a better product, maybe not all the time but most of the time. I am not talking about choreography by committee, that would be going too far but editing by a senior choreographer could be helpful. I would love to see the highest level of dance in San Francisco take the lead in doing something like this. But it would take courage.

    I have often thought the best work by a lot of choreographer’s are done when they are younger and have done just a few dances. At this point they have a bit of experience but are probably more open to interacting with dancers or other members of the company or even other choreographers when putting a new piece together. In other words they are benefiting from an editor of sorts. I think we are seeing that right now with Yuri Possokhov’s last work at the SF Ballet. IMHO by far his best work. When you compare that to the last work by the company’s Artistic Director I think you can see where “editing” helped.