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.