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Is that Dance? A writer’s response to recent dance trends

Contemporary Dance

Recently, I was invited to see an “unmissable” show. The media release assured me of its astonishing significance, a rare opportunity to witness the work of a visiting international maestro. Gosh, how could I possibly resist?

The trouble is, the work left me in a foment. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t “like” it but rather that it left me feeling anything but inspired.

Normally, such frustrations are quickly forgotten, but on this occasion it struck me that the problem with the so-called masterpiece was the problem with some contemporary dance full stop: namely, that the form does not always showcase dance. Instead, it has become obsessed with concept, with research, with doing almost anything but dance – in timewith music.

Before I go any further, I should add some qualifiers. I am not a trained dancer or choreographer, but I am an unabashed fan. My contemporary dance viewing of late has taken place almost exclusively in Melbourne and has, by extension, included a significant chunk of Australian-made work. As a writer/critic with more than 20 years in the game, however, and as an artist/director myself, I think I have the 10,000 hours needed to assert some kind of expertise, or at the very least to claim a nuanced and well thought-out perspective.

So when I see someone continuously just rolling around on the floor in complete silence under the unappealing glare of the house fluoros, I am inspired to ask: why am I watching this?

As a fellow creative, I get all that stuff about breaking the limits of performance and challenging the idea of spectatorship. I, too, tend to eschew “mere entertainment” for something that I consider richer. More textured. I understand and fully accept that, in a culture that appears increasingly lobotomised, artists can (and probably should) be provocateurs.

Yet, as former ADT head and internationally renowned choreographer Leigh Warren said during our last interview in 2014, “If I see someone else throw themselves on the floor for no reason, I’ll scream.”

I mean, let’s be honest, folks, watching dancers squirm around on the boards, often for minutes on end and in abject silence is hardly enervating, let alone challenging. In fact, it doesn’t even subvert the norm anymore. I have literally lost count of the hours I have spent watching this type of work.

If this trend was the only issue, well, I’d just grab a quick nap and be done with it, but the rolling around on the floor phenomenon is symptomatic of a deeper, more troubling malaise. When works that consist entirely of people jogging around a room (in silence) get funded and included in festivals, it really is time to start wondering. By all means, develop your concept around the notion of repetition, examine the blurred lines between performance and exercise. I’m just not interested in watching it for too long.

Let me put it this way: if you want to transcend the notion of spectacle, perhaps consider not putting on a show. Instead, get some of your friends together in a room with ugly light, and stand still for an hour staring blankly and silently at a wall. Perhaps, for effect, you could get your cat to watch you do it.

The point here is that, as artists, we need to be wary of becoming victim to our own mania for concept. Yes, we want our work to be structured around an idea, emotion or enquiry, but we need to remember that we are not elaborating a formula. The current vogue for exhaustive intellectualisation is the victory of commerce over art. It is the triumph of theory over practice. Of the tagline over the story. It’s the ticking of boxes. KPIs, brand personalities and all that dehumanising, reductionist nonsense.

Perhaps in literature or cinema, we might expect the dry and the didactic – but surely not in dance. Of all artforms, save for drumming, dance is the most ancient, universal and immediate. Or, dare I say it, visceral. The body making music, telling stories, dipping and soaring – sexy, ecstatic and alive.

So why the fear of it? Why, as Sydney Dance’s Rafael Bonachela told me recently after he’d been to Europe, is the contemporary orthodoxy “work that doesn’t even have dance in it”? Why not allow the dancers to dance? They’ve trained for years and deserve to show their full potential. Are we so desperate to delineate ourselves from some of the fluff we see on SYTYCD that we’ve lurched to the other extreme?

Naturally, I don’t have the answer; but what I do have is a kind of sadness. When it’s good, contemporary dance is thrilling, exuberant and inspiring. And there is plenty of great content. In 2015 alone, Lucy Guerin’s Motion Picture, Sue Healey’s On View and Tao Dance Theater’s No 5 have carved themselves in my memory; even if the latter did contain lots of rolling around. But when I sit for an hour and watch someone sit, walk around a bit, lay on the ground, get dressed and walk off, I leave with nothing.

Decades ago, when folks like Beckett, Rothko and Godard were challenging the very idea of what art, performance and spectating were, it was an energising revolution. Now, it’s beyond passé. It’s a pose. A grant submission.

So please, in 2016, could we just have a little more actual technique and dancing? You know, and maybe some music or something? Call me stupid if you’d like, but if I need to see someone roll around in silence, I’ll get a mirror and do it myself.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Rustin

    Mar 4, 2016 at 8:05 am

    Thank you, Paul, for putting into words my feelings and questions that I have had about high art in dance.

    My background is in ethnic/world dance, tap dance, jazz, and hip-hop, so the intent of most works I saw while in my MFA program were foreign to me, to say the least. It was difficult to be in critique sessions or class discussions to intellectualize over works whose purpose were elusive and lengths bloated.

    I came out of the program grateful for what it taught me about artistic expression and breaking molds of performance and intent; however, I struggled with feeling infantilized because of my “dance as entertainment” background. Like the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, I had to pretend there was substance and value to works that I thought were bereft of those qualities in order to garner approval from my peers and leaders.

  2. Nicoletta

    Mar 5, 2016 at 12:48 am

    This article speaks to me on a spiritual level. I am currently in a collegiate dance program that sometimes values this form of performance art over “traditional” dance… because the faculty think it’s “more original.” What they fail to realize is that, in being that the style is trending, it is by definition not original anymore. Not only is their preference based on a tragic flaw in logic, but it also poses a health risk to myself and the other students. We are quickly developing severe allergies towards this kind of work, and find ourselves gagging uncontrollably whenever we see it.

  3. Rebekah

    Mar 5, 2016 at 11:48 am

    In the meantime,the United States is still stuck in SYTYCD land….which is just as annoying as the other extreme you’re speaking of.

  4. SK

    Mar 5, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    I shared this on my facebook wall even though I sort of want the link to never be clicked, but whatever. The reason I shared is because I sometimes feel like dance is the only present day field (and I’m sure I’m wrong but again whatever) where critics (and presenters) who have clout, who are taken seriously, feel entitled to say “please stop experimenting, please stop acting as though you have the right to make conceptual or minimalist work, please stop making things that appeal to a very narrow audience.” And they are taken seriously! It is completely absurd. Why do dance critics treat dance as though it is an art form that is not entitled to a plethora of forms, dynamics, questions, musings, that visual art and music critics welcome and if not welcome at least take seriously and write about with intelligence? Why is dance one of the last art forms that is still pressured to be “entertaining”, and who is defining the meaning of “entertainment” anyways? I want difficult work, I want work that is lost, I want work that is found, I want work that has no idea what the hell it is, I want dance to explore and explode everything about contemporaneity, and I want critics to take the gestures of working artists seriously instead of rolling their eyes, and with whiney little voices asking where the entertainment is?

  5. JL Williams

    Mar 5, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    “Enervating” doesn’t mean what you seem to think it does. It means “causing someone to feel drained of energy or vitality”… which is exactly what most of this self-absorbed work does to me.

  6. Mio

    Mar 7, 2016 at 12:08 am

    This article is the exemplary reason why this dance form still exists.

    The author just wrote an inspiring emotional text about a dance piece that provoked him to do so. And thats basically the job of art. And with nearly 8 thousand shares the author generated a public interest that proves to any other organizer, that he should invite this piece too. Thank you in advance. It obviously kicked of an interesting discussion about the tasks, responsibility, limitations of art and public funding.

    However this kind of dance practice and the corresponding media reaction is 50 years old. The author just generated interest for that piece – because the piece caught him by surprise?? i always ask myself how this is possible? If the observer knows contemporary dance – he is aware of this since decades. As long as critiques still feel provoked to react astonished, as if it were only yesterday – we all have to continue to enjoy the “experiments” of “rolling” revolution.

    Furthermore: as long as critiques are not able to judge dance qualities – take position – get emotional about preferences – those dancers who like to extend the technical possibilities of dance wont be invited. So as long as you all scream – we want more technique – YOU have to ask yourselve how much technique is nice for you. Are you ABLE to write about it, think about it and enjoy it?? Are you looking forward to write emotional comparisons between tutting and turfing?

    my advice: watch more pieces. Discuss with those that enjoy the dances – you dont like. Understand there point of view – try them out! Till the point were it DOESNT MOVE you anymore – then art could finally digest and get over this phase.

    Thank you

    Prince Mio
    Waltz Binaire

  7. Cathy

    Mar 7, 2016 at 5:34 am

    I completely agree with SK. Why is it that a writer feels like they get to decide what “Dance” is? You are of course, entitled to your opinion and to write about it, and you make some points that I agree with, but dance has evolved in an artistic context into a form that uses a deep somatic searching and conceptual rigor to produce investigatory performance. Sometimes it’s boring, long, exciting, troubling, empty, overwhelming and many other things. Like life it. Because it is not just for entertainment, it IS research, like any and every art form, it is a form of questioning the world around us. Maybe the piece you saw was kind of shit. Maybe it was just challenging for you because of your attention span or the fact that you like music. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean it’s bad work. I hate a lot of dance and I am a dance maker, it’s normal but I’m not going to question the validity of the evolution of the form due to the absence of high legs and quality tunes. Let art do the exploration it needs to, and by all means, continue to have your opinions about it.

  8. Pingback: A reaction to Is That Dance? A message to my peers | Vanguard: Contemporary Dance

  9. Nikos

    Mar 13, 2016 at 3:09 am

    Sooooo wrong the article…you try to argue on art without reference to any aesthetic theory, proving how superficially you are invovled with arts spirituality and reasoning. Art without a concept is like animals making sounds when begging for food. Why do we even dance? What are the deeper forces that drive us towards creating? Creation is something very serious and spiritual, thats why just putting music and copying what you admired as a teenager, does not make you an artist. Your artistic vocabulary would be really poor. We all know happiness anger sadness, we have a lot of examples and it is easy to express. What about reluctance or shame? Furthermore you talk that dance is more ancient blablabla…any idea that all arts started as unified? They expanded individually and now they contract again..This changes the rules of the game…So if you want to dance Beyonce, dance Beyonce, but stop holding art behind because you didnt take the time to think..From Europe, Greece

  10. John

    Mar 19, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    This article articulates much of what I feel with some (not all) modern dance.
    My personal bete noir is the performance where one or more dancers gives birth on stage to the accompaniment of white noise. Therapy is one thing. Dance is another. Good dance can be therapy!

  11. Peter Kalivas

    May 21, 2016 at 7:06 am

    I guess we all our own ways of reading this article as well as reading dance? This writer is for me completely fair to state his experiential relation with a part of dance that exists. He is not denying or alienating for all of us just for himself the moment he authored and signed his name to it rather then anonymously. I don’t recall him describing a desire to be entertained so readers make assumptions about what he means go quickly off track right. Others, who read the article and feel perhaps you are included in the category to which he is referring not to worry he won’t be attending your “show”. So, what. Keep doing what you feel and believe is right for yourself and what the field has provided for all of us which is to determine all the varied ways in which we define dance. I would be intrigued to understand however how some dancers who do nothing but roll around a bit as a general description of the kind of dance in question train and then if avoiding spectacle, pretense, entertainment then go about justifying producing a concert or show, charging the public to purchase a ticket. What is it then, and what economic practice is it participating in while it works so hard not to participate in spectacle, trivialities of technical accomplishments that yes too are attached to other value systems. The expectations this writer is describing about dance is learned just like much of the population. Like everything else in life someone shows you something for the first time and tells you what it is and why. Then, when you encounter things that challenge those ideals it gets a bit confusing perhaps. This is quite real and fair but certainly no cause to get that upset. To each his own. Also, so what if he uses fancy old english words slightly out of context. Seemed to get you all going anyway. Live long and prosper people.

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