What’s Wrong With Dance (a reprise)

by ashleyandersondances

In June I posted the text below. It was about the problem of needing to label or identify performance rather than describe and enrich what is seen. I’m re-posting it because I wanted to add a link to it and figured people don’t regularly go through old posts enough to notice. Gia Kourlas in the NYTimes problematizes the same issue in context of the way in which the Bessie awards are labeled. I thought more about the issue myself while I ran a high school dance program at UArts this summer. The dancers there were really into describing what dance was or wasn’t but not so much at the ready to discuss the content of performances. Hopefully, the conversation continues on all levels. Read Gia’s article here, and my comments below.

I’ve written about this before, largely in the context of reviews where performers regularly bill themselves outside of the traditions of dance. In fact, it seems everyone, from major ballet companies to independent choreographers, eschew the notion that their work is “just” a dance performance. Whether it’s the expression “movement based” or “more like performance art” from where I sit it’s starting to get agonizing.

Is this happening because dance isn’t the most regarded of the arts (in terms of foundation funding, audience attendance and fees for it’s workers)? Is it happening because so many marketing conglomerates (dance television, competition studios) are marring what certain people imagine as dance? Is it happening because dance is too hard to pin down between the social experiences of salsa, touchdown dances, bad bars and the concert traditions as varied as the Ballet Russe and Josephine Baker?

Why it’s happening is probably all of those reasons and some I’m leaving out but it’s the implications that are potentially pretty damaging. If dance artists can agree that the name of dance is being tarnished from many directions why can’t we necessarily see that ignoring the term “dance” and pretending it’s not what you do will never address the very fundamental problems we face. Ignoring the histories and contexts that influences our art-making (whether in sync or a true departure) is allowing dance to vanish — in the history books, in the reviews and in our collective imaginations. Guess what? If you dance, with your body, or choreograph dances for the bodies of your peers and especially if those dances take place with music, on a stage of some variety before other people, it’s probably a dance. And maybe it’s a dance influenced by theater or that takes place on film or that has a collaborative design in new media or the visual arts. But what’s wrong with calling it dance and then mentioning it’s interdisciplinary components or angling it more specifically? What’s wrong with imagining dance can even be beyond those clear markers and calling it dance no matter what? Why can’t audiences reckon with dance on new terms or more importantly, why can’t we?

I know a lot of people, dancers and otherwise, disagree with what I’m getting at. This is largely because the value of markers is questionable to some and the purpose of identifying your work with a single word seems reductive whereas defining it on new terms seems important. But I have to say even the most specialty chemists might simply answer “chemistry” when asked what they study — business executives might respond with “accounting” or “finance” no matter how unique their position. And in the context of dance itself some groups buck the trend I’m mentioning. DV8 for example has existed for twenty-six years under the name “physical theater” but if you look at their biography they pretty directly say they’ve made 17 dances and a number of films. While the name physical theater remains, for some, the elusive draw to their work, they aren’t afraid to call a spade a spade and simply say the word dance; but a lot of people are, most of them my peers.

Recently the Huffington Post is ablaze with articles about dance and money. The newest is a response linked here. She makes a good point that deprecation is not historically a really successful marketing scheme and if dance artists are guilty of one thing it’s deprecation. Shame over the word “dance” is only one of the models of deprecation she’s mentioning.  But the writer also misses the boat that live performance has never been, and will probably never respond to the dynamics of capitalism in America. It is something that disappears before us whether in a stuffy opera house or in the foyer of a historic train station. Just because it’s value isn’t quantifiable in the way many goods or services are doesn’t mean I should change my marketing strategy, it means I should demand that the community I live in acknowledge the arts as a different kind of commodity, one that isn’t bought or sold on the same terms as my sleeper sofa. Our deprecation is linked to money but I can’t convince myself that the solution is to buy into the idea that something interdisciplinary will “sell better” or that any strategy other than honesty with my work and it’s history is acceptable.

The assumption of the article that setting up a non-profit assumes non-success obviously doesn’t understand the purpose of non-profits (Susan G. Komen for the Cure is a non-profit and we can all agree it would never be deemed unsuccessful on a broad scale) Non-profits, and many dance organizations, can certainly make money in the sense that they pay wages for full and part-time employees, it’s simply that beyond those expenses additional money rolls into their programming. And what an excellent thing that is because why use money designated by foundations or government agencies for anything other than public programs – there is a reason arts were designated as worthy of charitable status and it’s a way to protect that some funding be made available, even in the economic downturn seemingly endless on the horizon.

But okay okay, I’m getting ahead of myself and these topics are clearly more complex than a brief post will allow but here’s the breakdown.
Dance artists can (hopefully) agree that our opportunities right now, other than those we make ourselves, are pretty limited by various circumstance.
This lack of real support (financial and otherwise) create situations in which we all devise new creative strategies
One of those strategies is to pretend we aren’t actually dancers we are something else and that the things we make and do are really more important than dance could ever be.
BUT THAT STRATEGY JUST PUSHES US FURTHER FROM SUPPORT BECAUSE WE ARE ACTUALLY DANCING.

MAYBE WE GO TO DANCE CLASS. WE MOVE OUR BODIES & WE WARM THEM UP THEN THEY TRAVEL THROUGH SPACE. MAYBE WE RESIST DANCE CLASS AND STAND STILL WITH ONLY THE MEMORY OF THOSE THINGS BECAUSE THEY COMPRISED AN OTHERWISE CRIPPLING TRAINING. MAYBE WE DANCE TO FEEL FREE AND NEVER DO IT ON STAGE AGAIN. MAYBE WE ONLY MAKE DANCES BECAUSE WE DON’T KNOW WHAT ELSE TO DO. MAYBE THEY ARE TO POPULAR MUSIC AND MAYBE THEY ARE TO A LIVE ORCHESTRA. MAYBE THEY GO ON YOUTUBE AND MAYBE THEY ARE AT THE ROSE WAGNER. MAYBE THEY ARE SOCIAL DANCES MEANT TO MAKE YOU HAPPY AND MAYBE THEY ARE CONCEPTUAL DANCES ALSO MEANT TO MAKE YOU HAPPY. MAYBE I TAKE THEM TOO SERIOUSLY OR NOT SERIOUSLY ENOUGH. MAYBE I HATE YOUR KIND OF DANCE AND MAYBE YOU HATE MINE but maybe if we keep refusing to call them dance as a result they won’t be dance because they won’t be anything any more.

5 Comments to “What’s Wrong With Dance (a reprise)”

  1. It’s a little amusing that Gia complains that we can’t use the term “dance” and then refers to dancers as “dance artists” — anyone under a word count restriction cringes when these trends happen

  2. ha! I never thought about the word count factor. I guess dance artists is still less words than “dancers, choreographers and curators” but I see the point!

  3. I actually appreciate and agree with Gia’s larger point.

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