Dance and Race and Post-modernism

by lovedancemoreguest

It was very interesting for me to read Sam Hanson’s review and critique of Repertory Dance Theater’s Time Capsule. I am not familiar with RDT or the Salt Lake dance scene beyond what I know thru lovedancemore and Ashley Anderson Dances but Sam’s article brought up several concerns for me. Sam takes issue with a sense of irresponsible, if unintentional, racism in the casting of several of Time Capsule’s pieces. He also ponders why the Time Capsule fails to include post-Cunningham experimentation.

These issues: Dance, Race, and Post-Modernism, were fresh in my mind as I read this. I recently attended a performance of Deborah Hay’s Blues in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I’ll be reductive here since I will include a link to a blog post written by one of the performers. I will just say that I was very troubled by the casting (half of the cast was composed entirely of “White” women wearing black tights and leotards and the other half by “Black” men and women wearing “colorful” street clothes.) What the two casts performed was very different; the White women were mostly still and meditative, the Blacks were free to improvise throughout the space in a loose-limbed, released manner. Deborah Hay, who is counted as one of the Judson Dance Theater’s experimentalists from the 1960s, offered no explanation of her casting choice other than an aesthetic one about how skin colors looked against the white walls of the MoMA atrium. To me this was unconscionable.

 Kathy Wasik, a dancer whom I don’t know, wrote on the Performance Club Blog about her troubling experience being a performer in this piece. It’s worth a read. It may put some of what Sam Hanson wrote about RDT into greater context and give you an idea that Salt Lake is not the only place where dance, when it comes to race, is stuck in the cold war era, and that even PoMo experimentalist icons can make huge blunders.

One final note: if you read Kathy Wasik’s blog post you will notice that there are over 15 responses. I wonder why most lovedancemore posts get zero replies. Just askin’.

Ishmael Houston-Jones is a choreographer, writer and professor based in New York and is the chair of Ashley Anderson Dances.

5 Comments to “Dance and Race and Post-modernism”

  1. I don’t know if people don’t leave comments because the history of online responses is notoriously unproductive. Look at for some sample comments from the general populus and you’ll see it can get reductive pretty quickly. Just by talking to people after a performance I know that frequently the reviews are not the consensus, even if they represent important (and new) points of view. But just as getting people to write them can be a bit like pulling teeth, getting people to publicly disagree from them is also difficult. I don’t know why other than the obvious — fear of power dynamics.

  2. I’ve read both Sam’s review and Kathy’s post, although unfortunately I did not see either performance. It’s always fascinating to me to read reviews or comments without having seen a work, wondering if I’d react similarly. I think these posts bring up important and very similar issues.
    But the big question that came up for me… Was race ignored because that makes you not racist? Or was race ignored purely because there was not even a thought to racial differences besides the color of one’s skin? Race is a hard subject to talk about, so is ignoring it the easiest route? Am I just assuming race was ignored, cause that’s what it sounds like. I’m sure there are numerous other issues, but this lingers in my mind after reading these posts.

    And I can understand not wanting to comment on posts regarding race, or regarding any opinion actually. As I right this, I know I’m afraid of hurting someone or saying something stupid. But I figure, saying something is better than nothing, and maybe someone can shed some light onto my thoughts.

  3. I think that’s so potent Leah and gets to the heart of the matter with RDT at least (not sure about Deborah at MoMA).
    I think it’s about ignoring race because there seems to be no choice in a lot of SLC dance situations at least. I don’t think a primarily white company could commission an Ailey work for example and be given the rights. I don’t know if that’s true but it doesn’t seem like it would be at the top of the list. Yet Ailey seems one of the most logical inclusions in a “historical lineage show” about American modern dance.

    I know people are afraid to comment about it and so am I. But I’m more afraid watching a Time Capsule that includes no black choreographers. So I guess I’m glad someone said something. None of the other reviews (DesNews, 15 Bytes, etc) seemed to catch on that there was something beyond.

  4. Does art need an explanation for its right to be shown/exist? Should skin color not be used for purely aesthetical reasons in the same way that height, age, sexuality, hair color, weight, and gender has been for years?

    I am increasingly weary of lengthy expositions in dance programs or pre-show discussions attempting to justify a work about to be shown. I too saw Deborah Hay’s Blues performed in the atrium of the MOMA earlier this month and was disturbed, surprised, and intrigued. It is important to note that Ralph Lemon, who curated the series Some Sweet Day, asked of the choreographers two things, one to address the space and second to include an element of black music. Doing so, Lemon created, in part, a study on race itself. Hay’s latest work answered to all of this. The stark divide between the segregated clusters of dancers performing evoked a sobering reminder of the still present divide that exists in both race and gender. Was it scary to watch and uncomfortable as hell? Yes indeed! But, for me, the most important role of art is to raise questions about society, politics, and social structure and sometimes that takes making audience members quiver in their seats. Hay’s verbal response to her work addressed issues of space and aesthetics because thats what had been asked of her when crafting the piece. And, perhaps, because at times art can say and ask so much more than words can. By allowing a verbal explanation to define the ‘meaning’ of Blues, Hay might defeat the whole purpose of the dance itself. Is the dance not enough? If not, then perhaps its mere existence is futile.

  5. Hi Clara:
    I understand your wariness about art/dance becoming too didactic and politicized and not being able to be judged on “purely” aesthetic terms. But I do take issue with the idea that dance can ever be “purely” aesthetic.

    Because the art of choreography (most often) uses human beings as material and human beings all come “marked” in a myriad of ways can you ever see, even the most abstract work, without seeing marked people. By marked I mean we the viewers cannot look at human beings / human bodies the same we look at abstract visual art. How we see bodies is different from how we view oil paint or marble or ceramic. People have histories, emotions, (real or imagined by the viewer), physical characteristics, training and social context. And we cannot pretend that the atrium of the MoMA is some neutral white walled gallery floating in the ether above the Atlantic Ocean. That institution has a (disgraceful) history when (not) including the work of Artists of Color (and women). For example: In a 1997 show “Objects of Desire: the Modern Still Life.”included 71 Artists: 3 White Women, 1 Woman of Color and zero Men of Color. So Deborah Hay, putting her piece Blues in the atrium of this institution had far greater meaning than the complexion of performers’ skin against those white walls. With more thought this could have been a powerful and artistic statement. But as it was, it felt half-baked, ill-considered, and a bit dangerous.

    As Levi Gonzalez responded to the blog post:
    “I found the work problematic on so many levels, and I hope Deborah will realize there is no such thing as a “pure” aesthetic inquiry, devoid of political implications. … I really feel that this was an instance in which a respected member of our community ventures into territory beyond her, and people trusted her because of her reputation, but that trust was squandered.”

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