Several weeks ago, the The New Yorker’s dance critic Joan Acocella wrote a piece titled “Mystery Theatre“, ostensibly about the new downtown (meaning New York City) vanguard of dance creators and their supposed links to a kind of choreographic surrealism. She namechecks four artists, Tere O’Connor, Lucy Guerin, Christopher Williams, and Sarah Michelson, who also happens to be a current Walker artist-in-residence and will premiere the work Daylight (for Minneapolis), here on September 15.
And then, on Monday, The New York Times featured a piece by the critic Gia Kourlas titled “How New York Lost Its Modern Dance Reign” , which very accurately outlines the moribund state of dance presentation in America. Most importantly, it serves as a call to arms to accurately, creatively, courageously, and lovingly present the unexpected works being made by today’s most innovative art makers.
The timing of this dialogue is extremly prescient for us now, as we face not only the physical challenges of mounting Sarah’s work, but also to correctly contextualize the spirit in which it’s intended. As a presenter housed within a museum, the obligations to broad audience, education, and the local community remain vitally important, but as a home for contemporary art, it’s also paramount that we remain a locale for alternatives to mainstream and popular culture and critique. Sometimes, and joyfully so, that means presenting work in a way that is completely outside the realms of what is familiar to us. That in turn, can mean an experience that is outside the realm of your standard performance presentation, that’s also unfamiliar to the audience, and might perhaps be on the uncomfortable side. What does it mean? This doesn’t make sense! Why won’t anyone explain it fully? I couldn’t see everything! What’s happening over there?
All valid. And yet, as workers in this ever-changing field, we must also recognize that to know is not always to be correct. What if there is no answer? Is that so incomprehensible and unacceptable? There are many, many accepted schools of thought in the visual art world, an assimilated understanding that art thrives on multiple readings, points of view. Why has this not yet taken root in the dance world? Dance can be about movement, this we know. Dance is also about performance. It is cinematic. Sometimes it’s theatrical. It is often abstract. Sometimes it’s a personal vocabulary that means something to the creator, but nothing to a viewer. It refers to history and influence, or not. It is an object. It is an act. Many times it’s both. Usually, it’s so deep as to be impenetrable. More often than not pleasure was the point. Dance will always be the most complex art form. Dance loves to entertain. The physical feat is glorious. That hand flutter was just cute. Choreography is tyranny. The dance was an exploration, it continues to find its way. I totally got it. The answer was there! I remembered something. No, I felt something. Dance comments. The silence was deafening. It was such a letdown. It is neutral and it takes sides. And yet, you can take it home with you. Not to hang on your wall, but to live in your heart and your body and your mind.
We must be brave, we must be strong, we must be wild, we must constantly ask the question “why”? But maybe we don’t always have to answer.
And here’s Tere’s response to Acocella. Unlikely you’ll see it printed within the pages of The New Yorker, but I couldn’t have said it any better myself:
Joan Acocella had better check her “sell by” date because her article entitled “MYSTERY THEATER/ downtown surrealists” in the Aug 8 & 15, 2005 issue has the distinct odor of irrelevance. Her musings on my work and on that of the others mentioned are so badly observed and so off track that I have to speak up. Through her lack of understanding and her inability to reach out and get information from artists, she joins a group of critics whom I will call “the literalists.” These critics do not know how to read dances created outside the restricted confines of the narrative or musical frameworks from past centuries. What’s more, they don’t do the work of finding out what is actually going on in the minds of artists or what are the contexts in which these works are created. They have reduced dance criticism to an explanatory, superficial, retelling of events steering the documentation of contemporary dance into an impenetrable forest, dark and mistaken. When she called me to fact check, Joan intimated that there was really nothing going on downtown. I don’t know what is more maddening – the dismissive, erroneous idea that nothing is happening in contemporary dance or her anachronistic insistence on an uptown/downtown dichotomy. Her bloated, oracular tone is classic. It is born out of a reluctance to say: “I don’t know what this is.”
In my 23 years of dance making, I have committed myself to examining choreographic thought and making it frontal in my work. I am attempting to detach from narrative and work with dance as a form that documents the sub-linguistic underpinnings of thought. I incorporate parenthetical structures, elliptical time, multi-layered reference, memory play and the dynamics of situation to create temporal renderings of human experience. By temporal I mean passing through time. Certainly, narrative scraps float through the works but it is the nature of the floating that interests me. I welcome the viewer’s projection of his/her own stories on to the images in my work, the attempt to identify topical elements is crucial, yet it is the trajectory of their disappearance – their subsequent return or absence that creates the dance work. I am trying to look at a multitude of disparate elements in close proximity and find the specific music of their relativity. My references come from contemporary culture, pop culture, history, global events and personal history and obsession. I am not trying to create narrative sense out of these. For me dance is its own form of intelligence processing the information of the world in an inimitable way. It sheds light on multiplicity. It doesn’t need a protagonist, doesn’t search to resolve polarities and doesn’t thrive on theme and variation. It isn’t a Rorschach test to determine what story is hidden in its abstraction. It doesn’t need to be translated or validated through preexisting ideologies. To penetrate the “mystery”, Joan searches for an explanatory correlate in art history. She latches on to surrealism yet her attempt to draw a comparison is intellectually porous. The surrealists were rebelling and they were referring to art history, making statements against the status quo. That is not what I am doing. She only sees it this way because it is so far out of her limited world of dance that it looks like rebellion to her.
Joan and the other literalists are crippled by their love of ballet with its addiction to depicting, whether through mimetic platitudes or “abstractions” of themes. It is through this dusty filter that they view all dance. When dance works do not adhere to the clean structures of music or when there is no good/bad paradigm to use relative to virtuosic technical performances, the tone of the writing starts to become pompous and they start pulling out words like abstract, improv, downtown, idiosyncratic and my favorite, post-modern. For a historical moment so thin and mutable in definition it certainly is turning out to be a long period with ever expanding characteristics. Many artists and myself are not interested in creating pastiche. We have detached from dance history -NOT as a rebellion- but out of the natural realization that contemporary culture is changing constantly and that dance is an excellent form to reflect on its vastness and complexity. What is really interesting about contemporary artists working in dance is how hybrid they are.
Joan’s quaint grouping of the four artists in this article is so haphazard it borders on insulting. Why don’t we get our own articles? Is it because of the caste system that Joan and The New Yorker are so committed to? Or is it because we exist outside the limits of her understanding that we are ghettoized inside of a structure built with idiotic bricks.
Oh, look at the time!!
My melting clock says I must go.
Before I go, may I suggest that you get an additional writer for your magazine, one that isn’t so perplexed by new ideas in dance. One who doesn’t find cacophonous any music that exists outside of the Bach to Stravinsky continuum and who understands that the theatrical space being created by contemporary choreographers is crying out for someone who is interested in cultivating a new language to go with it.
So tighten Joan’s corset, give her a candle, send her back into her beloved centuries and let her write endless, numbingly boring articles about how many turns Alexis Whoever did or how skinny she looks or how well Mark Morris followed the score this time.
The rest of us will swim, now, in this.