Month: May 2016

May 20 – 21st “Contemporary Ballet: Exchanges, Connections and Directions”

Special Topics Conference – Society of Dance History Scholars.

I often sit outside of dance studies, yet on occasion I transverse into this vast area of study that can include performance studies, choreographic practice, dance theory, dance history, dancelong-2 criticism, and many other topoi.  My latest adventure into dance studies was a conference on contemporary ballet sponsored by the Society of Dance History Scholars.  The organizers, Jill Nunes Jensen, and Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel, aimed for the conference to continue conversations about the “efficacy of [contemporary] ballet, its history, locality, and relevancy” by including practitioners, scholars, critics and “those who work across those categories as well as in-between.” To their credit, the conference did include a variety of perspectives on contemporary ballet culture, curating, making, and writing.

Over the course of the two days I participated in and listened to different conversations around the field and practice of contemporary ballet.  Not surprisingly, these conversations seemed constrained by institutional frameworks and linear thinking, and I noticed a striving to locate alternative narratives and discourses.  Whether I was listening to dance history scholars, dance program directors, choreographers, or researchers in other fields, I felt an urgency not just to mark or name the field of contemporary ballet but to claim it as if it might be in danger of slipping away.

The first plenary, “Contemporary Ballet, Women, and Institutions,” put three academic directors in conversation – Emily Coates (Director of Dance Studies at Yale University), Jodie Gates (Director and Vice Dean USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance), Jill Johnson (Dance Director at Harvard University.  What struck me about their conversation was a clear turn toward the discursive and yes, rhetorical.  In the varied context of their respective institutions, contemporary ballet emerged as a particular kind of discursive space and way of thinking.  There was a lot of talk about dance practice, but also a lot of talk about the risk-taking “entrapunerial spirit” of dance. I saw this as a persuasive move, to make ballet (and dance in general) more universal and tangible, less ephemeral.  Can ballet and dance survive and be relevant in academic institutions that are increasingly shifting away from the humanities and civic arts?

The second and last day of the conference was a mix of various scholars and practitioners, and looking back on my notes it was hard to call out anything specific that stood out to me. The large field of dance studies seems to enjoy talking with and about itself (maybe most academic disciplines do).  Thomas DeFrantz made this point clear at the beginning of his presentation, “The race of Contemporary Ballet: Interpellations of Africanists Aesthetics.” He claimed that ballet already knows itself or at least it thinks it does.  He might be right, and I could feel it at this conference.  If ballet already knows itself, then why do scholars and practioners feel the need to keep arguing for its history or for marking its (varied) territory?  

If ballet can provoke us to consider the challenges of our present condition (gender, race, inequality, etc.), then maybe it can start to unknow itself a bit more.  Maybe ballet can start to reconsider its search for “the next” balletic genius.  Maybe ballet can start to communicate more about why it matters to others.  There was no closing session, which seemed a missed opportunity for such a small conference.   Without such, it was hard to tell what was gained collectively or how the conversations might be continued.


May 6th, “Program 8: Onegin”

San Francisco Ballet, choreography by John Cranko

Last One

This was my fourth trip to see the San Francisco Ballet this season and my only full-length ballet.  I could feel the storytelling of the Pushkin narrative poem and found myself connecting with the drama as it unfolded out of the choreography.  I think the last lines of the program notes best capture my experience: “it is a joy to watch.”  Even so, this dance doesn’t inspire me to write.  I could write about the quality of dancing, sets, or costumes.  I could write about the choreography or music.  There just isn’t much say.  But I do think there is something to say about San Francisco Ballet now that the season is over.  That, however, will wait until later.   




May 5th, “Tacit Consent”

Choreography by Liss Fain 

I didn’t take many notes for this performance; I didn’t need to.  The idea was simple and executed clearly, and I was able to physically and mentally move through the piece without a lot of unnecessary noise.  I don’t mean to imply that the dance was simplistic because it wasn’t.  Rather, it spoke intelligibly and complexly about surveillance and privacy with a felt playful intimacy that carried throughout the 45-minute piece.

The space at YBCA was divided into four “rooms” by hung walls crafted out of various materials that despite having gaps and slits were illuminated by various projections.  Matthew Antaky and Frédéric Boulay created an impressive physical, visual, and sonic installation.  

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The program notes pointed out that Tacit Consent is an immersive performance installation.  To see and hear everything you must walk about.”  I rather enjoyed the freedom of moving about and within the performance even if it was impossible to see the whole dance.  It was voyeuristic, playful, and intimate.  And the dancing amplified this experience.  The choreography embodied different kinds of desire for isolation, contact, curiosity, etc. by creating purposeful movement that could be felt from the feet of the dancers to the tops of their heads.  Nothing seemed to be wasted.  This dance was satisfyingly fun.

As the title suggests, there is something to consider about how easily we seem to allow ourselves to be watched and how easy it is to watch others.  What power do we “give up”?   To whom? For what purpose?  Even in all the fun of this dance there is a seriousness that lingers –  in the story of Edward Snowden – in the technology of drones – in the security cameras in our hallways.


April 16th, “echo::system – treadmill dreamtime; running in place”

Choreography by Grisha Coleman

I’m used to going to performances that don’t adhere to traditional or formal performance orientations.  I’m used to walking into a theater space with the performance already happening.  I’m used to sitting on the side of a stage instead of in front of it.  I’m used to not knowing where to fix my gaze while watching.  

However, I am not used to seeing treadmills on stage.

I attended this performance as a singular event, but each afternoon before the show  YBCA offered an interactive installation for people to reflect on their impact on the natural world.  I also  learned, that echo::system – treadmill dreamtime; running in place is the second installment of a “five-part epic.”  The first, “Abyss,” was performed in 2003.  This kind of extended thinking was evident as well as a density that resonated between various aspects of the performance, which included 3D animation, composed music, fragmented screens, and a metal ramp.  Coleman’s team included performers as well as multiple designers and researchers perhaps reflecting her orientation as a Professor of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State Univeristy.  As I watched, I could sense this weight of thinking and making.

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It’s taken me a while to figure out a response to this dance.  I’ve been sitting with the program notes alongside the scribbles in my notebook.  I think the weight and density of the piece make it difficult for me write as the dance seems to demand some weight in response.  Hence, I start with a question: where is the human?

In the context of echo::system – treadmill dreamtime; running in place, the answer might be found in walking.  Coleman uses walking as her aesthetic impulse: “The choreography depicts an ambulatory narrative that explores the transitional space between urban and “country”environments by following a tribe as they embark on a journey into a mythic desert.”  The human practice of walking is explored in the dance as a technique and ritual.   The grid-like movements reference urban movement that is layered with various groupings, pilings, and processions.  “The human” seems to be located within practices of mobility that have carved out the earth and segmented society.   While I know there is more happening in this piece I just can’t seem to find my way into its density – could Coleman be thinking too hard?