Author: sfdancematters

Missing Dance

I recently got an email from J Carter reflecting on the felt experience of missing an online ballet class in the midst of missing. I tried finding a quote to use from J’s email, but even a long one is insufficient. Missing is multilayered and nonlinear. Missing brings the past forward and back again but with traces of the present, marking it fresh – or maybe even new – in some ways. Missing as J’s email suggests is a dance. It moves along familiar paths, bodies, and memories but its action is never “the same” no matter how many times you miss a person, an experience,  a dance class, a performance. 

What does it mean to miss dance during a pandemic? 

I’ve been taking online ballet classes on a regular basis since March yet I am still missing class. There is something about standing at a barre in a studio with familiar and unfamiliar spaces, breathing and moving together, listening to voices and music, reading faces and bodies, feeling the warmth of others, sensing the sun streaming from the windows. I miss the liveliness of ballet class that can’t be replicated on a screen no matter how large. I have holes in my ballet shoes from taking class on my wood floors in a space that is “just” big enough for me to move 3 feet or so. I miss how ballet class bridges the physical and social, bodies and emotions, brains, and senses. Even when I take an online ballet class I still miss dancing.

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Recently, another friend commented that she misses watching dance in person:

  • experiencing performance spaces
  • reading paper program notes
  • being part of an audience
  • watching, listening, and sensing dance
  • discussing dance 
  • having dance linger

In other words, missing “living in time,” and its ephemerality. Missing dance as it passes. Missing the absence of a pause or rewind button, the flatness of a screen. 

So what do we do with this missing?

(Dance) Writing in the Midst of Racism

Ballet Boyz, Deluxe: White Men Dancing in the Midst of Racism

It occurred to me that even when dance is streamed live online you usually can’t use a pause function. But when watching a pre-recorded dance or a dance film from home, it’s easy to pause at any time for any reason. Given that my life is mostly lived in fragments right now it seemed fitting that my response to watching Ballet Boyz, Deluxe – a dance film that includes Bradley 4:18 by Maxine Doyle and Ripple by Xie Xin – follows as fragments. The film is streaming as part of the San Francisco Dance Film Fesitveal Digital Season. Julian Carter, a frequent collaborator of mine on and off SFDance Matters, suggested we watch and write a response to this film. So here we go.

M: 

On May 30th I watched the first 13 minutes, which seemed a decent chunk. A Confession: I read Mauyra Kerr’s response to the film before watching. My present context: I am heavily burdened, saddened and outraged by the lack of humanity that continues to spread in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by the knee of white police officer on May 25th. Even though this film was made in March 2020 before the wave of COVID-19 shuttered theaters in the U.K., I can’t help but watch this dance within the current context of racism and racial violence in the U.S.

From the beginning of Bradley 4:18, I really felt the music. It embodied the movement rather than the movement embodying the music. I hope the film includes more information about the music. I’m not sure yet what this means for how I respond to the movement; maybe the movement doesn’t matter. A few ideas/concepts stood out to me in the first (?) interview/documentary section:

  • How can this piece be about humanity when the cast is mostly white men?
  • The piece is based on a single character, Bradley in a poem, Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest.
  • The choreographer of Bradley 4:18 (the first of two), Maxine Doyle, is a white woman.

I seem to be at a loss for how to proceed or even if I want to proceed. Do I owe it to Doyle watch the rest of Bradley 4:18? Why?

J:

I decided to follow Michelle’s lead and pause at the 13-minute mark. A confession: it was challenging to make myself watch that long. My first response was confused dismay. Why had I suggested we write about this? Remembering that it was because I heard that Christy Funsch was going to review it–I’m strongly interested in what Christy has to say, and wanted to see what she’d thought was worth commenting on. Even 2 minutes in I was wondering if I’d imagined that, or gotten it confused with another dance film.

That first segment reminded me of a million things I’ve seen before: men dancing fast ensemble abstractions in clothes that conceal the lines of their bodies. I don’t like unmotivated frenetic movement–a restless inability to focus or locate oneself in space or relationship; and it’s such a standard strategy for containing the fear that men dancing together might engage tenderly or with curiosity rather than with athleticism or aggression. My whole nervous system cringed every time another young white man came up to the camera to show us his more or less expressionless face and then turned or faded back into the group. Each time I was braced for the moment when the lone black man’s presence was going to be centralized so that he could be victimized for our entertainment. 

THEN: We talked it over (in a series of text messages) and agreed that we don’t want to prioritize watching this video. We are tired of the dance world’s insularity and squeamishness about the larger sociopolitical context in which we move right now. From those first 13 minutes, we know it rests on the completely untenable claim that white men represent the Universal Human Subject, and it mobilizes hyperactivity to hold more complex forms of engagement at bay. We just don’t seem to care about watching this film anymore.

Or rather: we care very much about directing our attention to the choreographies of repression and resistance going on all around us. We hold that the simple fact of men sharing a stage isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a good enough reason to pay attention to a dance. Certainly, it isn’t important enough to offset its ongoing reflection of & participation in narratives and performances of white dominance. 

So what next? What do we know, as dancers and dance-watchers, about how to respond to one another’s bodies in this moment when every gesture of proximity or distance carries the significance of survival for someone? How do we move past the fantasy that politics ends at the studio door or in the theater? 

Stay tuned…

On Pause: Dance Amid COVID-19

I’ve been trying to watch dance online, but can’t seem to finish anything that is longer than 30 minutes and much of what I’ve seen seems not that relevant to the present moment. I tried to watch New York City Ballet’s digital spring season presentation of Christopher Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale and got through the first half but never finished it. SF Ballet @ Home is also streaming recorded dances but nothing I’ve wanted to watch. I really wanted to watch all of  Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities, but wasn’t able to get my head into that kind of thinking. I enjoyed Larry Kegwin’s Bolero Juilliard, which is a tight and light 9 minutes of dance and music. In between trying to watch dance and taking online dance classes I keep returning to the same questions: what will dance look like in the midst of the ongoing presence of COVID-19? How does dance keep dancing?

I’ve found some interesting ideas circulating out there. 

On May 13th, I attended a National Dance Educators Organization webinar, “Re-Framing and Re-Energizing: Dancers, Choreographers, and Companies in the Time of COVID,” which features Gerald Casel, Juan José Escalante, Daniel Gwirtzman, Cory-Jeanne Murakami Houck-Cox, Betsy Loikow, Kesha McKey, Dante Puleio, and Mary Roberts. These dancer/choreographers held firm on their commitment to making dance and also saw the present moment as 1) an opportunity to “heal and be still (Mckey); 2) an invitation to pause and consider dance’s role (Loikow); an opening to “reframe capitalism (Casel). The group also talked about shifting more toward collaborations and rethinking how to open studios, theater spaces,etc. Normal wasn’t a term I heard much.

Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, suggested in a South Seattle Emerald article that dance and ritual are “opened” by the COVID-19 crisis: “Our current pandemic could change how rituals function both in the dance world and wider society.” Byrd suggests that rituals are reminders that “perhaps we should just listen.” Byrd suggests that itt is not a matter of “if” but “how” dance will be different. The quiet of listening for “how” might be part of the answer. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Bill T. Jones remarked that he doesn’t know if he is ready for his art to “find the new normal.” Gia Kourlas asked what was left (for performance “without physical proximity.” Jones answered: “That’s what I’ve got to find out.” Jones and Byrd are asking the same question: how do performance and dance evolve in the midst of a COVID-19 crisis that has yet to show signs of easing?

Writing for Vulture, Justin Davidson posits that the future of performance will need to be flexible, versatile as artists begin to “conjure an art made of new constraints in which the strictures of social distancing become expressive tools.” Davison interviewed a number of theater producers, choreographers, composers, and artists to surmise that the next phase of performance will need to think smaller, quicker, and cheaper. This phase, Davidson points out, will be challenged by artists that are unable to work and audiences afraid to mingle. Furthermore, “institutions will stumble, or even disappear.” The global performance circuit of the (recent) past might need to give way to a more locally sourced performance culture that “could produce a whole new set of revelations.” 

So maybe it’s ok that dance is on pause but that pause does not mean there is no movement.  In the meantime, I plan to keep looking and writing for signs of what is to come.

Dance and Dance Writing Amid COVID-19, April 12th

What does it mean to dance and write dance in the midst of COVID-19? Here are just a few reflections, snippets of thoughts that meander across different experiences and readings. This kind of writing, for me, seems most fitting given how I seem to be living in fragments of one sort or another. 

I had tickets. I was excited to share San Francisco Ballet’s Midsummer’s Night Dream with my family and dear friends. Instead, I got a code to watch a pre-recorded version and was sent a hard copy of the program in the mail. We watched on the wall in our living room, taking pauses to explain the storyline to my daughter. I’ve never seen a ballet production of Midsummer’s Night Dream so I didn’t know what to expect. As always the SF Ballet orchestra was divine. I was glad to have seen it but also sad. When will dance return to the theaters? When will audiences be back in their seats? What happens now? 

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Dance moves online. I am almost used to taking ballet barre online. All kinds of dance classes are now online – universities, private studios, dance companies. Dancing Alone Together offers a list of classes streaming on Instagram, Facebook, Zoom, etc. The site also offers choreographic prompts and a list of sites to watch dance online. I haven’t had time to dig around much more than looking for classes to take in my home office space but I wonder how this shift might impact the future of dance and how dance studios are deeply felt places of community. 

Dance writing still happens. It’s been curious to see how COVID-19 has pushed dance writers into different modes and content. Stance on Dance has a series of posts interviewing “dance friends and colleagues” to find out how they are coping and how social distancing has impacted their practice. Jill Randall, Life as a Modern Dancer curator and writer, has been sharing daily movement poems and started a blog series titled “Why improv?”. Sima Belmar, ODC Writer in Residence, has been posting regularly on ODC Dance Stories – interviews with dance writers, personal reflections, etc. These just scratch the surface; what else is out there? I am curious.

This begs the question: what to do about my dance writing?  

 

Gerald Casel, “Dancing Around Race” February 15th

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I hopped on Muni to the Asian Art Museum to catch Gerald Casel’s “Dancing Around Race.” The event included a lecture by Casel, 5 site-specific performances, and a post-show discussion. 

It started with a 20-minute lecture by Casel, “Dancing Around Race; Interrogating Whiteness in Dance,” which provided a framework for watching the 5 dances on the program. These dances “reflect on a year of research” – the choreographers, Yayoi Kambara, Raissa Simpson, David Herrera, SAMMAY, and Gerald Casel, participated in Casel’s year-long Community Engagement Residency through the Hope Mohr Dance 2018 Bridge Project:

“Together they interrogated the dynamics of equity in performance, specifically how the structures and systems of dance presentation are affected by race and power” 

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Dancing Around Race: Interrogating Whiteness in Dance by Gerald Casel. Photo: Michelle LaVigne

I stand in relation to Casel’s work as a white woman and I appreciated Casel’s framing as it encouraged me to consider the multiple ways in which my perspective is (always) shaded by this stance. Casel’s talk charted his journey in curating and creating Dancing Around Race. It was thoughtful, reflective, and insightful and brought into constellation questions, terms, and realities of bodies, dance, and dance-making:

  • Invisibility of whiteness
  • Equity
  • False universalism (as whiteness)
  • White fragility
  • Whiteness as neutral, normal, ordinary
  • Systems
  • Economies

Casel did not hold back. He voiced struggles and frustrations working on Not About Race Dance and the Dancing Around Race Public Gatherings. He stressed the need to keep naming the inequities from various standpoints. I was particularly struck by his list of major dance companies in San Francisco dominated by “white individuals.” 

Casel’s framing lingered as I moved around the Asian Art Museum encountering works in Samsung Hall, the Wilbur Grand Staircase, Bogart Court and Lee Gallery. I didn’t take too many notes as I wanted to experience the dances without distraction. By the time I ended up back in Samsung Hall for Casel’s Duet X, I felt invited into a conversation that had already been happening and at the same time ongoing. Both Herrara’s It’s Always Also Me and SAMMAY’s a technoritwal asked the audience to carefully, mindfully and playfully consider their points of view, and their bodies’ views – they articulated and spoke. With all 5 dances, I noticed direct and unwavering movement modalities that clearly embodied a year of research and the persistence of work. The post-show discussion continued Casel’s opening lecture as the choreographers discussed their movement modalities, offered ways white communities can “decenter,” and considered what it means to unpack white neutrality.  

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a technoritwal by SAMMAY. Photo: Michelle LaVigne

A week later I found myself sitting at a university forum on black women in the academy. They began by asking: “who’s research is considered valuable?” University of San Francisco University Professor Stephanie Sears responded by explaining how her research on “how black women and girls work with and against each other to create safe space, construct identities and empower themselves” was seen as “too particular” and not generalizable enough. With “Dancing Around Race” Casel is asking us to stop generalizing dance and to value dances, dancers, and dance-makers of color for their particular stances, experiences, and perspectives. Casel, like Sears, is a researcher to watch and read.

San Francisco Ballet, “Cinderella” Jan. 25th 2020

 

I took my brother and soon-to-be 8-year-old daughter to see SF Ballet perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella (2012/2013). Choreographed for SF Ballet and the National Dutch ballet, Wheeldon’s Cinderella is a more recent version that shifts the familiar Disney storyline, includes some different characters (and characterizations), and displays sublime lighting. As Steve Winn remarks in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle the combined efforts of Julian Crouch (sets and costumes), Natacha Katz (lighting), Basil Twist (puppeteer), and Daniel Brodie (production designer) “merge in a series of museum-quality stage pictures.” Wheeldon’s choreography is fresh and well suited for Prokofiev’s score. Craig Lucas’ libretto digs back into the Brothers Grimm darker tale to rewrite Cinderella as “being more in charge of her own destiny” (according to SFBallet program notes). On Saturday, Misa Kuranaga danced with a supple strength that embodied a woman that has not given up on worldly kindness nor future possibilities. Writing for Utah Arts Review, Kate Mattingly’s review of Ballet West’s “refreshed” Giselle suggests that there is room for growth and change within classical works and Wheeldon’s version of Cinderella is another example.

Until Act II I was all in, convinced that this was a Cinderella story I could get behind. As I often do, I did not read the program prior to the performance so I was not too surprised to see three princesses and their attendants representing the countries of Russia, Spain, and Bali. I get that Prince Guillaume’s parents want to marry him off and expect that princesses from other countries are likely to be involved. I’m baffled, however, as to why Wheeldon chose to make these princesses characterizations; their costumes, movements, and inflections remind me of cringe-worthy moments of the many Chinese or Arbarian variations I’ve seen in The Nutcracker. Just check out minute .43 in SF Ballet’s trailer for Cinderella. Ballet can and should do better with not only re-thinking Disney storylines but also unthinking the cultural appropriations embedded within ballet’s history. If the Balanchine Trust can allow alterations to its Chinese variation in its Nutcracker, then I would like to think that contemporary choreographers can do the same, and should.

Keith Hennessy/Circo Zero, “Sink” November 2, 2019

Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter

I’m not an uncritical Keith Hennessy fan—are there any of those? He’s not an easy artist. He puts himself out on the edge, he asks his audience to join him there, and he doesn’t give you a spoonful of choreographic sugar to help things go down. I don’t always enjoy his shows, exactly. But I go back because something in every Hennessy performance makes me feel with a sharp clarity that lodges and persists for years. So on November 2, I chose “Sink” over significant competition: the Maryinski was doing “La Bayadere” at Zellerbach Hall, and the world’s largest queer country-western dance festival was hosting the Sundance Hoedown at the Regency Ballroom. I made the right call. “Sink” was a magical evening.

The evening began softly with a typical Keith welcome. He wandered back and forth as people were getting settled, saying hello, offering paper cups of lemon- ginger tea with an optional splash of Jamison’s. Rows of plastic chairs faced a curtain made of used blue plastic tarpaulins artfully draped from the ceiling in huge swags. As we settled, Keith made a detailed and specific acknowledgment of our presence on unceded Ohlone land; then he asked us to turn to strangers to share our hesitations, confusions, and resistances to this relatively new social ritual that asks us to consider our involvement in the ongoing history of invasion and genocide. I admit I am sometimes wary of land acknowledgments made by white people, who can use them to signal their own wokeness, so I especially appreciated the opportunity to have this discussion. And in this case, the ritual seemed vitally connected to the work. “Sink” is a summons to pay passionate attention to the enormous violence of this place and time.

The first movement began with a short solo executed atop a small stool in front of the blue tarps. Dressed in white and gold and crowned with a bright wig, Keith danced to his recorded voice speaking about the rich who are claiming our country as their own. Constrained by his tiny stool-stage, the movement flowed upward through his hands and head in complex and mesmerizing counterpoint to the sharp, even biting quality of the analytic text. When he observed that for indigenous activists an environmental award is a death sentence I felt my stomach drop. When he said “It is much easier to open prisons than to shut one down. I wish the same could be said about hearts and minds” the bodies around me rustled like leaves responding to a wind. 

The blue tarps rose on a stage-space startling in its sudden revelation of piled orange: he explained that these were life vests, from Lesbos, where he will be going to participate in Ai Wei-Wei’s 1000 person opera on the beach responding to the global refugee crisis. Keith migrated us watchers onto the floor and took the time to make sure everyone had the seating they needed before the tarps descended and we were enclosed with him on the stage. A few of us used the vests as cushions for a while; there was no chastising irony here, no sense of mockery at our presumed complacency about our unearned good fortune, but instead, a profound welcome to our place in the circle of mourning for a world both drowning and on fire.

I’m groping for a way to explain the emotional and political significance of the ritual Keith offered here. The best I can do is put the dance in relation to powerful memories of past gatherings in moments of great collective pain. At the end of October 1984, seven months after HIV was isolated as the cause of AIDS and the week before Raegan was elected to a second term, I walked a silent night path through an oak wood to observe Samhain with a temporary coven gathered by a Welsh witch. At the end of January of 2017, I joined a thousand strangers thronging San Francisco Airport’s international terminal to reject the Muslim ban’s claim that we must buy security with cruelty. On November 2 Keith gathered a hundred of us around the marley in Joe Goode Annex on Dias de Los Muertos to cast a spell for all our kin harmed, betrayed, abandoned, left to die.

Each of the dance’s six segments had its own ritual power. In one passage Keith’s movement was mirrored by a much younger body, supple muscles round and full under his white hood. They danced to abstract sound distantly derived from Nazi death metal, side by side, upside down, twining their ankles around their own feet, suspending themselves on their flanks in a gesture like a shared howl. Worlds folding into one another. In another segment, Keith sat on the floor and accompanied himself on a droning squeezebox as he chanted a long song about mass murder: “Why pick up a gun? You can’t protect yourself. You know it can happen here. It is happening here.” From my angle of vision, he was framed by two pairs of men leaning against the wall across from me. They had settled into matching spoons, one in each pair cradling the other against his chest. Their faces shone with tears. Around the room, many others were holding hands as Keith sang the litany of murder: “A knife a gun a bomb a backpack a truck that is a bomb a body that is a gun.” Christchurch, Gilroy, Paris, Charlottesville, London, Orlando. The list goes on and on. He brought us the news of our common vulnerability, the bitterness of frustration and fear, our shared inheritance of mistrust “like ghosts, like bruises, like terror.” 

It’s an enormous tribute to Keith’s compositional skill that he could and did transition from this appalling encounter with violence and despair into three more segments. One featured Keith bounding goatlike on spring stilts, crowned with ivy in a bright corset woven of Maypole ribbons, matching his young partner’s grand allegro to Sylvester’s iconic “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real.” The woman next to me was doing a shoulder dance. When the music dissolved into a stormy industrial grind the smiles dissipated and the performers, no longer mounted by the gods, panted hard as we all remembered gravity’s burden; but then Keith swung himself into the air, into a song of love and freedom suspended on a stream of blue and green light punctuated with silver shapes as reflective as crumpled aluminum foil. As he slowly rotated head down the people across from me looked like they were gazing up into an aquarium, absorbed in timeless blue. 

 There is no way to conclude. The world we inhabit is very far from stable – climate chaos, fascism rising, endless incarceration and inevitable extinction. Some of us are surviving and some are not. Keith can’t wrap that up for us. But he has wrapped himself around it and wrapped an audience around the work. For 37 years in San Francisco Keith has helped create and sustain a community that can receive this beautiful ranting. “Sink” is the work of a fully mature artist embodying his place and time with integrity and breadth. Happy 60th birthday, Keith. Thank you.

(in)Visible, Jess Curtis/Gravity, Thursday, Oct 3rd, 2019

Guest Blog Post by Megan Nicely

I couldn’t attend Jess Curtis/Gravity’s (in) Visible at CounterPulse (Oct 3-6 & Oct 10-13) so I asked Megan Nicely to write a response. I Posed three questions and Nicely offered three compelling answers.

Did you feel that the dance was able to engage you differently without being able to see it? In other words, how did the dance “dislcoate[d] vision from the center of your experience?

I’ve attended Jess Curtis/Gravity’s work for many years. I’m engaged by the questions Jess asks and always curious how he will address them. In general, I would say that he begins with the body and looks for ways to expand or test different thresholds of experience and perception. He often works in collaboration with performers and other artists, and more recently philosophers. Reflecting on the performances I have seen, I observe a gradual shift from a focus on the performer’s body to increasingly include those of audience members as well. The recent piece (in)Visible is designed with this perspective in mind. The promotional materials ask: “How do you experience a performance? By seeing it? What if that’s not possible?”

The night I attended I was part of a much more diversely abled audience (at least based on albeit limited visual markers), which already speaks to some of the politics of Jess’s work. Audio Description and ASL interpretation were made available, and the visual experience I did have as a seeing person was enjoyable–six dancers’ skillful navigation of the circular and narrow spaces through the scattering of audience chairs, which heightened my kinesthetic sense. Throughout the evening, I appreciated having time to attend to my own audience body. I was not asked to participate in the ways some immersive experiences demand, nor was I simply watching a spectacle. By addressing what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible,” (in)Visible speaks to the politics of dance aesthetics and challenges audiences to find meaning in new ways. 

After experiencing the work, however, I found myself grappling less with other sensory modalities than with the space left by the demotion of vision, and what came in to fill its place. I find that the above promotional questions can be taken in several ways: first, they ask how artists might expand the art form to include multiple access points and varieties of sensory awareness, but they also ask what we can learn about vision’s role in dance by destabilizing its hierarchy. Because this work was designed less to give a seeing person a new experience than to include a non-seeing audience, I did find myself constructing meaning in new ways. In this particular piece, speaking stepped into vision’s location, accompanied by some less dominant touch as air, a prop, or a performer made subtle contact. This dominance of the voice stood out to me, not because I necessarily consider dance to be “nonverbal,” but because language, like vision, is a tool of power that can make explicit or invisible certain experiences. This choice interested me.

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(in)Visible by Jess Curtis/Gravity. Photo: Robbie Sweeny

What did you take away from the dance? What questions linger?

First and foremost, as an audience member, I felt well taken care of. Prior to entering the theater we were each given a glow stick and were instructed that if at any time we felt uncomfortable or needed to leave the performance, we could simply break it, signaling a desire to exit. We were also greeted by performers as we looked for seating in the groups of chairs arranged on and around the periphery of the stage, and were reminded several times during the show that if we did not want to be touched by a performer, even if we had chosen to sit in an interactive chair, we could opt-out. These tactics set the tone for performance in the age of consent, where crossing conventional theatrical boundaries in order to shock audiences out of a “false reality” were instead approached with caution, suggesting not tamed performance so much as a new training of how to bring an audience body into a performance experience. Maybe it’s time to update Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty for today’s age?

What lingered after the performance was that these consensual audience interactions did not lend agency to the audience, except in refusal by saying “no.” Those in the participatory seats were manipulated like puppets or props, with often humorous commentary (“I am taking off the subject’s shoes,” “I am looking for the subject’s phone”). The specifics of these interactions were articulated verbally just before they happened, a skillful consent strategy. However, they were not questions but statements (although I did experience a whispered personal exchange next to me between a performer and audience member as the performer attempted a more ambitious move–standing on the audience member’s thighs–whispering as they ascended, “ok?”) I was awakened to the vast range of performance strategies for connecting with audiences without merely eliminating boundaries altogether. Here, the lines between the performance of consent and actual consent were blurred–as they often are in “real life.”

Does the dance resonate with any social/political issues out there right now?

The piece left me questioning what seems to be a problematic issue in our human social world: ambiguity. Not only are there grey areas of meaning and interpretation, but even when seemingly “factual” or descriptive, statements and actions do not always line up. Anyone who has stepped briefly into performance theory knows that the performative–when “saying something is doing something”–can either be truthful or in J. L. Austin’s words “infelicitous.” It is only truthful when socially agreed upon and repeated so that others understand it as such. While not performative per se, (in)Visible was a beautiful example of truthful alignment. Even when phrases themselves were more abstract or interpretive rather than descriptive–i.e., “I am not ignoring the subject” while dancing close by–there was little question that what was said and what was done were in agreement. 

The alignment or word and deed is increasingly rare and often not the case. Different interpretations of words and actions populate today’s headlines. Words and movements can lie, as well as tell truths, depending on context, and with the rapid changes to these contexts, it is no wonder we don’t quite trust either words or actions very much at the moment. Will removing vision–and speaking for that matter–lead to other kinds of centralized experiences, both in performance and outside of it? While a welcomed change, do proceed with awareness. Lest you surrender all visual capacities, the digital audience survey, which earned one a free drink, did not allow one to “opt-out” of any of the questions. I guess that is the price for diverting attention to other sensorial desires. 

 

The Classroom, September 7th

Alyssa Mitchel’s The Classroom is an hour-long dance that centers on Mitchell’s past frustrations as a student, her work as math skills tutor, and 26 interviews with teachers and students at 5 different schools in the San Francisco Bay area. I attended the world premiere on Saturday, September 7th at the ODC Dance Commons. In development for 18 months, The Classroom reflects the ways in which personal experiences often translate into research questions that can drive creative processes. While the piece included audio recordings from Mitchel’s interviews as well as recorded essays from students at the Urban School of SF, dance seemed to be the primary vehicle by which Mitchel sought to engage with issues of frustration, questions of intelligence, struggles with learning disabilities, and more.

Mitchel’s commitment to her project is undeniable and the messages clear. The dancing by Jessica Bozzo, Jessica DeFranco, Sierra Heller, Franke Lee III, Nicole Maimon, Tayler Kinner, and Katherine Newmann was equally committed. They danced 9 different sections in various formats demonstrating their emotional range and technical precision. Most of these sections directly corresponded to Mitchel’s research. “Frustration” and “Defining Intelligence,” for example, both relied on audio from interviews with students and teachers. I had the pleasure of responding to these sections as part of the ODC Pilot Program (#70 and #71 respectively). In the current production, these two sections were altered slightly, the difference slight, but noticeable. Previously, both sections included video. This time, audio excerpts replaced the video in “Frustration” and only music accompanied “Defining Intelligence.” This change amplified the visual field of the dance and directed the audience toward the movements and dancers, creating more space to observe the kinetic relation between words and bodies.

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

The inclusion of spoken word – live, audio, video – is not new in dance. Neither is research-based dance making. I admit this is an overly broad category. For example, Bay Area Artists such as Hope Mohr Dance, Keith Hennesy, Joe Goode, others often use words in their dance and performance works. So as I sat watching I kept thinking about the relationship between the audio recordings and the dancing. Why bring dance to these interviews? What (and how) does Mitchel’s choreography add to the concepts, questions, and reflections articulated by the audio recordings?

The first section, “Frustration,” as I noted in a previous response, “embodied and expressed the myriad ways frustration manifests – as small fits, exhaustion, isolation. The dance also served as a reminder that we are not alone, especially when it comes to learning and the structures that constrain that process.” The movements in this section amplified rather than duplicated the content of the interviews. For example, one dancer slowly moved backwards on their hands and feet – crawling – while the other dancers moved more freely, which highlighted the different paces at which people learn. This nuance, however, wasn’t always the case in other sections. 

In The Classroom, Mitchell included 4 sections titled after 4 students from the Urban School of San Francisco – Maia, Ben, Eloise, and Alexa. Each of these sections included recordings of those students talking about their experiences in school; they seemed to be reading essays that they wrote. The third one, “Eloise’s Reflection” really hit me as a teacher – the words overtook the stage and I didn’t notice much of the dancing. “Alexa’s Reflection,” 7th on the program, seemed to work better. Maybe because the spoken essay was more emotive and lively. Maybe because the choreography embodied more subtlety. This is the challenge when choreographing with spoken word  – not to be too literal or too abstract. The last piece on the program, “Recess,” while fun and playful didn’t bring us back to the dance’s messages about learning. Why end here? How does the concept or activity of recess offer us a conclusion? How does it send us out of the theater?

 

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

I want to close with a final reflection on audience. As a teacher and parent, I can relate to a lot of the content in The Classroom, but I’m not sure this dance was choreographed for me. Where does this dance belong? Who does it belong to? Mitchel already has an answer: “I think it would be cool to show this work in schools.” I don’t disagree and I hope that happens. The Classroom has a message that still seeks an audience. That audience, I have no doubt, is eager and waiting.

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Lavender Country, April 25th Post: Ballet

Writing with Julian Carter

Post: Ballet’s Lavender Country is named after the first gay country band and album of the same title, released in 1973 and re-released in 2014. The ballet premiered in 2017 and returned to San Francisco’s ZSpace in April 2019. It’s 2.1 miles from ZSpace to the dance hall at 550 Barneveldt, where a thriving 20-year-old LGBT country-western dance community meets twice a week. Your $5 entrance fee includes access to lessons in two-step, country waltz, West Coast Swing and line-dancing; there’s a Two Left Feet Club for total beginners, Line Dance Pro for advanced dancers, and hours of open dancing. It’s home to a nationally respected line-dance choreographer and a competitive dance team. Each fall Sundance hosts the four-day Stompede, the largest gay country-western dance event in the world.

If you’re wondering what that has to do with Post:Ballet’s performance, the answer is not nearly enough. The show revolved around Patrick Haggerty, the original lead singer/songwriter on Lavender Country who performed in front of an energetic and skillful band while the Post:Ballet dancers moved in the dance space just below the band stage. Between songs, Haggerty spoke directly to the audience telling stories about coming out, talking with his father, losing friends to AIDS, finding a husband, and more. His performance of live memoir was often compelling—poignant and funny, and occasionally a little embarrassing in its earnest articulation of political visions now decades past their sell-by date. But neither the music nor the historical culture from which it sprang found reflection in the underwhelmingly generic movement.

Lavender Country looked like it was made by someone who lacked connection to the material and had no real interest in the technical challenges of building dance that speaks queer culture, sexuality, and politics—present or past. It showed little awareness of country-western dance and its traditional structures, rhythms, vocabulary or spirit. Haggerty’s music wasn’t originally made for dancing but it’s expressive and emotionally vivid. It’s also fun. Vanessa Thiessen’s choreography was not. Its affective and aesthetic flatness might explain why we found it difficult to stay connected with the dancing.  

We came to Lavender Country interested in how Post:Ballet would embody gay country-western music. We’d been investigating Rodeo (both de Mille and Peck versions) and talking about gender and race fantasies embedded in musical references to the American West. We thought Lavender Country might fuel our larger conversations about heteronormativity and whiteness in dance. That didn’t happen. In fact, we were unable to discern any real conceptual structure for the piece. We were especially puzzled by a cringe-worthy sequence to the song “To a Woman.” Haggerty explained that this love song was written and first performed by a lesbian member of the original band. Then all the musicians and five of the dancers left the stage, the lights went down, and a single dancer rolled and writhed on the floor to a recording from the original album. Even well-danced, it was difficult to imagine how this exaggerated and angst-ridden isolation could possibly express anything but resistance to desire and romance between women. Instead, it seemed to recycle the tired old assumption that lesbians die alone.

When we sat down to write this response we looked for other reviews of the dance from its 2017 premiere and found nothing. This seemed strange to us given the strong culture of queer dance and performance in the Bay Area. It left us wondering why this dance was overlooked by area dance writers. To us, this piece seemed in desperate need of post-performance reflection and thinking.  After the show, we talked with a number of LGBT people who were equally disappointed. A two-step dancer of many years told us that he felt two conflicting urges–one to let his critique rip, one not to badmouth–and reflected that both responses felt like they came from a gay place. A professional modern dancer disliked what he saw as inappropriately heteronormative pairing and asked how this composition could bill itself as radical in any way. And a relationship coach, who doesn’t have much experience with dance, asked in all innocence why nobody had pointed this was a bad idea. It’s a legitimate question, and the answer is larger than this review can hold.

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The After Party:  Lavender Country, ZSpace April 2019. Photo Credit: Michelle LaVigne