Mixed Repertory Program

August 10, New Original Works Festival at REDCAT, L.A.

Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter

The 2017 NOW festival events are presented in REDCAT, a decent size black box theater with a fancy lobby. It’s on the ground floor underneath a major symphony hall (the Disney, natch) and across the street from the Broad Museum of contemporary art—a top-notch address if you judge by the neighbors, and a space making some architectural claims about its place in the art world. The promotional materials on the REDCAT website reinforce the message that we are supposed to sit up and prepare to be impressed. But that’s not why we went. We’re in LA for the weekend and our host, who is deep in the LA dance scene, wanted to come. He had to be downtown anyway to meet a young person he knows through the LA LGBTQ center’s mentorship program, and also out of personal loyalty to choreographers Jeremy Nelson and Luis Lara Malvacías. He explains they’re a transcontinental couple, which means they almost never get to work together, and he wants to support their collaboration.

I agreed to tag along because I am interested in my friend’s mentorship relationship, and also because Nelson has a reputation as a truly marvelous teacher. I’m a touch ambivalent about a second piece on the program called “Butch Ballet.” My host is dreading it rather but I have some hope that its maker might be a person I met at a dance event last year and liked very much. I don’t quite recognize the choreographer’s name, but it all adds up to mean there is a consistent element of queer sociality and community in this outing. Before the show begins we’ve already agree to leave before the third piece on the program. We drove down from SF this morning, we’re too tired to stay out late, and the description suggests it’s going to be very loud.

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Jeremy Nelson and Luis Lara Malvacías, “C.”

The piece opens with what turns out to be its strongest gesture: the two men springing softly into low, travelling hops with their feet in parallel at hip distance and their arms loose. These carry them around the stage in a sequence of loose squares, their feet landing first slightly in front of them, then to the sides and the back. Their feet create a satisfyingly steady 4:4 drumming as they land in emphatic unison on ONE, and more softly on the two-three-four, before their legs swing forward again to mark the downbeat.

The stage is black and bare save for a large screen on which is projected a 20 minute timer and an abstract pattern in green with some movement in it. There is also a potted plant hanging from the flies on a wire. This simplicity gives me a moment to appreciate that Jeremy has a remarkably fluid hop, his legs swinging underneath him with a powerful soft economy. Two stage hands—slender white men in black—come on and dress the stage with white furniture: a table, three chairs, a standing lamp—then leave again along lines apparently dictated by economy: the shortest route on, the shortest route off. The dancers stop their rhythmic bouncing, carry the objects offstage along the same efficient routes, and resume their soft explorations. The audience appreciates this with a laughter that I share. Everyone recognizes the collision of tasks and the need to clear a space for concentration. The stagehands return and repeat. The dancers repeat and return. There is no laughter this time. I normally like repetition and am curious to see how the choreographic relationship between these two contrasting kinds of task-based movement might develop; but it doesn’t get a chance. The music changes, the image on screen morphs into a blue sky with clouds, and the men stop bouncing.

To my mind, the piece could have, and perhaps should have, concluded at any point in this opening passage. The screen got darker and developed menacing imagery. The soundscape got louder and more aggressive. Clouds. Bombs. Fire. Contentious voices talking about God and hell and being an intellectual. For all the intensity of the material, the actual movement got less and less interesting to look at, in a way that made me think they were being deliberately anti-spectacular. I tried to get interested in that but failed. The dancers never connected with one another or with the objects on the set. There were some small exceptions: Jeremy hovered in the act of being about to sit on one of the chairs, for a few almost supernatural seconds that could well have been extended; at another point Luis moved the table just in time to catch a second plant that came hurtling down from the flies and landed with a thud. At the end they turned away from the house and fiddled with devices that lit a pile of vinyl upstage. The glowing result was partially projected onto one corner of the large screen. It seemed possible that there was a technical difficulty that prevented full projection, but since the pile was not very interesting to look at, I didn’t particularly miss its enlarged 2D version.

My notes scribbled on the program say: “it’s a good thing Nelson is such an accomplished mover” and “the less pedestrian the less interesting.” It’s true. The long passages of dance-y movement (in a generic kind of downtown NYC postmodern vocabulary) were so abstract that I found myself longing for the combination of intentionality and a simpler movement.  I would happily watch Nelson brush his teeth, but I could not care about this dance. These artists have sufficient sophistication about the craft of making dances that they brought the thing to a close by returning to that initial springing bounce—this time while banging on small saucepans with sticks—yet the ABA’ structure wasn’t enough to justify the fifteen minutes in between. It looked to me as though the conceptual project of the collaboration had been allowed to take over the stage, with the result that any nascent aesthetic or affective communication with the audience got lost.

Gina Young, “Butch Ballet.”

In contrast, the limited charm of the second piece derived from its absence of polished craft, which made abundant room for the performance of identity earnestness and affective bonding between audience and performers. Here spectacle attempted to compensate for lack of craft and what appeared to be lack of intention about whatever craft was at the choreographer’s disposal. Five butches—or was that 4 butches and a transman? Or two butches, a transman, a lesbian and a nonbinary person? Or…

Anyway, five more or less butch people moved through a series of vignettes “about” female masculinity. Or so the program notes told me. There was bonding in a locker room; competition in a bar; playing video games as an inarticulate form of post-breakup emotional support; a swim party apparently intended to answer the perennial question of what a butch can wear to the beach; building a campfire; and three vintage dyke anthems, two of which were sung live and well. The little dramas seemed to suggest that the essence of female masculinity is an oscillation between  competition and companionship with other butches. The exception came in the most developed vignette, which featured a large pink purse on a high table center stage. One butch began cooing to it to please hold her keys, then her phone and her this and her that; the others came out to add requests to hold notebook, pen, glasses, butch tears, fragile masculinity. The punchline: all the butches say “Can you hold all that?” and walk off.

The performers all seemed to be in their 20s, which might have something to do both with the ADHD pacing of the vignettes and with why my middle-aged companions and I felt a bit protective of them despite our boredom. We were also embarrassed, and even a little indignant. Out of kindness, we wanted to be generous; and equally out of kindness, we wanted to urge them to more rigor. But this wasn’t the place where we could have that conversation. As my friend hissed in my ear, “This isn’t Highways!”—that is, REDCAT isn’t a safe venue for queer identity work; and besides, in decades of going out we have seen this done infinitely better literally dozens of times, in community performace spaces where real creative risk-taking can land well. It was genuinely disappointing to see these people literally half my age repeating the same damn moves I and my peers made decades ago, with very minor development, despite the growth of institutional supports like the LGBT mentorship program that brought us to the neighborhood of this event in the first place, and the material and cultural resources that allow this performance to be staged in this expensive and prestigious space.

And yet at the end there was a rush of warmth from the audience, a sincerity of applause, that startled me for a fraction of a second before I recognized its inevitability. This again is something I’ve seen again and again since the 1980s: the overvaluation of predictable performance because it offers gender-minority bodies live on stage. Such offerings in queer spaces are risky because they so often rely on mobilizing a universal “we” that is easily exploded with simple questions about whose subjectivity, whose experience, whose embodiment is being offered as a mirror to the audience. And in straight venues, they risk presenting queer and trans modes of embodiment as tidbits for consumption in a way that leaves me both sad and mildly offended.

But beyond the question of presumptive audience, which is after all not entirely under the choreographer’s control, “Butch Ballet” displayed a disappointing lack of attention to the history and craft of making performances. Between several vignettes there was connective tissue provided by quotations from ballet class that seem to have been intended to highlight the performers’ butchness by presenting them in a situation conventionally associated with femininity. What it actually did for me was highlight Gina Young’s lack of thoughtful engagement either with choreographic technique or with the dancers’ actual individual capacities: several of these people were interesting to watch in different and potentially intriguing ways, none of which were drawn out for the audience to witness. For instance, in the vignette about inarticulate yet effective forms of emotional support between butch friends, one performer slouched onstage, took a seat on a bench facing us, and settled into a spinal C-curve to play an imaginary video game. The calm authority and naturalness of this posture were utterly persuasive, so that for a moment the audience got to be inside the screen, our attention focused on the competent grace of the hands extended toward us, manipulating imaginary Gameboy controls. But this performance had no interest in exploring task-based competency and the beauty it can create, preferring instead to imagine “dance” as ballet and ballet as a synonym for an outmoded system of gender discipline.

By the time “Butch Ballet” was done I was deeply relieved that we’d already agreed to leave before the third piece. Two weeks later, I’m still wondering about the imbalance between the resources that support the NOW festival at REDCAT and the quality of the arts experience we were offered. The REDCAT website is full of claims about fostering dialogue, yet the only connection I could find between the two pieces I watched was that one eschewed narrative and downplayed spectacle while the other relied entirely on those tools. Surely there’s a way to support experimental work by emerging artists while also curating potentially meaningful conversations.

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First Show of 2017 – How to Write?

Meg Stuart, “An evening of solo works,” January 20th

A good friend pointed out that maybe after 2 years, I don’t have to write about every dance I see anymore. He pushed this point a bit further: “maybe you’ve gotten what you need out of that practice.”

He might be right, but I still strongly believe that this writing practice enables me to participate in the dance community in a way that (I feel) is meaningful, thoughtful, responsive. So do I write only about the dances that inspire or challenge me in some way? Do I write only when asked?

Another thought as I type is to write every week or so either about a dance I’ve seen or something about dance. I’m not sure I can keep up, but it would be a different kind of practice and writing.

As I ease into the possibility of writing more (and less), I offer a brief response to Meg Stuart’s show, “An evening of solo works,” at Counterpulse Jan. 20th. I went with a few friends; they knew more about Stuart’s work. We all agreed that “Blanket Lady” (2012) was the most compelling dance of the five performed. The music, costume, and choreography came together in such an interesting way. I wanted to see the entire piece (maybe I did). That said, what I enjoyed the most about the evening was being in the company of friends, talking dance and resistance.

June 10th, “Manifesting (World Premiere) and Stay (2015)”

Choreography by Hope Mohr

Almost Caught Up

The first weeks in June were busy, but I’m almost caught up now.  I saw Hope Mohr Dance three times last year.  Mohr is a sharp a choreographer curator, and director.  I am definitely looking forward to her work in the 2016 Bridge Project at Yerba Buena Center for Arts in the Fall.  

Mohr is not afraid to think nor is she afraid to show the audience how she thinks.  In many ways, Manifesting, is about thinking, about the process of thinking.  It is also a dance about speech, of calling out and being called. Mohr states that Manifesting, “inspired by artist manifestos, flows from [her] curiosity about the interplay between desires and rules in the creative process.” So it is also a dance about moving between woulds (desires) and shoulds (rules).  Manifest, an adjective, suggests something that is clear or obvious whereas manifest, a verb, suggests the display or show of something.  A manifesto, a noun, is a public declaration of change that arises out of a tension between creative impulses and restrictive norms.

What, then, is manifesting?  What kind of action? What kind of process?

I liked walking into the theater and seeing the stage look different with conference tables, low lighting, and telephones.  It looked more like an office than a stage.  I got a giggle from the costumes as it reminded me of an old joke: what is red, white, and black all over?  (answer: a newspaper).  The written word is referenced not only in the costumes but also in the dance as Mohr incorporates spoken word and singing.  It seems then that manifesting as it is articulated in the dance has something to do with the actualization of words.  The refrain, “please speak louder” amplified this notion for me.  Because I am writing this from many weeks past my watching the details of the choreography are a bit fuzzy and then I wonder if this has to do with the abundance of words in the piece.

I didn’t take too many notes of Stay and when I saw it last year, I didn’t write about the details of the piece.  I remember liking its sexiness and sophisticated movement, and this time, I felt a little less of this.  Why repeat this dance? Why did it’s repetition matter?  I wonder if it has something to do with the need to fill time.  Why not just show Manifesting?  I ask these questions because I talked with a few people afterwards (at the theater and on the bus), and they seemed a little weary.  Did Mohr ask too much from her audience?  Maybe and maybe not.  Even so, I’m still a fan.   

June 11th, “60 Second Dances”

Curated by Melissa Lewis, Choreography by Many

There was a warm buzz in the tiny Book & Job gallery on Saturday night.   On view was a debut photography show, Multiples, by Melissa Lewis.  Lewis states that the “show is an attempt of understanding what a multiple is.”  I came on Saturday night not only to see Lewis’ photographs but also to watch “60 Second Dances.”  Lewis commissioned and curated 21 dancers/choreographers to make one-minute responses to each of her photographs that hung in the gallery.  

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The dances extended the show’s theme as a reflection of multiples upon multiples – an interplay of different parts, an arrangement (or composition) that allowed for more than one connection.  Even Geary St. added a sonic/atmospheric multiple.    

What does a 60 second dance look like?  I’m not sure I have an answer, but for me it wasn’t about the individual dances. I was more interested in how “the whole” of these pieces came embodied a collective response to Lewis’ photographs.  As I moved around the tiny room trying to watch these dances, I started to see them as parts of a larger conversation.  In this conversation, I noticed humor, delicacy, honesty, peculiarity, and others.  The connections made between the dances and photographs were explicit and implicit, as well as reactive and reflective – a speaking of wishes, desires, and whimsey.  

There was something tender about the 20 or so minutes of dance, which might be indicative of Lewis’ personal connection to each of the performers or how her photographs included so much of herself in them.

I wonder how my response fits into the conversation.  Is this response here part of the multiples?  Could I dance it?  I truly appreciate dance experiences that can provoke me to think in new ways not just about dances, but about how I respond to them.   

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May 29th, “The Dionysian Festival”

Mary Sano and her Duncan Dancers, Megan Nicely

Music and Sound by Benjamin Akela Belew, Tony Chapman, and Erick Scheid

Watching my  4 Year-Old  Watch Dance

Yes, I took my daughter.  We went to see our friend, Megan Nicely, dance and were pleasantly surprised to also see so much variety on the program: small kids performed, original works for piano were played and butoh-inspired dance presented.   I’ve taken my daughter to see dance before, and I keep trying.  She got a little tired toward the end (we only stayed for the first ½).  But when Nicely took the stage she focused and even tried to mimic some of her movements – it was pretty sweet to watch my 4-year-old try to embody  my friend’s dancing.  Sometimes the best shows are not necessarily about the dancing as dancing.  Sometimes the best shows are about how they generate experiences that linger.  I’ll never forget this moment of watching my daughter watching my friend’s dancing.  

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May 26th, “10th Anniversary Home Season”

Little Seismic Dance Company, Choreography by Katie Faulkner

Sometimes it’s hard to write about a choreographer or a dancer you know.  Other times it’s easy, and this evening one of those times.  I’ve known Faulkner since 2007; we met shortly after I moved to San Francisco.  I was always struck by her generous spirit and playful sense of humor, which were on stunning display Thursday night.

Aptly titled “Deep Field,” a solo performed by Faulkner, was an embodiment of profound reflection about a history of process and a particular field of communication.  The sonic and visual landscape by Michael Trigilio and Heather Stockton respectively amplified the autobiographical nature that Faulkner so clearly danced.  Even without the choreographer’s note, Faulkner’s movements spoke – each gesture, glance, vibration – from the inside out.  It was personal, but relatable – a clarity of telling that I could feel in my bones.

“Coat of Arms” induced small bursts of laughter from the audience – a kind of seismic response.  The subtle gazes and slight gestures performed with such stunning precision created a witty duet that reflected the universal quirk of relationships.

The last piece, “Don’t Worry Baby,” was harder to grasp, harder to feel.  It was more sculptural than the other pieces and as a result it felt different.  While superbly danced the piece for me seemed a little distant or disconnected somehow.

Faulkner closed her choreographers note “with gratitude,” and that is how I felt at the end of the evening.  I left the theater with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for Faulkner’s choreographic vision and courage to put so much of herself on stage. It was an honor that I can’t wait to repeat.

April 14th, “Program 6″

San Francisco Ballet, choreography by Helgi Tomasson, Alexi Ratmansky, and Christopher Wheeldon

Again

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This is the most I’ve seen of a San Francisco Ballet season since moving here in 2007 – 4 so far and 1 left to go.  Again, a mixed repertory program, and again odd programming.  These three pieces (Prisim, Seven Sonatas, and Rush) were very similar, almost too similar.  The program notes highlighted their differences in choreographic approaches, musical choices, and moods, but these differences didn’t provide enough differentiation between the three dances (for me).  Yes, I had a favorite, but it doesn’t really matter as I am not inspired to write about either of these dances.  Yes, there was good dancing, but there usually is good dancing with the San Francisco Ballet. I don’t mind spending time in the beauty of a dance.  I do mind, however, when that is all there is again, and again.  What is there to write or think about?

After I saw Program 2 in February, (Rubies (Balanchine), Drink to me with Thine Eyes (Morris), and Fearless Creatures (Scarlett), I wrote it was a pleasant surprise, but that I wanted more fearless.  

I am still waiting.

 

April 10th, “Pilot 67, 22:16″

Choreography by Many

 Pilot 67 is a program by ODC that provides a performance venue and framework for emerging artists.  Each choreographer is mentored by a professional choreographer and ODC staff in their artistic work, production, and promotion.  I enjoyed this program last year, but it was a challenge to write about all six pieces presented.  I feel them same about this year’s Pilot 67.  So my responses here will be brief, but hopefully reflective and not merely reactive.

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Dolly would, Garth Grimball

I could sense the thinking in this piece, a commentary of sorts on the possibility and wish of connection.  Why not?  Why not a skinny ballet dancer and a not-so-skinny club dancer?  Why not a silent dancer and a singing companion?  These juxtapositions reminded of Miguel Gutierrez show last year at CounterPulse. The weaving in of Pat Benatar’s “Love a battlefield” made sense as well as the including “would” in the title; they highlighted the why not character of the dance and the sometimes struggle to find (and maintain) relationships with others.  Even though it was a little rough around the edges, I could see the possibility here.

Gen, Ryan, Inez, Dylan, Salome, or Quinn, hers and hers

The literal and metaphorical unpacking in this piece was very particular, but at the same time universal as a narrative of perfection and “in control” was read (and danced).  With the addition of song refrains like “you don’t own me,” the danced asked the audience to fill in the blanks, to supply the cultural assumptions about what makes (or marks) identity, which linked the dancing, narrative, and music.  Like Dolly would, I could sense the thinking in this piece.

Cora, Under and Above, Marika Brussel

The dance world needs more female ballet choreographers, and more female choreographers in general.  There is an on-going conversation out there that I will write about later as lately I’ve been spending a good deal of time watching the San Francisco Ballet.  So watching Brussel’s piece is complicated for me.  While the pieces by hers and hers and Grimball were thinking through or with ideas, Brussel’s piece didn’t articulate the same level of thinking.  I kept trying to figure out what I was watching – why did it matter?

Myth of the Manta, Amelia Uzategui Bonilla

Bonilla’s piece seemed to matter, but more to her than the audience.  I appreciated learning about the textile she used in the dance: “A Cusquerñan textile is the starting point for a ritual honoring the evolving stories of growing up within immigrant culture.”  I had hard time connecting with it, and I’m not sure why.  More story?  Less textile?  

weather // body, Arletta Anderson & Adam Smith

Anderson and Smith created an atmosphere of light and play with their piece.  Their particular mix of wit (sound, text, movement, & light) led me to think about different kinds of illumination that reveal and conceal our perspectives of events, stories, places, etc.

Motion Picture, Helen Wicks

Another piece of more or less.  Choreography that sits between extremes can work. This was not the case with Motion Picture, it’s aesthetic seemed obscured, not illuminated enough toward one extreme or another.  More camp?  Less reference?  Wicks’ idea to the use of movie scores from 1940-1969 has potential, however.

April 7th, “Program 7”

San Francisco Ballet, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck, and George Balanchine

Watching Dance with Dad

Some of my earliest memories of watching dance are with my Dad.  The most vivid was seeing Pilobolus Dance Theater when I was about 13 or 14.  At the time, it was the “newest” kind of dance I had ever experienced.  The dancers slid across a wet stage for their curtain call; they were mostly naked.  It was odd, and I loved it.  As a ballet dancer in training, I didn’t know dance could be so big and different.

So when my Dad came to visit in April and mentioned that he really wanted to see the ballet, we ended up at the San Francisco Opera House for Program 7.  My Dad is an artist – although he might not call himself that – so he sees movement differently and notices relationships between moods, colors, and music that I might tend to ignore while watching dance.  It was fun to notice how my perspectives on the 3 dances moved the more my Dad and I talked about the pieces we saw.

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My Dad really liked Christopher Wheeldon’s Continuum – there was something there to relate to.  Maybe it was the clean stage and lighting or the way the choreography embodied the music.  There was an ease to the dancing that made its abstractness relatable, the “art” in the dance.  In the program notes, Wheeldon states that “audience’s shouldn’t just be entertained.  They should be challenged.”  While I can’t say for sure whether or not I was challenged by Continuum.  I did enjoy watching it with my Dad; he didn’t shy away from bursts of happy.

People are talking about Justin Peck’s, In the Countenance of Kings.  Even Vanity Fair has something to say or rather ask: “Is Justin Peck Making Ballet Cool Again?”  I’m not sure how I would answer this question, but it seems to imply that there is something “uncool” about ballet or maybe that ballet is, as Jennifer Homans claimed in her 2010 book Apollo’s Angels, dying.  Does Peck’s  growing popularity serve as a refutation this claim?   

Underneath the question posed by Vanity Fair is a fear – or the perception of a fear – that ballet is becoming irrelevant or less relatable to our present moment, which begs the question: Is In the Countenance of Kings relevant?  How does it matter?

In the program notes Peck states, “it’s not a narrative, but it’s like a semi-story.”  There is a protagonist, foil, and hero.  The corps de ballet is “the school of thought” and there are three others, Quantus, Electress, Botanica.  I’m not sure the names of the “semi-story” matter, but should they?  In the Countenance of Kings is a “semi-story” of a present moment that is “cinematic” with “freeze-frame kodak moments.”  There is a relatable surface here, but it is just that, a surface that is just skimming the possible and ways of perceiving the possible.  I want Peck to be more than “be cool,” and I want this dance to matter more because I truly like how Peck cuts the stage with his choreography.  For the record, my Dad only liked the second ½ of this dance.

Last on the program was Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.  My Dad really liked this piece – the tutus, the symmetry, the classical lines – I wasn’t surprised.  The woman sitting next me asked her partner if they could leave: “Oh god, not Theme and Variations.”  This begs the question: is Theme and Variations relevant? How does it matter?  For me, it was enough that my Dad enjoyed the dance – it mattered enough at the moment.   

Thanks Dad.

March 17th, “Program 5”

San Francisco Ballet, choreography by Jerome Robbins and Yuri Possokhov

Sitting in Row E.

 

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In big theaters, I don’t choose to sit this close – Row E – but for this performance I did.  Sitting here, I could watch the detailed movements of the feet and even the sweat on faces and backs.  It was a perfect location to take in all the delicate surprises of Dances at a Gathering.  The subtle gestures and weight shifting were delightful, and I reveled in live accompaniment – Chopin.  I could have watched that piece again and again.  It was one of those dances that I could see myself dancing.  I felt close to this piece; I wanted to touch it.

Row E was not the perfect location, however, to watch Swimmer; I am not sure there was a perfect location.  Confession: I did not read the program notes.  Hindsight: I should of read the program notes.  A week later, I am still trying to figure out why people like this piece. I just couldn’t connect with it.  Yes, there was some good dancing, but I couldn’t figure out what the dance was saying or asking. What was I being asked to consider or think about? I don’t mind when a dance makes me work, but I do mind when a dance only seems to be speaking for itself.   

It took me a while to figure this out.  When asked how I felt about this piece my gut responses were, “waste of resources” and “too much going on.”  Yet, as I sat lingered with the dance (including the program notes) for a bit, I realized my discontent was rooted elsewhere.  The program notes suggest that the thinking behind the piece works from “deeply personal experiences,” which are left for the viewer to make any interpretation.  Yet, I didn’t get the sense that I was invited into to these experiences, into Possokhov’s concepts, point-of-views, etc.   Instead, I was just watching from a distance.  

Often, there is already enough distance between the dancing and audience when sitting in the theater.  The differences in watching (and writing about) these two pieces reminded me that the presence and action of distance can matter in dance, which can be deeply personal, highly contextual, and even physical.