Writing

(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?  

 

More Writing and Less Watching

It’s been a while.

More writing than watching, which means I’m working on an essay. Right now I’m looking at Christoper Wheeldon’s version of The Nutcracker (2017). What is most interesting about his version is not the choreography, but the new story written by Brian Selzinz. Can a Nutcracker be made anew?

Selzinz’s story is set during the 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition in Chicago on Christmas Eve, this Nutcracker casts Marie as a fatherless immigrant longing to catch a glimpse of the exposition’s splendors and delights. The fair’s workers come together for a simple but lively Christmas party and are visited not by an uncle named Drosselmeyer, but by The Great Impresario (designer of the fair). The nutcracker doll, given to Marie by The Great Impresario, turns into a Prince (named Peter) to fight the rats that kidnapped Marie’s brother Franz. Marie, Franz, and The Great Impresario then travel on a gondola and meet the Queen of the Fair (Marie imagines her mother here) who grants them entrance to the Dream Fair. Like the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition, this Dream Fair has different country pavilions – Chinese, Spanish, Arabian, Italy, and even Buffalo Bill’s Wild Wild West Show (it replaces Russia). After watching The Great Impresario and Queen of the Fair dance a romantic pas de deux, Marie awakes from her dream back at home with her mother and brother on Christmas morning. The Great Impresario comes back. Marie’s mother seems to blush as she invites him to stay.

Selzinz describes the ballet as “Marie’s dream journey” and hopes that it “will illuminate what is special about all holiday stories…the value of love, the need for hope, and the comfort of family.” It’s a compelling message, yet told through a reference that most of us already know – – The Nutcracker ballet.

So, can a Nutcracker ever be new? I’m not so sure.

A Book Review: Diana Taylor, “Performance”

In May, Text and Performance Quarterly published my review on Diana Taylor’s book Performance.

It was a fun review to write, but not easy. I think there is a lot to say about how Taylor’s Performance moves and what it attempts to argue. Unfortunately, the constraints and expectations of academic book reviews don’t always allow for the fullness of thinking about a text.

Here is a link if you’re interested in what I had to say about Performance.

Watching, But not Writing

 

I must confess. I’ve seen some dance and performance that I haven’t written about. Some of it was just too dull. Some of it just didn’t inspire. And others I couldn’t find the time to write the fullness they demanded. So here is a list:

May 7th Rioult Dance NY, “Bach Dances”

May 6th ODC School, “Uncertain Weather”File_000 (28)

April 28th Risa Jaroslow & Dancers, “Touch Bass”

April 21st San Francisco Playhouse, “Noises Off”

April 6th Wooster Group, “The Town Hall Affair”

February 21st, San Francisco Ballet, “Frankenstein”

February 18th Mike Daisey, “The End of Journalism”

I’m looking forward to Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, “Dearest Home” (May 18 –  20) and Hope Mohr 10th Anniversary Season, “Precarious” (June 1 – 3). And I’m looking forward to writing.

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.

Heading into the New Year – 2017

I wrote a little review of the dance I saw in 2016. It’s not really a formal review, but more so a reflection on my writing.

Oddly, I already have tickets for a few shows. Here they are in chronological order:

Jan. 20 Meg Stuart, “An Evening of Solo Works” at Counterpulse

Feb. 03 Lucinda Childs Dance Company, “Available Light” at Zellerbach Hall

Feb. 21 San Francisco Ballet, “Frankenstein” at War Memorial Opera House

May 07 Rioult Dance, “Bach Dances” at Zellerbach Playhouse

May 18 Kyle Abraham, “Dearest Home” at YBCA Forum

5 performances to watch, and many more waiting to be seen.  I can’t wait.