Unmaking American dance by tradition

Dance Theatre Journal 1 Feb 1999English

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Contextual note
This article continues the discusion begun in Ballet/International/Tanz Aktuell, April 1999.

The list is well known, but every single time you recite it, it is as if its magical power grows, yet again: Duncan, Fuller, Dennis, Shawn, Graham, Hawkins, Cunningham, Paxton, Brown... - the Americans invented and revolutionised modern theatrical dancing, creating new bodily and choreographic techniques for our century, making a new tradition as they line up in a powerful genealogy. No wonder my coming to New York in 1992 was accompanied by unanimous statements from locals voicing how New York was the place to be if I wanted to write on, and study about, dance. I thought they were right. In Europe in the late 1980s, I had already been captivated by the incredible technique and presence of American dancers. This was a time when companies like Trisha Brown's and Merce Cunningham's circulated in European dance festivals alongside a younger generation of choregraphers like Steven Petronio, Bebe Miller, and Douglas Dunn. The works and aesthetics of each generation of American choreographers gave European audiences quite extraordinary views of an energetic dancing body ably preoccupied in expanding its own limits of expressivity. The energy those works exhalted was just incredible, the dances precise, rigorous, self-involved. However, those dances seemed also to be disturbingly fixated around concerns and problems that had less to do with the world where they were in, than with the act of dancing itself. It was almost as if those new Americans in the 1980s were still bound to the modernist concern of basing their creations on autonomy and self-referentiality. Their dances sparkled with energy, but did not illuminate. Soon the sparkles burnt out.

In the early 1990s, I met Meg Stuart and followed her trio Disfigure Study throughout several presentations. Her work presented a totally different American dance form to European audiences. Along with Stuart, a younger generation of New York City based choreographers could also be seen in Europe. Their work seemed to be proposing a totally new line for the choreographic imagination, radically departing from the tradition the bigger companies seemed to represent. Choreographers such as Margarita Guergue, Donna Uchizono, Jennifer Lacey, John Jasperse, and Dennis O'Connor were particularly intriguing at the time, for they all seemed to be staging and exploring, albeit in different manners, a new form for American dance – a form preoccupied in dismantling and problematising compositional and movement traditions based solely on fixed techniques and solely invested in movement exploration and virtuosic moves. I came to New York in the early 1990s trusting I would be in the city just in time to witness, first-hand, the changes announced by Stuart and her contemporaries, a change that promised to be as radical as the experiments at Judson Church had been in the 1960s. My contemporaries, I was sure, would consolidate a new way of making dance, a new way of thinking about dance and the relationship between dance and body, dance and stage, dance and expressivity. Their work had the potential to open up new ways of teaching and writing differently about dance.

Now that the decade is coming to an end, it is clear to me that whatever promises contemporary American dance had to offer in the early nineties, they still lie dormant as unfulfilled potential. This slumbering of choreographic imagination on this side of the Atlantic confirms how tradition is a powerful cultural controller. It also confirms the slow but sure widening of an unprecedented gap between the ways dance making and performing is done in Europe and in America. I call it unprecedented because, perhaps for the first time in this century, practices of dance making and performing are diverging so much on each side of the Atlantic it may soon be hard for an American-trained dancer to find a place in a European company and vice-versa. Was it by chance that amongst all the extraordinary dancers New York City had to offer in 1991, Meg Stuart decided to work with two Portuguese dancers for her debut trio Disfigure Study ?

I propose the following elements as crucial in the systemic unraveling and stagnation of contemporary American choreographic imagination: the historically very long fixation on modernist values and practices; the increasing academicisation of dance creation, presentation, and criticism; the isolation of dance from the rest of the American art world and from the rest of the world at large; the emphasis on technique against performance; and lastly but mostly least, the collapse of federal funding for the arts in the early 1990s. Let me start with modernism.

An insightful critique on the historical dynamics of recent American dance can be found in Susan Manning's review of Sally Banes' classic book 'Terpsichore in Sneakers'. Banes' book traces the genesis and development of the work of choreographers Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon and of collectives such as The Grand Union, who, in 1960s New York City, radically reclaimed and reinvented dance as democratic enterprise. Banes' book attached to those choreographers the term by which they have been known since: 'Post-Modern'. Susan Manning's critique of Banes is as simple as it is illuminating. Manning tackles the very adequacy of using the term 'post-modern' to describe the practices of the choreographers studied by Banes. Manning convincingly argues that the practices of the 'post-moderns' including the Judson Dance Theatre were actually no more than a restaging of early modernist concerns. Manning identifies not only modernism in dance as lasting till the late 1970s, but post-modernism in American dance as starting in the early 1980s, when choreographers started moving away from two defining attitudes of modernist dance: 'reflexive rationalization of movement' and 'opposition to ballet'. It was a short lived post-modernist moment. A moment whose sparkle and potential I saw flickering on the European stages in the mid to late 1980s with Petronio, Miller and their contemporaries. Their moving away from strictly modernist concerns was brief, sketchy, and soon dead. A moment that I saw fully sketched out in the works of the younger generation of Stuart's contemporaries, whose pieces hit the European stages with powerful force, but seemed to make no impact at all back in New York. Mostly because these works were caught up by a historical process that undermined them from the start, and by political, critical and pedagogical environment that did not fully endorse the aesthetic changes those post-'post-moderns' seemed, at least for a moment, to promise.

The historical dynamics that kept modernist practices central in American choreographic imagination were in place in the American dance scene from the 1950s. Those practices crystallised quickly and powerfully as tradition, actually defining the very essence of American dance, its identity. This identity shaped not only dances but an entire cultural system beyond the proscenium stage, the black box, or the rehersal studios to include dance teachers, critics, designers, dance schools, and techniques. In 'The Shaping of Change', Marcia Siegel rehearses a critical effort in characterising what is truly American in American dance. In a chapter titled, very appropriatly, 'Crystallization I', Siegel describes an important element in understanding the dynamics of dance creation in the US. According to Siegel, by the 1950s, both 'training patterns' as well as 'basic lines for creative development' had been well established, 'with modern dance securely functioning within universities as well as in individual studios, and moving in summer to programs based on the Bennington School of Dance'. Such a dynamic of institutionalisation and academicisation only increased in the following years, and have been ever since. As it elevated dance to an art form deserving presence and recognition in university curricula, it also reified one of the fundamental requirements for it to remain in academic curricula: dance became identified to, and isomorphic with, teachable techniques. A dance crystallised around that of a technique evokes the very core of modernist ideology. Remember how Nijinsky dismissed Isodora Duncan: 'her performance is sponaneous and is not based on any school of dancing and so cannot be taught... it is not art'. The fact that Nijinsky was wrong is unimportant, his perception is telling: artistic expression in dance must always be attached to schooling, to a fixed technique. Dance must be bound to (pedagogical) reproduction.

Decades of crystallisation of the American dance scene around academic programmes and schools were further complicated by a more recent event: the crisis in the last years of 1980s in federal funding for the arts, promoted by conservatives in the US Congress. The slashing of funds and the re-structuring of the National Endowment for the Arts had as result the fact that, currently, the major promoters, producers, and presenters of dance in the US include universities and colleges. This is more apparent when one considers companies that do not carry the weight of a name like Cunningham or Trisha Brown or Alvin Ailey. The academic venue as producers and presenter is the last step into crystallisation: from hosts of techniques, to teachers of dancers, from producers to presenters of dance, from trainers of dancers to dance critics; academic self-containment, first just a mirror of the modernist trope, soon becomes the systemic, economic, and pedagogical loop trapping dance firmly within tradition. Moreover, the seclusion characteristic of this circuit further isolates dance from being in the world of arts at large, of becoming something other than what it already has been, of transcending the modernist boundaries of being an ongoing 'reflexive rationalization of movement'. As for Manning's second definition of modernist dance- its opposition to ballet- it is true we have seen in the US such a concern diminish both compositionally and in terms of movement style. We have also seen a move towards theatricalisation, mostly in Susan Marshall's, in Bill T. Jones' and in David Rousseve's work. However, these experiments remain strangely naïve in their structure and dramaturgy and end up reinforcing in their actual staging the very distinction they try to erase. In American dance theatre, dance always remains a foreign body within the piece, untouched by the rest of the piece's elements. Those pieces invariably represent 'dance scenes' followed by 'theatre scenes', and sometimes 'songs', all in a mode quite reminiscent of balletic narrative, or musical theatre. There is always a libretto somewhere. Instead of experimentation, again we have the emergence of yet another tradition.

Dancers from Europe who come to New York usually voice the following commentary: 'It is a great place for classes, to increase the awareness of your body. It is a horrible place to see interesting dance, to increase your abilities as an inventive performer and as an artist'. They are right, mostly. But in order to state in good consciousness that they are indeed right, one must first investigate under which terms they can be said to be right; and what the implications of such a statement are in terms of training dancers, of making dances, and of writing about dances. It is not so much that dance in America is dying - but that the choreographic imagination that creates it is becoming increasingly and utterly different from the European one. This difference creates a problem in spectatorship and performance: American dance becomes, perhaps for the first time in this century , an odd object for a young European-trained dancer already working, training and viewing work choreographed in a post-Bauschian moment. Moreover, European dance is firmly grounded today in the practices of performance, in the shattering of techniques and in privileging the dancer as co-author. Questions of 'fusion' or 'opposition' of theatrical or dance forms (modernist concerns) are not even part of the current discussion.

Another important aspect of the systemic constrains in American dance relates to the relationship between dance criticism and dance. Dance critiscism is a dialogical activity: the critic is an essential partner in making incipient dance movements grow in the public sphere, in voicing such movements emerging aesthetics and concerns, even in shaping the way dances are made. Think of the extraordinary dialogical battle between Martha Graham, in the beginning of her career, with the great dance critic Edna Ocko. Think of the writing of Marcia Siegel on the work of Paul Taylor or Twyla Tharp, or think of how Deborah Jowitt writes on the work of Merce Cunningham. But where is the new generation of dance critics writing on the emerging new work of young American choreographers? Some innovative writing has been appearing in the on-line magazine "Dance On-Line", but it does not carry the institutional weight of a "Village Voice" or "New York Times" in order to form a public (and most importantly a 'presenter's') opinion.

It is at this point that I forsee the formation of an unprecendented schism between the practice of seeing dance, of making dances, and of reviewing dances on both sides of the Atlantic. Demands on the dancer's creativity and skills are increasingly diverging on both sides of the Atlantic in an unprecedented manner. This split marks a truly profound secession within contemporary choreographic practices. In the US, dance remains a manner of anatomical self-experimentation - deeply bounded to leistian paradigms (or its structural opposite as proposed by contact improvisation) with its emphasis on lightness, fluidity, grace, deeply bounded to techniques that crystallised decades ago (Graham, Cunningham, contact); and incapable of thinking itself interdisciplinary if not by the means of the libretto. Contemporary choreographic practices in Europe are rapidly surpassing the Bauschian tanztheater paradigm, with Stuart, Jerôme Bel, Boris Charmatz, Vera Mantero and other choreographers plunging more and more deeply into the logic of performance. Such a logic profoundly implicates presence, and thus establishes a totally different relationship between dancer and choreographer. The dancer must be also an artist, a co-creator, a collaborator, capable of inventing steps as well as styles, techniques even. The choreographer must give up on his investment on reproduction - as opposed to Nijinsky's (modernist) desires, the choreographer's art no longer requires teachability. Rather, it requires an ever renewed plunge into the logic of each piece, into the specificities of each physical body of each different dancer. Finally, if we agree that seeing is a matter of technique, that seeing is a learning process, then the contemporary European dance audience is going through an important sensorial process of transforming its means of perceiving dance as it watches the pieces of choreographers verging on performance. A new configuration for the audience's eye is being shaped, a new writing on dance is being proposed, and a new definition of dancing is being called for, in every new work. The consequences of these changes in perception and creation are definitely relocating Europe as the current stage for dance experimentalism and innovation, after the overwhelming domination of the US in most of this century.