Monday, November 15, 2010

Experimental dance: an open work and a situation

I intended to write on performance art and Situationist events, however, my focus was drawn towards something much more meaningful regarding my own actions and practice: the genre of dance that you can call experimental, postmodern or actually post-postmodern or whatever time it is that we are now moving through in dance (“contemporary” is not appropriate because this refers to ballet-trained dancers performing classically derived structures of modern dance [Graham, Cunningham, Horton technique, etc.]).  For the sake of this discourse I will simply label this genre of dance “experimental.”  In general, this genre of dance performance produces an exploration of individual authorship.  It is an open text of interpretation, a proximal experience to encounter and sense, rather than a rational connection of A+B=C.  Certainly there are motivations and sourced references through which a dance artist generates material, however, rarely are there clear narrative structures that cojole the audience through a storyline.  And very rarely are there coherent “arcs” of drama to follow and expect.  Don’t expect.  Experience.  Often these performances can be incredibly challenging to experience especially when a viewer is searching for a coherent “meaning” within the trajectory of the piece.  An experimental dance piece is what and how you open yourself to experience through its formulation and dematerialization of time.  It impresses through the true spontaneity of its actions- actions that never again repeat identically (if they repeat at all).  These are a few of the reason for which I am drawn to the practice and contemplation of this genre of movement experience other than the fact that for unknown reasons, dance is intrinsically central to my physicality.  In my own performance viewing and in my improvisational practice I approach the open textuality of experimental dance through the gesture and movement of the body.  I am instantaneously imprinted and I also recognize how unattainable the experience is (in viewing a performance and in my own experience of improvising).  Just yesterday I was in a grungy, cold dance studio with several other dance artists and we were individually improvising through cellular initiation (the work is called BMC or Body-Mind-Centering [a little eccentric but very exploratory]) and I thought of all the great material (dancing) that I was generating and that I would never see it or even be able to repeat in the way that I was feeling.  It was completely spontaneous.  Dance without a camera is a completely objectless form that begins and ends with the body in time, even Labanotation is problematic.  Without documentation (especially the moving image) dance ceases to exist and though the vibrational experience of its particulate matter may remain for a fraction of time, the vibration rapidly dissipates.

And so, more concretely how can aspects of experimental dance coincide with the idea of the “situation/event/moment” of the Situationists?  Experimental dance is an urban form of art-making that seizes the moment and enables an intimacy of art and life in unique and intangible ways.  It drifts or crashes in, sometimes spontaneously, through performance and practice, and it drifts or crashes away.  Experimental dance-makers differ from more mainstream dance companies that retain and re-enact a repertoire of pieces.  Many experimental performances occur once, or twice or maybe three times.  Most often, experimental dance performances in New York City materialize in small-scale venues such as Judson Church, St. Mark’s Church, The Kitchen, The Chocolate Factory or Dixon Place (as examples) and disappear quickly.  These performances provide a mapping of New York City that emerges with the body and disperses with time.  And most importantly, experimental dance resists objectified commodification.  It rests on the periphery of the Culture Industry and is only now emerging within the forum of YouTube and company or dance-artist websites.  Even in these streamed representations the mystery of a dance-maker’s work is often retained lest someone appropriate the material.  The images are usually still photographs in comparison to moving clips.  (The exception here is the material posted by Movement Research at Judson Church). The Author is primal in this territory of originality.  And further, a dance-maker’s work must be retained- principally because it cannot be purchased other than through a viewing.  Unlike performance art, dance is generally not for retail sale (other than works being “set” on another company for example) and experimental dance does not exist within capitalist system unlike more mainstream works like those of Twyla Tharp or Mark Morris, for example.  Performance art, once a revolutionary event, soon evolved into a commodity as exemplified by price tags of the products of Tino Sehgal and Marina Abramovic (Sehgal sold his piece The Kiss to The Guggenheim for somewhere around $100,000 and Abramovic has a veritable empire of limited edition photographic prints that cost upwards of $60,000 per print [thanks to the genius marketing of the Sean Kelly Gallery] and numerous books for those of us who are less affluent).   Therefore, if one pursues dance, it is an act of pure love and desire.  The love and the labor are intimate companions although the labor rarely sustains the artist and thus many dancers work other jobs to survive.  They are our servers, massage therapists, bartenders, and hair salon workers (a dancer from Stephen Petronio’s company answers phones and sweeps up hair in the salon where I get my hair cut).  And further, in the United States dance is the most under-funded of all of the arts.

Returning to the concept of the open text of experimental dance, I feel there is a very strong Brechtian influence in dance that began with the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s.  This is the official beginning of “postmodern” dance and a time when dance movement was truly deconstructed and engaged the audience in a way that subverted the expectation for a story or a dramatic “arc.”  This creative movement was truly revolutionary and much of the work produced today in experimental dance is a clear extension of Judson Dance Theater’s provocations towards movement, engagement, audience experience and the “stimulation of the audience beyond passive consumption” (quote from class) and into the realm of critical engagement as well as authorship.

Here are two clips I found on YouTube that, for me, represent the idea of “experimental dance” as an open text.  Both of these works are performed with music- I recommend watching the clips 1st without the music and then with.  The music is melodic and can mask the intricacies of the movement.  Though I admire both of these pieces very much, they are shorter in length and not as challenging as other examples experimental dance work that exists.  This is an example of the limitations of accessing dance-artists’ work (even in this age of technology!).

Clip 1 is a solo entitled “Business of Bloom,” choreographed and performed by Jodi Melnick, a truly virtuosic dancer. I have admired her work and presence since I first took class from her at Sarah Lawrence College ten or so years ago. The background and the stage form a perfect set (as you will see). This is a perfect “straight” document of dance in a long, immobile take. Clip 1 is from a dance festival so it’s a more commercial venue in comparison to an alternate NYC venue .

Clip 2 is an excerpt of duet by Jen Rosenblit/Bottom Heavy Productions with Addys Gonzales entitle "That Sick Sound" with live musical accompaniment.  This was performed at Judson Church.  I respect Jen’s work very much.  As a side note, we just worked on a movement-based film together that I am currently editing with special attention to this notion of the moving and still image/body.

& this is a still from the film I am working on tentatively titled Drop Still


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