Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Essay: Approaching Dance, Part III

The Fine Art of Approaching Dance, Part III
by Kallee Lins (Charlebois Post Dance Editor)

[Introduction: Writing and talking about dance is something that intimidates a lot of people.  As a performance scholar (who is going on a lot of dates these days), I am often met with blank stares at the inevitable response to inquiries about my area of study.  Even worse, my conversational counterpart will attempt to hypothesize what the study of dance entails, asking something like, “PhD in dance? Is that mostly routines or do you look at historical and social context too?” 

Setting aside the fact that such a statement is reductive of both dance and academic inquiry, what these exchanges have taught me is that, in the eyes of many people, dance does not seem to function as art in the same way other disciplines do.  We expect art to speak to us, to tell us something about the world, to communicate something that cannot be articulated in more mundane ways. Why would artists spend years learning the conventions and techniques of their discipline and fostering their own aesthetic, and then sink weeks, months or even years into rehearsal or studio production if what they had to say could be articulated in an essay or press release?  And yet, observers continue to believe (whether they acknowledge it or not) that if what happens on a stage, canvas or screen cannot, in turn, be stated in words, then it does not have anything to say.  Dance, with its chronic underfunding and lack of visibility in schools compared to music, drama and the visual arts, is particularly susceptible to this fallacy.

Dance always has something to say, and there is always plenty to say about dance.  We just don’t know how to say it.  

The following is the third of a three part series suggesting ways to approach dance, particularly for those who want to write about it.  Of course, these are only suggestions based on my own experience and most reflective of contemporary dance.  It’s also important to keep in mind that each performance demands something different of its audience.  This is simply a starting point.  And please, let me know if you have suggestions and amendments.  We need to keep building a community of dance-talkers.

Task 3: Knitting it all together

Our ultimate dilemma in the writing process is that we’re torn between two masters – charged with representing the performance as evocatively and accurately as possible on the one hand, and crafting a well-written review, essay, etc., on the other.  What becomes evident through the writing process is that pure description of your viewing experience is not enough; you have to tell the story of the performance event.  Who created it?  Where has it been performed previously?  Is it referencing other work?  Can you guess what the aims of this performance are?  What themes are the artists working with?

Only after sufficiently flushing out what the show attempted to do can you determine whether or not it met its own aims.  Too often, reviewers rush to pass judgement on a dance performance before questioning what the criteria of success should be for the particular show in question.  If you’re talking about a production by The National Ballet, are you going to assess the technical proficiency of the dancers at length?  Probably not.  One will assume that you’re speaking about first-rate ballet dancers, so you can move on from questions of technique to more novel considerations of choreographic innovation within the form of ballet, etc.  

- Read the program.  Seriously, read the program.  Even if the goals of a particular performance seem relatively transparent, there’s often little to be known about its choreographic process short of doing the research to find out.

For better or worse, you’re sitting in a theatre watching a performance following the legacy of postmodernism.  If the postmodern theatrical experiments of the 1960’s taught us anything, it’s that process matters.  A theatrical event is no longer limited to what is visible on stage, but can also be analyzed according to how it’s been produced.  At the very least, knowledge of its production will help to talk about what happens in front of the audience.  Is it improvised?  Scored?  Is it a repertory piece?  Was it developed with community involvement?

  • Determine the dance’s language.  Program notes will help here too.  What styles did the choreographer and dancers train in?  Knowing what movement vocabulary the piece is utilising will help to determine the aims of the piece as well as the boundaries in which the dancers are working.  Remain open to the possibility of doing more research about how this performance fits into the larger canon of a particular dance discipline or choreographer.  Can you talk about a style of dance you’re not familiar with?  Absolutely.  Would I, personally, be able to confidently talk about a performance composed of old school hip hop without doing any additional research about the form?  Definitely not. 
  • Reassess your observations.  Go back to your notes.  With additional knowledge about the company, dance style, or composition process, do other elements of the performance stand out?  Try to draw connections between how the show was produced, and what you saw on stage.  If you know that a show was semi-improvised, for instance, moments of danced unison take on significantly greater meaning.
  • Find and revise your narrative.  What is this show about for you?  Is there a particular aspect of the performance that weaves its way through your observations and descriptions?  Ask yourself what the most interesting and incredible thing about this production is, and make your entire piece of writing about that.  If it’s the athleticism of the dancers that stands out, bring in evocative descriptions of their strength and agility.  Was it a collective creation?  Then talk about the group dynamic and moments when relationships between the dancers really resonated.

    Figure out what you’re really writing about, and edit accordingly.  Revisit those sentence fragments you’ve already flagged as lacking in intensity or adequate descriptive power.  Chances are, they aren’t relevant to your narrative of the show now that it’s developed more fully.  
I encourage you to follow the threads of what really fascinates you about a show, and continue following these threads backward and forward through your research and observation, allowing one to reveal more about the other.  Hopefully, you will be left with a piece of writing that is not a mere translation of the performance into words, but a story about a piece of art that stands on its on two feet. 

Part I of the series
Part II of the series

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