Non-review: Isadora Duncan shows us how it’s done

[“Non-review” means a blog post which focuses on a specific dance show or performance but does not offer a review or criticism of the work. Instead a non-review explores issues or ideas within dance that the work brings to light or discusses questions stirred in some way by the performance. My aim is not to rate the work as an individual piece but to frame it in the broader context of dance analysis and history and allow it to spark deeper conversation.]

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of viewing a performance by Word Dance Theater, a DC-based company dedicated to “preserving, illuminating, and building upon the philosophy and choreography of Isadora Duncan” through education and performance. Led by Artistic Director Cynthia Word, the company performed a mixed program of restaged Duncan works as well as original pieces influenced by the spirit and movement style of Duncan’s choreography.

To be completely honest, I did not get a ticket to see Word Dance Theater but to see my friend perform in the other company that shared the evening performance. And in fact, my friend and I were joking before the show about the skipping about in tunics and melodramatic posing I was going to have to endure before seeing her own company perform.

Boy, was I wrong.

Instead of antiquated movements and gestures and repetitious flouncing about (expectations created from pictures and bits of video on Duncan I remembered from undergrad), what I experienced was some of the most clear, unadulterated, powerful dance I have ever seen.


Assessment of American concert dance world: Needs Improvement

I have seen the dance world from multiple perspectives. I have studied dance most of my life and performed, choreographed, and taught dance. I have learned about dance (with a degree to show for it) and read, thought, and written about dance. I have worked in administrative roles for dance education, presenting, and service organizations. I have engaged with Dance/NYC, Dance/USA, the Congress on Research in Dance, the Arts and Business Council, and the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. I live in New York City where I see dance performances and hobnob with a variety of dance professionals on a regular basis.

And my consensus from observing the dance world from these diverse vantage points is: 1) I love it; I believe in it; I’m not done with it, and 2) It needs a lot of work if it wants to grow and sustain.

I have compiled here a list of problems or areas that I think need improvement in the large context of concert dance in the U.S. I have been thinking about these things for a while, but when I went to actually write down a list, I was surprised that I came up with so many – 20 in total. Because of this, I decided to divide them into categories, so that the full list wouldn’t be as overwhelming. Thus, here is my current list of areas of need for American concert dance

Coming together

  • There is not enough connection and caring among the different sectors of the dance world. I often refer to the 4 A’s and an E: Artists, Administrators, Advocates, Academics, and Educators. I feel that there need to be communication bridges between each of these groups as well as mutual respect and concern for the health of each sector.
  • Specifically, academic researchers and writers tend to be very exclusive. I spoke about this in my review of the Congress on Research in Dance conference last November. I particularly wish that academics were more inclusive of the rest of the field in their studies and also shared their findings with a broader audience, sparking positive change by sharing the knowledge with those it actually affects.
  • Once connecting bridges are established between the different sectors, there needs to be more discourse among people in dance. We need to come together to talk about issues and discuss solutions.
  • I feel dance writers could play a critical role in helping this discourse to happen – using media platforms to bring up topics and engage conversation (not just providing dance criticism). In order to do this, though, we need more opportunities, support, and compensation for dance writers.
  • To fully bring everyone to the table and working together to promote change, we may need to improve our current service organizations and possibly create new ones. For example, I think the Dance Critics Association and Dance/USA could benefit from clarified missions and rejuvenated energy. And with so many separate organizations for each professional group (though each useful), is there need for a national umbrella organization for all things dance, to at least bring representatives from each community together for cross-conversation?


Dance and Theater, can’t keep their hands off each other

Dance and theater. Theater and dance. That ever-flirtatious duo. It seems that the two are being seen together quite often these days when it comes to contemporary performance. Which is why the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD) decided to join forces with the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) for their annual conference, specifically focusing on the special relationship between the 2 forms. This week in Seattle, both organizations are coming together for plenary sessions and paper presentations to thoroughly discuss the dynamic duo. And I’ve come out to join in the fun (fun that only nerdy dance people can really appreciate).

In tandem with the conference, I am taking part in a small research group, which is exploring the theme of the conference specifically through the lenses of creator, performer, and audience member. We’ve been discussing online over the last few months and we will be meeting this week to put together a final report of our conclusions. Though I will speak more about the results of our meeting (and the conference as a whole) in future posts, I’d like to share first some of the questions we have been exploring.

From the creative perspective, what are the benefits of using various forms in a work? And what can go wrong when a dancer speaks or an actor moves? How does a creator ensure that all components are used carefully and effectively? How does one overcome difficulties of training actors or dancers to engage in an unfamiliar discipline? Though each work may be different, is there a certain formula that works best for creating hybrid works – one creator or a team of creators? Performers from one discipline or a mix of training backgrounds?

On the performing side of the coin, is it possible to successfully direct dancers to act and choreograph actors to move? Is there a need for special training programs that prepare “double-threat” performers, equally competent in both disciplines? Can performers from different backgrounds settle on a common rehearsal process? What would an effective rehearsal process be for multidisciplinary works that involve collaboration?

Lastly, focusing on the audience, could hybrid works actually garner a separate audience/following? How could people be convinced to open up to something new and experience multidisciplinary works? How do we market them? Could they ever become mainstream and rise above the “experimental” connotation? How do we deal with infrastructure difficulties, such as limited events listings and segregated performing spaces?

A few weeks ago, when I attended The Bessies, I noted that most of the pieces that received awards were not pure dance works, but actually highly diverse works that included text, acting, or other theatrical elements along with the movement. It seems that this trend of marrying theater and dance on the same stage has been happening for a while and will continue on, as more and more choreographers and directors desire to push the boundaries of singular forms. But as the form progresses, it’s important to take time to think about these questions (and more) in order to really grasp what’s going on and help the unique form to reach its full potential. Stay tuned for how my research group decided to answer some of these questions, as well as notes from the rest of the conference.

UPDATE: For my follow-up post on the conference, click here.

New York City is not the center of the (dance) world

Dance Magazine does a wonderful job of highlighting dance that is going on all around the country. In January, it published a feature article on Atlanta, Georgia and its growing dance scene. I remember being so shocked and excited to hear how much dance was happening in Atlanta, how it was developing into such a strong dance presence in our country. Who knew Atlanta would be the next “it” place to dance in the U.S.?

Personally, I have chosen the oft-traveled road by rooting myself and my dance pursuits in the longstanding cultural behemoth that is New York City. And admittedly, I sometimes get swept up in the city-centric egos of fellow New Yorkers. So when I come across an article like the one in Dance Magazine, it serves as a great reminder that NYC is in fact not the center of the world and certainly not the center of the dance world.

When I attended the Dance/USA conference a month ago, one of the best break-out sessions that I went to was entitled “Thriving Outside of America’s Cultural Hotspots.” (I spoke briefly on it in my post of conference highlights.) The session turned out to be a great look into dance communities not considered to be in typical dance “hotspots” of the U.S. The four panelists were Ruby Lockhart with Garth Fagan Dance in Rochester, John Malashock with Malashock Dance in San Diego, John Michael Schert with Trey McIntyre Project in Boise, and James Sewell with James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis. Through the moderated discussion, the panelists explained the benefits and challenges that each company faces in their particular cities, as well as the specific strategies used to build their audiences. While they certainly discussed plenty of difficulties in finding support for their companies, I was quite surprised by how many unique advantages also came from setting camp in a less-established artistic community. At one point, John Michael Schert explained that their dances were treated like local celebrities, getting recognized at the grocery store, and that if you got in a cab and said you wanted to go to the Trey McIntyre Project, the cabbie would know exactly where to take you. How great that ballet dancers are celebrities! All of their shared experiences made it seem not only feasible but even preferable to develop communities outside of the main cities of dance.

The part I found most interesting in the panel discussion was when they addressed the question of where the responsibility lies to develop new dance communities across the country. Each panelist actually had a different answer to contribute. John Malashock said we can’t rely on the government, that perhaps local communities need to be more supportive of artists. Ruby Lockhart agreed but added that it’s the responsibility of the dance company itself to make an impact as a business. James Sewell focused on choreographers, noting that they should be open to sharing dances with everyone, and specifically should work to create dances that can be performed on any stage in any theater. John Michael Schert opined that dancers themselves need to shift the perception from the ground up, embracing the fact that great dance can come from anywhere. He also added that technology needs to be used more to further share dance with the world.

Decentralizing dance from a few main cities is so important for dance today. As the moderator Lois Welk quipped, we have practically “ghetto-ized fine art.” If we truly believe in dance, then we should want as many people as possible to be able to see it and enjoy it. Ideally, dance as an art form should be shared with everyone in the country, and the dance community in the U.S. should work together to continue to develop into new cities. The question is how – how do such changes occur? And I would suggest that those involved in dance start with themselves, asking individually what they can do to promote dance across the country. As for me, the first step is remembering that New York City, my city, is not actually the center of the world.

From the mouths of teens, why arts funding should not be cut from schools

A few weeks ago, I volunteered for the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers (under Scholastic Inc.) to help run their annual Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.  Hundreds of middle school and high school students gathered from around the country to be recognized for outstanding visual art works or writing submissions. After seeing samples of some of the works from the award recipients, I was completely in awe at the amount of talent that surrounded me, especially at such a young age.

I was also blown away by their responses to the issue of arts funding. One of my jobs as volunteer was to survey the visual art students about their experience of taking art classes, so that their responses could be used in a campaign to keep arts programs in schools. The answers that I got from the students were amazing, so insightful and honest, many even profoundly philosophical about why art is important. I was so impressed with their responses, that I’d like to share some of them here. What follows are some anonymous responses from high school students to the last question of the survey (stated in their exact words).

Why is it not a good time to cut school art programs?

  • Why would any time be a good time to cut art classes in school?
  • It’s like dreaming – it gives anyone a reason to wake up in the morning.
  • It defines our culture and shapes America.
  • Now more than ever, students need to know there are all different ways to be happy.
  • Because creativity is the only thing to get us out of our current predicament
  • Cutting art programs would deprive the world of a generation of package and graphic designers.
  • We need a voice.
  • Because art lets us express individuality, and without that, what are we?
  • Kids will become more like horses with blinders, not observing everything.
  • In troubled times, art is the only thing we can turn to that makes sense.
  • If you get rid of someone’s creativity, you get rid of their reasons to live.
  • Because art is a very important part of everybody’s education, not just those interested in art
  • Because art is a root to what makes us human

It’s great  for teachers and parents to fight for arts programming in school, but I think it’s so wonderful to hear it from the students themselves. Their responses are such inspiring words for why arts in general are so important in our country, now and always. With such bright and talented young people, I am hopeful for the future. But I’m also struck with the need to keep nourishing these young creators through arts education, and to keep promoting art across the country.

  • Meagan Bruskewicz

  • Dance is the hidden language of the soul.
    -Martha Graham

    One of my aims is to present questions rather than answers. -Paul Taylor

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