A dance curator reflects on culture and the new dance
Written in partial fulfillment of a masters’ essay in “Movement Studies” at Wesleyan University in August 1991; published in Dance Connection and Contact Quarterly magazine summer 1992 and as a chapter in a book of essays Les Vendredis du Corps edited by Aline Gélinas (éditions Jeu/Parachute); revised for Canadian Dance Studies 2 (published at York University) in December 1996.
by Dena Davida
When dance anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku shook the authoritative foundations of ballet in 1970, by vividly revealing its ethnicity, she set out to shift the course of occidental dance towards wider horizons. Under her continued scrutiny and that of like-minded colleagues, a world full of dances has materialized before the minds of Euro-American scholars. Joann Kealiinohomoku’s voice paralleled the interests of a critical group of New York City experimentalists, also questioning the physical boundaries set by dance academies. And so these choreographers and ethnographers were turning towards the study of all moving bodies, of all the body’s movements and renewed the question “What is dance?”
Situating the “new dance”
It was after widening my focus to include this cross-cultural lens and anthropological questioning that I began to clarify the world view embedded in my daily practice of contact improvisation. According to ethnographer Cynthia Novack, this particular approach to dancing can be seen as having founded an experimental community within the wider context of an American culture in which “modern dance took on the character of continuing revolution, a re-creation of the American frontier standing counter to the European, aristocratic form of ballet.”
Twentieth century modern dance was not only infused by a pioneering spirit throughout its history, but lately has spawned a seminal choreographic outlook in which it is no longer sufficient to move skillfully about within previously known dance terrain. Each “dance explorer” is now required to prospect in new and unclaimed artistic territory, and on it to build a unique aesthetic ecosystem. Copyright laws for dance, already established in the case of certain story ballets and numerous body-training techniques (and in the fields of literature and music), may soon effectively protect the private ownership of each choreographer’s “discovery” of certain movement configurations. What an interesting problem for an ephemeral art form whose instrument is the human body with its complex possible ranges of motion, and whose recording systems (video, Laban and other notations, computer programmes) are only partial reproductions of the original!
Variously classified by specialists as “contemporary”, “new” or “postmodern”, “danse d’auteur”, or simply with the descriptive experimental or recent, this type of dance first appeared in the Americas with the Judson Dance Theatre in New York City. Its founding principles mirrored those of the social upheavals of the sixties:
“The rejection of elitism and hierarchies and the attempted democratization of dance’s processes, ingredients, and nature became focal points–with one goal being to free the dancer from the tyranny of rules, ideals, and “technique,” as it had come to be taught.”
These early “new dance” practitioners are the revolutionary offspring of the American modern dance, returning to the original iconoclasm and radical individuality of their modernist precursors, whose work by mid-century had become tightly codified. Within a rapidly changing society, these dance rebels collectively reopened the parameters of dance by the formal study of everyday life as art. As the sixties ended, they began to disband and take off on separate paths of investigation, while a mainstream of the younger generation asked “What does it mean?” and returned their interest to narrative content, virtuousity and theatricality.
Across the Atlantic, parallel dance developments were evolving out of the Central European free dance. Though the classical ballet was experiencing its own modernist revolution in Russia since the turn of the century, it generally remained faithful to the gestural vocabulary and body attitude of its eighteenth century foundations.
In the twenties and thirties Germany was a hotbed of both the formal (Schlemmer’s Bauhaus space-and-shape experiments) and the expressive (Mary Wigman and her lesser known rival Veleska Gert) strains of free dance. During World War II and until the sixties many of the “free dancers” with few exceptions were driven abroad. As far as we know, it was mainly an imported classical ballet which took root during post-war reconstruction until the seventies with the emergence of “neo-expressionist” German Tanztheater. Working at the same time as the Judson choreographers, these Tanztheater protagonists intended:
“…[an] earnest critique of a historical Illusionism, which expresses itself in the incomparable materialization of wealth in the Federal Republic of Germany, inquires about the presence of social communication, about the quality of life and about the mechanisms of power. In Dance Theatre, the Individual becomes that which it is: the process of a visionary freedom.”
Sparked also by intensified intercontinental exchange with American choreographers, a wave of European new free dance choreographers challenged the predominance of the classical danse d’école and the weighty tradition of opera house ballet. A “new dance” movement was soon manifest in France, Britain, and Holland during the seventies; permeated Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Spain and Italy and much of Western Europe in the eighties; and currently claims disciples in India, Australia, Scandinavia, Portugal and parts of Central and South America and Eastern Europe; and in the ‘nineties has been carried into parts of Africa and Indonesia.
But the first of all these revolutions, and perhaps the most extremely counter-cultural, was westernized Japan’s “ankoku butoh” (dance of darkness) with its “shuaku no bi” (aesthetics of ugliness), the singular case in the Orient, until recently. To my American eye its poignant ethos appears to have arisen from the ashes of the Hiroshima tragedy. The first performances by Hijikata in 1959 were a violent challenge to the canons of Western ballet and modern dance as well as Japanese traditional dance, though deeply rooted in old folk rituals. French writer Jean Viala, in permanent Japanese residence since 1980, clarifies:
“Dancing [in butoh] means ‘being’ in the cosmos, as well as containing the cosmos within oneself. Rather than aspiring to an aesthetic ideal, the dancer attempts to bare his soul, to reveal the human being in his banality, ugliness and grotesqueness, to expose the suffering and joys of life.”
A common geneology
From my survey of contemporary dance histories in countries with “new dance” activity–in written accounts, live interviews and performances–there seems to emerge a common sequence of events.
The first phase, bearing resemblance to the dynamics of European colonialism, begins with the establishment of at least one professional ballet company and school (usually adopting the curriculum of either the Italian-based Cecchetti school, the “true” Russian Vaganova style, or the British Royal Academy of Dance). These ballet masters and mistresses, whether native-born or foreign, impress on the resident dancers their rigorous training techniques and their concept of an art dance/folk dance dichotomy. They teach with the conviction that their dance is the universal basis for all dancing, and the ultimate attainment of refinement. Concerning this loyal devotion to a single form of dance Francis Sparshott, in his recent inquiry into dance philosophy, mused:
“It may well be that some (or even all) performers are personally committed by this self transformation in such a way that–as a matter of integrity or simply as a psychological impossibility–they cannot afford to take seriously any alternative standpoint.”
Next come the passionate American or German missionaries, founding one or several of their modern dance schools (often based on the styles of American choreographers Limon, Cunningham, Graham, Nikolais or the teachings of the German Folkwangschule). With poetic ethnocentrism, each believes that their approach to dance provides the model for all forms of contemporary dance expression. Their creed of personal freedom and the creation of dances which reflect the contemporary condition sets the stage for further experimentation.
Since the development of ballet and modern dance institutions occurs side-by-side other existing forms of traditional dances, a novel fusion of aesthetic purposes sometimes takes place when old confronts new, such as character dancing in ballet choreography or theatrical stagings of folk dances intended for international touring. It is also interesting to note a reciprocal effect of this inter-cultural contact: that ballet and modern dancers have often sought inspiration from their perceptions of foreign and primitive cultures, borrowing their features quite freely and being especially drawn to the exotic features of the Orient.
The next change happens when some local dance-makers come into contact with post-modern dance ideas from the U.S. Germany and/or Japan, either during a residency in a foreign dance capital such as New York or while attending an international performance series, workshop or residency project. These experiences are decisive, though I am not sure what actually transpires. If my own experience is an indication, in coming into contact with the New York Judsonites, it is heady knowledge to step outside the academy and reconsider all movements as material for dance. In any case, the visible result is that these local choreographers begin to freely adapt the foreign dance forms to suit their own expressive needs. They also draw material from the sophisticated, multi-cultural evironments of the large city centers in which most of them live, devising “new dances” of their own making.
Dance critic Leonetta Bentivoglio distinguishes the present-day ethos of these “new choreographers” as she discusses the French concept “danse d’auteur”:
“Danse d’auteur would be equivalent, then, to cinéma d’auteur: an original construction of ideas and corresponding signs. The choreo-grapher constructs, just like the director-auteur does within the parameters of film language, a scaffolding that is no longer simply choreographic and aesthetic but also theoretical or philosophical, ideological or political: coherently existential. He creates a perspective, a vision of the world, that fully reflects him: beyond any technical recognizability. He reinvents the dance-material, moulding it according to direction and form dictated only by his own expressive needs. And he frees the dancer’s body, to this end, from the conditioning premise of an objectifiable code, capable of being adopted and used by other choreographers.”
At the time of this writing, with the exception of contact improvisation and butoh, only a few attempts have been made to codify and proliferate these experimental styles: to create new dance academies. When teaching, these choreographers usually direct a personalized warm-up session followed by an offering of their own creative process through guided improvisation and choreographic sequences. In terms of personal training, these dancers can be seen in situations as varied as the ballet studio, dojo, university classroom, swimming pool and Nautilus weight room. The common values of these new approaches, as I have observed them, appear to be an interest in innovation, body issues and the discovery of new perspectives.
Dancing in democracies
In light of these distinguishing characteristics, it becomes clear that these international “new dances” are apt emblems of the democratic societies in which they are nurtured. Dancing under the consequences of these political conditions has transformed the entire undertaking of choreography, from conception to stage. Few of the world’s dances more perfectly embody the principles of individual freedom, equality and cultural diversity.
Freedom of choice.and aesthetic pluralism. Composer John Cage struck a firm blow for artistic freedom when he suggested in the fifties that all sounds, and especially silence, might be considered as music. His colleague Merce Cunningham applied this same idea to dance. Since then, choreographers have chosen gestures from every imaginable source, organized them in countless structural forms to imply as many meanings as there are spectators. Too much freedom? In reality artistic choices are always made within the framework of the immediate community’s social and aesthetic mores, as well as the individual artist’s sensibilities. For example: though democracy requires equal opportunity for all body shapes, sizes, colors and ages, it is clear that the standards of youth-and-beauty, if no longer a single ideal body type, still dominate the dance studio. Today’s dance experimentalists draw from a pool of source material that includes all forms of academic, traditional and social dance; ideas and images generated by other art forms and electronic media; sports actions, body therapies, dance theories; and especially the complex network of muscle and nerve within their own skin. Even the choice among available body/mind training approaches is no longer simple. In Montreal alone dancers can decide to add to their body knowledge the techniques of gymnastics, mime, physical theatre, dance therapy, (Mattheus) Alexander, Body-Mind Centering, t’ai chi, “la table Penchenat”, sub-aquatic dance, contact improvisation, Pilates, Bartenieff Fundementals, Iyengar Yoga, Feldenkreis, Flamenco, Capoeira, African dances and Baladi, Kathak, butoh, Min Tanaka’s “body weather”–not to mention more than a dozen styles of ballet, jazz, tap and modern dance. With such a complex range of choices, it is no wonder that choreographies tend to be interdisciplinary hybrids.
All artists considered equal. Not only are these dance-makers fervently engaged in the search for an individualistic means of expression, but this imperative has changed the very nature of their work with the dancers. I have entered numerous rehearsal studios where the choreographer is proposing an improvisational structure to the dancers–extending to them great freedom of interpretation. Their bodies become the site for mediation between creative idea and gestural response. The dancer generates the movement material from which the choreographer chooses and shapes the final performance. An interchange of ideas seems to be replacing the directive setting of material on the dancer. This has given rise to questions of ownership and appropriation of movement. As Claudia Jeschke explains, in reference to expressionism, “The individual’s body and physical experience become aesthetic, dramaturgical elements. Physical movements are oriented by the personalities of each of the dancers involved.”
Equal art forms in free association. Some radical changes have taken place as well in the process of inter-media collaboration.. The dance is more rarely structured by a musical score. And, as dance scholar Roger Copeland so aptly commented, neither is it subordinated within a Gesamtkunstwerk–Wagner’s 19th century theory of a “grand synthesis of music, literature, and dance” in which “the elements may have been equal, but some were more equal than others.” The Cage/Cunningham proposition of an equal but separate coexistence of artistic media was only a prelude to the profusion of collaborative work styles of today among artists working in different media. Art critic RoseLee Goldberg calls these “collaborations of the satellite age” where time and money are at a premium and electronic media (telephone, video and sound cassettes) intervene. She describes a gamut of commitments, from a full-time creative process between like minds, to sudden last minute additions in nearly finished work.
Freedom of movement. and multi-culturalism. The late international dance consultant Peter Brinson accounts eloquently for “the new dance transnationalism” as an inevitable consequence of the rise of a global economy and culture. He proposed that the unprecidented pace of dance culture contact is the result of increasing air transportation, international festivals, dance knowledge and arts diplomacy. Artists now can move not only unhindered but also relatively quickly and cheaply throughout the “free” world. Whether aided by travel grants or encouraged by job opportunities, large numbers of nomadic dancers presently study and work abroad, becoming knowledgeable in several dance forms and styles. The membership of large contemporary dance companies is increasingly multi-national. Many of the world’s dances now tour internationally, live and on video. Both traditional and contemporary companies are proudly exported by national governments to serve as as cultural markers; the former often a colorful display of costumes, music and abridged folk and classical dances from the past and the latter an homage to that country’s futuristic artistry.
More than one meaning
I believe it is possible then to distinguish an international “new dance subculture”. Having briefly situated its history, character, geography and socio-political ethos, I return to the question that I feel continues to preoccupy the current generation of “new dancers”: What does it mean? From a cultural standpoint, I believe the answer depends on why and for whom the dancer is dancing. There are genres of this dance that are currently practiced as recreation by participants at various levels of skill, and others who engage dancers in full-time professional careers in the marketplace of the performing arts.
A pervasive network of informal dance events, in which I participate regularly, is known to insiders. As the commodification of dance progresses, they take on the character of a not-for-profit underground. Some occur on an on-going basis; others spring up in an ad hoc fashion. Contact improvisors call them “jams”, after the jazz musician’s jam session. Other gatherings are alternately called “Open Movement”, “Dance Free”, etc. Similarly to jazz music, they are structured by open-ended guidelines (e.g. the dancers must move in sensitive relationship to other moving bodies and seek to avoid injury). These are essentially social gatherings, temporary experimental communities (in Novack’s words), whose business is art/sport practice–which encompasses networking, skill development, play and kinesthetic dialogue. The dancing here carries these meanings mainly for those engaged actively. Activities may include guided group exercises, focused discussion and structured and unstructured improvisation. Sometimes small-scale performances are given for friends and local audiences. With their emphasis on the process of dance-making, these performances tend to engage spectators in rooting for the skillful maneuvering of a movement sequence, idea or relationship.
It is another, professional kind of “new dance” that is becoming familiar to the public at large, thanks to its growing popularity in international festivals and performing arts series. In collaboration with government funding agencies, a corporate art marketplace designates its value, arranges for its presentation in theatres, and interprets its meaning to audiences. By choosing where and for whom many of the dances take place, they are also crucial in determing public taste.
Apart from the support offered by a circuit of smaller-scale venues and programmers with limited means, it is difficult for choreographers to work independently of the sponsorship of a small group of powerful producers. Considering the present low status and hazardous working conditions of the creative artist within the economics of capitalism, the career choice of dancer requires nothing less than passionate commitment. Occidental choreographers structure their long working day around a training session, studio time for movement explorations and rehearsal, and administrative tasks. Most are obliged to work at second jobs in order to meet the financial demands of their companies, not met by private and public fundraising. These requirements are the parameters which frame the creative process and partly determine the nature of the dances: available budget (and so number of dancers quality of costumes, etc.), size and ambiance of dance studio, type of training..
Within the society at large the “new dancers” fulfill the function of arts researchers, seeking to extend the established parameters of contemporary dance. This is true whether they have chosen to choreograph in the tradition of athletic entertainers, or embody through their dances the role of aesthete, teacher, politician, philosopher or spiritualist. A key to understanding what they intend to communicate through their choreographies may be found within this social identity.
The dance “material” is developed in the sanctuary of the studio. An eclectic gestural style is honed by exploring a specific range of human movement possibilities, kinesthetic memories, emotional states, mental images or ideas. At some point in the process, other media may be integrated, thickening the sensory texture. The artist(s) may clarify the work’s intentions from the outset, may leave them to emerge as the work takes shape, or choose to let them remain present on a non-conscious (intuitive) level. But in the case of the performing arts, by definition, the choreography completes its raison d’être only as it is communicated to onlookers.
The “new dance” spectator soon learns that each performance will be a unique experience, with often only ambiguous or absent program notes to provide clues to understanding. Though outdoor stages and site-specific works are not uncommon, the vast majority of dances take place inside darkened proscenium theatres. Alone in the dark and with few prescribed expectations, each audience member constructs his/her own guide to viewing and aesthetic priorities. Performances of this kind call actively upon each audience member, through personal experiences and perceptions, to formulate possible meanings. Dance Theorist Susan Foster explores this plurality of meanings within her elaboration of four choreographic models, which correspond to different modes of representation. She suggests for instance, that a choreographer may intend to elicit from their audiences an attitude of communion, admiration, empathy and attention
Concerning this new social contract between the artist and spectator, no one has written so eloquently as Montreal performance artist Sylvie Laliberté: “I offer the spectator a chance to choose and imagine at will according to his/her own pleasure and joy. I am for the free enterprise of the spectator”. It seems as if the artists’ purposeful imagery is projected out into space where it encounters, somewhere in mid-air, each viewer’s aesthetic perspective. And it is at those meeting places that meanings arise.
This pluralism, present at every level of new dance activity, is creating dialogue between previously separate ideas, styles, media and milieu. Boundaries are being crossed and hybrid forms emerging. Ironically, we are at the same time imbuing the spectator, dancer, choreographer, each art form and tradition with renewed autonomy. At the heart of these matters lie enough questions about cultural and individual identity and character to occupy us for at least the next decade.
Joann Kealiinohomoku, “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance”, Impulse 20 (1969) 24-33.
This question is also the title of an eclectic collection of essays on the subject which spans four centuries, edited by Roger Copeland, What is Dance?: Readings in Theory and Criticism (Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1983).
These ideas are drawn from Cynthia Novack’s Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture (University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1990) 15-16, 22.
This term is frequently used in reference to all forms of theatrical dance in the 20th century, or more specifically the American genres, as in the anthology of writings edited by Anne Livet, Contemporary Dance (Abbeville Press, New York, 1978).
The nickname “new” has come into such common usage that it is often used to designate the current phase of experimental dance, and has served as the title of British dance magazine New Dance (now defunct) and the French photo collection Nouvelle Danse with accompanying texts by critic Lise Brunel (Editons Albin Michel, Paris, 1980), and has even been incorporated into the names of dance festivals, venues and companies.
Literally implies “coming after modern [dance]”. U.S. historian Sally Banes traces the possible origin in print of the term “postmodern dance” to Michael Kirby’s introduction to The Drama Review,19 (March 1975) and creates a definitive account of its American development in her article “Dance” in The Postmodern Moment, ed. Stanley Trachtenberg (Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1984). She further develops her thoughts on the eighties phase of postmodern dance in New York City in her article “New Dance New York” from the souvenir programme of the Festival International de Nouvelle Danse (Editions Parachute, Montreal, 1984).
Italian dance critic and presenter Leonetta Bentivoglio created an exceptionally lucid essay on this concept which she claims to have been coined by French choreographer Jean-Claude Gallota and derived from the “cinéma d’auteur”, in her article “Danse d’Auteur”, Balletinternational (Cologne, April 1989); this magazine is one of the most comprehensive and international forums for this “new dance”.
Banes in “New Dance New York” and in the Introduction to her book Terpsichore in Sneakers (Wesleyan University Press, Connecticut, 1987) discusses this period in depth.
This originates with Rudolf Laban’s term “la danse libre”, from his Parisian sojourn, and is discussed in his prefatory note to Modern Educational Dance (MacDonald and Evans, London, 1948); he also notes here “Europe was…the cradle of a comprehensive theory [for this free dance].”
Modernism seems to have brought change especially in the choice of themes, mise-en-scène and to have led to the creation of some new steps and positions. An exception is American choreographer William Forsythe of the Stuttgart Ballet, who has profoundly reshaped classical dance through an intelligent post-modern sensibility.
Robert Atkins defines “expressionism” as referring to any “art that puts a premium on expressing emotions” and usually traced back to Van Gogh and the Fauves, in Artspeak (Abbeville Press, New York, 1990) 73-4. Claudia Jeschke specifies that for the German expressionist dance of the twenties “art is no longer what is generally considered beautiful, but directly expresses what moves artists emotionally, what appears necessary, ‘true’ to them”, in her article “Identity and Order: Trends in Dance Theatre in Germany” Blickpunkte II catalogue (Goethe-Institut, Montreal, l989).19.
Johannes Odenthal, “Regarding the Search for a Cultural Identity from the Body” BRD Dance festival catalogue (Munich, 1990).
 Bentivoglio accounts for both the distinct and the “intricately interwoven” historical development of European and American contemporary dance in her article “Europe et Etats-unis: un courant”, La Danse au Défi (éditions Parachute, Montreal, 1987).
Jean Viala, Butoh: Shades of Darkness (Shufunotomo Co.,Tokyo, 1988), pages 10-17. In this.first comprehensive study in English of this dance form, Viala recounts that it was co-founding father Tatsumi Hijikata in 1960 who chose the name “Ankoku Buyo” (later changing the Buyo to Butoh).
Kealiinohomoku in”Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance” specifies that “ballet is a product of the Western world, and it is a form developed by Caucasians who speak Indo-European languages and who share a common European tradition.”
Ibid.; idem “Folk Dance,Folklore and Folklife (Chicago, University of Chicago
Press,1972).for a challenging discussion of this western concept.
Francis Sparshott, Off the Ground: First Steps to a Philosophical Consideration of the Dance (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1988) page xxi.
Kealiinohomoku in “Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance” clarifies the mistaken notion that some modern dance historians and teachers have perpetuated by confusing primitive with primeval. She specifies that “no living primitive group will reveal to us the way our European ancestors behaved”.
A few rare exceptions include: the Dance Studies department at Naropa Institute in Colorado, New York City’s collective floating School for Movement Reasearch, and The School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam.
Roger Copeland, “A Community of Originals: Models of Avant-Garde Collaboration” Next Wave catalogue (Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City, 1983.)
RoseLee Goldberg, “Dance from the Music,” Next Wave Festival catalogue (Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City, l983). These remarks referred to the so-called “designer series” in New York City in which the most successful of the recent avant-garde (in dance, music, and visual design) were matched to produce large-scale performance works.
Peter Brinson, “The New Dance Transnationalism”, The Joan Russell Memorial Journal
(Dance and the Child International, Ltd., United Kingdom, 1991).23.
Several trade journals and regional newletters carry information to participants, of which the most comprehensive and international is the dance journal Contact Quarterly: A vehicle for moving ideas, eds. Lisa Nelson and Nancy Stark Smith.
Judson dancer Simone Forti created this compound name for the activity of contact improvisation because of its alliance to both disciplines.
Ironically, these dancers enjoy the social status of film idols (if not the high salary and benefits), and are treated as icons of grace, skill and beauty.
An exemplary study by Michel Perreault of dancers in Quebec, concluding that it is passion that must motivate such a precarious career choice, is summarized in the journal Sociologie et sociétés (vol. XX, no. 2, october 1988) 177-186.
Foster, Susan, Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance, University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1986.