(Written for and posted on the Tel Aviv website creative writing.me.)
One of several remarkable moments that surfaced, during this twelve-day marathon of Israeli dancing, was a segment of Local/Not Easy in which Iris Erez coaxed us (“Come on! You can do it, I give you permission!) to open our cell phones, search for and activate animal sounds. As the soundscape filled up with a gentle woodsy menagerie, she laid back luxuriously on the stage floor delighting in sharing the moment with us. In my dance curator’s mind, this brought into sharp focus numerous issues of critical postmodern performance. I am thinking of Bourriaud’s proposal of a relational art in which artworks are no longer objects but rather occasions that create relationships; the integration of new technologies into live performance; the transformative power of authentic personal narrative; how powerful women’s bodies and choreographies have shifted the male gaze towards a “human gaze.” I was also deeply moved.
Much of the same can be said for Osnat Kelner’s Solid Gold quartet, a retro inter-disciplinary “choreographic musical” whose dramaturgy was threaded together with Michele Obama’s recent, radiant “I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves” speech. It moved me to tears, again. What a precocious and intelligent performance form, in which everything was skillfully mixed: music, singing, dramatic acting, dancing, and even the integration of computers. A post-performance lobby discussion with Osnat confirmed her belief that there were vital parallels between this moment in U.S. and Israeli politics. This delightful performance work was playful and biting, lively and serious. As my über-host Elad Schechter – Jerusalem choreographer, curator and director of the Alliance House artists’ collective — reminded me frequently, “Here, everything is political.” Even Vertigo’s director remarked to me, during an all-too short break between performances, that this year he was compelled to make an uncharacteristically “dark” dance, to reflect the urgent state of the global predicament.
Yes, I did discover the fabled ultra-intense physicality of Israeli dance, on display among so many of this year’s performances. It was also soon apparent that contact improvisation (myself a second generation Contacter and long-time teacher of the form) has left a deep mark on local dance compositions, along with an aesthetics of rawness and rough-and-tumble movement. It was intriguing to re-think of contact improvisation as source material for choreographic dynamics, once it is removed from the vagaries of improvisation and its typical casual “naturalness”. (Susan Foster once reminded us in a presentation on Isadora, that “naturalness” is a social construction after all.) It is also true that the dance world, at least in North America, has integrated the movement possibilities of this shared weight dance form into their choreographies almost from the onset of Paxton’s first experimentations. Contact Improvisation has always embodied a metaphor for “alternative culture.” But within this group of Israeli dance-makers on display, it seemed to me that the interplay of physical forces had reached a new level of choreographic possibility and maturity.
In view of my work as curator for the Tangente performance space in Montréal, with our preference for intelligent and innovative work, I was particularly kin to the text-oriented intellectuals among the choreographers, albeit those for whom dance and dancing (rather than, as the French say, “non-dancing”) remains a vital component of their propositions. What, after all, has distinguished art-making in the post-colonial era if not that it is a vehicle for ideas and has something to say to the world. An art that is useful after all, if non-decorative and not always beautiful. In this category I would of course include venerable choreographers like Yasmeen Godder and Arkadi Zaides, whose work I had previously known. But I was delighted to discover the cerebral antics of those like Rotem Tashach, whose choreographic (somewhat!) lecture-demonstration comparing the power of artistic performance with the real-life human disaster scenarios. A brilliant, if quirky, critique of art engagé. There were so many levels of irony that my mind raced to follow his twists and turns and in the end, he almost convinced me that the sitting in a theatre pales in light of the drama of the dire events unfolding in the “real” world.
Frank sexuality and bold gender politics also predominated in so much of the work, as if another form of resistance to social and political conservatism. It was interesting to have discovered that in Israel these showcase events, along with the exportation and touring of artistic productions are immensely well-supported in by foundations, NGOs, institutions and private donors as a strategy to show the world how its artists represent a progressive and humanistic force within their society. The same might be said of Québec, Canada, where I live, in which support for the arts (in this case with public funding) is continuously increasing in the belief that it is the artists who are defining a contemporary Québécois identity.
“For many of us, it’s synonymous with war and strife. But for the artists, chefs, designers, architects and scholars who live there, Beirut will always be a place where ideas and beauty flourished…and flourish still.” Michael Specter, The New York Times
The burning questions that sent me flying across the Atlantic to Lebanon: How does contemporary dance hold relevance for societies in which a sense of urgency and imminent danger are part of everyday life? What is the drive to create and perform this kind of transgressive physicality in countries for which dancing this way, and especially in public, is considered immoral and virtually illegal? And how does choreography serve as a form of political resistance?
The 5th Arab Dance Platform (Moultaqa Leymoun) was a revelation. As the four-day opening of the Beruit International Platform of Dance (BIPOD), 22 choreographers and 6 presenters gathered together who were natives of Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Palestine, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq and joined by interested critics and curators from various parts of Europe. A day-long series of panel discussions on dance and activism took place during the platform. Visionary choreographer and festival founder Omar Rajeh and his Maqamat Dance Theatre have been tenaciously building infrastructure in Beirut since 2002 to foster a Pan-Arab contemporary dance resurgence, taking the form of: festivals, dance companies, networks, workshops, mentorships, studio and performance spaces. The festival mandate is a revolutionary manifesto: “Through introducing new ideas and concepts of dance and ‘the body’, the company anticipates a new phase of artistic and social productivity, creativity, modernization, and free expression.”
In Beirut I discovered a ravishing and also devastated city of emotional and architectural extremes. “You are welcome” with hand on heart is the cordial greeting. The city is 5,000 years old with archaeological traces of numerous empires, an earthquake, devastating wars and triumphant rebuilding in plain view at every turn. Preferring to discover new cities by walking, I quickly learned that moving throughout the city on foot was a precarious obstacle course through a slow tangle of disorderly traffic. New acquaintances concurred: “We don’t like to follow rules here!” My hipster traveler’s hostel Saifi Urban Gardens was a social hub in the local Latin Quarter, with its café-restaurant, savvy baristas and rowdy weekend celebrations. Everyone danced with radiant fervour. Shoulders lifted rhythmically, arms raised, bodies pulsing and undulating in unison. Dancing is cultural life-blood.
The choreography was frequently intense, even fierce. Imbued with a powerful sense of purpose and, of course, the search for identity. Defying censorship, never doubting its inherent authenticity. Rajeh set the tone himself at the onset with Beytna, a massive, utopic community banquet of a choreographic event, with a meal prepared onstage exhorting us to “Come and eat Lebanon!” while four dancers and musicians from as many continents and dance and music orientations were seeking an un/common language. Although the dance compositions that followed sometimes adopted more familiar Euro-American forms, most plunged us into a particularly “Arab World” aesthetics of the body-in-crisis-and-exhaltation, trance states, and an artistic excavation of earlier civilizations (notably Persian). To my mind, the emblematic work was unquestionably Bassam Abou Diab’s physical theatre guide to survival as he instructed us in “What can the body do when the bomb falls?” Answer: don’t resist, fall to the ground; collect power; think about your culture and identity. This dancing in dangerous times really transformed my thinking about the meaning of art.
 Specter, Michael. “The Eternal Magic of Beirut.” The New York Times, Style Magazine. May 2, 2016.
From GOING ON A TANGENTE.
(Photo: © Aurore B. Pictures)
At the end of choreographer Katie Ward’s recent school workshop with Tangente, one young participant whispered ardently in my ear “You know what I think? I think that every single movement is dance!” Dance educator Marc Pronovost had earlier asked this group of students from an arts-specialized primary school “And so what do you think contemporary dance is?” This girl is a grandchild of the Judson Church arts revolution of the 1960s whose manifesto it was “to bring art closer to life…”
When observing any group of children at play, it is evident that the compulsion to move about with dance-like expressivity is innate to homo sapiens (and even certain simian species). One of my long-cherished theories is that the predisposition to dance is in fact programmed in our genetic make-up. As did other parents of children with surpluses of expressive physical energy, my mother enrolled me in water ballet, basketball, ballet classes, anything that might give structure and discipline to my compulsive need to move all the time. (“Look at me! Look at me! See what I can do!!!”) Does this story sound familiar? So why then do we need to designate a special field for “children’s dance,” and what does it really mean to foster dancing for (and by) young people? There are in fact many schools of thought on the educational, physical and social benefits of dance education, as well as dire warnings about the dangers of poor dance teaching on the delicate bone and joint tissue, and postural orientation of maturing young bodies.
Urgent questions, about the status of dance in the school curriculum for example, were left unanswered in the last few minutes of the first Québec conference on “dance for young audiences” in September 2014, organized at the Université du Québec à Montréal’s Dance Department. In the end, this event wasn’t intended to delve into problematics, but was principally a celebratory gathering, providing belated visibility to youth dance by way of three exemplary Montréal choreographers. When I immigrated to Québec in 1977, there was a general consensus that choreographing for young audiences was not a serious nor sophisticated form of dance-making, but rather a kitschy form of entertainment better left to “Disney on Ice.” This had never been true in certain quarters of Montréal, within Asian and African diaspora communities for example, in which dancing for and with each other has long provided an essential place of gathering to affirm cultural solidarity. As Ukrainian-Canadian dance anthropologist Andriy Nahachewsky explains, “First, we dance to remember”.
With an abundance of contemporary dance-makers in Québec in 2014 who are now devoted to the specialty of making dances for youth, the question to ask might be, what kinds of choreography are pertinent and beneficial for young audiences? Choreographic orientations are strikingly diverse, as with “adult dance”: the interpretation of moral and folk tales or educational narratives; explorations of various aspects of contemporary culture; or sometimes simply an exhibition of the joys of dancing itself. All agree on the need to offer professional level work, powerful dancers and choreographies, with compelling and captivating themes.
But we do need to mind the generation gap, knowing that our young spectators may be more open-minded about controversial subject matter and imaginative towards abstraction than their parents, teachers, and school administrators. Even as I write these lines, a group of audacious teens from a small countryside school has just recovered (by way of a cathartic audience talk with the artists) from the shock of Isabelle Boulanger’s new work Sans Lactose in yet another Tangente school workshop. At this turning point in their social and physical development, the students will leave the theatre unable to forget the brutal images of vulnerable young women fighting for self-acceptance, with a sharper awareness of hyper-sexualized portrayals of girls on their cellphones and computer screens. It is precisely this transformational potential to bring their contemporary world into clearer focus that characterizes the most effective choreography for young audiences.
From GOING ON A TANGENTE.
(Photo: © Aurore B. Pictures, Raphaël Ouellet, 2014)
When did all of this talk about the “body-as-concept” infiltrate the dance world? It has come to the point where many choreographers will begin an explanation of their work by saying to me, “Well, you know, I am still very interested in movement, but…” When did all of this talk about the “body-as-concept” infiltrate the dance world? It has come to the point where many choreographers will begin an explanation of their work by saying to me, “Well, you know, I am still very interested in movement, but…”
A more quantitative proof of the body’s predominance in our thinking: While creating an index for Fields in Motion, the 500-page book I recently edited with 28 international authors about artistic dance and ethnography, it soon became clear that by far the largest section, with over 30 entries, would be “body” and not “choreography” or even… “dance”!
Discussion about the flesh-and-bones body has, of course, always been richly present in dance training techniques, analysis and criticism, and somatic practices. And it is no surprise that the relatively young discipline of dance philosophy keeps the notion of the body, along with its expressive movements, at the centre of its attention. For dancers themselves, however cerebral, there is no escaping the experiential, exuberant body-in-motion, one that sweats, luxuriates, and suffers in its own physicality. “Working it out” is our daily rite. It is as if we seek a sense of authenticity in the very presence and sensation of our bodies (I do).
But lately it seems, under the continued influence of the 1960s postmodern art movement, as well as a recent wave of neo-conceptual idea-based art coming from Europe (significantly shaped by visual artists) this corporeal conversation has taken a curious turn from subjective to objective. Much of this kind of body talk is coming from the (figurative) body of philosophers and performance artists who have become devoted to this idea of body-as-metaphor, that is, as a “site” or “location” in which they elaborate their intricate ideas about the postcolonial world. This new body theorizing has not been without its detractors among dance scholars: Iro Tembeck wrote about “the dense and impenetrable thickets of discourse”; Roger Copeland complained about “this postmodern blowtorch that was scorching the delicate skin of the dancer”; and Kent de Spain declared that he “could not find his body” in the erudite analyses of André Lepecki.
This may have led certain choreographers to stripping down their dancers onstage. I am thinking here about how Karine Denault, dancing at Tangente in one of her early solos, deftly slipped off her dress to appear almost naked in the midst of a rather formal choreography about time and space. When asked during an audience talk why she did it, she replied simply and candidly (something like), since the body was part of the proposition at hand, she thought it opportune to reveal “it”. (As she spoke then, I was suddenly reminded of my first art class modeling experience, and that strange moment when I first stepped with trepidation onto the podium only to have the students fix their gaze intently and objectively at my body, and not particularly at my breasts, for instance, but at minutia like the creases and shadows at my armpits and ankles.) Denault’s performance was later followed by the nude exploits of dancers in works by Daniel Léveillé and Dave St-Pierre, among others, in which their naked bodies lived, for us, their experiences of vulnerability, arousal, extreme effort, exhaustion, longing, and more. In the new tradition of postmodern genre mash-ups, expressionism here meets conceptualism. In other words, emotionally charged choreography embodies complex ideas about humanity and society.
Recently at Tangente, it was Andréane Leclerc, the phenomenologist-contortionist, who brought to mind body-as-object philosophy, albeit in the most visceral of movement compositions. She actually penned a master’s thesis about this work Cherepaka, a kind of manifesto for reconsidering and de-stereotyping contortion as a form of bodily expression. Of course, under the influence of phenomenology (the philosophy of awareness of the present moment) she moved ever so slowly, giving us all ample time for imaginative rumination (“is that her own foot nestled beside her face?”), all the while exuding the effort of manoeuvring her remarkable hyperflexions and extensions. We are at once engaged by both the contortionist’s conundrum and her body.
This brings me to the obvious: the image of Benjamin Kamino on the current cover of Tangente’s season flyer, hovering mid-air in a spiralling leap with hair flying behind him and covered only with tattoos. Although this is the product of a staged studio photoshoot, from my experience of his solo work, this is an iconic picture of the dancer-choreographer in action. However dynamic his movement, it is inevitably his body that stirs my thoughts. I am thinking that this is a far cry from the flamboyant 1960s in which public nakedness was characterized as transgressive, sexually charged, counter-cultural, and knowingly illegal. Now no longer offensive (to most), this nude dancer Benjamin appears to embody freedom and abandon, and intends, as he writes in his artistic statement inside the pamphlet, “much love to everyone.”
So then, fifty years after the sixties, what is the meaning of this renewed interest in stripped down and idea-laden performances? Let me venture a proposal: that the dancing (and even the non-dancing) body has become a many-layered medium that can simultaneously convey the world of ideas, the cries of humanity, and the mysteries of its inner workings. Choreography as embodiment.