When I hear conversations (usually in lobbies of theaters after performances or granting panels) about whether choreographic work is good or bad based solely on the work’s vocabulary, I cringe. Often I will hear comments like, “the vocabulary was not new” or “the vocabulary was not innovative” as a way of assessing (usually minimizing) the artist’s work. When I hear those kinds of statements I always want to scream. While I admit that an interesting vocabulary keeps the eye engaged and that movement invention plays a key role in the success of a work, however, there are other elements that ought to be brought into play for assessing a work’s success, for example concept or idea, vision, theatricality, or structure.
This obsession with new, fresh and innovative vocabulary seems to be a particular American fixation (Europeans seem less concerned with it). The American-ness of it, I believe, is linked to the ascent of abstract expressionism in post WWII America. Just as social realism in the 1930’s with its social and political protest themes had been a major influence on early American modern dance, abstraction and abstract expressionism was the perfect art for a time of increased censorship of the arts and artists in America. With abstract expressionism’s image as pure, highly idiosyncratic and apolitical it was a perfect movement for McCarthy era art where the political climate did not tolerate social protests. Its rightness lay in the non-specificity of abstraction – if the subject matter were totally abstract then it would be seen as apolitical, and therefore safe; or if the art was political, the message was obscure, oblique or for a small group of insiders. And just as this very American movement and New York became the center of the western visual art world it also became a significant influence on American modern dance makers and the move towards an American dance focused on pure movement.
In Europe it was a different story, I think. The memory of the horrors and atrocities of The Second World War were always present to European artists and the post-war bifurcated divide of Europe into East-West made politics and its ramifications ever-present. In addition, expressionism still seemed to hold interest to European dance artists, especially Germans. Expressionism and its newer post-war manifestation, neo-expressionism, with an emphasis on rendering the world and human behavior in rough and violent ways, hyper-subjective perspectives, and radically distorting reality for emotional effect and to evoke moods or ideas seemed a perfect artistic strategy for Europe’s traumatized cultures.
Pina Bausch, who was trained at the Folkwangschule which was founded by Kurt Jooss, one of the founders of German expressionist dance (she later assisted him) was an innovator whose innovation I would never say lay in her vocabulary – it lay elsewhere, the transformation of the tactics and strategies of expressionism into Tanztheater. One might say similarly of Jiri Kylians (exploration of the expression of human relationships) and Mats Ek (social engagement of psychological dilemmas) and even recent William Forsythe, especially since his abandonment of post-modern irony (investigation of choreography as a fundamental principle of organization) that vocabulary is not the main point. These artists’ work is not just about movement but also about ideas, the dynamics of relationships, and representation (presenting and structuring). Movement vocabulary is just one of many tools used to create their worldviews.
On the other hand, an artist such as Ohad Naharin’s, who, not so incidentally, spent the early days of his choreographic career in the United States and now runs a state supported company in a country, Israel, that appears to have little patience or taste for overtly politicized work, is a brilliant abstractionist. His work is vocabulary-centric and one could argue that he is probably the most gifted in terms of innovations in movement language of any contemporary mainstream choreographer working today. His movement choices do exactly what interesting and original movement language should do – intrigues, delights, and fascinates. While I love his work and the way that he engages the body I often find something missing – my humanity is not engaged. I am neither moved by sentiment, anger, compassion, nor do I have insights into my humanity. I am thrilled and exhilarated by the sheer physicality of the experience, which I am grateful for, but I end up feeling not quite fulfilled.
I am not suggesting that there is only one kind of good dance (the kind I like), rather the opposite. There should be room for the many ways that artists chose to express how they see the world, not just one or a few. It is through our access as audiences and society to these varied perspectives, a full menu one might say, that our aesthetic appetites (and other needs met by art) are filled. I may prefer one dish over another or one different than what you might prefer but my preference does not negate the artistic deliciousness or nutrition of the other dishes on the menu.
All work is not equal (I know) but neither is all work trying to accomplish the same thing. For example to say that George Balanchine’s Agon fails because it lacks story or narrative is ridiculous -that’s not what he was trying to do! So perhaps the underlying criteria for assessing work should be, intent (if we can discern it) – did the artist accomplish what they set out to do? If that is the case, one can still like it or not (which is taste) but the viewer is now liberated to appreciate the artist’s work for what it is as oppose to not appreciating it for what it is not. Perhaps what I am thrashing about trying to say is that I would like to see a more aesthetically and technically egalitarian approach to appreciating and assessing work. Meaning that work is assessed from various perspectives or combinations of criteria, using varied modalities where vocabulary is just one of many; that a single technical or aesthetic aspect is not favored over the other unless it is recognized that the “author’s” intent is to make that one particular element the lens through which to view the work.
I want to acknowledge what seems like a contradiction: I have often said publicly that I don’t care what the artist intends me to experience but only what I experienced from the performance. I will try to explain what I mean. I believe that spectators/audiences are selfish. In many ways the average viewer is not interested in the high-minded, philosophical, technical or theoretical aspects of performance. Their concerns are basic – did I have a good time. Now ‘good time’ can be defined in many way, meaning a visceral and sensually satisfying experience, an intellectually gratifying one or some combination of both. In other words did it make me feel good, ‘think good’ or both? That is to say, the work and the experience of the work are two different things. I can recognize the value or success of a work, without, liking the experience of it. In other words, the criteria used to assess the work has nothing to do with whether or not I liked or did not like my experience of it in performance.
In 1993 while my company Donald Byrd/The Group was performing in Frankfurt, on our off night I went to see Ballett Frankfurt. On the program was the premiere of a new Forsythe work, Quintett. Watching that piece was probably the most excruciatingly painful experience I have ever had in the theater, I hated my experience. Why? 1) I felt that he, Forsythe, was struggling with what he wanted the piece to be – was it a pure movement investigation or was it about something else more personal (his wife dying); 2) these two conflicting impulses pulled and fought with at each other for most of the piece (and I had to sit and watch) until the latter won out; and 3) what appeared to be his indecisiveness annoyed me. The response from the audience was divided, half cheered and the other half booed. My theater partner for the evening sat sobbing while I could hardly wait to get out of the theater. However, I could not stop thinking about the piece. Over the course of the next year I thought of it daily and finally concluded that it was a great work but the theatrical experience was not one that I wanted to repeat. It didn’t matter what Forsythe intended (perhaps he knew or perhaps not; or even that his intentions had changed over the course of creating the piece) but what I knew was I did not like my experience. But that did not stop me from recognizing that the work on its own terms was magnificent.
I believe that dance conversations that focus primarily on vocabulary are important but also that they are basic and entry level conversations, the first step in beginning to articulate what the eye and the mind recognizes and understands as the various building blocks that make a dance. But perhaps a more meaningful conversation would not be so singularly focused.