Over the past couple of years I have found myself dissatisfied with many of the ways in which I work. After the creation of the Man/Pet program (The Miraculous Mandarin/Petrushka), it occurred to me that the formality and tidiness of those pieces robbed them of their vitality and the structures were inadequate to support the theatrical experiences I wished the audience to have or ideas I wanted them to grapple with. For years my work had very much been grounded in a proscenium aesthetic (a framed picture through which the audience peered to observe what was on the other side). I had relished exploring the possibilities of proscenium theatrical devices as well as the visceral thrill and dynamic energy generated when the conventions were broken. But what had once seemed exciting now started to seem like mindless habit – irrelevant, artificial, un-thoughtful, automatic and gratuitous. These explorations had grown tiresome. This became clear to me during Man/Pet.
The PAMU projects (Beyond Dance: Promoting Awareness and Mutual Understanding), with their focus on complex geo-political issues, seemed to demand that I explore other ways of working and structuring. I saw these projects as a possible way, an opportunity, to break the old habits and begin to explore other kinds of structures and organizing principles, something more ‘authentic’- structures that mimic or attempt to replicate the complexity and the unknowable(ness) of the subject of the pieces or even of life itself. I was weary of the neat and tidy on stage, viewing things from only one vantage point, everything organized so that the eye could easily take it all in. I wanted something that was closer to how the contemporary world appeared to me – so unknowable and complex that order as it had been known seemed to disappear and become unpredictable, even chaotic.
But what of the dozens (or tens of dozens) of pieces I had created over the past decades before my current explorations into ‘authentic structure’? I cannot ignore the fact that the old works are in many ways neat and tidy (while the content might not be), are designed to be viewed frontally, and for the most part, they conform to and exploit traditional proscenium stage picture theory (even when breaking the rules they are the old rules being broken in old ways, they ask the same old questions). With those works I had set out to gain mastery in an old system with values grounded in the 19th Century and perfected in the 20th Century – the old pieces reflect those concerns. Then how should these old works be presented now? What is the best way for them to be viewed today in order for them to be, if not relevant, at least vital and engaging?
Perhaps one way to begin to answer some of these questions is to draw attention to what is most obvious about theses works: they are meant to be seen from a front/ there is one ideal vantage point, the images fit within conventional stage pictures, the viewer’s attention is clearly focused (with the things that are most important taking place center-center), and there are no decisions to be made about what is to be watched. One might say that their technical concerns are ‘nostalgic’ – a world as viewed with hindsight or as we remember it being, ordered and knowable, not how it is, unpredictable and unknowable.
With these questions and concerns in mind, I decided to begin our 2010-11 Season with “Peering Into The Ballroom”, three of my ‘ballroom’ ballets, La Valse, Act 2 from Bristle (1993), Longing (2005), and Le Bal Noir (2006) all new to Spectrum. My decision is partially driven by a desire to continue investigating the implied questions raised last season with the Byrd Retrospective Festival: 1) how do my older works and/or those not made for Spectrum create context for the current Spectrum creations and 2) how do they fit into a continuum of my artistic concerns, fascinations, and development? They were chosen also because, 1) the relationship they bear to ‘le bal noir’ ballets of Balanchine (a strong an ongoing fascination); 2) my hope, desire, and need to keep these works relevant to my recent artistic explorations; and 3) to use them as a starting point to begin to self-interrogate my past work.
This has led me to wonder how to highlight, push or force the viewer to confront that which is most unnatural and ‘inauthentic’ about then – a carefully ordered and single perspective reality – in order that their vitality can reveal itself. I am proposing to make more visible the major conceit of these works – the proscenium or the notion that the viewer peers through a 4th wall to witness real life on the other side. We, the objective and omniscient viewer, like Superman with his x-ray vision (or God), watches as the performers engage in their ‘living’- we assess their actions as well as their skills as performers. And within this closed, self-contained, artificial system, this tautology, in which our perspective, unlike real life, is incontrovertible, we feel omnipotent. We are above the chaos and the unpredictability of life and therefore, we feel safe and secure. This sense of feeling safe, secure, and God-like is why I believe remnants of 19th Century Europeans aesthetic and sensibilities persists in our artistic cultures – That false sense of order and balance, of power, makes us believe we are above the fray, that we are in control and life is not dangerous and chaotic and we are not powerless over the unpredictability of existence.
For “Peering Into The Ballroom” we will divide out Studio Theater in two. On one side will be the audience/viewer (A/V), on the other the dancers/performers (D/P). Between them will be a frame – like a picture frame or a window frame – that would demarcate the two spaces. On the ‘D/P’ side a beautiful, velvet draped, chandeliered room suggesting a late 19th Century ballroom or salon will be installed and in which the performance of the three works will take place; on the ‘A/V’ side, chairs rowed for the patrons to sit and view the illusion on the other side. The effect will be very much like a 19th Century diorama. While dioramas were typically landscapes this analogy is to show the connection and similarities of the artificial and illusionary aspects of our room and the theatrical convention of proscenium framing. And like the audiences of the 19th Century that would peer through proscenium arches and the frame of the diorama to see an image that suggests a real life setting or even the modern dioramas that one encounters in museums of natural history, our patrons will do the same, all the while recognizing the falseness of it all. This recognition of falseness elevates the work from the realm of the inauthentic or deceptive to the domain of the metaphoric or poetic.
I think the point I am trying to make here is that unlike the ‘authentic structures’ that I am seeking to create for my newer work this hyper-artificial ‘framing’ of older works draws even more attention to the ‘inauthenticity’ of their structures and nature; thereby, making them poetic and ‘honest’. They are honest because we are conscious that the structures are false and simplistic fabrications and are not attempting to signify the world or life in its complexities but rather represent a narrow, simple, and easily perceivable world. This contextualizing of the older pieces validates them inside the framework of my current aesthetic explorations. Suggesting that the ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ are both compelling ways to represent the complex and unknowable world in which we live, have lived, or wished we lived.