In my first posting I wondered about how much of the personal should appear in the blog – what my personal life had to do with my professional choices and artistic creations. As I said then, the point perhaps of this blog is to provide some insight into my process of being an artistic director and choreographer and the complex array of things that go into making artistic and organizational decisions. This issue of the relationship of personal history to artistic meaning, output, and value has been around for a while in literary criticism – is knowledge of an artist’s personal history and psychology necessary to discern meaning from the work, and for an appraisal and valuation of it? But in dance these questions are seldom if ever asked. Mostly, it is that those personal truths and realities of the artists’ lives is thought to add a deeper understanding or insight into what is being seen on stage but not necessarily to contribute to the work’s artistic successfulness, worth or value.
Since so much of American contemporary dance is abstract, autobiographical elements are almost impossible to discern. One might say that American contemporary dance artists do everything they can so that who they really are as people and glimpses of their personal life goes unrevealed in their work, (Bill T Jones, David Rousseve, and Reggie Wilson might be exceptions and interestingly all African-American males). With abstract dance artists it is only through ongoing viewing of their work that we come to understand and appreciate (or not) their aesthetic concerns and interests. But seldom do we know what non-aesthetic circumstances drive them and the choices they make – how the non-aesthetic affects the aesthetic. Perhaps even the complex structures employed by many of these artists are like elaborate decoys designed to distract and to keeps us away from knowing who they really are.
I am raising the question because I recently saw a performance by a young (experience wise not chronology) and talented choreographer that caught me off guard. There were two moments in particular that were startling and caused me to gasp (and those of you that know me, know that it takes a lot to make me gasp). In the first, a woman was being violently “humped” by a man in the center of the stage just before the lights went to black ending one of the sections of the piece. The second involved the same woman being tossed upside down in a waste dumpster with her legs sticking straight up, just before another black out, this time signaling the end of the piece and the program.
The dance in general I would describe as a surrealist romp with many of the elements one would expect from a work of that nature – surprises, unexpected juxtapositions and non-sequiturs. And if you were inclined to interpret the moments I described from a feminist perspective there would be much to be dismayed, alarmed, and perhaps angered by. So, from both those viewpoints, gasping seems an appropriate response. However, what triggered me was neither. It was my knowledge of non-artistic biographical information about the choreographer and his relationship with the performers in question that provoked my reaction – the woman in the two instances is the ex-wife of the choreographer and the second man, who tosses her in the dumpster, is the choreographer’s current domestic partner.
With this additional information, other questions cascaded. What is he saying about his relationship with his ex? How does he really feel about her? What does he think of his current life with his current partner in relationship to his old married life? Does he realize that these kinds of questions might arise for viewers? How does the ex feel about what was happening to her on stage? …. I could go on but I won’t because what this points out is that none of these questions have anything to do with whether what happened on stage succeeded as a piece of good dance or not.
In someway, this is familiar territory for me. Back in 1993, I created Sentimental Cannibalism, a work that used as it reference point Jean Baudrillard’s On Seduction. The work caused quite a stir (not always positive). Like Baudrillard I was called anti-feminist (among other things). I recall vividly an incident at the American Dance Festival when David Dorfman and I almost came to blows when he said the piece was pornographic and demeaned women and that I was a misogynist. Interestingly, black women responded quite differently to the work and thought the images of women depicted in the work were not those of man eating “bitches” but rather of strong and assertive women who gave as good as they got. While my intention in the work was to create movement and visual configurations that were metaphors or signifiers of Baudrillard’s ideas, as well as to make an engaging piece of dance-theater, many considered the work to be autobiographical and interpreted it as a manifestation of my personal (and damaged) psychology. And because of that perspective many condemned the work and I was demonized. After that, it seemed all my work was scrutinized through the misogynist lens.
Now I find myself considering intent and meaning in regard to another male artist’s work. Not necessarily what his conscious intent was but what he might have unintentionally communicated. Is he (and was I back in 1993) being irresponsible by not considering how the imagery in the dance might be interpreted? Or are we as artists so caught up in our efforts to solve the technical and unique challenges and demands of creating new work that we naively create inside a bubble? And only after that bubble is burst by some viewer who is bringing all kinds of “other” information – perspectives, preconceptions, and histories (personal, generational, cultural) – are we made aware that we might have said more that what we meant to say… However, I am still left with the question – Was the work any good?