Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Shy Date With Modern Dance

On Thursday night I watched the rehearsal for "60 Dances in 60 Minutes," which will be performed at The Registry Theatre on November 4th. I'd hoped to learn what contemporary dance is all about and -- more importantly -- what makes it entertaining, enlightening, or (God forbid) insufferable to the modern layperson audience-member.

Can I explain the secrets of dance after a mere four hours of exposure? I only saw one single company performing one single piece and I didn't even get to see the end. There are many different approaches to dance, and every audience member is an individual, so I can't just say "This is what it's all about" (as much as that would save me some heavy pondering and how-do-I-express-this anxiety).

Seeing the rehearsal -- and enjoying some whispered chats with Jacob Zimmer, the dramaturge -- hasn't left me with many answers and it hasn't turned me into an instant fan. I learned a few more things about my personal hangups and how they relate to my entertainment the very least it was a good private therapy session.

But I'm not here to tell you about my childhood trauma; that's what the REST of this blog is about. I'm assuming instead that some of my insights may be interesting to you, whether you loathe modern dance or you think it's the absolute cat's meow.


"60 Dances in 60 Minutes" was first performed in February by the five principle dancers of the Dancemakers company. For the show in Kitchener they'd chosen to add five local dancers to the performance, and they thought it would be interesting to have me -- the clueless, curious, neurotic-but-eloquent spectator -- sit in during one of their rehearsals.

I was nervous. As is always the case with events where audience-appreciation is not tied to long-standing rules of etiquette and judgment, my first concern was how much reverence I was expected to have for their work. How serious must I be? Dost I dare to make jokes about thee art, especially being the only person in the audience and surrounded by its performers and creators, all of whom are extremely fit? I can't speak for other shows, but I can say this for sure: if you don't laugh a bit during "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" then you probably have a really crappy sense of humour.

But the question remains: what should the audience get out of this particular performance? The more abstract a piece of entertainment is -- the more distant it is from convention, the fewer obvious cues transmitted by the performers, the more flexible its parameters -- the greater the potential for hostility, boredom, confusion, or feelings of boorish inadequacy. Nobody likes to feel stupid, especially not those of us who consider ourselves open-minded and experienced enough to be able to "get it."

Most forms of contemporary dance do not, in my experience, present themselves in traditional or unambiguous ways. If the audience doesn't "get" the performance, is that a failure of us or the dance company? Is that even a failure at all?


The title "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" gives you an idea of what this performance is about, but here's a more explicit precis: the dancers, singly or in groups, will perform various tasks during a certain time period. How will ten dancers (and the audience) perceive the performance of these tasks in relation to the passage of time?

We have all benefited from (and been victimized by) time's subjectivity. Two hours spent at a good party can feel like ten fleeting minutes, while a ten-minute drive home with a full bladder simply never ends.

"60 Dances in 60 Minutes" is -- in its most obvious interpretation -- about the subjectivity of time. Even if you miss the somewhat hasty and informal explanation at the beginning of the performance, you will eventually notice that the dancers are attempting to synchronize their tasks -- like counting silently in their heads -- but they never finish together despite all their highly-polished dancerly-discipline.

Why can't they sync with each other? Because the passage of time, in the absence of coordinated cues like the a visible clock, is a subjective and ever-changing thing. None of us have quartz crystals in our heads. We rely on metabolism and breathing, stride-length and thought-passage to inform us of how quickly the rest of the world is moving in relation to us. When all the dancers close their eyes simultaneously and start counting silently, and then each of them raises a hand when they have reached the agreed-upon number, the dancer who ate a cheeseburger may finish faster than the one with a painful blister on her heel. This is a bizarre and entertaining way of expressing what we deal with every day: there is no way for people to synchronize with each other without external time cues.

To look at it in one way, "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" is a series of experiments to demonstrate how individual people perceive time. Sometimes the time intervals are short and sometimes they're excruciatingly long, and due to this occasional excruciating nature, the AUDIENCE is ALSO confronted with their individual time-perceptions: three minutes staring at a motionless line of dancers evokes all sorts of feelings, but one of them is how long three minutes can be when not a heck of a lot is going on.


Back to the rehearsal and my impressions of it. Early on I noticed that the director and the performers were using evocative words to describe the sixty different sections of the performance.

One section was called "witnessing," for example, and another was "the how-to's." There were movements called "abbreviations" and "acronyms," and there were also "koala" and "suicide."

These words were a convenient shorthand for the dancers, of course, but I was fascinated by the fact that the audience would never hear those words (unless they looked at the rundown which was provided at the end of the show). When I saw one dancer carrying another, belly-to-belly, in a tight and motionless embrace, my perception of the act changed as soon as I found out -- thanks to my privileged position as silent rehearsal voyeur -- that they referred to this action as "koala." If they'd called it "frog" or "Kali" then I probably would have viewed it differently.

Why do I bring this up? Because our perception of PLOT is just as subjective as our perception of TIME. "Hamlet" would give a very different impression to a 17th century barmaid, a bored highschool student, and a queer theorist respectively. No plot can contain one single, universal impression for everybody. You can say this about books or movies or any other type of public art you can think of.

Contemporary dance rarely telegraphs its narrative as clearly as a Hemmingway novel, and even if it DID there'd be the same issues of interpretation. When we see one woman suspending and holding another woman closely, what does that mean to us? Is it love? Is it trust? Is it fear or hope or disability? Hemmingway would tell us which it was -- and he'd probably wrestle both dancers to the ground as well -- but would we agree with his assertion? And would our perception of the act be richened -- or cheapened -- if we found it was called "koala?"

Contemporary dance, to me, seems largely ambiguous. The thematic clues given to the audience in "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" are not presented like they would be in an Agatha Christie novel...

...but the point of "60 Dances" is not to discover whodunnit before the pompous detective does. I suspect that the dance company would agree with me that they do not expect everybody in the audience to absorb the information provided in exactly the same way; in fact, the company might HATE that possibility. I suspect that they -- and perhaps most artists who work in relatively non-traditional ways -- want the audience members to make up their own minds.

But here's the thing: I'm not part of the dance company, I'm an audience member, so how many clues to the narrative should I be given? How much of it should be explained, and how clearly? Should there be identifiable characters in the performance with individual motivations, or are they all just "dancers," lab rats in a time experiment...a time experiment which I may not even understand is going on? While watching the rehearsal I found myself fixating on the words "koala" and "the how-to's" and "witnessing" because I CRAVED a plot. I clung to one reoccurring figure -- a girl in a parka with a subtly funny walk -- because she provided me with a sense of character that I find satisfying and fulfilling.

"What is the narrative of a symphony?" Jacob asked when we talked about this, and he's correct. And keep in mind that I was also watching the rehearsal of a performance that was yet to be completed, and watching it in the artificial environment of a closed theatre, without an audience, under bright lights, with a full bladder.

But I think this comes to the root of my general wariness about contemporary dance. I am not familiar with the concepts and history of the artform so I can't construct even a tenuous narrative like "I don't understand the literal soup cans but at least I understand pop art." I am also not privy to the thoughts of the dramaturge or the director or the performers, because they choose to remain silent or (more likely) because I hate reading the tiny print on theatre brochures.

Without knowing the concepts that the company is trying to express, I can't compare them with my own impressions. I don't know whether they've succeeded in getting their ideas across. And if my impression is the opposite of what they intended to convey, has the performance been a failure? Is there such a thing as failure in contemporary dance? Or in an abstract painting? In a symphony?

PS: I am generally confused by the symphonies as well. Sorry.


Back to the rehearsal. "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" is not just an experiment in subjective time; if it were then it would be best inflicted on a bunch of undergrads in a controlled manner (hopefully with electric shocks), and not performed on a stage.

No, the AESTHETICS of this performance are important as well. It's as though the success of the aforementioned experiment depends partly on whether the experimenter is wearing footwear which compliments the style of the electroencephalogram.

During the rehearsal there were constant negotiations between the artistic director, the associate director, and all ten dancers about the smallest details of the piece. This process was collaborative and everybody offered suggestions, and while some were practical -- dealing with safety, for instance -- and some related to theme, most of them were based on simple aesthetic considerations.

The discussions about the look and feel of the piece were the only extended and difficult ones I witnessed; should the dancers who perform the "knee burn" be hesitating before they slide, or should they dive right in? When two dancers do an impromptu translation from French to English, should they do it cautiously or should they just shout over each other? And how noisy should each of them be when they all count out loud?

A lot of discussion went into what one particular dancer should do during a three-minute segment. When somebody suggested that she should run to the back wall and press herself against it, associate director Bonnie Kim said "That's great. I love the wall." And everybody agreed.

"Loving the wall" has nothing to do with the theme of "60 Dances in 60 Minutes." There is no thematic reason why that dancer, at that time, should do that particular action. It's not a plot thing, it's not a character thing. It just seemed good.

In another one of our whispered conferences, Jacob agreeed that aesthetic decisions are pervasive and important to him, and they provide another aspect of what the audience may take away from the show: does it feel right? Is it well-paced? Is there enough variety?

Some modern works are composed entirely within rigid initial constraints, which is why they may come across as dry, pedantic, and mechanical. There must always be the consideration of how much one should deviate from (or add to) the central conceit in order to appeal to form and feeling, those most subjective of audience impressions. Does it look or sound good? Does it resonate nicely? Does it move so far from the theme that the point is lost and the audience is distracted?

Sometimes yes, if you're as literal-minded as I am. When the dancers jog or slide or tickle each other, a somewhat grumpy part of my brain wants to know "why are they sliding?" because I can't relate those things to my everyday life. When a stranger walks up to me on the street and spends three minutes explaining to me how to bake a Shepherd's pie, I think he's insane and he probably wants to put me IN the pie, which is not pleasing at all. It's kooky.

Jacob whispers to me about furnishing a room: there are basic rules regarding size and clearance, but there are also aesthetic considerations. It's not generally desirable to eliminate either consideration: you end up with a fully rule-based composition (like a boiler room) or one that looks great but your friends avoid, because the couch is too far away from the coffee table, and you can't see the TV properly, and when you touch the wall it collapses.

If modern dance doesn't appeal to the eye, has it failed? Conversely, if it ONLY appeals to the eye, is it nothing more than an awkward Hokey-Pokey that you're not allowed to join?


Why all this speculation? Why didn't I ask Jacob or director Michael Trent what THEY felt the audience would perceive?

I'm not lazy, honest! I wanted to develop my own ideas about the piece, and I also wanted to glean -- non-verbally, instinctively -- what they subconsciously hoped for and expected. What would be a success for them? What would failure be? Did success or failure even matter?

The primary impression I got was that they enjoy what they do, they are intensely interested in their audience, and they are confident that people WILL appreciate and understand it. During the four hours I was there I didn't actually see them debate their methods of communicating their ideas, but those discussions probably happened long ago, during the initial planning stages, before the February shows ever happened.

And me? My original plan was to go to several rehearsals and try to see the process from different angles, but I don't think I would have learned anything more than I already did, and besides I'd need a lot more exposure in order to make this really be about THEM or YOU instead of ME.

All I REALLY know is that, despite all of my kvetching and analyzing and quizzing, I'm impressed with what they're doing and I can't wait to see the show. I'm sure I'll enjoy it. I won't know why, thank goodness. I think I just will.

But I'll have to take all other performances as they come, much as I would a book, or a film...or even a symphony.

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