Four Points on Looking at Dance

Looking at Dance:

Aaron Wood’s recent review of Arrival/Departures triggers a splurging of synaptic discharges. Many issues are brought up about dance in Utah that are critical to address for Utah-based artists. In particular, he brings up issues about the relationship between dances; exhibition venues and screenings; remembering past performances while watching a dance in the present time; the boredom in watching performances that resemble others; and feeling left short-handed by the choreographer. What follows in this article are some of my impressions and reactions to the Wood’s various lines of inquiry. There’s much at stake in taking on an assortment of aspects in one rebuttal but I will try since I can’t help but observe that the review highlights more about dance audiences/enthusiasts in Utah than the Utah artists. In the next four points, Pluralities and Bubbles; Body as Archive; Screen Aesthetics; and On Essences, I address some of the most pressing questions that an exegesis of his review prompts. In this textual criticism, I respond to Wood’s written analysis of his experience as well as the experience itself. I hope we can ascertain some of the complex underpinnings of watching and attending dance exhibitions and performances for the enthusiast as well as the practitioner. I hope we can start a conversation that might shed insight on the presuppositions of how we each person differently watches and features dance, on screen and on “live” bodies.

Pluralities and Bubbles

Just as there are many layers in the lamenting review,  plenty aspects exist in the exhibition experience. Let’s address those layers now. To begin with, Wood’s prognosis catches plural manifestations of various practice(s). In one instance, Wood observes the admixture of scree and dance, and in the other dance and exhibition. I am immediately propelled to acknowledge that indeed the term practice(s)—the emphasis on the plural—is more apt to concretise and frame what is occurring within the gallery. Rio Gallery is indeed vast and expansive, “superlative” is the descriptor Wood uses. Using the gallery space—once a  train station—to showcase dances complicates the singular viewership that we generally expect of a dance event. While the gallery stroll highlights live performances, with breathing bodies performing in the space, the stroll experience is one materialised aspect of the many overlapping layers that can be highlighted by an exhibition. Other layers that are given substance to include the static screen displays performing throughout the day. The sounds excite the passerby. This soundscape is not necessarily rendered in a romanticized ideal; it can be intrusive. For example, the security guard that is at the Rio Gallery everyday observes the non-responsive phases of the dances in the middle of the day and in between the galleries. Wood’s  eyes and embodied experiences are one of many individual experiences of the event.  Indeed, many layers and relationships between dance(s), venue and screening, abound in the event. However, these intersecting elements are rendered connected in Woods own experience, and penultimately in the written review.

Peter Sloterdijk’s spherelogical framework, particularly his ideas about bubbles, helps ascertained the various layers Wood describes in his review. Sloterdijk’s spherelogical concept addresses human and between human “spaces of co-existence.” Bubbles, in particular, refers to the micro-spheres where experience originates. Wood’s descriptive analysis of the gallery experience captures the various microspheres with which he is entering the space. Within his bodily bubble, we observe he brings in his dance practice by asking and reflecting on two guiding questions. First, Wood considers, “ I have been questioning the state in which our art form exists and where it is heading. I can’t help but wonder if every idea has already been explored.”  Secondarily he asks, “Another question I have been seeking an answer for is how much longer will I tolerate, with complete boredom, the use of still images in dance?”  In Sloterdijk terms, we could say that there are several personal bubbles overlapping within the gallery bubble that Wood is trying to speak to in his review. Between the two guiding concerns, the gallery space and the written reflection, Wood focuses on two of the seventeen screenings so as to“[steer] clear of standing on a soap box for an erroneous amount of time.”  Interestingly, from this bubble framework, Wood’s aggregate review only catches one fraction, a micro-bubble of the many overlapping spheres of the exhibition. Writing about each screen dance and each of the seventeen performances will take much time and might require to much time of the person reading the review—it is painstakingly difficult to write about micro-micro bubbles. Which leads me to the consider the excitations that occur when Wood’s personal sphere interacts with the spheres of the event. While we can focus and plainly state that indeed the review captures a small portion of the entire bubbles that overlap and don’t overlap during Woods experience,  these detectable fizzing and foaming bubbles yield some puzzling observations of dance and screen dances as watchable events.

A literary analysis of the two guiding concerns per questions that serve as the springboard for the review—once more, dance’s state and still images— reveals challenging state(s) of affairs for dance(s) as event(s). The tragedy of the review—I use tragedy in the Mexican Telenovela sense where I am exaggerating for purpose—is failing to recognize the ability that we as dance expectants and enthusiasts are coming into the gallery space with a particular habitus in dance watching. One dominant tradition of watching dance in the USA, with it’s pronounced emphasis on body and movement, is following the linearity of one notion in concert event format; even in a la round theatre events we sit and watch as one concept unfolds before our eyes. We generally engage dance performance events as localised, linear, and modal (i.e., A,B, A1), as apposed to displaced, multivariable and non-mono-modal (G,X,@). Interestingly, when we recall dance performances, we recall clustered relations and connections; most of the time not following how the idea started to how it logically ended. Yet, despite the infusion of ‘conceptual’ dance from the 1990s and the subsequent disapproval against it, we persistently watch a performance to expect an overt clarity in linear ideas that make sense. While Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanovic assert that choreographies of today—they make this remark in 2010—are able to write without the body and produce bodily expressions without movement, I propose that it is not just the choreographer that writes and produces. The spectator writes and produces her and his ideas about choreography when watching the dance event. This audience writing and producing is evident in the review.

While I am eager to find out why Wood uses the phrase “enthusiast”, instead of a practitioner, I think the review reveals how both dance and screen performances are bondage to retinal and aesthetic consumption, demanding that the dance cater to individual desires. To request…no, demand of all dances in the ARRIVALS/DEPARTURE gallery conform to one ideological aesthetic and, in this case, grande movement narratives approvable by the audience is über cognitive colonial thinking in action. Wood insists, “Anderson is on a path to finding a deepened sense of visual abstraction but has yet to realize her full potential. I will be anticipating the day it happens.” Now, by spotlighting the remark I don’t intend to suggest that one cannot express the subjective experience of watching the dance and feeling bored; the emotive response is valid, furthermore encouraged. I am referring to the de facto imposition of the idea that the dance should have give us, as a “dance enthusiasts”, something we find it lacking. An honest and more important question would be, “What  factors contributed to my lack of engagement with this particular dance/practice at this moment and not with what I want it to be?” Taking the time and length to write about such complex bubbles interacting with each other we reveal plural dimensions to the Arrivals/Departure gallery as well as how we watch and can dance for ourselves.

In contrast to being fussy with what we see, we can emancipate our dance enthusiast expectations. We can view the dance event as an iteration across choreographic panorama processes. In The Elastic Lines Between Curation, Performance and Research (forthcoming), Colin Lalonde and myself contend that Erin Manning’s notion of spatial elasticity captures the elongated textures of the in-betweenness or interval of movement. From this elastic perspective, the curatorial event appears as a potentiality of the initial performance being exhibited. Furthermore, we state that the spectator watching the dance and dance exhibit is a part of that elasticated process. From an elastic prism, we could argue Wood is participating in the choreographic endeavour as a participant of an unfolding event. As such, we afford new possible modes of engaging the materialised exhibit at hand. For example, we as a dance viewer of the gallery pieces have digital tools to document our immediate experience, a la record a response with voice and video recorder or smartphone. We can record ourselves responding on site by sitting, dancing, chatting, making faces; in real time capturing the affect of the watching experience. In my choreographic practice, with Performance Mapping Project, bodily reactions are documented with video to capture the immediacies of the ineffable moment of being in a new place with new experiences. Recording the spatialization of our immediate experience in a gallery provides alternative approaches to the plural experiences/bubbles present in the dance event and to the documentation of the subject in a dance event.


Body as archive

One of the most poignant elements of the review is the pronounced documentation and address of bodily memories. Specifically, Wood discerns the multiple experiences of remembering performances in the past by looking at performances in the present at the ARRIVALS/DEPARTURE gallery. This experience deserves due attention. I will address the issues of seeing reiterations of dances by way of Andre Lepecki’s notions of archiving.

Surely we can ask…what is it exactly that triggered Wood’s kinaesthetic memory? Even without going into the deep realms of psychoanalysis—investigating Wood’s conscious interaction with the subconscious—or all the more into phenomenological embodied theory, we deduce that the dance practitioners being exhibited at the gallery have the capacity to linger and, also, extract abstract historical moments in time. Wood captures one moment, ” Sam Hanson’s dance film ‘When We Were Young,’ reminded me of a performance art piece I saw when I was 18 and on a theatre trip to Minneapolis.” [Damn you Milan Kundera, Sam Hanson’s gesture is mightier than himself!] Wood continues with poignant words,” […] but I can’t help but feel those ideas don’t seem to matter now given that their explorations have become one in the same in my memory.” Surprisingly, Wood’s revelatory remark causes, at least for me, disorientation. I find it shocking that Wood says, ” I wonder how often we as audience members walk away from an experience feeling as though we have been there and seen that.” Immediately, a substantial question comes to mind, “Why should people continue to support repertory dance companies?” It is indisputable that when audiences see repertory performances, the performances have been seen and done. No?

Unhesitatingly we can assert there is validity in preservation. The themes and gestures which persist across time, geography and culture, just as topics of love, disappointment, and passion, are eternally evoked in a myriad of ways through varied artistic genres—ad infinitum. Are there, then, variant manifestations to the manner in which repetition and repertory are revealed? When we inspect Hanson’s performance affect on Wood—and the manner in which Wood documents it—we catch sight of a fortuitous, accidental dance incident. Hanson, I assume, had no idea about the Minnesota artist Wood saw when he was 18. If he did, Wood is one fortunate audience member. We can say that there is a difference between intentional resemblance—the likes of what Repertory Dance Theatre performs—and accidental incidents—the affect that Hanson had on Wood.

Even so, accidental incidents have value as they uncloak what Andre Lepecki discerns the body as a site for archiving, with a will to archive, exposing the afterlives of dances. Lepecki maintains that in recent years choreographers in the Europe and the US have taken an affinity with actively engaging the re-creation and re-enactments dance of the twentieth century which are both well-known and obscure. Lepecki purports this shift of turning and returning to works has paradoxically been one of the “significant hallmarks of contemporary experimental choreography.” Significant about Lepecki’s observance is the carrying forward of this “returning as experimentation” idea as a leading into one of the facets of contemporaneity: will to archive. Lepecki builds on Ramsay Burt’s proposal that re-enactments of the early twenty-first-century focus on “an active (rather than reactive) and generative (rather than imitative) approach to ‘historical material’ led dance re-enactments to resist ‘the disciplinary and controlling structures of repressive, representational regimes’.”  By focusing on the active and generative engaged re-enactments—but in contrast to Burt’s idea of the inevitable failures that come when trying to be faithful—Lepecki asserts, “[R]e-enactments, as ‘will to archive,’ invest in creative re-turns precisely in order to find, foreground, and produce (or invent, or ‘make,’ as Foucault proposed) difference.” A rather simple observance of how many songs use the word love and how many artists paint mountain landscapes exposes what Lepecki remarks is “ not as paranoid-melancholic compulsions to repeat but as singular modes of politicizing time and economies of authorship.” At least for dance and dancers,  by using the body as an archival apparatus—constantly “there and done that”  with endless transmutability and patience—we keep inventing.  Take for example the work of Richard Move. Move recreates Martha Graham’s performances; from solo dances choreographed by Martha to re-enactments of Martha herself in interviews! Move’s archival gesture exposes the collapsibility of time and space. Richard is Martha. Martha is Richard. In the ARRIVALS/DEPARTURE exhibition, Sam is Minnesota. Minnesota is Sam. I feel too excited about this transmutation in re-enactment that I made a video of myself performing a still image of Move[  ]

Ultimately, I conclude that the sensation that Wood has seen something similar before, does not alone make Hanson or Anderson’s pieces worthless, or lacking craft and in no way speaks to any actual evaluation of the pieces itself. More worthwhile would be to situate the piece in context to how others employ similar techniques and compare the execution of said articulation.

Screen aesthetics

Now, I will briefly deal with one confusing element in the review and with two questions that Wood asks concerning the element of the screen. Again, we detect more being said about the viewer than what is being viewed.

Particularly confusing about Wood’s review is his  description of Anderson’s work. It is unclear and confusing  as to the differences and similarities in how Wood sees the live performance The Windy Gap and the visual screendance work. Is there a difference in the materiality of the final rendering? How are two projects, that are interrelated change, because they are intermodal, one live and one screen? Can we use the same metrics to analyses the affect? Is there a difference in the materiality of the final rendering?  A reading of the differences and similarities in how we experience, watch and write about screendance versus live bodies is necessary.

Watching a performance requires a different engagement than sitting in front of a flat LCD screen or printed QR codes, while at the same time trigger memory recalls—as occurs in live dance performance. While again Wood makes references of seeing similar experiences in the past—without ever being specific—it does highlight the potentiality for screen performances to be similar to a live performance. Is it possible that the memory cannot distinguish between watching a human and watching a human on a screen. I certainly think this is true. I mean the HBO series The Wire had me broken-hearted for two years. I still cant believe Marlo gets away! Frankly, Wood’s review comes across as trying to be acutely critical of a performance event with multiple lines of engagement, but in actuality demonstrates nothing about the performances themselves; we learn about obtuse connections based on one specific aesthetic taste.

To  Wood’s long anticipate question, “How long do I have to tolerate still images in dance?”, I say individuals do not have to tolerate them. We can see a light show/music/performance by Ghostland Observatory! Even more, if Wood really desires to see something under the “dance” umbrella he can fly to Australia to see Chunky Move dance company; as of recent, they combine a lot of responsive digital environments to their performances. Wood is free to turn away at any moment during a show. More importantly, a critique does not simply say, “This was a bad choice.” Not even a step more developed to say, “ It is unfilled and it should have done this instead.” Rather than make a complaint or demand from  the most important and elevated viewer in the audience—the one with a pen—a valuable critique provides detailed, thoughtful and useful information to the artist, the discipline and the dialogue. Each audience member has a different aesthetic and it is not for the audience member to demand their preference unless one is A) Simon, from American Idol ruthlessly judging artists to conform to his standards on his show, or B) the director or funding body with a real stake and influence in the production. Wood’s aesthetics cannot dictate what an artist “should” do. Instead, Wood can evaluate a piece by providing his perspective of why the particular method was employed to what aim, and give reasons why it was ineffective for him as a viewer, by considering the context of the piece, location or other elements. Better yet, it can compare with examples of this method when used in other instances as effective, or how other artists effectively produce a similar aim. This provides a point of engagement, comparison and contrast as well as his opinion in a way that reasonably acknowledges he is one of many unique viewers.

To his question, ” What is the next step we can take as art makers to abstract the visual environment through which we interact, see, and connect?” Look at my QR code exhibit or check out the Performance Mapping Project. How terrible, terrible our plight as practitioners and enthusiasts of dance. Ce tragic, people using images in their project. However, if Wood’s questions are about demanding innovative uses of the visual environment, I find that children’s museums are generally at the forefront; kids have the shortest attention span. We should be concerned about craft over novelty. Focusing on the craft or method of constructing a performance and the resulting effect, le mise en scene, gives us an avenue to engage the arc of the performance being experienced. If we are not careful to take inventory of the varying strategies, before writing, our analysis can be convoluted or empty.

Generally, I can’t help but take away that Wood’s experiential thirst during his exhibit attendance yearns for something in particular. Identifying the textures of those craving leads me to my final point.


On Essences

In this last point, I deal with the authorial demands of the viewer when watching the dance, as well as Petra Sabisch’s conception of the manner in which choreography—as a concept—can perform.

Reading the review reminds of a confounding phenomena. A tourist goes to rural Nepal, and when hungry, asks the local shop keeper where the nearest McDonald’s is located. The most explicit abandon for quality analysis of a performance review is giving any substance to the statement, “However, I think this was in excess.” It’s abhorring how so much emphasis is placed on what Wood would have liked to see, on what is and what is not. Strikingly, and perplexingly, one such moment absorbed Wood very much,  “I reflected on the images in my  personal memory bank and questioned if they belong to me.” Wood continues beautifully, “[…] if there are any images from another person’s bank that  have inserted myself into but now catalogue as my own.” Unfortunately, the astonishing moment is squandered away in thirsting for a binary equation. Instead of asking what is the experience of being spatially displaced, Wood strays away in the fancy of the imaginary asking questions about what would happen if the projections became absorbed and minimised. Wood is no longer participating in the actual performance; he is participating in a self-production in the mind—which is a fantastical abstraction to consider and deserves due attention. However, if indeed Wood, as a dance enthusiast, desires “raw” and “daring abandoned feast”, he can see another notable project and local company, Raw Moves. Raw Moves is perfect to fulfil Wood’s desire of  “raw-er”, “explosive movement,” and a wanton disregard for utterly slower choreoconcepts—all of the cognitive capital buzzwords we love to consume. I say all of this only to state that, at least at a discursive level—as happens when one writes a review—a different mode of engagement requires a different mode of analysis. It is imperative to look at the ARRIVALS/DEPARTURE exhibit, and its associated components, with different lenses because it is an autonomous event. If Wood makes the connection in him self, as the interlocutor—between and across the performances—then an auto-ethnographic review of his experience would be revelatory. What starts to happen when we shift the perspective on the performance event as a recognisable form that needs definition, and instead, consider it a temporary state that is evented with each audience attendant? Investigating this questions will require that I employ and consider Petra Sabisch’s 2010 publication.

In Choreographing Relations, Sabisch’s focus—at least at one level—is an investigation of a shifted conceptual understanding of contemporary choreography. Importantly, she attempts to expand the philosophical understanding of the ontology of choreography by placing attention on “What can choreography do?”—instead of trying to define and limiting choreography to what it is. Sabisch elucidates, “By shifting the focus from an inventory of the empirically given to the potential of choreography, a potential which encompasses the capacity of creating new relations, a stable demarcation of the object of choreography can be deviated from.” Deviation from delimiting perspectives has a direct practical operation. Looking at the moment when Wood observes Anderson choosing to project herself dancing the original solo we see materializing the singular moment of the choreography’s potentiality from its inception. When we follow the developing relational thread of the choreography (Anderson dancing solo> Corado García learning the solo> Corado García performing the solo>), we see the iterative, alternative and plural ways of seeing and investigating an initial idea. While this mode of seeing dances is difficult to transition into, because we are consumed by our singular ways of watching performance, we have the potentiality and capacity to begin to switch.

As dance practitioners and enthusiasts we have the capacity to code-switch. This is the term linguists use to describe the phenomena of using two or more languages in conversation to index and process a variety of information in a given conversation. This conceptual mode on communication is useful to adopt to use when we talk about the varied ways we can watch a dance. In one instance we see the material aspect of the performance. Simultaneously, we mediate the immediate experience through a matrix of experiences. We are present while at the same time suspending ourselves out of way and making time and space the temporal performance. The specific space between switching codes is fascinating and has space for experimentation. For me, the moment when someone looks over the shoulder of another person while watching a screendance on a phone is that new moment of switching into new ways of seeing and code switching; it is a moment where we are invited out of immediate kinesphere and, lean over, looking inward at the our hands—and other’s hands— holding the screenstage.

I am left with the looming idea that statements of Wood’s experience  do not clarify or identify the gallery event itself. Rather, it is Wood’s ideology that is made visible. What do we make of this revelation? Because this is everybody’s practice, I am thankful Wood shared his singular experience with all of us. The exciting part is to now engage Wood’s experiential sphere and understand how it dynamically relates to the clustering of ideas sparked in the exhibition, a sphere with its own complexities.

In the above four points I hope I have shown that indeed there is nothing wrong  with “the state” in which dance practices exist. Rather, there are both old and new politics of seeing. Contemporary dance practice(s), however, encourage us to look at our experience as the spectator—one can read Jacque Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator for more on this topic across various other disciplines. When I saw the Arrivals/Departure on 16th of January before its opening, I was excited that by gallerizing dances and the different modes of watching dance the exhibit challenges perceptions of dance enthusiasts  attempting to confine un-confinable practice(s)—ligatures of empirical thinking which exhaust its very potentials(s).

I confess that a hermeneutical analysis of Wood’s review, which would include talking to you in person, trying to figure out the process of you writing your response, taking pictures after you left, interviewing others who heard your initial criticism, would better engage your position. I hope I have given enough substance to clarify my claims. If something it is not clear, I welcome a fiery response.

Lastly, still lingering is the issue of curating the exhibition. Your comments about understanding “the difficult challenge of bringing together all the constituent parts of stagescape” supports an email I sent to loveDancemore. I would like to deal with the curatorial dimensions concerning dance(s), performance and choreography. While Wood gives practical, production comments, like considerations for spacing, light sources and distinct audience pathways, these remarks bring up elephantine questions about the practice of curating performances. Thank you for indirectly supporting my appeal! A drink on me—credit is due where credit is due.

To end, I share my bubble while writing this analysis. I include a picture of myself writing the response, a quote from Tupac, ” if ya kickin’ this shit from your heart, you can go wherever the heart wants you to go” and a recommendation of a  link to the band Hello Seahorse! (