Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dance and Democratization - Everybody Dance Now

I attended the Reggie Wilson/ Andreya Ouamba master class at the Walker today, and offering that existed in conjunction with their commissioned show there this weekend. I was quite excited, after reading from a couple of sources that I would be experiencing African, pos-modern, improvisation, etc.

I did not leave with what I thought I would. This is not to say that the class was not enjoyable, or that what was touched upon was not worthwhile. It IS to say that I figured some things out about myself regarding how I see dance fitting into certain descriptions. These musings likely apply to most art, though I stick with dance, as it is what I know and what interests me.

To begin, I will touch upon the idea of 'post-African.' In preparation to sit and write my thoughts, I did a little more research about the companies and the show they have created for the Walker. Admittably, I was not entirely familiar (or really familiar at all) with either choreographer's work, I only knew the descriptions I read on flyers. Upon reading more, I came across a description of Wilson's (the American choreographer) work as "post-African/Neo HooDoo Modern dance." I did have to look into 'Hoo Doo,' which pertains to dances done during traditional ring shouts. Coming upon this information only lead me further to believe in my initial thoughts; Post-African? As far as I am concerned, Africa still appears to be a continent, and African dance is still thriving as a form. Just because it discovered its foundations hundreds (maybe thousands) of years ago does not mean it is no longer a vaild form. The passing of time allows a form to grow more rich, to develop in new places. I am not suggesting that 'traditional' forms should not experience innovation, growth, fusion - I believe very much the opposite. However, in speaking of titles and descriptions, I do have a difficult time with the word 'post' and the meanings it can create.

When I hear something described as 'post-insert-word-here,' I think that the subject at hand has passed, seen its day, been moved on from. Take the classic dance example - 'post-modern.' To be post-modern is to be over and done with modern's beginnings, anything classic, to be exploring 'new' territory (even though the territory at hand may be as weathered as a Graham contraction). When paired with 'Hoo Doo,' the term 'post-African seems just plain contradictory. African dance is a form that should be treated with reverance for its ability to carry through decades to so many places and people, not something that should be deemed as passed.

Reading further into this idea of 'Post-African,' the literature I read about the show basically suggested that Wilson has overcome his African-ness by fusing traditional movement with modern. If a choreographer's interest and wish is to explore such a thing, more power to them, but I have a difficult time pairing that exploration with the idea that the individual has 'overcome' their roots, or somehow managed to make their roots more worthwhile in the eyes of 'modern' critics. What is there to overcome in this situation? Years of tormented ancestors and cultural difficulties, yes. But it is exactly these things that should cause a choreographer or a critic to not reject or overcome roots, but to embrace them and use them as fuel. Maybe Wilson does do this. However, the literature describing the show, as well as my experience in the class lead me to believe otherwise.

Along these same lines, I ponder the creations of collaborator Ouamba from Senegal. Oumaba's work was described as having an 'interest in an improvisation-influenced approach.' I have the utmost respect for anyone who can come to find what really drives them, and if it happens that modern improvisation is what drives Ouamba and he knows this, he is on his way to the kind of comfort within creation that is difficult for an artist to find. The way in which his influences have been presented is the source of my mind conflict here. I feel as though his interest in improvisation is being paired with the fact that he is from Senegal in not the best of ways. To be more clear, it seems that he is an African artist being hailed for the fact that he has discovered and embraced a more Western approach to concert dance.

Maybe this is all an illusion in my head, as I do carry a bias regarding modern-based versus traditional dance forms. This bias was only enforced by the way I felt participating in the class at the Walker. The stark white walls and extreme minimalism (so minimal that some functionality is lost) I was surrounded by yesterday made me fell void of comfort, on edge, too detailedly-human to fit into such surroundings. In other words, even the surroundings of modern art (or 'high art,' the way I feel such artists often look upon their own work in contrast to anything else but would never admit thinking of such descriptions) are fashioned in a way that make the viewer feel small, insignificant, of a lower place. These feelings brought me back to the thoughts that have been forming in my artistic center; I am Mid-Western, I love the small town feel (regardless of the fact that I will not pursue it as a living style), I revel in personal connection and comfort that comes from small, everyday, ordinary interactions. Key word here; ordinary. This word does not carry negativity to me, but rather, the opposite. Ordinary carries familiarity, openness, inclusion. The shiny lifeless walls of the Walker, and the class they held within them yesterday both seem to stray away from such feelings for me. I am not trying to put this forward as a judgement against anyone who does enjoy such art and surroundings, but rather as an explaination why I (and many other well-informed minds) prefer the exact opposite. Preference of the opposite is not a hallmark of ignorance or inability to understand 'modern' creation, but rather is often a choice to embrace the important and beneficial ideas of tradition, familiarity, inclusion, socialness and pure enjoyment.

As a class participant, though I knew not what I know now from my admittably minimal research, I gathered the same feelings in my body that I have been expressing in words. I have for some time now been exploring my need to reconnect with the familiarity, inclusion, socialness, tradition, and music as a driver for the desire to move. In taking the class this morning, I found myself deeply pondering this and a couple other topics pertinent to what drives movement in my body. About ten minutes into the class, I realized that I hadn't taken an extremely post-modern (for lack of better terminology, but isn't that what has been said for at least 20 years now?) class for over a year. Having been deeply absorbed in jazz and vernacular forms for over a year, the approach felt like a thing of the past. The beginning plies and such were familiar enough, but all too familiar; the 'need' to correct pain-stakingly small body details.

Specificity is a perfectly desireable objective as a choreographer or a teacher of dance, but I am coming to realize that technical specificity is really not what I enjoy or what I am after. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I am seeking the very opposite. Experiencing this class today, though I really did enjoy myself, even if just for change of routine and outlook, I was brought a step closer to discovering what I am about as a performer and choreographer. I have known from recent previous experiences that I am about the music, I am about personal connections, I am about connecting to other people. Additionally, I am coming to realize that I am about dance as a thing of regular people. It is something that everyone can do and enjoy. To be academic, I am about the democratization of dance. When did dance become this elusive thing that only select few people could be deemed good enough in which to participate? During the time of the court of Louis the 14th? If I remember my dance history information correctly, it seems that modern dance originally came forth as a rebellion against the codified and elitist world of ballet. It seems to me that much of the modern dance world has cycled right back to the position from which it originally rebelled.

How were these thoughts triggered? By an instruction small but poignant; a request to align my ribs into my body. That is the nice way to say it. To me, this is an instruction to uncomfortably tighten my whole torso, to give up any freedom it may experience, to limit expressive possibilities. I understand and respect the idea of finding 'proper alignment,' but I also think that the idea of proper is malleable, and Wilson's proper was tighter than I had wished. This and other ideas within the continuation of the class - 'no hip movement,' for example - bring me right back to what it is about much of modern dance that I do not enjoy. The reverence of precision similarity. What about style? Style is not so important in the eyes of choreography that says big things, despite the fact that each body performing it is different. This is an idea that I just cannot embrace. The more time I spend trying to perfect precision similarity and technique is all the less I have to enjoy moving in the styles and ways that my unique body wishes to experience. This strings together what I find myself doing as of late - jazz, clogging, square dances, contra dances.

And there we have it - I am less and less interested in techniques that set dancers apart from regular moving humans, and more and more interested in what kind of dance stirs the soul and is open to all people, regardless of their access to formal dance training. There are style and groove components in every body on earth, and I love to see what activates these things.

One thing is for sure - it is certainly not precision similarity!