Towards Discussion: Body Book Club Meets for the First Time

Written by Christin Call

Is it valuable and nutritive for practitioners of an art form to discuss their work, the work of their peers, and work from other time periods?  Not everyone would say yes, perhaps most especially when that art form is dance.  As an ephemeral, non-verbal art form, it is both silent and resistant to documentation.  And as long as there is critical theory there will be artists who talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk.  In the dance community, we may feel it’s better to safeguard against such garish inauthenticity by not engaging in “the talk” at all. 

Visual and literary arts, however, have strong traditions of scholarly inquiry and commercial evaluation that contextualize the work of the artist in terms of the historical forbears and contemporaries, the social, political, and geographical time period, and various interpretive lenses of scientific, psychological, anthropological, religious, philosophical, and critical theories.  The level of scholarship and analysis of any given artist, whether we like it or not, adds value to that artist’s work.  We can think about that value in terms of commercial viability (Would Finnegan’s Wake still be in publication if Ulysses had never caught the attention of other writers, critics, and scholars?)  Another value with more direct influence on the artistic community is how contextualizing that work prolongs and increases the presence of specific  artistic concerns in fellow and future artists.  Contextualizing, as much it can get carried aloft on the fumes of hubris, helps an art form perceive its own concerns and intentions more clearly, which helps the art form continue to develop, change, and revitalize itself.

The Seattledance scene has, in the past few years, suffered a shortage of documentation of its performance events.  Just like countless languages have become extinct when the culture of its speakers has been wiped out, this may be considered the bare minimum of what any cultural group needs to keep its practices lively and vibrant.  Most of this documentation used to be the duty of critics from the city’s local newspapers.  With the Seattle PI as it once was now gone, and many other critics gone the way of freelance after lay-offs and downsizing, coverage has been thin at best.

But, with the help of local dance-makers and performers Vanessa de Wolf and Mary Margaret Moore, a new kind of discourse may be able to make its way forward.  The newly formed Body Book Club aims to build up and diversify the way dance is contextualized in Seattle.  The BBC is a reading club that intends to engage in the discussion of historical texts about dance and critical theory with the goal that by doing so, its participants will become better informed about work being made around the globe and throughout history.  The hopeful result is that participants will find increasingly deeper ways of engaging in the processes of their own dance-making and performing.

The Club’s first meeting on December 16, 2011, discussed Susan Sontag’s 1964 article “Against Interpretation.”  As is generally expected in a book club, participants read the chosen text on their own time.  Unlike other book clubs, the meeting included a time for moving and reflective writing in addition to open discussion.  These different modes seemed to help connect its participants to the physical, lingual, and verbal modes of experience.    

The seven participants (including the two moderators) touched on a promising array of topics.  The context of Susan Sontag’s writing, whether interpretation is an agenda of the critic and how that might be different from response, the oppression of a work’s content as a current artistic paradigm, Roland Barthes’ theories about the impossibility of art to be separate from the viewer’s own associations and experience, problems with originality and claims of authorship, what Sontag may have meant in advocating the “erotics” of experiencing art, and much more.

The next two meetings will be held Monday Jan 16, 12:30-2pm and Friday Feb 6, 12:30-2pm.  The texts are yet to be announced. For more info, email speakeasy@velocitydancecenter.org.  Also check out Velocity’s new Speakeasy Series at velocitydancecenter.org.