SeattleDances hosted its third Dance CHAT at 10 degrees on February 16, with local arts and culture reporter, Marcie Sillman as our facilitator. Many thanks to all who attended! The purpose of Dance CHAT is to create a space for face-to-face conversations about dance in Seattle, with a special focus on recent performances. We hope that Dance CHAT opens up another avenue to engage with dance, find new or different ways to talk about what we see, and discuss the issues that performances bring up with other dance artists and enthusiasts.
We covered a range of topics, and, as usual, came up with more questions than answers. Here is an overview of our discussion. For those who couldn’t make it, we would love to hear from you too—if you have something to add to these ideas, please leave a comment below.
*Please note, this list of discussion points are not direct quotes of what was said during the event. This is simply an attempt to have a record of the conversation that happened, and not a direct reflection of any one individual’s statements or intentions.
We began by talking about the Bridge Project (January 29-31, Velocity Dance Center), which sparked an online dialogue surrounding Nathan Blackwell’s work, Through desolate planes we emerge: and exercise in transcendence for the nonbeliever. Marcie posed the question along the lines of: Are there any inappropriate subjects for dance? Are there things you can’t put in a performance?
Any subject matter is fair game for a performance, but how you do it matters.
There’s bad work (ie. unsubstantive, unthoughtful work) out there, so the statement “how you do it matters” is a big statement.
Marcie posed another question: “Where is the audience’s place in the the choreographer’s mind?”
In regards to Nathan Blackwell’s work in the Bridge Project: were you trying to provoke empathy from the audience?
Nathan responded: he’s drawn to creating work that is dark that might provoke recognition, or horror. In terms of alcoholism, or drinking in general, for humans that is a very real experience. We all engage with it and can see it and recognize it and viscerally feel it. Not necessarily thinking of empathy when making the work.
From someone who has seen Nathan’s work before: Her reaction was very different seeing his work on other bodies, specifically women’s bodies, than it was seeing Nathan perform his own work. She identified with it in a very different, more potent way. It would have been different had it been on male bodies. But because we live a patriarchal society where women’s bodies are used in a variety of ways, if an image isn’t directly disrupting that idea, than it seems to be playing into using women’s bodies.
Marcie asked: “As an artist, it seems that you have succeeded. You’ve provoked a reaction, an impact. Does it feel that way? Is it difficult to be the flash point for this conversation?”
Nathan responded: He was more surprised at having sparked such a controversy. In his immediate community, and in the people that he knows versus hearing the response to it, he thought, I guess there’s people that don’t see this part of the world, or don’t see these parts in this way.
Directed towards Nathan: To what end? What affect/effect were you hoping to bring into the world with this work?
Should you make work for people who have an experience with the subject matter (in this case alcoholism), or for people who have no experience with it to give them an experience. Who are you making this work for in order to have maximum impact?
Nathan: To me, art isn’t redemptive. It’s a reflection of what life is. Somewhere on the facebook thread that started this conversation, someone suggested to walk down Pike/Pine and just watch, and see people dealing with alcoholism or addiction. He walks that area a lot. In other works he’s delved into different tangents of these various views of life. People can see it and recognize the horror of it, or the beauty of it, but the goal was to create a distilled piece of that life. And for people to react however they react, but for the audience to dig deeper and ask questions of themselves. Do you put up a wall when you see this image? Why?
Other people who saw the work shared immediate reactions they had while watching it, and also noted how what stayed with them after the work differed from that immediate reaction.
Discussion of trigger warnings ensued:
As a presenter giving a trigger warning, does it set up the audience to have a specific reaction? Do you end up getting a reaction to the warning instead?
There’s warnings everywhere in life: movie ratings, age restrictions. Having one in a theatrical context doesn’t seem strange.
How best to provide the warning? At the Bridge Project, the house manager announced that there would be “no judgment” for leaving before the final piece. One person noted that it made leaving feel like a public statement and that a program insert would have been a more comfortable and private interaction between an individual and the work. Another person felt that the public announcement gave her a better option for leaving—that she wouldn’t offend people by leaving.
Is there a way to say that some pieces will simply require more of you as an audience member? However, this assumes that everyone will react the same way, which they never will.
As an artist, you craft how you create an experience, and how you prepare the audience for something in a piece. In this case, it was the presenter giving the warning, so how does that change that artist’s intended experience? However, the warning comes from a place of wanting people to be safe—not necessarily a negative thing.
We took a short break, and then the discussion shifted to other shows people had seen recently.
Chop Shop: Kyra Jean Green’s solo Eytan and her amazing musicality and body control; Alexander Pham’s solo Re: Repetition was in silence, largely on the floor, with internal focus. This was effective for some people, but reactions differed depending on perspective (where they were sitting) and environmental factors (a coughing, fidgety audience).
How does where you sit affect your experience of a performance? At PNB’s Roméo et Juliette, the choreography was still clearly communicative even from the nosebleeds. No movement felt arbitrary, and you could also see patterns on stage.
Trisha Brown Dance Company’s performance in the lobby at Seattle Art Museum: this was the opposite of being in the nosebleeds. Her choreography is not about being performative at all. It’s functional movement, which made the dancers seem more like people.
The Three Yells’ Her Name is Isaac (February 11-12, Cornish Playhouse): it was very much “about something,” and how that registered (or didn’t) with various viewers.
Contextualizing work: do people of color contextualize their work more? Do they need to? Who says?
As an artist, how do you frame your work as well as promote it? This is different if are being produced by a presenter or are doing self-produced work and are crafting the press releases and social media postings etc.
Idea of individual experience creating context for work. Just because you have a particular individual experience, does it mean you are making work for that experience? If you are queer, are you always making queer art?
If people identify with a certain perspective and they can tell audience they want work to be viewed with that perspective in mind, that’s fine and is a very individual choice. But it feels wrong for society to put tell an artist to put work in a specific frame.
Marcie posed the idea that to a non-dancer, dance is the most challenging art form. Much more so than music, or visual art. How do you bring non-dancers in?
Do artists have a responsibility to try to open up or explain their work, or to give audiences (especially if they are trying to cultivate a wider audience) more information/context. Too much context can be poorly received, but it’s the artist’s own prerogative to give it or not. Is it the artist’s responsibility to educate for those who can’t or aren’t comfortable creating their own context?
If breaking it down into jobs: educating audiences also falls to presenters, writers, and teachers.
An artist’s job is to do their work. They can’t be thinking about which context or box it should be in or how it will be perceived, or else the work will suffer.
Marcie: If it’s “good” work, whatever that might mean, I see something of myself in it. That’s what I think of when I think of a transcendent experience. It’s possible to have a universal experience that will have many individual reactions.
Discussion of self-harm in dancers/performers. When someone chugs a beer onstage many people considered it to be self harm, but no one warns young dancers of the harm that they inflict on themselves in ballet through wearing pointe shoes.
With the issue of ballet being self-harming: with ballet there’s more context for it, but that also makes it more insidious.
Similar to football. Players are harming themselves with physical aggression, but we often view it as ok because they have helmets on. But in regards to alcohol use in society, there are rules and laws around it.
What are we in our current culture of dance affirming? What do we as creators need to to do to transcend the baggage of dance history? What things have been done for years that maybe we can do in a healthier way now?
Agency of performance: The idea that people that perform in a work have agency to choose whether or not to be in the work is a fallacy. Agency is complicated in power structures and there are always power structures in dance.
The question of who to work with and when to work with a choreographer is different for every dancer every time. The question of whether dancers are truly on board with the work they perform in, is not meant as an attack or insult to the choreographer or the dancers, but as a protective measure to prevent possible abuse.
Whether you’ve come to a few of our Dance CHATs or are just reading up on the conversation, let us know what you thought! Leave us a comment or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to keep continuing these conversations. The next Dance CHAT will be held at 10 Degrees on Tuesday, March 15, from 5:30-7:30 PM. In the meantime, ponder some questions, talk to your friends, and go see some dance!