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Insider Forum, 11-1: Significant Observers
'Call us idiots, but we're the audience'
Edited by Veronica Dittman
(Posted online today for the first time, this piece was first published in the Dance Insider's January 2000 print edition.)
Dance insiders can talk about dance all day, but we're so deep in it, I'm not sure how clearly we can see it. A man-on-the-street perspective would be invaluable, but not too many men on the street consider going to dance, at least not in the United States. So to get informed outsiders' take on dance, Paul Ben-Itzak and I gathered the significant others of dancers; they're not in the field, but they see plenty of dance to keep their relationships healthy. The dancer-boyfriends, and one dancer-girlfriend: Jim Simmons, an architect; Lisa Vining, a specialist in visual display and window design; Bernie Yee, a writer and computer game producer; and Ben Zackheim, a writer who also works on computer games. All said that they'd hardly ever seen dance before becoming involved with their current partners. We asked for their impressions of the stuff.
Bernie: Dance is really cool, but incredibly inbred. I don't know any other creative pursuit that is so insular and free from commercial or pop culture ramifications. Eccentric or really out-there pieces I think are interesting, but they seem to form the bulk of the dance I've seen.
Jim: I was recently at P.S. 1 museum, and had a problem with the contemporary art. Coming at it cold, all you have is the work itself, and so many times it's about the artist, about the fact that this hasn't been done before. Many times I feel that way watching dance. I'm looking for some point of reference, for some meaning, and I rarely see it.
Lisa: Do you think maybe it's there, you just don't know? There might be a study of Cunningham technique that I wouldn't have known before I started seeing more dance, but now I might recognize that.
Ben: That's back to Bernie's idea of it being inbred. I always feel like I've been introduced in the middle of the second act, like I'm not privy to what's going on socially and artistically.
Lisa: Dance is just its separate little world. Now, after five years of going to dance concerts all the time, I have a bit of a background, so my experience is a little richer than the guy off the street's. Yet there are still all these other layers I'm just slowly going through.
Bernie: My girlfriend tells me to try to appreciate the movement in the moment, and that's hard for someone who's more literal than movement-driven. I'm pretty open and interested in different art forms, but a lot of dance just doesn't touch me at all.
Ben: Some of the modern dance I've seen is self-centered, self-indulgent. The people clapping the hardest are the dancers' friends. There's somebody else to answer to, and audience that needs to be acknowledged.
Jim: I get a feeling that if you appeal to the masses, then you have crossed a line and sold out. You're no longer doing art, you're doing commerce. I saw a particular Gap ad and was immediately on the phone to (boyfriend) Ben (Munisteri) going, "You have to see this, because I know it's great dance.... "
Bernie: Those Gap ads are pretty inventive.
Jim: .... But then I'm talking about the Gap and khakis and it's all in that pop culture realm; it's entertainment!
Veronica: If a whole bunch of people like it, is that so wrong?
Ben: I feel oily every time I watch it and can't stop watching it.
Jim I want to watch the details. I want to watch the hand....
Lisa: It's like the swing craze. I think it spurred those commercials. When I would go swing dancing it was great, because it was the first time I could ever remember everybody was on the dance floor. Dance was always this different arena.
Jim: I have a question about that: Is that piece -- the Gap ad -- not self-referential? There's obviously some retro thing to it....
Veronica: It refers to something that people can actually imagine experiencing, like what Lisa was talking about; there's something so remote from your experience, you can't imagine it.
Ben: There's a difference between dance that makes you want to see more dance and dance that makes you want to dance. The Gap ad makes me want to dance; it doesn't make me want to see the latest piece at Joyce Soho (a downtown New York theater).
Paul: What makes you want to see more dance?
Ben: Am I going to get in trouble if I say Paul Taylor? I've never seen anything like "The Word," in any medium. Another would be Momix.
Lisa: Dance that makes me want to see more dance has full-out movement. One of the most frustrating things about going to dance with (boyfriend) Jordan (Fuchs) is I would see ten performances and maybe one I would relate to. I was like, "God, I wish they would just dance. Stop standing around in your slip and do something.
Bernie: I've been moved to tears twice in a live performance; once was "Hamlet" done by Royal Shakespeare and another was a piece that Mark Dendy did on AIDS. There's so much going on that you couldn't consciously track the ways you were being manipulated. That's really powerful, but it's so rare. The people controlling what pieces are presented are not subject to the same vicissitudes that a Hollywood studio is. Like, "If you don't make some good movies, you're out." I think that NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) funding is essentially intellectual welfare. I see so much crap.
Jim: I have a knee-jerk reaction to that. There needs to be some shot in the arm, so people do things like "Piss Christ." People don't like it, but it creates dialogue. I'm undoing what we've been saying, but it's good that we have someone dragging a mattress across a stage, because then we can say, "Did you see that guy dragging the mattress? It was awful."
Lisa: Or, "What did you think?"
Bernie: I guess I'm searching for some socially Darwinistic way of approaching dance. Hollywood definitely doesn't encourage quality but at least there's some accountability. I know these Hollywood guys are thinking, "What do people want to see? They want to see "Lethal Weapon 6," because it's an accessible archetype, and they want to see Mel Gibson and Danny Glover together again. At least there's some acknowledgment of the audience. I don't think that's true for 90 percent of dance.
Ben: I don't think that's the problem. In dance right now, there is a disconnect with the world around it. The idea of having a particular aspect of dance, like notation, move into the digital realm is very important for dancers and choreographers! And I've seen some dances that use multimedia within the dance itself, and it's amazing.
Lisa: I think dance moving toward technology is moving away from its original intention.
Ben: It's not just a matter of technology, it's a basic movement of society toward a certain kind of thinking, and it does mean, for example, a shorter attention span. Acknowledge that in your dance. I haven't seen that. I think the answer is incorporating the world we live in into the dance.
Paul: A lot of socially driven dances I can't stand because their only justification is political, social, or racial. Are there other ways dance can tie into the world beyond it?
Bernie: There are all sorts of cues throughout pop culture about movement, body language and physical iconography. One of the great moments in one of (D. Chase Angier's) pieces is when the dancers assume the Charlie's Angels pose everyone recognizes, and finds immediately entertaining.
Ben: The fact that you're using iconography we can identify with opens our minds up. Call us idiots, but we're the audience.
Jim: What if there were more outlets? Every other form of art we can bring into our house -- from having a TV to buying a book at the Museum of Modern Art -- but it's rare to bring dance into your home. I've got a stack of postcards that I started collecting because it's art that I can't always go to London to look at, but that I want to see.
Ben: With a successful dance, somebody's going to walk away with it and keep it with them. Something that comes to mind is the precious days of not having a VCR. Movies used to be like dance, because you saw it and you lived your life with it in you as some kind of kernel. There isn't any commodity structure, there's no souvenir. I think that's great.
Lisa: I also think about how different kinds of dance work -- like when I see a ballet, I feel so alienated by it. I have an appreciation of how technical and elegant it is, but it's so far removed from anything I could ever do, versus the modern dance I really enjoy.
Jim: The thing about ballet is there is a structure. For me, it's similar to looking at a classical Greek temple. I can appreciate the structure and the rules and how someone manipulated that. It's like "Agon"; I'm blown away because there are these Balanchine rules. Then I go to a Doug Elkins concert, and there's another set of rules. My personal accessibility to dance is finding the rules for the structure of it. But I've seen a modern dance solo where I have a hard time thinking that she's not making it up right there. Other choreographers have a structure or a form, and even if they're not telling a literal story, they're telling a movement story.
Veronica: So this idea of them making it up on the spot is annoying?
Jim: Yeah. Why bother? Go do this in your living room.
Bernie: Would it have changed if she had cut a whole section of movement? No. Then, what was the point?
Lisa: Are you telling me something? Or is it a process for you to do it in front of me, to find something in yourself?
Bernie: Maybe dance isn't as successful commercially because there is no object we can take away from it. Then again, theater is sort of the live performance cousin of dance in that it only exists at the moment of performance, but I think it's healthier than dance. There's experimental theater, Off-Broadway, mainstream. Why can't dance be more like that?
Paul: There's an obvious difference in that theater has words. Is dance harder to understand because there aren't words?
Bernie: But we like music....
Paul: Are dances too long? I see dances that are good for the first 15 minutes, and then go on and on.
Bernie: Dance is the only liner art form that doesn't have an editor.
Lisa: That depends on the choreographer. When Jordan gets a piece to a final draft, he'll get my opinion, and then he'll get another dancer's opinion, and he takes all of that and changes the piece.
Bernie: Some of my favorite literary works were created by a talented writer and an almost equally talented editor. You read "The Wasteland" -- T.S. Eliot -- but Ezra Pound spent a lot of energy changing this.
Ben: Sounds like a new job description: dance editor. I've gone to rehearsals where the comments are really important, and usually when the choreographer's listened to what we said, the dance got better.
Paul: But isn't there a difference between the type of editors you're talking about, and a presenter saying the dance is too long, cut it down?
Ben: Why should dancers be any different from any of the other artists who have to put up with editors?
Bernie: Can you imagine if all the novels we read were only the drafts of the writer?
Ben: Oh my God: Stephen King.
Lisa: That's such an impossible thing to have. Every dancer I know is struggling; who's going to pay an editor? Is it going to be all-volunteer?
Bernie: Maybe choreographers can work collaboratively.
Lisa: They have in certain situations, like talk-backs after performances.
Bernie: (At the talk-backs) I always want to ask, "What the hell were you thinking when you were choreographing?" My girlfriend says, "The dance world's too small. If you do that, go sit away from me."
Jim: Ben does that at the end of his performances, and nobody will ask, "What the hell were you thinking?" I think he wants that.
Veronica: Then there are the informal editing devices in place: inviting people in to rehearsal, having a talk-back.
Ben: Great stuff is still coming out in the dance world, so maybe all the critical stuff we have to say is moot.
Bernie: One thing we didn't bring up is the difference between the way male and female dancers are treated. My girlfriend says there's so much work for male dancers, that if she were a man and equally talented, she'd be a star. Or at least gainfully employed at a pretty good company.
Veronica: There are 20 women for every man -- a lot more competition.
Bernie: If this were just a business, companies would be freaked out if they had jobs where men were being hired that weren't as good as women. The would think very hard about how to deal with it in a way that didn't piss off people.
Paul: I learned from dating dancers that it's not just about performing, there's a whole 24-hour rigor behind that.
Lisa: Across the board, their level of commitment has to be so high.
Bernie: That's what I find captivating about dancers; they're totally committed, and the payback is zip. She has a dedication I have no clue about.
Paul: They'll spend the money to go to class even if they don't have a performance. On a Saturday, on a Sunday.
Jim: You get to have a beautiful partner who's obviously not about money, or about accumulating wealth. There's some substance.
Ben: When I first saw her dance there was a poise which comes from a strength I've come to understand the last three years. Her style is so integrated with who she is that I think I would recognize her shadow on stage.