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Flash View, 11-16: An
American Choreographer Abroad
What's a Little Misverstand Between Friends?
By David Parker
Copyright 2000 David Parker
Shortly, I'll be leaving
on a trip to The Netherlands. It's a place I've fallen in love with.
Liberal, tolerant, advanced; Dutch lawmakers have recently approved
a bill which gives gay couples full-fledged marriage rights beyond
those of any other country. This bill passed with a huge majority
and much victorious podia pounding. The country's main city, Amsterdam,
is a glorious amalgam of slightly crooked baroque architecture leaning
solicitously over brick-brown canals and a freewheeling attitude
toward most forms of decorum. It's hedonistic. It inspires me. The
first European performances of my own work took place in The Netherlands
six years ago and I rounded off the millennium performing with my
company at last year's Holland Dance Festival. I want to plant myself
in The Netherlands. I want to speak Dutch. I want to drop whole
herrings down my throat. I fantasize that when I'm interviewed by
Barbara Walters prior to an awards telecast I'll reply: "Well Barbara,
I guess I'd be a Dutch Elm."
So, as I write this,
I'm about to leave to meet with people who will help me establish
an artists' colony in a rural Dutch setting where I, and other choreographers,
can go to do research in whatever way we deem valuable. There's
only one glitch in this process, and that's the common misunderstanding
between contemporary dance folk in the US and those in Europe. In
Dutch, a misverstand. I've worked fairly often in Western Europe
over the last six years and I've grown used to a certain attitude
about American modern (or contemporary, or post modern) dance. "There
is nothing new coming out of America these days" I'm told.
What are they talking
about? Is it simply that relatively few emerging American choreographers
show their work in Western Europe? Is it xenophobia? Are they right?
The common refrain is that American choreographers are stuck in
post-modernism. Well, sure, some are but nonetheless I find this
a coded comment. I haven't broken the code because I keep noticing
how influential post-modern techniques have been on so very much
of the work I've seen there. I won't pretend to have seen any representative
sample nor will I try to interpret the rich variety of dance cultures
producing marvelous work in Western Europe, much of which I admire.
I will mention one matter that strikes me very clearly as a difference.
America has been so full
of newness in dance for so long that it's almost impossible to assimilate
it all. Unlike Europe, the U.S. has not been ravaged by two hot
wars and one cold one in the past century. Our artists and entertainers
have been much less interrupted or silenced. Before the first World
War we had the emergence of Vaudeville from minstrelsy and the development
of the roots of American Musical Theater, native vernacular jazz
dance, ballroom dance and ragtime.
Between the two wars
we had Balanchine, Graham, Humphrey, Tamiris, DeMille, Fred Astaire,
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, John Bubbles, the development of jazz
tap, Eleanor Powell, Harriet Hoctor, Gene Kelly, Paul Draper, the
Charleston, the Black Bottom, Boogie Woogie, The Contraction....
One could go on and on. We continued to suffer this explosion of
new ways of dancing in both commercial and experimental situations
(often at once) in ballet companies, modern companies, musical theater,
movies, ballrooms, nightclubs, television, sidewalks, street corners
and cabarets and finally we got the entire Hip Hop culture at the
close of the century. Nothing new in America. We're just beginning
to come to grips with this astonishing legacy in all its inconceivable
variety and there's more coming every day. There has been no European
counterpart to this kind of urgent eruption of movement that is
not state funded and academy trained. Forms like stepping, Hip Hop,
and the noisy, funky tap-dancing that's going on all around us were
not created in academies.
Both Balanchine and Merce
Cunningham have admitted a debt to the Nicholas Brothers. Choreographers
as diverse as Twyla Tharp, Doug Elkins, Tere O'Connor, Roseanne
Spradlin, Sara Hook and little old me have frankly dealt with popular
culture in our work. Many of us don't recognize aesthetic walls
between Red Skelton's pratfalls and Martha Graham's falls on one
count. We've stretched and folded our popular culture into our avant
garde and back again, leaving a bewitching dance scene which is
not encased in high mindedness. It's as easy for us to be mesmerized
by Savion Glover's footwork as by Trisha Brown's trochanters. There's
a lesson in all this somewhere but I'm not ready to learn it yet,
because, unlike Kansas City we have not yet gone about as fur as
we can go.
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