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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.

 

Write to David Parker at flashers@danceinsider.com.

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