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Flash Report, 7-21: Brain Hard-on
Blowing the Cobwebs out of Critical Fannies

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2000 Chris Dohse

"I'm in Washington, so I have to give you the truth."

-- Robert L. Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts, in his keynote address to Dancing in the Millennium, July 20, 2000.

WASHINGTON -- The weather has been uncharacteristically cool these past few days, for D.C. in July. I can remember many hotter summers here, having lived in the Baltimore-Washington hub from 1986 to 1996. It's been impossible to keep memories from those years from coloring my experience of this conference. Particularly while watching the dances on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage Wednesday afternoon, part of a week-long celebration of local choreographers, I faced recollections of Reagan-era trickle-down -- a gay culture buttoned down tighter than a crab's ass, a dance community I then found largely unimaginative and unwelcoming. I eventually became part of a miniature boom of emerging performance artists, what I like to call the Mid-Atlantic Basement and Garage Circuit. Sadly, many of the individuals from those days have died or moved away. As I hobnob through the olla podrida offered by Dancing in the Millennium's conferees, I also reconnect with my surviving Baltimore/DC dance colleagues, mixing business and pleasure.

(During the short program Wednesday, the Pola Nirenska Memorial Award, named for a matriarch of D.C. modern dance, was given to local pedagogues Mary Day and Melvin Deal, neither of whom were present. Carmen de Lavallade popped up to add encouragement. The inauguration of the Metro D.C. Dance Awards, fashioned after NYC's Bessies, was announced.)

To give an accurate impression of attending this thing, it is useful to analyze the biographies of its participants. For instance, looking through the first hundred names in the program, listed alphabetically, I find that 51 of them teach or administrate at colleges or universities. Nineteen have written books. Sixteen hold PhDs and seventeen are male. Certain nametags bristle with academic celebrity. It seems like everyone knows everyone but you, and just how much you don't know about them or the field soon becomes readily apparent.

Presenting a paper to this crowd takes gumption. They fall on the slightest misrepresentation or inaccuracy like a cloud of vultures. They quote each other, quibble over citations, challenge all shades of gray. It seems popular to refer to dance as a language or code. The ghost of Balanchine hovers prominently. One strategy is to place a specificity or codicil of the historic canon within a larger arena of thought. Another is to take a general topic and dissect its toenails.

The two papers closest to my own field of scholarly inquiry from these first two overstuffed days have been Gay Morris's "The Theory of Pierre Bourdieu as an Aid in Dance Historical Research" and Carol-Lynne Moore's "Capturing the Dynamic Body-in-Motion: From Leonardo to Laban." Morris negotiated the complicated terrain of Bourdieu's social theory with clarity, emphasizing its relevance to dance research. She also related a spicy anecdote of a legendary dispute in the pages of Dance Magazine between Walter Sorell, Doris Hering and David Vaughn over the works of Graham and Horst. Yummy, lip-smacking history. Moore traced Laban's abilities as a visual artist into his theory of choreutics, suggesting possible corollaries between Jugendstil and der Blaue Reiter and Theosophy and Henri Bergson. This kind of lateral, comparative, interdisciplinary grasp of history that looks beyond the dance bubble gives my brain a hard-on.

Coinages of terms I've overheard and can't wait to steal: Mark Morris called a "ham," the Western Avant-Garde called "marketable radicalism." Favorite citations: "... progressive-school whiz kids trying to get in step with the avant-garde..." -- Arlene Croce (man can she turn a phrase); "...criticism is 50% torment, 50% thrill ..." -- Alan M. Kriegsman.

Speaking of whiz kids and wunderkinds, Alan Murdock, an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa, provided the simply marvelous sound of cobwebs being blown out of fannies with his "Criticism Deficit: The Misapplication of Modernism and Post-Modernism in American Dance." Reminded me of marginalia penciled on a paper I wrote while in the Performance Studies program at NYU: "This is not analysis, it's scorn!" But what a healthy, necessary prodding was Murdock's, and an incisive one, interrogating formalist critical concerns and Pomo plurality.

People, places, things and ideas casually or not so casually discussed, in sessions or out of them, culled from my notes: Tudor, Kilian, Purcell, Langer, Stravinsky, Wigman, Muybridge, Rodin, Habermas, Greenberg, Kirstein, Cunningham, tea tree oil, psychological narrative, symbolic capital, cultural fusion, over-simplification, apology for anthropology, a region called identity.

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