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Flash Report, 7-24: Dance that Talk!
More Demo Needed at Dancing in the Millennium

By Tehreema Mitha
Copyright 2000 Tehreema Mitha

WASHINGTON -- Whew! After spending the last few days being bombarded with presentations, information and choices, my mind has finally started working! I am beginning to digest the material at the Dancing in the Millennium conference and in the process to analyze and appreciate it.

First, the choices: I would really have found it to be a better-organized conference if there was not so much squeezed into so few days. It left one with the feeling that despite the best of efforts, one missed out on a lot. I am told, by those who have attended many a conference, that this is the nature of things. However, just because something has been done in a certain way for years does not mean that it should continue in the same manner. Even the Constitution of the United States has amendments.

Amongst the panels that I would really have liked to attend: The round-table discussion on "Dance Ethnography: Where do we go from here?"; "Cultural Tension and Collision: The Eastern Cherokee Booger Dance"; "Censorship and The Arts"; "The Historic Present: Ballet as a Utopian Myth in Popular Culture"; "The Dancer Within: Transposition of Ballet Technique for Students Using Wheelchairs"; "New Dance Traditions in South Africa"; and "Race, Persecution and Persistence: Pow-Wow Dancing."

This will just give you an idea of how much one can miss (!) and of the large variety of topics covered in this dance conference of the millennium.

During the last two days of the conference I attended several panels. Those worthy of mention (Chris Dohse will dwell on all of these in more detail later) were "Aspects of Choreographic Style," in which Claudia Gitelman traced the aesthetics of Alwin Nikolais; Marcia B. Siegel's discussion of "Tharpian Themes and Continuity"; and last but not least Ananya Chatterjea's talk about "Subversive Dancing: Interventions in Zollar's 'Batty Moves.' "

Wendy Perron's "The Lasting Influence of Judson Dance Theatre" was well supported, with a wide variety of slides and a wonderfully informal presentation and discussion of the juxtapositioning of dancers in choreography that arose from this time.

"Aspects of Choreographic Style 2: 20th Century Ballet" was well presented by both speakers. The first was Amy Lynn Stoddart, whose paper set out to prove the hypothesis that there were autobiographical elements in the pas de deux of George Balanchine's "Agon." Supported by slides and video clips, Stoddart's point of view was easy to see as she brought out the correlation between passive exercises done on polio patients and the "careful, watchful, and tender' movements in the dance piece in question. That Balanchine may not have been conscience of the part of his life that he drew these movements from is very possible, but I agree with Stoddart that it is surely not possible, or desirable, for a choreographer to cut out an intense emotional experience of his/her life, especially if he is creating a dance while undergoing it.

Sandra Aberkalns's presentation "Chasing Forsythe: Anatomy of a Journey into Artifact 2" brought to mind a point that has been bothering me a little throughout the conference. The fact that Aberkalns's "paper" did not separate demonstration from discussion, or slides from being a basis for further detailed movement and point analysis, made her time both interesting and arresting. In so many other presentations I have felt almost as if there was a vast distance to be covered between the Dance as it is done, and Dance as it is examined (and sometimes discussed to death!). As if there is a clear and blatant separation between those who "perform Dance" and those who "think" about it. Whereas to me it appears that there should be a very close relationship between these, as the dancer's whole life is based on and around the process of dance. In other words it is through the dancer that dance happens, isn't it? And dancers don't just feel and do; they also analyze and debate.

What I am getting at here is that many of the papers that discussed, for example, particular dances, should not only have been supported by video clips as a must, but many movements that were at the crux of the talk should at least have been attempted, no matter if they were performed perfectly or not. These papers ARE about Dance!

Pamela Geber's presentation on the "Principles of Construction and Stress: The Shoulder in Relation to Today's Dancer" cried out for more demonstration! Geber showed slides from anatomy books and explained the parts on her own shoulders. However, being an experienced dancer it would really have been so much more understandable for her to have prepared a series of movements that used and showed stress to the shoulder in different ways. She also tended to concentrate on positions in which there is obvious weight put on the shoulder, e.g. handstand- or cartwheel-type movements that go into or from another movement. Having had a recent problem with rotator cuff syndrome, I can say that there are many other areas of movement to concentrate upon which are less obvious and commonly employed. In my dance style there are no cartwheels; but there is a lot of basic use of the rotator cuff in an upright position.

Geber did go on to suggest, through slides, various exercises that would help to stretch and prepare the muscles in discussion, but these I found are part of the basic fare of any dancer's warm-up. I have to say that I have found my physiotherapist's approach to the problem more practical and helpful as she has not only gone through my various dance positions, noting the stress points with interest, but has also discussed in great detail all the other aspects of daily life that could further aggravate a budding problem in dance from simple over-use -- e.g., carrying your groceries taking the weight into your shoulder as opposed to taking it into your elbow; or negotiating impractical airplane seats and car seats meant only for the lengthy!

But I've gone off on a tangent here. I do want to say that Sandra Aberkalns's discussion on the complexities of notating movement that is either fixed in a particular detail by the choreographer; or movement that is suggested up to a point by the choreography and then left open to the interpretation of the dancer, was eye opening. Coming from a dance tradition that has absolutely no notation and is only passed down from generation to generation through strict practice and memory, I have always wondered why all choreographers in the West at least don't invest more time into this aspect of dance preservation.

That takes me back to the topic of choreographers, and to Joan Erdman's question (in her paper on Uday Shankar covering the period, something that I failed to mention before, from 1939 to 1943) as to whether choreographers are made or born. Erdman came to the conclusion that they can be made, or trained. As one of Uday Shankar's later to become famous students recalled, "He taught me to be creative." On reflection I still find myself in disagreement with the term "Creating Choreographers," though I do not disagree with the basic premises of her paper. A good teacher can release the latent choreographic talent in a dance student, and can give him/her the training of the body with a movement language to form a basis on, and use as a spring board for further exploration if such be his want; but a teacher cannot give, and should not give, a student a reason or inspiration to create that which he is not moved to create. There are far too many choreographers who are producing work that does not burn out their guts if they don't put it out there. To me, that is the only justification for being a choreographer, and for going further than being a dancer.

Again, "Choreographers" makes me think of another title I've had problems with. That of "Hindu Feminist Choreography." There may be many feminists who will take issue with me, but surely the term "feminism" automatically becomes constricted when linked to the word "Hinduism." All the choreographers that come to mind whose work is denoted as such are those who have been born and brought up as Hindus and have rebelled against the traditional portrayal of the woman in their society. None of them have chosen to seek other images from outside of the strict religious system, or in other religions alien to them, to substantiate their ideal of a "self-sufficient, confident and free woman." This to me suggests a restriction that is extended subversively by society and that is adhered to by these choreographers, thereby not quite making their inquiries as open and free as they may initially appear.

Last of all, that term "Feminism" reminds me of a participant that was feeling irked by the continuous hammering on the feministic themes in dance throughout the conference. I really have to agree with her. One of the major problems in the marginalization of dance in society and in particular in the west and east, is the attitude towards men in dance. The supposition that most men who dance are gay; and that men who are heterosexual really should only indulge in a certain type of dancing e.g. Tango, Swing, traditional dancing etc. Ask anybody running a company, they could do with more male dancers! There are now more men in the field than before, but never enough. Economics is definitely a part of it, but then in a world where men and women are both out working on similar jobs the gap should have lessened.

Should, could, can there be so much to dream of, so much to hope for, in the world of dance. At least at venues like this, some of us can come together to share those dreams for a better future for Dance and formulate plans of how to get there!

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