The British dance artist and researcher Emily Claid has identified a weariness that sometimes occurs within contemporary dance that she calls ‘middle mush’. This, she wrote in 2006, is ‘the fixed, thick, solid place that dancing can become when movement is predictable and watching is endless … It is the dynamic I fear most in British contemporary dance’. The cure to this malaise is innovation.
Being innovative in dance is not just something done for the sake of it. It is more than just dancers trying to be different. Innovation is part of the processes of social and political change.
The Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci explained the need for innovation in the notebooks he kept while in prison in the 1920s and 1930s, writing:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
but, he goes on, this nevertheless creates the possibility and necessity of creating a new culture.
Gramsci’s interregnum is surely a relation of Claid’s middle mush. Gramsci’s idea has gained currency recently because it seems to describe the current state of disillusionment with austerity, and a widespread sense of the failure of neoliberal politics and economics.
Artistic innovation – including innovation in theatre dance – is a field that has a potential to respond to shifts in social experience. Artists can pick up on feelings that some aspects of contemporary life can no longer be explained by dominant narratives. Dancers can sometimes embody tensions between the status quo and what is actually happening before these feelings can be put into words. This is a phenomenon that the Marxist scholar and literary critic Raymond Williams called a ‘structure of feeling’. This, he wrote,
is firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it is based in the deepest and often least tangible elements of our experience. … Its means, its elements, are not propositions or techniques; they are embodied, related feelings. (1973, p. 10).
Innovative theatre dance has a potential to create a time space in which it becomes possible to express or draw attention to these embodied feelings. My aim in this video essay is to discuss three different categories of innovation that can be identified in late twentieth and twenty-first century theatre dance, sketching some of the ways in which these are rooted in social and political experience. These three are: path-finding, disruption, and claiming space for progressive alternatives.
Path-finding is discovering new ways of creating movement or choreography. One example of this is the development of Contact Improvisation by Steve Paxton and others. Another is Pina Bausch’s development of tanztheater. If I describe a piece by a choreographer as Bauschian, you probably know what I mean.
Disruption in dance often lies in saying no, in an avant-garde way, to conventions that up until then had been considered essential to the creation or performance of theatre dance. The best known example is Yvonne Rainer’s so called ‘No!’ manifesto from 1965, which begins ‘NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformaions and magic and make-believe’ and so on.
[no to glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved].
Rainer and her fellow dance artists in Judson Dance Theatre embraced this negativity in a way that was not nihilistic but was intended to unlock potentials for new kinds of aesthetic experience.
What I have in mind for my third category of innovation are works that demand an inclusive space within the centre ground of contemporary dance for groups or points of view that are hidden or marginalised. Examples here include works by queer artists, artists of colour, artists with disabilities, or elders still dancing beyond the age when it is expected that they should retire. I am also thinking of post-colonial dance works that intentionally dance back against dominant colonial ideologies and the expectations they produce, and works that take on European high culture by rethinking it with an African or Asian sensibility.
Dance works are often, of course, innovative in ways that touch on more than one category. For instance, the contemporary African dance technique that Germaine Acogny has developed is both path-finding and claims a space for progressive ideas. It draws on dance movements from West African vernacular and ritual dancing, codifying them into a comprehensive vocabulary and technique. By doing so, this way of dancing demands a space for African experiences, challenging assumptions that only white Western culture and society are modern while all others, particularly those in the global South, are still essentially trying to catch up.
In the rest of this video, I briefly explore some of the interconnections between these three kinds of innovation by briefly reviewing the context around Trajal Harrell’s well known piece 20 Looks or Paris Is Burning at Judson Church.
This work, first performed in 2009, takes as its starting point the thought experiment “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?”. The twenty looks are the twenty titled sections of the piece.
LOOK 1 West Coast Preppy School Boy
LOOK 2 East Coast Preppy School Boy
LOOK 3 Old School Post-Modern
LOOK 4 American Casual Sport
LOOK 5 Sporty Contemporary
LOOK 6 Sporty Contemporary with a Twist and so on
[LOOK 7 New School Hokey Pokey
LOOK 8 Serving Old School Runway
LOOK 9 Serving
LOOK 10 Serving Superhero
LOOK 11 _________________
LOOK 12 Legendary
LOOK 13 Legendary Face
LOOK 14 Icon
LOOK 15 Eau de Jean Michel
LOOK 16 Basquiat Realness
LOOK 17 Runway Performance with Face and Effects
LOOK 18 Moderne
LOOK 19 Legendary with a Twist
LOOK 20 Alt-Moderne feeling the French Lieutenant’s Woman ]
Directly or indirectly, these titles nod in the direction of the different categories and concepts presented in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. She filmed this in and around the Black and Latino, gay and transsexual drag balls in Harlem run by Paris Dupree.
The vogue dancer who features most prominently in Livingstone’s film is Willi Ninja, whose career took off so that by the end of the film he had appeared in Madonna’s music video Vogue and gone on an international tour with her. Dorian Corey, an elder drag queen whose on-camera interviews offer a highly informative, wry commentary on the balls, remembers a time when Black and Latino drag queens used to go down town to compete in drag balls run by white impresarios. However good they were, they never won any prizes and felt unwelcome, so they started their own drag balls up in Harlem.
While there would therefore have been drag balls in Harlem in 1963, it doesn’t really matter whether or not people were already voguing around that time. Harrell’s clever proposition is to choreograph some movement sequences, that are based on the kinds of competitive categories at Paris Dupree’s drag balls, but which he has transformed into the kind of pedestrian, minimalist choreography for which Judson Dance Theatre became known.
I’ve already mentioned Yvonne Rainer’s ‘No!’ manifesto. Her minimalism arose from a critique of balletic virtuosity. A grande jété, she wrote, needs to be invested ‘with all the necessary nuances of energy distribution that will produce the look of climax together with a still, suspended extension in the middle of the movement’. Her choreography, however, needs ‘a control that seems geared to the actual time it takes the actual weight of the body to go through the prescribed motions’.
Most of the 20 Looks in Harrell’s piece consist of tasks danced in the actual time they need without hiding the body’s actual weight and effort. Some of the Looks, however, like the ‘Runway’ walking, are done in a knowing way that transgresses Rainer’s stipulations ‘no to camp’ and ‘no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer’. But part of what is exciting about Harrell’s piece is the way it claims the conceptually sophisticated space of minimalist dance for the kinds of Black and Latino performers that walked the balls.
Returning to my three categories of innovation, I suggest that Paris Dupree was a socially progressive innovator claiming space for alternative identities and experiences. Willi Ninja was a pathfinder, Yvonne Rainer a disruptor, and Trajal Harrel a disruptor and a socially progressive innovator.
There is a quotation from the British socialist politician Tony Benn about political progress that can also be applied to innovation in dance: ‘First’ he said ‘they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you’. The scene in Paris is Burning when Willi Ninja talks about his recent success reveals the moment when voguing was no longer mad or dangerous but was becoming monetisable.
My point is to try not to ignore or condemn the first signs of a development in dance that is troubling because it breaks with the middle mush of what is conventionally acceptable. Instead, where dance artists seem to be mining signs of still unarticulated shifts and changes, we need to do what we can to help and support the new that is trying to be born.