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Parameters of dance innovation



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.

Blue Tired Heroes by Massimo Furlan and Guilty Landscapes by Dries Verhoeven, SPRING festival, 21st May 2016.

The sun was shining down on Utrecht, and everybody was smiling as they followed the six, white haired men in blue tights, red socks and capes (supermen without the logo) on a leisurely stroll through the centre of Utrecht.

They walked in an unforced, neutral unison and at chosen spots stopped in a tableau which they held for a while standing perfectly still and all staring at the same thing. Sometimes they formed a half circle around their focus of attention, sometimes stood one behind the other, or lay down or took up positions in a particular location – like some stairs or on public seats.

Everything they did was very, very simple and clear. They didn’t clearly feel any need to hurry because, as the piece’s title put it they were tired old heroes.

As they progressed from the Stadsschouwburg towards the centre of town, they group who were following them gradually became augmented as passers by became intrigued and tagged along.

And in some ways the crowd themselves became part of the event. The people immediately behind the blue heroes seemed to become part of the choreography as they formed a line following them. The fact that people out shopping stopped and got out their phones to take photographs also in sone way seemed to become part of the event that the blue heroes in which the presence of the blue heroes acted as catalyst.

Two incidents for me characterised this. In a large paved area, the blue heroes lay down to have a rest on a square street seating fixture. This was presumably the plan, but coincidentally when they arrived they found a young couple already sitting their having an intimate tête-à-tête. When I got there I found the blue heroes all sprawled out with their eyes closed with in their centre a slightly embarrassed but smiling couple surrounded by a crowd taking photos of them with their phones. Here’s the one I took.


Later that afternoon I recognised them in a café (she had distinctive green hair) and talked to them. They said they felt it wouldn’t be good to walk away so just stayed. They didn’t know what the men were doing but worked it out afterwards.

The other incident was just before the end of the performance when the blue heroes together with some of the crowd, went into a men’s hairdressers and each stood watching one of the customers having their hair cut. As always they were calm, still, and intently focused on the customer. Their gaze directed our gazes, making us see them affecting and affected by the situation they were in just as we were affected by them and presumably they by us.

The relations we all made along the way as we wandered through the busy beautiful old streets of Utrecht on this warm Saturday afternoon were somehow as much a part of the work as the actual minimalist material that the men in blue performed.

As soon as this ended I had to rush across town to the Sanaa Gallery for my individual, timed slot in Dries Verhoeven’s Guilty Landscape. Since this piece will go one being presented throughout the festival I’m not going to spoil it by describing it, but will only say that it was also about relationality, about touching virtually a precarious other.

I’ve previously experienced two or three one-to-one participatory works and came to this one not knowing what to expect, hence the way I’m writing about it. For me Guilty Landscape demanded a lot, needed me to be open to the unknown. One thing that surprised me was that there was no one to tell me when my time was up. I had to make the decision myself just as I had had to make the decision to interact and allow myself to be led and thus to experience briefly a very little of the reality of the life of a precarious other who I would otherwise never meet. Like others I’ve spoken to who also went to this piece, I left in a daze.

Urban Bush Women The Curve Theatre, Leicester, 12th May 2016.

This was the best performance I’ve seen for quite a while. I don’t know when Urban Bush Women last performed in the UK but it must be a long time. It was a coup for LETS Dance International Festival to have brought them over, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was keynote speaker at a conference on Black women and dance that was part of the festival earlier in the week. There were two choreographies in their programme: Walking with ‘Trane created by Zollar and company members, and Dark Swan by Nora Chipaumire.


I can think of several pieces by African American choreographers that use serious jazz music such as Ailey’s pieces with Ellington, or pieces by Talley Beatty, or Eleo Pomare: jazz steps set closely to jazz rhythms in glorious, powerful phrases that make us see the music in a flowing, energetic way.

This is not what happens in Walking with ‘Trane. Instead it uses music composed by Philip White and then by George Caldwell that is inspired by the life and music of John Coltrane. It builds slowly, is very dense, seems to be avoiding the obvious in a search for new affective forms. This is, of course, what Coltrane and other bebop musicians were doing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Choreographically, Zollar almost seems to be taking African American dance movement vocabularies apart in a way that resembles what William Forsythe does with the ballet vocabulary. Fred Moten, in his book In The Break shows how bebop deconstructs the African American jazz tradition. Walking with ‘Trane deconstructs dancing.

11BUSHWOMEN- Credit Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

[Urban Bush Women in Walking with ‘Trane. photo by Julieta Cervantes for the New York Times]

apart playing

I was having a conversation recently about African and diasporic polyrhythms with someone who said some dancers can beat as many as five different rhythms at once using different centres in their body. I suggested that one wouldn’t be able to see this clearly and he replied no, you’d just think what an amazing dancer they were.

The dancers in Walking with ‘Trane are performing such dense rhythms that they just look what they are … amazing dancers.

Robert Farris Thompson, from his research in Ghana and Nigeria, has discussed the differences between European classical music and the complex polyrhythms of dance and drumming traditions.

Members of a drum chorus of three do not strike the skins of their instruments in unison. At least one – normally the master drummer – creates pleasing clashes  with the rhythmic structure of his helpers. He departs from their text, as it were, and improvises illuminations. ‘Apart playing’ defines much of the music of the West (…) Africans unite music and dance but play apart. Europeans separate dance and music but play together.

The dancers in Walking with ‘Trane are united but paradoxically dance apart. There is hardly any unison until very late in the piece, and hardly any duets. All the dancers seem to be slightly separate from one another. Early on, they each introduce themselves one after another, by dancing a solo, but when they have all done this it is almost as if they continue dancing solos but all at the same time.

Each is very individual. They are all very different but dance to the same music and that’s what makes them seem united, sharing a common purpose but finding unexpected new way of expressing this unity.

dark swan

dark swan is by the New York-based Zimbabwean choreographer Nora Chipaumire. It was initially a solo that she made for herself celebrating the centenary of Fokine’s classic Dying Swan made famous by Pavlova.

To Saint-Saens’ The Swan in a recording by YoYo Ma with piano accompaniment, Pavlova’s delicate ballet point work is turned into powerful, African, rhythmic stamping, the women dancers on the spot facing diagonally towards the rear of the stage.

The music ends and starts again, and they start vibrating their heels again and a few of them travel backwards gliding with fast percussive stamps that have the same effect of Pavolva’s graceful travelling on point, but translated into something with an unmistakeably African feeling. Then they dance to a famous opera aria sung by Maria Callas – this bit is on YouTube.

During this their movements become more sensual but then to the next piece of music they put their hands into their pants to touch themselves and sway and wind in an explicitly erotic way, sensually sliding their hands over their thighs and breasts, and so on. Then in the next bit they dance while giving the audience the finger – it continued in this challengingly confrontational way.

[dark swan, photo by Micheal Zirkle]


I’ve found a couple of review on line of dark swan by writers who strongly disliked the piece. In the after-show Q&A the explicit nature of this came up so I asked a question.

I said I’d enjoyed the ironically African subversion of European high culture but then felt that once they’d got me smiling they twisted the knife. As a white man looking at Black women I felt uncomfortable watching them touching themselves although I knew it was meant to be critical. How did they feel performing it?

One of the dancers more or less said she felt that through it she was reclaiming her sexuality. It didn’t bother her if I found it arousing but she saw it as positive and celebratory.

On the way out a couple of audience members stopped me and said they thought it was my problem and to do with my own male gaze. I agreed and pointed out it was also about my white privilege, and then I realized that I didn’t see the dancers as eroticized, exoticised Black female bodies. What is so powerful about the company is that they are all different, all individuals, and that was what made this NSFW section of dark swan celebratory.

I haven’t come across any review of the Curve performance. I don’t think any of the London-based national dance/ballet critics came to Leicester to see it, which seems to me a shame. And I’m sorry for them because Urban Bush Women are such an excellent company, Zollar is such an important choreographer, Chipaumire was for me a revelation, and the dancers were jaw-droppingly amazing. They got a standing ovation. The critics missed something.