A collection of the longer text posts from my main tumblr, currently in the process of being edited. Mostly about dance, often about music, sometimes about TV or visual art. These posts are not necessarily in chronological order.
Of late I’ve been into gaps, both they themselves and the things that make them. Or leave them, depending on how you look at it. Here’s the latest to catch my attention – or rather, the two bodies that shape it.
One: Tere O’Connor swears that he could “buy movement from eBay” and still make dances that do what he wants to do – which is to say, very little. He isn’t, of course, trying to make dances that “do nothing.” He just wants very much to efface himself from the choreographic process, to cut himself out of the picture. Developing a recognizable choreographic style is something he wants to avoid. But, the inevitability of trademarkable qualities aside – use of text, structural poetics, even a vaguely consistent movement sensibility – O’Connor’s wanting to dodge the bullet seems like a misguided attempt at achieving neutrality. If we’re generous, we could evaluate his goal in a “semantic” sense. That’s to say, no one movement “means” anything more or less special than another. (He’s certainly no Graham.) Yet choosing to make no choice, were that truly possible, is still a decision with aesthetic implications. It allows for an infinitely wide range of movement possibilities, true, but it’s also (to me) a pointed move in favor of the prosaic. He’ll allow himself to access classical and modern stockpiles if the situation allows. But like his literary soulmates, the New York School poets, holding formal language and devices at arm’s length are less a shot at full inclusion, and more a protective measure on behalf of the ordinary. Like Affirmative Action, it takes corrective measures in the interest of equality (or neutrality), borne of the realization that the latter cannot happen without the active pressure of the former.
Two: Jen Rosenbilt works hard to ward off meaning too. She scrapes it off the moment it begins to accumulate on the surface of her dances. (That’s something she talks about in this interview.) But where O’Connor acts like a traffic guard, making meaning stand still while he lets the flow of information pass unhindered, Rosenblit extends her austerity to the choices she makes on a semantic level. This isn’t to suggest she’s a “minimalist” (in the Ellsworth-Kelly-not-Sol-Lewitt sense) – she’s not on a trek to Degree Zero – but it’s rare to see anything even approaching a “dance phrase” emerge. She, unlike O’Connor, seems to believe that isolated movements contain just as much communicative potential as movements in sequence. So, in a spare mode of organization which avoids both O’Connor’s varied flow and (refreshingly!) the now-hackneyed hysterical repetition made famous by Pina Bausch, the single gesture holds sway. Her movement vocabulary also evades the pull of “dancerly” vocabulary far more than does O’Connor’s.
The gap: how is the formation of meaning affected in a shift from the first case to the second? In an O’Connor piece there’s enough information to allow a viewer to formulate figurative scenarios. And he encourages that; he advocates an evocative approach to interpretation. But I don’t feel Rosenblit’s work could give an evocative approach much momentum. Their sparsity is akin to the language of a child just learning how to speak – all monosyllables – but her dances even lack the silent, implied grammar of a toddler’s blunt speech. How are the two experiences different? And, most importantly, how do “body issues” figure into each setup? Some argue they matter more in Rosenblit’s case. Does a dance vocabulary equalize O’Connor’s performers in a way they don’t Rosenblit’s? People seem to make much less of a deal about O’Connor performance mainstay Hilary Clark – immediately recognizable both for her fierce performance quality and her unorthodox body type – than they do Rosenblit. But that could be the result of a number of factors: Rosenblit’s a relative newcomer, Rosenblit’s a choreographer (and hence privy to creative information Clark isn’t), and so on. What does Rosenblit do in peeling away layers where O’Connor would build them up?
Alright, between this and that Village Voice write-up from a few months back, it just seems like people are trying to slap him in the face as hard as they possibly can.
I have very little respect for Hirst, and would probably have kept on loathing him had I not stopped to read this review — which is less of a review and more of an attempt to prove just how quickly Loving Damien Hirst is going out of vogue. It’s sort of like when Pitchfork, fearing for its relevance, suddenly turns tail on an old darling. The best way to cut ties is to cut them quickly.
The funny thing is that Damien Hirst seems to have realized this too, which is why he suddenly takes a painterly, figurative turn. Oddly enough, the one big question Jones fails to ask is that which is arguably thebiggest question to ask: why figurative painting, and why now? Why a leap from the superflat, blatantly effortless works he’s churned out for over twenty years, to the stilted, unsure still-life works which make up Two Weeks, One Summer? Hirst has been all about getting the most mileage out of the least effort. Now, you can’t help but look at one of these paintings and see the effort in every brushstroke, an effort which Jones considers entirely wasted.
I don’t want to speak to the quality of the paintings because I haven’t yet made up my mind about them. (Yes, at first glance they are “bad,” but then so is a lot of the stuff to come out of the early twentieth century. It really is the thought that counts; how the paintings look is not as important as asking why they might look the way they do — or, more correctly, how their look “speaks.”) Rumor has it that Hirst is an excellent draftsman, even though (1) a drawer does not always a painter make, and (2) I’m not concerned with his art-school history. But it’s saddening to consider the consequences of bottoming out: where do you go after you’ve peddled what may be the most banal work presently conceivable? It’s clear that the question guides these paintings in some way, and even literally, as the familiar dot-grid pattern sits on top of these paltry still-life paintings (albeit as an all-white, heavily worn ghost of the spot paintings).
Strangely the idea didn’t even click until I saw a picture of what seems to be the only three-dimensional piece in the show. It’s called The Battle Between Good and Evil, a work in the vein of E-Z-Concept pieces like The Physical Impossibility of Death…: it’s like an ad, and can be pretty much understood at one glance. (That piece was presumably chosen to accompany the paintings because it, too, continues the dot motif.) But where The Physical Impossibility…makes lazy swats at sublimity (as do many of his other works), The Battle Between Good and Evil makes no grand gesture. It doesn’t even feel like he phoned it in! There is no entry point into The Battle, at least not as accessible an entry like those in his other works. It doesn’t provoke with its superficiality, nor does it anger with ease (even if the piece itself does seem like yet another Hirst-style “readymade”). The piece just seems to sit there, able to do nothing but be looked at pitifully.
I haven’t seen the show in person, but I can only imagine the two spheres lolling around in the weak stream of air burbling up from below. In my mind they seem as pitiful as the white dots on the canvases: Hirst’s attempts at concealing insecurity with cool, detached glossiness are cracking up. It’s almost as he’s spent a career flattening himself as much as possible, and is now making an attempt to breathe life into that fake, flattened self. This isn’t simple banality; it’s a shaky attempt to find a new direction, which can be an incredibly vulnerable situation to work through. This is the only batch of work by Hirst that’s actually made me think about what he’s doing. I find it compelling, even if I don’t immediately like it. Don’t chalk me up as a fan just yet, but this may be the start of something new.
Have you ever seen Frost/Nixon? One of Frost’s aides is a journalist and outspoken Nixon-hater, more so than the other members of Frost’s team. He swears that nothing could or would ever drive him to respect Nixon in any way, that he would even humiliate the former President if given the chance. His story changes when Nixon meets Frost and his team for the first of their interviews. Nixon has been shaking each man’s hand, and he finally reaches the journalist; he extends his hand and smiles; the journalist is dumbstruck for a few seconds. But finally, with wavering eyes, he takes Nixon’s hand, shakes it, and with a trembling voice he murmurs “…Honored to meet you.”
I did not get to meet Wayne McGregor after seeing UNDANCE last night (though on my way out of Sadler’s Wells I came within striking distance of him!), but I was completely taken by the dozen or so masterful dancers who writhed and shouldered their way through his newest work. For a couple of years I’ve been in a position much like that of the bitter journalist in Frost/Nixon. True, I’ve never hated McGregor; in fact I’ve always admired his movement vocabulary. But I was never really moved by his work, whether it was one of his works for the Royal Ballet or a piece created for his own company, Random Dance (as UNDANCE was). I’ve long been skeptical of the unanimous praise critics heap on him and his company. But maybe, I figured, there was something I was missing. There was always the possibility that my online viewings were a fluke, that a live show would be powerful enough to change my opinion of him.
The major problem with McGregor’s work is always visible, though, regardless of its viewing medium: his heady movement and ambitious concepts often in get in each other’s way. The disconnect is scaffolded by a weak compromise; superficial references or visual cues are passed off as deep conceptual engagement. I knew what he was “going for” in this piece since I’d watched a behind-the-scenes video on the Sadler’s Wells website a few days before the show. That shouldn’t have been my safety net, though. I’ve long believed that a viewer shouldn’t have to know anything special about a work before viewing it. At least, if a work depends on references or process or other “external” ideas to inform its presentation, its logic should be able to reveal those insights by itself — without program notes or sneak-peek videos. UNDANCE didn’t do that for me. Don’t get me wrong, the performance itself was one of the best I’ve ever seen thanks to the prowess of McGregor’s dancers and surprisingly apt score by Turnage. (His operatic monologue Twice Through the Heart, which formed the other half of the evening’s double bill, was a chore to sit through — I’m not a huge fan of the squawky contemporary music that’s come out of the UK lately, and the 3D ANIMATIONS! that made up the piece’s set design didn’t really add much.) Unfortunately, despite the quality of its individual aspects, the show as a whole unit wasn’t very rewarding. It reinforced my earlier suspicions — suspicions which many critics, including Judith Mackerell!, still don’t acknowledge. Even now, as before, I’m still that bitter journalist.
I watch Dance Moms unapologetically. Artistic and dramatic merit aside, it’s done positive things for the dance world as a whole. Granted, those things are few in number…in fact, that number may only be one: it’s increased the visibility of lesser-known dance forms. Baby steps, to be sure. But you have to walk before you can run, right?
Competition dance is a largely hidden sector of an art form that is itself relatively obscure. (I use the word “competition” to distinguish it from its more popular counterpart, competitive dance. In my mind, the latter revolves around ballroom dance, while the former encompasses jazz, lyrical, tap, and sometimes ballet and clogging.) In many ways that’s for the best. Though it’s been lurking in the wider public consciousness in one form or another, it wasn’t until the advent of the “prostitot” controversy that competition dance was exposed in all its full, garish aspect. I’m not going to discuss the nature of the form here – its bizarre aesthetic sensibilities warrant a post of their own – but thanks to shows like Dance Moms and, most notably (and controversially), So You Think You Can Dance, the public is at least gaining awareness of the finer technical and stylistic aspects of competition dance.
The number on this week’s episode of Dance Moms was a surprisingly serious piece called “Where Have All the Children Gone?”. It was a far cry from the show’s usual neon-and-jazz-hands fare, described variously by company director Abby Lee as “very mature,” “very dark,” “harrowing,” “simple,” “complex,” “powerful,” and—most importantly—“contemporary.” Evidently she does a good job of heaping on the artspeak. But her labels ring true: public reaction to the dance has indeed deemed the piece “creepy,” “dark,” and even “too mature” for the young dancers. I’ve my own opinions of the dance, but those observations pale in comparison to broader trends I’ve recognized in the public’s (newly?-)burgeoning relationship to current dance practice. To the art enthusiast it’s no shocking revelation: many people identify “contemporary” art by the distinctive marking it often bears—self-aware strangeness.
“What kind of dance do you do?” is a question I get on a regular basis. My answer comes standard: ballet, modern, contemporary. The response comes standard too. Most people seem to have a general understanding of what ballet and modern dance are, but few know what contemporary dance is. Clarifying is always difficult. “Is it the same as modern dance?” That depends on what you mean by same, but generally the answer is no. “How is it different?” Well, there really is no single way in which contemporary practice differs from past forms of practice. I try to spare most people the art history lesson, though, so my explanation is usually pretty simple: “it’s basically anything you want it to be.”
Too simple. It’s a weak shot, cheap and watered-down. I know it’s a conciliatory answer. But it’s true! One of the hallmarks of what we call “postmodernism” is pluralism - the acceptance of multiple forms of practice. Maybe an open-ended answer like that is not really a bad thing, because I really can’t give a better one. The most dangerous part of such a flimsy answer is its betrayal of art as a legitimate endeavor; it’s a chink in the armor that leaves contemporary practice open to a barrage of lopsided, cursory judgments. Contemporary dance generally doesn’t appreciate the social privilege of its peers, classical and modern dance. Largely uncontroversial, their eccentricities have become commonplace and are now seen as non-threateningly “beautiful.” Contemporary practice, however, remains to be similarly co-opted. Its idiosyncrasies often ruffle the average viewer, and are often hailed as being self-aware or “weird for the sake of being weird.” My tepid defense only makes this attitude seem okay! It passively approves of the idea that contemporary dance, like the rest of contemporary art, is strange, confusing, uninviting, exploitative of its audience, and generally undeserving of careful consideration.
I try to give people a more concrete idea of the sort of things I do, but those anecdotes usually make matters worse. Some dances are truly more perplexing to explain than they are to watch. How do you say “we had to destroy cardboard boxes” or “it’s like a Puritan version of tap dance” with a straight face? These sorts of lines are played for laughs, yes, but they’re effective and they communicate a vivid glimpse of what the piece was like - even if they ultimately work against the appreciation I’m trying to cultivate. I (and any other artist) always want a potential audience member to be as open to the virtually infinite range of artistic possibilities as he or she can be. This may mean giving as little information as possible so as to keep prejudices at bay. And in such a case a boring answer like “anything that’s been made in the past thirty or so years is contemporary” may be all I give. Unfortunately that answer doesn’t mean much to the dance newcomer. It gives him no historical or stylistic information to work with, and it doesn’t elucidate the difference between, say, a Forsythe work and a newly-tweaked version of an otherwise traditional Nutcracker.
So how do we justify “weirdness” without sounding apologetic? Not without great difficulty. Like I mentioned in my post about ELO, people are in the habit of approaching art nonchalantly. They feel neither the desire nor the necessity to engage with it critically. Art appreciation is thus treated like any other type of entertainment; viewers either stick to comfortably pleasing objects, or they expect a disclaimer before being exposed to anything too unusual. That expectation is not necessarily a bad thing. Contextualization can definitely help a viewer understand why something is the way it is. Knowing something about artists’ growing dissatisfaction with art’s commodification is a key to “getting” conceptual art, for example. How many people can glimpse the “full meaning” of Duchamp’s urinal simply by staring at it?
But even though knowledge can demystify many things, experience can illuminate a lot more. I think people should ultimately be more open to embracing Experience instead of expecting a “readily understandable” artistic product. Of course that’s easier said than done. Art appreciation ultimately can’t be taught, and even from an analytical standpoint it’s a sticky request—how does a work become “relevant” unless you can give reasons to justify its relevance?*—but it solves a few of the most basic issues most people encounter when looking at art. “What does this mean?” becomes a relatively unimportant issue, as does the question of where “ugliness” fits into aesthetics as a whole. It would salvage dance (well, all art forms, but especially dance) from the constricting demand for lighthearted, mimetic, or otherwise easily-consumed subject matter. And despite the merits it may have, it would permit shows like Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance to pursue more insightful artistic exploration without fear of alienating their audiences.
So what light does Experience shed on “Where Have All the Children Gone?” Like the Single Ladies dance, pieces like this are not uncommon. The subject matter of “heavier” competition pieces is usually less depressing than that of child abduction, but they usually tell a fairly moody story of some kind. They usually do so through mime, spoken word, or other fairly straightforward means of expression, which usually renders potentially deep subject matter two-dimensional. Then again, there’s only so much depth you can plumb in a two-and-a-half-minute dance. Because its presentation was so non-shocking I found it amusing. Technically speaking, though, the girls are pretty good. But rest assured – none of these flaws are going to make me love this show any less.
(*NOTE: Artistic relevance is an idea that comes and goes with each generation of thought. It’s shocking to think that Bach’s music was out of favor even during the composer’s lifetime. And despite its allegedly “evident” aesthetic goodness, a time will come when it will once again be found unfavorable.)
(And on a completely unrelated note, the title of this dance reminds me of this song.)
Call me silly, but lately I’ve felt the need to justify my personal tastes. Several people have asked me why I like the things I like; how I could keep a straight face while calling Lost in Translation a good movie, or if I really, actually, you-can’t-be-serious like “My Heart Will Go On.” My tastes are disparate. Some have tried to find a pattern in the jumble: pretentious (true); kitschy (hmmm); extremely highbrow + extremely lowbrow (getting warmer!). Admittedly, it’s on the rarest of occasions that I find myself falling for something that doesn’t fall towards one end of the spectrum or another. That’s why my feelings for Out of the Blue are confuzzled at best. It’s packed to the brim with stuff of all levels of -brow, which is why it’s hard to classify in terms of quality.
Lots of people love to argue that the Beatles’ output is the culmination of rock music’s potential. I don’t argue with them, mostly because I’ve made a point of not listening to The Beatles. I guess my feelings about them are similar to Melville’s description of whalers’ attitudes towards Moby-Dick: the rumors are all they know, and all they want to know. Interacting with the terrible thing itself would be their undoing. The Beatles have so much cultural baggage attached to them. I think I’d have a hard time enjoying their music for what it is – and I’d definitely have a hard time listening to it critically. Anyway, failure to do my homework leaves me unable to evaluate the opinion that the Beatles are the greatest band in the history of rock. It also leaves me unable to judge whether or not Jeff Lynne succeeded in leading ELO’s mission to “pick up where The Beatles left off.” My immediate inclination is no, because historically speaking, the Beatles didn’t leave off anywhere, except at the end of their last album. But Lynne refers specifically to their augmentation of the traditional four-piece with orchestral instrumentation. So in that regard, I guess he did pretty well. I’d say that no one was as successful at turning a rock album into a symphonic experience as he was.
But was that investment any “good”? Seventeen-year-old me would’ve said yes. (Seventeen-year-old me also thought Philip Glass was the be-all, end-all of art music, but that’s another story.) That’s when I first heard “Mr. Blue Sky,” which I assume is the standard introduction to to ELO catalogue. At the time I was only about a year and a half into my mission to become more musically adventurous. The song was a nice landmark on the trail: it was a fun combination of solid pop structures and masterful musical arrangement. A couple of years after that, I listened to all of Out of the Blue for the first time. Going in, I wondered why this band was so understated. Isn’t the marriage of symphonic music and rock a big deal—a historically important big deal? Maybe, but ELO may not be the band that deserves the credit for bringing it to pass.
Why not? Well, there’s the most popular answer: The Beatles (and the Beach Boys) did it first. Precedent’s nice, but were they the most successful at doing it? Is that what made them “great” bands? After some consideration I realized that I didn’t really know what makes a great album “great”. I don’t like talking about artistic “greatness” because it’s not really important – after all, taste is a personal issue, and it isn’t validated by its alignment with contemporary notions of artistic “goodness.” Plus, The Great Bands Discussion always degenerates into facedesking. But this album, and this band, never seems to make the cut. It’s obvious a lot of work went into it. The arrangements are nothing to sneeze at. The album’s main conceit – a centerpiece of songs comprising the Concerto for a Rainy Day – is clever, even if it’s cringe-inducing on paper. The good songs on the album are very good; “Turn to Stone” is a solid pop song, as is “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”. And “Starlight” is a respectable love song written in the vein of the space-age chic that permeates the album (right down to its cover art).
Unfortunately, the album’s positive aspects are weighed down by the more puzzling or less-successful ones. Rolling Stone’s initial review of the album criticized it for being self-absorbed to the point of soullessness: “What I heard was a meticulously produced and performed set of songs, with subtle nods to the Beach Boys…, the Bee Gees…, and, of course, the Beatles (clearly Lynne’s biggest influence). And without any noticeable passion or emotion. All method and no madness: perfectly hollow and bland rock Muzak.” Altman’s biggest qualm is that the album is too uniform, that it doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve—or worse, that it has no heart to wear on said sleeve. But in my opinion, Pet Sounds can be similarly faulted, at least from a production perspective. The lack of guitar solos, for example, for which Altman faults this album is not enough to warrant accusations of blandness.
But one big way in which Pet Sounds and Out of the Blue do differ is lyrically. Brian Wilson manages to use a song like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to make even the breeziest of the teen years sound painfully repressed. No dice for Jeff Lynne in that department. Most of the songs are fairly routine lyrically speaking, but most of the time the arrangements are so busy that they obscure the lyrics. Lynne treats his voice as one of the multitude of instruments he throws into this large sugary mix. Even if you don’t count the large number of tracks in the mix devoted solely to his unfiltered voice, the vocoder industry probably couldn’t have found a better poster child than Jeff Lynne. Those lyrics which are clearly audible don’t really prompt conscious consideration. Everything about this album is “produced.” That’s presumably the root of Altman’s complaint: the singer stands apart from his music; the music should serve the lyrics, but because the reverse happens the project lacks emotional honesty.
That makes sense. But it lays bare one of the central tenets of popular-music criticism: music and lyrics have to be congruent in order for an album to be “successful.” Britney Spears chirps about nightlife and paparazzi to a shiny plastic drum-and-synth beat, and her album is successful. Dave Longstreth balances philosophical obliqueness with the occasional blunt, natural image, just like he combines his own rough-hewn brand of melodic guitar-playing with elaborate vocal polyphony: his album is one of the best of the year. Deerhoof sing and play like precocious kindergarteners on the playground: success. And Joanna Newsom takes orchestration to the extreme like Lynne does, but her lyrics are just as grand and high-minded as their accompaniment: her work wins critical acclaim.
I admire all of these musicians, and I don’t mean to disparage their output. I also respect the quality of congruity; coherence of vision has long been the standard by which art’s “goodness” has been evaluated. But I feel its biggest drawback is its insistence on treating an album like a consumer good rather than a self-contained whole. The album has to be able to “make sense” in the mind of the consumer—it isn’t allowed to be present its own “sense.” In a way this expectation has been subverted by the use of irony (Warhol Buck$ anyone?). But though two options have been explored and accepted – lyrics which are congruent with their accompanying music, and lyrics which are “greater”/more “profound” than their accompanying music – the third option, lyrics which are “lesser”/less “profound” than their accompaniment, is usually dismissed as pretension. Also, it’s pretty common to see an album faulted for over-production, but has “over-lyricizing” even been cited as a shortcoming? Maybe it has to do with the social dominance of verbal communication over other forms of communcation? I don’t know. But I would be the first to admit that Out of the Blue fits in the third category, which is probably the reason neither this album nor Electric Light Orchestra get a whole lot of praise.
At this point in my life I’m trying to be more responsible with the things I like. Not that I have to have a concrete reason for liking everything that I do, but examining my preferences has proven to be rewarding. But I just don’t know what to do with ELO. On one hand I think they’re great, but on another I feel like their output, after some scrutiny, is doomed to collapse under its own weight. Yet I can’t help but admire them. They remind me of that one kid in high school—everyone knows him: the one who was into Nietzsche and/or Wes Anderson but was actually less smart than he let on. But even if everyone knew the whole thing was a put-on, you couldn’t help feeling, from time to time, that he was in on something you weren’t—something important you felt you should be in on, too.
We can often tell whether or not we’re dreaming by taking notice of our surroundings. Dreams—my dreams, at least—take place in settings that have a vaguely familiar air about them, yet are altogether unusual. The combination of the known and the strange usually results in a comfortable uneasiness, if that makes sense. For example, I once dreamed I went to the supermarket sometime around midnight. The building’s facets were all familiar to me; they were features I’m accustomed to seeing in most any grocery store. But those features were jumbled into something new and unrecognizable, something slightly discomforting but oddly lulling. Vertical blinds, wooden lattices, narrow floor space (the whole building was less than ten feet wide) and dim lighting all had as much a role in forming the dream’s experience as the events and people in it.
Another of my dreams took place in what was a cross between a school cafetorium and the large central room of a daycare center. I feel I may have visited both of these places at some point in my life—whatever or wherever they are—but I only vaguely recognized them. On the room’s raised stage, a group of about twenty school-aged girls ran on and executed a routine they look like they’d learned in a Saturday morning ballet class. (Their pink leotards and tutus confirmed the suspicion.) But in one corner of the open floor space, a man and a woman dressed in black exercise clothing danced a slow, sinuous pas de deux, all the while completely oblivious to the goings-on onstage. There may or may not have been a table against the left wall of the space. All but the leftmost bank of fluorescent lights were turned off. I felt these dances, the lights, even the space itself, were all an integral part of that performance — if you could call it that. That’s what was so vivid about it: it didn’t feel staged. Even though it was dance, it felt completely natural, like it was supposed to be happening exactly that way, in exactly that space.
I find the idea of “Frankenstein spaces” highly stimulating, both in my dreams and when I’m trying to piece the dreams together while awake. Part of their appeal lies in their strangeness—who uses vertical blinds as partitions?—but most of the fun lies in trying to figure out why the rooms feel familiar. Are these places I’ve visited? subconscious constructs? both? At some point I’d love to explore the possibilities of staging a dance that happens in multiple spaces, but falls together as a single unit. I’m not talking about a setup that functions like a museum, where a person can walk around and view different dances at leisure as if they’re flipping through channels on TV. These spaces would be complimentary, the result of something like bad feng shui. Which leads me to say: I’m not interested in the idea of site-specific (or should I say, site-oblivious) performance. I don’t want this to be a dance you can do anywhere, though I suppose with the proper setting it could be done in any accommodating space. I envision a piece in which things are hidden at times, a piece that takes place in a space that doesn’t feel suited to dancing. There’s often talk of making an art form feel unfamiliar, but very little work that manages to do it. Taking presentation into consideration could a be a big step in the process.
These are some works set in some kind of “Frankenstein space.” The effect is more apparent in some of these and less so in others:
To be honest, I was looking for the National Portrait Gallery (and never found it), but I figured I’d make the most of my misfortune and give it a try. And was it ever worth it! “Gallery” is, of course, an understatement for a building housing so large a collection. The galleries themselves were a marvel. Whoever was in charge of selecting wallpaper for the place must really love their job! I’m generally against intrusive exhibition spaces, but I realize such an institution is definitely not about feigning “cultural objectivity.”
All that aside, it surprised me that some of the more famous pieces in the collection were so modestly displayed. They could easily be passed up if one wasn’t looking for them. The Arnolfini Portrait was stashed away in a small side gallery. Bronzino’s Allegory of Cupid and Venus was at the far end of one very large room. Speaking of which—the latter was definitely one of my favorite pieces. I’ve known of it for a while, but seeing a work in person, yada yada yada. It’s every bit as puzzling as it seemed to be. As mentioned earlier Parmigianino’sMadonna and Child with Saints was up there on my favorites list as well. As if Dramatic John the Baptist and Comatose Saint Jerome weren’t enough, the piece also features what has to be the sassiest Infant Jesus in the history of painting.
I think the curators did a pretty neat job of including a wide range of paintings by Titian. Though I’ve never been especially familiar with his work, I felt I learned loads about him just by scanning the handful of galleries which featured some of his paintings. I was unaware of the marked difference in “painterly” quality that showed up toward the end of his career. His canvases became a lot rougher; brush strokes became visible, colors became darker.
An interesting series of Four Elements paintings was set up in a passageway between rooms. Painted by the Flemish artist Joachim Beuckelaer (whom I’d never heard of before this trip), the four paintings depict earth, water, wind, and fire in fairly nontraditional contexts. They aren’t represented as personages as I expected. Instead, each panel shows the products which come about as a result of putting each element to work for economic purposes. The earth yields vegetables; water, fish; the air, fowl; fire aids in the preparation of food—and all of these things are sold in markets frequented by wealthy Flemish traders. The portrayal makes sense in light of the growing mercantile power that was the Renaissance Netherlands, but it was strange nonetheless.
I was near exhausted by the time I got to the eighteenth-century pieces. Between the garish interior design, the crowds, and the brash colors of the paintings themselves (the Mannerists don’t let you catch a break!), I was getting worn down. I made a quick spin through the British and French art from the 18th and 19th centuries – I was really happy to see Turners in person for the first time, but the three or four big Impressionist rooms were a pain since there were so many people clogging them up.
Why is Impressionism so popular with museum-goers? I have my own purely speculative theory: it seems to best fit the popular conception of what an Artist is. Medieval art’s standoffish style often borders on the bizarre or even laughable. “Realist” painting is more readily appreciated, but photography has trumped it; anything paintings do, photos (supposedly) do better. Religious subject matter is sensitive and compounds the issue. And even though the stylized look of pre-Renaissance works is less “transparent” than that of its realist counterparts, it’s still too stilted. It’s been codified in such a way that renders it pretty much unrelatable.
Enter the Impressionist artist. His work is not realist. Brush strokes are visible; the effort sits on the surface. Not like the flat, smooth surfaces of the best High Renaissance works—as good as magazine photos! His subject matter is relatively uncontroversial and readily “beautiful”: flowers, fruit, land- or cityscapes, the occasional naked woman. This is, for many, what the artist is supposed to do: put forth a considerable amount to produce something of beauty. It’s all there, plain as day, in a Van Gogh or a Monet! And the National Gallery has taken care to egg it on.
All of this has made me excited for the Degas exhibit that’s just gone up at the Royal Academy of Arts. I don’t know exactly why Degas has the reputation he does, but I suspect it’s a lot to do with this mindset. His work seems deceptively pretty though, so I’ll have to check it out. For now, though, I’ve done my share of museum-going.
On an odd whim, I listened to Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie today. It must have been a partially masochistic move on my part. My first experience with Messiaen was his opera based on the life of Saint Francis and I didn’t get half an hour in before I gave up. (The reasons may be obvious if you follow the link.) But since I decided to use the summer to listen to music I’d avoided for some reason or another, I figured I’d give him another try. I’m glad I did! The Symphonie was, in its own way, fun.
Of course, the music was easier to approach because of my change in taste. Three years ago the most daring music I liked was “entry-level” minimalist stuff -Einstein on the Beach, In C, the like. Three years later I’ve grown accustomed to dissonance, noise, and erratic tempi. In some cases I actively like those things. They interest me; they’re so apart from the sounds I hear the majority of the time. But it’s not that abrasive sounds are pleasant to me. Most of the time they aren’t. I still don’t like listening to John Cage’s music for long periods of time, and to be honest Turangalila was, at times, a bit much for me to handle. Yet in spite of dissonance’s unpleasantness, I endure it - and often enjoy enduring it.
A few months ago I went to an electronic music concert with a few of my friends. One piece was particularly grueling: eighteen minutes of shrill squeals, hushed crackles, and everything in between. Was it pleasant? No. Yet I found merit in it. Unfortunately I was alone in doing so. Dissonance was the biggest complaint, but the piece’s physicality was another. At times it did hurt our ears, and at others it rumbled the seats in the auditorium. One moment it was a dead buzz. The next it was a bright, stinging drone. This was a piece that, in a nearly literal sense, moved me.
That wasn’t enough to convince my friends, and most of the time it isn’t. A few weeks later I was having that discussion - i.e., the conversation that all undergrads have at some point - i.e., the one about 4’33”. Apparently my taste is pretty infamous (quite a few of the people who know me think Lost in Translation best represents the sorts of movies I like? I mean yeah, I liked Lost in Translation a lot but still) so I was expected to defend 4’33” in the conversation. I did, but I was dissatisfied with my defenses. They were all pretty textbook: it’s about context and definition, the line between natural sounds and “music” is artificial, someone important decided it was important too, etc. I truly believe them. And of course it’s always nice when you’re able to get others to understand things from your point of view, especially when it comes to something so controversial. But the whole trajectory of the discussion was well-worn, nearly to the point of being trite: it had nothing to do with validating the experience of the piece, but defending what it was “about,” and why those “meanings” are worth regarding.
That’s cool, or at least I think so. It has good implications. It makes me more receptive to work that doesn’t agree with my immediate sense of taste. And as a result, it’s making the process of “learning” how to criticize art a little easier. Meeting work on its own terms has always been hard for me - and still is - but thinking “through” something is more rewarding than thinking “at” it.
But problems remain. I’m no artistic authority, but I like to think that my view of a work is in fact a “valid” way of looking at it. And because I’m no special case I’d have to admit - grudgingly - that everyone’s opinion of art is “valid.” After all, the work (well, at least Art) will continue to exist regardless of what anyone thinks of it. But what I’m uncomfortable with is the idea that a piece has to meansomething to be worthy of our attention. Even though most if not all art is equally useless, we eventually decide that some pieces are more worthy of our attention than others. How do we do this, if everyone’s experience is equally “right,” and if a piece has no way of communicating its “importance” to its audience? (As if it could. That “importance” is a fluke, it’s imposed upon it by said audience.)
We could go behind the scenes. Examining the unity of the work is important but is closer to a concern like the one above. This leaves the more formal elements open for examination, and this is often the first stop when it comes to determining a work’s “goodness.” I was long of the opinion that a work should be able to “speak for itself” - if not entirely, then at least to some substantial degree (read: it should look or sound “good” in some way). I still believe this for the most part, except this belief is no longer based solely on taste. No matter how shoddy a work seems superficially, I still try to find signs of “thought” or “care” - something that says the artist expended a significant amount of effort in the process of making the piece. This may or may not be a good thing but it’s a fact.
This makes for a contradiction. If you ask the average person why the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is good music, they won’t tell you that they’re brought to tears by its simultaneous observance and violation of symphonic form. They’ll say it sounds good! At the same time, a piece by Cage demands explanation: “For what reason should I like this?” Experience wins in Beethoven’s case, but in a typical encounter with Cage’s music intellectual coherence acts as a life preserver. This difference in views can be explained - socially, the reasons for liking Beethoven have already been “given” to us. One could blame THE ESTABLISHMENT for insisting on the “goodness” of his music, but this establishment praises Cage’s output as well. So it’s less of an establishment issue and more of a social one. Beethoven’s sense of tonality, rhythm, orchestration, etc., still stand in accordance with our society’s general sense of taste. Yet Cage’s noisiness is still unacceptable, even with the aid of conceptual defense. (This despite the fact that noise and dissonance are far from strange in even the most popular of today’s music!) The clues to “understanding” Cage’s music are not a part of our social fabric.
If individual sounds are not the problem, then, structure has to be the issue. What’s the difference between a Timbaland production and a piece of musique concrète? It’s not the soundsthey use. Sampling has long since done away with the idea of “bad sounds.” So it seems it’s the way these sounds rest against one another that legitimizes them - screeching tires and exhales are fine as long as they can be danced to. That’s not intended to be cynical - I like “Pony” quite a bit. But it’s odd to think that something as simple as a rhythmic structure can make something “bad” become “good”! I guess the most notable artists have little or no regard for taste, but the process through which the strange becomes commonplace is a mystery to me. Acceptability in the art world is one thing, and Cage’s music has long since been accepted, but will society’s structural awareness ever allow the wider public to see his music as “good”? (Btw, is this what structuralism is? I still have yet to learn any specifics.)
I’m just squeamish about applying a “good” or “bad” stamp to work based on its construction. I do it colloquially, but the terms feel forced when I try to use them seriously. And because art has no value - and therefore no end towards which it strives - that makes the terms seem even less appropriate. How, then, can art be evaluated? And is it possible to convince people that art can be appreciated experientially rather than evaluatively?
I think I first found out about Wally Cardona and his weird choreography around this time last year. It was one of those cases in which I started watching his videos and didn’t want to stop. Since it’s summertime I finally have an excuse to rewatch these videos, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Of all the work I’ve seen by him (via internet, as is usually the case), SITE has to be my favorite.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t begin my explanation without first making a confession: I like them because they’re shamelessly artsy. That just so happens to be their “redeeming factor,” however. Most postmodern dance tries to deny its privilege through presentation that’s usually either highly contrived or completelyslapdash. Both of those choices have their advantage, but they are usually used to undermine the artificial nature of the form. Some element, be it the movement (usually in the case of the former) or set (often in conjunction with the latter), is diminished to the point of emaciation in an attempt to keep the dances from becoming too spectacular in the literal sense of the word. Wally Cardona doesn’t seem to care about “privilege,” though. He often uses elaborate sets, as is the case here. He hauls in high-school marching bands or children’s choirs to accompany his pieces. His dancer’s costumes often coordinate with one another, despite the current trend toward individualist/pedestrian costuming. He even sets whole dances to conversations about Kierkegaard. But just as he rarely fails to appear in his own dances, I think Cardona is completely comfortable with the fact that most works of art emerge from the minds of a single creative individual, and that the right to “keep the author alive” (despite recent developments) is completely valid. And the choices he makes in these directions are often unexpected. I’d bet that most choreographers would not consider using children’s choruses in their work, nor would they situate their pieces in environments made from boards, tape, and construction paper - unless they wanted to give their pieces an air of childishness or naivety, as is often the case.
The dances, though often spectacular, are not showy. SITE, for instance, approaches scenically-oriented dance with more thoughtfulness than most other pieces I’ve seen. Maybe it’s because the set is an active part of the choreography rather than an explanation of an idea that informs the piece superficially. But at the same time, it’s not just five people pushing boards around or crumbling large sheets of paper.
During one part of the dance (beginning at 8:48 in the video), one dancer criscrosses the stage restlessly, sliding individual boards into place. He isn’t content with any one arrangement - dancers keep knocking the boards out of place, or something looks askew - so tending to his work quickly becomes a burden. The never-ending task is poignant at first but it quickly lapses into something groan-inducing. Watching the scene I began to feel the same way I do watching a lot of postmodern dance: the choreographer must’ve watched too much Pina Bausch, I hope they realize the repetitive structure thing is played out, etc. It’s a cheap way to manufacture drama, and one can see the end coming from a long way off.
But that turned out not to be the case. The episode didn’t end the way one might expect it to: in some kind of melodramatic acceptance of defeat (bonus points for heavy collapse, guttural scream, and/or hair-pulling/head-clasping). In fact, it didn’t really end at all. And in those moments at which an end seemed imminent, the action was unexpectedly low-key. There were no announcements of beginning or ending. Surprisingly (and satisfyingly), the whole piece is structured that way. It was one of the few times I’ve watched a video, dance-related or otherwise, without keeping an eye on the amount of time left. To be honest, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much if I had. The piece peters out without warning.
This is probably the biggest reason I admire Cardona’s dances. They don’t “try” to be anything. There’s no attempt to set up a big dramatic arc or split things into definite scenes. Naturally this can get extremely exhausting for both dancers and audience (especially in an “all-dancing” piece like Really Real), but that helps further unify the work. “Sections” weave together almost seamlessly, and cessations in progress seem earned instead of forced. Though it sounds callous and is most probably incorrect, it seems that he doesn’t care how long things take, or how they come together; he just lets them happen.
This causes his dances to feel a little like Cunningham works. At the same time his dances seem even more elusive than Cunningham’s. Unlike a Cunningham piece, in which we know (that is, if you know about Cunningham’s process) that music and dance won’t necessarily match up at any given point, Cardona manages to make all of the elements of a piece seem disparate up until the smallest of moments. His habit of playing “gotcha” teaches us not to expect anything big to happen. But he eventually fakes us out, and when he does, we’re thankful. (My favorite instance of this happens at 18:37.)
So far my summer viewing is going great. Between this, three seasons of Kath and Kim, and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, I’d say I’m making great time.
Without exaggeration, Wayne McGregor has been both the most inspiring and most confounding choreographer I’ve encountered. I first learned about his work during my junior year of high school - Entity was the first piece of his I ever saw - and I was immediately taken by it. Having come from a ballet background I admired its idiosyncratic yet artful violation of traditional technique.
My college dance professors weren’t as enthusiastic about his work. As dancers and choreographers who cut their teeth in New York’s downtown-dance atmosphere, they frowned on his reliance on virtuosity and decoration to propel his work. At the time I was still very attached to the idea that a technically-sound approach to choreography was “best”, so I respectfully disagreed with them.
Two years after the fact, I actually agree with them. Not fully; I still value technique as a starting point for composition, but I now understand a lot of their criticisms of his work. To be honest, much of his work is superficial. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; he’s certainly done wonders for ballet, standing as an attractive compromise between the “abstract” works of Balanchine, the daredevilish smartiness of Forsythe, and the showiness of commercial “contemporary” dance. Unfortunately his blessing is also his biggest problem. His work cannot commit fully to either design, dramatics, concept, or athleticism, and as a result comes off looking a little confused.
Most of his work approaches subject matter that is at least tangentially scientific.Entity, for example, draws inspiration from photography and geometry, whileLimen and Infra take a stab at sociology and psychology. This is a “fitting” topic for the sort of work he produces. This isn’t to say that there are certain things he should or should not choreograph about, but as far as his movement style is concerned these themes fit nicely. They deal with the dim area between real “science” and more nebulous, “pseudoscientific” ideas. In that regard, the use and subsequent transgression of a classical ballet vocabulary is appropriate. He presents his dancers as organic beings both working through and straining against the confines of systematized action. This may also be the reason he thrives on virtuosity. Bodies are treated like machines that have souls in them - and at times it’s hard to get both aspects to work together. (In the end, they look like they’re straining a little too hard against one another, which is why some may accuse him of pandering to virtuosity. The dances are a little “tooinvested.”)
The main problem I have with his work, though, is its superficial treatment of its subject matter. Limen, according to McGregor, is meant to explore “the idea of liminality, thresholds of darkness and light, presence and absence, life and death.” All of these ideas are explored in the set, costume, and lighting design - color, number, and line all form boundaries and outlying areas through which the dancers move. But for me, that’s where the concept stops - the dancers don’t seem to communicate these things at all. I guess one could argue that this is an appropriate (or at least acceptable) way for a choreographer or other sort of visual artist to address the role visual stimuli play in our culture. They don’t often demand our intellectual engagement. They entertain us with their forms - and, in many cases, use their forms to convince us to believe certain things (in other words, the image sells itself and maybe a product, nothing more).
But this problem leaks into his choreographic arrangements as well. McGregor argues, and rightly so, that critics, wanting “to see [the idea] in the final result…[are] reductive.” He claims that the ideal way to watch dance involves “[seeing] what is there in front of you and allow the meaning to emerge rather than looking for the thing you think should exist from the theme.”
This is all well and good, but here’s where his work diverges from that of Balanchine and Forsythe. Both of these men have work that is either laden with concept (in the case of the latter) or guided by relatively pure abstraction (in the case of the former). But in either case, their work demonstrates a consistent schematic setup. Balanchine doesn’t take a score, for example, and begin choreographing an abstract ballet only to end up with a bizarre piece of dance-theater. Likewise, Forsythe strives to communicate concept in his pieces, so he doesn’t let the piece devolve into Petipa-like corps work. They realize that the overall scheme of their dances - not only movement style, but how dancers are grouped, how action is framed, etc. - has an overall logic which comes through on the surface of the work. In turn “extra” meaning can be drawn from the work as well.
McGregor doesn’t quite achieve this level of sophistication. He uses ideas as departure points; fine. But if one wants to develop an idea, one does well to keep the scheme of the original idea in mind in order to build on it. To me, nothing in this choreography communicates the idea of blurred boundaries, not even on a conceptual level - if anything, I’m too focused on the flashiness of the movement to see schematic relationships between dancers.
If, on the other hand, he chooses to treat his dancers as abstract entities, that’s fine too. He could take the Cunningham route and let all “meaning” be deduced by the audience’s evaluation of the sum of the dance’s individual products. In that case, we could argue that there no relationships between the dancers other than those which are choreographed (i.e., no “characters,” etc.); they are like organisms bumping into one another. This is an interesting way to approach his work because it, in my opinion, turns the dancers’ bodies into objects of clinical study. Their limbs and torsos are extended every which way, trying to fill out their range of motion. This view even fits with the idea of “empty” set design I mentioned above.
This idea fails, however, because meaning-laden gestures are dispersed throughout his work. There’s a sentimental woman-on-man’s-knee embrace a la MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet at the end of the featured pas de deux. There’s (equally dramatic, mimed] crying in Infra, the male pas de deux partner in Limen rubs his eyes quite deliberately, etc. Since they’re so rife with meaning, these gestures require interpersonal impetus. People must relate to one another in order to have reasons to cry or embrace. Unfortunately that impetus is not provided in a work that thrives on impersonality and mechanical action.
Like I said, McGregor has caused a lot of excitement in the dance world. His work is sophisticated enough to be appreciated by those familiar to dance, but it’s also potentially attractive to those who are new to ballet. He also has a great appreciation for the work of living artists and composers, something which I respect very much. But I don’t really think his pieces do a good job of exploring how his foundational ideas work. They make for a nice show, which isn’t a bad thing sometimes - but most of the time that’s all they do.