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Subject: "Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?" Archived thread - Read only
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Conferences What's Happening Topic #1989
Reading Topic #1989
Isobel Houghton

13-08-01, 03:29 AM (GMT)
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"Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
   In 1936 in a series of statements entitled “Affirmations” Martha Graham wrote;

“No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time. It is just that others are behind the time.”

The search for choreographers of greatness who will lead dance bravely into the 21st century, the endless debates about who is the future of ballet, modern, world, American etc etc ultimately dissolve into a homogenous cacophony of babble. Not because the question is not relevant, but rather because no answer is forthcoming, or rather certain facts are so often overlooked. In the world history of art the most intense periods of creativity, those times which throw up artists of importance and bravery, centre around major and huge upheavals within society – art seems to follow a Malthusian curve, and the history of dance is no different.
If we are to examine the history of ballet and dance, those periods of greatest creativity, when choreographers blossomed, when the art form itself replicated and reproduced into new and diverse and intricate forms, we must look at the time they were created, because there we may find the key to their survival in the present. From the courts of the Medici Popes, to the Palace of the Sun King, from the French Revolution, to the Russian Revolution, from the Great War and the Wall Street Crash, World War Two and the Vietnam War – the path of dance’s flowering from the academic ballet, to the great innovators of modern dance has blossomed as society burned and was forced into comprehension of its potential for destruction and creativity. The pioneers of dance from Petipa and Fokine, through Nijinsky to Graham, Cunningham to Rainer, were not seeking to be avant garde, they were responding to society with the most powerful voice they new, their dance.
And what of dance now, what of the choreographers now, what is the voice, the mood, the feeling of now? Unfortunately, I would argue it is apathy, or rather a desire to please, an unwillingness to get one’s hands bloody, to provoke and upset – I dream of going to a dance recital and being provoked and upset, there I might see the future of dance in the now.
In a coup de theatre that is so ironic it is almost poetic, on the day that the greatest classical genius of them all, Petipa, allegedly said “I am finished”, after having seen the vogue for the new ballet of Fokine, unbeknownst to Petipa, Balanchine was born. Whether or not this is true, (and indeed history has shown Petipa was far too harsh on himself), it is true that dance as an organic art form is reflexive and reactive. Shocked at
La Bayadere, a dance supposedly set in an Indian Fakir’s court yet potentially the most generic example of Russian classicism of them all, Fokine was inspired to set in motion his brand of realism in ballet, the Diaghilev era of course gave rise to Nijinksy, Nijinska, Balanchine, who would carry forward the torch of modernism. At the same time the traditional ballet was inspiring the work of Duncan, Fuller, Denishawn and Wigman and then would come the three pioneers Graham, Humphrey and Holm. But against this period of unparalleled creativity these seeds which germinated and grew in a period of less than fifty years of each other, the world had become a place where God was found to be dead. The advent of modernism runs irrevocably alongside the advent of man assuming the power within society to be God, to create and destroy with impunity, only the evolving of a collective moral conscience could save man from Armageddon, and against this backdrop of bittersweet despair, art and arguably above all art forms, dance, grew.
Dance is blessed with the ability to convey the deepest truths, the most unspoken and darkest of emotions and desires without stating the literal fact, and it is in this power that the great choreographer is found. The power to convey through his instrument, the dancer, the irrevocable statement of his place, his view of the world. A sentiment epitomised through the title of Graham’s masterpiece Letter to the World.
Dance is of course, too, an interplay, as a new branch of modernism arrives, the establishment of rather the established can redefine its art by reacting against the new by returning and revising its opinion of what it has achieved. This can be seen in Jerome Robbins creation of his masterpiece, Dances at a Gathering.
The reaction of the Judson Church group to the then established modern dance of Graham et al found its credo in Yvonne Rainer and her manifesto The Mind is a Muscle, which called for the total abolition of virtuosity in favour of purity of movement, finding the truth in the simplest of motions. Robbins wrote of Dances:
“I’m doing a fairly classical ballet to very old-fashioned and romantic music. In a way it is a revolt against the faddism of today. I have been looking around at dance – seeing a lot of the stuff at Judson Church and the rest of the avant-garde. And I find myself feeling just what is the matter with connecting, what’s the matter with love, what’s the matter with celebrating positive things? Why, I asked myself, does everything have to be separated and alienated so that there is this almost constant push to disconnect? The strange thing is that young people are for love. Is that bad?”
The result, Dances at a Gathering, is anything but old-fashioned, it is a masterpiece set in the classical school, but carrying the eternal truth that while death is omnipresent, the eternal cycle of rebirth, the joy of love, of touch, as Yeats said “the doubtful joy”, doubtful maybe, but exquisite, is found in every step of the choreographers art, again the now inspired a work that existed into the future. A masterpiece created with an eye on the present, not the avant garde.
The irony now is that the work of the Judson Church Group of Rainer, Paxton, Brown are becoming the elder statesman of present day modernism, the current season of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project at Edinburgh, Present Past, is focusing exclusively on the choreography of this group. I wonder what the British eye, which at best has merely a passing knowledge of this movement will make of it?
The choreographers art is inextricably linked to the dancer, however, perhaps the virtuosity of the modern dancer may actually inhibit rather than inspire the emergence of a choreographer that will carry through to the future. The audience expects hyperbolic feats of technique, the 32 fouettes are no longer a spell to blind a prince, the extension is no longer an act of benediction it is gymnastic titillation, are there any ballet choreographers around who will ignore the present mores of dancers and audiences and willingly go “back to basics”. It is untrue that dance under Communism produced marvels of choreographic genius, rather as an adaptable art form that willed itself to survive it grew in extending the limits of virtuosity, it existed, as only it knew how. However, the genius of the Petipa survived, despite his fears, because through movement he communicated an eternal truth that was avant garde, or rather timeless.
In Giselle, the eponymous heroines, grande developpe a la seconde, followed by the grande rond de jambe communicate the exquisite bittersweet, upward yearning nature of love. Through those two simple academic movements Petipa told all we need to know of the transcendental, unstoppable spirituality of love. Romantic perhaps, but no less so than Symphonic Variations, or Monument for a Dead Boy. But I love Petipa because he is modern, and he seldom needs the tiresome freaks of design imposed on his work to update the classics.
I believe the greatest crime of the Royal’s Sonnabend set for Sleeping Beauty is that it forcibly undercuts and destroys the power of the Rose adagio. In the original Messel design, the bourree of Aurora’s first entrance was the gentle overture to her growing into her greatness through the course of the adagio. The entrance enforced by Sonnabend, the grandiose descending of the steps spoils the impact of the adagio, finds Aurora already a crown princess. It renders the variations almost bathetic. It is the avant garde imposing its own manifesto of the classic, the eternal and as such destroys it till such a time as the choreographers work is once more returned to its rightful prominence.
And what of the choreographers in Britain today? Matthew Hart and William Tuckett, two potentials for the title of choreographer most likely to… have been singularly disappointing Hart more so than Tuckett. Hart’s Aids ballet, Dances of Death was risible, simplistic and almost homophobic in its ultimate message of “You get Aids, you die”. If a choreographer is to attack this subject, then I need to know how his place in society, his view, his awareness of the issue is carried in the choreography. The laughable fight between the red (bad) virus and the white (good) antibodies of the corps de ballet, was only amusing in its naivety for moments, but where was the choreographer’s voice, where was his awareness that Aids is a disease, a tragedy, but a containable one. It was a hackneyed view and not worthy, not rooted in the now, but rather in a bathetic mode of tragedy. As an allegory on the destructive, nature of sexual love it was meaningless, it had none of the power of Graham’s Cave of the Heart to stir the loins and make the heart beat with undeniable, deathly nature of passion. A choreographic damp squib.
Tuckett, after a few false starts, seemed to have found his feet with Peurt a Bal. It was a hopeful ballet, as here we saw the choreographer abstracting his art down to its barest bones, movement, which is what dance is. Like Ashton and Macmillan before him, the choreographer seemed to return back to basics to establish his credo.
In Symphonic Variations, Ashton crystallised the style of the English School into purity and infinite beauty, abstract true, but it was beauty tinged with the mourning of the horrors of World War 2, if Theodor Adorno’s statement “After Auschwitz there can be no poetry” is true, then Variations is a new form of poetry, movement that dips its feet in the blood, cries at the smoke rising from Hiroshima, yet humbly and hopefully still dares to dream of beauty and truth. Likewise Macmillan’s Danses Concertantes, is a valid reaction of the first generation to come of age after the promises of hope after the War began to disintegrate, as the Cold war progressed, and bombs were pointed, and Korea and Vietnam loomed on the distance, the lyrical classicism becomes abstracted into sharp, accusatory exclamation.
Yet Tuckett then denied his purity and returned to overblown narrative, there is nothing wrong with narrative, yet it would have been far better to extend the vocabulary of his choreographic art before resorting once more to an apathetic mess of pottage.
It is ironic that the one young choreographer hotly tipped as being the one with the greatest potential on the world stage, Christopher Wheeldon, is British born and trained, yet had to move outside the confines of Britain to the New York City Ballet to find his voice, where he has since given up dancing to now be the resident Artistic Associate. It is specious and disingenuous to mourn his loss to America, for would such attention have been given to him here, would his talent have been nurtured, recognised and a position formed for him to find his voice? One is reminded of the fact that Balanchine himself, initially wanted to stay in Britain but was refused a visa, so was forced to make his home in the States. The fact is that with current funding policies in Britain the space and time needed for a choreographer to come to full bloom is so often not possible – a choreographer needs nurturing in the present if he is ever to form a canon of work which will survive into the future.
Modern dance has fared no less well, the closure of LCDT, closed a symbol of hope. However, LCDT was always renowned not for its choreography, but rather the virtuosity of its dancers. By the time the Contemporary Dance Trust was established in the Graham mould in the UK, the modern dance had found its ultimate choreographic credo within the Judson church group. And when no choreographers could be found, the company folded. Because dance can continue, but it cannot progress without choreographers. It is a music box piano, but to move forward a pianist is needed.
In 1979 Robin Howard, the guiding force and creator of the Contemporary Dance Trust gave a chillingly prescient interview to the Financial Times, in it he said:

“We now do not have sufficient funds to venture into the unknown, which is what we should do and have done so well in the past. A short-term solution is to play safe. If we do so, we shall die. And deserve to die.”

Howard knew that the unknown is the birth place of innovation, it is unfair to blame merely the choreography of LCDT for its demise that is only partly true. However, the crippling provisos placed on companies in order to secure funding from the Arts Council are in itself one of the greatest killers of creativity.
I read with cynicism the Arts Council report on the future of dance. In it, it stated the two PC chestnuts it has trotted out continually, since day one. The codicils of education and ethnic awareness within companies, in order for them to be able to gain and maintain grants.
Firstly, and unequivocally an artist cannot ever be an educator first. By this I mean art is not a moral issue. Creativity cannot be bound by the demands of suiting a moral perspective that is in line with a Government guideline; it cannot be constricted, confined to please. One of the greatest crippling demands on LCDT was the extensive touring and educational work it was obliged to carry out in order to receive its grant. Would Graham have swerved from her course due to disapproval over the overt sexual nature of the contraction, would Macmillan have had the girl in the Invitation be saved from rape, would Cunningham have changed the music or rather those “dreadful sounds in Rainforest”, would Rainer, Brown, Paxton, Dunn have put the fancy steps and jumps back in, because that’s what kids in schools like to see? But the modern millennial artist must conform to a guideline laid down by Government watchdogs as to what his art must achieve. And then there is the question, what are they supposed to be educating people in? A choreographer as artist must first educate himself, and be damned of the consequences.
Next the issue of ethnic “appeal”, how quaint, how thoughtful it all sounds and ultimately how utterly racist. A Government approved remit of what it is to belong to an ethnic minority in the year 2001. But who in Britain now is not a part of an ethnic minority, how can the experiences of any one person fit into a guideline. Jonzi D in the wonderful Aeroplane Man puts paid to this horribly cosy view that the Arts Council seems to have of ethnicity. His black British man goes in search of his “roots” only to discover that he is in fact as far divorced from his ancestors as he is from the generic white culture of modern Britain. The vastly exciting Akram Khan and the perennially exquisite Shobana Jayasingh, both deal through movement with the inherent contradictions of cultural collisions. However, for me the most important snub to this cosily deficient mentality of the Arts Council comes in an essay written by the great African American choreographer Rod Rodgers in the Sixties. Entitled, “Don’t Tell Me Who I Am”, he dealt with the criticism that as a black man his work did not deal exclusively with “black” issues and that he was somehow “betraying” his cultural heritage:

“Whether one functions as a choreographer who also happens to be black, or as a black man who happens to be a choreographer is determined by one’s point of view at a given moment. The ideal point of view at any given moment, for the individual artist, is the one which best allows him to create the most profoundly exciting art. If he cannot produce beautiful and exciting art, there is no point in discussing his political or ideological commitments in relation to art.”

Would that we lived in an environment where young choreographers could turn round to Arts Councils, whose provisos of funding were a Draconian abstraction of cod-socialist mores and say, “Don’t tell me who I am.” Because art, choreography is an irrevocable statement, and to be worthy cannot be bound by financial threats – though it is.
So what rules in Britain today? This trend for reconstruction of ballet masterpieces. And where does that get us? Clever little evenings, instantly forgettable and won’t disturb the digestion of one’s post-theatre supper. Can you imagine the audience at the Theatre de Champs Elysee, pondering which main course to eat after the first showing of the Rite of Spring? Of course I know times have changed, and the modern audience may not react that way to anything today. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to imagine that there exists a choreographer with the power to stir the emotions, that all that is needed is the space and time for him/her to create? Where does it get us to create abstractions of Giselle, Swan Lake, Beauty etc etc. There exists this belief that AMP is the great white hope of modern British choreography, but can anyone reading this distil into mental phrases a continued passage of Bourne’s choreography as one can chill ones soul by recalling moments of Apollo, Giselle, Rainforest, Biped, Serenade. Bourne is a showman, and a very good one at that, but choreographer? I seriously contend his importance in the creation of movement that is art, language, social document.
And then there are the witty, clinical cyber feats of Wayne MacGregor, yes I like Symbionts, and I believe that perhaps the interfacing between technology and the corporal could very well be the tone of our times. The now that is needed to be examined to create in the future. But then I saw Cunningham’s Biped, dealing with the same subject matter as MacGregor, indeed using similar technology in its creation, and MacGregor was left in the dust. Cunningham eschews novelty to rejoice in the implication of the emotional, even in his most abstract works. His range, his voice, his power, his ongoing creativity, his YOUTH. He is the greatest choreographer alive and working today.
In his afterword to the book London Contemporary Dance Theatre – the first 21 Years, Howard wrote: “What will the dancer and choreographer in the year 2000 most benefit from, that we can give them today?” Dissolution, chaos, uncertainty? But has this ever been different? I don’t think so, but what is different is that the choreographer, the artist, is now all-too-often afraid to dip his or her hands into the mulch, to get their hands dirty, to immerse themselves in the visceral horrors and delights of the world they live in and from that create beauty that is a testament to that time. They want to please, they want a pat on the head, they are afraid to be bad, and in a climate of fear what can be produced? Because, above all, an artist can never be afraid to shock. I’ll end with words from Anna Sokolow from her seminal 1966 essay, “The Rebel and the Bourgeois”:

" The founders of the modern dance were rebels. Their followers are bourgeois. The younger generation is too anxious to please, too eager to be accepted. For art this is death. To young dancers. I want to say: “Do what you feel you are, not what you think you ought to be. Go ahead and be a bastard. Then you can be an artist.” "

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now? Jonathan 13-08-01 1
     RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now? Isobel Houghton 13-08-01 3
         RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now? Jonathan 14-08-01 6
         White Oak in Edinburgh carly gillies 15-08-01 11
     RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now? Kevin 13-08-01 5
  RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now? Bruce Madmin 13-08-01 2
     RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now? Brendan McCarthymoderator 13-08-01 4
         RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now? Alexandra 14-08-01 7
             RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now? Isobel Houghton 14-08-01 8
                 RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now? Alexandra 14-08-01 9

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13-08-01, 08:28 AM (GMT)
Click to EMail Jonathan Click to send private message to Jonathan Click to add this user to your buddy list  
1. "RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
In response to message #0
   "The search for choreographers of greatness who will lead dance bravely into the 21st century, the endless debates about who is the future of ballet, modern, world, American etc etc ultimately dissolve into a homogenous cacophony of babble."

Perhaps it is the search itself, rather than choreography, which is misguided.

Words like 'greatness', 'lead', 'bravely' 'the future' the 'modern world' are Romantic, predominantly male constructs, which fetishize artistic monuments rather than artistic work. The idea of the lone creative artist pitted against a world that doesn't understand is also a Romantic one, but perfectly in tune with the contemporary lust for celebrity. Whether you see the dissolution of single voices into many as cacophony or polyphony is a question of viewpoint. There's a lot of dance going on, a lot of people are doing it, enjoying it and getting paid for it. Must we have heroes, celebrities and immortal art works?

And what of those single voices? Amazing what credibility a veneer of high art will do to the crassest statements. "Do what you feel you are, not what you think you ought to be. Go ahead and be a bastard. Then you can be an artist." Spice Girl philiosophy in a long skirt, if you ask me.

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Isobel Houghton

13-08-01, 04:41 PM (GMT)
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3. "RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
In response to message #1
   You see Jonathan that's part of the problem I have with discussions of choreography. Those single voices belong to some of the most hugely influential and innovative dance artists to have lived. Only in Britain the names of Sokolow, Nikolais, Rainer and Rodgers mean very little. But they are hugely important figures and influences in the modern dance we see today.

The quote I chose is a very provocative one, I agree, however, it comes from the essay "The Rebel and the Bourgeois" which is rated as being one of the most important statements/essays on modern choreography ever written. Do try and get hold of a copy, I believe it is still published in certain dance compendiums. I quoted away from the body of the whole argument, but believe me Sokolow was quite a lady and deserves to be read in full. Or email me your address and I'll send you a copy. I think you'll like what she has to say - she was a huge Balanchine fan.

I was intentionally using overblown language in the opening paragraph as that is how I feel the state of modern choreography is, when I go to see so many dance concerts. All grand statements, very little said. Don't be angry I said many not all.

I'm a bit angry with myself that I've spent so much money this year and will not get to see Baryshnikov's white Oak Dance project performing the works of the 60s Judson Church group in Edinburgh, I wonder how alien/contemporary/ avant garde these works will look now?

As to the Spice Girls, are we not ready for a Scary in the world of dance? Some days I'd even settle for a Sporty, but never ever a Ginger.

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14-08-01, 08:35 AM (GMT)
Click to EMail Jonathan Click to send private message to Jonathan Click to add this user to your buddy list  
6. "RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
In response to message #3
   Fundamentally, I agree with most of what you say, Isobel; my comments were if anything questions to myself. I look back in wonder at the incredible creativity and innovation of the first forty years of the 20th century, at the extraordinary cross-fertilization between the arts, popular culture and different countries. It seems extraordinary, too, that ballet - as Brendan points out, was part of the 'intellectual ferment of the 30s'.

But all that art and ingenuity did nothing to prevent the rise of fascism, the inhumane lunacy of nazism and anti-semitism or the second world war. It may be an insane non-sequitur, but the question I ask myself is whether those things are the price of the sort of artistic creativity we so admire - in your words:"the path of dance’s flowering from the academic ballet, to the great innovators of modern dance has blossomed as society burned and was forced into comprehension of its potential for destruction and creativity."

Some of the older artists I've met have been some of the most cantankerous, snobbish, supercilious, racist, lecherous, vile, tyrannical, despotic bastards I've ever had the displeasure to work with, with a dizzying belief in the absolute rightness of whatever they do or say, and a childish disbelief that they could ever be knocked off their pedestal. My interpretation of this was that they had grown up in or shortly after a time when personality cults were all the rage, and artists, like political leaders, were either absolutely right all the time, or not all. In addition, the lingering Romantic notion of the artist as prophet and priest gave them, as they saw it, the right to do anything they damn well liked in the name of Art, and it was the public's job to sit back and take it.

By contrast, I think the world I work in now is on the whole fairer; the people are nicer, working conditions are better, there is more co-operative dialogue than diatribe or rhetoric, more teamwork than toadying and sycophancy. If the price of this is that there are less monumental artists around, frankly, I couldn't care less.

On another point, I find the comments about Christopher Wheeldon extraordinary. How did this simple tale of a successful, talented person going to the States and landing a great job get turned into a prophet-without-honour story? Doctors, economics graduates and engineers - refugees - who work in appalling, menial jobs in London until they can afford somewhere decent to live, while being scorned and despised by the British, that's an example of having to go to another country to find work, food or political freedom, let alone your voice. Wheeldon, on the other hand, made what turned out to be an excellent career move, and has done extremely well out of it. Congratulations are in order, but not sympathy, or outrage at nasty old England, surely?

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carly gillies

15-08-01, 10:15 PM (GMT)
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11. "White Oak in Edinburgh"
In response to message #3
>I'm a bit angry with myself
>that I've spent so much
>money this year and will
>not get to see Baryshnikov's
>white Oak Dance project performing
>the works of the 60s
>Judson Church group in Edinburgh,
>I wonder how alien/contemporary/ avant
>garde these works will look
I saw this last night in Edinburgh, and strangely enough "angry" is what I feel about it.
In fact, rather conned at sitting through this self indulgent rubbish.

I'm sure it must have been fun to be a part of the Judson Church scene - (I was old enough myself at that time to remember the early 70s thrill of the new and different - never mind that "quality" wasn't an essential ingredient) - and presumably Baryshnikov feels he missed all that at the time. - NOT a good enough reason however to recreate it all to indulge his whim.

I've seen White Oak before and don't at all mind Baryshnikov "indulging his curiosity" as he puts it, with new and interesting dance, but this stuff isn't either.

One of the stated reasons for doing it was that very little of it existed on film. A pity, because it has validity as archive material. That doesn't equate with it being entertaining, or challenging, or even good though. The only challenge was to stay till the end, and I'm glad I did because the last piece was Lucinda Childs 'Concerto', - the only piece in the evening in which it was clear that these performers were actually rather good dancers.

At the very beginning while the audience took their seats, the performers were warming up on stage to 70s taped music including Jimi Hendrix's 'Star Spangled Banner' - the one from Woodstock ( you've seen the film ) where his electric guitar rendition of the american national anthem disintegrates into the sound of bombs dropping. It was very much a piece of its time and a far more eloquent anti-war protest than anything Joan Baez said or sang that day. Today it just sounds like noisy distortion.
It struck me that Baryshnikov doing PastForward is a bit like someone (who wasn't there) gathering up all the still living musicians to recreate Woodstock song by song. What an awful notion. Thank goodness someone thought to film it at the time.

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13-08-01, 09:26 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail Kevin Click to send private message to Kevin Click to add this user to your buddy list  
5. "RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
In response to message #1
Hey , What a stimulating read.More & more please.
Thank you . Oh..............discussions have never tasted so good!
Slurp, slurp and yum yum the whole board was delicious.

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Bruce Madmin

13-08-01, 04:01 PM (GMT)
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2. "RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
In response to message #0
   Isobel - when you said you were working on a post I had no idea what you actually meant! A hell of a pot stirrer (for which we thank you) and goodness knows where to start since most paragraphs could prompt some form of ongoing discussion.

One of your themes is playing safe versus venturing into the unknown and a wish, by you, to be provoked and upset even (for once!)

I go along with some of this but not all I suspect. Personally I don't have a wish to be particularly provoked and upset. That doesn't mean I want to always see comfy things either. I'm very interested in things that make me think, change a view etc. But there is a tendency to shock just for shock value alone and that I would not encourage.

I do believe, most passionately, in the new and I also belive that in financing it you have to accept that much of it will not be taken forward and some of it will be downright wrong or bad. I'm very dubious about statements like that of Sokolow that you end on. When you go ahead and be a Bastard you are doing it because somebody is paying your bills (one way or another) and I don't think anybody should totally forget that. If they do than you can get into a position where somebody just reels off endless flop after endless flop, shrugs and carry's on... feeling indeed that they are an 'artist' or some such. People can and should try new things but after its failed 2 or 3 times surely they should be taking stock and looking for new ways forward that actually please the audience and not just themselves. Too many forget about the paying public when they should see full acclaim as critical and financial - full houses - as a pinnacle.

In getting to this pinnacle I don't think its a bad idea to start with work that pleases the paying public as opposed to work that well might not. Ashton and Balanchine both did Broadway and theatrical reviews - anything for money - and it hardly screwed up their careers!

The problem now is that choreographers have so little opportunities. You mention a "Back to basics" approach which I would subscribe to. It would be terrific (in my book) if just one work (part of triple bill) in the next RB season, probably costing several hundreds thousands, were axed and the money diverted into a years worth of fortnightly performances in the Claw and or Place (each running for several nights) and a stream of young choreographers given lots of work and told to stretch themselves. No expensive costumes or sets or indeed musicians (at first!). Strip it right back and allow choreographers (and dancers even) to get much more experience and in the right type of small venue. There are many who yearn to see new work and the fussing of that bunch of people with choreographers wanting to please them (even by being the occasional bastard!) would be brilliant.

btw I saw NYCB do Dances at a Gathering in Edinburgh and found it one of my biggest ever turkeys - by song 4 I was hoping for the end, by 14 I was practically comatose. Tuckett's Puirt-A_Beul we can agree on, though it's anything but scary of course and has a very traditional dance feel. Much of Wheldon (seen in UK) I'd argue the same - solid creative work that is a pleasure to see but (as of yet) not something to change the direction of dance if that is what you are particularly after...

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Brendan McCarthymoderator

13-08-01, 05:59 PM (GMT)
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4. "RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
In response to message #2
   Isobel - I really enjoyed your piece. We’re about to go on holiday – so apologies if this is hurried. There is so much in the essay that I agree with. The question of ‘dried up creativity’ may not be unique to dance. There is a widespread sense in the other arts of being stuck. But there are issues that are special to dance.

The miracle of dance is that it can say things where words fail. We don’t have to be completely silent. Dance is an incredibly powerful language – and it is a form of mysticism. But dance may have special problems in a society where the ability to wonder is in decline.

Isobel speaks about the growth of dance against the backdrop of bittersweet despair and a sense that ‘God is dead’. But God isn’t dead everywhere; religion holds powerful sway in American popular imagination in a way in which it has ceased to do in Europe. This isn’t a specifically religious point, but might it be that the ability, in Seamus Heaney’s words, to “credit wonder” may be one reason why there is more invention in US dance than here in Europe. (It’s worth having a look at Bruce’s translation of the posting on “L'état de la danse classique en France”). Dance has been at its best in taking on large mythic themes – and it is striking how many of the founding figures in 20th century dance (Graham, Cunningham, even Ashton) have had a ‘religious’ imagination or background.

In today’s ‘culture of contentment’ perhaps choreographers are simply cocooned from risk? The founding figures in 20th century dance grew up amid chaos, and often took great chances with their own lives. De Valois’s father died in World War 1, Ashton’s father was a suicide – his family knew great uncertainty in the 1920s. They were not for the most part cradled in established schools of dance. They had to carve out a public space for the art and for their own place in it. Because risk was in the weft and warp of their personal lives, taking creative risks in the service of their art was not alien to them.

Willy-nilly they had to be aware of the world of politics. I’ve mentioned this in several postings but I was so struck at the Clore programme in April in commemoration of Constant Lambert to hear Leo Kersley speak of how ballet was ‘part of the intellectual ferment of the 1930s’. Lambert himself was a frequent contributor to left wing magazines. Kersley himself wasn’t lacking in social awareness. I asked him what he did during the war. “I went to jail”, he told me. He had been a conscientious objector. How many dance figures today are socially alert in the same way? I think the answer to this question has something to do with creativity.

Isobel is right on Christopher Wheeldon; he had to leave the UK, if he was ever to discover his choreographic register. And I agree with her about Wayne McGregor. He will add to the grammar – but I wonder if he has anything powerful to say?

And she is spot on about the Arts Council and the Government. In early July the Times ran a profile of Tessa Jowell, the new Culture Secretary (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,62-2001223863,01.html). Here’s a quote “It is a fact that the delivery of much of what this department does is through 600-odd organisations. We need a very defined relationship with them. We fund them, so they must be accountable to us.”


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14-08-01, 03:20 PM (GMT)
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7. "RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
In response to message #4
   It is a fascinating discussion, and there's no question that both ballet and modern dance are stuck, waiting for a Messiah. I liked Jonathan's points about the idea of the lone artist separate from society being a Romantic (i.e., 19th century) notion. There have been periods--the English Renaissance, for one--where art was more collaborative. But isn't the whole notion that art must "shock" very outdated now? Much of the fake avant-garde, or avant-pop, as one American writer calls it, is, and has been for awhile, shock for the sake of shocking. I think the Next New Thing will be something else. I think Diaghilev's "etonne-moi" has been misunderstood. It doesn't necessarily mean Do Something Nasty On Stage to shock your granny, but "astonish me." "Sleeping Beauty" astonished, as did "Sacre," as did "Apollo." Different ways of astonishing.

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Isobel Houghton

14-08-01, 05:37 PM (GMT)
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8. "RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
In response to message #7
   Absolutely Alexandra. Isn't that the thing about truly shocking work, it doesn't intend to (you're right that's merely childish) but rather it shocks because it's so utterly new, emotionally affecting and powerful. You're right about Apollo too, everytime I see it it shocks me that such an eternally modern, transcendentally beautiful work was created almost 75 years ago.

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14-08-01, 07:37 PM (GMT)
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9. "RE: Choreography - Is the avant garde ignoring the now?"
In response to message #8
   I definitely agree with your point that truly shocking work doesn't try to shock. Throwing up on stage, to give a mild example, is pretty easy; even I could do it Making "Apollo," well, that's something else again. I've been watching work that "shocks" (i.e., is a second, third, or fourth generation "rip off" of truly original, inventive work) for so long I'm sick of it. "Les Noces" is still shocking to me, and "The Four Temperaments" -- they look new to me every time I see them. Also -- since it's in London -- Balanchine's "Symphony in 3 Movements." When SFB brought that to Washington this season I went back to see it each time, simply because of the pleasure of watching the choreography (and very, very well danced, I thought.)

But to Isobel's point, we do need some truly great new work -- no question. If "Les Noces," or "Apollo" do still look new, then I'd argue there's something wrong, since these works are more than 70 years old now!!! There's a theory that after a generation of giants there's always been a quiet period. The next generation is so intimidated it can't breathe, just imitate. Or, looked at another way, the giants break so much new ground it takes a long time to explore it. The most used comparison, I suppose, is that Brahms did not immediately follow Beethoven, and his First Symphony was "the Tenth" -- but there was a Brahms.

In America, where "Sons of Balanchine" -- or modern dance pastiche -- dominate ballet right now, I've often thought we need a new Fokine, not a dozen Ivanovs, but I don't know where we're going to get one

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