Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Modern Dance, Reality & Authenticity

By Charles Kessler

I’ve been going to a lot of dance performances lately – about 20 of them in the last few months, and I've noticed that the performing arts, modern dance in particular, can deal with emotion in a way that's sincere and authentic – something the visual arts has struggled with for a long time now.

Neo-expressionism of the 1980s was the last large popular visual arts movement that sincerely (i.e., without the pretext of irony) dealt with emotion.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981, acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 81 x 69 inches (Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles).
But beginning around 2000, Neo-expressionism started to be regarded as overwrought and insincere; and it was felt the artists doing this type of work had lost their belief in it – their work had begun to be perceived as inauthentic. Ever since then emotion in art has been suspect, and the trend has been toward art that's intellectual, ironic, and impersonal. (Of course, there are many exceptions: Charles Garabedian, Matt Freedman and Brenda Goodman to name just three.)

But several choreographers are creating work that produces real emotions in the dancers and, via empathy with the dancers, the audience; and because the emotions in these dances are genuine, not acted or faked for the performance, they are necessarily credible and sincere.

To Being, choreographed by Jeanine Durning, was among the most intense and visceral dances I saw.
To Being, Jeanine Durning, choreographer, on the left, and Molly Poerstel and Julian Barnett in the back, September 9-26, The Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, Queens, New York (photo credit: Alex Escalante). The Chocolate Factory’s website has a lot more photos.
For about an hour, the dancers – Durning, Molly Poerstel and Julian Barnett – busily moved around without stopping, without even slowing down. They just kept vigorously doing things – running, jumping, swinging their arms, moving things around, interweaving bodies, climbing walls and hanging from the rafters (literally!).

At first their movements seemed kind of jaunty as they scurried about, but the movements eventually came to seem compulsive and driven, then disturbing, and ultimately horrifying. After an hour or so in which they obsessively drove themselves, ignoring the audience (intensionally kept small) and treating each other as another object to move or wrap themselves around, they began to wear themselves out and slow down. At that point they interacted with each other in a gentler and more human way, and made verbal and eye contact with the audience. When I saw it, one of the dancers, Molly Poerstel, moved away from Julian Barnett's comforting embrace and quietly cried. It was as if they had to wear themselves out before they could slow down, make personal contact, and feel their feelings. 

The dance felt real in the way of sixties performance art and Happenings — something taking place in our real time and space. But this was more artful and emotionally intense than any Happening.    

I saw several other performances that used feats of endurance to generate real feelings in the performers. There's something about exhaustion that brings out real emotions.

Alessandro Sciarroni's dance Folk-S, will you still love me tomorrow? at New York Live Arts was a Schuhplattler, a Bavarian foot-stomping folk dance that would continue, as declared at the beginning, for as long as there was one audience member left, or one dancer. The first hour was frankly boring, but after that their exhaustion brought out the character of the individual dancers, their playfulness and creativity; and the audience (most stayed) laughed with them, and cheered them on.
Alessandro Sciarroni, FOLK-S will you still love me tomorrow?
August 11, 2013, Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz, Vienna.

It reminded me of when Ragnar Kjartansson had the indie band The National perform the same 3½ minute song over and over for six hours with awesome focus at PS1. (I saw parts of the large screen video of the concert at Luhring Augustine's Bushwick gallery, and wrote about it here.) They are solid, professional musicians, who have played together for 15 years. They interacted with the audience and each other, and subtly varied the sad song which begins:
Sorrow found me when I was young
Sorrow waited, sorrow won
Sorrow they put me on the pill
It's in my honey, it's in my milk. 
Toward the end of the six hours, when fatigue was over-taking them, and with the audience cheering them on, Matt Berninger, the lead singer, quietly wept as he sang. 

Patricia Hoffbauer’s Dances for Intimate Spaces and Friendly People at Gibney Dance was a dance about dance – the opposite of what I've been talking about – except for the reception at end. The reception was happy and festive as we drank wine and congratulated the dancers (many of whom were beloved older dancers), but every so often a gong would ring and the dancers would return to dancing in character. At that point we became aware that the dancers were real people performing their roles, doing their jobs, as it were – just as they had been doing the whole time before, when we hadn't yet grasped it.
The cast of Patricia Hoffbauer’s Dances for Intimate Spaces and Friendly People taking a bow and breaking into a dance,  Gibney Dance, NY (photo credit: Scott Shaw/New York Times). 
It's significant that all these performances took place in small, intimate spaces. Grand spaces like the Koch Theater and the Met in Lincoln Center so remove you from the immediacy of the event that it feels to me like I'm watching it on TV.

Of course, no matter how "real" a work of art is, there are always conventions we consciously or unconsciously accept. Even with Durning's To Being, the dance takes place at a pre-arranged time and place, for a particular audience, and it's repeated for different audiences (although it changed each time). In addition, the dancers are skilled and highly conditioned, so their movements are necessarily more athletic and expressive than that of the average person, and of course, the dancers' actions serve no practical purpose.

Nevertheless, these dances were real enough to convince and captivate me, and it was refreshing and exhilarating to experience a work like To Being that could produce such strong feelings ... authentically.
To BeingJeanine Durning, choreographer on the left and Molly Poerstel in the foreground, September 9-26, The Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, Queens, New York.

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