Post (Para?) Studio Dance: A Walk through the Labyrinth, by Biba Bell

Initiated by  The Bureau for the Future of Choreography

Post (Para?) Studio Dance: A Walk through the Labyrinth
by Biba Bell

When invited into the conversation proposed by The Bureau…

[What might a flowchart for contemporary dance look like? Where and when does your flowchart for contemporary dance start? Where does it end? What are your ideologies and how do you name them? What are your histories and how do you write them–especially those that have not been formally written?]

… I immediately focused on the question of the contemporary. What makes dance contemporary? Is it a moment, perspective, set of materials… what does it look like? What is it aligned with or against?

I’ve been teaching in Detroit some the past year where there are a lot of competition studios and this is the main point of entry for many of the dancers that I’ve worked with in the University. So, to them contemporary has a different meaning – more along the lines of a genre, as it is specified in “So You Think You Can Dance” and more commercial thereabouts. But what do I mean when I say or think that I am a contemporary dancer?

This question brings me to ponder Giorgio Agamben’s discussion of contemporary (in What is an Apparatus?) as a particular “untimeliness.” As “a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism.”

And then:

“Those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands.”

(He talks about the obscure visibility of contemporary in relation to a star that has exploded and the light of this explosion is traveling towards the Earth but hasn’t reached it. You know of the impending force of this light, but it is both not yet and already past. Slightly ahead and behind is the cut between the contemporary’s obscure visibility.)

To experience contemporariness is to be able to perceive what is obscure(d). To look into light, not to see what it presents, but to glimpse its shadows: “…it allows us to recognize in the obscurity of the present the light that, without ever being able to reach us, is perpetually voyaging toward us.”

Agamben’s discussion of what it is to be contemporary indicates a temporal movement slight outside, side-stepping, or adjacent to the present. And, because my tendencies are just this way, my first method of working through these theoretical questions is to spatialize them.

(This inclination could recall Eve Sedgwick’s own intervention to the temporal (in)efficiencies of performantive utterances (words that do something). Her para-performative raises questions about the “neighborhood of the performative” surrounding the utterance, and indicating how space, context, situation, scenario, environment, pathway, trajectory, affect, etc. are always already at work.)

My question then moves me to wonder: Where is slightly outside, adjacent to, side-stepping dance – as a form or discipline, as a practice, as a way of life, as an object… a process, an event. What does a movement outside look like? Where does it go? Can we step outside of the disciplinary boundaries just a little bit? Stretch them, melt them, or knock down a wall? For me this is a movement outside of the studio. In time (post); in space (para). But not totally outside, not completely leaving it behind (as if this would ever be possible, desirable, or necessary). But just enough in order to bring into question the centrality of the studio in the making, doing, and partaking of dance(rs). I’d like to consider contemporariness as it allows us to comment on, subvert, redistribute, redirect or be in a self-reflexive consideration of the heaviness of this space, the force of its signification, the capacity of its apparatus, as it operates to contain, support, and enable dance making.

Robert Smithson says: “The modern artist in his ‘studio,’ working out an abstract grammar within the limits of his ‘craft,’ is trapped in but another snare. When the fissures between mind and matter multiply into infinity of gaps, the studio begins to crumble and fall like The House of Usher, so that mind and matter get endlessly confounded. Deliverance from the confines of the studio frees the artist to a degree from the snares of craft and bondage of creativity.” The studio as snare.

What does it mean to be operating in a Post-Studio contemporary dance context?

“Post-studio,” according to John Baldessari (following Carl Andre) is a “catchall” for art that was neither “straight painting nor straight sculpture.” If not straight… the queer? As José Munoz calls it, “Queers make up genealogies and worlds. So let us write it down.” Exactly.

And so, the flowchart!! The shape of my flowchart is a labyrinth. Why a Labyrinth?

In a series of lectures from mid 70s – mid 80s, Architect Bernard Tschumi discusses two exemplary, archetypal structures for how space is defined as architecture. Space (as both felt volume and materialized theory) is set in motion through the collision, disjunction, or excess of these two architectural models: the Pyramid and the Labyrinth.

The Pyramid represents an ideal space, a theorized, concept driven articulation of space. It is all at once representable, complete, autonomous, a production of vision. Space as the materialization of theory, of a program. It is prescriptive. In the case of the pyramid, architecture is a thing of the mind. It is a dematerialized or conceptual discipline, with its linguistic or morphological variations.

On the other hand, the Labyrinth includes empirical research that concentrates on the senses, on the experience of space as well as on the relationship between space and praxis. Think of a walk through the labyrinth… it introduces a type of immediacy that is not objective and perspectival, but sensorial. The immediacy of labyrinthine passage necessitates a temporal, process-based encounter. Tschumi also discusses it as representative of ” a slow history of space.” Within the labyrinth there are openings, but it is not clear as to whether they are entrances or exits, and, importantly, they are not best approached frontally.

Could we devise a moebius labyrinth? Where the studio attends to us and to dance as a figure, a dancing partner whom, even in its absence, runs parallel on an adjacent surface, underneath, or behind but slightly to the side. Sometimes we collide with it, our dancing enters or exits. It is a frame that dissolves upon approach. It is shadows obscured within the bright lights of the stage. Center stage. Spots, booms, trees, aprons, wings, scrim…

So, my question is: What would be a labyrinthine method of illustrating a progressive history? What would a labyrinthine flowchart look like? And, could one be carved from the inside out? Could we introduce a choreographic direction to this type of historiographic drawing?

I am more interested in the difficulties in depicting this map and following the direction of its teleological flow. In the impossibility of collapsing the body, movement, experience, identity, personal stories, laughter, tears, falling up/down, relationships, interactions, dramas, sweat, exhaustion, elation, pounding, stomping, twirling, sleeping, etc. to the surface of a page…or to writing… or to understanding, or intention, or comprehensibility, intelligibility, to knowledge. Unless, of course, you want to write this with me. Maybe we can all do it together??

But let’s discuss this later…. and perhaps you already have.

Now let us move from the page where we work to inscribe a labyrinthine flow chart of contemporary dance history and futurity. Let us move from the blank white canvas of this page to another empty square. To the studio!!!

What does it mean to be operating in a post-Studio contemporary dance context?

Now the importance, or urgency, of the studio question is spurred not only by my own ideological rumblings, my own impatient urges (as a performer, and as a good audience member) to go outside and move around, but is also spurred by the everyday real life practicality of making dance in this place we call “home.” And (while I’m sitting here, on my computer in Detroit), let’s call this place New York City. Studios cost $$ … they are in shortish supply, they require investments of time, resources, real estate and can be hard to come by on a tight dancer/artist budget. But a dancer needs a studio, right? What does this studio look like? Well, for me, big empty space… wood floors? Marley? Sprung? Windows? Mirrors? Quiet? Sounds system? Bathroom? Kitchen? Vending machines? Drinking fountain? We can design this space, but even still it generally boils down to a big empty room with a smooth floor. Clear of obstruction. You go in and you close the door.

Empty space, empty space, not a whole lot of that here.

(Now Detroit on the other hand…)

Please remember these are all questions. Is it necessary to be in a studio to “make” dance? What happens there if not this? Is it a type of sitting, laying on the floor, rolling around, dreaming, meditating, sleeping, falling apart, holding it together? Is it a type of body-building? Standing on your leg, sit-ups, spirals, tendus, under-curve/over-curve? Is it writing? Or drawing? Is it breathing? Loving? Fucking? Socializing?

If it’s not dancing what is it? How does the space (of the studio) support the endeavor? What would this endeavor look like if it was happening somewhere else? What endeavoring would somewhere else support?

Again: What is post-studio?

1) the studio is taken to be – is framed as – a frame, a division of inside from outside, an enclosure.
2) The studio, thus understood, is taken to be metonymic of the historical situation of Modernism, and Modernist painting and sculpture in particular.
3) (a periodizing frame), there is a supposition that the studio falls or that it has fallen, and, along with this, the implication that the studio and the forms of modern art with which it is allied, are in a decisive sense finished, historical.
(This is all stolen from a book called The Fall of the Studio)

Modernist square, cube, box, room. Empty, full, smooth, flat, autonomous. A snare (going back to Smithson).

In 1931 during his lectures at the New School for Social Research, dance critic and historian John Martin said that the substance of modern dance (a new dance) had been discovered and this substance he declared to be movement. The studio is a space for generating movement. Does the architecture of the studio imply an autonomous field? A solitary space for invention and innovation? It is a space for generating unencumbered movement.

Must dance be tethered to the studio as a primary site of production?

But it is a snare!! A hindrance… movement + snare: a paradox.

So what if we want to be snared? That’s okay. But can we see it as it’s happening? Are we able to step outside slightly, ever so slightly, just to see how movement obscures its own snare?

These are all questions.

I remember one tour with MGM. We danced through dusk into sunset at a fruit farm in Newcastle, CA, outside of Sacramento. Part way through the dance we run across a big grassy lawn to jump and fall to the ground. Under the grass the ground was (unbeknownst to us) completely submerged in water. We were soaking wet. As I lay there the cold trickle moved up my legs and into my panties and I was all at once mad with the desire to pee. Then we kept dancing and did a long section putting everyone a jib (a sail from a sail boat) and danced in circles around them. This section was called “séance.” I dried off a little. Then we end the piece and I have my eyes closed and I’m trying to walk up on a hill of peach trees, growing in a grid, and find secure footing on this hillside while the audience is on the grass below. All of a sudden I realize there are children hiding in the trees watching and laughing and leading me through the branches.

The movements changed, the dance changed, but it was still the dance.

Tere O’Connor spoke to me about his piece Rammed Earth: “There’s a proscenium for each dancer but they keep (plllleeeezzch) breaking away and repointing it, it’s kind of like they’re, they have wood and broken shit from the front of the stage being ripped off and it’s still in the vision and you’re pulled from that too.”

Can we do this with the studio? I remember Trisha Brown says somewhere (and its one of those quotes I just keep looking for again and again but can’t find it so if you know what I’m talking about puleaze let me know!!!) that she sees her studio, her loft, in certain moments of a choreography. It’s as if it anchors sections of the dance, where she’d look down and over and there would be the radiator pipe, or facing the window and then the door. It would be in the dance like a ghost. We do this, no?

Returning to Tschumi, he talks about dance constructing architecture: “dance could articulate and order space. The parallel made between the dancers’ movements and the more traditional means of defining and articulating space, such as walls or columns, is important.”

We construct our studios…and we bring this studio with us. We make it. Every time we take a step.

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