Good and Evil Sandwich

 

Saldus, Latvia

Dispatch 1 from New Dance in the New Venue, The Writing Moving Network (WMN): Lab 1

by Will Rawls

 

The Lake at Hotel Radi

The Lake at Hotel Radi

What is a GOOD dance critic, a GOOD dancer, a GOOD audience? There are the primary questions that I’m trying to blog about this week, put forth by New Dance in a New Venue, a dance laboratory cum retreat here in Latvia. The questions are more like points or reference for twenty of us who have waded into an international dance context, sifting through assorted value systems, roles and assumptions, trying to lay more groundwork for ourselves, and perhaps others. We’ll serve as participants and audience for each other as we work our way through contemporary dance topics like anatomical alignment, better criticism and engaged spectatorship—topics that surface often enough in this field. My question is how or why are they different here, in this time and place? Or do dance retreats of this nature share enough commonalities from country to country to supersede locality to answer larger thematic issues that keep us all talking? I often find that these situations fluctuate between the specific and the programmatic, rarely settling on a decisive position—and it’s a rare opportunity to not decide anything, to name issues and cultivate responses without necessarily producing a plan of action. Sometimes the idea is enough. Sometimes it isn’t. It leaves me with the question of urgency—what demands our immediate attention and reaction?

This is the third year that Inta Balode, in collaboration with Dita Jonita, Ramona Galkina and Maija Treile, is organizing The Writing Moving Network, a 5-day convening of dance writers, critics and choreographers primarily from the Nordic and Baltic regions of Europe. The effort and sacrifice of time, driving hours, email responses, fundraising and genuine hospitality is immense. Our daily timeline is packed. The majority of the participants are writers, it seems, and the focus is on how to generate dance writing in an environment where the writers are studying the body along with the dancers. I never know how dance people do it, pull this kind of thing together. And perhaps this is the crucial urgency to be noted—that we do something like this at all. That Inta and her team manage to pull this together and hold it together with such enthusiasm and tirelessness.  Inta is like a dance maven, stand-up comic and soccer coach all in one, aware of the rules of engagement and able to keep us moving through swampy theoretical territory, dislodging us from what might turn into our calcified opinions. She keeps us mobile. I can’t think of any gathering in New York City that is quite as extensive as this retreat. NYC seems as urgently in need of this kind of focused reflection as Latvia. These four women are also the editorial team behind Dance.LV Journal, an online publication devoted to contemporary dance—an urgently under-represented field in Latvia, and one that is gaining traction and visibility through this and other annual meetings. Inta and other members of this retreat were also part of an associated project, Writing Movement, a long term study of contemporary dance in Nordic and Baltic countries (2012-2014)— the collective of dance thinkers recently published a book of dance writings under the same title.

luciana achugar, Agate Bakova, Taisija Frolova, Annemari Autere, Inta Balode

luciana achugar, Agate Bakova, Taisija Frolova, Annemari Autere, Inta Balode

 

As I write this we’ve just finished lunch in the middle of our first full day. The group has atomized to digest lunchtime topics like the new art prison in Helsinki where artists commit themselves to a residency-type situation based on isolation and reduction of stimulus. There is even an art court that organizes trails for the residents. The prison-idustrial complex in the U.S. is such a sinister and robust part of our civic life. It’s impossible to imagine volunteering for this kind of situation and its potentially “beneficial” aesthetic currencies without thinking about narratives of racial injustice and poverty that drive people into what is essentially a free labor market for large corporations. Others are discussing whether a swim before dance class will better prepare them for our workshop with Annemari Autere who will introduce us to her unqiue methodology called Body Body Logic. She’s posted some writings on its core principles here. Her focus is the fascia of the body—that nearly imperceptible system of interlocking connective tissues which, if you were to remove your bones and muscles, could still hold your body upright. Contemporary dance knowledge often feels like this, an interlocking system of deep, experiential knowing and wisdom that often slips and slides beneath the surface of more developed cultural muscles. Hence we flex this subtle system as much as possible. Part of being here is to support that.

Through support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Marya Wethers (newly minted as the Director of International Initiatives at Movement Research) administers travel and lodging grants to New York dance makers to participate in WMN—this year luciana achugar and I are the lucky ones, here, by this lake in rural Latvia. The location is a multi-use hotel and camping ground called Radi (“Relatives” in Latvian) located just outside Saldus, a small city in the interior of the country. The twenty of us arrived last night to a homecooked meal by a staff that is generous and ever-present even if they don’t seem readily interested in chatting. I wonder what cultural cues I am missing. The question of hospitality and the larger context of this convening is on my mind, and what constitutes hospitality in a national sense versus in a particular “dance” sense. It’s easy to feel artificially at home in these international dance contexts, especially where English is the presumed lingua franca; but it’s odd to not yet know how to ask for the simplest thing in Latvian, or any of the other languages represented by the participants who come from eight other countries. Last night (when the sun set well after 9:30pm) Moa Matilda Sahlin (choreographer, dancer and pedagogue) was trying to describe a writer whose focus is on character development for literature rather than for works of theater—litterar gestaltning—and we couldn’t find the word in English, a strange relief for me, a moment of un-translatability amidst our efforts to be understood. Opacity and lack of understanding seems as useful to this kind of convening as agreement—difference that is a distinction; a distinction that might lead to some change within artistic or writing practice. Differences often keep me talking long after my various agreements have settled comfortably in my mind. I don’t think we all come here to have our values or vocabularies confirmed. What would be the point? Before this opaque moment, Moa and my conversation rested on issues of white rage and the performance of white experience in a country like Sweden, in which these forms of differentiation and self-reflection are relatively new, within the academy and within artistic practice. Eventually, my jetlag caught up with me and I gulped the last drop of homemade vodka made right here at Radi. The vodka was offered by Christina who seems to be the hotel manager and cook extraordinaire. She’s been unflinchingly taciturn since we met yesterday but she knows exactly when to make this crucial offer of homemade hooch to help us settle in—hospitality of a different style. She seems to like her privacy as much as anyone and manages somehow to maintain it even while running a hotel.

I received my schedule for this convening a couple weeks ago and was excited that—aside from philosophical lectures and movement studies—journaling, swimming and sauna were part of the agenda. Sometimes pleasure and some measure of privacy can be key in the success of these group situations, especially when our bodies will also be dancing, eating and training together. The spaces we take, share and give up is the dance somehow.

There is a particular lack of privacy that has been interesting thus far. Karlis, the son of Radi’s owners, ambushed us in the parking lot on the first afternoon, while we stretched our legs. He was talking a mile a minute, uncannily direct, proudly pumping us full of information about his family’s hotel. Among the other desiderata careening through his hyperactive “7-year plus” mind, one of the first things he shared is that he spent two years in Florida at a bible study school. He has clearly mastered the southern preacher’s diction and delivers a surreal, incessant, fire and brimstone account of his summertime life here at Radi—bears in the woods, giant holes left by Russian bombs, Jesus saving his father from a life of drinking and smoking, spaghetti and meatballs and his own parkours stunts like climbing up the side of one of the cabins using hunting knives. It’s hard to know what’s real but it is his way of welcoming us. Two other dancers, Elena and Elena, who will present a performance in a few days, started quipping that Karlis is the first sign that this retreat will end as an axe-murderer thriller. We will either be done in by a psychopath, Karlis or a bear, or all three. They think that Karlis will survive us all.

Dark humor is my kind of welcome mat.

Encouraged by my willingness to listen to his rambling, Karlis won’t leave me alone. This morning after breakfast, he started knocking on my bedroom window asking after the fake tattoo that I promised him—I fished a golden feather out of my collection and gave him instructions for sticking it on. I worried about whether this was blasphemous…the golden feather might prove to be a bit too much, um, “flair” for his pious context. Could I queer this kid by mistake? But the feather looked nice next to the other fake tattoo on his arm, the Chinese character for love.

 

Karlis

Karlis

I assume he means the Chinese word for love in the godly, or Godly sense. I asked him how he knew that the hole in the ground was from Russian times because the way he said it, it sounded more like a folk tale than political history (I wondered whether this was a narrative strategy on his parents’ part), and he said that, “Latvians won the fight even though Russian was stronger and America is more powerful than Russia.” Then he paused, unsure of handing over so much credit to a stranger and feverishly followed up with something like,

“God says that when it will be the end of the world… and God will… um… America will vanish and if you don’t go to the great church… it will be the great Tribulation and there will be giant scorpion bugs and they will sting you. So you better get saved.”

It was absurd and kind of chilling. This conversation took place just after the group of us dancers had spent an hour discussing what a good dance critic is. The topic seemed to pale in comparison to issues of heaven and hell. We all, if it’s possible, inconclusively agreed that taking a position in criticism is as much about illuminating an artwork’s specific context as it is about standing for something that might oppose this work. A dance critique should be a work of art that develops in relation to a performance, aware of its own power. And this power should be used wisely. The agreement that contemporary dance needs a new population of thoughtful critics is almost like prayer at this point, one that this retreat is organized to answer. Moa shared another concept with me last night, something that is gaining a certain popularity on the Swedish dance scene after a decade of the logo-centric, epistemological manhandling of Spanbergianism—the concept is prov prata, or practice talking. There’s no direct translation into English but it’s like a state of communication much like thinking out loud, where you make your way into and out of concepts without fear of being persecuted for them by more linguistically surefooted colleagues. This discussion of the good critic was sandwiched between Karlis’ sermons about good and evil; a nebulous ideal framed by right and wrong; prov prata unfurling against the All Mighty. I’m not sure what else to expect other than this friction, which might also be the solution, or the work-in-progress that is the end goal—our actions, beliefs, conventions are all somehow Radi.

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