What’s In a Name?
by Clarinda Mac Low
I haven’t written in a long time—it’s been an eventful couple of months. However, not writing doesn’t equal not thinking feeling watching and thinking some more. I have a whole host of “posts” built up in my brain, and they will be bleeding out onto your screen over the next few weeks. Check back weekly, every Monday morning, from here on in, and for the next two months you should be getting something new each time.
What do we take away from performance? The answer to this question is in many ways entirely subjective and constantly mutating. Do different defined disciplines of performance leave us with distinctly different traces? Is what we take away from “theater” different from what we take away from “dance” or “music,” and if so how? I put scare quotes around these names because the line between the disciplines is often blurry—is opera theater, or music? Does it matter? I sometimes think that these labels can mislead and limit us, but I know my view is skewed by my own performance practice, which is squarely situated in the interdisciplinary, and by the performance world I live in, where most everything is fair game in getting the point across.
A recent conclusion I have is—yes. Yes, but don’t be fooled by the marketing classification of that performance into thinking that’s what it actually is.
This conclusion was precipitated by viewing Juliette Mapp’s recent performance, Anna, Ikea and I, at the Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. Juliette Mapp is a choreographer, and I’m pretty sure she would say that she makes dances (Anna, Ikea and I was billed as “a little dance about a lot of things…”). The piece was full of dance, dancers and dance history, but it seems to me that it was actually, first and foremost, theater in the most classical Occidental sense.
Western theatrical traditions are rooted in the Greek theater, which was rooted in Dionysian transformational rituals. The tradition of tragedy (which means literally “goat-song.” Why? Well, it could be because a goat was a prize for a poetry competition, or it could derive from the origins of theater as part of a Dionysian ritual and the role of the goat there—I found several explanations) gives us the habit of catharsis, where a theatrical experience allows us to empathize with the characters depicted, as a group. Karen Armstrong, a religious anthropologist, talks about tragedy at the height of classical Greek tradition, in the 5th Century BCE, where Greeks wept unashamedly when they went to the theater. In fact, it was a place where they went expressly to weep together, and share the experience of empathy and sympathy, to feel as a group and examine their history in the light of strong emotion. 
Anna, Ikea and I had an epic quality. It was a historical and aesthetic chronicle masquerading as an autobiography. Discussing her history as a dancer, Mapp let us intimately into very select parts of her personal story, which were presented with passion, but also a humorous detachment. The story was expertly crafted, nuanced and beautifully told. Through her story, we were slyly taken on a journey through the history of contemporary dance. Through the story of her aesthetic development, we were taken through the aesthetics of a certain segment of the experimental dance world. The history came alive, literally, through the presence of interpreters and creators who were her teachers, choreographers, peers and students—a cast of 12 that ranged in age from 20s to late 50s, and included several luminaries of this dance world.
The wealth of intimate detail in her narrative about coming to grips with being a dancer, and the lack of detail on other parts of her life (except in passing) laid bare the depth of feeling that informs creative and interpretive processes. It was a concentration of the passion, confusion, and analytical delights of one dance artist, but told in a way that gave access to many.
Through Mapp’s story I found a way into my own story. My personal epiphany from this piece has everything to do with my own place in life, but this I believe was part of why the piece was successful. Everyone could feel some part of it for their own stage of life. My moment came while watching Mapp and three of her peers, all in their early to mid 30s, dancing a quartet towards the end of the piece. They were strong, clear and vital, but not young and callow, joyful and full of possibility. I suddenly wanted so much to be younger again, to have certain possibilities in front of me rather than behind me, to feel that strong and possible again. I even missed the torture of that time–the striving and the wanting, the doubt and desire. This has everything to do with turning 42, and feeling so clearly that I’m entering into a new phase in life, and being very afraid, and wanting to go back (a feeling I’ve never had before) at the same time that I’m excited, happy and relieved to be moving into this new state. For me, it was an ideal of a theatrical moment, in the sense of the classical Greek theater–a catharsis that led me to the heart of my own personal emotional turmoil, in public, and in relationship to a history and a tradition.
This is part of what we take away from performance—an insight into the parts of ourselves that are hard to face. Mapp’s piece led us on that classical Greek journey of theater (the other performers even functioned as a quintessential Greek chorus), using a story that speaks deeply to its community. Its place as a “dance” is immaterial to this effect.
 Karen Armstrong. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions. Alfred A. Knopf:USA, c2006. pgs. 225-227.
Next post: Observing from the inside out…