Emergence (in two parts)

Watching and being early-career artists in New York City dance.

Lindsey Drury

Part 1.

Dance’s emerging artists are suspicious. We are suspicious of everything, but mostly of ourselves. We have learned, for example, to have purist, intellectualized taste, yet we are riding subways home at night from shows to watch reruns of Project Runway in bed. We belong to a community of renegades and beauty queens. Some of us attempt to be both. Many of us are social activists, yet our art form’s sequestered enclaves of artistic seriousness are defined, in part, by political impotence. So who the hell are we? And what the hell do we need? And what the hell are we trying to do? And how the hell are we doing it?

Let us begin with the obvious, let us begin with some problems.


1. The Body

The body is a nightmarishly laden object. It carries the catastrophic needs of the person encased within it and provides the catastrophic means by which every other person may immediately come to judge it.

These days, dancing is a way of wanting the body and needing the audience. I see my colleagues and myself creating as a community hundreds (or thousands) of vignettes each year in the city out of these two distinct and intertwined feelings: The hope that the body, in action, means something, and the need for audience to confirm and compound that meaning with their gaze. Our need for audience arises from an intrinsic self-doubt. It comes from this sensation that my personal experience of meaning is not enough. To be a concert dancer, we cannot be enough alone, inside our bodies, inside the studio, dancing by ourselves. Somehow concert dance, like all performance forms, arises from a belief that the sensory experiences we give to others through our bodies, our actions, our talents, our physicalities, will give us back to ourselves laden with greater significance. It is as if meaning paints itself onto the work as it passes through the sensory experience of the audience. It is as if eyes and ears not only take the world in, but also weight it through translation. And so those of us in the performance arts need, more than anything else, to be public in order to be purposeful. Mary Woronov, describing film, articulates this precept of performance well, saying it “fucks with time, promises immortality, and delivers her evil twin, fame . . . an ugly little animal with a huge appetite.” Of course, an underlying (non)tragedy in dance is that no evil twin is delivered at all. Maybe instead dance produces the fantasy of fame, if we remain insular enough to not notice how profoundly subcultural this community really is.

This is one of the many reasons emergence in dance can be so difficult. The composition of a dance is only part of the process. The other part of artistry is in the nuanced branding of self, that formatted front through which the artist engages with the public. In part the construction of engagement between artist and public follows the rules of seduction. The artist woos their audience romantically, politically, socially, economically, manifesting their emergence through mystery, fascination, charisma, persistence, charm, organization, and luck. Ultimately, their success follows either the bigotries, biases, or simple tastes of presenters. Of course, emergence also depends on talent. Yes, yes, talent.

2. The house

What happens when our works are housed in venues? The venue is a political storefront of art, symbolic of its historical and philosophical presence in the art world. The venue is not just a space, it is the clothing the work wears, the most obvious socioeconomic cue as to the class-status of any work presented in the city. An independent dance becomes a dependent dance when it moves from space to a venue.

What amazes me as I observe the process of emergence for dance artists in New York City is how we so often choose to relate to the production of our work. How we produce our work defines how we both map the topography of the work in relationship to the mirco-context of the field and the greater social context. I see us too often looking for centrality and visibility within the field than for relationship and engagement between our work and, well, life. I see us looking more for positions which provide us privilege in relationship to each other than positions which would illicit difficult and necessary discourse around our work.

We depend on a handful of presenting institutions, beating on their doors again and again for resources and community, thereby constructing our own system general insularity. These institutions, benevolent and well-meaning as they are, also placate us and provide for our collective failure to really look toward the peripheral zones of our field and see who’s out there. Though these institutions were painstakingly developed to nurture us, they can’t save us. They can’t even keep us afloat. Nor is arriving upon their prosceniums a true marker of the significance of our work. We look to Dance Theater Workshop, Movement Research, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Dixon Place, Dance New Amsterdam, the Chocolate Factory, HERE Arts Center, PS122, Danspace, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the studios of Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris, and the Kitchen. We know that anything presented outside these institutions lands outside the central cartography of our community, as is exemplified by the Bessies of 2009/2010. Every choreographic work honored at this most recent Bessies was presented at a list of institutions that could be counted on one hand. This is our insularity in a city of 8 million people, and further, it is a statement of our system of values. Like a pair of shoes, is the value of a dance in this city dependent upon its storefront? As artists, are we the kind of people whose careers, monetarily unsustainable as they are, will be driven yet by the dreams built with supply-and-demand economics? Are we looking for what is merely most difficult to attain? What other platforms might exist for our work that would mean as much or more?

Showcases of emerging artists, for example, so often operate as a favor to the artists and a chore for the audiences. I have shown work in many of these. There is a difficulty in giving audiences a chore. But this is not the kind of difficulty I imagine will behoove us. Of course, we need validation, and we seek it even if it reduces the frame of our work so greatly that our dances mean little (if anything) inside its constructs. And as emerging artists, we are constantly seeking validation, constantly considering the anchoring of our careers to institutional mooring as a means for the development of our artistry. But to really do something with this art form, I argue that the artist must be revolutionary in their methods of relating to audience. Anything less is institutionalized.

3. Training

By penetrating our insecurities, dance training not only reshapes bodies, it further re-constructs the very selfhood of the dancer. In response to questioning ourselves, we learn to execute with our bodies. It is this experience which makes boot camp sentiments like “break them down to build them up” so familiar, and the pop song “Are we human or are we dancers?” so funny to dancers. It is also the reason I cite to explain why works presented so often by emerging choreographers house the sincere selves of the dancers inside their own palpable disbelief in the body.

Of all the emerging choreographer’s showcases this year, Fresh Tracks 2010 was most exemplary of the problem between emerging choreographers and their training. To deepen the stakes, all the pieces involved were built to house their own choreographers as performers. To some degree, each of these works therefore became a pseudo-self-portrait, and in them, we saw the complex relationships of each choreographer to the act of dancing. It became a little bit of a dancer’s wellness experiment, with these conclusions: Mei Yamanaka, Marjani A. Forte, and Tatyana Tenebaum like to dance, whereas Lindsay Clark, Yve Laris Cohen, and Rebecca Patek hate to like to dance.

Within this hate to like to dance group, a thin wish threaded through each of their works: That if a choreographer looks at their own dancing hard enough they will begin to see themselves, and that by looking at themselves hard enough they will begin to see the world. The act of dancing became a reference for itself inside this system. Or, the act of dancing became a new Emperor’s New Clothes. I questioned whether this system (self-consciousness leading to the world through the outing of dance as artifice) might actually manifest as a system wherein self-consciousness can lead to self-depreciation can lead to self-obsession can lead to nowhere.

For those of us, like Clark, Cohen, and Patek, who at times hate to like to dance, the inward-to-outward model for making dances arises from a need for irreverence and experimentation, but bespeaks the same mind frame which is the most central, important, rudimentary psychological state through which most of us carry out our initial dance training. The body is our medium, the body is our enemy, the body is our redemption, the body is our freedom, the body is our construct, the body is our prison. Those choreographers who arrive into arguably the most important showcase for emerging artists in the field carried the conflicted stories of their dance training with them into the choreographic process. In part, the work resonated as personal irony. It was a means to acknowledge how it may be impossible to reside easily in the same bodies that are the source of our ever-unfolding edifices. With this, they seem to have made for us ballads addressing the conundrum of their training and its meaning, breaking the fourth wall not of the proscenium so much as of their own embodiment, providing themselves with a substantial frame from which they could gaze back at themselves as performers and wonder what the hell?

Lindsey Drury, January 2011.

Image by Lindsey Drury

About the writer: Drury has been making dances in New York City since 2008. Save a few miraculous exceptions, almost all her work has been shown at various emerging artist showcases throughout the city. She is almost always a prime example of precisely what she critiques. She calls this mutual implication, and uses it as a choreographic device as well as a writing tool.

She is currently writing the second part of Emergence, addressing solutions. It should be complete in mid-March.

Sarah Maxfield
11:50 am
February 9, 2011

I think it’s important to consider expression in contrast to the seeking of validation. Everyone craves validation (artists and non-artists), but as artists we have to find the courage to put that need for validation aside, so that we can focus on what we are actually trying to express. What is it that we are trying to share and explore, and are we being successful in that communication? If validation becomes our primary focus over expression, our work becomes selfish. Being selfish isn’t bad because it’s “wrong.” It’s bad because it’s boring for audiences and a spiral of perpetual insecurity for artists.

Also, I think it’s important to remember that issues of the body are common to all humans, not just dance artists. I don’t make that comment to scold or imply that dance artists are not uniquely interested in the body. But I think it is important to remind ourselves that the body is the common ground we have with each other, and that artists of the body hold extreme potential power to connect our audiences with the most basic, essential aspects of ourselves.

Thanks for starting this conversation, Lindsey. I look forward to your next installment.

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