When people ask, “What kind of dance do you do?” I don’t know what to say.
A dance artist living and working in 2016
Dear Dance Artist,
If every one of your dance projects has felt dramatically different from the last, in terms of aesthetic goals, rehearsal process, or performance procedures, it is overwhelming to grapple with each individual experience, let alone sum them up in a coherent statement. To describe what kind of dance you do is to draw a box around different experiences—dances—that you yourself designed to be unique. Just because the moth and the peregrine both have wings does not mean they behave, grow, or migrate in the same ways.
Discussing work we care about is trying, whether we are dancers or politicians, doctors or statisticians. Either way, the level of energy you expend on expressing your life’s work also depends on how much the listener—a stranger, your mom, your partner, your boss, your best friend’s cousin’s daughter, a ballerina—seems to be paying attention in the first place. We all develop a shorthand for certain questions, especially when we get the sense that our answers are fitting into the paradigm of small talk. Or, when we identify an expectation placed on us, as if the person asking already feels he or she knows the kind of dance that we do. So why even respond at all? Small talk and presumption-talk notwithstanding, you attempt to collate the minutiae of what you do when a person asks you, and they truly want to know—What have you decided to spend your life doing? Well, why? What does that look like; how do I access it even if I’ve never danced before? What makes it universal or rarified in scope? It is within these conversations, not the ones where your interlocutor references “So You Think You Can Dance” and Lincoln Center, where the problem and opportunity of articulation lies.
I often turn toward situation recall. Regardless of the actual question asked—whether it’s “What kind of dance do you do?” or “Are you in a company?”—I dive in medias res to a certain moment or section of a recent performance that felt particularly effective, transformative, or dynamic. I never speak with abstract verbiage. As soon as you generalize, eyes gloss over and assumptions that dance is inscrutable take hold, and the rest is all polite nodding and sympathetic smiles from there. Situation recall might look like:
- What kind of dance do you do?
- In my last work there was a moment when seven dancers were sitting with their backs against the wall in silence, pointing their fingers at another dancer, who was circling her body up and down, up and down, sitting in a deep squat just a couple inches from the audience. She did this for quite some time, and so was visibly and audibly tired. After this moment, the dancers who were pointing joined the solo dancer and the eight of them congregated in the center of the space and performed a string of choreography we made together—about six months ago, after I had watched them improvise for a little while and made sketches and notes—moving at different speeds through the material. In the middle of performing this choreography, which had a lot of changes in levels and implausibly-timed suspensions, one of the dancers wearing grey decided to go say hello to her boyfriend and drink a beer. Then, instead of eight dancers performing the choreography, which repeated on loop, there were seven.
This is a long-winded account of what happened, and my delivery is often appropriately breathless and full of run-on sentences. Often I talk too fast and feel as though I’m constantly making left turns at eighty miles per hour to fully encompass all that it is I want to say. But it is descriptive, and elaborates on detail to better evoke the overall textures and tones of the dance. Situation recall does hint, too, that perhaps what’s described is the tip of some unknowable iceberg(s).
Another approach to finding an answer to this question—what kind of dance do you do—is a turn towards hyperbolic realism. This approach is more for you, at least at first. It’s a stream of consciousness that might be useful to winnow away your own assumptions about the work that you do, to reveal some creative answers that maybe you had not previously considered. It isn’t always pretty, or relevant, but hyperbolic realism can be equally as real as the pragmatic stuff when considering what it looks like, and what it feels like, to work (as a dance artist) in 2016. It might go something like—
What kind of dance do we do?
We don’t care about what kind of dance we do; we care that we’re doing it at all. What we call work, much of the world calls pretty, superfluous, or exotic, and we can’t tell which of those is worse. Dance is the reason we get up in the morning, excited, enlivened, engaged. It is the pastime many people practice only when they are drunk and fed up with their lives, in a dark club, where no one will judge them for dancing like they’ve seen pop stars do in music videos. It’s also performed for ritual, religion, presentation, and meditation. For us, dance is dance is dance.
Often we visualize images of movement, choreographic solutions, and performance ideas when we are supposed to be doing other kinds of work. We see a bunch of people crawling slowly through the snow as one person holds a beacon of light above her head and walks in front of them, with her eyes shut, toward a cliff. We see two people leap through a wall of stone, and army roll into a desert still life. We see a montage of levitation and anti-gravity. We see people upside down and twirling, as if caught inside an ocean tide. This is the kind of dance that we do.
Sometimes we feel like, is the only way to solve all this mess to dance? Or stand still? Or dance? Sometimes we feel like dance and stillness are just the same. Sometimes we feel like, We don’t even want their money. Sometimes we feel like, All we need is $7,000 to situate our dreams inside reality. When many of our peers only pretend to have dreams—having fun on the weekend but waking up Monday morning feeling as if they’ve trapped themselves inside a grave without a bell to ring—it seems absurd that we the dreamers do not have more support. Still, we remember that life is not always fair. We believe that maintaining perspective is important for empathy and for reigning in a selfishness that is at the constant ready to implode people and what’s good about them. Other times, though, we do not keep our lives in perspective, and we imagine what it would be like to throw a glorious temper tantrum, film the entire thing, and project it onto the skyscraper in Times Square that shows footage of naked models about to touch for a vodka commercial, as we set off fireworks and scream. This is the kind of dance that we do.
Sometimes we call a bunch of people together who have never worked with one another to make a dance for just one day, and nine hours later we are all exhausted and satisfied and we let ourselves dream a little together and we eat lunch and talk about our upbringings and ask each other questions we care about and we feel like—We have this figured out! This is the kind of dance we do.
Sometimes we have no more energy. Sometimes we feel like we never have to sleep. Sometimes we make ten different kinds of fools of ourselves because we are so desperate to be witnessed that we want to see what it’s like to wreck the smoke screen. Sometimes we are in a place where we don’t expect music, but then there it is, and the sound system is good, and a song comes on, and we thank the universe, and we dance long after everyone else has walked away. This is the kind of dance that we do.
Sometimes we feel like the only place to exist peacefully is caught up inside a rip tide. Sometimes we research isometric force for hours and come to absolutely no conclusion. Sometimes we stare at the wall and touch our acromioclavicular joints and wonder, how are these bones so strong? Sometimes we repeat ourselves and use language we don’t mean. Sometimes we say exactly what we want to, like This is a disaster; The sun sets at a quarter to eight; I love you; Did you find that; This is the best it’s ever been.
Sometimes we have outer body experiences when we consider the criteria on various grant-making websites as to what classifies an artist as emerging, wondering to what degree there is significance in our achievements, and whether the many factors that determine our eligibility for the grant add up to somehow establish that we are not, in fact, emerging, but are pre-emerging, or post-emerging, even though art-making is our life’s work regardless of who has presented us or talked at us or shelled out cash for us, even though emerging is how we will continue to identify even once we’ve been at this life for six decades strong.
Sometimes we get on a train that lets us off in the middle of a forest and we’re like—Oh. These concerns of ours are small. Sometimes when people ask what kind of dance we do we put our heads in the folds of our arms and cry, even if we are in a well-lit room and everybody’s looking. Sometimes when people ask what kind of dance we do, we laugh and laugh. These are the kinds of dances that we do.
Sometimes, when people ask what kind of dance we do, we ask them if they’ve ever heard of Pina Bausch or Merce Cunningham, and feel like sell outs because if certain people were listening they would call us derivative and they would be exactly correct. Sometimes when people ask what kind of dance we do we want to ask them, Can you just come and see it for yourself? Sometimes when people ask what kind of dance we do we begin from a hyperbolic starting place, just to make sure they’re paying attention. We say, We started to make dance so that we would continue to stay alive. If they’re still listening we say, We work with syncopation; silence; stillness; site-specificity; large ensemble casts; solos; iterative procedures; the parasympathetic nervous system; cellular respiration; the rule of thirds; accumulation; devolution; crescendos of pop songs; color-blocked clothing; ferocity; rage; real-time decision-making; scores; no -ism’s; nakedness; literature; interviews; essays; disaster metaphors; laughter; fear; historical context; duration; water imagery; the atlas-axis connection; three-dimensionality of the pelvis; the primitive streak; tend and befriend; fight, flight, and freeze; invisible vectors; exhalation; action… until they quietly walk away.
Sometimes I do wonder if talking about the kind of dance that we do, that you do, that anyone does, is a waste of breath. But I think we have to hope that every time we do, we cast a vote for clarity over obscurity, we challenge assumptions that miss the mark, and we make a case for living as what we are: people who love to dance.
—A person who loves to dance
The author is a dance-maker and writer living in New York