michael j. morris

A performative polemic on how we watch dance
4 December, 2010, 11:10 am
Filed under: Dance | Tags: , ,

Yesterday as an introduction to the end of the quarter Departmental Informance, Susan van Pelt Petry (chair of the Department of Dance) and I enacted a short performance based on ideas that I have had stewing for a while about how we (as a general audience, but also as those functioning within the field of dance) watch, talk, and write about what we’ve seen. Several people have said they would like the text/script from the piece. So here it is:

[epic music begins to fade out]

SVPP: [standing and cheering] I love it!

MJM: Why did you love it?
-How can you follow your appreciation, those trajectories of your appreciation, to discover more about the work, yourself, your engagement with the work, and the creation of the work through your engagement with it?
-While completely acknowledging and accepting your visceral spontaneous reactions to the work, how can you interrogate them for what more they might reveal?

SVPP: It just made me feel good!

MJM: Great! So now we’re into the realm of feeling, sensation, where perception and reaction resides within the body.
-How can you examine that sense of pleasure as a way discovering where and how watching the piece lives in your body?
-What subjective associations are invoked for you that give depth and weight to your sense of pleasure in the work? What of yourself contributes to the meaningfulness of the work that registers as this sense of pleasure, of feeling great?

SVPP: I don’t get it….  That sucked

MJM: Maybe there isn’t an “it” to get. The sender/recipient model for expression is one way of looking at dance, trying to understand the choreographer or dancer’s intentions for the work. But there are so many other forms of engagement available to you. Rather than stopping at “I didn’t get it,” letting go of the idea that there’s a singular “it,” what do you discover if you instead ask, “What did I get from it?”
-And it’s okay to think that it sucked. But how can the recognition of that valuation reveal for you the criteria by which you decide whether work is good or not, recognizing that there are many many systems for determining aesthetic value, and when you see work that sucks, you have the opportunity to ask yourself, “With what criteria am I coming to this understanding?”
-And it’s important to remember that we, especially those of us within the field of dance, will always have multiple systems of criteria for evaluating work, and that in order for the field to thrive, we need to be able to discriminate between the criteria for work that exhibits qualities of the work we would want to make or be a part of, and work that we can appreciate outside of our personal aesthetics. Especially we who are students and professionals in this field, we have so many tools and lenses through which to evaluate, appreciate, and articulate work, not denying our own aesthetics, but not limiting ourselves to them either.

SVPP: I thought it was really good.  The dancers were beautiful….

MJM: Beauty! Great! Here we can begin to further explore the intricacies of aesthetic values, and ask questions like: Why is it beautiful? What are the criteria by which it registers as beautiful for me? Where did those criteria come from? What are the cultures, societies, histories, and politics that have shaped my notion of “beauty?” What is it that I exclude from the category of beauty by applying those criteria? And what is the cost or result of excluding something outside of “the beautiful?”

SVPP: It just didn’t do anything for me.  Just sayin’.

MJM: Maybe the function of dance and art is not to “do anything for you,” but instead to provide you with materials from which to form your own experience. Maybe a solution would be to ask what you can do with or for it? What different engagement or consideration can you offer to what you’re watching to get deeper inside of it? What of your self can you bring to the work to allow it to take on more meaningfulness? How can you be more available to participating in what the work might be capable of doing?
-So as we watch, how can we practice encountering dance and art not as an experience of a fixed event to be judged, but instead recognize it as a crafted space in which we encounter both the work that has been made and, perhaps more interestingly, ourselves and the ways in which we participate in the creation of the work’s significance.
-And as we move beyond those experiences, how can we practice articulating ourselves in conversation and in writing in such a way that demonstrates this heightened state of engagement and availability to the work rather than foreclosing its possibilities behind reductive declarative judgments?

So with that, ON TO THE NEXT PIECE . . .

[music begins, both look at one another, then learn forward as if to watch]